Ray’s feet hurt like hell, and he didn’t know why.
“My right foot has gotten scraped so much, it’s starting to bleed,” he told me with a painful grimace on his face. I looked down at his running shoes. I didn’t see any blood stains. Before I could ask Ray a question, his girlfriend stepped forward and said, “I feel so bad to see how much pain Ray is in. Can you help him?”
The managers I coach don’t often talk about their feet. If the topic comes up, I’m the one to initiate, and it’s not to make their feet feel better, but to point out that they’re not flat on the ground. “If you want better executive presence,” I say. “You have to be grounded and centered. How can you do that if you’re feet aren’t on the ground?”
Ray, however, wasn’t a coaching client. He was a customer at Nordstrom. And, instead of his coach, I was a temporary summer employee in the men’s shoe department. What happened next in this incident from many years ago is a good illustration of how important it is to understand why you are having a problem before you try to fix it.
The first thing you do at Nordstrom after greeting the customer and finding out what they’re looking for is measure their feet. Ray had very small feet—at least lengthwise. He measured out at size 8.
I looked down at his shoes. They looked much bigger than size 8. “Ray, what size shoes are you wearing?”
Ray wasn’t certain. “10 or 10 1/2, I think,” he muttered under his breath. I could see that the pain he was experiencing in his feet overshadowed other concerns, like the exact size of his shoes.
I picked up the right shoe and looked inside. It was a size 11 1/2. I pointed this out to Ray.
“Yeah, I know. That’s the problem. I can’t fit into any smaller sizes. So I keep buying bigger and bigger shoes, but nothing works.” His frustration was palpable. Ray was a big stocky guy. For a moment I thought he was going to shed a tear.
I was puzzled. Why does someone with size 8 feet feet wear size 11 1/2 running shoes? And why is this tough-looking guy about to start crying—in the shoe department, of all places?
When people encounter anomalies, it is tempting to ignore them, wish them away, or justify them using reasoning that is anything but reasonable. Part of me wanted to take one of these routes. However, I was being paid to listen to Ray and help him find a solution to his problem. More importantly, for the first time in my brief stint at Nordstrom, here was someone showing up not as a demanding consumer but as a vulnerable human being. I wanted to help.
“Ray,” I said. “Here’s what I’m trying to figure out. You have size 8 feet but you’re wearing size 11 1/2 shoes. Do you have an idea of why that’s happening?”
Ray shrugged his shoulders. His girlfriend did the same.
I looked down at his feet again. This time, I noticed something new. They were wide. Not just slightly wide, but super wide.
“Did you know you have really wide feet?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Kind of…Yes, I guess so.”
“Well here’s the thing,” I said. “Your feet are very wide for their size. In fact, they’re wide for almost any size. That’s why your running shoes have been causing you so much pain. You’ve been trying to make things better by buying longer shoes. But length isn’t the issue. It’s width. And this brand of running shoes only comes in one width.”
Ray’s eyes opened wide. He wasn’t smiling. It was more like wonder. A new world was opening up for him, one that held the possibility of relief from his suffering.
“So if you want to get shoes that fit, a larger size in this brand won’t help. What we can do is get you into a different brand that comes in multiple widths and find the widest possible size we can. How about that?”
Ray was game.
Ten minutes later he was at the cash register with a smile on his face and a credit card in his hand.
It was my smallest sale of the day—perhaps of my entire month at Nordstrom—but also my favorite. What a good feeling it is to help someone improve their life through a simple but powerful reframing of their situation.
Sizing Up Your Situation Accurately
Ray was suffering because of his feet. Your situation at work or in the rest of your life may be different, but a few common principles apply:
- First size things up. If you’re having difficulty with something, like an employee, a tough customer, a knotty business decision, or your two teenage kids, don’t leap to a solution. First ask yourself: what exactly is going on here? What could be causing this situation?
- Ask others for assessments, not solutions. As with Ray, your initial take on the situation may be way off. So get others involved. But don’t ask them, “What do you think we should do?” Instead, say, “I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. What’s your take on where we are and how we got here?”
- Listen for new ideas. Many of us think we’re listening to others, but actually we’re just paying attention to the portions of others’ ideas that match our own. We screen out alternative perspectives, particularly those that call into question our own. In the words of systems theorist Daniel Kim, humility is being open to data that disconfirms our own ideas. Curiosity is actively seeking out such disconfirming data. I suggest you start with humility for six to twelve months, then move on to curiosity.
- Try it on. Developing yourself happens by trying on new ideas, practices, and ways of interacting in the same way you try on clothing. Do you ever try on a new shirt or blouse assuming it’s going to fit? Of course, not! So apply the same principle to your leadership challenges. Don’t assume going in that your idea is correct—or that someone else’s idea is correct. Instead, try it on and see if it fits. The fancy term for this philosophical tradition is pragmatism. It’s as American as apple pie, and the basic idea is this: do what works.
- Do make sure your shoes are comfortable. Now I’m talking literally about your shoes. For many years, I’ve been telling people that the three most important purchases a person makes are their shoes, their chairs, and their mattress. These are the things that physically connect us to the ground throughout the day. If they are well-made and comfortable, we are more likely to be relaxed. So before you hire me to be your leadership coach, make sure you have invested in comfortable shoes. (By the way, when my wife and I had a new bathroom built for our home a few years ago, I added a fourth item to my list of key purchases: toilet seats).
Life is full of painful challenges. As we seek to find freedom, joy, and meaning amidst these challenges, it helps to first ask “Why?” before we move into “What’s Next?”