Are you someone who just can’t help being late?
I received a hollering of a lifetime, a month into my first job. I have never been screamed at in the same manner at any other time in my professional career. It taught me an invaluable lesson that has helped me ever since – SHOW UP ON TIME.
I was scheduled to interview the Country Head of a foreign telecommunication corporation at 10 am. I was five minutes late. When I entered his living room, he was pacing up and down and launched into me.
At that time, I could not fathom why he freaked out so much for a few minutes of delay in a city known for chaotic traffic.
I was seeing it the wrong way.
He was a busy man who valued every second of his time. While I saw the delay as only 5 minutes, he counted 300 seconds. Neither of us was factually wrong. We were just seeing it differently.
It took me a while to cool him down, which he did once the cameras started rolling. The interview went well.
I was sure he would complain to my boss. He had threatened to make me pay. I even imagined losing my job to appease a livid client. For the leadership, it would’ve been a small price to pay.
None of that happened, thankfully.
When I reached my office after the interview, I told my boss how sorry I was to be late. I promised her never to repeat it.
Ever since, I make it a point to leave early, factoring traffic snarls, if any, along the way. It is a lesson that has served me well in both my professional and personal life.
Hallmark of Professionals
Over the next two and a half decades, I had the privilege of meeting the most accomplished professionals across diverse fields. I noticed a common thread that runs through them. They value time – their own, and the time of others.
The year after I learned this critical lesson, I interviewed a journalist turned media mogul who had founded one of the most successful production houses at that time, creating content for both domestic and international broadcasters.
I was nervous.
I reached his office 10 minutes early and used the time to figure out how to use a dictaphone – a device used to record speech. I borrowed it on my way and had never used it before. I did not expect the interview to begin on time.
At exactly the minute the interview was scheduled, I was escorted to his cabin. I had recorded a minute but was yet to test it. There was no time now to check.
The interviewee got up from his desk, warmly greeted me, and moved towards a round coffee table where the interview took place. I was starting my career, he was an industry leader. He treated me as an equal and indulged me when I requested him to pause a few minutes into the interview because I wanted to test the recording. He put me at ease sensing my anxiety.
When I left his office, I felt all successful people value the time of others. I was wrong.
Years later, I was scheduled to meet the boss of a TV network. I had to wait for an hour after the appointed time. Her executive assistant kept walking into the room every 15 minutes to apologise for the delay. When the boss finally arrived, I think I heard a faint hint of an apology, which I could have missed, if I had blinked. It seemed more like a thing to say and get it over with before the conversation started.
Over the years, I met others who were made to wait even longer to meet her. It wasn’t an aberration in my case. It seemed more like a habit with her.
Contrasting Signals from the MD & GM
More than two decades ago, I was visiting my home state and learned about a channel that made its way into the homes of most television viewing households in the two biggest cities of the state by being part of the group that was the dominant cable television service operator. It was led by a young dynamic lady who had ambitious plans to switch the channel to satellite. It felt good to know that the first private television network from the state was growing and that viewers now had more choices to sample local content produced in their language. Just out of curiosity, I decided to drop into her office, without an appointment.
Till that moment, we did not know each other. She wasn’t expecting me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had turned me away. You don’t walk into the Managing Director’s office and expect an audience without a prior appointment. I handed over my business card to the receptionist.
When the front office executive checked with the MD, she asked her to let me in right away. We had a stimulating chat for the next half hour at the end of which she invited me to visit her TV station headquarters – 20 miles away – to check out the facility. She asked me to meet the General Manager who would walk me through the operations. She said she would brief him about our chat. I accepted her invitation and thanked her for meeting me without advance notice.
The day after, the General Manager who ran the operations kept me waiting for half an hour though I could see him twiddling his thumbs across the glass in his office. When he finally met me, he gave me the impression that he was the boss and he was doing me a favour during our short interaction. I gathered he derived a feeling of self-importance.
My first impression of the network was shaped by the professional manner in which the MD conducted herself. In less than 48 hours, the GM was quick to alter that with his self-indulgent demeanour. One network. Two leaders. Opposite signals.
Time is Precious. Respect it
I judge people who don’t turn up on time. There are exceptional circumstances where delay happens because life gets in the way. And that’s fine. What’s not acceptable is showing up late either due to a sense of entitlement or simply not respecting the time of others.
When you don’t value others’ time, you disregard and disrespect them.
In my book, the single most important attribute that defines a professional is the ability to show up on time. What beats me is when I find people who don’t get it. Why is it so difficult to practice something which is in your control? Yet half the people one meets are habitually late. Either they don’t regard the value of time or they just don’t care.
Should you care about those who don’t respect others’ time?
I don’t. You decide.