Competency influences performance; humility influences relationships
My career in SEO began in 2005 after I had sold my first crop of websites. These weren't websites for clients – they were content sites I built that happened to make a few bucks.
What started out as a hobby quickly became a profession. These efforts paid off, traffic grew, and I knew I was on to something. I allowed this streak of success to push me toward complacency; the same complacency that eventually destroyed my business.
Complacency isn't the only thing that can destroy a business
A lawsuit, combined with a substantial tax bill, hit me – and that business – hard. Coupled with those two events, the reality that my laziness had dulled my skills and robbed me of my edge also hit home.
If we don't learn from our past, we're doomed to repeat it
Since the collapse of my first venture, I'd told myself that I'd learned my lesson and that I wouldn't repeat the same mistakes. Interestingly, the belief that I'd paid my dues and had learned from my earlier mistakes blinded me to a new danger: my ever-expanding ego.
I replaced complacency with a false sense of accomplishment. I'd been up, then down, and now I was on an upswing. Business was booming. Despite the success, I refused to allow myself to become complacent. I worked hard, followed key industry leaders and ensured my skillset remained at the forefront of SEO.
By the end of 2016, I was managing a portfolio of websites – both for small businesses and online media companies – and was again under the impression that I was at the top of my game.
You might know where this is going.
You can be the best at what you do and still fail
In the years since my first failure, I had gained considerable experience in B2B sales while working for a national advertising firm. I had sold millions of dollars' worth of online advertising and was once again in charge of my own SEO firm.
It felt good.
From complacent to egotistical
Confidence in your work is well and good (and necessary to be a leader), but that confidence should never overshadow why you were hired in the first place.
In my case, I found myself on the receiving end of a relationship-terminating email after a particularly standoffish call with a client. It was an especially heavy blow because of the reason the client gave: "Cam," he said, "there's no denying that you're really good at what you do, but there's still the 'Can I work with this guy?' factor, and you're hard to work with."
My client continued: "When I have questions, it sounds like you're annoyed to have to answer them. I don't know what you know, and I probably won't ever, but I still want to know what my investment is doing and how it benefits me. On that level, I can't work with you."
Another Lesson I Learned the Hard Way
That feedback was on point and 100 percent accurate. Reflecting on conversations I had with that client over the prior six months, it was obvious I wasn't providing the level of service that the client expected – and deserved – given their monthly investment in SEO.
My ego cost me a client, impacted my income and damaged a relationship with someone that I could have learned a lot from.
Investments in relationships are some of the strongest you'll make
Shortly after I was fired, I called my mentor and had a conversation about the situation.
My mentor is one of the smartest and most capable people I have ever met, and I trust him implicitly. He has never steered me in the wrong direction. His judgments come from experience and consideration.
For the most part, he understood my perspective on the subject and provided a few pieces of validation that affirmed what I already knew: I am good at what I do, and it's okay to know that.
But he also said something that I took to heart: "You're a confident person, and it's a big part of what makes you effective. Do you feel that perhaps you're overconfident?"
"No, not at all," I responded. "I am simply good at what I do, and I know that."
My mentor added: "That may be true, but from the other side of the conversation, isn't it reasonable to want to know why that is?"
Yes, I suppose it is.
My mentor followed by saying, "So, taking that into consideration, can you see how you damaged the relationship?"
My client had invested in me, but I hadn't invested in them
That feedback was on point and 100 percent accurate.
Reflecting on conversations I had with that client over the prior six months, it was obvious that I wasn't providing the level of service the client expected – and deserved – given their four-figure monthly investment in SEO.
By believing that I did not need to justify my decisions and provide context around why we were moving in the direction we were, I denied my client information that helped them understand their marketing. Moreover, I was denying myself the ability to hear and understand my client's concerns.
This resulted in a one-way relationship, and my client – the owner of a million dollar business and a subject matter expert in his field – was being denied a reciprocal investment that I should have provided.
What I've learned
Looking back, it's obvious why I was fired. Not only that, I deserved to be fired.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on the words of my client and mentor. What I've learned is that a relationship is, at its core, a value exchange: You give me X, and I provide Y, and that's why this whole thing works. Being humble and appreciative of that value exchange is key to fostering strong, long-lasting relationships, and I wasn't providing that to this particular client.
Humility also provides additional benefits that round us out not only as people but as professionals.
- First, you remain approachable and inviting. Nobody wants to work with a know-it-all, and it's difficult to combat that perception if you lack humility.
- Second, you are more understanding and receptive to the needs and concerns of others. Whether they are clients or colleagues, you're far more likely to understand the dynamics at work when you are open to others' perspectives rather than just your own.
- Third, you are more engaged in others, making it natural to invest in them. As I've learned the hard way, people won't invest in you if the investment isn't reciprocal.
I wish that it didn't take being fired for me to learn that lesson, but I'm glad the lesson was taught all the same.