When The SEED School of Maryland asked me to give a speech to 308 middle-school students, my reaction was one part flattered, one part nervous.
I’ve spoken to high-schoolers, sharing my experiences as a Baltimore City kid and my path toward business ownership. But a gymnasium full of young, boisterous adolescents? I worried that I may be outmatched – not to mention, outnumbered. Turns out, I was right.
Misgivings aside, I accepted this mission because I believe in giving back and I believe in The SEED School. This public, college-prep boarding school provides kids from Maryland with a tuition-free education. Students enter through a lottery, so it’s a big deal to win a seat here; for some kids, it’s a piece of luck that changes their lives forever.
When I pulled up to the 52-acre campus in Baltimore City’s Westside, the grounds around the gym were as deserted as a dust bowl. I checked my watch. Almost seven-thirty p.m., when I was due to speak. I reviewed my mental notes: themes of values, perseverance, leadership – things bound to strike a chord with a bunch of hyperactive, hormonal adolescents stuck in a gym, right?
My anxiety ticked up a notch when I saw bleachers lining both sides of the enormous gym. Engaging kids who are sitting in totally opposite directions is a challenge. Beyond that, what struck me was the room’s absolute silence. It was empty.
Seven-thirty came and went. At last, the kids started to trickle in, leaving me plenty of time for self-doubt. Finally, I was introduced and I spoke my first few words into the microphone. I started to relax. This wasn’t so bad. Then the microphone went out. I spoke and it was like whispering into a hurricane. Which, in a way, I was, because the kids weren’t sitting there quietly, awaiting my every word. They were talking and laughing. Meanwhile, three kids struggled to repair the broken microphone. No one could fix it, and I sensed an out. But I knew leaving because of this setback would send the wrong message.
So, I proceeded to deliver my speech, not with the eloquence and grace I had planned, but by literally yelling at the top of my lungs to reach the far corners of the gym and overcome, somehow, the growing chatter. My message of perseverance, wrapped in tales of growing up in Baltimore City – losing my mother at a young age, attending tough schools like the ones these kids had narrowly escaped, attending The Johns Hopkins University, being an entrepreneur and finding my way to make a mark – didn’t sound as inspiring as I had hoped when delivered at a screaming pitch. Through the din, I didn’t even know if they heard a word I said.
Finally, I finished, relieved but discouraged. A teacher told me the kids wanted to ask questions. My spirits perked. Maybe I had reached them after all.
The first boy stepped up: “How much money do you make?”
The second: “What’s it like being in business?”
Then, a young girl stepped up to ask her question: “Do you think your mother is proud of you?”
She went on to say: “Because I lost my Mom, too and want to know if she is proud of me?”
And it stopped me totally. I was shocked, stunned, floored and quickly an emotional wreck.
Do you think your mother is proud of you? I realized that out there, amid the chatter and the far reaches of the double-sided gym and the broken microphone and my yelling, somehow, my message had reached this one girl.
I realized that even if this girl was the only person who had heard me, that was enough. I had shared something of value with her, and she ended up sharing something of value with me. So despite everything that went wrong, I felt like I accomplished my mission. Of all the things I’ve done lately, I’d say this talk was one of the most important.
The lesson for me, which I want to share with you, is that what you say as a leader does matter. Even on the days when you feel like you’re not connecting with anyone, it takes only one person to hear your message.
So, it doesn’t matter if the speech starts late, or the gym is noisy, or the microphone breaks, or it feels like nobody is listening. I bet you that somebody out there will find value in what you have to share.
Joe Mechlinski is the CEO of entreQuest and has partnered with countless leaders to effectively improve their team’s performance, their clients’ experience, and their company’s profits.