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Sunday, February 15, 2009
Volume 14 | # 330
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Your imagination is your preview of life's coming attractions. » Albert Einstein

Everyday Genius

I had planned on getting some sleep on a flight to Philadelphia this week, but I found myself interested in the onboard movie. It was called, “A Flash of Genius,” and was based on the story of Robert Kearns. He was the professor who invented the first intermittent windshield wipers.

Much of the movie is about Kearns’ long struggle in getting the Ford Motor Company to admit that they had illegally taken credit for his patents. I don’t think I’m spoiling the story by revealing that he was ultimately successful, albeit at great costs to his relationships with family and friends.

There was one particular scene in the movie that jumped out at me as poignant and motivational. One of the defense’s expert witnesses tried to convince the jury that Dr. Kearns had not really invented anything. He argued that the parts and components that the doctor used for his “invention” already existed. All he had done, according to the witness (and Ford), was to rearrange things that others had created into a different pattern.

The way Dr. Kearns responded was great. He had his son bring him a copy of the book A Tale of Two Cities. After having the witness acknowledge the status of that book in history, he read the opening lines, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

He asked the witness if Dickens had invented the word “It.” Then he asked the same question of “was,” then “the,” etc. After the witness acknowledged that Dickens had obviously not “invented” any of the words in his epic novel, Kearns made his point. Dickens’ brilliant creation was actually the rearranging of things (words) that already existed and had been available to all.

The thing I found particularly motivating about the scene was that it made the point that there can be true genius in looking at existing things in a different way. Many of us often think that all of the “good ideas” have been tried. We may get inklings that a process or product or service could be better, but then convince ourselves that if that were true, somebody somewhere would have done it already.

Then somebody, somewhere decides to try things a different way. And suddenly, it becomes “obvious” that it should have been that way all along. Don’t simply accept that your status quo is as good as it gets. The next flash of genius may be yours.

An Unexpected Upgrade

I was reminded again this week that while facilities are important, the true measure of a company is its “moving parts,” i.e. the folks who work there. This episode happened at an airport hotel.

My initial impression was formed even before I saw the hotel. The shuttle van was almost comically run down. The seats were torn. Most of the seatbelts didn’t work. Knobs were missing from the dashboard. “Ah, the glamour of travel,” I thought as we bounced down the road.

When I got to the hotel, it was about what I’d expected. Like most “airport” hotels, the place had a certain amount of increased wear and tear to it. The furniture in my room looked like it had seen its better days, and the worn carpeting reminded me of why I never take my socks off in these places.

But over the course of about 36 hours, the staff in the place rivaled any of the “nicer” hotels I’ve stayed in. The front desk personnel actually seemed to be glad to welcome customers. And the “manager’s reception” that afternoon was surprising. The free food and beverages provided were just a little better than you’d expect at this level of hotel.

But I was most struck by the young man smiling as he picked up empty plates and wiped tables. He made a point to check if any customer needed anything. I thought that he was one of the kitchen personnel. When he got close enough for me to see his nametag, I realized that he was the manager. And he cleaned up and performed several other “menial” tasks with a smile on his face, engaging customers along the way.

Up early for breakfast the next day, he was at it again. That young manager was again walking the crowded breakfast area, chatting with customers and staff, and never hesitating to pick up trash, wipe a table or counter, or refill a buffet item. And not too surprisingly, every staff person I encountered, from the front desk to the maids in the hallways to the kitchen crew, mirrored his habits and demeanor.

The lobby was empty on the early morning that I left. Looking about the place, you wouldn’t be impressed. But I climbed back into that banged-up shuttle van thinking, “I think I’ll stay here next time.”

Sure, we all like nice physical environments. But whether or not your facilities are impressive when empty isn’t most important. How impressive are they when your own “moving parts” are there?

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." » Aristotle

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