Sunday, January 11, 2009

How to make a fan

Years ago I worked as a reader for Creative Artists Agency, a well-known talent and literary agency. My job was to read scripts, books, or other material, and write "coverage," which consists of a synopsis of the story and a short commentary on its suitability for market. It is not glamorous work, but it is great training in more disciplines than first meet the eye.

I had a reputation for being fast, and so in something like the second month of working there my boss handed me a massive manuscript - some 1400 pages of "galleys," essentially a near press-ready book - and said, "Michael Ovitz (the head of the agency and at the time, "the most powerful man in Hollywood" according to the magazines that create those lists) wants this covered by Thursday. He wants a detailed synopsis, even if it's 75 pages, and he doesn't want any comments. Get it done."

My reputation as a fast reader had caught up with me. My better-deserved reputation as an opinionated, somewhat mouthy guy, hadn't quite. I was pretty disappointed to learn that my work would be in front of Hollywood's most powerful man and he'd see nothing of my ability to think (yes, I really did take myself this seriously. I was 27 at the time, please cut me a wee bit of slack).

So I read this monstrous novel as quickly as I could and wrote a detailed synopsis. And I gave in to my urge to write comments despite instructions to the contrary. Thursday morning I brought the completed work to my boss' office. She said, "let's take this to Michael together." We climbed the stairs and walked left along what was informally known as "the power curve" in the agency's sleek headquarters. Cathy, my boss, introduced me to Michael and handed him the material. He looked at me and asked, "you really read all this since Monday morning?" "Yes," I replied, and he simply thanked me and turned away, dismissing us from the office.

I finished the week without giving the assignment much more thought. The next Monday I sat in my office, reading in my usual routine, when my phone rang. This was unusual enough, but what happened in the next 90 seconds changed my life forever.

"This is Jonathan," I answered. "Please hold for Michael Ovitz," said the assistant. My stomach dropped to my knees; I was convinced I shouldn't have written those comments. A few seconds ticked by as I started to sweat.

"Hi, Jonathan, it's Michael. Listen, I just wanted to call and thank you for the work you did on that book. I know it was huge and I appreciate your speed. Also, I know I asked for no comments on this, but I wanted you to know that I read the comments you wrote, and they were great. In fact, your comments actually helped us sell this project. So I just wanted to call to say thanks. You did great work on this."

I think I probably had the chance to say "you're welcome, and thank you for the call" before he hung up. Even at the time I knew that my comments didn't help anybody sell anything, but at the same time, it was clear that his appreciation was authentic and his phone call was a genuine and generous act.

In the twenty seconds it took Michael to make that phone call, he turned me into a fan for life. Since that time he went on to new and different challenges and had some powerfully negative press. It'll come as no surprise to you that I've never said a negative thing about him, nor would I ever.

Of course there's a lesson for leaders in this: reach out broadly and personally with thanks and appreciation and you will create fans for life. These people will stand by you during the inevitable times when circumstances may not be so positive.

Moreover there's a lesson for us personally in this story. When you surprise someone with an authentic thank you, you create a memorable and lasting bond. It may not be so memorable to you to give authentic thanks to someone, but the receiver of these thanks is forever touched. I know Michael doesn't remember me, let alone remember that very brief phone call. As I said, though, it took him only seconds to turn me into a lifetime fan, and to create a lasting and happy memory.

Go out today and make a lifelong fan. Find someone to appreciate, and surprise them with your gratitude. Then find another someone tomorrow. We could all use some more fans, couldn't we?