The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


November 11, 2021

The One That Got Away

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For years I have been a fan of those able to take concepts from different periods of history, various disciplines, and skills to help people translate all of that into ideas that can be applied to their own circumstances. Too often we think information needs to be taught in the specific dialect of the audience. Lawyers only learn from lawyers; educators from professors, ministers from theologians. A relative few have mastered the art of learning from everyone because they have an internal translator that makes virtually everything they read and hear applicable to their situation. They learn from everyone.

I forget how rare that is and was reminded this week of a dinner I had one night with a number of Wal-Mart executives in Rogers, Arkansas. I was seated next to a man whose responsibilities included site selections for new stores – especially Sam’s Clubs. Being naturally curious, I asked him what process he used to select sites. I wanted to know how he started with the broadest general survey of the whole country (those stores were relatively new then) and narrowed the options down to a particular site in a local community. Needless to say, it was a science he had perfected over decades of practice. He could look at a topographical map of any area of the country and almost immediately know what would fit their criteria. Of course it was not just him but he had a whole set of peers at Target, Kohls, and Best Buy who had been doing this for years. That was all they did. They analyzed information for placing stores where they would be most valuable and generate the highest revenue. He told me about weather patterns, traffic flow, demographics, residential and commercial building infrastructure, city government, population growth projections and overall economic forecasts. In one man I had found an encyclopedia of information about where to put a “big box”. The man was an artist with data and had learned how to pull together masses of information for making decisions with large economic consequences. Yet, he seemed to do it with such ease and confidence.

Discipline and Hope

After a couple of hours of his laying out this storehouse of process and wisdom about site selection I asked him a simple question, “Have you ever considered sharing how you do what you do with church planters? I know you cannot share the information about actual sites but could you share the process you use for winnowing down the options and placing a store with reasonable certainty it will be profitable?” His face went blank so I re-phrased the question. Nothing. I waited thinking maybe he was trying to compose an adequate answer given everything he knew.

“Why would anyone in the ministry want to hear from me?  I’m not even ordained. I don’t know about churches. I cannot imagine there being any value for them in what I do.” Now I went blank and silent. Was he kidding? I knew several hundred church planters who would sit with him for however long it took to learn the process for figuring out where to plant a church in a community. I pushed back at him but it was useless. He could not connect the dots or bridge the gap and I’m sure now that I didn’t know how to get him there. I might today but not then. I’ve written before about the difference between fly fishing and what we call “hook ‘em and yank ‘em.” There is an art to helping people make the translation from what is so familiar to them to something that is not. Howell Raines wrote, “The act of setting the hook must contain within it an almost simultaneous act of surrender. Upon seeing or feeling the strike, the fly fisherman is required to pull back with precisely enough force to slide the point of the hook into the tissue of the fish’s mouth. Then he must release all the pressure and let the fish go where it wants to go. It is an act of physical discipline and of hope – the hope being that by and by when the fish is tired of going where it wants to go it and the fisherman will still be connected by a thread that leads them to the same place.”

Dinner was over and we both left frustrated. He was confused about how I could see any application for his priceless skills and I was frustrated that this kind of resource was getting away! In other words, I had yet to understand the art of fly fishing. I was trying to hook and yank him into an idea instead of having the skills and patience to lead us to the same place.

I learned something that night. It’s not enough to see the talent in people. You have to help them see it as well…and they often don’t. Figure out how to help them connect the dots between what they do and a different application. It takes patience and creativity and knowing how to get inside their world, their language and their own self-imposed limitations but it is worth the effort.

I still think about that guy walking away with all that stored up treasure!

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the Gathering