Eight years ago I worked on a project with an automotive company. Which led to another project with an automotive company. Which now, looking back, led to 4 years of career misery.
Automotive people are not my jam. They are negative. They are adamantly resistant to change. They like to use terms like “grind down the customers” and “trust me” and “kiddo/sweetheart.” (General rule: never call me kiddo.)
Yes, I am fully aware I am broad brush stroking a whole industry. Of course there were exceptions. However, I’d challenge you to think back to your last car buying experience and see if words like “charming,” “trustworthy,” or “genuine” come to mind, sweetheart.
Walking into those dealerships, the deck was stacked against me. Leadership didn’t want us there and that message was made clear to the team. The team knew if they were in a classroom, they couldn’t be out grinding people down and sending them to their “manager” for the best deal. Yet, I had a job to do.
I’d start the session. Like clockwork, the comments would come at me.
“That will never work here.” “We can’t do that.” “Yeah, but…” or my personal favorite, the flat out, “No.”
Now, as someone who has positivity as one of her top 5 strengths, this vibe was not that sweet. As the eternal optimist, I led those sessions hoping that I could get through to someone. Connecting with one person would be considered a win. (I like to balance my optimism with reality.)
It dawned on me how ingrained they were in these cultures of negativity, inertia, and resistance. I realized if there was any hope of getting through, I had to shift them, ever so slightly, into the world of possibility.
The Greater Than Sign was born.
To be clear, the greater than sign–you know, the > symbol? The alligator mouth? The only thing I remember from 4th grade math? That > symbol was not born that day, but the concept was introduced to my sessions.
I slapped that sideways v up on a flip chart and in the alligator mouth I wrote the words “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “why not?”
Outside the mouth, in the lesser than zone, I wrote their favorite phrases–the “yeah, but…” “we can’t/we won’t/we don’t” and “no.”
In a meet-people-where-they-are moment, I smacked my hand on that flip chart and quasi-yelled, “Hey! Listen up!” That got their attention.
I acknowledged that yes, some of these concepts were new and would take some work. Some of them might not work. HOWEVER, why not look for the possibilities? Why not look for the opportunities? WHY NOT just try something different?
Now, at this point, I would often see a glimmer. A spark in a few people’s eyes like maybe, just maybe, things can change. That spark lit the fire in my belly because I knew when I spied the spark, they hadn’t been ground down to submission. They still had a little hope, a little optimism, a little openness to possibilities left in them.
The beauty of the greater than sign was twofold: It gave them a little hope and it served as a reminder TO ME to look for the opportunities and to stay open to the possibility that I actually might be getting through to someone in that tough crowd.
I no longer work with the automotive industry. I DO keep a post it note with a > and the words possibility, opportunity, and why not? in front of my face. I start my workshops with the greater than sign as an intention for openness and opportunities and new ways of thinking for the work the participants are about to experience.
The way I see it, life is hard enough. There will be challenges and negativity floating around as is, so why not direct our attention to the greater than portion–and stay open to possibility, opportunities, and say hey–why the hell not–and see what gets sparked within us.