During a recent lunch, a friend told me about an interview he had been on the week before. He wasn't in the job market, but a headhunter had persuaded him to talk with the CEO of the bank. When he told me the name, I chuckled. I know that CEO, and I'm a little familiar with their operation. I honestly didn't think that my friend would be a good fit for their organization, but I did speak highly of the CEO.

My friend seemed just a bit surprised. He said, "You know, he struck me as a good guy and all … but he had this slow Southern drawl and came across like he really wasn't up to speed with retail banking today." At that point, I laughed even harder. I told my buddy, "Never confuse a slow talker for a slow thinker. He wasn't interested in impressing you with what he knows. He wanted to find out what you know."

I told him that this particular CEO reminds me of one of the best mentors (let's call him Al) that I've ever had. The initial impression most folks got of Al was that he was just a laid-back Southern banker. It wasn't until you got to know him that you found out how many ventures he had started and grown and how vast his business interests and personal holdings were.

When I began working for him, I couldn't figure out how this low-key "country banker" had become as successful as he was. With youthful ignorance, I initially surmised that Al's success must have come from a decades-long lucky streak. But over time, I learned that luck had little to do with it. Al had core philosophies and behaviors that drove his success.

When I first joined the company and was in front of prospective customers, I was ready to regale them with every reason in the world our company was the best for them. I was also more than willing to point out every weakness of the companies I knew were competing with us for the business.

Al quickly broke me of the habit. He absolutely refused to speak ill of any company or person during sales calls. Even when baited, he would smile and find something nice to say about the competition. He later explained to me that the impression you make by staying positive and taking the high road is always more powerful and lasting than any negative fact you may throw out about the competition.

Another lesson that slowly sank in was the incredible impact of goodwill gestures and favors. Whether it be the CEO of a client company or the night watchman at the local mill, Al always seemed to be trying to "take care of something" for somebody. I later came to realize that, No. 1, he got personal fulfillment from it, and No. 2, it had practically been his business model from his youth.

He shared that when he was starting out and had no money, his only assets were his good name and his good deeds. He explained, "People don't forget favors. You do folks a favor, and they're going to remember you and pay you back down the line." But probably the most important lesson that I learned while working for Al was the value of a work ethic and optimistic outlook.

In his case, there was something to be said for the kinds of habits and behaviors you develop early on when the only equity you have is sweat equity. Al always felt like (and enjoyed thinking of himself as) an underdog — even long after becoming successful. Other guys were flashier, faster-talking and put on a more sophisticated air. But Al logged more miles and shook more hands than anyone I've worked with before or since.

And I learned that being an optimist does not come from never failing. Optimists fail many times. However, when you don't expect success to come easily, you don't look at every setback as a justification for quitting. You learn what you can from it and keep going.

In one way or another, I often find myself preaching many of Al's principles to groups of managers and front-line folks today. Always remain positive when speaking with existing or potential customers. Look for opportunities to make goodwill gestures to as many folks as you can. Don't obsess on the other guy's perceived advantages. Outwork him. And we all face setbacks. Deal with it. Don't quit.

As our business environment becomes tougher and more complicated, I find that the philosophies of an underestimated "country banker" are as wise today as ever.

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