Even if you know the value of your voice, you’re going to have a hard time convincing other professionals to listen … that is, until you prove your brilliance to them.

Several months ago, I began considering how to combine my two greatest passions – health and leadership. At different points in my life, I have been a student athlete, personal fitness trainer and massage therapist. And one of my degrees is in kinesiology (the study of human movement), so providing leadership training to senior-level executives within the health and wellness industry seemed right up my alley.

I began by interviewing leaders in the club industry – highly-respected professionals who own and/or operate large-scale gyms. During my initial research, I learned about Norm Cates, a former gym owner, current publisher of Club Insider magazine and an industry leader for more than 35 years. More importantly, he has a deep passion for the health of our country. This was someone I wanted to get to know. So, I called him without an appointment, and despite his busy schedule, he talked to me for 45 minutes.

After our call, Norm – a southern man and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet –connected me with several other industry leaders.  I had meetings scheduled with each of them that week.

During these interviews, I got so excited to learn their perspectives on general industry issues that I completely lost focus on my specific reason for connecting with them – to learn about their leadership challenges. When I received an e-mail from one of the executives I interviewed asking if I was on a “witch hunt,” I had no idea what I had done wrong, but something about my approach clearly wasn’t working. So, I forwarded the note to Norm, whose overwhelmingly-candid response felt like a gut-punch. Here’s what he had to say:

You approached me with the idea of bringing your expertise in leadership training to our industry. But the questions you seek answers for in this and other e-mails you have copied me on are the same questions [over which] all of us have been racking our brains for decades. For you to divert your research from what you represented to something totally different and much more divergent will get you nowhere fast in the realm of necessary credibility. Take this for what it’s intended to be: Coaching.

Very few leaders are brave enough to share that kind of feedback. To avoid hurting feelings, they let people who need guidance flounder and fail on their own terms. While Norm’s response bruised my ego, he was being cruel to be kind, and his harsh words were meant to redirect, not chastise, me.

My intention had not been to offend or mislead these industry leaders. I simply wanted to understand the greater issues and to help by pointing out challenges, not realizing that I would insult them by assuming they didn’t already see these issues. While I didn’t appreciate their disinterest in my ideas, I realized they had no reason to care what I thought. After all, they didn’t yet know me, much less trust me.

This pitfall is one I have seen many young professionals fall into when they first enter the workforce or start a new job. They see the problems and want to change things right away … before they’ve built credibility, which just doesn’t work. Suggesting change before understanding the full picture is like running for president without a firm grip on history; it will just make you a laughing stock (as many politicians have proved). As Ken Blanchard puts it, “Trust takes a while to build up – and you can destroy it by being inconsistent with what you say you stand for.”  

Thanks to some seemingly-unkind words from a kind man, I was able to correct course. Rather than offering my two cents on industry issues, I’m refocused on asking about leadership challenges. And I’m having fun and building relationships with people I respect.

Rock on,

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations and Hidden Heroes