A CASUAL ENCOUNTER (that almost didn't happen)
My first career was as an aspiring professional athlete. I had dreamed as far back as I could remember of becoming an NFL Quarterback. While it certainly was not a straight path, I did advance from youth league to high school to college with some success. In college, I played at a mid-level (Division II) school in Colorado. I knew the jump from small town college to the top tier professional league was a monumental jump, so that goal was fading.
About two-thirds into my senior season, I was in my apartment and received a call from our head coach. He said, "Hey Eric, there's a scout here from the Philadelphia Eagles watching game tape and he'd like to talk to Joe. Is he there?"
Ugh... gut shot. While I was happy for my friend Joe, a 6'5" athletic wide receiver who was a walking 'catch radius' before that was a thing, anticipation had grown that maybe he wanted to talk to me. Joe jumped on the call, then was heading to the office to meet with the scout. I tagged along out of curiosity and admittedly remaining a little hopeful.
When we met the scout, I introduced myself but stayed in the background. This was Joe's opportunity. The scout offered for me to sit in on their film session, so I did. I listened to the scout's assessment of Joe and review of the game film. He'd occasionally comment on my play and offer feedback. When film wrapped up, the scout asked Joe if he'd run (typical measurable in football is a 40 yard sprint). He turned to me and said, "want to run too?". We both ran well, despite early November at 7,000 ft elevation on a partially snow-covered track. The scout gave some final words and we parted ways.
Honestly, at that moment I counted that as a cool experience. Had the story ended there, it would still be a highlight of my college experience. Fast forward a couple of months, I was invited to a national all-star game of the top 75 or so players. How I was invited is even a story unto itself; again, not a straight line. An all-star game like that is basically one big tryout. The week leading up as well as the game itself allows scouts and football executives an opportunity to scout talent. I had a good week, and an even better game.
When the game finished, several scouts came up to me unsolicited and said something to the effect of, "Hi, I'm (name) from (team x). I was really impressed. I'm going to tell someone from (team y) about you." Ugh... another gut shot. "How about you go tell your team?", I thought to myself while smiling and saying, "Thank you". Near the end, who walked up but the scout from the Eagles. Similarly, he said he'd connect me with another team. But he had more detail about who and why he'd make that connection. He added, "Between our meeting and watching you this week, you deserve a shot."
He followed through on that introduction and a few weeks later I had a signed contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL). This kicked off a nearly 5 year experience I wouldn't trade for anything.
Certainly there's nostalgia as I look back. A seemingly, casual experience changed the trajectory and path of my future. It has allowed me to reflect on other personal and professional experiences that lift my gratitude of each individual experience and how it impacted my journey. Maybe it impacted me directly, maybe it impacted the other(s). Either way, it's easy to take these encounters for granted, maybe not perform at our best, or let opportunity quietly slip past.
A LEADERSHIP LESSON
From my experience in leadership roles, I often saw employees miss casual opportunities to consistently take advantage of chances to shine or grow. Then, when the big opportunity arose (promotion, new job, special project), they tried to elevate their game like a light switch only to be disappointed to not achieve that goal. Leaders can coach their team that the most important encounters are those casual or average ones where relationships, trust, and consistency are cemented.
An innumerable amount of steps were beneath the surface of my story above. If leaders can instill this lesson in their team, overall performance improves. Also, those with aspiration will be less likely to be "passed over" leading to a better employee experience and retention.
Be careful not to overlook the casual encounter, we never know where it will lead.