The students sat, eagerly waiting for their professor to start the day’s class. This was a required course for their graduate program, so most were giving him their full attention.
“You’re about to graduate from school, enter the workforce, and try to make your mark in the business world. Based on what you’ve learned so far in this class, what do you think is the most important factor that leads to business success?” he asked.
A student in the front row raised his hand immediately. He was the kind of guy who always came to class early and prepared, and he was eager to offer his opinion. The professor called on him.
“Like you’ve always told us,” he said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
The professor replied, “In a free market economy there’s no doubt that everyone has to pay their own way in some form. After all, in business someone always pays.”
While the idea of no free lunches made sense to the professor, he didn’t think the answer went deep enough, so he kept looking around the room.
The next student the professor called on was minoring in finance, so the answer he offered was not much of a surprise. “If you don’t hit your quarterly numbers nothing else is going to matter.”
The professor suggested that while a lot of investors and people on Wall Street might agree with him, he wasn’t sure if the small business owner on Main Street would. After all, she might be struggling with the demands of running a small business, keeping customers happy, and trying to have time for family or friends. He didn’t think she spent much energy worrying about meeting quarterly numbers when she was focused on weekly payrolls and keeping her employees busy.
The professor thought he’d give one more student the chance to weigh in. The student in the back of the room offered, “It’s like the sign former president Harry Truman had on his desk. It read “The buck stops here.”
The professor loved the idea of not passing the buck; of taking responsibility for one’s actions and owning the outcomes of the decisions they make. But, once again, the answer he was looking for went much deeper than platitudes on an executive’s desk.
He asked the students to think about the companies where they were currently employed or imagined being employed when they graduated. He asked them to think beyond financial performance, current management fads, or the struggle to balance business with their personal lives.
The answer the professor was looking for was much deeper than any of the answers he was hearing. It was something that served as a foundation for all the answers his students gave. In fact, it impacts virtually every element and outcome of business.
The word the professor was looking for was “trust.” Having been involved in business, and then having taught business for years, he witnessed first-hand the impact this five-letter word can have on the performance of a business. And it was a lesson he felt his students must understand before leaving school.