Career Coach: It's all in the experience

By Judy K. Frels
Monday, October 4, 2010; 17

Nine years ago, my husband and I were in Florence and came across a wonderful kitchen and pottery store. We'd just bought a home, we were in love with Italy, and likewise fell in love with the store and the pottery. We purchased large bowls and platters for ourselves and for our family and close friends back home who had played a key role in our courtship and marriage. A few years later, we were back in Florence and bought more of the same; friends who traveled to Rome later brought us even more. We loved this pottery so much we wanted to eat it.

About a month ago, we upended our lives and moved to France, in the process purging a good portion of our possessions. We couldn't justify carrying our Italian pottery to France, or storing it for a few years in Washington. We thought we'd easily sell the stuff at a yard sale, but even at yard sale prices most of it remained at the end of the day. We could barely bring ourselves to just give the pieces away, even to friends who had happily accepted others in the past.

Why? It's the experience, stupid.

It turns out, we didn't fall in love with the pottery. We fell in love with the experience of the pottery -- the transformation it signaled in us -- the value we co-created or imbued it with when we found the uncommon store on a back street in Florence, when we spent hours uncovering each unique piece, perfect for ourselves or friends, when we served dinner on it, and when we saw it every day in our dining room. The pottery said we were newlyweds. That we were building a home together. That we were in love and loved others. That we were in Florence, and maybe we were just a little bit Florentine.

But now with the prospect of a new experience -- and new meaning -- on our horizon, we were ready to let go of these symbols to make room for what lies ahead.

None of this was obvious to me until we tried to sell it in at the yard sale. What's the value of the pottery without the experience? Our yard sale revealed it approaches -- and yes, even touches -- zero. Pottery in Florence? Hot! Pottery sitting in a yard in Northwest Washington? Not so much.

Americans are increasingly willing to pay for experiences that linger long after the souvenir T-shirt is gone. We don't just buy dolls, we spend all day at the American Girl store; and we don't simply eat out -- we have dining experiences, with the new trend going further to co-creation by hosting those experiences at home, with chefs or on our own. The economic crisis of the past few years has made real that notion that physical things, houses, jobs are actually more ephemeral than we may have thought. But experiences endure.

So how can you translate this to your organization and your career?

Consider the experience your customers have with you. What experience does your company offer and how do people typically interact with you? Listen and communicate regularly with these people. Manage the experiences each customer has with you, with the goal of creating long-term relationships.

Make sure your team has a great experience. Could your employees be more satisfied -- and take better care of your customers -- by having a better work experience? and Southwest Airlines are two companies that put their employees -- not their customers -- first and have seen that strategy pay off.

Pursue learning experiences for yourself. Learning and teaching are powerful experiences that, if taken on fully, are almost always transformational. Take advantage of workshops, conferences, networking events, speakers series, and other professional development opportunities. Or seek a more formal developmental executive learning experience or degree program (full disclosure: At the Smith School, we offer a 19-month EMBA program). But don't just take a class. Consider yourself part of a learning community. The people by your side are as important to the experience as the material you are learning. Be fully engaged with your fellow learners.

My husband and I ultimately couldn't part with two pieces of the pottery, but if they turn up in France broken and battered, all will be fine. We are still those transformed people. We still love Florence, but we have a new home in France. And through the experience of living here we will be transformed again, as a place, a park, a walk, a bottle of wine, or yes, a piece of pottery combines with what is unique in us to bring value to our lives. Whatever happens, it will be an experience -- one I wouldn't trade for the world.

Judy K. Frels is on hiatus from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business while she experiences France. She is currently associate professor of marketing at Audencia Nantes École de Management.

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