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What Do You Win When You Lose?


Jim Wick


Have you ever been intimidated when first meeting an organizational icon?  I was.  “What do you win when you lose?”  John asked sternly with an intense stare as I walked into his office. I was already intimidated. Now he had me right where he wanted me:  bewildered and confused.


It was 1975. I was a young aspiring electrical engineer, in my first supervisory assignment as the Senior Supervisor of Safety & Fire Protection at a chemical manufacturing site in southern New Jersey.  I was new to the site, determined to ‘prove’ I was ‘worthy’. This was potentially a career “sink or swim” assignment.


John was a large man, 18 years my senior.  You “felt” his presence. His entire career was at this site. A pipefitter, rising through supervisory ranks he attained a senior manager level without a college degree, which was rare in this company.  He was a legend, earning respect from all for his intelligence and business and leadership skills.


I might have been devastated by his question, watching my budding career evaporate in the presence of a master. However, when I arrived on site a few months earlier, John learned we were both volunteer firefighters. After a short while he offered to help me as a coach and mentor. I accepted. On this day I could see a twinkle in his eye. Relieved, I was about to learn something important. 


The site needed to dramatically up-level the safety culture. One proposal I recommended was highly visible, straightforward, and low cost; seat belts in all vehicles (the site sprawled over 1500 acres, lots of vehicles. In 1975 seat belts were still years away from being legally required). My proposal was turned down. I lost. I was feeling dejected when John suggested I stop by.


“What do you win when you lose?” he began, “Let me help you see the wins”.  “Everybody now knows where you stand.  People, management and the crews, see you have ‘piss an’ vinegar’. (Where I grew up that means energy and enthusiasm) Your facts prove the worth of seat belts. Let the idea soak in a little longer. You are establishing yourself as an advocate for the people, not a zealot – and that is a good thing. The time is coming, be ready”.  I was beginning to feel better.  A few months later a union officer driving a pickup truck had a close call with a locomotive, called me, and together resistance was overcome and seat belts adopted.


John wasn’t done; explaining easy ways to better understand, clarify, and prioritize opportunities and problems, hidden barriers, missed benefits, etc. by spending time answering 4 questions:


  • What do you win when you win?
  • What do you lose when you win?
  • What do you win when you lose?
  • What do you lose when you lose?


I asked these questions thousands of times since 1975 on a myriad of issues, on and off the job.  For example: Offered a career opportunity requiring an international geographical move for the family, I struggled answering “What does my family lose if I win (accept the new position)?” My kids were at a vulnerable age. After much thought and family discussion, I declined the opportunity.  What did I lose when I didn’t take it?  Turns out, not much; accepting another career growth opportunity not requiring a geographic move a few months later. Without carefully asking and answering the questions I might not have adequately considered all the issues.


Try it.  Ask the questions. Write out the answers. Think about impacts big and small, including your integrity and reputation, opportunities to learn and grow, contribution value and cost… this works… take it from John and me.



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