O’s Success Tips: Give A Second Chance

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In the summer of 2001 I landed my first internship as a field engineer. Everyone knew about it, my mum, my classmates and even the clerk at the grocery store. This was because I made it a point to tell them and in each instance I got asked the same question, “what does a field engineer do?” To be honest I had no idea. I could remember the recruiter saying something about getting paid every month, but the rest of the information was probably drowned out by my ensuing excitement.

Before leaving for my job location, I had to participate in a week-long training session with interns from all across America. During the training, we were given an elaborate explanation of the responsibilities of a field engineer. We found out that the position required long unpredictable hours of labor intensive but highly technical tasks that would ensure a successful work operation. Furthermore, we would be working in an unprotected environment, exposed to harsh weather elements and huge complex machinery. My initial excitement from the past few weeks was now replaced with thoughts of apprehension and fear. These feelings were exacerbated by embellished “horror” stories told by past interns about life in the field. They described an intense and unforgiving work environment that pushed them to their limits. Despite the varying nature of their stories, there seemed to be a recurring theme “quitting was not an option.” The interns that quit were ridiculed while those who triumphed were remembered as legends.

On the final night of our training session, I lay awake on the bed processing all the information I had received during the past five days of training. I did not want to be a failure. So many people were looking up to me and I could not afford to disappoint them….My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the sound of an alarm. Dawn had arrived and I barely had forty five minutes to catch my departing flight. My destination was Laredo, which was a few miles south of Houston and it had one unique quality. It was hot, extremely hot! As I disembarked from the plane I could feel the hot blast of air streaming through my nostrils. The extreme Laredo weather was every field engineer’s worst nightmare.

The following morning, I reported to my job site, where I was briefed by my manager on my expectations for the summer. I would be required to shadow several experienced engineers on their daily field trips. According to him, this exposure would allow me to better understand the duties of a field engineer. And he was right. My first assignment began with a lengthy journey towards the outskirts of Laredo where the once fully paved roads now gave way to dusty red pathways. For over four hours, we drove in a convoy of twenty heavy-duty trucks. By the time we arrived at our destination the sun had already began to sink into the horizon. We were greeted with a huge area of land populated by a host of complex-looking pipes demarcated by a towering steel structure. We immediately began unloading pound after pound of huge, rusted metallic steel pipes from the vehicles. And for the next two hours, we would hammer and contort these pipes to mesh with the already existing pipe layout. By the time we were done, I was completely exhausted. However, the technical part still remained.

We had to pump over 4000 gallons of liquid cement into a location several thousand feet below ground level. This was a situation that fully tested the technical acumen of a field engineer. If the cement was incorrectly combined or the pumping process did not terminate within a given time period, the entire pipe could potentially be filled with solid cement. Resolving such a mishap would be a financial nightmare. Fortunately everything went as planned on that assignment. After the pumping was completed, we proceeded to disassemble the complex maze of pipes. By the time the entire job was completed I was fully exhausted.  For the next two months, we would repeat this exercise over and over again “Construct, pump and deconstruct.”

At the end of June, my manager summoned me to his office for a mandatory mid-term evaluation. This was where my work performance would be partially evaluated based on the comments of my fellow co-workers. I was confident of a good review filled with high praises. But instead, I received a tide of criticism “not company material,” “employee is lazy,” “employee listens to music all the time,” “employee sleeps during work,” “lazy.” I was shocked. Not only had I fallen short of their expectations, but my performance was viewed as extremely weak. By the time my manager had finished reading the entire comments, large balls of tears had begun to run down my quivering cheeks. Surely I was going to get fired. But instead of being judgmental, my manager smiled and gently assured me that my mid-term evaluation was meaningless. What was important was my final evaluation and how I responded to the comments. I could decide to either improve my work ethic or sink under the weight of the unfavorable comments. The most important thing was that I had another chance to improve myself.

In 1972, about 18% of soda drinkers indicated that they preferred the taste of Coca Cola to Pepsi while only 4% proclaimed the opposite. However, as time passed, that gap began to narrow and in the early eighties, the number of people that preferred Pepsi exclusively had risen from 4% to 11%. This left Coca Cola clinging to a one-point lead with their market-share  dwindling to a meager 12%, down from its previous high of 18%. Sensing a chance to overtake Coke as the number one drink in the world, Pepsi began an innovative marketing strategy called the Pepsi Challenge. In the Challenge, a Pepsi representative would set up a table in a public area with two unmarked cups and challenge onlookers to select the better tasting cola from a single sip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7lw_vhxtNc. An overwhelming majority of the subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke. Although seemingly insignificant, the poll results disturbed Coca Cola executives, particularly because the one-percent difference that separated both companies represented millions of customers and consequently millions of dollars. Their concern further intensified when they conducted their own internal tests and found the Pepsi Challenge results accurate “majority of drinkers preferred Pepsi over Coke.”

This result, coupled with the gradual weathering of the once invincible Coca Cola advantage, triggered the creation of the New Coke project. A project led by then Chief Marketing Operator of Coke, Sergio Zyman. Zyman called for the creation of a new Coca Cola product that would rival Pepsi’s taste and subsequently alter Coke’s historic and secret. After several months of tweaking their formula, the internal taste tests were repeated and this time, the results showed that Coke had a slight edge over Pepsi. However, Zyman and the other executives were not satisfied. They manipulated the already altered formula to make it even sweeter. Once again the internal taste tests were conducted, and this time the results were more favorable. The New Coke product was now preferred over Pepsi by an 8 point margin!

In September of 1984, the final version of New Coke was ready for release. The new drink was touted as the surest move that Coke had ever made in its history. The drink hit the stores, and despite an initial surge in interest, its sales were abysmal. Rallies and protests popped up across the nation with people vehemently voicing their dislike for the new Coke formula. In less than eighty days, the original Coke was reintroduced into the market. And against the findings of the Pepsi and Coke taste tests, the original Coke formula performed better than Pepsi and New Coke. What went wrong with the tests?

In his bestselling novel, “blink,” Malcolm Gladwell intelligently exposed the flaw in the taste test. According to him, both the public Pepsi challenge and the internally controlled Coke taste test had one thing in common, “the sip factor.” The taste results were based on a single sip of cola as opposed to the consumption of an entire can. Unfortunately, when a product is introduced to the mainstream market, it is judged by the latter. Since Pepsi contained sweeter ingredients, it had a clear advantage in the taste tests. Coke on the other hand, had a unique taste that was only fully experienced when consumed as a whole versus a single sip…

Every time I read the Coke/Pepsi story it intrigues me, because I realize that people are like the original Coke. If you judge them based on little snippets of their character, the result could be misleading. But if you focus on the entire picture, you get a more accurate analysis. However, people tend to focus on the little sips and moments. As I sat in my manager’s office that hot summer afternoon, with my eyes engulfed in tears, the only thought that came into my mind was “termination.” And my thoughts were justified. According to the comments in my review, I had not lived up to expectations. But rather than making his complete assessment based on the mid-term review, he waited for the final evaluation. And the result? At the end of my internship, I was selected as the most outstanding intern, not only in Laredo, but across America. A feat that was only possible because I was given a second chance.

Millions of people across the world wrote off the proven Coke formula based on a flawed sip test. Unfortunately, that same test is being carried out in the world today where people are judged based on single instances of failure rather than their complete body work of acts. Luckily we have the power to choose how we judge people. Instead of focusing on little sips of failure we should instead focus on the complete content of their character. Only then can we allow people to grow to their full potential.

Okechukwu Ofili
Motivational Speaker and Life Coach
Copyright © 2009 Ofili Speaks, Inc. All rights reserved



Words by Okechukwu Ofili of ofilispeaks.com
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