Ben Zoldan in Stories | April 19, 2016 | No Comments

We Need More Antoinette Tuffs

It’s Aug 20, 2013 at The McNair Discovery Learning Academy, an Elementary School in a suburb outside of Atlanta. The day starts like any other until Michael Hill, a mentally ill, 20-yr old, walks into the school with an assault rifle. In the Administration office, Antoinette Tuff, the school’s Bookkeeper, hears the screams and gunshots, and in a panic, calls 911.

Dispatch: “911, what’s your emergency?”
Tuff: “I’m in the front office… he just went outside and started shooting (noise: gun fire).
Dispatch: “Can you just get somewhere safe?”
Tuff: “No, he’s going to see me running, and he’s coming back.”

And the most chilling thing happens next. The gunman walks in to the administration office, and Tuff is now face-to-face alone with Hill, who’s armed with an AK47 and 500 rounds strapped to his body. The entire thing is captured through the audio recording of the 911 call.

For the next few minutes, the gunman barks orders at Tuff; runs out of the office, back in, firing rounds into the air. And Tuff is scrambling to respond to Hill’s demands. I remember listening to the audio recording and so viscerally feeling the fear and terror in Tuff’s voice. But after a few minutes, something shifts. It was as if a calm comes over her and she begins to relate to the gunman in such an unexpected way.

“Don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years. I’ve got a son that’s multiple disabled.” Tuff says in the most compassionate, heart warming voice.

She begins to reveal herself in the most courageous way. But it wasn’t just about her opening up and sharing. Each time Tuff shares something about herself, the gunman reciprocates. It’s the most incredible thing, and he begins to lower guard and opens up in return. He tells her he’s mentally ill, and hasn’t been taking his meds. They continue to open up to one another, forging a connection. And after a few more exchanges, he asks her to call his probation officer. At one point, he says he should just shoot himself.

“You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.” She says. “It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? We all go through something in life.”

And after nearly twenty-five minutes, Hill says he’s sorry to Tuff, and asks her to relate the apology on the school’s intercom. Then, on his own will, he laid down on the floor, pushed his gun away and gave permission for the police to come in. Tuff relays this to the 911 officer, who’s on the phone the entire time.
The police rush in, and the entire thing ended with nobody, no one whatsoever getting injured, let alone killed.

And for the last few days, since the shooting in Oregon, I’m thinking how much we need more Antoinette Tuffs in the world. We all need to be more like her. And its not confined to these life or death scenarios. We need this in our everyday lives. All of us.

And for me, I’m thinking about the profession I know well – Sales. We need this as much as anyone. Think about the language we use in the sales profession: Control/Predict, Pitch/Close, Competition, Win/Lose. I just read a blog post, and the author started with, “Who Wants to Crush the Competition?” referring to “10 ways to win.” Our language is so violent and harsh and represents what our culture of selling has become.

Who’s convinced us it needs to be that way? And why?

On Friday, I had a conversation with a salesperson at Tableau Software. (disclosure: they’re a client of mine). I’ve gotten to know this person from the work I’ve done with them. He and I get on the phone, after I learned that he just closed his quarter at 740% to quota. I wanted to know how he did it – I’ve never been at 740% of anything in my life. When we talked, he never once bragged about his success, didn’t talk about “wins”, “closes” or “competition.”

He tells me about his approach, and what sales means to him. He said it’s about understanding each other; allowing people to be heard and felt. He said, “For me, it’s not about selling stuff, it’s about a real human connection, having human-to-human conversations on a deeper level.” And he ended with, “When that happens, we all tend to figure the other stuff out together… the solutions, the steps, even the negotiations.” It sounded so overly simple, but so pure.
And when I was listening to him, I swear it was as if he was narrating Antoinette Tuff’s encounter on August 20, 2013.

I have no idea what foreshadowed this for Tuff, how she got herself in such a benevolent, wholehearted frame of mind, but I know this: Antoinette Tuff did everything we should be doing in sales. She got someone with a gun to lay down his gun, but she did it in such a different way.

There’s an entire industry of sales process/methodology training out there. And none of it is focused on that wholeheartedness that Antoinette Tuff showed us.


Corporate America spends over $5 billion dollars a year ‘training’ salespeople, and that shapes how we go about our business. But we’re not teaching the big-hearted, empathic, benevolence that Tuff showed the world – the stuff that truly makes the world a better place.

When I started in Sales, I was pretty good. I excelled. I connected with people. I didn’t have all the answers. I was never the product-guy; in fact, I probably knew the least. But it didn’t matter. And I loved it. And then slowly, through the years, I got trained, got more trained, and a long the way, I feel that I started to shift away from the good stuff; I got farther and farther away from the things that served me well in the beginning. At some point, I became an expert, a know-it-all, had all the answers, and it no longer felt good. It felt like I was going through life with a hammer, and it was just a heavy way to live.

And I am no Antoinette Tuff – I know that. But I do feel I’m qualified to weigh in here because I know what’s it likes to be the ‘other way’. I know all too well what it’s like to use a hammer, to poke and prod, the aggressive pursuit of winning and closing, and making sure others lose. It’s the bravado and the armor. But it eventually unravels. It just doesn’t work.

We put on the armor; Antoinette Tuff took it off. And right now, after what happened in Oregon, I can’t think of anything else in the world that we should be talking about.


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