By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Writing for Forbes, Amy Rees Anderson shares a simple story that draws a clear line between what it takes to be a mediocre employee and what it takes to be a great one.
She shared it, she explained, because “it is so important that leaders are able to explain things to employees in a way that can be easily understood and which creates a clear picture of what you are looking for.”
Her simple story is known as The Parable of the Oranges. We share it here with you with only a few minor edits.
The Parable of the Oranges
There was a young man who had ambitions to work for a company because it paid very well and was very prestigious. He prepared his résumé and had several interviews. Eventually, he was given an entry-level position. Then he turned his ambition to his next goal — a supervisor position that would afford him even greater prestige and more pay.
He completed the tasks he was given. He even came in early some mornings and stayed late so the boss would see him putting in long hours.
After five years a supervisor position became available. But, to the young man’s great dismay, another employee who had only worked for the company for six months was given the promotion. The young man was very angry, and he went to his boss and demanded an explanation.
The wise boss said, “Before I answer your questions, would you do a favor for me?”
“Yes, sure,” said the employee.
“Would you go to the store and buy some oranges? My wife needs them.”
The young man agreed and went to the store. When he returned, the boss asked, “What kind of oranges did you buy?”
“I don’t know,” the young man answered. “You just said to buy oranges, and these are oranges. Here they are.”
“How much did they cost?” the boss asked.
“Well, I’m not sure,” was the reply. “You gave me $30. Here is your receipt, and here is your change.”
“Thank you,” said the boss. “Now, please have a seat and pay careful attention.”
Then the boss called in the employee who had received the promotion and asked him to do the same job. He readily agreed and went to the store.
When he returned, the boss asked, “What kind of oranges did you buy?”
“Well,” he replied, “the store had many varieties — there were navel oranges, Valencia oranges, blood oranges, tangerines, and many others, and I didn’t know which kind to buy. But I remembered you said your wife needed the oranges, so I called her. She said she was having a party and that she was going to make orange juice.
“So I asked the grocer which of the oranges would make the best orange juice. He said the Valencia orange was full of very sweet juice, so that’s what I bought. I dropped them by your home on my way back to the office. Your wife was very pleased.”
“How much did they cost?” the boss asked.
“Well, that was another problem. I didn’t know how many to buy, so I once again called your wife and asked her how many guests she was expecting. She said 20. I asked the grocer how many oranges would be needed to make juice for 20 people, and it was a lot. So, I asked the grocer if he could give me a quantity discount, and he did! These oranges normally cost 75 cents each, but I paid only 50 cents. Here is your change and the receipt.”
The boss smiled and said, “Thank you; you may go.”
He looked over at the young man who had been watching. The young man stood up, slumped his shoulders and said, “I see what you mean,” as he walked dejectedly out of the office.
What's the difference?
What was the difference between these two young men? They were both asked to buy oranges, and they did. You might say that one went the extra mile, or one was more efficient, or one paid more attention to detail. But the most important difference had to do with real intent rather than just going through the motions.
The first young man was motivated by money, position, and prestige. The second young man was driven by an intense desire to please his employer and an inner commitment to be the best employee he could possibly be — and the outcome was obvious. (Excerpt from Living with a Purpose: The Importance of ‘Real Intent, Randall L. Ridd)
Importance of intent
Anderson writes: “Anyone can be a great employee if that is their real intent. But real intent must come from within. It doesn’t come from external motivators such as money or titles. Real intent comes from a genuine desire to do the right thing for the right reason along with an inner commitment to always put forth a best effort in all that one does.
“Great employees are willing to focus on helping others to become more successful and inevitably they themselves grow to become great leaders in the process. They take accountability for their actions and they own their mistakes. They gain reputations of being trustworthy and they earn the respect of their coworkers. And they understand the value of a team.”
Then, echoing the famous salesman and sales trainer Zig Ziglar, Anderson adds: “I have always found that the best way to get what you want is to help others get what they want. By helping your boss become more successful you will inevitably become more successful yourself. And that is exactly what great employees do.”
Serving or self-serving?
In the Lead Like Jesus Movement, we call this the difference between serving and self-serving behavior. People who are always looking out only for themselves don’t build the healthy, trust-filled relationships that are necessary for their genuine, sustained growth and development.
As a result, they struggle to become part of and to lead teams that excel because they are truly mission-centered rather than self-centered.
More to the story
There are two other things that should be noted in contrasting the behaviors of the two employees sent to get oranges – the importance of humility and feedback.
The employee who excelled did so because he was humble enough to admit what he didn’t know -- both about the characteristics of the oranges and how that the boss’ wife intended to use them.
What did he do to close his knowledge gaps? He asked questions and he listened to the answers. In other words, he got critical feedback from the boss’ wife and the grocer, who both had knowledge that he needed to make an optimum decision.
When our sincere intention is to do the best job possible, when we are secure and humble enough to ask pertinent questions, and when we listen to the feedback we get in order to make better decisions, we open the door to optimum growth, performance and service.
I hope this is a story that stays with you ... and one that you share with every up-and-comer you care about.