Successful business people thrive on opportunity. Every time the phone rings, it’s an opportunity. Every customer who walks in the door is an opportunity. Every special assignment, sales call, business trip, networking event, and new job responsibility is an opportunity.

As Winston Churchill said: A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

With a positive, optimistic attitude, there’s not a complaint, problem, dispute or crisis out there in the business world that can’t be fixed. How so? A few treasured experiences have shaped my perspective.

Let’s start in elementary school. At an early age, I was haunted by bizarre math riddles that made no sense to me.

Take this typical assignment for example: Mrs. Jones is filling a 50-gallon bathtub with water. If she adds three gallons a minute but one gallon leaks down the drain, how long will it take to fill the tub?

I thought: If the goal is to fill the tub, why not plug the drain?

In high school, I had a huge, lucrative Sunday newspaper route of about 200 customers. Unfortunately, I had an intense, negative reaction to the ink in the Parade magazine, the comics and the retail sales inserts.

Every Saturday night while pre-assembling those sections, I puked.

After about a year, I finally asked my dad what to do. To teach me some self-reliance, he told me to find a creative solution.

To solve my problem, I made a deal with two younger neighbor boys. If they would each assemble 50 sections for me on Saturday, they could take their Sunday comics home a day early.

At Tucson Electric Power, I learned the value of being a positive team player directly from the president. After being called upstairs with my vice president, he laid out a confidential special assignment for us.

It was on a tight deadline, challenging, and required lots of detailed research.

In reality, it was an unreasonable task.

My VP reacted negatively and blurted out, "But, this is a problem because…"

The president cut him off: "I don’t want to hear why this can’t be done. I want to hear how you’re going to do it or I’ll find someone who can."

At Southwest Gas, I discovered the culture of quality customer service. Never was a customer a "rate payer." Customers were valued as our only source of revenue. All employees existed to serve them, period. So every time the phone rang, it was a joyful opportunity.

The major influence on my approach to problem solving was Ohio University journalism professor Tom Peters. He excelled at teaching the extreme dynamics of copywriting, advertising campaigns, and marketing.

In his beginning classes, the curriculum focused on the core, fundamental rules of marketing communications. The tactical techniques were pounded into our heads.

As upper classmen, teachings shifted to creativity and effectiveness. Now, it was OK to shatter the rules. To manage issues and be a creative communicator, be unpredictable to get your messages noticed.

Leverage your unique perspective to stand out.

To make his point, he set a glass of water on the edge of the lectern, asking: Is it half-full or half-empty?

Of course, everyone knows optimists see a half-full glass while pessimists see one that is half empty. Yet, he rejected both answers for being too obvious.

See the glass differently, look at all the angles and learn a valuable business skill, he lectured. If you remember this demonstration, it will forever shape your attitude and perspective toward life’s challenges.

Peters pushed us to look for opportunities in the glass. After a few days, no one could come up with the answer he wanted. To our shock, he told us we weren’t even asking the right question.

When faced with a challenge, the real question is: How do I fill the glass?


This is a true story, drawn from Roger Yohem’s 25-year career in corporate communications with the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, Tucson Electric Power and Southwest Gas. Yohem’s column looks at the lighter side of "challenges" in the business world and appears the first and third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business.