To this day, I still can’t believe I traded a Wayne Gretzky rookie card for a Montreal Canadiens poster. It happened more than 25 years ago yet it’s still fresh in my mind. It taught me one of the most valuable business lessons I’ve ever learned in my life and it’s one that I live every day.
It was 1988. I was in Grade 4, out riding my bike on the streets of Oakville with two of my friends. It happened to be spring cleaning time, so neighbours were clearing out garages and leaving their used goods on the streets to be picked up by the trucks the next morning. As we were riding by, an older couple carrying boxes out of their garage waved us over.
The woman, in jeans and wearing a baggy red sweater, dropped a big box in front of us. “Our son has long been out of the house and we’re clearing out his stuff,” she said.
“He has all these hockey cards. Do you boys want them?”
We didn’t need to think twice about it. “Yes!” we shouted (probably in unison) and proceeded to jump off our bikes and race over to the newly-found treasure that had – by some wonderful twist of fate – found its way to us.
Talk about hitting pay dirt. The cards were from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and were in pretty decent condition. We separated them into three piles, making sure they were all even by height. (Hey, when you’re nine, that’s your benchmark.)
There were all kinds of cards with all kinds of big names in hockey: Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich and Phil Esposito. In my stack, though, was a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card. I couldn’t believe my luck as Wayne Gretzky was – at the time – at the top of the hockey world.
The next week at school, we showed our cards to our classmates and sorted them out at recess. One of my friends invited me over to his house to show his older brothers who were hockey card collectors and figured they could tell me how much the cards were all worth. Feeling pretty cool to be in the presence of the older, even cooler, high school boys, I showed up with my winnings.
“Braden, these are good, but the Wayne Gretzky card is a fake and not worth anything, sorry,” is what they told me after looking at my card. Seeing the disappointment on my face, they offered me a Montreal Canadiens poster and few Montreal players’ cards from the current year in exchange for the Wayne Gretzky card. Grateful for this small favour, I accepted and shook on it.
I went home but didn’t tell my parents the bad news: that the Wayne Gretzky rookie card they thought was worth something was really a fake. A few months later, this friend of mine and his generous brothers moved to Calgary. After he left, some older boys in the school told me how the brothers had bragged about ripping me off by trading Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card for a worthless Montreal Canadiens poster.
That day, I rode my bike home faster than I ever had before. I stormed into my room, ripped up the cards they gave me, sank down by my bed and cried. It was my first real experience in broken trust and I never forgot what that felt like. More importantly, I knew that I never wanted to do that to someone else. Ever.
Fast forward more than 25 years later. That nine-year-old boy is now a marketing consultant, working with owners and organizations who don’t always understand marketing or social media or the new digital landscape. It would be easy to take advantage of this knowledge gap, as would be the temptation of any professional in a position of trust. But I don’t and I never will.
That’s because trust is the greatest asset in any relationship and one of the biggest responsibilities of a professional service provider. It’s our prerogative as leaders to ensure our staff and the teams we lead hold to that responsibility at all times. Never put your gain ahead of the people you serve.
This past August, a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card sold at auction for a record $465,000 USD. Sometimes, the best business lessons are priceless. In this case, it came with a price and, yes, it still stings.