The Hidden Value of Serving Salad

Last Christmas, I received one of the best gifts in years, one that I never could have anticipated, when my family and I participated in a University of Pittsburgh event that provided a hearty holiday meal to people in need. My job was to serve salad -- clearly not the glamour job on a day when stomachs were vying for turkey, ham, potatoes, gravy and desserts. As I dished out the greens, I was also challenged in my thinking about how well we in business schools are preparing our students to serve their communities.

People had three options at my station: Italian dressing, ranch dressing or no dressing. I quickly realized the challenge of my task when two people walked by with plates full of meat and sides and two servings of cake. They had no room to hold a salad -- either in hand or stomach.

How do you sell salads in such a setting? I chose to thank people, to talk with them, to wish them a Merry Christmas and to offer a salad. It was amazing how well my approach worked. Each person got a special salad. Some chose the one they wanted, some wanted me to choose. Yet, over the course of my three-hour shift, I gave out each and every one of the pre-made salads on the cart.

The most rewarding part of my day were the conversations. In each interaction I learned about interesting new perspectives and more. One woman said she hoped I would not take her comment the wrong way, but she knew I was with the business school, and her experience with business graduates, especially MBAs, was that they cared only for money and themselves. She said it seemed as if we didn't do anything to show students that there was more to life than wealth seeking. She asked why we were like this.

I explained that we do provide students with opportunities to give back, that we tell students that with success comes the obligation to better the community. She listened politely, but I don't think I sold her on the arguments nearly as well as I moved salads to people.

Upon reflection, I believe there are many reasons why business schools have not been as effective in teaching generosity over greed. One is that we rarely are placed in circumstances that cause us to change our thinking about people, problems or the cost of poverty and neglect. Second, because we are very busy and mostly connected with a certain type of person, it is easy to assume that everyone can do just as well if he or she only tries. Another reason is our assumption that some problems are too difficult for any one individual to correct, so we may as well use our time effectively (effective time management is one of the lessons we teach), and that means leaving such problems for others to solve. Finally, it's possible that we are guilty of spending so much time looking in the mirror that we no longer see anything other than what we wish. We become blind to the people and things we wish to ignore.

These ruminations boil down to three important observations: First, any gaps in business school education exist purposely. They reflect choices made by leaders, faculty and staff. It does not have to be this way. Second, it's our community and our world. I can't singlehandedly solve our problems, and neither can you. But I guarantee that we'll never solve our most pressing problems if the vast majority of successful people choose not to act and engage with them. You need to crawl before you can walk. Finally, I learned that it is enormously fulfilling to spend time giving to others.

The enjoyment of volunteering far outweighs the imposition it creates on your time. In a world where many people see few solutions to the problems we face, one simple answer is to be a friend. In so doing, you'll make a difference and feel great. In my case, I learned these lessons last Christmas, where the simple act of passing out salads to people in my community was a profoundly enriching experience.