Greed, Love, and a Portrait for Sale

The news is much about greed. Greed dominates the headlines, not to mention the content, of what we read in all media. Are we perhaps at the point where the truly sensational stories are ones of generosity and relationship-building?

You be the judge.

Love and Life

Phil and Sue met in 1969 – on Valentine’s Day.  They were near-instant soul mates, marrying 4 years later.  They hired a photographer to shoot a photo of Sue for the newspaper wedding section.

It was a good photo. The photographer enlarged it and hung it as an example in his studio. But being young and broke, Phil and Sue couldn’t buy a portrait-sized version for themselves.

Life ensued. Phil and Sue moved away, and lived a full life around the world. Sadly, after 38 years of marriage, Sue succumbed to cancer.

A few months later, in 2012 – on Valentines Day – Phil returned to their old town, and to that studio, hoping to find the wedding portrait of Sue, and to buy it.

The portrait was still on the wall.  Next to it was a portrait of man who was the Bishop at the time Phil and Sue married.  The shop had a new owner, whom Phil recognized from high school as the original photographer’s daughter.  She was willing to sell the portrait to Phil –but only with her 95 year-old father’s permission.  She agreed to ask him.

A Signpost?

While Phil waited to hear the decision, he went for lunch at one of his and Sue’s old haunts. As he ate, he wondered whether the Bishop was still alive. And as he wondered – the Bishop himself walked into the luncheonette.

Phil was moved. After all these years, it was wonderful to see the bishop. At the same time, it reminded him of the loss of his wife.

A coincidence? A sign?  Whatever, it gave Phil hope that he’d be able to get the portrait.

The Portrait and the Loss

When Phil returned to the store, the old photographer had given his permission. The photographers – both generations – knew Phil’s story.  She could have charged him anything for the portrait and he would have paid it. Instead, she charged him almost nothing.

Lessons Learned

There was no greed in this story, only generosity.  There were relationships that transcended years.  There was the empathy – that of the store owner, and the others in his life – and now me.

I first met Phil about 25 years when we worked together at Hills Department Stores. He was the risk manager, I was a staff lawyer. We haven’t seen each other in over 15 years, though we reconnected on LinkedIn, and now stay in touch a couple of times a year. Yet he shared his story with me without hesitation.

There are lots of Phils in our lives. They each have stories. They can be colleagues, friends, clients, even family. Taking the time to listen can strengthen the relationship and bring people closer. And yes, it can also lead to deeper friendships and business opportunities. Because often people like to help those they feel close to.

I am touched that Phil shared his story with me, and that he allowed me to share it even further. Among other things, we are also enhancing our business relationship.  Phil is now a senior executive at a large company and has been a valuable resource for my own clients and friends.

Funny how that works. When there’s no greed about it.

Madoff Madness: When Smart People do Stupid Things

Bernard Madoff’s Madoff Securities lost $50 Billion in an apparent Ponzi scheme.

You can read about the details anywhere—try the Wall Street Journal, for example. But the details don’t answer one question.

How? How could some of the world’s supposedly smartest investors—hedge funds–have been hoodwinked by something that, in the rear view mirror, was a blatant scam?

The answer reveals a common myth about trust in business. The myth is that good businesspeople make rational decisions about trust.

They often don’t. And in the rush for “best practices,” many “good businesspeople” shortchange commonsense for wishful thinking.

I have written about the Trust Equation: the trustworthiness of an individual can be expressed as a function of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and other-orientation. Someone who rates highly on these dimensions, as seen by others, is trustworthy.

But a con man is as good as the gullibility of those who want to believe him. Let’s examine the trust equation point by point.

1. Credibility: the man was the former Chairman of Nasdaq, and remains on their nominating committee. He is known as a leader in the industry. And his own website says he has "a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark."

Never mind there were complaints to the SEC, questioning articles in Barron’s, unavailable data, and a one-man accounting firm of record. Don’t wanna go there, uh uh.

2. Reliability: the man had a multi-year track record of over-market returns. Regular. Dependable.

Never mind that he lacked the data, or explanations, to back up just why those returns were so steady.

3. Intimacy. Many people knew him personally; he was a regular at toney golf clubs in Palm Beach and Boca Raton.

In language we usually hear about mass murderers, acquaintance Jon Najarian said, “He always seemed to be a straight shooter. I was shocked by this news.”

And in classic Big Brother language, his lawyer stated—after Madoff’s apparent confession to operating a Ponzi scheme—stated “he’s a person of integrity.” And I’m the Pope.

Never mind that “intimacy” may be the easiest factor of the four in the trust equation to fake. It’s probably the favorite factor of con men.

4. Self-orientation. Clearly his customers thought he was generous, a regular attendee of the Red Cross Ball, a desirable acquaintance by virtue of his willingness to share advice.

Never mind his broker-dealer business model was under-powered to take advantage of his supposed insights, casting doubt on his motives. Conflicts of interest were present in the situation of a funds manager using a related broker-dealer.

Trust is a funny thing. Trustworthiness can be analyzed. But it often isn’t. Which means trust is as much about the one doing the trusting as the one being trusted.

In the days to come, the absence of regulatory action will be rightly noted. Where was the SEC?

But at the same time, let’s not forget the willingness of the sheep to be fleeced.

If it looks too good to be true, it is.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

An emperor without clothes is just a naked man.

We know that untrustworthy people are often greedy. We can protect against that to some extent.

It’s harder to legislate against greed and willful stupidity on the part of those doing the trusting.

When commonsense takes a back seat to greed, it’s a con-man’s market.



Can You Tell the Truth About Being Self Interested?

The other day I was teaching a seminar, and someone phrased the following question:

I understand your point that, in sales, we should pay attention to the other person, focus on their needs, subordinate our own ego, and so on. But I have a hard time squaring that with honesty. After all, I’m in business to make money. They know that as well as I do. Isn’t it disingenuous—even dishonest—for me to pretend I’m totally focused on them, and not on myself?

That’s a very relevant issue to lots of people, and very well stated.

The answer in many ways boils down to one word—timeframe.

If I’m in a romantic relationship for sex, I’d better plan on some dinners, flowers, conversations and companionship on the way there. (And vice versa, by the way).

If I’m going to rely on friendships, then I’d better be prepared to invest in them over time.

If I want to have high energy and good health, then I’d better be prepared to forego the chocolate cake cravings from time to time, and to exercise sometimes when I don’t feel like it.

In other words, the desire for immediate gratification is often the enemy of longer-term happiness. Sad but true. In one study (maybe a reader can help me remember where/when), five year-olds were analyzed according to their ability to defer gratification (“one cookie now, or two in an hour”). Their subsequent lives were then traced over decades. Those kids who chose more later were notably happier, more successful, more stable later in life.

So it is in sales.

If I insist on closing every deal; if I insist on metricizing every little aspect of my sales process and tying rewards to each part; if I am constantly evaluating the discounted present value of the next ten minutes of conversation so as to decide whether to qualify or flush the prospect—then I am not a deferred-gratification salesperson, I am that greedy kid saying “me want cookie now!”

And people react to us accordingly. People who expect sex too early in relationships tend not to get it. People who never invest in their friends lose them. People who can’t resist the extra piece of cake get fat.

Back to my student.

The apparent conflict between self-interest and customer orientation evaporates if we look at the right timeframe. If all I can see at any point in a sales conversation is the likelihood of closing, then I am a “me want cookie now” kind of salesperson.

But if I’m willing to invest in the relationship—to let go the incessant attachment to outcome, to enjoy the ride as well as the destination, to qualify leads occasionally as opposed to constantly, to drive my reward from the total package rather than the quarterly pieces, to live in the relationship not the transaction—then things get better.  In fact, all things get a lot better.

It’s a bit of a paradox: the best short-term results do NOT come from trying to manage the short-term, but from managing in the long term. Your own best sales results come not from trying to sell the other guy, but from helping him get what he wants.

Your own self-interest is truly served by serving the other. And that’s the honest truth–about which you can be honest.

The contradiction is only in how you phrase the problem. Phrase it in the longer term.