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The Wrong Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

This is week three for me of a four-week road trip. I’m getting a little loopy, but am collecting some wonderful client experiences, lessons and stories. Here’s one from a British account executive.

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone—how shall I put this—well, as we English say—passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out—all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other—and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well fortunately, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor—an excellent tool—and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

How many of us waste moments like that, buried in our own fear of speaking the truth? And how many sales do we leave on the table because of it?

 

When You Can’t Trust Your Leadership

In my corporate seminars, I often hear the following:

Love the trust stuff, Charlie, but I can’t take that risk in this organization. Leadership talks a good game, but I don’t always believe them. People have been burned for taking risks around here.

Before I can risk trusting them—how can I assess the risk? How do I know I can trust them?

First, I’ve seen several cases where leadership was genuinely asking people to do right—best long-term, transparent, customer-focused—and the employees were cynical. It wasn’t a leadership problem, but a followership problem.

But never mind: let’s assume your leaders really are not all that trustworthy. What is to be done?

In fact, this is no different from any other trust situation. If both parties sniff around each other, waiting to see who’ll take the first risk, operating from fear and a scarcity mentality—that organization will stay mired in mistrust.

Trust, like tango, takes two. One to trust, another to be trusted. And the roles can flip. It’s often true that “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

That suggests: if your boss isn’t trustworthy—trust him. Don’t look for a risk management mitigation metric—dive in and trust him.  Embrace the paradox.

This actually works–more often than you might think.  Because most human beings, including most businesspeople, respond favorably to being trusted. They reciprocate. The more genuine the gesture, the more reciprocation.

This feels risky. But despite what Ronald Reagan implied, (trust but verify), there is no trust without risk. The risk taken is what drives the risk reciprocated. Fake-trusting, hedging your bets, installing your safety nets, just inflames the situation.

If you still can’t stomach trusting your untrustworthy boss, then think of it this way. If you avoid your boss–avoid constructively confronting untrustworthy behavior–then you are tacitly accepting it. If you do nothing to mitigate it, you inflame it. Because mistrust is also like tango in taking two: a non-trustworthy person, and someone who avoids confronting him.

If you tolerate untrustworthy behavior, you harm your organization. Which means you are acting against the best interests of your organization. Which means you are as culpable as your boss.

I think this is largely right. Leaders are not solely responsible for trustworthy behavior. Followers have an equal obligation. Their job is to demand trustworthiness, and call it out when it’s not delivered.

A great many leaders would be appalled to find out how feared they really are.  They simply do not have an idea of the effect they are having, and do not intend the results that are resulting.    If told the truth, many of them them would gladly change.

So, who will tell them the simple truth–"Here’s what people are saying.  About you.  And I don’t believe you intend this.  Let’s talk. "  

Try it.  You just might be surprised.

A Contender for Worst Business Advice of 2008

If your customers trust you, that’s good, right? Like, really good?

So suppose you wanted to ruin trust with your customers. What would you do to destroy trust?

• You might try lying to the client.
• You might try saying one thing and doing another.
• You could try keeping secrets from the customer.
• You could refuse to answer direct questions.
• You could actively prevent your customers from learning about cost-saving solutions.

Incredibly, these are specific recommendations made by a business blog, Drooling for Dollars (the name tells you something), in a post titled “A Successful Businessman Keeps Secrets From His Clients.

In this post, the author offers nuggets like “never let a client know your hourly rate,” “tell your client that the work will be completed in 3 weeks although you get it done in 3 days,” and talks about “those irritating and annoying clients who ask too many questions before making a deal.”

It’s good to answer some questions, says the piece–it helps build trust. But don’t go overboard with it—trust could ruin you if those nasty competitors called “customers” find out too much.

The author summarizes: “There are pieces of information you should never reveal to your client, no matter how many times they ask or how much they insist you [sic].”

Uh huh? Really?

Anyone wanna help me shoot some fish in a barrel? The comment section is right below.

Larry David, Seinfeld and Social Networking

The technology of social networking is overrated. You still have to be able to communicate. Cartoons notwithstanding, in social networks everyone does know you’re a dog—and it doesn’t take long to learn it.

Might there be learning in studying those who are not good at networking with others?

A recent New Yorker item describes how workers with the mentally ill have discovered a powerful tool: the comedic stylings of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, by Larry David (co-creator, with Jerry Seinfeld, of the hit TV show Seinfeld).

Those being studied represented several forms of alienation from society at large (they were schizophrenics, if memory serves me). The researchers discovered that the patients responded to situation comedies portraying social ineptitude. They could relate, it turns out.

The logical endpoint of that insight was Curb Your Enthusiasm. For those who don’t know Larry David’s brilliant show, picture Seinfeld if HBO did it, and every episode had George at its center.

Jason Alexander (Seinfeld’s George) describes an early-season reading where he questioned George’s motivation for something: “I don’t know anyone who would do that.” Larry David responded brightly, “I would.” And Alexander says, “suddenly I understood the George character. It was all Larry.”

Larry David (he plays himself on Curb) is cheerfully, honestly, forthrightly neurotic and self-centered to the nth degree. It’s not that he’s proud of it; he’s just saying that’s what he is.

The fun, of course, is that David is merely more honest than the rest of us. We can laugh at him without directly facing the social pain that his behaviors cause us when we commit them—which we do, all the time. He is our public court jester. He speaks the truth in a socially acceptable manner—as comedy, with a subtext we needn’t publicly acknowledge. But we know it. He’s doing public self-psycho-analysis, and we’re along for the ride.

That’s why he’s a hit with mental patients—and with the rest of us too. We’re not qualitatively different—it’s just a matter of degree. “Sanity” is a wispy line; it’s hard to say where the hill ends and the mountain begins.

It’s an old sitcom formula. Nearly every I Love Lucy episode begins with a prank gone wrong, spiralling out of control. The comedy consists in watching Lucy lie about what’s happening, until the lie is unsustainable, and she must surrender to reality. We relate to her frantic mania, knowing that Ricky will forgive her in the end. On TV, that is. In real life, Ricky rarely forgives—or so we fear.

Every single Seinfeld episode with George is about the inability to maintain a neurotic fiction he has created in the face of a reality-based onslaught. He is owned by his fibs about Vandalay industries and his casual claims about Hamptons real estate. His only success in life comes when he resolves to do everything the opposite of his instincts.

George, Lucy, Larry—they cannot tell the truth in a socially acceptable manner. We learn by watching their comic misery, because we too suffer from that inability, and are alienated from others because of it.

A lot of coming to trust others is learning how to speak the truth in a socially acceptable manner; to marry radical truth-telling with our conventions of propriety.
We learn much of it not by learning lines, or by watching others do it well, or by learning the principles of effective communication. We also learn by watching social train wrecks, made palatable by humor.

We learn many things—like truth-telling—more by seeing negative examples than by seeing positive ones by themselves. Much corporate training is afflicted by an abundance of softened edges, watered-down empathy and general happy-talk. But truth isn’t truth if it has to be constantly watered down. You can’t enable people into overcoming their addictions to neuroticism.

To get along in the social networking world of the future (or of today), don’t just bone up on good behaviors. Make it a point to study disasters too.

Just make sure you’re laughing most of the time.

 

An Honest Wedding

I went to an unusual wedding last week in Western Michigan.  It doesn’t matter whose (except to note it wasn’t mine)—call them John and Jane.

Bride and groom are both in their early 50s. She has two daughters, each in their early 20s. He has a son 16 and a daughter 11. It’s a second marriage for both.

The minister defined eclectic; she had spiritual credentials from several traditions. The ceremony featured candles and white rose petals, and was held upstairs from the minister’s husband’s bike shop.  Of the nine attendees (which includes bride, groom, minister and children), five of us chose the optional bare feet mode.

The minister said:

Like all weddings, this is a joyous celebration, a union of two soul-mates who have found each other.  A time for joy.

Yet joy isn’t the only thing that happens at a wedding like this.  There are three others who are not here, but whose presence is very real, and felt by all who are here.

We would not be honest if we did not speak of them.  And honesty is vital if this marriage, and all in this room, are to  thrive and prosper.  And so we will be honest here today.

One presence is a deceased mother, who left behind a husband—John—their 13-year old boy, and their 8-year old girl. Her children here today miss her; John senses her presence too; and Jane feels it as well.

Second is a divorced husband—the father, with Jane, to these two daughters in their twenties. The daughters see their mother with a new husband, and seek new definitions of “home” and “parent” and “marriage.”

The third is cancer.  It was cancer that claimed John’s former wife, the teens’ mother.  But Jane understands too—because Jane herself is a two-time cancer survivor.  The children know what cancer means; and John and Jane have their eyes wide open about it.
 
These three presences raise powerful issues for everyone in this room—which is why we speak of them.

As the minister spoke, I’m sure I saw the four children become more at ease.  I felt it, and think the other adults did as well.

Afterwards we ate fruit and cake.  Then we drove to Lake Michigan, changed into shorts and got wet and red from the end-of-summer sun.

We talked about truth-telling, of living in the moment.  But mostly we talked about being free of labels and roles, of learning to see and accept things just as they are.

It was a fine wedding.  An honest wedding.