Thursday, 21 May 2015

Not Every Skinned Teeth is a Laugh

I met with my friend ET recently who was actually crying because he’d been cheated by an individual with whom he had transacted business.  He explained how the woman had appeared genuine and he had been encouraged by the prospect of working with her in what he could see as a very profitable venture.  Because he had felt so comfortable with her he had given her direct access to his clients without implementing the necessary safeguards.  He explained that she has a pleasing personality, always greeting him with a smile.  It turned out that the deal was concluded in his absence and now the woman appears to be dodging, refusing to hand over payment. 

ET is a seasoned businessman who would be aware of the need to pen an agreement.  When I asked him why he did not follow procedure he indicated that the woman is a senior community figure, a mature woman who appears to be highly regarded in the area.  He had trusted her on her word; now he was out of pocket by several thousand pounds and risked losing face with stakeholders.

I am aware that ET has been experiencing hardships recently which might have explained his actions; but whether he acted out of naivety, desperation or ignorance he did not deserve being taken for a ride in this way.   The obvious is not necessarily obvious; people are not always whom they seem to be. We have to use our wisdom and listen to our intuition as we navigate through the choppy waters in order to chart our course.  We cannot “give cheese to rat to carry”.  Some individuals do not set out to deceive but money can change people and there is no shortage of influence from those near and dear.  But if “circumstances make people” what place do honesty and integrity in business hold? 

In order to protect our property and avoid abuse it is important to get the balance right.  It is not about going through life being skeptical and suspicious of people.  That attitude would weigh us down, take away our energy and slow our progress.  Rather it is about separating your head from your heart, using wisdom and listening to your gut. 

When we started our training organisation just under 10 years ago we conducted surveys among key industry personnel - contractors whom we knew needed our services.  We asked appropriate questions and used their answers to shape our offering.  We received lots and lots of encouragement from those people; they said if we could deliver the bespoke service they needed they would definitely engage with us.  We believed them and set to work securing premises and equipment, and tailoring our services in line with their request.  When we actually started the programme we noticed that they were suddenly inaccessible.  For one reason or another we could not obtain a contract and some of them went into hiding.  A key contract manger disappeared for three months and when he returned he seemed to have been afflicted with amnesia.  We were like strangers in the industry despite the extensive links we had forged over the years and the massive groundwork we had undertaken.  We survived the first year; it was a struggle, all because we mistook skinned teeth for laugh.

It is normal for businesses to go through challenging times and entrepreneurs can find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water.  During these moments new business opportunities can appear quite tempting, even exciting.  They can bring hope and like a “wolf in sheep clothing” can be very appealing.  As “a drowning man holds on to a straw” it is not unusual to find individuals relaxing their values, ignoring their intuition and compromising their reputations in order to grasp what they perceive to be a lifeline. 

Too often we feel compelled to entertain business opportunities that do not fit our culture, that conflict with our values, and which evoke niggling feelings within us.  Business people in desperate situations often take desperate measures which can ultimately be detrimental to the achievement of their long term (and in some cases short-term) goals.  There are many examples of partnerships that go bad and an equal number that succeed.  Partnership working is wonderful when it works well for “two heads are better than one” and “one hand cannot clap”.  But instead of running headlong into a relationship, be it business or personal, take a moment to observe and study characters, for sooner or later their reputation becomes yours.  If you partner with people or indeed with organisations of dubious character their reputation will rub off on you - “show me your friend and I’ll tell you who you are”. The Africans say “show me your friend and I will show you your character”.  The Jamaicans are more dramatic in their rendition - they say:  “If you lie with dogs you rise with flea”.

Your character is something that is built; a prized possession that you should not risk.  According to the French:  Bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée. (A good name is worth more than a golden belt).

In business you really do need to assess carefully the individuals or organisations with which you choose to partner.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ when it doesn’t feel right - assertion is not aggression; if you have doubts it is better to err on the side of caution.  There may be synergies to be obtained by partnering for after all “good friends are better than pocket money” (Jamaican proverb) and “To be without a friend is to be poor indeed” (Tanzanian proverb).  Indeed these liaisons may be mutually beneficial but you need to listen to your inner voice and ensure that you draft an agreement.  You may choose to analyse the partnership considering factors such as:  the potential benefits to both parties, a weakness that the partner could help to alleviate, the skills lacking in your organisation, competencies and contacts the partner has that could prove advantageous to you and importantly, their reputation. Evaluate carefully whether it could be a truly a win-win situation.

 “If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow” is an old Chinese Proverb.  If however, the person partnering with you does not stand straight, you do have to fear that crooked shadow.  The French gives us: A l'oeuvre, on connaît l'ouvrier - A carpenter is known by his chips.  What do your chips look like now and what would they look like under the new partnership? How important is your image to you?   What are your values and how far are you prepared to go?  Looking back I am pleased we did not partner with the organisations we were courting; 80% of them did not survive the recession and the remaining ones are far less powerful than they were in 2006.

There is a Chinese proverb that says “Do not use an axe to remove a fly from your friend's forehead”.  Well, if the relationship goes sour you may find yourself doing just that; then you’ll stand to lose everything.  Not every skinned teeth is a laugh!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Once Bitten, Twice Shy!

I am currently engaged on a project that has the potential to grow exponentially.  The more time I spend on the project, the more the possibilities emerge and having realised the scope of the venture I recognise that I will need some technical help in order to maximize the opportunity.

In considering potential partners it dawned on me that there is a close family friend who could help.  However I wrestle with the idea of engaging with him because of his reputation as a ruthless businessman.  I have worked with him on occasions and have been irritated by his business tactics.  Although he has an endearing personality he does drive a hard bargain and he is not particularly concerned about the aftermath.  Having experienced this behaviour has caused me to struggle with my decision. 

As I am not one to immediately dismiss a potential opportunity I asked myself: 

·  What would it take for me to look beyond the past and focus on the present? 
· Are there any safeguards I could put in place which would protect me should I proceed?
·  How do I know that the person(s) I eventually chose will not be as ruthless as this man? 

During this process I realised that I was struggling because of a lack of trust.  It is very difficult to work effectively with someone you don’t trust, especially when you have first-hand experience of their unethical behaviour.  I decided to “take sleep mark death” (Jamaican proverb – use the past to judge the present) because the need to be constantly looking over my shoulders would be too much to carry.  Despite the potential benefits, I did not want to be that bothered, and as no one is indispensable, I am convinced that someone else will come along. 

I understand that a mature way of handling the situation would be to employ strategies that enable me to access the skills I need from the individual.  Everyone has good and bad inside them and we shouldn’t just walk away from circumstances that render us uncomfortable; in that case we would always be walking away and starting over.  True maturity is being able to use the information we have to develop approaches that will allow us to work with people, however unprincipled they may be. However, there is also the tiny matter of wisdom and having recognised that my level of maturity is not at that advanced I hold steadfast to my decision to walk away and safeguard my peace of mind.

Although the wrestling is over I cannot help but think how people miss opportunities because of a bad reputation.  Skill is only half the story; trustworthiness, character, personality and a host of other soft qualities are equally important.  In business, as in our personal lives, our reputation often precedes us and it also lingers; we cannot escape it.  It is a valuable, prized possession; the behaviour that encourages others to refer our services to others.  People make and maintain associations with others because of their reputation - “show me your friend and I’ll tell you who you are”. 

From time to time I am approached by fellow entrepreneurs for a character reference for someone they met or whose services they are thinking of contracting.  This can be uncomfortable as, although I’ll never ‘dig a grave’ for anyone, I will also not engage in deceitful behaviour in order to protect them.  If I had a good experience I will promote their services; if it was unpleasant I won’t, but it is not my style to block other people’s progress. 

Five years ago I enlisted the services of an individual to create a professional video for a product I was promoting.  The person did a dry run and promised to return but never did and I could no longer locate him.  The video he produced was of very little use to me and as I had paid in advance, I lost money in the process.  Recently a colleague called me to say this person had been pursuing him for a business opportunity and asked my opinion of him.  I simply related the experience I had with the individual and my colleague made the decision to avoid him. The videographer missed an opportunity to access a big project that has international potential.  It had taken five years but his reputation eventually caught up with him.

Individuals have to understand that when they behave ruthlessly they are digging their own graves.  People are responsible for building their own reputations; they cannot expect others to fabricate it for them.  We cannot expect to be recommended by people we trample on when we are on our way up to collect our pennies, for when the time comes to collect the pounds we may very well fall off the ladder.

What we say is not particularly important; it’s what we do and how we make people feel that matter.  We should take care not to sacrifice long-term growth for short-term gains.  Bob Marley sang “you can fool some people some time but you can’t fool all the people all the time”.  The fact that we escape with being imprudent now and again should not encourage us to make it a norm in our lives. 

So how does this apply in the workplace?  If we under-perform how can we expect our employer to give us a good character reference?  How well do we work in our teams?  Do we endeavour to expose the weaknesses of fellow team members or do we strive for a high performing team where everyone feels valued? We all have moments when we veer off-track but we should never deliberately hurt those we serve.  Our lives should be one of service; for whether employer or employee, we all serve each other.  Our actions speak louder than our words and if we perform well we will find our businesses generating repeat customers and our customers will advertise our services.  The Spanish explain it well:  “Cobra buena fama y échate a dormir (develop a good reputation and you can go off to sleep) – basically once you have established a good reputation you can rest on your laurels.  Leaving a storm in you wake may be impressive but it is also nonsensical.

The saying:  “today for you, tomorrow for me” holds true, for no one wins all of the time. There is a French proverb puts it this way:  “tel qui rit vendredi dimanche pleurera” -
he who laughs on Friday will cry on Sunday.

Since “to err is human” (Alexander Pope) we will from time to time offend but once there’s life there’s an opportunity to make amends, however difficult it may be. If we make it a habit to behave with integrity those moments will be minimised and in our dealings with others we will choose to take the higher ground.