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!