In the last six months, two people out there in businessland have said things about me (once directly in an email to me, and once in a conversation to a third party who they didn't know was a friend of mine) that have made me seriously angry. These weren't accidents, or minor gaffes. They were absolutely direct insults, and they hurt. I'm also not going to forget.
Now, I'm a reasonably big boy, and I'm not planning to buy a voodoo doll or anything. I am also, I believe, very willing to hear criticism, and the first one to admit when I've screwed something up or done something stupid. I'm not touchy, and I'm not Richard Nixon, with my own personal enemies list. However, I am not going to forget what these two people said. It was unfair, it was personal, it was cruel and oh, yes, by the way, it wasn't true. And the lesson here for anyone developing business is simple. In fact, it's not even new: if you can't find something nice to say about someone, then don't say anything at all.
It's astonishing how many people forget this.
I used to have a boss who had a saying: never make enemies by accident. In other words, if you're going to make someone an enemy, think it through and remember that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Upon calm reflection, it almost always becomes clear that it is almost never worth it. Why not?
Because it is almost always completely unnecessary. And that goes to the heart of learning to not say anything. Being nasty almost never accomplishes anything, and it's very easy to avoid if you just don't say anything at all.
People have extraordinarily long memories for things like this, and we all live and work in smaller, more interconnected communities than we realize. in the very best case, someone you are rude or mean to will simply be absolutely sure to never do anything helpful for you or your firm ever again -- say, refer clients. In the worst case, they will spend the rest of their careers smearing you and your firm every time they get the chance.
Want a few examples? Okay:
A friend of mine was a young Congressional staffer, and got to go to dinner with her boss, a Congressman, and Katharine Graham, the long-time editor and owner of the Washington Post. My friend arrived at the dinner, terribly excited to meet Ms. Graham, who is considered a saint by a lot of people.
Her boss introduced my friend to Graham. And Ms. Graham looked straight at my friend and said something cutting and unpleasant about how she didn't realize junior people were going to be at the dinner. My friend was crushed. And ever since that day, she has been telling that story, and significantly revising what an awful lot of people think of Ms. Graham. Okay, that's not necessarily a big one. Ms. Graham, after all, has gone to that great newsroom in the sky. However, the whole thing was completely unnecessary. Had Katherine Graham simply looked at my friend and said, automatically, "Nice to meet you" there would be no story at all. How hard would it have been?
There is absolutely no way I am going to ever do anything to help either of the two attorneys who I described at the beginning of this post. I'm not going to go around and slag them, or their firms. However, I have been in this business for about five years, and am planning to be in it for another twenty. I know a LOT of people, and I meet more every day. This is how I make my living. I can, and have, referred clients, business, lateral partners and so on to firms. I have personally gotten two people jobs. I like to do it, and I'm happy to do it. Not for these guys. They will never even know about it. Things that might have happened just won't, and they'll go on their merry way.
The very best example is one provided by David D'Alessandro in his excellent book, Career Warfare. Alessandro, who eventually became CEO of John Hancock, tells the story of a consulting firm working for Hancock and was billing them around $7 million a year. One of the firm's partners wrote a memo in which he described Hancock's senior management as idiots, and then proposed a way to extract more money from them. Although this was an internal memo it, of course, made its way to Hancock's CEO. Result: the consulting firm received what D'Allesandro describes as a "gasoline enema" and lost all the business, forever.
The point is this: by being civil, you avoid creating enemies, who can create problems. And being civil is easy. Which brings me to my final story. I forget where I heard it.
Someone, for some reason, was sharing a limousine, alone, with Rose Kennedy, father of JFK and RFK, and an enormously weathly, powerful, influential woman. She was sitting in the limo when the door opened, and Rose got in. Rose looked straight at the other woman and said something like "I hope you don't mind, but I have been up since 5 AM, I did not sleep well last night. I'm very tired, and I really don't feel like talking. I hope you understand." Direct, gracious, and clear. And it took about three seconds.
She could have been unpleasant. She could have simply ignored the other person. She could have done a thousand unpleasant things. Instead, she did not do them. It doesn't matter much what she actually did -- what matters here is that she did not make an enemy. Multiply this by a hundred thousand people you meet over the course of a lifetime, and have have a very impressive list of people.
For another splendid example, watch this. It's a clip of Barack Obama getting onto Air Force One for the first time, and meeting the pilot. The pilot is an Air Force officer, and being in command of Air Force One is the peak of his career. He is completely focused on doing his job, no matter what, and Obama could have done or said anything, including throwing up on his shoes, and it would have made no difference at all.
What did he do? Again, direct and gracious. Obama shakes his hands smile, jokes with him and says "You know what? You look like you're out of Central Casting. You look like you know how to fly this plane. You're exactly what I want the pilot of Air Force One to look like. You look like Sam Shepard, in The Right Stuff." The pilot beams.
Simple as that.