For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the financial services company that left me an urgent voice mail message asking that I call them back immediately about my availability to lead their annual leadership retreat on an island off the coast of Florida.
All I can recall was how generic sounding their name was – something like National Investment Services… or Consolidated Financial Brokers… or The American Banking Alliance – kind of like the corporate equivalent of John Doe.
Somehow, they had heard of me, and with their big company ‘pow-wow’ coming up, they were looking for someone with a track record to help them “become more innovative”.
Never having heard of them before, I googled their name and, 1.73 seconds later, found myself on their website, slickly designed, I imagined, by someone with a special fondness for iStock photos of earnest-looking models impersonating business people.
Models who must have just moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting careers, but found themselves, at 24 or 35, working part-time as waiters and jumping at the chance to pick up some easy money wearing a suit and a smile for a day.
Easy for me to say – me being the proverbial pot calling the proverbial kettle black with my big mortgage, family to feed and young entrepreneur’s dream of making it big so I’d actually have enough moolah, one day, to invest with a financial services firm.
Not to mention all the time in the world to write my best-selling book.
Deal or no deal?
My first call with the client was pleasant enough. They talked. I listened, choosing not to interrupt every time they made their point with an acronym I probably should have known if only I hadn’t spent my formative years living as a hippie, poet and monk.
Okay, so they weren’t a solar energy company. So they weren’t asking me to help them end AIDS. I got it. This was business. The money business. The big money business – and I was in it, no matter how much Rilke and Rumi I read on the side.
Money. This was about money. Money and the VP (vice president) of something or other inviting me to meet up with him and his team the following week on the 57th floor of a building on Wall Street. There would be a badge waiting for me at the security desk, he explained. All I needed to do was show my ID.
Thrilled? Was I thrilled? Not exactly. But this was a possible gig and I needed the bread, so I went.
The VP and his team on the 57th floor looked nothing like the iStock photos on their company’s homepage, although they did have a real nice view of Manhattan and a large mahogany conference table.
Our conversation went well enough. I asked all the right questions. They gave all the right answers. They sprinkled the conversation with football metaphors. I nodded. They gave me their business cards. I gave them mine.
But on the way home, I began to feel a creeping sense of dislocation and dread – like I was auditioning for a movie I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be in – a movie being produced by a very fat man, sitting poolside, cell phone and martini in hand.
So when they called me back for a third meeting, I was betwixt and between. Do I simply trust my instincts and tell them I’m not their man? Or do I let go of my all-too-obvious self-righteous judgments and focus on the possibility that I might actually be able to help them get to higher ground?
Eternally the optimist, I chose the latter and decided to meet with them for the third time – a meeting, sad to say, which only confirmed the fact that I didn’t like them very much and didn’t like myself for sitting in a room with them and enabling their collective hallucination of themselves as a service organisation, when all they really wanted to do was make more money. Lots more money.
More chit chat. More coffee. More ‘run it up the flagpole’ platitudes that littered our conversation like hidden charges on a credit card bill.
Walter White/Heisenberg from the series “Breaking Bad” | Courtesy: AMC network
The moment of truth
My client-to-be, apparently satisfied with what was about to become his decision to engage my services, cut to the chase and asked me to quote him a fee.
The honourable thing to have done, at that time, would have sounded like:
“John, I wish you the best of luck at your offsite, but after deep consideration, I don’t think I’m the best possible fit for your company’s needs.”
But since I hadn’t yet mastered the art of speaking my truth I took the easy way out and doubled my fees, thinking that they would now be so ridiculously high it would be the client’s decision to end the relationship, not mine.
“That sounds about right,” the client exclaimed, extending his right hand to seal the deal.
Fast forward six weeks later.
It’s 8:30 am and I’m on stage, in the Oakwood Room, on a beautiful island off the coast of Florida. Looking out at the audience, I notice that four of the gathered troops are sleeping, heads on the table. Someone in the front row explains to me that last night had been a “late one” and they’d all stayed up, drinking, until 4:00 am.
I tap the microphone and begin speaking, trusting that the sound of my amplified voice would wake the dead.
Two of them snap to attention. The other two didn’t, still snoring lightly.
I signal the people sitting next to their sleep-deprived peers to poke them, which they did, shooting glances at me as if I am a substitute algebra teacher.
I could tell that this is not a leadership offsite at all, but a college fraternity weekend – big men on campus with stock options, golf shirts and a very high opinion of themselves. The collective attention span in the room is somewhere between a fly and a lizard. Nothing I say lands. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Only one thing is clear – I am the highly paid warm up act before another night of drinking – a small typographic box they can check off next quarter to prove they have done “the innovation thing”.
I may have missed the moment of truth back at my client’s office six weeks ago, but I wasn’t going to miss it today.
“Gentlemen and ladies,” I announce.
“It’s obvious that some of you don’t want to be here. It seems you’d rather be golfing, napping or checking your emails. I have no problem with that. So, we’re going to take a 20-minute break. Only return if you really want to be here. Otherwise, you’ll just be dead weight, spoiling it for the rest of us.”
Twenty minutes pass. Everyone returns. Every single one of them.
And while the rest of the day didn’t exactly qualify as one of the greatest moments in the history of innovative leadership offsites, at least it wasn’t a total loss. Some good stuff actually happened. People woke up. People shaped up. People stepped up.
And I learnt a valuable lesson that would serve me for the rest of my life: Follow my feeling, not the money trail.
Every day, every single one of us has a choice – how to play the “world game” with as much integrity as possible. On one hand, we all have “mouths to feed” (including our own), sometimes requiring a compromise, a “looking the other way, a “soft-pedaling” of what we think or believe.
(As an exercise, my Idea Champions colleagues and I sat down, one day, and reviewed all our clients. There was not a single one who did not have some kind of flaw – leading us to believe our only “high integrity” choice was to move to Vermont and become potters.)
Ultimately, only you can decide on what is the right move to make, “rightness” being highly subjective. If your values are defined and your mind is clear, this choice will not be difficult.
Consider the choices available before you these days – projects you’ve been invited into, prospective clients who have enquired about your services, opportunities before you.
If any of them feel questionable, pause for a moment and reflect. You do not have to say ‘Yes’.
You could say ‘No’. Saying ‘No’ is not the same thing as negativity. Saying ‘No’ may simply be the best path forward for you and everyone involved.
Mitch Ditkoff is the president of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company and the author of Storytelling at Work. The above story is excerpted from the book. He is also the author of the very popular Heart of Innovation blog, the award-winning business fable, Awake at the Wheel and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. He is a much sought after keynote speaker on a variety of innovation-themed topics. To connect with him, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.