I love you too, sign here!
This is not the first time I have told this little anecdote of an experience that happened some ten years ago. My then business partner and I were meeting with some people to discuss possible funding and advice for our planned global coaching business. In a fine hotel over an even finer meal, our principal guest, a very wealthy business owner was commenting on the importance of employing the best possible people to run his many businesses world-wide.
He was telling us of his favourite interview question that tended to give him really good results and he posed it to me: “Do you have any faults or defects that I should know about?”
Without even stopping to think, I found myself saying, “Yes, probably more than I would like to admit. But the first that comes to mind is that I tend to trust people too readily – and it sometimes gets me into trouble.” Suddenly I felt as if I was in that interview. He locked his eyes onto mine and gazed at me, expressionless for what seemed an age. I held his gaze (and my breath) until his face softened and he smiled.
“That’s a very good answer”, he said, with slight nod and emphasis on the very. “And you know, without trust, you cannot do good business!”
The point of this tale is that less than two months later, I was to discover that trusting my business partner had got me into trouble.
It had all started some three years earlier. A business acquaintance and fellow Executive Coach invited me to visit him in his country to see him at work in his very successful coaching business. He invited me to consider spending perhaps one week a month there, and he would fill much of that time with clients to coach. We got on well and the idea of working with him as an associate was very attractive. About six months later, I had an opportunity to visit because I was working with one of my clients in his country and I tagged on two further days to spend time with him.
Very generously, he had me stay at his apartment with stunning views across a lake and mountains in the distance. We became firm friends in those two days. I met his personal assistant and sat in with some of his clients’ permission to model how he worked. Being both trained as Trainers of NLP, we were both competent in observing and absorbing high levels of skill and ability through this, the most sophisticated of all NLP skills.
Our Similarities of Style
I was impressed and discovered that our ways of working had many similarities. I also learned a great deal in those two days that was novel to me. I liked the way he structured his very first sessions with a couple of his clients and I began to feel we could work very well together. He was obviously observing me too to see how quickly I could fit in, and to gauge if he could trust me with his clients.
We agreed that the next time I would be working in his country, I would spend a week with him and we could get started.
When I called to say I was on my way to his city, he said to come to the office and he would show me the presentation. When I asked the natural question, he said it was to be a surprise. Two hours later, after 150 slides detailing a plan to have five hundred coaches in 35 countries in ten year’s time, I was feeling very interested. My key role would be in leading the recruitment and training of the coaches to our standards.
On my next visit, the news was he was in the process of buying a mansion. This was a big house with three floors and a basement each of 200 square metres, plus a huge room in the loft which would make a very fine bedroom. Things were moving very fast, and we agreed a deal and a way to work together.
I did not have funds to invest at any meaningful level, but I did have considerable expertise and creativity that the business would depend heavily upon. I would spend at least two weeks per month working jointly to design and create the business. All my travel costs and expenses would be paid by his business. I would have that loft room as my permanent accommodation there, and I would charge my time at five days per week at 50% of my usual day rate for consulting.
When we finally registered the new business, that would be my equivalent cash contribution as a shareholder. We worked happily for two and a half years coaching clients in his existing business, designing, developing and promoting the new business and in that time, I trained a multinational group of six Executive and Personal Coaches capable of working at a similar level to us. They in fact, did each coach one or two real clients as part of their development.
At this point, warning signs began to appear. These Coaches were very keen to start working with us straight away which had been in our plans from the beginning. Naturally as newly trained Coaches, they would mature with “road time,” and it was our intention to support and encourage that. I was shocked and disagreed with the contract of engagement my business partner proposed to them. He insisted that they commit to working full time for six months without pay! I pointed out that they all had families to feed and that such a savage demand was insulting. We had a number of heated arguments about it, and in the end, he issued his contract. We had an equally incredulous response from each of them and they refused.
I felt trapped because I felt I could not openly speak my mind in front of the Coaches, and I realised my influence with my colleague was almost non-existent. I later regretted that I did not walk away at that point. Over the next six months, although we continued to develop the business structure, I felt our relationship was deteriorating. He started pushing me, disagreeing with my ideas and criticizing my work. Meanwhile, because of my commitment to being there, I had turned down a number of projects with my own clients and I was not maintaining my network. My income was reducing, and although I had been paid for training the Coaches, my own consulting work was running down. There came a point at which I wanted to discuss registering the business, because I felt there was nothing stopping us now. I did a calculation of what our agreement about my cash contribution was worth and made my proposal of what my share of the business should be.
Over the two and a half years to that point, at several stages friends had asked if I was earning money yet and if I had a written contract. Stubbornly I was satisfied that we had a clear, gentleman’s agreement, and held the view that, yes, at any point it could all go belly-up, and if it did, well I had gone in with my eyes open.
Reality Kicked In
My bluff was eventually called, and there I was walking away with my eyes open and feeling angry, mostly at my own gullibility. He denied having made the agreement I was holding him to, and I realized he had planned it all from the beginning. The trick was, how long could he keep me earning him money without paying me? I later discovered he had done the same thing the year before me with another friend. Fortunately, that had only lasted six months before that friend walked away.
The lesson is kind of obvious. It doesn’t matter how much you like and trust a friend or colleague, when money is involved, especially big amounts, relationships and memories can deteriorate. Write down your agreement and formalize it.
Trusting people too readily can get you in trouble. My learning was that to give trust away passively to wishful thinking is not wise. That kind of wishful thinking can blind you to obvious warning signals, perhaps through a kind of cognitive dissonance created by feeling your choice was wrong. I still choose to trust people, but actively. To agree a contract is actively to trust someone, and if they trust you it just feels right.
Trust also works on a level beyond logic and written agreements. It works viscerally and energetically too. How else do you KNOW you can trust someone?