Six paths to principled business practice

Don't surprise anyone, anytime, anyhow, for any reason.

Do I overstate it? No. An occasional surprise batch of chocolate chip cookies, but that's about it.

Here's why: Surprises throw people off. Must business people strive to be on top of their game at all times. They want to anticipate changes and problems and ready their responses and solutions. They want to be accountable to their superiors -- and their own staff; they often want to take credit for good news and diffuse blame for bad.

There's a benefit and return for helping to make your colleagues' jobs easier -- and to help them look good. If you can't avoid a surprise, be ready with information that will help them prepare their next move.

The NYPD rule of thumb

Nobody's always right; nobody's always wrong. Everything is a "situation." I especially like this lesson because we're all guilty of a) selective listening; b) taking sides; c) jumping to conclusions; d) being too lazy to research surrounding and underlying facts and possibilities.

How often do you take a side without considering the other person's agenda? How often do you rise to defend one person -- only to discover later and uncomfortably that his/her own actions drew the problematic event?

Always, but always, listen before forming -- or worse, issuing an opinion.

An advertising salesman approached one of my clients and, he told me, was treated rudely. Without commitment but expressing sympathy, I said I'd look into it. My client's story changed the picture, of course. She said he was overly aggressive, wouldn't take "no" for an answer -- and wouldn't leave! Truth in both stories? I thought so. As "mediator," I can safely say I represented each appropriately, ensuring my client's welcome presence in the adman's publication -- and importantly, saving their relationship for the next good buy.

Miss Manners? She's god

At a cocktail party, a prominent executive ("Mr. Doe") engaged me in conversation. Commonly at such events, another gentleman approached. Mr. Doe instantly turned his attention to the newcomer -- blatantly not introducing me nor even acknowledging my presence.

I was embarrassed -- to say the least. The new gentleman's discomfort was apparent, too, and to his credit, he tried to "save" the situation, but could not for the babbling on of ol' Doe.

Result: Mr. Doe was the ultimate loser, revealing himself callous and rude. Two of us will never regard Mr. Doe with the respect we had, (and one of us will get even with him if it's the last thing I do)

Manners move many difficult situations into anecdotes and relationship-savers. Bad news, reprimands, the "next" sales call you make to a reluctant buyer -- all can be made palatable by manners, sensitivity and, please, humor.

All Mr. Doe had to do was make a quick, simple introduction. In one additional sentence, he could have told me, "I'm so glad to see (name) to talk about (whatever) ..." and I'm absolutely certain that I would have understood that their discussion took precedence over our own idle chatter. I would have quietly excused myself, no problem.

Too basic? Return phone calls and e-mails. Say please and thank you. Defer to age, stage in life. Hold doors open. Acknowledge people. Never be dismissive or impolite to anyone, but mainly, your elders.

You get the idea.

If really difficult people aren't worth it, forget it

Without a doubt, you'll have your own list of candidates.

Difficult people must offer inspiration, creativity, brilliance; they must have integrity and conviction. They must frequently be right. All this has to compensate for the grief and aggravation they cause you. (No sense of humor nullifies all the above.)

Who owes ya' baby?

I'd love to name the best person who ever owed me money, because his incredible conscience and responsibility around the issue would showcase him as the exemplary person he is. From the moment his finances went awry until months later when he paid in full, he called regularly, first to explain his situation, then to reassure me that he was on track (and if not, why not,). He arranged occasional lunches with me during that time, and at each expressed his appreciation for our patience.

I recently reminded him of all this. He said, 'that was a difficult period for me. I owed several people money. But the truth is, in each situation I gained a closer friend for the way I tried to deal with it." Today his business thrives, and it won't surprise you to know that he undertakes every aspect of his life and business with the same sense of integrity.

Contrast that with a successful restaurateur who stone-walled, delayed, demanded repeated detailed billings, made payments only when prompted (tho' admitting our services were excellent!), and finally paid in full only when we threatened collections. The experience was perhaps predictable since he also whined, complained and made endless unnecessary demands. Not only wouldn't we work with him again, we wouldn't patronize his restaurants, either. You can tall a lot about a person by the way he owes you. See item No. 4.

May I introduce your right hand to your left hand?

In my experience, internal communication, the most essential of all business interaction, takes top prize as the most ignored and disdained practice, throughout all kinds of clients and all types of businesses.

Why is that, you ask (even as you erroneously do not number yourself among the guilty)? My educated theories:

Overconfidence: The "I can do this myself" theory of doing business.

Over-scheduled: The just-too-busy to undertake another -- and often substantial --communique.

Ego-centrism: Simply, a disrespect for the welfare, well-being and responsibilities of one's staff and colleagues -- most of whom are impacted in one way or another by company news and activities.

There is in business a monumental need for consciousness-raising in this matter. I recall clients who didn't tell us that a key executive had resigned; didn't say that the company changed its name (honest!), didn't tell their own president and CEO that they were booked on "60 Minutes" and so on. It's endless and pervasive.

Solutions can range from implementing a system for internal communications to which every key manager and executive is privy, to regularly issuing a "Need to Know" memo in every e-mail and meeting agenda.

We've all taken note, I'm certain, that our improved communications technologies have not necessarily improved our ability to communicate.

Walcher is principal public relations counsel to JWalcher Communications.

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