Must You Be Cutthroat To Succeed In Business?

A young man who is beginning what I hope will be a long and profitable career in business said this to me recently: “But isn’t that the way you HAVE to be in business? Like ruthless and all?” He is climbing up the ladder of success with the grease of this very common but wrongheaded notion all over the soles of his shoes. Most of the successful businesspeople I know are relatively benign.

Some few are evil. And some fewer still are saints. The great majority of them (including almost all of the preachy, moralistic, mystical, and religious types) wander in the large, gray to-err-is-human zone. If cutting throats isn’t a requirement for business success, what is? What makes a businessperson successful?

My experience suggests …

* hard work

* long hours

* the ability to focus

* marketing know-how

* the will to keep selling

Screwing customers and colleagues is definitely not required. You can do so — if it suits your personality — but, in the long run, it will cost you. People have memories. Especially gullible people. You can sometimes make money (even a lot of money) by duping, deceiving, and cheating them, but there’s a price to pay. In the long run, Machiavellian business tactics are self-defeating. All those people you suckered and robbed will remember you.

In their own quiet but powerful ways, they will do whatever they can to see you punished. That may be as little as ignoring your next sales effort to as much as reporting you to the authorities — or blowing your head off. Same is true with employees. You can exploit them for a while, but, over time, they will get even with you. The wise businessperson acts benevolently, because he understands that the trust and loyalty he develops by being good and fair will pave a golden path of opportunity and ease for him as the years pass.

With each passing decade, every dollar he earns will be easier made because of all the good will, trust, and useful relationships he’s developed along the way. I am fortunate enough to work with at least a dozen “good” businessmen. Each of them is open and honest in dealing with me, generous with his time and knowledge, always willing to share and cooperate in areas of mutual interest, and respectful of my need to profit as well as his own. EP is a great example.

We started working together about 10 years ago on some real-estate deals. I knew nothing about real estate at the time — at least the kind of real estate he was involved with — so he could have easily written a one-sided contract. Instead, his deal was generous to a fault. It ensured that he wouldn’t make a nickel until I did. And there were no hidden cash flows or escape hatches that are so common in real-estate limited partnerships.

As I became more knowledgeable about real estate, EP’s fairness (to the point of goodness) became obvious to me. As a consequence, I never hesitate to invest in his deals. He calls me up and says, “I’ve got a project you might be interested in.” “How much do you want?” is my reply. This is the kind of business relationship you want as your business or career grows and matures. (And not just one like this, but dozens of them.)

If you can have that, making money easily will be only one of the blessings of your work. The formula for such relationships? Give first; get later. One caveat: Just because you are a good guy in business, don’t expect everyone to like you. Some employees, for example, are not satisfied with a good deal. They want to goof off and make a fortune for doing it.

The good-but-serious employer (who fires such a person) may be detested by him. Same is true of the vendor who wants a better-than-fair deal. Or the professional who wants to own your business for giving you advice. Be good and fair, and most of the people you deal with will make your life easier, more productive, and more profitable. Most — but not all.

  • Gene Nolan

    I needed to read this. Sometimes dealing so many cut throat businessmen is discouraging. I would rather be cooperative and coexist with my competition/friends but many times greed takes priority over friendship when it comes to business. Anyone who would purposely hurt a fellow small business owner for personal gain should be taken to town and given a public beating.