On Being a Good Business Partner

“He that plants thorns must never expect to gather roses.” – Fables of Bidpai, circa 750)       

I do business with a lot of very accomplished businesspeople — entrepreneurs and executives who understand how business really works, who are expert in financially valuable skills, and who emphasize sales and marketing as they should. They have learned the importance of going after business and have developed the personal skills to apply their energy aggressively toward that end.

Some of these people, however, allow this virtue to become a vice. When they negotiate deals, they focus all their skills and energy on themselves and their goals. If they think of the other guy at all, it is only to discover a weakness they can take advantage of.

These guys can be great family men and loyal friends — but when it comes to doing business, they believe in taking care of Number One. And for them, because of the way they see business, taking care of Number One means caring little or nothing about the other guy.

Some of these guys are just plain evil. They like screwing people and take pleasure from giving other people pain. But many more see themselves as just and moral but with a “realistic” view of how business works. For this latter group — let’s call them the self-righteous sharks — life is an “either-or” proposition: “Either I get the gold or he does.”

Self-righteous sharks tend to act selfishly in all facets of their business life — in sharing information, in deciding at whose office a meeting will be held, in determining who sits where at a business dinner, etc.

You Can Win the Battles but Not the War

Some might view this as the natural personality of a winning competitor. I view it as a major character deficit.

When you view business as a battle and arm yourself accordingly, you can win plenty of battles. But as the years roll by and the battlefields change and the technology changes, all military approaches — however clever or powerful — fail.

Yes, you can fight your way to the top of the mountain when you are young and strong. But nobody stays on top forever.

So long as you maintain an edge, you can take advantage of it. But the minute you lose ground, you will slide onto a slippery downhill slope — greased by the bitterness of all the many people who secretly resent you for past transgressions.

As I said before, righteous sharks see the world in a different way than I do. In my opinion, their view is based on at least two fundamentally faulty ideas. One is that power is static — that he who is stronger now will be stronger in the future. Another is that wealth is a commodity — that it is something limited as opposed to something organic that can grow.

Mother baked a nice, warm apple pie. She cuts it into four pieces. Since Mom has not used a protractor along with her knife, chances are that one of those pieces is larger than the others. “I want the largest piece,” they say.

The trouble with that view is that (1) Mother can and probably will make more pies and (2) when she does, their brothers and sisters will remember that they had the biggest piece the last time. So long as they are bigger and stronger than their siblings, they may be able to wrestle the biggest piece of pie for themselves. But what if they get sick one day? What will happen then? Will they be given the biggest piece because that’s the way it was always done? Or will they get a smaller piece? Or none at all?

I’ve been in business a long time and have enjoyed being king of the mountain on several occasions. But for every time I’ve been on top, I’ve been somewhere in between a dozen times.

There is that old saw: Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because they will be the same ones you meet on the way down.

When I get into a deal, I don’t want the other guy to feel as if he’s been taken advantage of. I don’t want that to happen for three reasons — two practical and one philosophical.

First of all, I believe that someone who feels abashed by me will quietly assign an emotional marker to my butt that says, “You’ll get yours one day.” Second, I believe that if I get known as a tough guy to do business with, the number of people who will bring me good deals will diminish and the pool will eventually dry up completely. And, finally, I think that in the great scheme of things everything eventually balances out with interest. If I give you something today, I’ll get something back from someone — plus interest — some years hence. If I take something from you now, I’ll pay the price for it — with interest — in the future.

If you see things the way I do, you really, really don’t want to take advantage. You’d rather be the one taken advantage of.

My brother tells me that some people tell him I’m sometimes “too good” to the people I partner with. When he sees someone I’ve helped get rich “overcharge” me for something or refuse to offer a concession after the many “gifts” I’ve given him, he feels as if I’m being too soft — maybe even foolish.

But when he considers how much less I “fret about being screwed” and how much more enjoyment I get from these relationships, he realizes that there’s “a distinct and substantial advantage to be willing to give more than you get.”

That’s worth a lot,” he concedes. “I don’t know if you’ll convince your readers of it. But maybe a few of them will get it. And that will be good.”

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]