If there is one area of expertise that is perhaps underestimated in business, it is the need and ability to negotiate with the package deals that come with certain clients, customers, buyers or suppliers. I’m talking about those people whose talents or patronage you desire, but who come with strings attached: a spouse or sibling or in-law or parent of lesser, even disastrous, abilities.
When I started out in the sports marketing field — in days when it could not be said to properly exist — these sorts of entanglements were routine. But this was much less the case in the offices of the Fortune 500. Today we see them everywhere; the old barriers seem to have fallen by the wayside. And that has made it imperative for all executives, no matter what their field, to add a repertory of interpersonal and family counseling techniques to their usual skill sets.
It’s a pain. But why this has happened — the increase of entrepreneurial companies with less formal business cultures and longer working hours that limit opportunities for social interaction outside the office, for example — is of less import than what to do about it, because the problem isn’t going to go away.
We’re all family here . . .
In the sports world, the number of Package Deals we encounter has grown as the age of professional athletes and models has dropped, in some cases to below the age of majority. I don’t think the very public involvement of parents of such world-class talents has seeped into the business world — it’s still impossible to imagine the mother of a CEO weighing in on deal, thank heavens.
But the phenomenon exists nonetheless: In-laws, siblings, and romantic partners feel no constraints about offering input and will even demand veto power over decisions they feel affect them, even if they are not in business together.
This manifests itself in several ways. For instance, we often confront a situation where we want to represent an athlete who is very good, but whose parents are adamant about our also representing the player’s sibling — who isn’t very good. Similarly, you may hire an executive only to find an increasing number of resumes from family and friends crossing your desk, with the executive’s mood swings matching the decisions you make about the resumes.
The only response here is an honest quibble. While you can’t turn a plow horse into a Kentucky Derby winner, you can promise to periodically re-evaluate the athlete’s or executive’s progress. I have to say that we don’t win over everybody with this approach, nor do we expect to. Some excess baggage just weighs too much to carry.
You may also face, as we do, a situation whereby the clients push their spouse’s or romantic partners’s services or companies — a sort of “take me, take my wife” ultimatum. The Packaged One may be a computer whiz, web-site designer, investment banker, lawyer or personal trainer, but the main thing that distinguishes them is that they’re being forced on you as a condition of acquiring the prize half of the relationship.
The first thing you must ascertain — even before assessing the Packaged One’s value — is whether the Better Half is going to make his or her partner’s inclusion into a deal-breaker. Time is your ally here. If you can string out the evaluation process of the Package, all the while impressing the Prize with what you can do for him or her, the odds rise that you can decouple the couple, at least professionally. But you will have to be tactful and generous about allowing the Prize to come to his or her own decision.
Your response ought to follow a formula: Don’t reject anyone out of hand; stress how much you like the Package personally; offer to evaluate their skills and degree of fit, while making clear that you are currently very satisfied with those who provide the service.
Do have plenty of examples in hand of others who have asked for the same favor, so many that you can’t choose among them. At the appropriate moment, get personal and explain how your own experience with in-laws or spouses has unfortunately colored your impression of the wisdom of such arrangements.
Love’s bottom line lost
One story I can tell, because it took place so many years ago, is about the mess that drove the point home for me. An in-law from my first marriage had a golf instruction idea that revolved around using a stop-action camera taking shots of a golfer’s swing, thus theoretically allowing a golfer to break down his technique. Soon I found myself besieged with requests to get my client Arnold Palmer involved — just to give it a try, and then see what came of it.
For the in-law, asking me to ask this favor of Arnold was probably an automatic leap; for me, it was a reluctant one. Yet, family ties swayed my better judgment, and we ended up in a fine mess when Palmer became critical of the in-law’s business and golf acumen. I found it difficult, to say the least, to relay these concerns. Soon everyone was walking on eggshells around each other, business and personal relationships were affected, and clear-headed analysis and resolution were impossible. The only emotion I felt after the whole thing fell apart was relief; that, and a determination never again to let family concerns intrude on the running of my business.
Love is a many-splendored thing, as the poet says. But we can be sure that this poet never had a bottom line to watch, a tournament to win or a quarterly earnings projection to beat — because when it comes to business, love is mostly a headache.
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