Why you should treat the truth with gratitude

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 August, 1993, 12:00am

A WOMAN in our classical music division was considering representing a rather eccentric musician who wanted a career as a conductor.

She attended his orchestra rehearsals to see how he handled musicians. She went to his concerts to hear how he interpreted the classics and gauge his rapport with an audience.

None of these forays made much of an impression on her, until one day the conductor invited her to a lecture he was giving to students at a business school.

She was amazed at what she saw. Sitting at a piano, the conductor made some dazzling analogies between what composers and executives did. The students gave him a standing ovation.

In the end the woman concluded that representing this musician would not be a good use of her time, and she candidly told him why. ''Face it,'' she said, ''you'll never be Sir Geor Solti, because you're too strange and you're just not that good a musician.'' She did add he could have a lucrative career as an entertainer on the fringes of classical music and in front of business groups.

''Your future,'' she said, ''is talking to amateurs - because the real professionals know you're nuts!'' Now, that last remark might seem gratuitously cruel. But in fact, it was priceless advice. In one neat sentence, she had given this man a career niche. She had turned him away from his fruitless pursuit of a major-league conducting career and steered himin a direction that capitalised on all his eccentricities.

Many people can use that sort of candour in assessing their careers. But the fact is, most people do not invite candour. And even when they get it, they have trouble accepting it.

I do not know many times people in our company have come to me, saying: ''I don't think you're using me correctly, I really want to work in another area.'' Invariably, they want to move out of their ''mundane'' job into a job that seems more glamorous.

It falls on me to re-shift their thinking, to tell them candidly we have people in the company who are stronger in that area than they are and that they can contribute more by perfecting their skills where they are. Some accept my opinion. Some do not.

We once had an executive who had many desirable virtues.

He was brilliant, well organised, and strong on follow-through - but rough on his subordinates.

He second-guessed them and generally made their lives miserable.

After a while, nearly all of them sought asylum in another part of our company or left us.

On several occasions I tried to show him his harsh manner was costly to him and to the company. But he refused to believe me - or at least he refused to change.

In my experience, the most successful people are the ones who are the most brutally self-honest about their abilities.

They do not delude themselves about their weaknesses. And they conduct frequent reality checks by inviting others to tell them how they are doing.

Check yourself: How have you reacted in the past when someone you trust has offered you heartfelt but hard-to-swallow advice? You have several options.

There is curiosity. You try to corroborate the advice by seeking a second or third opinion.

There is scepticism. You file the criticism in the back of your mind, perhaps to revisit it when you are more open to believing it.

There is denial. You conclude the advice is wrong.

But the most appropriate response is gratitude. When friends step out on a limb to tell you the unvarnished truth about yourself, you should embrace them, not leave them hanging out there alone. OVERWORKED entrepreneurs tend to consider three options in their search for a deputy: Relatives: They turn to a brother or sister, a son or daughter for the kind of person they can take fully into their confidence and, presumably, has their best interests at heart. This often works out very well.

Friends: They turn to a friend, someone whose habits are familiar to them and with whom they feel comfortable. Unfortunately, an acceptable ''comfort level'' is no substitute for talent or expertise.

Friends may mean well, but there is no guarantee they will perform well.

Over the years, I have hired army buddies and old classmates who have not worked out because they do not understand our highly specialised business.

Outside professionals: They ask a search firm to find them a pro, a seasoned manager with a track record. Nothing wrong with this. But you need keen people-instincts to make it succeed. In effect, you are hiring a surrogate relative or friend.

Actually, the perfect candidate is probably already inside your company. If you do not have competent people worthy of your trust, you have a more serious problem than finding a number two.

My advice: Identify the individuals most responsible for your recent growth spurt. Your perfect number two will be among them.