I don’t often start these blog posts with famous quotes, but lots of smart people do that, so why not give it a go? Earlier this week, I was reading one of the daily letters to which I subscribe, The King Report, by Bill King out of Chicago. He finished his daily piece with this:
“When you want to help people you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” -Thomas Sowell.
I immediately printed out that page, highlighted the quotation, and put it aside to eventually use as a blog topic. I showed it to my partner Tom, to my wife, and to my kids. The more I read it, the more I liked it. Let me explain why.
I believe that too many people fall into the group of those who will be more likely to put themselves first and tell you what you want to hear rather than tell you the truth. In the case of wealthy and powerful people, it happens even more often.
My father was a very tough boss, but he was fair. He would often say that he did not have to give people hell, he just had to tell them the truth. And yes, sometimes the truth did hurt. He was very animated and loud, and when it was your turn to hear the truth, you could be sure that others overheard it as well.
As easy as it might have been to try to “protect” ourselves and drift into more of a “tell him what he wants to hear” mode, that would have just make things worse.
The people who worked for him who were willing to give him their true opinion were the ones he counted on the most.
When I showed Tom the quote, it immediately brought back all kinds of memories for both of us. We were two of the people who worked for him the longest, and he relied on us for a variety of things. Occasionally he would tell us that if all we did was agree with him, he really wouldn’t need us. We would make ourselves redundant if we were simply “Yes-Men”.
Having spent so many years in this type of relationship with our boss has had many benefits for both of us. We shared the truth with him, and we got plenty of truth back. The exchanges were often spirited and loud, but always positive, about moving closer to the best decision or course of action, and no lingering hard feelings.
We would offer an opinion, get shot down, roll with the punches and continue the debate. The eventual decision sometimes ended up looking a lot like the ones we suggested, and we knew we had a hand in directing the proper outcome, even if we never heard “hey, you were right”. We knew. He was the boss, he was at the top, he was the one ultimately responsible for whatever we decided.
These days sometimes I will go on a rant about something when talking with Tom, and he will usually just sit there and smile. It is usually only mock anger, and it comes across more as a schtick than anything else. But it brings back memories of working for someone with so much energy and passion, who was not afraid to let his feelings show.
Tom will laugh off my mock anger and remind me that after the number of times he got sh*t from “The Big Guy”, anything that I could throw at him would seem like a light breeze after a tornado.
All that to say that we both have plenty of experience in telling people the truth, even when it contains elements that they do not really want to hear. It is essential to what we offer our clients, because they are likely to have too many of the other types of advisors already.