Brandt On Leadership -- Pompous And Circumstance

June 14, 2006
Success, dear grads, depends on surviving the boring business dinner.

Delighted as I am to be your commencement speaker today, MBA graduates, I must confess to being the bearer of bad news: Your education has been sorely lacking. Trust me on this: You think that you're about to deliver grand strategies to your new employers or invent new business models that will make you entrepreneurs of the year. You think that words like execution and lean and regression analysis will determine your success. You are bright and confident and full of pluck, and I both admire and envy you.

Which is why it pains me so deeply to inform you that you are all as dumb as stumps, and that a man named Norm Garrity in East Pickersnoot, North Dakota, holds the keys to your future.

Norm isn't a CEO or a venture capitalist or a management guru. He (or someone like him) is one of your new company's biggest customers. He demands that you treat him with the respect his order volume demands. He expects, as well, that you will take him to dinner.

Norm, by the way, is boring as hell.

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See Brandt On Leadership: John Brandt's new blog about bad bosses, fictional employees, corporate misbehavior and the importance of never being 5 minutes late to work when you can get away with an entire hour.
He is not ordinarily dull, or even merely grating. Norm is monumentally, staggeringly, relentlessly, nay, excruciatingly boring. He will tell you the same stories with no point over and over, often in the same evening. He will detail the evils of every provision, section, and line of the East Pickersnoot zoning code (revised). He will even describe his most recent colonoscopy for you, polyp by polyp, flashing photos of the procedure to boot. Thirty minutes into your first evening with him, you will decide that you would gladly claw out your eyeballs if it would just startle him into silence. Three hours later, with Norm still yammering in the same aggressive monotone, you will be convinced that you were somehow killed in an auto accident on the way to East Pickersnoot and that you are now sitting in Hell with Satan himself. But then you will ask: Wouldn't the devil be more interesting than this cretin?

This, MBA graduates, is where your career will be made or broken. You may be as smart as Albert Einstein, as ambitious as Donald Trump, but if you can't suck it up and sit through an evening with Norm -- and, more importantly, make Norm think that both he and you enjoyed it immensely -- you may as well throw your cufflinks into Lake Pickersnoot. Surviving the boring business dinner is the single most important skill you ever will develop.

It's tougher than it sounds. Silence might stop Norm -- as President Calvin Coolidge said, "If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes. [But] if you even cough or smile, they will start up all over again" -- but could also leave the impression that you have checked out of the conversation. Even Norm will get the hint at the sound of your forehead hitting the table.

Alcohol isn't recommended, either. There's not enough gin in the world to drown Norm out, and each additional martini only increases the likelihood that you will try to stab Norm to death with the little plastic swords the olives come on. (This is very hard to explain on a sales call report).

Unfortunately for you, the only thing that will really work is more of the same: You must ask Norm ever more detailed questions -- So, how is the left-handed widget market in Kalamazoo? -- until you are convinced that even he must surely hear the screaming inside your head. Trust me again: Norm will be so tickled to have someone even appear interested that he'll never notice your clenched fists. And you can always console yourself with this, from Coolidge again: "No man ever listened himself out of a job."

Especially with Norm.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Also see Brandt On Leadership: John R. Brandt's new blog about bad bosses, fictional employees, corporate misbehavior and the importance of never being 5 minutes late to work when you can get away with an entire hour.

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