How my efforts to help out an admirer hurt my business.

Image: istock.com/tommaso79

By: Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA

“Be careful with him,” Vicky whispered to me on our way out of the restaurant. “He’s an expert at working people.”

Her comment confused me, but I just wrote it off as jealousy that Eric had found someone other than her to admire.

But it took me 14 months and considerable damage to my firm to realize what she meant.

The charm offensive

Eric had attended one of my lectures earlier that day and knew Vicky from a previous life. They ran into each other at the conference, and Vicky invited him to join us for drinks and dinner at a local pub.

Eric charmed us with his wit and adventures of living on a sailboat. He’d been tracking our firm’s growth for a while and knew a lot about me, even though it was my first time meeting him.

Over the next few months, I kept running into Eric at community events and social gatherings, which seemed a bit odd. But talking to Eric was a refreshing break from the uptight crowd.

Eric made me feel like a big shot, and he laughed at all my bad jokes. However, I knew better than to fall for this lathering-up technique. I figured he wanted a job or to market me somehow, so I remained cautious of Eric — particularly after Vicky’s warning.

But I must admit, I enjoyed hanging out with Eric on a social level. And his entrance into my life helped me get over a loss in my life and back out on the social scene.

The perfect opportunity

Six months later, I opened a new division of our company and needed some help to get things set up. Eric was in between jobs and heard about our new venture. I was still hesitant about working with him, but he volunteered to help me out for free because of his fascination with what we do.

I wouldn’t accept his offer of free work. But I was so impressed with Eric’s gesture and persistence that I gave him a short-term, paid contract job to see what he could do for us.

Some of my teammates were skeptical because Eric didn’t have the right background, skills, or training, but I asked them to give it a fair shot. If it worked out, we could add another loyal soldier to our growing army of passionate thinkers. And if not, we could let him go at the end of his contract.

Easy enough, right?

Less talking, more doing

Not only did Eric win me over with his charm and covert agreeableness, but all the other folks in my firm. For a while, he was the coolest guy in the office. He had so many great stories and shined up nicely when we brought him along to client meetings.

There came the point, though, where we needed Eric to talk less and focus more on the work assignments given to him. As the months wore on, Eric’s role, value, and contribution to the business became more of a regular discussion topic during our weekly planning meetings.

I tried to protect Eric and justify his role as best I could, but it became increasingly clear that things weren’t working out as I’d hoped. And I wondered how I got myself into this awkward predicament. Ordinarily, I cut employees quick, but Eric and I had become friends, and letting him go would crush him.

I decided not to give up on Eric. I was going to help Eric get the training he needed. But before I even got a chance to sit down with him, he’d already made off in the night with an extensive portfolio of our work product and went to work for one of our biggest competitors.

I later found out he hand-delivered them our internal strategy books, proprietary processes, client list, and employee contact info (two of which got poached and lured away by their impossible to refuse salary offers).

My charming friend, admirer, and follower had now just looted our shop. I was furious about it, but I felt betrayed and hurt more than anything.

The new company Eric fled to eventually figured out they bought an expensive gift box but didn’t get the contents they were after. And a year later, they let him and the other two employees go.

Eric then parlayed that job title, plus his work with us, into an opportunity to work for yet another competitor of ours. He and that firm directly went after our clients with a similar pitch and materials he lifted from us.

“When will this bad decision end?” I wondered. But I had no one to blame but myself. I’d willingly and enthusiastically created this monster.

Although Eric had no prior knowledge of our industry or business, he’d now wormed his way into two of my competitor’s war rooms to leverage our trade secrets for a job.

My Advice

Most entrepreneurs are too embarrassed to admit when someone has hoodwinked them. But I’m not ashamed to admit I got fooled by Eric. And over my 35+ year career, I’ve seen it happen a lot of other entrepreneurs.

I have three pieces of hard-earned advice for business owners to consider when thinking about who they let get access to them and their business.

#1: Watch out for your blind spot.

As smart and perceptive as most entrepreneurs are, many of us have a blind spot, particularly when it comes to praise.

As Vicky said, Eric knew how to “work people” in just the right way, to get them to open up their corporate drawbridge and allow an opportunist to walk right into the castle. And Eric was clever, charming, and enterprising enough, to work his way from the forecourt into a seat at the roundtable—or at least the barstool—next to the owner.

Successful entrepreneurs often let the wrong person into their inner circle. And that ambitious individual not only ends up getting their words into your ear, but their hands into your pockets and tentacles into your trade secrets.

While some individuals are real scammers, most entrepreneurs are smart enough to catch the professional con artists before they set foot in the door.

But the harder to detect individuals are the ones that aren’t pros, but instead just charmers. These unconscious manipulators don’t always have a premeditative game plan other than to cozy up to you. Once they get inside your organization and realize they don’t have the right stuff to stay for long, they’ll use you as a stepping stone instead for their next corporate heist.

Whenever I meet or interview a new employee candidate, consultant, or vendor that makes me feel good right off the bat, I ask myself, “Is this person working in my blind spot?” And as a double-check, I’ll bring in some of my other colleagues to kick the tires and look under the hood.

#2: Don’t mistake connection for contribution.

The error that I see many entrepreneurs and business owners make — including myself — is mistaking their instant connection to someone as a sign of a good fit for their organization. Just because someone “gets” you or supports your vision doesn’t mean they’d be able to add substantial value to your enterprise.

However, the master manipulators know how to use just the right amount of flattery to catch your ear. These charmers are not always evil people. But, they’ve spent a lifetime talking their way into and out of challenging situations—from getting dates to free drinks at the bar to landing a job in the right companies.

However, I’ve since learned not to mistake charm for fit or personal connection for business results.

#3: Recognize the difference between someone “wanting to work for you” versus someone “wanting to be you.

It took me a long time to realize that Eric wasn’t interested in “working for me” as much as “he wanted to be me.” I know this sounds vain and self-important, or like a creepy scene out of The Talented Mr. Ripley movie with Matt Damon and Jude Law. But that is what I and many others saw happening in our firm.

It’s also what Vicky forewarned me about, but I couldn’t see it because Eric’s praise blinded my better judgment.

Most leaders start their businesses from humble and hardscrabble beginnings. But they often make their success look easy when they speak in public— as if selling a vision is all that’s required.

But it’s important to recognize that this visionary part is not only attractive — but charismatic and evangelistic — to some enterprising individuals who believe they too could be preachers of the business gospel. But while they may have that gift of gab, they can’t be of actual value to your organization unless they’ve put in their time, honed their skills, and mastered their craft.

People-believers beware

I’m not a fear-based thinker. I’m an optimist and believer in people, which is why I have to watch myself around some characters who try to butter me up with compliments or a pseudo-connection.

I got duped by Eric. And his involvement in the firm caused my colleagues and me a lot of pain. I now pay more attention to when someone reaches out to me and showers me with praise. I’ve learned to dismiss the flattery and focus on their skills and to discern what they’re truly after.

And I encourage all my business owner clients and entrepreneurial friends to do the same.