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The show must go on
The Grim Reaper came calling mid-afternoon in the ballroom of a luxury resort in Fiji.
An audiovisual tech I know was working with an event producer, an old-school showbiz man. They were two days into staging a conference for a large insurance company.
Mr Producer took the tech aside and asked: “Can you handle the rest of the conference?”
Yes he could.
“My phone’s going to ring soon, just play along,” the producer said.
The call comes in.
He clutches his forehead in the classic fashion of stock photo actors portraying Big Trouble.
“What!? Oh no! Oh my God … how long does she have?”
He hangs up. The client, who was nearby, rushes over.
“What’s going on? Are you ok?”.
“I’m fine,” insists the producer. “On with the show.”
“No, clearly that was very bad news,” insists the client. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s … my mother. She’s been rushed to hospital with a terminal condition. They’re … not sure how long she has, days at best.”
“You must fly home on the next plane and be with her!” says the client. “We can handle the rest of the show.”
And off the producer went.
To do a show for another client that he’d double-booked without telling anyone.
This was not his mother’s first trip to that imaginary hospital.
Everyone in the industry knew he was a serial yarn-spinner, and his mother’s constant brushes with fate were legendary.
I would never describe him as a liar, because that implies a maliciousness that wasn’t there.
He was a master storyteller, and tremendous fun to work with. His stories brought me no harm, and I just accepted it as part of the glorious eccentric package.
Did the insurance client find out the truth? Of course they did. And that was the end of his working relationship with them.
Their fantasy is real to them
It all turns unpleasant when the fantasies are causing you personal or commercial harm.
After a while it gets easier to spot when you’re dealing with a fantasist, because they use the same tale over and over.
I had a supplier who nearly destroyed my ad agency twice, using overnight-onset bowel cancer as a cover both times. There’s not room for that saga this week but we’ll come back to it.
The trickiest part of dealing with these people is that in their minds, their stories are authenticated truth once they’ve told them a couple of times.
The yarns are so vivid and detailed, because they’re describing something they can see clearly in their mind.
So many times I’ve had them relate to me, in lifelike detail, conversations that we didn’t have and agreements we didn’t reach*.
The CEO/Sales fantasyland
You see the fantasyland approach in some sales people.
Everyone knows sales can involve a bit of bluffing. But some sales reps, and plenty of CEOs, have that emperor-style approach of “because I proclaimed it, it is true.”
You’ll be on the way back from the pitch and ask them:
“You know that thing you said exists and we could do? You do know that it doesn’t exist and we can’t actually make it happen?”
They seem quite surprised, like you’re not a good team member for bringing the whole post-pitch buzz down with nit-picky facts. Sure, that’s how Steve Jobs operated and it worked just fine for him.
But he had a massive team of people willing to sacrifice every shred of dignity and home life to deliver on his promises. Those people are hard to find. And hard to replace after the first batch die of stress-related illnesses.
If you work with sales people who make modest, 100% deliverable claims, give them your full support. You’re lucky to have them.
I’m not going to throw around words like pathological narcissist because I’m not a psychologist.
Much of this behaviour is in the “being a dick to work with” personality category rather than a genuine neural affliction.
You Go Or They Do
There’s no easy answer when you’re dealing with the chronically truth-impaired.
You can live with it if they’re not evil, like our show producer friend.
If they’re malicious, you have two choices. Basically, you go or they do.
There’s no cure.
We had a full business Walter Mitty situation recently**. The guy had basically stopped working. You could see it in the P&L. After a year of stonking growth, the revenue pulse just flatlined one month and stayed that way.
Yet he was convinced he was the true visionary genius behind the business, rather than a weird flaky guy.
The graph resumed its upward climb the month after his departure.
You can sit down and have a firm talk with people like this.
They’ll sound good, and make convincing eye contact as they describe your great future together.
You’ll leave the meeting reassured of their conversion to the true path of righteousness.
You’ll tell others “we had a really productive meeting, I think our problems are behind us.”
Your fantasist will not change a single element of their behaviour.
You have no option but to remove their lying arse from the business. If you have that power.
If you don’t, GTFO.
It’s career and job satisfaction poison for you.
HR departments are not equipped to deal with it with the urgency required.
They will want to both-sides the situation and that’s a complete waste of time.
Anyway, fifteen years after that caper, I bumped into that producer in a café.
“IAN WHITWORTH! How ARE you? Been ages, I only thought of you the other week, and how I’ve been meaning to get in touch. Just been really busy though.”
A slight pause.
“Because my mother passed away and I’ve had to deal with probate and all that.”
My eyes bulged with the laugh-suppression effort. Punchlines are so satisfying when they land decades after the set-up.
“Very sorry to hear that,” I said.
Vale. The end of a grand era.
*Unless – plot twist – I am the real psycho narcissist.
** I generally run a 12 month embargo on writing about this kind of thing, because I don’t want people to think I’m going to write about business discussions we just had. I get a fair bit of people saying “that story was about me, wasn’t it?” and the truthful answer is: no, turns out there are plenty of others like you.
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