This is a story about bushmen, pumpkins and architects—and gorillas.
Incidentally, did you know that a pumpkin is a fruit? I’ve always thought it was a vegetable, but it seems I was wrong. And what, you might reasonably ask, does a pumpkin being fruit have to do with this story? Absolutely nothing!
This is about the power of making a point through a story. It’s about the importance of understanding how people view you as you tell them your story. It’s also about how you view them…
T’was early 2008. For almost 4 years, I’d been the CEO of an award-winning international architectural design firm. In the interests of total candor, you should know that I was singularly unqualified for this position.
For starters, I’m not an architect. My only claim to fame is that I’ve been an international business lawyer for a very long time. But, perhaps I’m too modest here. According to my mother (but not my sons), my other claim to fame is that I’m also known for my extraordinary and undeniable charm, charisma and wit.
I’ve also written a book on scams and I’ve been CEO of an international music company. You should know this two events are quite unrelated.
The 2008 financial crisis…
As the 2008 financial crisis loomed large, the architectural and construction industries around the world were imploding.
Unsurprisingly, our firm too faced a stark reality. Our clients’ financing for their projects had dried up. As they were sinking fast, the writing was on the wall for us. We’d have to downsize. This was simply a matter of survival.
As the firm’s designated (and only) business guru, I explained to our board of directors that we had to act. And they agreed with me. They also decided that someone would have to explain to the firm why we had no choice but to downsize.
As they discussed this at a board meeting, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. They were all looking at me. By an almost unanimous vote, they decided I would address the firm. I was the lone dissenter.
Nobody on the board was swayed by my undeniable eloquence. When I admitted that I was (and continue to be) a practicing coward, they were unsympathetic. Nor were they swayed by my argument that it would be better for an architect to be addressing the firm.
Incidentally, this was never a vote of confidence in me. No, this was simply an act of pure cowardice and malice on the part of the other directors.
I have to explain how I found myself at the firm. This is because, in giving a difficult talk, you have to know what your audience is thinking about you. How I found myself at the firm would shape what my audience was thinking about me as I rose to talk to them that morning.
I joined the firm in 2005 at the request of its quite brilliant if sometimes-quirky founder. He was an undisputed icon in the world of international architectural design. He was also a family friend. Our wives and youngest kids were best friends. He and his family passionately loved my ex-wife and her cooking. So, what better foundation upon which to build a friendship than family and food?
Something else, though, bound us together: Neither of us had any agenda towards the other. I had no interest in being his lawyer. And he had no interest in anything I was doing. All we had in common was that we each hated lawyers. Only that could explain why we liked each other!
One evening over dinner at our house, I noticed my friend and his wife were looking quite unhappy. It was then that I made a critical mistake. I asked him what was wrong. This would plunge me down Alice’s rabbit hole from where there was no escape.
He explained that some of his most senior designers were threatening to leave his firm to form a competing firm. They were demanding that they be made co-owners of his firm. Although I didn’t share this with him, this seemed to me to be a quite reasonable request on their part. From what he’d told me, they had made a massive contribution to the success of his firm.
The problem was that lawyers were now involved. And, as we all know, lawyers are often the kiss of death to accomplishing anything. Earlier that same day, one set of lawyers had sent him documents to review. Unfortunately, they were written in a language my friend just couldn’t understand.
I then reminded him I was a legal linguist. I explained that, for my sins, I actually spoke and understood lawyer-speak language. I then unwisely offered to translate his documents for him, but reminded him of something critically important. I reminded him that translation services were usually worth what you pay for them. In this case, I explained, the cost would be nothing. Much to my disappointment, he accepted my offer of worthless advice.
He then added gratuitously that he needed a non-architect to save him and his firm. He said that only a non-architect would bring some sanity, stability and savvy to the crisis he faced.
As I listened, I had no idea that I was fresh out of luck. I was apparently the only non-architect he knew in the entire world. To make matters much worse, he knew I had some time available to help. God, I realized, clearly had a sense of humor…
So, I agreed to help my friend. I agreed to act as the firm’s interim CEO—but for no more than 3-4 months. About 4 years later and just before our financial world imploded, I was still there. With absolutely NO thanks to me, the firm had miraculously survived. Inexplicably, it had even prospered during my time there—again, with no thanks to me. Again, I doubted the good intentions of God, assuming she exists.
My new experience begins...
I quickly found my new experience at his firm fascinating—and even quite invigorating.
When I joined the firm, I thought that I’d already seen and experienced it all. I’d already reached the firm conclusion that doctors were unquestionably the worst business folks on the planet. Thanks to my new adventure, however, I was forced to change my mind.
Architects became my new idols. They had left their medical colleagues floundering in their wake and gasping for breath. No, architects were the real deal.
What surprised me most about architects was something quite unexpected. What astonished me was that so many seemed to harbor a secret and quite passionate desire to be business lawyers. In this, they were both unselfish and fearless. They would always offer enthusiastic and well-intentioned legal advice on such sensitive issues as the need for protective child-safety rails alongside waterways in Dubai. And what I envied most was their overwhelming confidence as they dispensed their legal advice and business wisdom. Their total confidence and lack of self-doubt left me teetering between admiration and terror.
I offer this only as an explanation as to how they may have viewed me. I doubt anyone had ever before worked with an attorney before I’d arrived on their doorstep. Only this could explain the curiosity and confusion that greeted my arrival.
On the one hand, they’d clearly never before received the business and legal input I was able to offer. They seemed fascinated by my input and approach. On the other hand, they had survived successfully for many years drafting their own contracts and dispensing their own form of legal and business advice that was quite different to my approach. They found this disconcerting—as did I! Despite this, I think the younger folks in particular enjoyed and appreciated my input. The older folks, not so much…
I well understood this as I rose to address the firm on that fateful morning in 2008.
Planning my talk…
I really agonized over how to pass on the news of the upcoming layoffs.
Somehow, I remembered a story I’d heard many moons ago in South Africa. It was about bushmen, gorillas and pumpkins. It struck me that this story might be a gentle way to break the news to the firm. I though it might really resonate as being authentic and sincere—even with those who still doubted my credentials.
More important than anything, I thought my approach of breaking the news to them through a story might perhaps offer them some deserved hope…
Finally, the story
This is my recollection of what I told the assembled gathering—
“I thought I’d share an African story with you this morning. I hope it’ll help you to understand some decisions we’ve had to make—while also giving you some real hope for the future.
So, the story is about how the bushmen in South West Africa used to catch gorillas…
To give this some context, on the one hand, the height of the average bushman is around 5ft. On the other hand, the height of the average male gorillas they hunt is around 6ft standing upright. An average male gorilla could weigh as much as 500lb. I doubt an average bushman weighs more than 100lb.
The bushmen’s strategy for catching gorillas was clever.
They knew gorillas loved pumpkin seeds. The bushmen would begin their hunt by looking for the largest pumpkins they could find. They would then cut a small hole in the top of the pumpkins. This would allow the gorilla to squeeze his hand into the pumpkin, but only with some difficulty.
The bushmen would then put those pumpkins on large rocks in clear view.. Armed with clubs and bows and arrows, the bushmen would then hide behind the rocks and would lie in wait for the gorillas.
Once a gorilla saw the inviting pumpkin, he would climb the rock and sit down next to it. When he saw the small hole, he would plunge his hand into it to grab as many pumpkin seeds as he possibly could. Unfortunately for the gorilla, with his hand now full of seeds, he was now unable to free his hand from the pumpkin.
The gorilla now had a choice. To free his hand, all he had to do was release some of those delicious seeds. Instead of just releasing a few seeds, he’d just sat there staring at the pumpkin that now had held his hand prisoner.
As he sat there starring at his hand entrapped by the pumpkin, he was unable to make a decision. The bushmen, meanwhile, would quietly sneak up behind him with their clubs. And that was the end-of-the-story for that particular gorilla. He was toast…”
As I ended the story, I paused before linking the story to the crisis the firm faced. I continued —
“Think about this:
Right now, we ARE that gorilla sitting on a rock—and, for us, YOU are the delicious pumpkin seeds we truly love. We are desperately trying to hold on to as many of you as we possibly can.
Our dilemma is that of the gorilla. If we don’t let some of you go, the firm simply can’t survive. And, in that case, by doing nothing, we’ll be sacrificing EVERYONE.
So, as a matter of pure survival, we‘ve decided that we have to do two things.
Firstly, our senior management will take severe pay cuts to allow us to retain as many of you as possible.
Secondly, we will have to release some of you. But we can assure you of this: The moment the economic climate improves, we’ll take you back in a flash. And why wouldn’t we? You are part of our family—and you always will be. We owe you for everything you’ve already done—and for playing such an important role in building the firm…”
The moral here is this:
To survive, you sometimes just have to let go a little of what you love most. And if you don’t, you might not survive…
The gift of our story…
I think this story applies to every aspect of our lives…
Sometimes, to survive, you have to let go… You have to compromise… And, if you refuse to do either, you just may not survive…
Sometimes you may be tempted to do nothing by assuming things you shouldn’t assume. Be careful about making assumptions, my friends. For something lighter you might was to take a look at “Assume Nothing—Absolutely Nothing…”