Connecting The Dots – And Avoiding The Rookie Mistake

Some pre-story questions…

Before you leap enthusiastically and fearlessly into my story, I’ve some questions to warm you up.

Whenever you’re about to make an important decision, have you EVER doubted the importance of connecting whatever dots you’ve managed to identify?

And have you ever wondered why it’s occasionally taken you SO LONG to connect them?

And have you ever wondered if the dots you were connecting were the RIGHT ONES — or if there were some others out there you might have overlooked?

Finally, as you’ve collaborated with a friend on a project, have you ever embarrassed yourself by committing a rookie mistake or two? Maybe it was ignoring a warning sign; or suspending your sense of disbelief: or abandoning your common sense?

OK, now that I’ve planted a few seeds in your minds, it’s time for my story. Please enjoy!

Some background for my story…

Here are a few things you should know that’ll offer you some background to my story —

Why I’m embarrassed…

To begin, my story has embarrassed me more than I care to admit. Why? Well, generally, I’m embarrassed because I’ve let down a small group of incredibly intelligent people who actually think I’m fairly smart. Sadly, though, it’s actually a quite tiny group!!!

Worse, the opinion of some in this tiny group are suspect. For example, my 91-year-old mother thinks I’m brilliant, but that’s her job. My sons also think I’m occasionally (but not always) pretty smart, but that’s their job too. And one of my best friends thinks I’m the smartest attorney he knows. And, yup, you guessed it: That doesn’t count either. He still owes me a lot of money and I know he’ll say anything to avoid me having his legs broken.

Specifically, I’m embarrassed about all those rookie mistakes I made. When I should have asked questions, I didn’t. When I should have paid attention to warning signs, I didn’t. And when I should have connected the dots quickly, I didn’t…

Perhaps the major cause of my embarrassment, though, was my book: “Detecting the Scam: Nelson Mandela’s Gift.” One chapter in my book I called “The Duck School — The School of Common Sense.”  Another I called “The Need To Ask.” Both chapters focused on the need for curiosity and the need to ask. Somehow, I had managed to forget everything I’d written…

The person in my story…

Many moons ago, while wearing my lawyer-hat, I represented a mild-mannered soul whose heart was in the right place. For this story, I thought I’d call him “Donald,” which is my most favorite name!

Whenever Donald occasionally ventured into the world of business and sought out my wisdom, I never charged him. Why? Well, I knew he couldn’t afford me — and I liked him. In my story, Donald wanted me to collaborate with him on a project. In particular, he wanted to include in his project a leadership program I’d just created.

The leadership program he wanted…

The program that interested Donald was a leadership program I’d called “Ten Magical Gifts of Light.” At the time, I thought this was a terrific program — and I still do!

Finally, remember Mark Twain…

If this story makes no sense to you, remember the truth is always stranger than fiction. As Mark Twain wrote, this is because fiction has to make sense. So, because this is a true story, don’t be surprised if it makes no sense to you. Certainly, it makes very little sense to me… 🙂

How it started…

I hadn’t heard from Donald for more than a year. Then, about seven months ago, he called me out of the blue. He said he’d just stumbled across The-Gift-Tree and our new leadership program. He gushed as he told me how impressed he was.

His flattery was over-the-top but was quite welcome. I hadn’t previously appreciated just how smart and discerning he was!!! That said, excessive flattery has always made me a tad uneasy —

Donald told me he was advising a very large company on a new project. The company was looking for educational programs and he thought my leadership program would fit in perfectly.

He said he was the primary advisor to the project’s mover-and-shaker. Donald described their close personal relationship and great chemistry. He said he and the mover-and-shaker thought the project would begin imminently – within a month. That was seven months ago…

Then he added a delicious cherry to the cake. He said my new Foundation could make a lot of money from our collaboration. And he wasn’t asking anything from me, he said. The company would pay the Foundation. Would I be interested in this, he asked? I thought about this for at least three seconds…

“Sure, why not?” I replied with a grin. “I’d love to work with you!”

One final point: I had (and still have) no doubt that his project was terrific. Consistent with our own mission, I was sure it could make a difference for the better in a lot of people’s lives. My only question was whether Donald could bring the company’s horse home. He felt he could. I hoped he could…

The first dot – and my first rookie mistake…

As he continued to describe the company’s project, Donald began to use the word “we” in a way that puzzled me. It didn’t seem as if he was still referring to the large company or to the-mover-and-shaker there.

When I asked him who the “we” was, he surprised me. He gave me the name of another entity completely. And when I googled that name, I found nothing. It had no website and the search engines could find nothing. And when I searched the California, Nevada and Delaware Secretary of State sites for entities with that name, again I found nothing.

What bothered me was how anyone Donald approached would react to the same search I’d just conducted. And who (other than me!) would do business with an entity that didn’t seem to exist? Of course, there might have been a totally innocent explanation. Hey, maybe it was a partnership that didn’t have to register anywhere — but then who were the partners? And what if his partners didn’t like me?

This clearly deserved a second look. Curiously, though, I didn’t give it that second look. Maybe I didn’t want to know…

This was the first dot I’d identified — and my first rookie mistake… 

Another dot – and a second rookie mistake…

I was curious why Donald had set up the new entity. This seemed to fundamentally change his relationship with the company and the main mover-and-shaker there. It seemed he’d moved from trusted advisor to an arms-length contractor.

Had this changed the premise of my collaboration, I wondered? What I attracted me to the collaboration was Donald working so closely with the main mover-and-shaker. Now his role seemed quite different. Was this a warning sign I shouldn’t ignore, I wondered? Certainly, it was something I knew I should explore, but I didn’t….

This was another dot — and my second rookie mistake…

Another dot – and a third rookie mistake…

When Donald saw I was concerned about the new entity, he sent me a 3-page document with a cover note. In that note, he wrote that the document “was accepted regarding [the new entity] as an organization.” 

For starters, I had no idea what this phrase meant. And who had “accepted” it? This seemed too weird. Was the purpose of the document he’d sent me really to establish that the new entity was an organization? In my world, to establish that your organization exists, you simply submit a certificate of incorporation or similar document. This is not brain surgery. And if you can’t do that, you should at least describe the entity and identify your senior officers. None of this was in Donald’s document.

Instead, it contained a lot of difficult-to-read fluff that seemed quite duplicative. There were long rambling statements of all kinds including a mission statement; a vision statement; a values statement; a statement of purposes; a statement of goals; and a statement of objectives. Again, I thought this too weird…

I’ve always found that a business document always presents both an opportunity and a danger. This is because the quality of that document always reflects the professionalism of those offering it. In this case, Donald’s document wasn’t flattering to anyone. It was clearly another dot.

Anyway, despite my reservations about the document, I didn’t talk to him about it. And I really should have…

This was another dot — and my third rookie mistake…

Another dot – and a fourth rookie mistake…

When Donald told me his business partner in the new entity was successful and well-connected, I was encouraged. Donald explained that his partner had no experience in the industry. And thus it was that he was relying on Donald to bring in his horse.

I must admit this surprised me. I didn’t remember Donald as having anything close to the experience or expertise to negotiate and document and let alone run a multi-million dollar sophisticated project. And the document he’d just given me seemed to confirm this. This was yet another dot…

This should have generated some questions from me, but it didn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to hurt Donald’s feelings.

This was another dot — and my fourth rookie mistake…

Another dot – and a fifth rookie mistake…

Donald said his business partner wanted to meet me. And I wanted to meet him too. Unfortunately, he must have been very busy. Over the next seven months, he never once called me and we never met. This was surely another dot, but, in fairness, not once did I call him either.

I suspected that Donald was worried about us talking or meeting. Perhaps he was worried about the questions I might have asked. Perhaps he was right! 🙂

This was another dot — and my fifth rookie mistake…

Another dot – and a sixth rookie mistake…

Through all of this and for seven months, Donald kept assuring me excitedly that the project was about to launch. His excitement was palpable and contagious. Something was wrong. Maybe his mover-and-shaker buddy wasn’t moving and shaking anymore — or maybe they weren’t still buddies. Another dot?

From my perspective, I really wanted to believe so badly what he was telling me. Equally clearly, though — and much to my dismay, I began to realize that for seven months I had suspended my sense of disbelief and common sense. I was following my heart while leaving my brain behind! Go figure!!!

This was another dot — and my sixth rookie mistake…

A seventh rookie mistake…

Meanwhile, all I could think about was the money my Foundation might make from this. And, as Donald continued to tell me how much his clients loved my program, I knew I was taking my eye off the ball! And as I did, I could see I wasn’t trusting my instincts. I should have known better…

This was my seventh rookie mistake…

Another dot – and an eighth rookie mistake…

Because I didn’t know if Donald could effectively explain my program to his clients, I asked if he’d like me to prepare something in writing to pass on to them. He said he did and that this would help him with his presentations. When I sent him what I’d prepared, he said he loved it.

Meanwhile, Donald was telling me about some different directions in which he was taking the project. Clearly, he was having trouble focusing. Was it my imahgination or was he running up a down-escalator? This time I did talk to him, but he didn’t much appreciate my thoughts here. Clearly, this was another dot…

Time was rushing by and I had already spent way too much time on this.

This was another dot — and my eighth rookie mistake…

Another dot – and a ninth rookie mistake…

As he’d done regularly for the past seven months, Donald once again told me the project would start in 3-6 weeks. The last time he did, when I asked him for a specific start date, he responded strangely: He said that, if I wanted out, he’d remove from his presentations any reference to our collaboration. He said he didn’t want to do this, but he would.

I thought this response strange — and yet another warning sign that all wasn’t well in Donald-land. This was yet another dot.The reality of my situation was finally beginning to bite me in the ass.

The reality of my relationship with Donald was finally beginning to bite me in the ass.

This was another dot — and my ninth rookie mistake…

Donald may have sensed my discomfort. He sent me a text giving me two specific dates for me to present two courses in my leadership program. He also gave me two tentative dates for the next two presentations. What he also said, though, was that these dates still had to be “firmed up.”

It was time to connect the dots…

At long last, I decided enough was enough. It was time to connect the dots. I thought of Yogi Berra — and then set a trap for Donald that would bring this to a head…

I would confront him innocently and non-confrontationally, I’d ask him some quite reasonable questions. If everything was on the up-and-up, he’d respond quite normally. If it wasn’t on the up-and-up, he’d almost certainly lash out at me. I know this is how people tend to respond when they feel cornered and want to avoid answering uncomfortable questions. How do I know this? Did I tell you I wrote this is my book? 🙂

I then promised myself I’d follow Buddha’s advice!

I sent Donald a friendly text. I simply asked him when the dates would be firmed up; who the client was; and what the financial deal between us was. For two weeks, I received no response from him. I then left a message asking him to call me back.

When he called, he came out swinging. He was furious with me. This turned out to be the final dot.

When I eventually was able to ask him who would be paying the Foundation if the deal actually happened, he said he and his new entity would. Really, I thought? He’d already recently told me he personally had no money — and wasn’t being paid very much. Would the new entity really pay me, I wondered? I decided I had no idea. Enough was enough, I thought. I wanted out!

The aftermath…

Moving forward, I had two concerns:

Firstly, I wanted Donald to know he was no longer authorized to offer my program to anyone.

Secondly, I also wanted him to notify those to whom he said he’d already pitched my program that it was no longer available. I wanted copies of those notifications. After all, he was the one who had led me to believe that he’d already actively and regularly pitched my program to prospective clients.

I sent him an email and text informing him of this. This was the first paragraph of his quite lengthy response —

“Hi Michael, I did not include any information about your program in any proposals nor did I name the gift tree. I share [sic] the website to only a few people unrelated to the project or to trainings. I spoke in general regarding your leadership training program and general topics related to story telling [sic] training, and negotiation. Your document was not shared in any contract talks…”

I smiled as I read this. This was a classic Perry Mason moment:

“Sir,” Perry Mason thundered on cross-examination,  “were you lying then or are you lying now?”

I honestly didn’t care. It didn’t matter. For me, Donald remains a good guy — and I still admire his project. My only hope is that, by not drawing his attention to the warning signs I saw, I didn’t inadvertently deny him the opportunity to make changes he might have needed to make to close a few deals.

The good news was that this adventure had cost me no money. More important, it had highlighted how dealing with friends can affect your judgment. It also highlighted that you are doing them no favors if you ignore obvious warning signs and flaws in their project.

The bad news was that I’d lost a lot of time. But even that was OK. What I did during that time could still help me during my own program.

The gifts…

So, here are four gifts the story offers —

First, we should always trust ourselves to act and ask questions when warning signs show up — even if we are working with a friend.

Second, we should always quickly connect the dots we’ve identified.

Third, while following our heart in trying to help a friend, we shouldn’t leave our brain behind…

Fourth, when we ignore a warning, we aren’t doing anyone a favor. Indeed, we might actually be doing them a disservice.

So, that’s my story. I hope it’ll prove helpful to you — if only to confirm what you already know.

Finally, here’s a parting thought that I hope you’ll find useful as you think about the issue trust —