I guess this would qualify as a business lesson from rock: Don’t speak critically of celebrities if you’re talking to a stranger.
I was in Shanghai years ago giving a talk when a management consultant—who heard of the book I was writing about rock bands—asked me what I thought of a certain Detroit-based rock singer from the mid-60s. Without thinking, I said something dismissive like, “He and his band were ok. Nothing particularly original.” Then I found out that this consultant once played keyboard with the band.
It reminded me of the old Southwest Airlines ad: “Want to get away?”
Of course I tried my best back-and-fill maneuvers, commenting on the things I liked about the singer and band, but it was too little too late.
I suppose the larger lesson is: don’t speak ill of anyone (or any business) if you’re talking to someone you don’t know.
I have friends who say, “Speak your mind and let others deal with it.” That may be fine in your personal life, but in the business world it can be a "career limiting" practice. Of course I occasionally (hourly?) violate the rule, but I’m learning.
I actually committed a worse blunder hours before I humiliated that consultant. I had just finished up a seminar for an international sales force of a German-based logistics company. I was told they all spoke English well. Not true, as it turned out. Half of them missed what I was saying (and were too polite to tell me), and I had no clue until afterwards. I had flown 11 hours to deliver an incomprehensible workshop—and then insulted a consultant. I was on a roll.
But there was some good news. (Relentless optimist that I am, I always look for the positive.) The food poisoning I got in the Shanghai airport on my way home made me forget about all of it.
Ok, here’s the updated lesson: don’t speak ill of another unless your audience can’t understand what the hell you’re talking about.
Here’s a better one: say something effusively positive about everybody. When asked your opinion about someone, always reply, “What an unbelievable talent! Amazing. I can't say enough about him [her].”
It worked for a popular New York TV talk show host, Joe Franklin. In the 1980s I use to call him up regularly to see if he'd interview me on his show. He’d always say, “I’ve GOT to get you on. I love your work. I can't say enough about it. It's amazing. Really. I mean that. I have all your books. I don't know how you do it. You have a unique gift. Call me back next month.” Actually I hadn't written anything then—and he seemed to always forget my name—but I always appreciated his obvious sincerity and his keen eye for talent. And I enjoyed our phone conversations—month after month after month. (He eventually had me on his show after I wore him down with my calls.)
So my new resolution is to appreciate everyone. In the words of Lyle Lovett, “I love everybody.”