Style always adds to a winning hand

By GREG STOLLER

Points get awarded for building a rapport in business. And true business success is achieved over time, not from a deft 15-minute PowerPoint or promising initial meeting.

For more than 20 years, I’ve mentored entrepreneurs from all walks of life trying to bring their ideas to market, and during this time I have also run my own company. Substance always proves the winning hand.

One of my MBA teams recently learned the hard way during the finals of a worldwide competition, however, that style points matter, too. The competition played host to business schools from across the globe, separately assuming the role of financiers backing entrepreneurs. Our five-person team was selected from across a 15-person field in the fall semester via a local contest, and then they successfully competed against six other b-schools at the regional level. Last weekend, the team battled against other 12 regional winners at the worldwide finals. Within each competition are three timed stages, which successively knock out players.

The team did nearly everything right in both planning and execution … except for one minor detail: failing to establish a rapport through effective salesmanship from the get-go.

In a bona fide effort to tackle the toughest issues first, the team immediately began discussing funding needs. From a theoretical, even technical, perspective, this was the correct strategy. Once successfully negotiated, everything else outside of “the money” should be comparatively easy to figure out.

Well, not exactly. Even in this age of “e” everything, where smartphones are seemingly surgically attached appendages, the business world still operates through person-to-person interactions. Being nice doesn’t always make you finish last, either. Their strategic miscalculation to talk business first cost them further advancement to the final stage. To be fair to the process, other teams pursuing the same tack also suffered a similar fate in the competition, except ours lost by a single judge’s vote.

In academic circles or in the business world, there is a certain je ne sais quoi to get the balance of style vs. substance consistently right. On one hand are slick presenters who could seemingly sell ice to an Eskimo. Their approach works well because their passion makes you want to become a customer. On the other are brilliant technocrats glued to their laptops, but who routinely forget to say “good morning” to co-workers. They’re talented, too, but sometimes better served working in the back office, out of client sight.

Here are some thoughts to remember when connecting the dots:

  • Life isn’t fair: On preparation alone, this team deserved to be in the winner’s circle of the competition. They put in more time than likely any other group, and had the knowledge to back it up. But because they jumped the gun too soon in terms of talking money, their master plan to finish on a positive, feel-good note, because they were tackling the issues from toughest to easiest, unexpectedly unraveled. Sometimes you just have bad luck,
  • Read the signs: Especially when a plan is well thought out and everyone trusts it in their gut, no one wants to be the one to cry foul or recommend deviating from it. We’ve all been there. But it’s vital to read the signs coming from those across the table and change the strategy on the fly. In the initial stages of the competition, the team received some pushback about why they chose to talk funding so early. They ignored the questions and non-verbal cues, as the same strategy had worked flawlessly for them during the semi-finals. Every situation is different.
  • It’s not where you start the race but rather finish it: Most entrepreneurs will get involved with multiple ventures during their career. So over time, people will amass knowledge and learn from their past mistakes. As each of these students graduates and goes into business, I know they’ll respectively shine—they already have academically over their eight months of preparation for the competition. Fortunately, successful entrepreneurs don’t become such from a flash-in-the-pan moment or a short-term “get rich quick scheme” type mentality. Everyone also loves seeing those gray hairs around the boardroom table.

Style and process are important and shouldn’t be ignored, even in favor of substance. You probably shouldn’t propose to someone based on the first few dates, even if you’re convinced you’ve finally found Mr. or Mrs. Right. Put the time in to prepare for any business interaction and objectively monitor each step of the process.

There continues to be no substitute for experience and the longer you’re in business, the more everything will become second nature. Resist the urge to be trapped in perpetual myopia, and don’t forget to ask the person sitting next to you in your office about their weekend plans. You might end up wanting to join them.


 

Greg Stoller is a Senior Lecturer, and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.