How to Transform a Relationship

On November 25th, 2008, Citigroup executive James Bardrick stepped off his plane at the Mumbai airport in India. At the time, he was co-head of Citigroup’s banking business for Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

His keen intellect, easy way with people, and fierce client devotion had propelled him rapidly up the corporate ladder at one of the world’s largest banks.

During his nearly 25-year banking career, Bardrick had experienced just about every professional challenge you can imagine. But nothing could have prepared him for the horrific nightmare into which he was about to descend in less than 24 hours.

The following day, Bardrick met the CEO of a long-standing client. They were going to spend three days together, traveling around India to examine ways to expand the CEO’s business there. He had a good relationship with his client, although they were not particularly close.

This is James Bardrick’s story, as he tells it:

“Hans and I are eating lunch at the Oberoi Hotel in downtown Mumbai. Hans has been my client for several years. We’ve helped his company, a large multinational, in many areas. We lend them money, and we act as his lead investment banker for acquisitions and capital markets.

“We go through our schedule for the next few days as we sip our coffee. Suddenly, we hear gunshots from outside the restaurant, down the stairwell. Bang, bang, bang.

“It’s loud and it’s real live gunfire. And there are also screams. My heart starts racing. Hans and I look at each other. We’re both frozen in our seats. What do we do next?

“Then, the maitre D’ screams, ‘Stay where you are. Stay seated.’ Some of the patrons who have started to stand immediately sit down. But there’s more gunfire. And now there’s shouting.

“It’s getting closer. Someone is coming up the stairs. ‘Let’s go. We shouldn’t stay.’ We both jump out of our chairs and race towards the back of the restaurant, through the kitchen doors. The gunshots and shouts become louder behind us as we run into the kitchen.”

James and his client Hans didn’t know it yet, but they had the misfortune of being in the middle of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks of recent record. On that day, 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks unfolded across Mumbai, India. 164 people were killed and 308 wounded.

James continues his story: “Later, we learn that the terrorists came up the stairs, rushed into the dining room where we were eating lunch, and immediately killed about six people at the nearest tables. Oh, did I tell you we were sitting at one of the tables near that entryway?

“We run through the kitchen. There’s total chaos. People are screaming and rushing to and fro, knocking plates of food to the ground. Hans and I are determined to get as far away as possible from the gunfire. We push into the rear of the extensive kitchen.

“We find two closed doors at the back. We jar them open with our shoulders. We enter a large ballroom. We shut the doors behind us. We figure that the crisis will be short-lived. After all, the police are bound to arrive at any minute.

“Suddenly, the lights go out. It’s nearly pitch black in the ballroom. Some other people are there, too. We all stand against the wall, trying to control our fear. The terrorists could burst into the room at any moment and kill all of us.

“And then we wait. And wait. There is sporadic gunfire around us, and periodic shouts. Our cellphones don’t work—we cannot get a call out.

“Hours go by. We are tired, hot, thirsty, and sweaty. But we don’t dare go back into the main hotel areas. By now we’ve learned that a major attack is in progress. The hotel has been taken over by armed terrorists. We are trapped. They haven’t found us, but we are, effectively, hostages.

“We’ve now spent the entire evening hiding in the ballroom. Hans and I barely dare to whisper to each other. We agree that we should try and find a back exit so we can quietly slip out of the hotel.

“It’s midnight. One of the other people in the ballroom warns us against trying to escape to the streets outside. They’ve heard the police are shooting at anyone who is leaving the hotel! Which, in fact, they were.

“We decide to take our chances. We assume the terrorists may be searching the hotel, looking particularly for westerners to take hostage.

“We open a small side door to the ballroom, and go down a pitch-black corridor. Then, we see an exit door. What we don’t know, but soon find out, is that the police and anti-terrorist squads have set up a perimeter around the hotel. They are attacking the terrorists. Anyone leaving the hotel is in danger of being shot—by the police.

“The exit door is open. It goes to a small alleyway in the back of the hotel. We crawl out slowly. Silently.

“We can hear the sound of gunshots from far away. We walk down the alleyway, hoping it will lead us away from the hotel. But my heartbeat doesn’t slow—it’s still racing.

“Suddenly we hear gunfire from the far end of the alley. The terrorists are moving towards us. They are coming straight at us, firing their weapons. We turn and start to run in the opposite direction. We are running as fast as we can in our leather dress shoes.

“A car is careening down the alley towards us. Later, we find out it was filled with gunmen. As it gets closer to us, we spy a large garbage bin on the side of the street. It’s one of those large metal bins that the hotel uses for refuse.

“‘Look, over there’ Hans says to me. ‘We can hide there.’ The car is getting closer. My lungs are burning. It’s the most intense fear I have ever experienced. Hans and I hurl our bodies into the large opening of the garbage bin. We can hear more gunshots, so we burrow under the garbage to hide ourselves.

“You cannot imagine the putrid stench. Dozens of loose bags of restaurant refuse. Rotten food. Stinking liquid at the bottom of the bin. Maybe rats, too. But who cares. We’re alive. They haven’t found us!

“Finally, it’s quiet outside. But we don’t dare to move. We don’t dare to leave the safety of our garbage bin. ‘Well,’ I whisper to Hans, lying next to me. ‘This is one evening out together we won’t forget.’

“We finally emerge safe, at dawn. Then we are able to call Citigroup. The local office quickly finds us and begins making arrangements to have our passports replaced. You see, the Hotel Oberoi was held by that group of terrorists for nearly three days.

“Everyone who stayed behind became a hostage. They killed 36 people in that hotel. My client and I barely escaped with our lives. By minutes.”

I am stunned by the time James finishes his story. Speechless. “Well,” I finally say, “what an experience you two went through together. How’s your relationship now?”

“When you go through something like that…” James trails off now. “When that happens with someone—well, it changes everything. It creates a powerful bond.”

James’ story gives us a powerful law of relationships: Change the environment and you’ll deepen the relationship.

Hopefully you do not have to experience this law in the way that James and Hans did. But the principle that was at work in the garbage bin in Mumbai works just as well in other, more pleasant locations.

Think about your own relationships. What do you experience when you go somewhere different with someone and are in new environment together? Perhaps you bring a client to a conference in city where neither of you live, and you spend hours over dinner together. You get to know each other better. You talk about different things. The relationship is intensified. Deepened. Stretched.

It’s as true with clients as with friends and family. My family will never, ever forget a river-rafting trip we took on the Green River in Utah. It was arduous, with mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. Scorpions. River snakes. Sizzling heat. But today we still laugh about the trip. It bonded us. Brought us closer. It created a spectacular, communal memory.

Change the environment, and you may just transform the relationship.

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