The Company We Keep: Is It Hurting or Helping Our Reputation?


Former CIA head and four-star general David Petreus is man of extraordinary accomplishments and service to his country. And so is General John Allen. But both their reputations have been diminished by their friendship with Jill Kelley in Tampa, Florida.

 Who knows what truth will finally be revealed about this situation. But the press has reported some pretty unsavory but confirmed facts about Mrs. Kelley. Like, she tried to peddle her influence to a businessman trying to build a plant in South Korea, and wanted an $80 million commission. And she and her husband have been the subject of 9 legal actions against them in the last few years. Oh, and they apparently started a cancer charity that conveniently used up virtually all of the funds for travel and meals. The revelations keep coming. Yet she was awarded the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, a silver star, for “outstanding public service”—that is, basically hosting lavish parties at her house for top military and government officials.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m a huge supporter of our military service members, and in fact my son is in the Air Force. The point is that your fine reputation—which you have built up over years of hard work—can get clobbered if you associate with the wrong people. It’s the opposite of the psychological phenomenon called “positive association.” When a prospective client sees that we work with other people and companies they admire, they will be more trusting of us and more inclined to believe we’re competent. But as soon as we’re seen as associating with less-than-admirable characters, our own reputation takes a hit.  

It can happen to almost anyone. I remember I once interviewed a top executive for a research study I was doing. He invited me to do some consulting work for him and his well-known company. Before anything materialized—only weeks later—this executive was arrested in an FBI sting operation and later found guilty of a terrible crime. I saw him on TV in a jumpsuit and handcuffs. Seriously. And he had been recommended to me by a most trustworthy contact of mine.

Ask yourself: Do the clients I’m working for enhance my reputation or diminish it?  Do I have relationships with individuals who may bring my own credibility into doubt for some reason? 

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