The Doubting Mind

“I used to work for an old-fashioned rainmaker,” a client of mine once told me. “He had that ‘take no prisoners’ approach to sales and customer relationships. His motto was, ‘Sometimes wrong, never in doubt.’” Never in doubt, indeed. It’s one thing to have deep-seated conviction about your views, quite another, however, to obscure the truth with overconfidence and bluster—something that clients today simply won’t put up with.

Doubt, in fact, plays an important role for client advisors who build long-term relationships. There are three types of doubt you need to cultivate:

  • External doubt: skepticism that the problem your client presents to you is the real problem and that what your clients tell you about their business is really true. Also, having a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom;

  • Internal doubt: the ability to step back and recognize that you may be wrong about something or that your fundamental premises need rethinking;

  • Doubt about outcomes: the willingness to suspend judgment about what’s “good” and “bad”—about events whose eventual consequences we in fact don’t understand.

First, great client advisors are bit skeptical about what clients tell them. They watch clients’ feet, not their mouths. They are convinced by observable behavior and data, not by mere words. Client advisors, metaphorically, all come from Missouri—the “Show Me” state.

In the early 1980s, the London financial markets were deregulated. Whereas previously there had been a strict separation of investment banking (securities underwriting and issuance) and broking (distribution and trading), these walls were now removed. It became conventional wisdom that every merchant bank would have to rush into stockbroking in order to hold onto its market share and client base. When Schroders, one of the top three merchant banks at the time, hired James Kelly as its advisor, they expected to receive similar advice—the question was really how to implement this shift. Kelly, in fact, who had deep experience in the US financial markets, thought it would be suicide for Schroders to plunge into a trading business they knew nothing about. Rejecting the accepted wisdom, he convinced Schroders to remain independent and focus on its core strengths—investment banking, M&A, and fund management.

One by one its competitors tried to become full-service banks, and one by one they stumbled and were picked off by larger institutions at bargain prices. Schroders prospered enormously, and 16 years later its market value had increased more than 25-fold. At the peak of the market, it sold its vaunted investment banking business to Citigroup, where it continues to prosper (the fund management side remained independent). Kelly, who founded and was CEO of a major consulting firm, says, “You have to be skeptical when you see the herd thundering in one direction. You just have to doubt whether it makes sense for your client.”

I’ve heard all of these phrases many times before:

“We have the best quality in the business.”

“Our management team is second to none.”

“We have the lowest employee attrition in our industry.”

“Our competitor’s products use inferior/outdated/incompatible technology.”

“We’ve already implemented that” [whatever it is you’re suggesting to them]

“Our brand is one of our most valuable assets.”

“We have no need for your services.”

Your job is to politely question and challenge statements like this. Ask for evidence that they are true. Through direct enquiry, find out for yourself.

The flip side of doubting your client’s assertions or rejecting accepted wisdom is questioning your own premises. One of the traps that experts fall into is a blind belief in their expertise. Many governmental and corporate blunders, in fact—from the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s to the dot-com meltdown of the late 1990s—can be traced to this type of hubris.

My brother, a prominent surgeon, told me this story about the dangers of a lack of doubt: “A patient at my hospital had suffered a brain injury, and it was determined that he was essentially ‘brain dead’—according to his doctors, there was no hope whatsoever of recovery. He would never, ever, regain consciousness. The family, ever hopeful, refused to allow life support to be removed. For months, the man lay in a vegetative coma. One day, a nurse was brushing his teeth, and he suddenly blurted out, ‘Leave me alone!’ He did something that was considered a medical impossibility by the experts.” The patient, sadly, later passed away, but not before confounding the entire hospital staff.

I recall a client in Italy who had asked a major consulting firm to evaluate a proposal to open several bank branches in Milan. The firm had extensive experience in the banking industry, and had developed a sophisticated model for determining branch profitability. The model, in essence, showed that you became profitable by clustering your branches in one geographic location, rather than dispersing them. They told my client, in no uncertain terms, that to open just a few branches in the north of Italy would be a disaster. Instead, they, said, he should concentrate new branches near his existing ones in central Italy. Against the consultants’ advice, the client opened the Milan branches, and they were a huge success. I won’t go into all the reasons why they worked out so well—but needless to say the consultants had applied a business model that had worked in many other countries, notably the United States, without understanding this client’s particular context and business environment. They refused to entertain any doubts about their stock advice, and left behind one very dissatisfied client.

The third type of doubt you need to exercise is about outcomes. In the West, we are very certain that some things are good for us and others are bad. A competitor comes out with a similar product or service to one that we offer—terrible! We are audited by the IRS—horrendous! Someone threatens to sue us—heinous! On the other hand, we are sure other events are good. We get offered a promotion, for example, or better yet, win the lottery. What great fortune, everyone will say. Zen philosophy, in contrast, espouses a more neutral attitude towards the world around us. It encourages us to doubt our preconceived notions about events being either favorable or unfavorable.

So when a competing product is introduced, why are we so sure that it’s a bad thing? Perhaps it will stimulate the market and create renewed demand for our own product; or the competition will spur our organization towards greater innovation, resulting in increased profits down the road. So you’ve won the lottery? You should read the studies that have been done of lottery winners—for many of them, winning the lottery ruins their lives! Bernie Marcus was fired from K-Mart, and he promptly went out and co-founded Home Depot—he’s now a billionaire.

This principle is beautifully illustrated in a short story entitled “The Verger,” written by W. Somerset Maugham. In the story, a man named Albert has been the verger (a lay caretaker) at a small church for 16 years. One day a new vicar arrives at the church, and, discovering that Albert cannot read or write, fires him. Feeling depressed and destitute as he walks along the street near the church, Albert notices that there are no shops nearby, and decides to start a small kiosk selling tobacco and candy. He proves to be quite adept at business, and in a short period of time he ends up owning a whole chain of kiosks and shops. Years later, Albert has become a very wealthy man. One day he goes to the local bank to make a large deposit, and asks the bank manager for assistance, casually explaining that he cannot read or write. Hearing his story, the manager exclaims in astonishment, “Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?”

I can tell you that, sir,” replies Albert. “I’d be verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”

So don’t be so sure that an outcome is good or bad for your client—or for yourself. Things may not turn out to be as bad—or as good—as you think they will. The next time a client turns you down, don’t wring your hands and mope around the house; it’s not the end of the world, and another door will probably open for you. Correspondingly, when you win a big assignment or your client scores a victory, celebrate but don’t think all your challenges are over—you and I both know they aren’t!

Great client advisors, in summary, strike a healthy balance between acting with a deep-seated conviction that is founded on a set of time-tested principles, and expressing healthy doubt about their clients’assertions and their own views.

There is an old Zen saying, “Small doubt, small enlightenment; great doubt, great enlightenment.” Cultivate the doubting mind—it will become an important part of the wisdom you offer to your clients.

Changes In Attitude

We are often overly-focused on the transactions we conduct with our clients, and give short-shrift to other aspects of the relationship including the experience as a whole. The following story illustrates this in terms anyone could understand:

Recently, my wife and I had dinner with friends of ours, Tony and Gayatri Malmud, who run a lovely jewelry store and clothing boutique here in Santa Fe called Spirit of the Earth. We had agreed to meet at 6:30 pm at a local restaurant, giving them time to close their store, and make it to our rendezvous. They didn’t arrive until after 7, and they profusely apologized for their tardiness.

“Right before closing time,” Tony explained after sitting down, “a young couple walked into the shop. They told us that they are getting married in three days, and had not yet chosen wedding rings for their exchange of vows. After they had explained to us what they were looking for, I knew the exact rings in our collection that would be perfect for them. In reality, we could have sold them something in five minutes. But this was such an important experience for them, we didn’t want to rush it. They weren’t just buying jewelry—they were buying the experience of looking at different rings, talking about it among themselves, and imaging how different styles would look on their hands. They were buying a memory they would have for their lifetimes. So it didn’t seem fair to rush them just to be here on time. I hope you don’t mind.” Of course we understood. Who wouldn’t have?

We’re all in the business of adding value to our clients, but don’t always think about value just in terms of the specific, contracted-for services or products you’re providing them. Clients can derive all kinds of important benefits, be they material, psychic, emotional, or political, from other aspects of the relationship.

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