Murmurs on the Orient Express

October 2, 2012

The group gathering daily in the small room included an elderly refugee from Castro’s Cuba, traveling with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter on a long postponed family vacation.  Near him was a widow who practically lived on vacation.  Across from them was a couple from the Northwest United States, who had retired early after selling their business to a very large financial services company. Next to them was a highly skilled and very creative jewelry maker.  They were usually joined by a former army veteran. Finally, there was a successful lawyer.  What was this – a passengers’ lounge on the fabled Orient Express?  No, it was an adult gathering place on a cruise ship.

During the days that this group gathered at about the same time every afternoon, they got to know each other very well.  After learning about everyone’s children and grandchildren, a subject that actually goes by faster than it sounds, people usually turned to talking about their current or former businesses.

People still define themselves in large measure by what they do or what they did. These people were very proud of what they do or did, even if they were not bragging.For example, Grandpa, as we came to call him, cheerfully elaborated on how as a refugee, he had built his business, and how well his son had expanded the business, what was now successful, what was not, and what deals were pending, but not yet completed. The lawyer, after a few days, was candidly discussing his firm’s recent and pending successes.

At the end of the trip, I said goodbye to the couple that had sold their business.  They were rather surprised that I knew a lot about their particular business and asked how I came to know that.  I replied that our business was competitive intelligence, and we had occasion to dig into that niche of the business world recently.  In fact, we had been profiling the very company to which they sold their firm (but we were no longer working on that assignment).

The lesson?  In a very real sense, there is nowhere safe to talk about the inner workings of your business, that is, where you conversationally release information that you certainly would not give to competitor over the phone.  Just because you are comfortable and relaxed while talking to nice people doesn’t mean this is a place to dissect the internal workings of your business.  It is a place to relax – quietly.

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