After a long and storied career that has taken me to over seventy countries; I have learned the importance of building strong bonds in a compressed amount of time. When you are discussing multimillion dollar deals with people who were absolute strangers a few months earlier; it is essential to connect with them on both a personal and professional level. The best part of this exercise is that I am not merely doing it to line my wallet; I also love making new friends, feel that I am positioning a business person to be a hero to their organization, and enjoy discovering other people’s perspectives on life.
Breaking bread together is an excellent way to thaw the ice with a potential customer and preferably a new lifelong friend! This is especially true when working across linguistic and cultural differences. Unfortunately, there are those occasions where things stall; usually somewhere between the soup and the entrée.
Picture this scenario, if you will. All day was spent discussing the deal, now you want to get to know the people across from you. The problem is that eventually all of you either run out of things to say, or are not keen on sharing too many personal details about your life. The dinnertime conversation has come to a screeching halt and any further bonding between all of you has ended!
Many years ago, I worked for a retired surgeon who had founded a software and consulting company. He was without a doubt the quintessential renaissance man. This gentleman was a physician, a scientist, a philanthropist, a businessman, a gourmet, a philosopher, and a beacon for all things cultured. He was gifted with the ability to move seamlessly in and out of cultures and social settings. Did I happen to mention he was a teacher as well?
This doctor and I were sitting at dinner with prospective clients at a wonderful little bistro in Quebec City. Formalities had been laid aside, family histories had been exchanged, and polite chit-chat had slammed into a brick wall! The decadent French appetizers had not yet been consumed and we were taking turns staring at one another.
“If you could have dinner with any three people from history; who would they be and why?” The words shattered our self-imposed silence, and we all turned to face my boss. Knowing he would get a mandatory answer from one of his own employees; he pointed a finger at me and encouraged me to get things moving.
It took me a moment to roll the question around in my mind. This was something I had never pondered before. After a few uncomfortable moments of soul-searching; I blurted out my answer, “Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, and Teddy Roosevelt!” Based upon the looks on the other faces around the table; it seemed that I had come up with an eclectic trio of historical personages. Now, looking at the good doctor’s raised eyebrows, it was time for me to explain the “why” behind my chosen dinner companions.
I began my defense by stating that these three people were ones that I admired deeply. In fact, I had tried to pattern my life along a path that resembled theirs. Mother Teresa was the epitome of kindness and selflessness. She ministered to the destitute and diseased merely because it was the right thing to do. Albert Einstein was the perfect combination of brilliant mind and minimal ego. His thoughts altered our vision of the universe, yet he would regularly and humorously demean himself. Teddy Roosevelt served to show all of us that the mixture of confidence and zeal for life could lead to great rewards. I think it safe to say that he was the father of living large!
The rest of the dinner party shared their hypothetical lists of dinner companions. Afterwards, there was not a second of silence to be had at our table. All of us began by excitedly questioning each other’s choices. That evolved into finding similarities between the many personages that had been selected. It was not much later that we were discussing the virtues and philosophies represented by each selection; having completely abandoned who those hypothetical invitees actually were.
During this entire exercise, the doctor sat back with a twinkle in his eye and a slight smile on his lips. He had opened the door not just to conversation; he had also opened the windows to the sharing of human experience. Under his watch, we were bonding on the deepest levels of friendship; intimating our most secret desires, fears, and hopes. To top it all off, the selections of supposed dinner mates made by each of the people around our table gave us a sense of what they valued and who they hoped to be.
Over the twenty years that have passed since that fateful dinner in Quebec City; I have used this dinner game extensively. It has never failed me. Tables filled with complete strangers have become the best of friends during a period spanning cocktails to dessert. In the process, I have confirmed the beauty that lies within each of us. Viewpoints and value systems that were foreign to me have been shared at the most intimate of levels. I am the better for it!
So, it is your turn. “If you could have dinner with any three people from history; who would they be and why?” Be very careful; you never know what you might learn about yourself! Bon Appetit!