Looking Beyond Our Own Con


When thinking of con artists, famous ones probably come to mind, like Bernie Madoff, the American financier who bilked billions of dollars from unsuspecting investors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or Frank Abagnale, the check forger and scam artist made famous in the 2002 movie “Catch Me if You Can.”

But con artists aren’t a recent phenomenon; they go back centuries. In the early 1900s, there was Victor Lustig from Austria-Hungary, who sold the Eiffel Tower twice! And then there was the Italian swindler from the 1920s whose greatest claim to fame isn’t the money he stole from trusting investors or the headlines he made when he was caught. Rather, history has immortalized him by lending his name to the entire genre of cons that made him famous—the Ponzi scheme, named after Charles Ponzi.

Even men of the cloth aren’t exempt from the temptation of conning trusting souls, as is evidenced by televangelist Jim Bakker, who spent nearly five years in federal prison for his misdeeds.

But there’s a type of con that doesn’t get much attention, probably because it’s so commonplace and doesn’t involve violence, politics, or crime. It’s the con game many of us play when it comes to convincing ourselves that we’re going to do or accomplish something despite suspecting deep in our hearts that we really aren’t. (Be sure not to confuse conning ourselves with legitimate goals or dreams. They’re not the same.)

I witnessed this play out in real time at our recent Business Planning Retreats, where businesses laid out their plans for the coming year. Some had lofty goals that involved aggressive sales growth or radical changes on the part of the owners and their management teams. Some spent a great deal of time trying to convince themselves (and anybody else who would listen) that they were serious about achieving them—this time.

We’re sometimes enticed to play a con game with ourselves as we try to keep up with peers who seem to be winning with their “overnight” successes and swanky lifestyles. We overlook the years of hard work and sacrifice that might have led to those achievements. It’s common to celebrate overnight sensations in business but overlook the plodders, those companies that enjoy profitable growth year after year and provide financial security for their owners and workers.

I have found that the best way to resolve an internal con is to surround ourselves with people who can help us think clearly and realistically about our goals and our own (and our company’s) capabilities and limitations. These are people we trust, who can see when we’re playing the game and the impact it can have on us and our people—without calling it a con. They are frequently a spouse, trusted employee, or an outside advisor. One of our most challenging jobs is to actually listen to them and avoid accusing them of not being on board with our idea or of not being a team player. Most are team players, and they’re playing their position by bringing up alternate views and a balanced approach.

Most con artists are eventually found out, which usually doesn’t end well. We can avoid a lot of unpleasantness in business by removing our rose-colored glasses and looking beyond our con to see a clear view of the future.

Chuck Violand

Chuck Violand is the founder of Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Through VMA, he works with business owners and companies to develop their people and profits. For more information, visit www.violand.com.

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