While watching the Washington Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup, I had to chuckle. I was reminded of an old boss. When I first started at his small brokerage firm, I was told that if he didn’t like someone in a meeting, he would pick up the person’s business card and pick his teeth with it. The meeting would end soon thereafter. A lot of people don’t want to say no, nor do they know how to. It’s an art.
Some people have brushoffs down pat. A decade ago, I heard activist Ward Connerly explain Bill Clinton’s premeditated move. Headed to the White House in 1997, Mr. Connerly learned that Mr. Clinton’s signal that he didn’t like someone—so his staff shouldn’t bother—was to compliment his tie. Mr. Connerly was amused until Mr. Clinton approached him to tell him how much he liked his tie.
I’ve been brushed and hushed. In the mid-1990s, after much hassle, my colleagues and I landed a meeting with Jeff Berg, who ran one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies. We were in his lavish office pitching him on getting his clients to invest in our fund. Technology was disrupting music, television and movies, and we were the perfect hedge. I thought the meeting was going pretty well until his secretary walked in saying John F. Kennedy Jr. was on the line. Mr. Berg gave us the eyebrow lift and took the call. As we were ushered out, we heard him yelling, “Yes, I know everything in this town.” Great theater—no deal.
Maybe a year later, I was on a panel at an investment conference with Mike Milken. We had a great discussion about finding value, which ended with him saying he was extremely interested in our fund. Could we please send him materials and follow up? I’m still waiting for his call back. Countless others have used this tactic.
Earlier in my career, I was in Houston pitching chip stocks to a famous but rather elderly money manager. About 20 minutes into the meeting, he fell fast asleep. I didn’t know what to do. Naturally, I kept talking. He eventually woke up, thanked me for visiting, and quickly showed me out.
At a conference in downtown Manhattan, I met the founder of the famous though usually pointless series of talks—it rhymes with “zed”—and we had a great discussion. We continued the chat on the sidewalk as we were heading to the same Midtown restaurant for an event. A limousine pulled up. The driver jumped out and opened the door. The founder got in, alone, leaving me stranded—and with a clear message.