After 50 years of starting successful businesses in various industries, and having thousands of employees, not a month goes by–especially in challenging times like these–without my receiving multiple emails, calls, referrals, business plans, requests, solicitations, and other inquiries from people I’ve once worked with through myriad media channels. If you think that LinkedIn is a helpful tool, think again. It’s a time sink, and a shameless, standing invitation for introductions.
Some of these individuals I distinctly remember. Some I could never forget. Some I tell myself I should, or may, remember. Others, I politely pretend to recall. But I do try to respond to every one of them. Even if, truth be told, they might not have been such a bargain the first time around. Nothing is as responsible for the way we fondly remember the good old days (and the folks who were there) than a fading memory. Others ask me why I’d go out of my way for Bob or Jane, pointing out some insult or shortcoming of theirs in the distant past. “Loyalty” is often a big part of these conversations. To be honest, some people are more offended on my behalf than I would ever be, even if I remembered the incidents in question. The motives of memory are rarely entirely pure. Some of these people remain forever bitter about slights and imagined injuries. The best and most successful entrepreneurs I know aren’t anchored to the past ups and downs–they’re always looking ahead. And they’re really big on second chances.
Once you open the door, though, you have to be very careful in these conversations with people from the dim past. They might be ancient history to you, but they may be holding on to a particular moment or memory that’s very special to them that involved you. You don’t want to accidentally drain the joy from their recollection by admitting that you have no idea of what they’re talking about. Honesty and too much candor aren’t always virtues. You have to wield the truth with care.
I often say, in talks, classes, and columns, that no one becomes successful in the past. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad bet or a foolish investment to spend the modest amount of time it takes to reconnect and try to help people from the old days. Just as long as you don’t end up spending too much time sitting around, as Bruce Springsteen would caution, thinking about those glory days. Some people spend all their time looking forward to the past. Don’t waste too much time looking backward unless that’s the direction you’re headed.
There are plenty of good reasons to respond to these inquiries, as long as you’re careful not to make a hash of the whole thing. There’s a definite risk that your “good deed” won’t go unpunished. But consider it a worthy and worthwhile effort for these reasons among others:
— First, and selfishly, because you never know who’s going to bring you your future. They may be pitching you on your next great opportunity, or opening doors to new markets, key prospective employees, or future investors. No one’s too busy to spend a few minutes listening.
— Second, because only arrogant morons think that they’re “self-made” successes and forget all the people who helped get them there. No one is a success all by themselves, and you might find that these past team members were the very ones who helped complete the package, get the critical work done, and made you and your business the raging success that it turned out to be. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. And you may owe them a lot more than you’d think, or like to admit.
— And finally, because extending a helping hand is the right thing to do if you can, whatever the ancient history may have been. Remember that we remember not what we choose, but what our memory permits–and, often as not, the times, things, and people we recall are more likely to be “the way things weren’t” than the way things really were. But whatever they were, they’re gone.
Memory revises itself constantly, in part to warm and sweeten past events in order to shield us from prior hurts and disappointments. And because, while we all think we have pure, photographic recall, some of us no longer have the necessary capacity. There’s the past, and then there’s the story we choose to tell about it. Nothing is ever as rosy or rotten as we tend to recall. It’s the way we never were.
One of the risks you run in reaching back is that the memories of your early friends and employees may hinder you from being the person you’ve become, or are trying to become. It’s hard to return home and seek work as the latest “golden boy” at the fanciest firm in the city when your old buddies remember you as the clown from the wrong part of town. You never know when you’re making a memory that may come back to bite you.
Another risk is that there are just some people that you can never do enough for. And often, they won’t take no for an answer. That can be a very slippery slope, and you need to set the boundaries right from the start: “Here’s how I can help, if at all, and here’s what I can’t or won’t be able to do.” In these cases, once it becomes clear that the “ask” is just too much, you need to remember that an honest refusal is much better than an insincere promise or an unnecessary delay. Of course, ghosting someone is the worst of all. Tell the truth and duck. Don’t just disappear.
And finally, you will inevitably run into situations where the person pitching you is a failed founder. I know, I know–some people insist that it’s a sacred badge of honor and something to be proud of, but I’m not one of them. This can be the hardest of all situations to handle, because these men and women may look great on paper and certainly have the right attitude, but they bring a whole lot of pain and baggage with them. You have to be very careful before you bring them on board, or tout them to others, or sic them on someone else.
But the bottom line is that, as long as you are smart and careful about the way you go about it, it’s almost always worth the time to take a look. What comes around goes around, and someday you may need the same kind of lift.