Ben's Advice: Breaking the Bigs' Golden Rule of Professionalism

It will come as no surprise to people who know me (especially my wife, Leigh!) that I make mistakes — plenty of them. Even for me, however, the following story displays breathtaking stupidity. That’s because my Golden Rule for how to conduct yourself at work is to never say anything negative about anybody in your office. 

A Not-So-Friendly Rivalry
The two largest front office departments of Greenwich Capital — the U.S. Treasury and Mortgage departments — always had a friendly rivalry. This was not surprising, given that they were similar businesses, staffed with similarly competitive people, sitting side by side. However, in business as in sports, it doesn’t take much to transform a friendly rivalry into a not-so-friendly feud.

When I became sales manager for Treasuries, the sales manager for Mortgages was someone I will call The Minister because after he left Greenwich Capital he graduated from divinity school. We should have been friends. We were the same age, shared friends outside of work, and we both loved Greenwich Capital. However, given the competition between the two departments, The Minister and I always had a somewhat chilly relationship. What turned that chill into a deep freeze was my stupidity.

In 1996, on a business trip with a senior Greenwich Capital mortgage salesman, I let my guard down and confessed to my travel companion that I didn’t like The Minister much. I may have even been a little more colorful than that. Worst of all, the truth was that I did not have any good reason to dislike The Minister.

By this point, I had broken at least two of my bedrock principles. First, I had previously allowed my relationship with a coworker to devolve into a poor one. And even worse, I had just broken my Golden Rule: Never speak ill of someone assuming it won’t get back to him.

Unbeknownst to me, my indiscretion did get back to The Minister, and over the next two years our previously tenuous relationship further deteriorated. At that time, The Powers That Be decided that they wanted The Minister and me to become co-chief operating officers of Greenwich Capital — a huge promotion for both of us. However, the promotion didn’t immediately become a reality because it was obvious that The Minister and I could not work together.

Burying the Hatchet
Finally, a mutual friend informed me The Minister had been told of my hostile comments two years prior. I asked The Minister to dinner and apologized. The Minister, understanding it was in the firm’s and our personal interests to bury the hatchet, reached across the table, and as he shook my hand said, “You’re not as dumb as you look.” (While no great compliment, I guess I had progressed from my first interview with J.P. Morgan when I was every bit as dumb as I looked.)

Almost immediately, The Minister and I were given our promotions, and we soon became trusted partners and good friends as co-COOs. Now, we are working together again at CRT Capital Group.

I guess one could say the moral of this story is “All’s well that ends well” — but the real lesson is to always follow my Golden Rule and never say anything negative about anybody in your company. To do otherwise is unprofessional and unnecessary. And more often than not, it will come back to haunt you.