It’s dangerous to stay neutral

Some years ago pal of mine was caught
between the proverbial rock and hard place. His two biggest customers were locked in pitched battle to acquire company, and they sought his support.
Each wanted him to take sides by promising to stop being supplier to the other side if it should win.
Casting his weight behind one or the other would impact the bid. Each argued that the new business resulting from the acquisition would more than offset the sales he would lose by giving up big customer.
My friend sought my advice. I certainly couldn’t tell him whom of the two customers he should side with, but I urged him to choose one or the other.

Both sides will feel betrayed
Unfortunately he ignored my advice and paid dearly. The winning bidder resented him for not coming to his side in crisis and found another supplier. The losing bidder felt my friend’s neutrality cost him the deal and, likewise, went shopping elsewhere.
I could see why he chose the route. Neutrality, ie deciding to not make decision, is an option. Often that’s decision in itself, and often it’s the right decision.
An experienced manager knows that while you’re mulling over your options, the problem might disappear.
But where there are other parties involved other chess pieces on the board besides you Ñ neutrality is the worst option. The situation demands that you take sides and declare how you will manoeuvre among all the pieces on the board.
Neither side will resent you for choosing one over the other, particularly if they are the ones that have forced you to join in their battle. On the contrary, your ally will be grateful and your opponent will be forced to respect your decision. But trying to stay above the fray will do nothing but gain both sides’ contempt.

The biggest crisis in my career
I know this well because the issue of neutrality precipitated the greatest business crisis in my life. It happened 30 years ago and whatever wounds I incurred have healed long ago.
At the beginning of my career I personally managed the two greatest golfers in the world, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. (I also managed the third greatest golfer, Gary Player, but he wasn’t part of the crisis.) Arnold was my first client, Jack was my third.
For nine years I handled every aspect of their professional lives. I spoke with them every day. I spent two thirds of the year away from my family, travelling with one or the other. We were together reshaping the financial landscape of professional golf and the seeds I helped sow for both men back then ultimately made them the two richest golfers in history.
Managing the top two golfers was very delicate. Although Arnold and Jack were, and remain, great friends, they are also great competitors. Managing their affairs so neither felt they were being short-changed in terms of attention and opportunities was balancing act. But at some point that balance must have appeared suspect to Jack. He began to feel he came second to Arnold. It wasn’t the case, but it was in his mind. It seemed I was going to have to choose who to represent.

It’s easy to choose
It wasn’t tough. Arnold was my first client. He put me in business and kept me there by not objecting when I asked if I could represent other golfers. I owed every-thing to him.
But remember in Jack Nicklaus we’re talking about the greatest golfer of the 20th century. My choice would have been to keep working for both, but neutrality is often impossible and never permanent. In hindsight it all worked well. Arnold appreciated my loyalty and remains my client. Jack went on his own, but I’m sure he respected rather than resented my position.
That experience taught me there’s no harm in choosing sides. The danger is believing that neutrality is virtue and guarantees you won’t be harmed. There is one exception of course; when both sides ask you to say out of the fray, stay out of it.

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management Group.

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