Con Artists

When thinking of the term con artist, famous ones probably come to mind, like Bernie Madoff, the American financier who bilked billions of dollars from unsuspecting investors in the late 90s and early 2000s. Or Frank Abagnale, the check forger and scamb artist made famous in the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can.

But con artists aren’t a recent phenomena; they go back centuries. In the early 1900s there was Victor Lustig from Austria-Hungary who sold the Eiffel Tower−twice! Or 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 it’s that 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 heart 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 may 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 toughest jobs is to actually listen to them and to 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 eventually get found out and it 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.

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