People Are Not Always Who They Seem By Pepper de Callier

Many years ago I was a young insurance salesman in Tucson, Arizona.  I had just started my own benefits consulting business and I was in search of clients to build my practice.  I already had several small to mid-size clients, but what I really wanted was a large, highly visible marquee account—one that would put my firm “on the map”.  This was at a time of consolidation in the banking industry in the United States and one of the big players was First Interstate Bank.  First Interstate had banks all over the Western United States and was just the client I was looking for—big, prestigious, and highly visible.

Over a period of about a year, I had met several times with the head of human resources at First Interstate’s Arizona Headquarters in Phoenix, a two-hour drive north of Tucson.  It was very slow going at first.  Aside from the fact that bankers are very conservative by nature, the human resources head was close to retirement and he was not about to agree to anything that would cause even the slightest ripple of question about his judgment or do anything that seemed to unfairly benefit one customer of the bank over another. “We have many insurance agencies who are valued customers, you know.”  I can still feel the anguish those words created in me almost thirty years ago.

However, not deterred, I set about building support for my firm and my idea for the bank’s employees by meeting with key managers and division heads around the state of Arizona.  I even had the president of a prominent insurance company, for which I was planning have underwrite the insurance program, fly out to Phoenix to meet the senior management of the bank.

There was a lot at stake here.  If word got out about my idea, every insurance agent in the Western United States would want to compete with me and that alone would create enough tension that the bank would close the door on the whole process immediately.  Also, I knew that if I could just get across the finish line with my idea in Arizona, the whole system of banks in First Interstate would be open to me.  It was not a time of sleeping soundly for me to say the least.  However, things were going surprising well.  After about nine months of meetings I was beginning to get encouraged that this might actually happen.  I even allowed myself to daydream at times of what it might feel like to actually have them as a client.

Then the bottom fell out of my world and everything went black.  One afternoon, after lunch, I got a call from the man who would be making the decision, the head of human resources.  “Pepper, we have a manager in Tucson who has done some research on this and he is telling people that there are much better deals available from other companies—one in particular—for our people.  He’s well thought of in the bank, and he’s raising lots of questions about your idea in meetings.  I want you to meet with him because if what he says is true, there is no way we can proceed.”

I met with him.  It wasn’t nice.  It turned out he had been upset that I hadn’t included him in my first round of meetings and, you guessed it, he had a friend in the insurance business who said he could provide much better rates and coverage than what I had presented.  This guy was having a great time seeing the misery I was in.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  This guy, someone whom I had never met before, had suddenly become my biggest adversary.  I will not bore you here with the whole story, which took more than three months to play out, but after my fear, rage, anger and every other negative, self-destructive emotion subsided in me, I did just what he expected me not to do.  I thanked him for his interest in the well-being of the bank’s employees. I then began the process of listening—just being quiet—letting him talk.  Over the next three months, and many meetings, all of his objections had been answered.  Then, you know what happened?  He became my biggest supporter in the bank!  First Interstate became my largest client, and I was now viewed as an “expert”, and soon other financial institutions became clients, too.  All because I took the time and dedicated the effort to calmly engage this person, to listen and to eventually turn this formidable adversary into a friend.

Who are you treating as an adversary who could become a friend and a big supporter of yours?

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Follow Pepper on YouTube: A new inspirational video message is posted every Monday - Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By. 

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