Published on June 21, 20 22
"Can I ask a favor, Kevin?" Hugh requested. "Would you mind giving us a tour of your place?"
It's not every day two mega-successful businessmen ask to see where you live. Let alone two of the most prominent bankers in the nation. But that's precisely the predicament I found myself in that sunny Friday afternoon some twenty years ago.
While I had big ambitions for my career, I was still small potatoes in the local business community. The strategic design firm I co-founded with my business partner was rounding its sixth year, and I was doing everything I could to meet the right people. I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to know two of the most influential leaders in the south.
Hugh McColl was the maverick CEO and Chairman of Bank of America. Outside of acquiring banks all over the country, he was also on a mission to transform downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, into a world-class city for his employees, community, and recently completed César Pelli-designed headquarters. He was a big advocate for a strong urban core and played a pivotal role in stimulating downtown development activity by funding various mixed-use housing projects, among many other community-minded initiatives. I bought and moved into one of his bank's urban lofts to support the downtown revitalization effort and hopefully become part of the local business scene.
I traveled a lot in those early days and asked my European girlfriend if she'd look after the place, plants, and the fussy pussycat I'd inherited from an aunt. It comforted me to have her there. However, as a free spirit, she wasn't into wearing clothes much and insisted on walking around my big windowed loft au naturel, making the daily grind for the high-rise office workers across the plaza more stimulating.
When I arrived back in town after a business trip, I saw my girlfriend for all of 30 minutes before getting ready to rush out to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new art museum. On my way up the staircase to change into a fresh shirt, tie, and suit, I noticed my cat had just left me a welcome home present: a perfectly swirled caramel turd. I thought about cleaning up the mess, but I was running so late that I figured I could take care of it when I got back.
The museum event was a who's who affair of local business leaders. I saw Mr. McColl across the room and mustered up the courage to approach him. He was gracious and kind enough to invite me to sit down with him and his out-of-town guest, the president of the biggest bank in Texas that he'd just purchased.
We had an engaging conversation about the challenges of rebuilding downtowns, and when I got ready to leave, Mr. McColl asked if I'd be willing to let him and his distinguished guest see my loft to give him an idea of what the housing units his bank developed looked like inside. "Sure!" I said, eager for the chance to spend more time with the two men, but I hadn't thought through the finer details of this decision.
As we walked toward my loft, I worried about the cleanliness of my place and whether my girlfriend was wearing clothes.
As inconspicuous as possible, I sent my girlfriend a cryptic text message, giving her a heads up that two VIP guests were on their way to the unit in five minutes.
"Can you put some clothes on, babe, and spruce the place up a bit!" I pleaded.
I assumed she got the message.
As soon as I opened the front door, we all caught an eyeful of my slinky girlfriend, sprawled out on the couch, one leg dangling over the hump, listening to steamy French techno music, wearing only her underwear, bra, tube socks, and a chemistry book. It was a sight to behold!
"Oops!" I said as the two men gave me a big eyebrow raise, and I quickly aimed them towards the kitchen while tossing my girlfriend a big sofa pillow to wear.
Crisis averted…or so I thought.
As we headed up the windy stairs, I suddenly remembered the cat turd was still lying on the immaculate white, carpeted stair tread. My brain went into emergency response mode, and in one swift tilting movement, I pointed the gentlemen's eyes toward the distinctive art sculpture hanging on the wall with my left hand while scooping up the mushy turd with my right hand and slipping the folded chocolate bars into my dress pant pocket. I was proud of myself for my quick thinking, swift reflexes, and perfect distraction technique.
When we finished the tour, the two titans of business stood in the foyer and thanked me for my time and hospitality. As I held out my right arm to shake their hands, they looked at my palm with apprehension and said,
All I could think about for the next several days was whether these powerful bankers saw me put a cat turd in my pocket.
Over the weekend, I tried writing multiple draft letters to tell the two executives how much I enjoyed meeting them the following Monday morning—and somehow work in the "Cat Turd Incident" as an "oh, by the way," side note. However, after five or so draft attempts, I realized no matter how I spun it—casual, funny, serious, or as a minor P.S.—any discussion of the Turd in The Pocket incident made me sound like a crazy man, so I opted not to say anything about it.
For the next seven days, I was walking around downtown riddled with anxiety, wondering what they thought of a guy that keeps turds in his fancy suit pockets. Whenever I saw someone laugh in a business meeting, I wondered if they'd heard about "The Turd Man." I was afraid to put my hand in my pocket and wondered if I should pack my bags and move to another city.
I fretted and lost sleep over the matter, but nobody said anything about the turd, and I figured they didn't notice. Perhaps it was just my imagination running wild, but then a week later, my doorbell rang, and waiting outside was a large box containing a bag of kitty litter, a poop tray, a shiny shovel, and a funny little note from the two men that read: "Never try to hide a turd from a banker; because we'll always find it!"
I thought the worse, but this embarrassing moment made the bond between Mr. McColl and me much tighter and more personal. With the veil of professional formality lifted, we could now talk turkey with no BS or fancy feathers to get in the way of our frank discussions. There was no marketing suckup or patronizing puffery, and people were amazed at how comfortable and chummy my relationship with Mr. McColl was.
Over the next 20 years, my business partner and I worked closely with Mr. McColl and his executive team at the bank on many community projects to help Charlotte become the booming metropolis it is today. Although he was an incredibly busy man, Mr. McColl was always there for me in a pinch when I needed him.
During the darkest hours of the Great Recession, I reached out to him for advice on restructuring our bank loans. His connections and referral to a smaller bank proved invaluable to us as the U.S. economy collapsed and the credit needed to run small businesses evaporated. Had it not been for the turd incident, I'm not sure our business would still be around today.
I can think of many lessons from this story: Calling instead of texting to ensure your emergency message is received is one, and never postponing the task of cleaning up your crap until later is another.
But contrary to what people think, embarrassing moments don't make us weaker; but stronger.
They make us more human, relatable, and genuine, and the more human you can be in both business and life, the deeper your bonds with people will be. Instead of ruining my career, the turd incident became just the type of sticky story I needed to help me stand out from the crowd of overly-slick and polished business suitors.
Next time you find yourself in an embarrassing mess, don't try to hide your crap. Instead, lean into it. Wear it on your sleeves and keep it in your back (or front) pockets to allow others to see you as a human.
As the author Daniel Pink said, "If you’re making your case to someone who’s not intently weighing every single word, list all the positives—but do add a mild negative. Being honest about the existence of a small blemish can enhance your offering’s true beauty.”