business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Since the day it was revealed that members of the Wilpon family - majority owners of the New York Mets - were among those victimized in the $65 billion Ponzi scheme engineered by Bernard Madoff, Fred and Jeff Wilpon have insisted that it would have no impact on how they run the team and invested in players.

That is, no impact until last week, when the Wilpons announced that they are looking to sell as much as 25 percent of the team because of financial uncertainties surrounding their involvement with Madoff. The family currently is being sued by the trustee charged with liquidating all of Madoff’s assets, who believes that the Wilpons actually made “fictitious profits” over the long term from their Madoff investments, profits that should be returned to other victims.

It’s hard to know at this point how the case will turn out. Mets fans - and you’ll have to trust me on this - are more immediately concerned with the incomparable pitching staff put together by the Philadelphia Phillies than they are with the Wilpons’ net worth.

But here’s the eye-opening business lesson from all this.

Since the Wilpons’ original claim that their Madoff issues would not affect their operation of the team, not one Mets fan that I know believed them. Not one. And I’d be willing to bet that not very many of their employees and players believed them either.

The family had no credibility on this issue, because they seemed to be in denial. Furthermore, the steps they were taking with the team - not investing in free agents, for example, and not even appearing to be interested in negotiating with any free agent capable of hitting Roy Halladay - suggested that they were lying, or at least not in touch with reality.

Nobody believed them. And nobody I know has much confidence in the Mets this season (and spring training doesn’t begin for another 12 days). Which is almost certain to hurt ticket sales, and the dominoes will continue to fall.

In business, it is critical that we communicate the truth to our employees and customers, that we do our level best to maintain credibility over both the short-term and long-term. I’ve known a lot of business leaders over the years who refused to communicate bad or uncertain news to their employees, believing that it would hurt morale. But feigned optimism can irreparably ruin confidence in leadership, and then there is no place for the company to go.

I used to work for magazine where the owners and publishers used to follow layoffs and bad news by calling meetings in which they would say that the business had turned the corner, that things were only going to get better, that there would be no more layoffs. And as soon as those meetings were over, people would immediately update their resumes, because nobody believed them - they were unwilling to be honest with us, unwilling to do more than apply a series of band-aids to the bleeding, and unwilling to allow us to be part of crafting the solution.

Tell the truth. Honesty really is the best policy. For people and for business.

That shouldn’t be much of an eye-opener. But it is.
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