“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” That one line from The Godfather is arguably the greatest and most quoted movie line ever. Aside from being a memorable movie quote, it’s also a real-life negotiation tactic that’s been used in business for centuries.
The Mafia – whether in fact or movie fiction – has dozens of time-honored traditions that can still be used in business today. I like to think of it as “Wiseguy Wisdom,” and I had a front row seat to it growing up Italian in what could easily be considered the Mafia’s “home town” of Medford, Mass.
Being raised in a neighborhood famous for gangsters never seemed that unusual. I went to grade school with kids whose fathers routinely “went away” for extended periods of time, and some of our closest friends were “connected.” It was even rumored that our little league was run by a mobster!
So what did I learn from growing up surrounded by “La Cosa Nostra?”
- Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut. You may remember this as the advice that Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) gave to a young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in the Scorsese classic “Goodfellas.” It worked for the Mafia for hundreds of years and it still works in business today. Gossip and office politics are petty and unproductive. Mind your business, don’t talk out of turn and remain loyal to your friends and co-workers. We had another saying growing up that said “even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if he kept his mouth shut!” When in doubt, shut the hell up.
- Pay “tribute” to the boss. The idea of “kicking it upstairs” is another long-standing Mafia tradition. The mob is built on a strict hierarchy, and the boss always has to be given a piece of the action as “tribute.” This practice can and should be adapted by legit businesses, though not by kicking cash up to the boss, but credit. If you work for someone else, you could consider that your job is to make your boss look good. If you work for yourself, it’s still a smart idea to share credit and make others look good. Always pay tribute to your colleagues and mentors.
- Rock the boat. My grandmother used to say “Non si fa nessunna frittata senza rompere le ouva,” which translates to “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In my hometown, the wiseguys who moved up the ranks were the ones who made things happen. If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to stir things up. Make bold decisions. Take action. Break some eggs. (Break eggs, not legs!)
- Reputation is everything. For better or worse, at the end of the day we are judged by our actions and deeds. A favorite Italian proverb states that “a good name is better than riches.” As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to decide what you stand for, and let your actions speak for themselves. Guard your reputation like gold.
- Run with the right crowd. Another expression I heard a lot as a kid was: “Dimmi con chi vai, e ti diro che fai,” which means “Tell me with whom you go and I’ll tell you what you are.” Growing up surrounded by reputed mobsters meant you had to choose your friends wisely – or you could easily end up on the wrong side of the law. Whether you’re a kid on the streets or an entrepreneur on the rise, this is sage advice. It’s said that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, so choose your friends and colleagues carefully!
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in the mob’s backyard to benefit from “wiseguy wisdom.” You can take some of those same Mafia management maxims and apply them to legitimate business. And while you may not want to run your business by asking “What would Tony Soprano do?” you can still take some legitimate leadership lessons from La Cosa Nostra.
So what do you think? Do you have some other lessons to add? Are you going to use some of these in your business? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.