Firm, but Not Crushing
An ailing CEO teaches the new school of executives the proper way of greeting.
Steel and glass enveloped the building in Wilmington, Delaware. A young COO named Kholer Ingot entered the skyscraper with energy and readiness. He possessed a chestnut skin tone and a flattop hairstyle. He was 33. His impeccable suit wrapped around him with exquisite precision. He journeyed to the elevator bay and boarded the enclosed space. He selected the 60th floor. Upon reaching that level, he met with the CEO of Afroflex Plastics, Alder Mann. Gray flecks in his dreadlocks showed his age. This CEO moved slower at his 97 years. But his mind remained glass shard sharp. He sat in a large room with 24 chairs around a huge oak table.
“You’ve got to look them eye,” Mann said. “You’ve got to look them in the eye, pull them slightly close to you and shake their hand."
“Yes, but we don’t have to do that much anymore, sir. We have video conferencing, videophone meetings, and the ability to meet with clients via websites that permit both parties the ability to interact with one another.”
“Boy, you’re not listening to me. The critical factor in any enterprise is trade. Pay attention.” Mann coughed a bit and wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. “There will be times when you will be faced with meeting business prospects who will be within arms reach. You will want to be prepared for that. You will want to trade with them. The only way that you can earn respect is if you show yourself to be worthy of it. For all of the times that people wish they had closed on a deal, the handshake at the very beginning is most likely to be the deciding factor in whether you exchange funds for services down the line. You must demonstrate that their time is valuable and that you must not waste a moment of your own time either. You should be able to greet new prospects with the knowledge that they’re going to do your service some good and you’re going to supply what they need, as well. Sure, you have the fist and elbow bumps even the hug on certain business trips. I abhor those in business. Japanese firms sometimes still have people bow out of signs of respect. But the standard is the handshake. Even after saluting in the military, most officers shake the hands of their fellow officers, statesmen, and subordinates. Once you perfect that, you will be ahead of the game. Now, let’s test it out on me.”
Ingot inched closer to the CEO. He held himself with esteem and self-reliance. He knew that he could perform this task without fail. He helped him to stand. Mann reached out his right hand and smiled. Ingot stretched out his right hand as well and shook Mann’s hand.
“Not bad, but you’re going to have to work on the elbow. You don’t want to shake it so much that the other person is swinging their arm. It’s a sign that you’re wanting. Continue to try though. We’ve got all day.”
Ingot repositioned. He squared up and walked away from the table where Mann stood. He returned with his arm outstretched and a smile on his face. Mann offered his right hand. The two men shook hands again.
“That was better, but remember, you don’t want the ‘dead fish’ shake. Try to find that space where you show strength but aren’t overbearing.” Mann coughed again.
Ingot asked if the two of them could come up with a plan to guide the company for the next 100 years.
“That’s great, Mr. Ingot. But I want to teach you the basics of business that seem to be disappearing in today’s corporate climate,” Mann said.
CTO Collette Dreyer, 29, stepped into the room where the two businessmen worked on moves to execute the best handshake. The light illuminated her brown hair and honey colored skin. She marveled at the dance-like actions of the two men seeking to achieve the perfect shake.
“Mr. Mann. Mr. Ingot. Good morning,” Collette said.
“Good moring, Miss Dreyer,” Mann cleared his throat. “We’re just going over a few steps in the process of proper business conduct that they don’t teach you in college.”
“Yes, I’m learning a great deal from Mr. Mann, here. I’ve almost accomplished my goal.”
“Can I be of any assistance?”
Ingot’s face brightened. “Why, of course. We’re from the generation where you don’t have to greet physically with a business client or partner, except for occasions like this. But these interactions are so rare nowadays. I mean everyone has their tablet or smartphone or other device that they employ to conduct business. So, go right ahead. Test out your own ability.”
Collette approached Mann with a warm smile and a raised right hand. She came down hard on the man’s hand. This indicated her will to be a hard charger... but maybe a bit too hard.
“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Mann,” Collette said with sincerity.
“That’s alright, Miss Dreyer. I’ll educate you both on the way to engage a customer the old-fashioned way,” Mann said clutching his right hand with his left.
“Let me try again,” Ingot said.
The two men repeated the ritual this time with different results.
“You must’ve gotten nervous once you made your previous attempts,” Mann said. A chuckle escaped from his throat. “Your palm was a bit sweaty. Nothing to worry about, though. You just need to be assured in yourself to engage with someone in business.”
“I wouldn’t mind adjusting my performance as well,” Collette said with a smirk. She approached Mann with the grace of a ballet dancer and the drive of a construction worker. She shook Mr. Mann’s hand with her thumb and fingers touching his palm.
Mann coughed and smiled. “We call that the ‘lobster claw.’ you want to engage all of your hand around the other person’s hand and grasp it—”
“Firmly,” Ingot said.
The three of them spent an hour honing in on the optimum handshake. Ingot pantomimed in the air how to approach and shake hands with a potential client worth billions of dollars in earnings. He imagined himself being on the other side of the shake, in Mann’s position because he was a billionaire two hundred times over.
“Your aim ought to be to glide into the handshake. To greet the person that you’ve never met before like an old friend that you’ve known for years. It ought to be heartening. It ought to lift the spirits of the person with whom you shake and allow them to know that you mean business at the same time.”
“Will we be able to achieve this ideal handshake with just a few people or everyone?” Collette asked.
“It would be of great importance to greet everyone that you do business with who comes in physical contact with you with respect and dignity. That’s all this is. I’m not trying to knock your generation,” he coughed. “I know that you have all the gadgets and wonders of the world at your disposal. All that I am trying to do is show you how to meet your collaborators and even competition on a level that all who are involved profit.”
Ingot wiped off his palm. He breathed. He approached Mann with supreme confidence and willpower. He took hold of Mann’s hand and with his left hand, he grabbed Mann’s elbow.
“That right there is called the ‘double shake.’ It is mostly performed by politicians but on a business level, it may show that you’re too eager and that you want something from the other person other than honor. It’s a condescending sort of a shake for the most part. It says, ‘you don’t have the wherewithal to contend with me on any level.’”
Ingot readied himself. He reached out his hand once more like an appendage extending from a space module. He grabbed Mann’s hand and shifted his hand overtop of Mann’s instead of shaking vertically.
“Now this is similar to the double handshake. ‘The top-handed’ shake is to demonstrate that you have superiority or dominance over the other party. It is to never be used in any circumstance. It is a disregard for others to oneself kind of display. This is one of the most frowned upon shakes as it implies that you are sacrificing other people to yourself rather than trading with them on proper terms. It should be a selfish exchange where both parties win at having met someone to strike deals with in the future.”
Collette of course used her smartphone to view all of the various handshakes that could be made while Ingot and Mann practiced. She studied the lists and surmised that the best ones would be useful to this particular time. She made notes and decided to deliver the best shake possible. Mann leaned against the table and then sat down in his seat. The three of them stood in varying states of awareness. Mann had possessed the decades worth of business acumen; Ingot would absorb the years of experience to match his Master’s of Business Administration degree from New Sweden University. Collette would extend the digital presence of the Afroflex brand. But before all of this would happen, they would continue in their lesson on proper hand-to-hand greetings.
“It’s really simple, you two,” Mann said. “I think that you’re both overthinking and becoming overconfident in your approaches. The key to being a good businessman or woman is to express to you the ones you meet that you’re confident but not arrogant. Pride is the beauty of the whole operation. Pride allows you to realize that both parties are worthy of trading value for value. That we’re not at each other’s throats and threatening to do physical harm or fraud against each other. Pride permits both parties the opportunity to display their own individualism and self-esteem. All of the virtues that go into being a human apply to the realm of business. The thought process, the way that you show your ability to do work, and your proud reflection on your work all go into being the best performer in the world of business.” Mann cleared his throat again and sipped some water. “Now, are you two prepared to commit to the most basic but apparently still elusive way of engaging with a fellow businessman or woman?”
Ingot and Collette looked at each other with assurance.
“Ladies first,” Ingot said.
“That’s no problem. I’ve studied this. I’ve got this.”
Collette glided towards the CEO with confidence. She proffered her hand again. This time, she held it vertically, forgot about the “fish,” the “lobster,” or the “double grab.” She wrapped her hand around Mann’s palm like a velvet glove. The shake was strong and warm all at the same time. She pressed down with adequate force without being over enthusiastic about it.
Mann smiled. “She’s got it,” he said.
Collette brought her elbow to her knee and whispered, “Yes!”
“Now it’s on you Mr. Ingot.”
Just as Ingot made his way for Mann’s hand, the man grasped at his heart. He began to to gasp for air and fell back in his chair. Collette immediately signaled for an ambulance with medical personnel on the scene in under four minutes. The COO and the CTO remained stunned. Sure Mann had a persistent cough and seemed feeble in body, but his mind had been working with clarity. While still alive, the paramedics put Mann on a gurney to wheel him out of the building. Before he left however, Ingot rushed over to him and shook his hand. Through an oxygen mask, he said, “Firm, but not crushing,” and flashed a thumbs up at the young entrepreneur. The medics all prepared to take Mann to the hospital but the monitors surrounding him all showed that he had died from heart failure once they had reached the bottom floor. Ingot and Collette stood there in front of the building like sentries guarding the legacy of Mr. Alder Mann.