Every year around this time, millions of Americans take a brave step into the great unknown and try to swear off alcohol, at least for the month of January. Why do they do it? My plumber’s been doing dry January as an annual ritual after the holidays for years. I don’t know why anyone else does it. Probably out of guilt.
I never gave it a thought until, one day, sitting in an exam room just waiting to get poked and prodded, my doctor of many years looked down at my records and asked, “So, how much are you drinking these days?”
“One, maybe two drinks a night,” I lied, as usual. Then, before I could stop it, I blurted out, “Actually, I’ve been going sort of overboard lately. I’m just wondering, how do I know if I’m becoming an alcoholic?”
“Why, are you abusing alcohol?” he asked with concern.
“I don’t know; doesn’t everybody?”
“No,” he said, testily. “But if you’re using it to combat stress or depression, you might have a problem. Are you really concerned about this?”
“Yeah, I guess I am. So how can I tell if I have a drinking problem?”
“A good test is to try quitting. If you can quit for a month, you’re probably fine.”
“A month? As in 30 days?” I said, a little shell-shocked. “Um, sure, I’ll think about it.”
“That’s not how it works, Steve. If you think you might have a problem, then do it. Not tomorrow, not ‘I’ll think about it’ … now.”
Not one to avoid a challenge, I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I’ll do it. Starting now.” I did my best to flash him a confident smile, but I think it came out looking like I was terrified. Probably because I was terrified. Now I’ve done it, I thought. No way to put this genie back in the bottle.
So I did it. I quit for a month. Know what I discovered? That nonalcoholic wine is as bad as nonalcoholic beer. The stuff is awful. Other than that – and the most boring birthday since I was 15 – it was business as usual. Except for one thing that really surprised me.
Granted, work is work, but business deals are as much about relationships as they are about products and services, maybe more so. And as far back as I can remember – which, I hate to admit, is a very, very long time – food and alcohol have always been key factors in the relationship equation.
When it comes to business, alcohol isn’t just something we consume. It’s a magic lubricant for conducting business. A facilitator for executive strategy sessions and team building. A catalyst for creating long-term relationships with customers and partners.
Not to mention that the most revealing information, critical negotiations, and enormous opportunities don’t always come out in a conference room. Oftentimes, they happen over drinks.
I can remember – yes, I do actually remember – thousands of customer dinners, media events, industry conferences, and executive meetings on every continent that were infused with generous amounts of wine, beer, scotch, vodka, sake, soju, and cachaca. It’s a big thing in most countries, not to mention a good excuse to break out the good stuff.
I used to work for a company that had a long-standing customer relationship with Samsung. We had quarterly executive meetings that always included an evening of great food, a ridiculously overpriced bottle of thirty year-old single malt scotch, and dozens of toasts that got funnier and more emotional as the night went on.
Likewise, meetings with Japanese customers and distributors inevitably involve special dinners in private rooms of fabulous restaurants, followed by nights out on the town and, more often than not, karaoke. Japanese executives take great pride in treating guests well, especially in the entertainment department.
And don’t tell me you’ve never had a wild night out with associates – and maybe even a few competitors – at a Las Vegas trade show like the Consumer Electronics Show or, back in the day, Comdex. Not to mention the biggest party – I mean trade show on Earth: CeBIT in Hannover. They know how to party in Germany, that’s for sure.
Don’t even get me started on what happens at night after tense negotiations, executive strategy sessions, team-building exercises, press tours in New York, and days of customer meetings in any city or country other than where you’re from. As we always say, what goes on the road, stays on the road.
Look, I’m not saying that you have to drink like a fish to be a mover and shaker in the business world. I’m sure lots of executives don’t partake. But the truth is that business is all about relationships and, far from the guilty pleasure we try to make it out to be, alcohol plays a significant role in business relationships and deal making.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.