Cathy Sweeney: Collaboration vs. Confidentiality—When is it Appropriate to Share?

Cathy Sweeney
Cathy Sweeney

Until earlier this year, I had never heard of Edward Snowden; PRISMs were the transparent deal toys displayed on the bookshelves in my office, and The Guardian was a 2006 Ashton Kutcher/Kevin Costner film focused on Coast Guard training.  Not so anymore.

The National Security Agency has reportedly been secretly accessing phone records and data housed with major internet and social media companies. Internet users are indignant. Many have an increased level of paranoia, asking themselves “What information have I posted that might get me in trouble?” Forgive the ‘I told you so’ attitude, but do we really listen to the advice we give our teens about internet safety?  Are you really surprised that anyone can access data in clandestine ways?

I’ll leave the appropriateness of the searches to the more intelligent national security personnel for now; what I’d like to ask is related to our profession: When is it appropriate to share data and knowledge? Is it always appropriate to collaborate?

Commercial real estate brokerage has been associated with greed for years. We’ve been tagged with catchphrases like “Fee and me.” Movies like Glenndary Glenn Ross encourage us to close at all costs, and to pursue that elusive “Top Producer” status. We’ve been known to lock up our notes, hide our ‘secret files,’ and attach code names to our client’s project. All of this might be necessary, but with the recent focus on snooping, we have to ask ourselves: When is it appropriate and wise to share information? I offer a few thoughts here:

Only when a client allows you to do so. Do not share information when they have not given you permission to do so. Obvious, you say? If we were serious about it, would we be tagging our projects with code names that give others clues to the client? “Project Tuna,” for example, might be a little too close to home for that new Starkist manufacturing plant. We assign code names for one purpose: to protect our client’s identity. Make sure your code names do that. Starting your sentences with “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but…” is one clear way to know you are not supposed to share information. So don’t. Even if doing so will make you look like King or Queen of the Hill.

• When you are confident of the facts. My personal mantra mirrors that of President Reagan: Trust but verify. We are not doing our clients any favors when we react to the most recent rumor. They expect us to gather relevant and factual information, and to present alternatives based on that information. No one should be making recommendations based on rumors. I’m still waiting for that new Disney park in the North Texas area—a rumor that has resurfaced numerous times over the years (but one that would have caused disastrous results if we had made recommendations based on the original rumor in the 1980s).

In a collaborative effort to offer quality solutions for your client. Jim Leslie, CEO of Cresa Partners, shares this thought: “Even though prospective clients may like us, we often times find ourselves not good enough without additional information we can gather from our teammates. Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley learned that early in life.” Don’t be afraid to share what you know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who know more than you do. A team approach almost always brings a better solution for your client than the Lone Ranger approach.

With discretion. Don’t be Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all character from the popular 80s TV show, Cheers. The information you have is not relevant for every person, in every situation. And in these days of internet searches, most people can find data with just a few clicks of the keyboard.

Albert Einstein was correct when he said, “Information is not knowledge.” It’s what we do with the information that counts. Your service is most valuable when your team evaluates data from all sides of the prism.

Cathy Sweeney is a managing partner of Wolverine Interests, and a principal with Cresa Partners Capital Markets. She spends most days in a collaborative environment solving financial problems for clients. On more challenging days, she remains encouraged by watching the SNL rerun of Stuart Smalley’s interview of Michael Jordan. Contact her at [email protected]

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