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By David Lund

Frank Abagnale is arguably the world’s most famous modern-day impostor. Leonardo DiCaprio played his character in the 2002 movie directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, with the same title as this piece. The movie was based on the 1980 book that Frank wrote. I am writing about Frank Abagnale because I had the pleasure of meeting him personally, and experiencing his trickery, just a little. Also, there is a direct link between what his story is all about and your own financial leadership journey.

If you have not seen the movie, watch it. Tom Hanks plays the lawman chasing after Frank and it is a wild ride. The book is also a must if you are even mildly interested in a good con man’s story.

My story of meeting Frank and the parallel to Financial Leadership starts early in the winter of 2003. I was the hotel manager of a popular downtown hotel in Vancouver, Canada. The movie “Catch Me If You Can” had just been released and a local business association had booked Mr. Frank Abagnale to speak at a luncheon in my hotel. I had the pleasure of attending the luncheon, listening to him speak passionately about children and the role of a parent or guardian. We even held a private reception the evening before he spoke, and I got to meet the famous impostor. I was a big fan, having read the book and seen the movie just days before. Frank has a cameo in the movie and I had seen his picture, so I was a little familiar with what he looked like.

For those of you who are wondering about my character and you have not heard of him, he successfully pulled off taking on eight different identities from the age of 15-21. He traveled the world as a commercial pilot (jump seat only), physician and lawyer, just to name three. He also was a master at check forgery. He was caught by Hanks, turned legit and has worked with the likes of the FBI using his talents for the good, and he has even testified before the US Senate about his former life as a master counterfeit check man.

The funny thing was—he was even an impostor at our reception.

Here is how we met

I was speaking with a couple of people at the reception and all of a sudden there was another person engaging in the conversation. We were talking about our guest of honor and what a great story he had and his movie. All positive things, thank goodness because he was now part of our discussion and I, like the other couple, thought Frank was someone else. I am not at all sure who I thought he was, but he simply assumed the role of a person who made me believe he knew me. The other couple experienced the same comforting feeling. I do not know what he said to gain our confidence and allow us to drop our guards, but it was pretty cool. We continued our dissertation of our guest of honor until he spoke and introduced himself. We were all quite embarrassed and completely surprised at the same time. He smiled, and you could tell he was a master in action, simply practicing what he does, pretending to be someone he is not.

After he left our little group at the reception, the other couple and I marveled at his bravery and the pure entertainment we just experienced. How he made us all think he was someone we knew. Actually, he convinced me he knew the couple and, in turn, the couple thought he knew me. Genius.

This is the magic of being an impostor. Knowing enough to fool someone who should know something about how you need to look, sound, smell and feel like. That is the con. It is a confidence game and to be successful you need to show up with that level of confidence in who you are and what you are doing so other people do not get suspicious.

The Tie to Financial Leadership – My First Budget Review Meeting

I vividly remember the first time I had the opportunity to see the corporate budget review team in action. I was invited to the meeting where we reviewed the hotel annual budget. I really had no idea what to expect. I was nervous, and I had convinced myself that I would be found out and singled out for not really know what was going on. You know, the impostor syndrome. I know this is what holds many people back from jumping into the numbers game in their hotels. Fear.

What I experienced that day was nothing short of theater. A lot of chest pounding and pontificating in that room. Who had the best stories, the most convincing comparisons, the examples that paled the rest? Each person in the meeting that day was in some way an impostor, playing a part and trying to convince the others that they knew what they were talking about. All the while we followed the president’s lead. If he liked a particular story or theory, we all followed that dog. It was an amazing dance to watch. I barely said a word beyond hello, goodbye and kissed my calculator. But what I did see that day was that these captains of my industry, they were all trying to convince one another and the boss they knew the story. It is a confidence game. It is how human beings play together in the business world. If you have been there you know what I am talking about. If you have not experienced this yet, be patient, be ready and above all else take your shot.

Here is the parallel: being an impostor and financial leadership. You must be willing to walk into the meeting room like it is your room. That does not mean you are cocky or arrogant. Humble and respectful is the demeanor you want to have. Your number one job is to listen, observe and learn. You also need the stomach for what is coming your way, and the willingness to respond. This is where most people turn away. They do not feel they have the knowledge or the experience, so they do not feel they can play, let alone play at this level. This is a big mistake. What you do not realize is everyone in that room is in the same boat as you. At some level or another, they are thinking the same things you are, namely, who am I to be here with my limited knowledge and sooner or later will someone find me out?

I have seen hundreds of examples of people playing this game and I want to share a few things about this experience with you. In fact, once you see this you will realize everyone you encounter is playing the game at one level or another.

One, the biggest impostor is almost always the boss

That is right—he or she ultimately knows the least about the detailed subject matter. That does not mean they lack the experience or the knowledge to do their job, they just do not have the knowledge and firsthand experience you do. Do not think for a moment they know your reality. At the time my experience began, our president had just joined our hotel group from a sister company that made baking supplies. Now he is in a boardroom with 15 hotel people talking about our business. The best con man that day was him.

Two, people have your back

The people in the room want to hear from you and they have your back. They have a natural desire to want you to feel comfortable and to hear your thoughts. They instinctively know you are the rookie and they want to put you at ease and they do not want to see you suffering. They will not hang you out to dry.

Three, play the game

If someone you work with thinks enough of what you are up to and they have invited you to the big show, then you are ready. The only thing that is missing is you and the courage to play the game. To listen and learn. 

When you are called upon, speak from your heart and above all else do not try to BS your way. If you do not know the answer, ask a clarifying question. Someone will bail you out. Many times, not having the answer is the best strategy.

Point to a possible answer or conclusion and watch others fall in.

Fourth and final, they’ve been in your shoes

Everyone in that room has passed through the same door as you. They have all been in your shoes and in some way, they are all impostors just like you, so enjoy the show. You are about to witness human interaction at a whole new level. Be conscious enough not to miss this. Over the years, every time I have attended a similar meeting I received an education that cannot be taught in school. Do not lose sight of this.

What “Catch Me If You Can” taught me was a willingness to get it wrong was more important than being right. The readiness to show up and see what happens is more important than staying home until you are ready because you never will be completely ready. Taking the numbers in your hotel by the horns is the way to go. Trust yourself enough to walk into the cockpit and take a seat and welcome those probing questions.

“All the world’s indeed a stage / And we are merely players / Performers and portrayers / Each another’s audience / Outside the gilded cage” – Rush “Limelight”

About David Lund

David Lund is The Hotel Financial Coach, an international hospitality financial leadership pioneer. He has held positions as a Regional Financial Controller, Corporate Director and Hotel Manager with Fairmont Hotels for over 30 years.  

He authored an award-winning workshop on Hospitality Financial Leadership and has delivered it to hundreds of hotel managers and leaders. David coach’s hospitality executives and delivers his Financial Leadership Workshops throughout the world, helping hotels, owners and brands increase profits and build financially engaged leadership teams.  

David speaks at hospitality company meetings, associations and he has had several financial leadership articles published in hotel trade magazines and he is the author of two books on Hospitality Financial Leadership. David is a Certified Hotel Accounting Executive through HFTP and a Certified Professional Coach with CTI.   

Contact: David

david@hotelfinancialcoach.com / (415) 696-9593

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