VITAL SIGNS: The world on a plate

VITAL SIGNS: The world on a plate - I don't know where we're going (tbc in the diary). I don't know where he's at (it's a catch-up, his shout) and I haven't a clue what'll come of it (a job, a joint venture or just learning how time treats people and thei

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU. e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I don't know where we're going (tbc in the diary). I don't know where he's at (it's a catch-up, his shout) and I haven't a clue what'll come of it (a job, a joint venture or just learning how time treats people and their businesses). But I'm looking forward to today's lunch. I usually do. And tomorrow's, which will be subtly different. It's a catch-up too, but months, not years. There'll be gossip, particularly about an old friend and his flotation, but there'll definitely be a bit of business in it.

Thursday's different again. I'm being taken to meet a potential client by some of my partners. That's all I know. So on Wednesday I should quiz them and mug up. Or maybe not - shoot from the hip.

Since 1987, when the movie Wall Street was released, every luncher-out has had it in the back of his mind that he's a potential wimp. As someone who lunched happily through that year and all those that followed, I offer these thoughts. First, Gordon Gekko crashed and burned. He wasn't 100% well and he didn't have any friends. Second, he had a point, in the narrow sense that sign-on-the-line transactions are rarely achieved at lunch.

It's a preamble or a follow-up, a way of getting to know people and the world. You can tell what kind of business Gekko did. One-shot hostile takeovers. No hinterland, and no long-haul.

But for people who plan on being around a while, much depends on lunch (to adapt Margaret Visser's brilliant book title). What can lunch do?

At the very least it gets you out of the office. You can learn a thousand things from the restaurant itself. The way it's decorated and choreographed, the menu fashions. Who's eating with whom, and why? Are people lingering over several glasses of wine, or adopting the modern, frugal approach?

If you're on the nursery slopes of expenses, it's a huge education and your client, probably your equally modest opposite number, is an excuse to spend, see and learn. And five years from now, she might be your own client or your partner in a start-up.

Lunch allows you to talk about a range of subjects that are off-limits in office-bound presentations. Who are you? Where've you come from? Where are you going? It allows you to extend a relationship. It allows people to open up without their colleagues - often about their colleagues. And it allows individuals to air private agendas and private sorrows. The boss who thinks the team or the ultimate owner simply aren't up to it, the wannabe boss who thinks the CEO isn't up to it.

Lunch is investigative, cumulative. If you lunch your way through a business sector, you can compare one story with another, one strategy with another.

You know who'll win. Business journalists do it that way. They're on the telephone and at a screen all morning in open-plan hell. Then, at lunchtime, they're calm hosts in somewhere utterly different. PRs work like that too, out of their hutches at 12.30, but their objective is to disarm and make friends, reckoning that it's harder to dislike someone you've broken bread with - and harder to ignore their pitch.

And yes, there are free lunches. Free in the sense of not being compromised or tasked and otherwise on best behaviour. A peers' lunch is one, where a gang, often products of something deeply formative - the same university, a multinational's undergraduate intake of 1985, whatever - keep up. It's free form, but something may come of these gang conspiracies. You might notice how the gang that ran London Weekend Television in the '70s and '80s went on to run the world, or at least the whole UK television business.

A newer parallel, of course, is the girls' lunch. 'Ladies who lunch' was the New York 1970s expression for women who didn't work. Now anything up to a third of all the tables in any serious high-rating lunch place will be working women lunching together. Women are networking with a vengeance (as one restaurateur friend told me: 'The girls ... they're my profit margins now').

Some guidelines: it's getting shorter - the basic model is an hour and a bit. And you don't need to be told it's getting a lot less boozy ('I won't if you don't') - you'd better be sure you've got a consenting adult before you go in for the three-hour Premier Cru performance.

Conventional wisdom always says you go in for the pitch or the big question somewhere between starter and main, but I say go with the flow. If you're on with a click precisely 10 minutes in, they'll see you coming.

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