The art of delivering bad news without rocking too many boats

Richard Farleigh
NO ONE expected that taking a few photographs would cause a mini catastrophe. So me and a few guests on-board my boat, Terra Australis, gathered on the top deck, smiles out, tummies in, and posed for some group shots.

After an awesome boating day on the Med, we had just returned to Monaco, having enjoyed a sunny lunch trip to Saint Tropez. The boat was a beauty - a 58-foot Azimut motor yacht with three cabins. That's not a bad size, even if it was humbled by some of the billionaires' super-yachts. It only needed one crewmember, the captain, and he would let me drive it myself if the sea wasn't too rough or my head too dizzy from rosé.

While we were photographing, the captain was busy downstairs tying the boat to the mooring. The engine was still on and idling, which is "best practice" until the boat is secured. It is probably not best practice, however, for anyone to touch the set of controls on the upstairs level. And although no one intended to, that is exactly what happened. With backs turned away from those controls, the small group edged closer and closer until my lovely ex-wife Sharon accidentally nudged the T shaped throttle with her lovely butt.

Terra Australis slammed into the concrete mooring at full power, smashing some of her fiberglass exterior. There was shouting and confusion, but thankfully no one was hurt. Someone was clever enough to cut the engine. Not being one to panic, I now expected the boat to sink within seconds and my heart was racing. Fortunately, we stayed afloat. The damage was only superficial and we all gradually relaxed. Sharon even 'fessed up to the bewildered spectators watching on shore. "It's all my fault, I bumped the controls". Sympathetic smiles all around.

That made me ponder my own confession: how would I break the news to my mate Rob? He co-owned the boat with me but wasn't on board that day. I dreaded the conversation. Repairs were going to be expensive, and the boat would be unusable for at least a few weeks; not what you want in the middle of summer.

I decided the best thing was to let Rob know as quickly as possible, because I didn't like it myself when people didn't want to pass on bad news. In the business world this is a particularly bad habit. I often have to make calls to managers asking things like "did we win that order?" and I always sensed that, since I was chasing them, not vice-versa, the answer wasn't going to be positive. "Er, no sorry we missed that one Richard. I was going to call you this afternoon and let you know." (Sure sure, mate). There was definitely an asymmetry: happy managers usually couldn't wait to pass on any good news.

So tell Rob quickly, but how? This was a kind of zero-sum game: the easier it was for me to tell, the harder it was for him to hear. Get the captain to tell him? A nice cop-out for me, but horrible for Rob. Get Sharon to tell him? It was her butt after all. No, not fair on either of them. Ok, send a text, or even a fax? Isn't that how rock stars dump their wives? I started composing it in my head. "Dear Rob. Sorry we crashed the boat and it's expensive and it can't be used for a while. Bye."

In the end I phoned Rob and it went straight to voicemail. I was relieved! I'd rather confess to a machine than to a human, who wouldn't? When he called me back he was extremely gracious. So gracious in fact, that it made me realise, we'd both rather sink the boat than sink our friendship.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more earlystage companies than anyone else in the UK.