How To Read People: The Character Compass Method

by Larry Chiang on December 13, 2009

Larry Chiang is an instructive humorist. If you liked “10 Things They Don’t Teach You at Business School “, “Raise Your FICO While You’re An MBA Student“, How to Work a Cocktail Party“,


Will’s movie releases Dec 19

Increase Your FICO After You Lose Your Job” and “Working a Twitter Party, Take 2“, his newest submission is something they’d NEVER teach at b-school: “How To Read People –the Character Compass Method” Before he’s done, you’ll outflank Organizational Behavior profs by reading people as easy as a 12 year-old Googles Tom Brady’s QB stats.

By Larry Chiang

File this under “What They’ll NEVER Teach at B-School”. This is my secret lesson in “Character Compassing”. It goes beyond reading people and definitely is not taught in business school.

Will Smith’s has a new movie coming out called “Seven Pounds” where he grants gifts. His naughty-and-nice list is whittled by character compassing gift recipients.

In the trailer for “Seven Pounds”
Will Smith says about Woody Harrelson, “I need to know if he is worthy of this gift.”

The concept of character compassing is intrusive: you are effectively crystal balling a person’s character. In business, we need an edge to know what a person will do when the chips are down, how they handle windfall or how they will deal with temporary misfortune.


My mentor, Mark McCormack, who wrote the book, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School“.

Mark McCormack mentors how to read people in my favorite book, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School”. He talks about some oldie but goodie strategies of dining out, taking trips and watching golf ettiquete in getting to know people. While some methods may be time intensive, getting a good read on a person or ‘character compass’ can be extremely valuable.

I get creepy great reads into the bearing of people’s character compass… here is how I do it.

-1- Five Ego Warning Signals.

Egos fall and rise.

I get the setting and orientation of their character compass by reading into the five warning signals than an ego is in flux.

(A) Geographic stability. People who just move to a new city have a new-start attitude.

(B) Change in Romantic Friend(s). Gain two girlfriends, lose a 1st wife and their work productivity plummets.

(C) Family changes. Add a parent, lose a parent and  your compass shifts. Lose a dad that was a mentor-hero-stalwart and his soul’s energy will fill you with white light.

(D) Change in possessions. Don’t be the cliche celebrity with your new Bentley… sandbag your celebrity because it is genius to keep a hoopT (aka junker).

(E) Change in job. Yes, selling Powerset to Microsoft is considered a new job. Keep it real as the PowerSet Founder & CEO by complaining, “Omg, Tweetsville costs $2.99?!”

As a rule of thumb, when two or more warning signals are in flux, people overextrapolate their fortune (and misfourtune).

-2- Last Six Books.

Read what they read and you’ll know what they know. The last two books might come up in conversation but books #3 – 6 you will require some digging. I also like to ask what their fave book is, but when I’m down in LA, I replace the word ‘book’ with ‘movie’ when I character compass 😉

-3- Feng Shui My Cubicle.

Similar to when peeps pimp their ride (aka accessorize the car they love), I wanna see how you feng shui’d your cubicle. Based on how you ‘decorate’ your workspace enviroment, I can see how you interact with the business world. On good days, I can peg your salary give or take 200 bucks.

-4- Give Them Power.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but a li’l dab of power shows you who they really are.

In this original manuver, I feign a weakness and see what they do with it. For example, I say, “I’m thinking about starting a company that helps people with their credit scores.” Truth: Duck9 has kicked ass for four years.

Faking weakness lowers the barrier to revealing their character compass.

-5- Google Me Baby.

Will Smith Googles. I use registrars office data in confirmng academic credentials. Third party data confirmation (TPDC) could’ve prevented the mortgage meltdown (by checking salary versus IRS filings), but you can use Facebook, linkedIn and FriendFeed to augment the Googling.

-6- Area Code What?!

We all have a friend with a weird area code. Old area codes are like security blankets that keep people rooted to family in Minnesota. Area code 651 HBS girl is a stark contrast to Mr Five-Area-Codes-in-Five-Years.

Cell phone numbers have an age revealed in the numbers middle three digits. I like well seasoned ones. Because I do cell phone number underwriting at work, my character compass is over-the-top accurate with a cell number in hand. Its so important to me that I bought 415 720 8500 from Michael Puhala in 1999.

-7- Email Address Fetish.

Email address selection is similar to cell phone underwriting where email addresses convey age, purpose, anonymity, loyalty and transparency. What impressions do you get from seeing these email addresses


Yes, lorenzo and tall_asian_guy are my instant messaging handles for when I’m feeling romantic on the internet. Lawrence.Chiang@gsb.stanford.edu is a wet dream cuz I’m going to law school.

-8- Sound Bitten Analysis.

I listen like a really advanced lie detector.

Lie detectors detect voice stress. I look for voice comfort. When I hear ease-of-delivery, I know that what I’m hearing is ‘material’ versus newly constructed thought. This material is usually conjured up to form a mask to shield their souls intention and throw off my character compass.


My mentor, Mark McCormack, reads people’s masks in, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School“.

-9- The Man, the Myth and the Mask.

Most people want to unmask a person and “get to their core”. I character compass more accurately because I want to know which mask they picked and why.

Actors know this. Tom Selleck, said “Acting mimicks life where I explore deeper character meaning in the mask that they pick”.

-10- Talent Sniffer.

Having a nose for talent is something that Mark McCormack was genius at. You HAVE to digest his book, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School”, and get the nuggets of how he character compasses people’s talent.

My best summary of the mercurial skill of talent identification is I look for grace and competance under pressure. During hardship, some people focus and others fold. Talent is most difficult to see when there is no pressure. Talent is near impossible to identify at a party because its fluffy, fun and fake.

-12- Tag Team Character Compassing

Character compassing is also done in a group setting. Doing coffee or one-on-one interviews, your exchange is insulated and your interrogation is confined. Tag teaming is very common in social settings and parties.

-13- How Do They Self Soothe

How people self soothe is an insightful way to character compass a new friend. Volatility and uncertainty are addressed in vastly unique ways. I examine how people self-soothe.

Some people read.
Some people eat a lot of Ben and Jerry’s.
Other people escape into a movie.

Dating is silly because it’s all one smooth vacation of an experience. Dating ends with the master of all vacations: the Honeymoon. I wanna see you in hardship because no one truly self-soothes on a Hawaiian beach.

-14- Taking Credit Where Credit is Due

Will Smith is an IRS agent with access to sensitive data in Seven Pounds. My world swirls around credit data, so I imagine what derrogatories would be on their report after I talk with them. Dings (aka charge-offs, defaults or 9’s) on their credit report could be…

Exhibit One) Parking ticket from Beverly Hills CA*
Exhibit Two) College utility bill default
Exhibit Three) Car loan cosign default
Exhibit Four) Three 60 day lates from one cliche vacation to Europe after they got laid off.
Exhibit Five) Department store orphan debt of $30 sent to an old address*.

* $30 collection items always magically balloon to $110. People always pay these in full right before they buy a house.

The type of credit default show people’s character compass.

Go see the movie “Seven Pounds” and comment below how well Will Smith’s character compasses.

Good luck out there and text me during my office hours: 11:11am/pm give or take 15 minutes. This article is at http://tinyurl.com/12-18-08 so tweet it!!! I am also on Facebook in the Austin TX network… why Texas?! It is because I started ‘Austin Secret Society of Entrepreneurs’ (#asse9). If you see a typo or grammatical error, email me! larry@larrychiang.com :-)


Larry’s book release 09-09-09 and BIO: http://tinyurl.com/AmazonBio


Larry Chiang is the founder of Duck9, which educates college students on how to establish and maintain a FICO score over 750. He has testified before Congress and World Bank on credit.

He is a frequent contributor to Business Week’s blog on “What They Don’t Teach You at Business School“. For fun, writes in a journal, cooks on a hot plate and plays basketball on college campuses across

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