The guy they hired as our new CEO had been a consultant with us for a couple of years. In those two years, we had only had one interaction and that interaction was an argument. I thought I was fucking doomed.
Confirmation of my suspicions came in the form of a phone call from his executive assistant to the effect that the CEO wanted to see me early on his first day on the job. No CEO meets with the HR person on the first day unless the HR person is toast. A CEO will meet with the finance, marketing, sales, operations and probably the facilities and janitorial service people before bothering with HR. On my walk down the long hallway, I prepared my negotiating position for the severance package.
I came in and the first thing he did was get out from behind the imposing desk and walk over to a small conference table where we could speak as colleagues. He wasted no time getting to the point, although it wasn’t the point I had expected.
“There are only two things wrong with this company: the financials and the people. I’ll take care of the financials. What do we need to do to fix the people side?”
I asked him what he thought was wrong with the people side. “Simple,” he said. “Our managers are a bunch of clowns more interested in pissing on each other than doing anything for the customer. What do we need to do to fix it?”
“We need a massive leadership development program for the whole bunch,” I blurted out.
“What will it cost?”
I quickly calculated travel costs (we had twenty-five locations in North America) and design costs and said, “$150,000.” I expected his response to be, “Shit, I can fire you for a lot less than that.”
Instead, he said, “Okay. Go figure it out.”
We then embarked on what turned out to be a remarkably successful journey that turned a company losing over $10M a year into a company paying profit-sharing checks to every employee. I often look back on the experience and say, “Damn, I’d wish I’d written a book about that experience. I coulda been a management guru!”
Oh, well. I never wanted to be a guru anyway. But I did want to use my skills in support of some very important personal values to make a difference for all of the people I’d worked with over the last four or five years. I knew these people, their stories, their problems. They mattered to me, in spite of my tendency to keep an emotional distance from my work. If we could give the leaders a strong set of skills and get them committed to an ethic of personal responsibility for the company’s success, I knew we could change this company into something worth fighting for and working for.
For the first time in my career, I didn’t hold back. I threw everything I had into the leadership program. Because I designed it as a 48-hour course, it meant I would be spending six days a week for six months delivering the class and traveling about half of that time. Even that kind of schedule failed to dampen my commitment. During those six months I was on a strange sort of high, full of energy and creativity, totally engaged with the people whose minds and hearts I was trying to reach. Part of the secret was that I had designed the course with plenty of humor, doing crazy skits and exercises that made the practice of management both the object of satire and something that people could begin to see as a fun thing to do. The program worked miracles; people came in skeptics and left believing in themselves and each other. In the end, I have to say that the leadership program was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
When the program was over, we worked hard to make it real by changing policies, procedures and practices to align them with our new reality. Backstabbing disappeared and collaboration became the norm. Scores in our annual leadership survey went up every year. Turnover fell to an all-time low. We also went five years without an employment-related lawsuit, which in California was nothing less than miraculous.
After a few years, though, I was getting restless. I had done all I could do and was beginning to feel a change would do both me and the company some good. I talked to my CEO about it. “Why don’t you hang out your own shingle?” he asked. “What—go into business for myself?” “Sure,” he said. “You’ve got the smarts for it.”
I had a business trip to Atlanta and used that dreary alone time in the cookie-cutter hotel room to mull it over. Once again, here was an opportunity right up my alley. I had no idea how to open or run my own business. I had no core business skills, very little in the way of connections and I had very little money in the bank.
Perfect! I was uniquely unqualified! Let’s do it! Hooray!
—to be continued