My Brilliant Career, Part 5


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

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My Brilliant Career, Part 2


I approached my first day as a Corporate Trainer full of excitement and confidence. I ended my first day as a Corporate Trainer wanting to drive to the Golden Gate Bridge and fling myself into the icy cold of the San Francisco Bay.

The person “mentoring” me was an academic with no experience in the real world of business. His immediate task was to turn a raw, inexperienced novice into a first-class management trainer and enable said rookie to take over the Supervisory Development Program. He approached this task with diligence, a detailed action plan and a generous portion of anal-retentiveness.

I thought I was in trouble when I learned that the first task on his list was to teach me how to tear flip chart paper from an easel without leaving any rough edges or dangling bits of paper. I knew I was in trouble when I wound up spending the entire fucking morning tearing flip chart paper from an easel until I had mastered the technique.

Things went downhill from there. Rather than design an original training program that actually met the needs of the participants, he bought an off-the-shelf program that was in vogue at the time. This program was based on the concept of behavior modification, which taught that if you kept repeating something over and over, you would learn it and the skill would become a part of you.

It was also as boring as shit. The participants received a workbook of skill modules. The first skill module was Listening. There were three steps to listening. The participants wrote down the three steps three times in the workbook. Then they watched a video showing third-rate actors following the three listening steps. They watched the video twice more, Β then the participants wrote down the steps three more times. After that, they practiced the three steps in front of the class while my mentor verbally abused them if they deviated in any way from the three steps. When all of them had practiced, they concluded the module by writing down the three steps one more time.

Even without a lick of experience in leadership training, I knew that this was bullshit. If there was one thing I learned in the real world of supervision, it was that a leader had to connect with people in the form of a real, live human being. I couldn’t teach this crap!

I decided on day two that I had made a mistake and needed an escape strategy. Fortunately, there was a lot of empty calendar space between classes and those dreary mentoring sessions that I used that to explore the subject of organizational development. The possibilities in the literature excited me, for it spoke of the need for authenticity, for self-awareness and for encouraging fresh thinking in the workplace by involving people at all levels in decision-making. Inspired in part by my experience working as a drone where management barely considered me a human being (until they found out I had a degree), I decided this was an area worth further exploration.

I would get a Master’s degree with an emphasis in organizational development and save the working class from a lifetime of quiet desperation! Hooray!

In the meantime, I would start looking for a job in a field with a bit more stability and market presence than pure OD. I liked the people side of things (in part because I didn’t understand the technical side), so I started looking for jobs in Human Resources, despite my complete lack of knowledge and experience in the field. That combination had already led to two promotions, so how could I go wrong?

Sure enough, I found a nice company that met my basic criteria (they didn’t make things that blew people up) and a nice job as an Employee Relations Specialist. I knew nothing about labor law and nothing about employee relations. The VP who hired me liked my experience in manufacturing because this assignment was in their manufacturing plant. It also helped that I could talk a little about organizational development, a field in which the VP considered himself an expert.

He was anything but, but we got on well enough and I learned all kinds of things about the law and traditional HR practices, most of which I thought were total bullshit. More importantly, I learned a lot about human beings, how they derive meaning from the smallest of jobs and how they can learn and grow given a decent amount of confidence. I did get to deliver a supervisory training program of my own design and found teaching leaders and potential leaders both energizing and fulfilling. Better still, I traveled all over North America delivering training, resolving legal issues and visiting every baseball stadium within my reach. In the meantime, I completed my Master’s degree, which turned out to be the best educational experience of my life and gave me knowledge that I still use every day. Things were going good! Hooray!

Of course, it couldn’t last. What do you think happened?

a.) Everything went to hell in a hand basket.

b.) My boss got fired and my favorite colleague decided to move to Hawaii and become a jazz singer.

c.) Robert received yet another promotion to a job for which he was distinctly unqualified.

d.) All of the above.

To be continued . . .Β 

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