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 4


Horror of horrors, I was now another empty suit. I had never wanted, dreamed of or even considered the possibility that someday I would be a business executive. I had never wanted to get to the top of my profession. I never even wanted a goddamned profession in the first place! I wanted to play music and get laid! And now, here I was, the youngest executive in company history, and, for the fourth time in my career, the recipient of a promotion that was breathtakingly undeserved.

If this was the fulfillment of the American dream, where was the hard work that was supposed to lead to that fulfillment? My ascension to the executive suite was the result of a series of accidents. Anyone looking at my trajectory would say, “Man, you got pretty damned lucky.”

I sure didn’t feel lucky, though. I felt like a sell-out. And now I had to go to my first executive team meeting with all those conservative Republicans with trophy wives whose primary goal in life was to gain power, whose energies were devoted to political manipulation and who didn’t give a shit about the people who worked their asses off to pay for their country club memberships.

I trudged down the long hallway to the executive conference room like a prisoner facing execution, found the least conspicuous seat at the table and resolved to speak only when spoken to. As I have learned over my career, this is how most HR executives play the game, which explains why most of them are terribly ineffective.

After a few minutes of bullshit pleasantries, the executive team got down to business. Business consisted of looking at a spreadsheet projected onto a screen showing the monthly financials. The President would call on one of the suits to explain an unhappy figure and the suit would inevitably point the finger at another suit whose department was fucking everything up. The other suits carefully watched the President to see which side he would take and once the President had made that call, descended on the victim like a pack of hungry lions picking off the slowest in the herd.

This went on for three fucking hours, during which I had the revelation of a lifetime.

These people were human beings. Frightened human beings.

You didn’t need to be a psychologist to make that diagnosis. They all displayed the symptoms of a person in fear. Defensive body language. Fight-flight responses. Shifty eyes, darting around the room in a desperate search for support. They were absolutely terrified of losing their jobs, their status, and above all, the meaning they had attached to making it to the top. Instead of seeing them as arrogant and all-powerful, I realized they were extremely vulnerable and psychologically fragile. They were only frightening in the sense that all frightened animals are dangerous. They derived power from their fear.

I wasn’t frightened of them anymore. I felt sorry for them and wanted to help, but I also knew that they would never allow me to help. To do that, they would have to drop the thing shielding their vulnerability and that was simply out of the question. They lived by the credo of never letting an opponent see your weak spot—and everyone in the world had to considered an opponent.

I figured that if I did what they asked (as long as they didn’t ask me to do anything illegal or unethical), I could handle them. Falling back on my earlier revelation that I had a team of people who were there to help me, I asked them lots of questions and took their input seriously. We solved the previously unsolvable sales turnover problem in about six months. We handled employee relations problems with exceptional finesse and kept the company out of court. The one area where we could make no headway was with our managers, who were desperately in need of training. The President wouldn’t spend a dime on that, believing that leadership was a genetic trait. So, we organized our efforts towards protecting the company and the employees from the stupid things our asshole managers always wound up doing.

In other words, I kept my head down and did my job. The President was happy that I confirmed his belief in the Portuguese work ethic and left me alone. Things were . . . okay. I still felt uncomfortable with the whole executive hoo-hah.

Then things really got interesting. The short version of the story is this: The President and CFO were in cahoots to manipulate the numbers so they could get their annual bonuses. A cozy relationship with the financial auditors facilitated their scheme. When the parent conglomerate decided to sell our entire line of business to a group of outside investors, a fresh team of accountants was sent to evaluate the American company. The President hightailed it out of there and wound up with our leading competitor. The CFO stayed on, figuring he he held a strong hand: he was an expert on the financial mess he had created and was probably the only person on the planet who could explain it. He also divined that the new owners would want to cut, cut, cut and with the President gone, he could do the dirty work and get rid of the excessive fat at the top of the organization in exchange for a very sweet severance package.

Unfortunately, he needed an accomplice, and when you terminate people, that accomplice has to be the HR person. Not having any other job options and having a family to support, I had little choice but to go along. Together, we fired ten executives in the space of one month. The CFO handled the financial negotiations, I handled the human considerations. All of the conversations were extraordinarily painful and intensely embarrassing to the victim and despite their arrogance, their threats and abusive language, I felt terribly sorry for all of them.

Now we were five . . . five executives without a CEO now leading a near-bankrupt company that had just been bought by a group of faceless investors. It didn’t help our optimism that America was in the midst of a recession and the job market for executives with experience in failing companies was not particularly bright. There was nothing we could do but wait for the new CEO to come in and finish off the rest of us.

—to be continued—

Photo Credit: Β© Pamelajane | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos