I was on a mini speaking tour last week. I do this three or four times a year – go out and speak to groups of CEOs. It helps me stay in touch with the world outside of my coaching practice, stay grounded, stay real.
Before my presentation I was treated to a quick go around in which each of the 20 or so CEOs attending shared a synopsis of one learning they’d experienced in the last month. So at 7:30 in the morning, I sat, in the center of a CEO semi-circle listening to their reports, their brief stories, grateful to hear these messages from the front, first hand, raw, unedited.
One CEO’s lesson was “Keep your eye on the ball”. She barked it out. “We chased a really big proposal, for almost seven months! We chased it and chased it and forgot to pay attention to our core business, and when we didn’t get the award – duh, we got hammered.” “By whom,” someone asked. “By our pissed off customers, the people who were paying the bills that allowed us to chase the damn proposal in the first place.” “But you have to go after those big ones: grow or die” said another CEO. “Really?” she asked. “Oh yes, of course,” said another. “Well maybe, but I will tell you this was the biggest mistake of my career. We started looking at this giant job over a year ago. I didn’t think we could handle it, but told the others anyway: what the hell, let’s go for it. The team was pumped and we went to work. After three months of trying to arm wrestle an octopus, I was positive we weren’t going to get it; in fact I wasn’t sure that we could even complete the proposal process. This project wasn’t in our wheel house, and of course that cuts both ways. What pisses me off is that I didn’t stop us right then and get back to work. Now I’m up to my ears in a serious damage control campaign – we may have to lay off some people to get through this.”
As she spoke, I was thinking the lesson might be “Keep your eye on the ball”, but it might also be “Know who you are.”
I run up against this “Grow or Die” thing all the time. There’s a belief that our companies are like all biological organisms and our pod or our cluster of cells is in a sort of Darwinian theme park, where biology, especially biology as it relates to death, is both the primary life motivator and boogie man. Yes, it’s easy to fall into the drama. Most CEOs are fearful, and with good reason. He/she is responsible for the survival of the company, and that’s a heavy weight to carry around all the time. And the media, God, the Media miasma – it’s riddled with invectives about Grow or Die, Risk as the great motivator and so on. But looking at the trash heap of crashed businesses, you will certainly find those that ran out of revenue, or products, or ideas, yes, but you will also find a great many that simply overreached. They had a great idea or saw what they thought was a golden opportunity, but they couldn’t quite get there.
So I asked her: “What will you take away from this experience?” She said, “Don’t get sucked up in the hype: it can kill you faster than anything.” “So next time a big deal shows up…” “Next time we will look at it with more experience and with a real eye for protecting our current business. And as soon as it looks like it’s too big, or a loser, or will drain our current customers, we’ll drop it.” “Aren’t you afraid of criticism, people saying you don’t have what it takes, that you’re wimping out maybe?” “Am I afraid of that? You must be kidding…. My job is to ensure we’re here tomorrow and the day after, that’s my job, not to run after and try to catch a passing bus, let alone run for office. I owe it to my employees and customers to be around tomorrow, to work for them and with them. If that makes me a wimp well….” She cocked her head, looked around at the other CEOs in the group and said “Actually, as I hear myself talking about this, you know, the only people who say those sorts of things are people who don’t actually take those risks: they just talk and write about them. No, keep your eye on the ball, that’s what we learned.”