If I Say It Three Times It Is Trueor
If You Don’t Believe It… You Are Gone.
He and I sit in executive black leather easy chairs on opposite sides of an amber black coffee table. I squirm a little, looking at him. He squirms a little and looks right back at me. A current copy of the Harvard Business Review sits askew on the otherwise clear table and mocks us because we both know it won’t help. Like so many times in the past, we are stuck. I feel stuck, almost jumping out of my skin. I am guessing he can imagine me about to jump, and is unwilling to provoke it by making a loud noise, or worse, by uttering “no” once again. I am guessing he is feeling tentative, he doesn’t want to set me off, he’s done that before, set me off, but you know, it didn’t help any. In truth my exasperation probably set us back some.
But this is a new day, and what he doesn’t know is that I have come to our coaching session committed to another approach. Call it Gandhi light. No matter what, I said to myself while preparing for the meeting, I am going to ride with him, ask him the questions that need to be asked, and under no circumstances will I push, punch, raise my voice, exaggerate, gesticulate, or react strongly. I will listen, I will weather the pauses, I will somehow get to the bottom of why he won’t…. well that’s not fair is it? I’m not all that sure what he should do. What I am sure of is he is dying the death of a thousand cuts by doing nothing. Hence his favorite word “no”. As in “no I am not willing to do anything about it right now…” and so on.
So with the spirit of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in my heart (I hope) I squirm a little, again, I pause for a bit, then looking right at his brown eyes and ask in a soft voice “do you see the damage he is doing to your team”?
Shifting toward me a bit he says “yes, well no… well all right yes. What I mean is I see some chaffing. He does cause chaffing, irritation, like that. Damage, no, I’m not so sure that’s the right word.”
“Are we talking about the same person,” I ask?
“Are we talking about Baxter Eisenstadt, your CFO?”
“Yes of course were are talking about Baxter.”
Gandhi’s blood pressure rises slightly, I try to compensate with yet another intake of breath.
“This is the Baxter who called your COO a coward, and an imbecile?”
“Look stop throwing that in my face. He apologized! Baxter gets wound up sometimes, but he sure as hell produces results – you have got to give him that.”
“Yes, he is the type of person I need to keep this team on track, to push them, we need results. He is priceless that way.”
“You aren’t worried about alienation? I mean that budget fiasco, are we over that yet?”
“Well, not exactly, did I tell you Keith quit? Actually Keith and Janet quit, same day for gods sake, good riddance is what I say.”
Gandhi’s head is hurting – he is stunned – gobsmacked, so he inhales again, sits and just looks across the black expanse for a count of four. One, two, three, four.
Finally he says “Good riddance? You lost your COO and your VP HR over what, exactly?”
“They couldn’t make the grade, that’s what! We budgeted 25 million in sales for this year. Baxter made it clear to all of us; each exec had to belly up, step up and if they do, we should earn revenue of at least $25 million! Otherwise there was going to be big trouble. I should have seen it coming. Keith screamed like a slaughtered pig when Baxter came up with his projection… he said we couldn’t do it, that we wouldn’t even make 20 Million, you know, the wheels will come off and we don’t have enough sales push – all that crap. But Baxter, well this is why I like him, he just kept the pressure on, telling us we had to make it or else, until he pushed, well maybe a little too hard and Keith, I think, cracked. I really should have seen it coming, we needed to upgrade anyway.”
“So he quit?”
“Yes, he quit, in a huff.”
“Well that was too bad really, but she is just too soft. I told her to terminate Keith, and hold his expense checks and his final paycheck until we got his computer and his keys and a signed confidentiality agreement…all that stuff. Well she said that was illegal and even if it weren’t that it was being disrespectful, contrary to our corporate values, you know, that soft stuff she loves, so Baxter told her if she didn’t follow my orders she could go too.”
“Tell me you are kidding!”
“Hell no I am not kidding. I think Baxter is right, we need 25 Million in sales and god dammit Keith was asleep at the switch!”
“So what’s the number going to be?”
“Ah shit, 19 Million if we are lucky, they’re still counting, but yea it looks like 19 Million.”
“So your hand-picked COO, the guy who effectively built this business from 4 million to what, nineteen million in five years, he quits, and you say he doesn’t have what it takes?”
“Nope, it’s a new era, when we budget to make a number you make it or you are out the door.”
“Then why is Baxter still here?”
“Because he was right, we need 25 million, I think he was right.”
“What if the market says otherwise?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if the market only needed or wanted 19 million?”
“But we budgeted for 25 million!”
“So what? That doesn’t mean it will happen, if there isn’t sufficient demand, or a large enough sales force or enough marketing magic, or manufacturing capacity, or. Really what I am asking is what if Keith was right?”
“Baxter said we could do 25 million, and I decided that was right. Keith couldn’t cut it, Janet is a wimp, Baxter is a little irritating at times, but I still think 25 Million was a good idea.”
“Sorry, but do I remember it correctly? You did 15 million last year, right?”
“So 19 million would be a twenty-five, twenty-six percent revenue growth?”
“And 25 million would be a what… a sixty-six percent revenue growth?”
“Yes, and yes, what are you getting at?”
“I am getting at a question; what on earth convinced you that you needed sixty-six percent revenue growth in one year?”
“Aren’t you listening? I already told you; Baxter convinced me!”
“And Baxter’s sales and manufacturing experience is…?”
“His experience is that he sees what we could be and said we should shoot higher than we have been shooting for in the past, that we ought to be able to get to 25 million. I like that idea, and so I set that as the goal for this year. I told Keith I wasn’t kidding, that I really wanted 25 million and I would be pissed if we didn’t get it.”
I elbow Gandhi aside and say “goddamn it, Baxter knows next to nothing about manufacturing or the market you are in: he’s an accountant! He has never run a real business, he counts, that’s all, he counts and acts like a horses ass. He counts and kisses your butt, and you just eat it up!”
Gandhi had left the building, along with Keith and Janet.
Exasperated I continue. “How would you describe the state of your team now, I mean the mood?”
“Pretty shitty, but this is the real world, and this stuff happens.”
“What stuff, specifically?”
“People leaving, not making the grade, you know, like that.”
“So you are faced with rebuilding your team, replacing people who were dependable, hard working, loyal, and with the exception of the 25 million dollar budget, dependable… you are faced with reconstituting the executive team, and holding on to Baxter?”
“Yup, that’s it.”
“Can you think of a way you could have avoided this mess?”
“I can. If you want to hear?”
“By someone, probably you, asking the obvious question… what if the sales projection was just plain unrealistic? What if Baxter didn’t really have a clue what you could or couldn’t really produce or sell given the condition of the company and its products? What if he just thought a big sales increase was available because he didn’t know any better?”
“He is a seasoned CFO.”
“Yes, but Keith knew your business better than anyone in the world except perhaps you. You’ve said it yourself, he built it. Why would he want to understate its capacity?”
“I liked the idea of 25 million! It’s time to get out of this rut, move to a new level! I don’t like him telling me we can’t do that; it’s a defeatist attitude!”
“Yes well, anyone who heard you wasn’t likely to ask the obvious question, where they? Except for Keith of course. My guess is he thought you would listen to him, so naively he walks in and gives you his best advice.”
“Advice my ass, we only did 19 Million!”
“Indeed”, uttered Gandhi, who had re-entered the conversation. “You only did 19 Million. So Keith was probably right, only you won’t have him to help you get to 25 million, you have Baxter, who doesn’t know how to run a manufacturing business. He knows how to count-at least I think he does. Oh and he also knows how to tell you what you want to hear.”
I have sat in a darkened theater watching dozens of executive teams act out scenes of high tension and towering drama. The dynamics of business, especially in the C Suite are as compelling as any Ibsen or Chekhov melodrama. But there is one reoccurring theme that makes me want to stand up in the darkened theater and scream out “ask the obvious question… ask the obvious question and skip all the blood and guts and murder and betrayal!” That theme is the angry and often destructive drama around a team that has fallen short of sales (or profit) targets. Of course the immediate trigger is that someone is to blame, then the witch hunt begins, then the team itself starts pointing fingers at one another, the CEO stirs it up with his/her anger and disappointment, taking the shortfall personally, as if it was a slap in the face, a kick in the groin, and then, the real fight begins and in many cases permanently poisons relationships among team members… and through all of this; no one asks the obvious question… what if the target was unrealistic. No one ever asks, because the leaders are unwilling to admit or accept that the sales (or profit) target may be unrealistic, because by doing so gives way to some hidden horrible infection whose symptoms include complicity, idleness, shirking or slacking. Better to plunge everyone into a dark pit of despair and convene a knife fight than to just ask and answer that question, then do something about the answer.
Consider this as an alternate scenario to the story above:
The business is on track for 19 Million, not 25 million. The team sees this and three to six months into the year and they re-budget (probably cut) expenses to match current sales projections (allowing capacity or flexibility in case some fourth quarter magic happens and bails everyone out). The team immediately also begins work on a strategic assessment and planning process to develop a more abundant future based on improved and/or or re-engineered production, marketing, sales and distribution, then creating revised estimates for the following year’s projections.
No drama, other than the disappointment of a lower sales result…. They reach the only ground from which change can be launched… they reach the place of: “it is what it is”. Then as opposed to the angry knife fight and goon show, they collaborate, adjust, rejig and set out on a path to make the business bigger, faster, smarter through strategic thinking and investment. And the people who know the business best have also learned something about how to budget better, and more importantly how to make the more realistic expectations come true. And so the business continues, the team grows, experiences are shared, and the future is brighter for everyone.
Of course if you have a COO or other key executive who has reached the end of his/her capacity then you do need a change, but in most cases this isn’t what happens. What happens is the whole business is thrown in to turmoil because no one will ask the one simple question. If you are a CEO, know that you are the person who should ask that question and then lead the team in answering it.
One last point. Once the question is answered… you can get to work. Use all of that otherwise wasted energy to make the future business what it can be, which I optimistically believe is the raison d’etre of a good leadership team (CEO included), leaving the hand wringing, gut twisting drama to Ibsen and Chekhov, so you can do good work and lead a sustainable community, your business or group.
And with that, Gandhi can retire from the field.