When I saw that the title of this series I was asked to write was “How I lead through turmoil and growth,” my first reaction was “hey – aren’t they the same thing?”
Companies that grow over the long term are usually those that handle adversity, manage pivots, and rebound from setbacks well. True leaders learn to welcome challenging times as growth opportunities for themselves and their organizations, and (perhaps most importantly) as a means for separating the next generation of leaders from the ones who merely had potential.
The Limits of PowerPoint
There’s a slide in CEB’s investor roadshow that neatly summarizes our performance as a public company since we debuted in 1999. It shows our total growth in revenue across the past decade and a half from $70 to $915 million, and EBITDA (probably the best measure of profit for our business) from $18 to $238 million.
We show the annualized growth rate for both – a healthy 19% per year in profit and revenue. It’s a slide I’m proud to present on behalf of the generations of leaders and team members who made this track record possible (especially against the backdrop of some of the sketchy stuff that entered the public markets in 1999).
But looking at the slide, I’m always struck by how this view of the past oversimplifies building and running a growth company, as if it were more akin to a gently ascending cable car, rather than the rollercoaster ride it often feels like. The reality is that what it takes to run a successful growth company is rarely reflected in PowerPoint. In fact, it’s just the opposite: the slide depicts a complex — and at times turbulent — story with the simplicity of a children’s book illustration.
Truth is that most companies with a happy presentation slide like ours have volumes of war stories behind them. This stands to reason. The best thing about dynamic markets is that the bar not only goes up, it moves. In our leadership development classes, we drive home the simple fact that every day customer expectations go up, and so do costs.
And competitors – direct and indirect – get stronger. In the long run, this is great news for our business: it forces us to rethink, retool, and relentlessly operate at our best. Frankly, we’re a young company; if needs didn’t change, we wouldn’t exist in the first place. But in the short run, it can be painful for the business area or team whose cheese has moved.
When I look at the more turbulent periods our company has gone through, two things stand out:
First – in retrospect – they are generally the best professional memories I have. My proudest moments, and my strongest professional relationships, were forged in the most challenging times. I’ve never grabbed a beer at a happy hour and said: “Remember that year when we were well-staffed and all the products did more or less what they were supposed to? Good times!”
Recovering from a slow start, going toe-to-toe with CEB’s procurement membership around discounting (or not discounting), and doing two jobs at once – those are the times that I remember with pride and spark camaraderie among colleagues.
The second is unsurprisingly seeing leaders rise (or fail). I often barely remember the details of decisions we made in the periods of chop. The big ones – having to let people go, acquisitions, etc. – are pretty clear, but most are blurry. That said, I remember the behaviors of my colleagues like it was yesterday.
Business challenges seem to be like a prism – rising leaders whose performance and potential have been tracking pretty closely together are suddenly separated into distinct levels and layers and, in particular, it is the tails of the curve that are most memorable.
To the good, there are moments of raw heroism that still stand out. All-nighters on matters of cost management or due diligence. Huge personal sacrifices to support customers in far-flung corners of the world. Creative and fast adaptations of our product set to respond to suddenly changed markets (I still have a copy of “Top 100 Cost Savings Ideas for CIO’s” – a pop-up resource that our IT research team developed in a flash during the 2001 recession.) Above all, selfless partnering to achieve big stuff without regard for credit.
To the bad, I’ve been witness to (and frankly, been party to) some of the greatest lapses in leadership behavior I’ve ever seen during times of challenge:
I showed up for a meeting entitled “compensation adjustments for XYZ group” to find that the leader of that group had outlined several different scenarios for how the business might perform under stress – and how we could protect his variable compensation under each one.
After a particularly difficult period, one of my direct reports asked to have their annual performance review as early as possible in the new year. Thinking that we would talk about the year behind us, learn what we could and move on quickly, I eagerly agreed. It turned out that the agenda was focused on ensuring that I held the rest of the executive team sufficiently accountable for the various ways that they failed him.
Most comically, I had a pretty senior leader try to change the time of a pre-agreed sabbatical because, quote, “this looks the best period to be outta here.”
I wish I could say that I was perfect in times of challenge, but the truth is I’m not. My shortcomings tend to be in how I carry my stress – generally being grumpy, sometimes sarcastic, and – in the quiet of my own space – displaying a wicked temper. While it might be tempting to write these off as “venial” sins, they aren’t; when I displayed them outwardly, I was robbing the organization of confidence and curtailing the free flow of ideas.
Most damagingly, sarcasm or skepticism can often be interpreted as cynicism. And there is no quality more lethal to an organization – particularly one facing a challenge – than cynicism.
It will come as no surprise that when leaders exhibit bad behaviors in times of challenge, we do a pretty good job of course correcting them, or moving them on. But increasingly, I find myself asking – what can I do to ensure that I can see and correct weakness before the organization encounters challenges? This is good fodder for my next post.
A version of this post originally appeared on Linked-In.