It was still early in my tenure as a CEO when I learned that this job was going to be about a lot more than developing a smart, compelling strategy that reflected the changing dynamics of our marketplace and executing same with the high quality performance for which our company was known. No small task by itself but I knew I worked with some of the smartest people in the business. The founder of the company was still very much present and, hard as it may have been for him, he left the running of the day-to-day operations to me, offering advice and counsel only when I asked. I asked every day.
But his counsel and wisdom didn’t prepare me for everything. On day one a senior woman welcomed me by saying, “Well, at least you’re not another overweight white man with a beard.” How do you respond to that? Who says something like that on day one to a new CEO?
It didn’t take me long to learn that the “rules” in a small, idiosyncratic organization are very different than the companies where I had worked before. One day an internal announcement was sent out about a product release and I received it at the same time everyone else did. I was still insecure enough in the job to feel that this was a disrespectful and intentional slight and I was angry. I stomped down to the “offending” executive’s office, and, using my best CEO voice, interrupted the meeting that was taking place.
“Excuse me. Sorry for interrupting. I saw the memo that went out this morning. The next time something like this goes out, run it by me first, ok?” The executive looked up thunderstruck, muttered ok, and I went back to my office, feeling that I had struck a successful blow for women executives everywhere. Ha!
That night was the annual holiday party, arranged well before I had started this job. My assistant and I left the plans in place because we had so many other things to do. What a mistake.
The evening was arranged as a sit-down dinner in an upscale steak house. Seating was assigned. I was sitting next to the “offending” executive who was now no longer speaking to me. One of the “overweight, white men with beards” was dressed as Santa and asking young women to sit on his lap to get their Secret Santa gift. As the alcohol flowed someone tossed a dinner roll across the room. Another executive across the table was telling a joke about an employee mistakenly eating cat treats and everyone was roaring with laughter. The pouting, “offending” executive was now completely turned so that his back was facing me. No one had said a word to me all evening.
I was beginning to panic when our kindly founder, seated on my right, began to tell me a story about Hannibal and why he was such a successful strategist. I could barely listen as I looked around the room, convinced I was working with unprofessional cretins who behaved like wild animals and it was going to be my job to tame them. Somebody squealed on Santa’s lap and I imagined telling my board in London about the harassment suit to come. More dinner roles flew across the room. “I used to work at The New York Times,” I thought to myself.
The founder went on to say that so many historians describe Hannibal in terms of his war strategy but what many fail to appreciate was how it was his post-battle strategy that was really the foundation of his success. He droned on and on about Hannibal. Panic began rising in my throat, as I sat knowing that this entire night was a disaster. I had lost all control and I had no idea what to do. I understood how to develop a strategy, build alliances and grow the business. But how do I command respect and inspire allegiance?
The kindly founder touched my arm and said, “The moral of the Hannibal tale is that when you are a leader, you control the banks. It is ok to leave religion to the people.” I had no idea what he was talking about.
I don’t even remember leaving that night. I know I got up and made a toast to a great end of one year and here’s to a more successful new one. I left my poor assistant to make sure we cleared out without breaking anything.
The next day I awoke, feeling confused, guilty, angry and ashamed all at the same time. “How dare they treat me like that, “ my bruised, frightened self whined. Suddenly I had a picture in my mind of small child stamping her foot and I laughed out loud. Some leader I was.
And then I was struck by the Hannibal story, realizing that the wise founder had chosen it deliberately. The “religion” that I had dared intrude upon was to march into the “offending” executive’s office, shrouded in my insecurity and to demand that he give me respect. It doesn’t work that way. I didn’t bother learning about the culture or acknowledge that, in THIS research company, the head of research is like the head of the church. I apologized. I set about learning more about the culture of the company and I grew to admire and respect what these people accomplished every day. And I learned that you can’t tame dragons until you understand them, speak their language and earn their trust.
“There is no respect for others without humility in one’s self.”
Henri Frederic Amiel