Lessons from Imperfect Bosses

My caller ID indicated that London was on the line and I immediately felt those butterflies that seemed always present during my first year or two of being a CEO. It was early morning. VERY early morning, in fact, but I had already made the mistake of once pointing out the time on the U.S. east coast while being upbraided for being unavailable when one of these morning calls came in.

“Do you know what time it is in London?” our corporate CEO had asked me. As a matter of fact I did: it was noon in London.

“Do you remember that you work for a British company?” I did remember; how could I forget?

“Do you think me unreasonable to expect to talk to you at noon or do you think I should adjust my schedule to accommodate you?” I knew better than to answer. See, I was learning.

I led the company that was teasingly called the “crown jewel” by the other company heads. Our organization occupied an enviable position in its industry, had top line and bottom line growth and commanded high margins. What the other executives didn’t quite understand was that our performance meant I was under intense scrutiny from the CEO, not that I got a pass or a pat on the head. While it was true that, after our quarterly budget review meeting, he tended to be in a better mood than after others, our positive numbers didn’t stop him from grilling me on the slightest missed projection or unmet expectation, demanding my plan on how I intended to turn my inadequate performance around!

I picked up the phone. It was 6:45 a.m. The female voice was quite familiar. It was his assistant. “Kathi? H. is on the line for you.”

“Woof.”

“Excuse me,” I answered, completely confused.

“Woof,” he said again.

“Sir, I don’t understand.”

“You must think I am barking mad if you think that business plan you sent me arguing for the acquisition you are so keen on is in any way adequate! Are you familiar with what makes an adequate business plan? Do you think I should invest in an acquisition with the sort of returns that you are estimating? Why would I do such a thing unless I was mad? I would suggest that you do it again and have it on my desk by tomorrow.” And he hung up.

I was in shock and paralyzed. I had done this business plan carefully and, if there was any area in which I was most confident in my abilities, it was in strategic planning and market analysis. My assessment of the market potential was accurate. But even with modest returns for the first few years, this was a strategically sound acquisition and would pay off handsomely in strengthening our business. It wouldn’t even lose money in the short run. But if I overestimated the returns and we didn’t deliver on those projections I would look like I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what to do. By 8:30, when our kindly founder was at his desk, I asked him for advice.

“Kathi, the business plan is fine. It is not as aggressive as he was hoping and that bit of theater was to see if you really stand behind your analysis of the market and this particular company. The returns you’ve estimated are quite robust actually and your integration plan removes some of the duplicate costs, making the first year look pretty good. Look at the entire plan again. Adjust where you may need to and put some steel in your spine.”

The next day I submitted the exact same business plan with a detailed explanation of why my projections made sense. Later that day the Mergers and Acquisitions team contacted me to say they had been assigned to work with me on a new potential acquisition that had been approved to go forward.

The lesson that day – and many days that followed – was to learn how to trust myself. That lesson did not come easily and took two kinds of bosses to get me there: one who aggressively challenged me and one who helped to ground and reassure me.

Some bosses gently challenge, some aggressively challenge, some point out where you’re strong and some show you where you could do better. Be grateful for all kinds. I felt like I had survived a trial by fire but rather than hardening me to steel, it tempered me and broadened my perspective on leadership. It was an important lesson for which I remain grateful.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Peter Drucker

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