Why Another Leadership Blog: My Biggest Failure As A Leader and What It Taught Me.

By June 23, 2016Uncategorized

Most of us will never forget September 11, 2001.  It was a day of tragedy and pain and unwavering bravery on the part of so many.  I was a new CEO, only a little over a year in my position and our offices were on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in NYC.  We were hosting the London executives from our parent company that day, and we were intending to have a strategic planning session.  Right before the meeting started I remember sitting there, fuming, because the corporate COO had offered one of the men in the room tickets to a Yankee game that week.  I spoke up and said, “I love the Yankees! I’ve been a big fan since I was a small child.” In that  upper class British accent, he replied, “Really.”  Someone came in and told us the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.  It was still early and the full extent of what was about to happen was impossible to know.  We pulled in a TV and watched the news for a few minutes, most reports still confused and talking about an accident.  TV off and our meeting started, discussing growth plans and risks for the individual companies.  I don’t know how much time passed before we were interrupted again, told that a second plane had hit the other tower.  What was happening was unthinkable, unknowable, unable to be understood.  We could see the smoke out the window.  Our offices were less than two miles away.  The television reporters were starting to describe what was really happening.  Our corporate parent – the men I was sitting with in that room – had another company with an office in the World Trade Center.  I stood up, ready to go down a few flights to where my staff was.  People would be frightened and gathered together and would be waiting for me.  Someone from the London executive team spoke, “There is nothing we can do.  We should try to use this time we have together wisely and continue with our meeting. Turn off the TV. ”  I sat back down.  

I will always be ashamed of that moment.  When I did get down to my staff, people were crying and frightened.  Some were desperate to learn the fate of friends and relatives who were at the WTC that day.  Others were trying to call home but the cell towers were on the WTC.  Still others didn’t  know how they were going to get home as all of the bridges and tunnels and transit had been shut down.  And, of course, our world has never been the same.

When I could think again.  I thought again about my decision to sit back down and what that decision said about me as a person and as a leader.   What kind of leader did I want to be? I wanted to be a leader who inspired trust; one whose staff knew they could depend upon.   I do believe that, to run a sustained, successful business, you have to put your people first.

Welcome to The Crone in the Corner Office, a blog reflecting what I learned about management and leadership over the course of my career, including the 13 + years as the CEO of an information services company.  I have chosen to focus on the painful lessons, the personal blind spots, and the times where I needed to look inside myself and face a truth that I did not want to see.  I am going to try to write about my actual experiences in addressing business challenges that my management textbooks didn’t quite describe.  I made many managerial mistakes.  I often felt that being the CEO of a mid-sized organization was the loneliest job I could imagine. At the same time the business thrived.  The executive group developed into a well-functioning team.  Our employee engagement scores were consistently high and our customers would cite our company as offering the “best value for price” year after year in surveys.  Our company was a success.  

I have served in executive positions in large and small companies for 30 years, culminating with serving as a CEO.  When I left that position, I fulfilled a lifetime dream, went back to school and became an accredited executive coach. Over the course of my career, I often brought coaches in to help my staff develop and grow and, in doing so, I was always interested when nearly all of those coaches came from HR or academic backgrounds.  I became a coach to bring a different – and valuable – perspective to the practice.

I chose the word “crone” deliberately for the title of this blog, much to the worry of my friends.  “Kathi,” my women friends said, “it is hard enough to be an older woman in business without you calling attention to the fact that we are old, considered unattractive, and way too often seen as so behind the times that we are virtually unemployable.”  Not so with men in leadership positions, who are often valued for their wisdom and experience.  Regularly the business press reports on a retired male executive who is tempted back to the company to save it or guide it through troubled waters until a new CEO is put in place.  

My men friends, when hearing the title of my essays, assumed that I was writing for women only.  By mentioning my gender at all, I was emphasizing my gender in their minds.  The workplace should remain gender neutral.  Oh if it were so!  

There’s no getting around the fact that I am a seasoned, older woman.  I believe that there exist thinly veiled attitudes about gender, age and race and where they intersect in the workplace that affects us every day.  What I hope to do is write about some of my personal experiences with these topics.  Let’s look at these blind spots together and let’s take them from the abstract to the personal.  When they’re personal they’re real.  And we take them on!

This crone learned a lot sitting in that corner office.  It was scary.  I read every book I could find on management and leadership and borrowed from the best.  But I learned more by doing.  I didn’t sleep well.  I knew if the business wobbled real people might lose their jobs.  I knew that real feedback was important even if it stung.  I was on the receiving end of real feedback – and it stung!  While I made presentations to acquisition suitors and stayed up late pouring over the financials, I also attended funerals for employees’ parents and wrote personal checks when employees’ houses were swept away in hurricanes.  

This crone loves quotes and intends to close every column with a quote that seems most appropriate to the topic.  For this introductory column, I chose one of my favorites from Will Rogers:

“Good judgment comes from experiences and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

– Will Rogers

I hope that you will give me feedback on columns to come and share your experiences and quotes with me.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Henry Scott says:

    This is so well-written and so insightful. And it’s so Kathi to take the word “crone” and reframe it! Love that.

  • Darnell Newsum says:

    Such a valuable and critical perspective you bring – thanks for sharing experiences from the other side. Being able to share your mistakes. and more importantly what you learned from those mistakes, is rare. Thanks and so looking forward to other lessons from the crone in the corner office. Wonderfully done, Kathi!

  • Patrice says:

    Wonderful, Kathi! I am sure all women (and hopefully men) can look back at their career and see where we didn’t live up to our potential whether by acts of omission, pressure or sometimes ignorance because we lacked the tools to be better– and we later regretted it. As I near the end of my career I look back at the mentors who inspired me to be more. It sounds like you’re one of those who inspire! Enjoy this journey!

  • Richelle McClain says:

    Inspiring! So many great lessons to take away about fear, mistakes, inequity, what we value, and more importantly, our responses to them. Your personal perspective is invaluable. Looking forward to the next post.

  • Yasmin Namini says:

    Kathi, congratulations on launching your blog! Awesome first post… honest, insightful and right on! Very proud of you my friend!!!

  • Susan Saegert says:

    Kathi – What a launch! Your blog is a gift to all of us who read it and to you as a new mode of doing important things in the world. Thank you for finding this new venture in exploring how to make our work work.

  • Bill Pollak says:

    Kathi — wonderful way to get your blog started. As one mid-size company CEO to another, I concur that it can be both lonely and rewarding, frequently at the same time. I’m pretty sure, though, that your successes outweighed your failures! Looking forward to learning from you through your future posts.

  • Kathi – What a sincere, interesting and well-written inaugural blog. You HAVE been busy, my friend. Congratulations! I look forward to reading what the Crone has to say in future blogs – and I will share this will all my colleagues.

  • Mickey Galin says:

    Congratulations on the birth of your blog, Kathi! I can’t wait to read more posts – to read your experiences and to, hopefully, let them guide me in my path! As always, thank you for your thoughtfulness!!

  • Erin Loucks says:

    Kathi- Look at what you’ve done! You have taken a dream and made it a reality, and done it with sincerity, vulnerability, honesty and warmth. As a young woman, just starting on my journey, you are an inspiration! I can’t wait to read more!

  • Tom Tofani says:

    Your comments about your 911 experience really hit home. I was fortunate not to have been in such a position of formal responsibility at that time. However I am not sure I would have made a different choice as we were all in shock and still processing what happened. It was an unprecedented moment. There really was no script or history.