Betting your Job

A recurring theme that I see in my consulting practice is people's reluctance to confront bad news.  This happens in start-ups who are dealing with a market that just doesn't need their product, VC's who don't want to invest, and organizations or employees who won't scale up to the next level needed to grow. It also happens in larger organizations where leaders are given targets that there isn't a hope in hell of achieving.  Often, the reaction in these cases is to ignore the data and try to outrun the problem. Rarely have I seen this strategy work. The result is that the person or organization suffers a painful period of trying to avoid the eventual bad outcome and doesn't succeed. 

If you are in this situation, answer this philosophical question?

Do you want to be fired because you told your boss that the targets are impossible or would you rather be fired at the end of the year, when you don't achieve the targets?

Under either scenario, you're fired, but under scenario two, you suffered a year of pain and abuse, your confidence is crushed and you feel like a failure.

The same question applies to a start-up.  Do you want to acknowledge and deal with market or investment realities now, or 12 months from now when you run out of cash.

A few years ago, I was brought into a company to recover a business unit that had failed miserably in its first year of operations. The business was a start-up technology division within a larger company that was being restructured and was in turn-around mode. The business unit leader had been hired to build this division from zero, very quickly. Stakes were high and the incentives matched. His business unit was the company chairman's vision for growth and high valuations; so targets were very high and arguably unattainable against the timelines that were set. The plan ignored the operating culture of the company, the buying culture of the customers, and the capabilities of the infant organization to deliver. To succeed would have required complete support from an executive management team which was already focused on turning -around the core business, early adopter visionary thinking from customers that were historically technology laggards, mature relationships with senior customer IT executives which did not exist, and superior and instantly scalable resources on a technology platform that was immature and not widely implemented. The unfortunate outcome was a first year of operations filled with pain. First came rapid hiring and then lay-offs when results did not follow, knee-jerk changes in product strategy and the inevitable signing of bad business contracts in a desperate effort of generate revenue.

So why did this business unit leader accept this plan instead of calling a spade a spade, telling the Chairman his vision was impossible, and either get the green light to build something that would work or get fired then? I can only guess that he lacked the courage to bet his job. Given two possible courses of action, he chose wrong.

On the other hand, a friend was asked to deliver a growth plan that he felt was impossible.  His words to his Board were that he wasn't going to argue whether the plan was achievable or not, but rather he stated that he knew was he not could achieve it. If they believed it was achievable, they needed to find someone else to do it. He exited, but he exited confidence and pride intact. (By the way, he was right. His successor didn't achieve the plan either.)

But "Betting your Job" doesn't have to end in an exit. Exposing  what you believe to be reality and taking a stand up front will often change the outcome to something that is successful for all. Unfortunately, I just don't see those gut level honest conversations happening often enough.

The same thing happens in start-ups. When you face the brutal realities early, a company has time to pivot and move its resources and talent in a direction that makes the company viable.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies the Stockdale Paradox (the ability to confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, yet simultaneously maintain absolute faith that they will prevail in the end) as a key attribute of a Level 5 Leader. Admitting problems, confronting brutal realities and projecting impending failure is not a sign of weakness for a leader. It is your job.

© 2011 Meaford Group

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