Leaving a top notch executive role that you have put your heart and soul into is not an easy thing to do, whatever the circumstances and however it actually happens. I have just plummeted through this particular spin cycle, and while the painfulness of the circumstances still rankle too hard to fully explore in words, the bizarreness of how I actually departed is a tale worth telling.
Despite a long career – my conference speaking profile now officially includes the word “seasoned” – I have only really worked for three large companies outside a couple of spells of light touch consulting and a variety of student life jobs. My first company took 16 years of my life before we came to a relatively mutual and friendly parting of the ways – painful in part with some incredibly spiky individuals involved, but ultimately professional, and done with dignity. It was an exit that was fairly recompensed, and ultimately probably right for both parties. The second company kept me suitably challenged for just over 3 years, but a combination of knowing it was not the place for me long term and the emergence of a great opportunity elsewhere, again meant we parted ways. Again, the exit was well managed, without recriminations, but instead back pats and best wishes, as well as some more tangible rewards to help me on my way. So on to my third and most recent large company exit. After almost 6 years of heavy laden turnaround toil, with a large number of very clear and evidential achievements as well as a pleasingly broad quorum of respect around the business, came the hammer blow. Whilst I wasn’t surprised to be ousted (new regime, clean broom etc), the manner of it has left me flabbergasted. I’m an erstwhile believer in truth and ethics, and that a people orientated culture should always win hands down. I have long railed against the type of fly by night bullshit that gets peddled on a far too frequent basis around Boardroom and Executive tables. I also have a tendency to speak my mind and a reputation of telling it as it is. To see how these supposed skills and strengths were turned against me and a spiralling narrative of toxicity peddled with such fury and outright falsehoods still has my shackles up – as does the sheer pace of the exit and the lack of dignity afforded to me. However, as a wise person once said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
No doubt in time I will be able to rationalise and utilise this experience for good. My final week actually helped me start down this path. It’s funny how coincidence – or is it fate? – always seems to pop up and play a leading role at times of trauma. A good few months ago I got notice of being called for jury service. For some reason I didn’t take the usual executive route of pleading that I was far too busy and important (not necessarily in that order) to do my duty, and decided to accept and attend. Little did I know at that stage that that was the one weeks grace I was effectively given, post “face to face” conversation, to make my hasty exit. The iron cast CEO is not a man for changing his mind on simple male macho bravado issues like this one, however insane and risky that may be, so my end date stood. Instead of clearing my desk, handing over workload and saying goodbye, my final week with the company played out with me on jury duty.
The concept of jury duty is a fascinating one. A noble throwback to the days when the human mind and a sense of fair play were rated higher than data driven insights and predictive analytics. At the back of my mind I knew it was something that would interest me “one day”. And what better day than the one where I was fretting so badly about lack of morality and seething injustice? If nothing else the long swathes of time in the pre jury selection waiting room would give me ample opportunity to finish up my emails, filing, contacts downloading etc. I was called back day after day but the closest I got to an actual jury was as an unused substitute juror standing briefly at the back of the courtroom in a child abuse case, before being despatched again as they had found their perfect dozen. Relief all round on that one. I assumed day three would be the finale and I would be able to play out the last two days at work. How wrong I was…
Wednesday late morning and I made the list of thirty potential jurors for a three day case. Called out as number 30 on the list it would be true to say I was more than a bit disappointed. Ten minutes later, sat at the back of the court I was again holding my breath as the first eleven were called to sit in the box. Sure enough, the clerk called my name and the rest of my week was toast. What I didn’t expect is that from then on I was hooked.
Right from the start it was like a combination of a TV show and the ultimate hands on training course. As the plot stretched and twisted and eventually unravelled in front of our eyes, I could sense that in very different ways, all of my fellow jurors were to some degree entranced. It had everything. After what seemed like a fairly standard start point, with the stocky caricature of a hoodlum being parading into court and deposited in the dock, the twists came fast and furious. The victim himself – an increasingly nervous and dubious figure who gave the impression that he would rather be anywhere but where he was. The victims elderly wheelchair bound mother with her razor sharp mind. The victims brother, unveiled to be an acting barrister. A dodgy laptop theft. An unnamed drug dealer. Later named. The resplendent judge and his seeming failure to seem to grasp what was going on. The obviously nervous young prosecuting counsel and his ridiculous amount of facial hair. The smooth defence lawyer and his patronising knowing sideways looks to us jurors. Every time we had a tea break – and they came more regularly than TV advert breaks – there was another twist to contend with. Surely fly on the wall court room dramas couldn’t top this. It was exhausting but riveting.
Then, after the summing up, there was the jury room. Suffice to say, this was where the hands on training course kicked in. And with it, returned my feeling of self worth. The jury was made up of the biggest and best variety of humanity as is possible – just like its meant to be. The “hang him” businessman. The totally anti police data analyst. The over enthusiastic forewoman desperate to show she could lead. The fisherman. The cleaner. And a couple of very smart young things. An eclectic and fascinating mix, that was never going to come to agreement on such a complex and messy case. And that’s where I rediscovered my Executive mojo. People skills is what it’s all about, and by taking it easy, allowing everyone to have their say in their own time and in their way, relying on logic and fairness to eventually win out against cliques and bias, and injecting and encouraging huge portions of humour, we, as a team, got there. 9.30pm on the Friday night that was supposed to be my hastily arranged leaving do, we returned to the bench and our forewoman proudly pronounced a unanimous verdict. Maybe I imagined it, but I got the impression we surprised all the legal bods in the courtroom by doing so, and by the instinctive reaction of the accused – thanking us for only finding him guilty on two of the four charges – I believe we got it right. I left the court and walked home tall for the first time in weeks.
If there is one moral to this tale for aspiring corporate executives – even if it is still a little too raw for rational reflection – then it is this. Don’t underestimate the power of words over actions at the top table – wrong as it clearly is. The bullshitters sadly reign supreme in this sphere and are likely to do so even more so in the dawning era of disruption. To maintain a high degree of integrity you need to find ever more effective ways to counter, call out and ultimately overcome the bullshitters. And do so with your integrity and authenticity intact. My lesson on this came from the courtroom where words are rightfully king. Despite a veritable vomit of words from both counsels over a number of days – plus a few odd curve balls from the Judge, the actual verdict came down to cutting through the rhetoric and combining key facts, instincts and most importantly managing a diverse group to a mutually acceptable conclusion and yet still managing to keep a sense of both fun and perspective. I felt proud for the first time in a long while leaving the court late that Friday night, and at that point two things became clear. First, that getting out of my role was the right thing for me, and secondly, that I would be OK.