Episode IV : A New (Corporate) Dawn

Sorry Star Wars fans, this has absolutely no relevance to you at all. Unless of course the Evil Empire is actually the corporate world (an increasingly popular concept in this modern entrepreneurial world), in which case I am the newly appointed CEO Vader. Not only am I a new CEO but based on this title it would appear I still haven’t worked out this digital marketing and SEO stuff properly, as there’s little chance of attracting “target market” to this blog based on THAT title, but then I’ve always been attracted to the random. So what is this diatribe actually about? Well I’m afraid it’s predominantly about me, and my nuts introduction to my new big gig.

Throughout my career I’ve had this nagging sensation that I should have had more focus on a “career plan” and been possessed by far more specific ambition than I have felt. Conversely I’ve been surprised at the number of times I’ve been described over the years as ambitious, and often by close friends – albeit the lazy ones – as I’ve never really seen it in myself. Sure I’ve always wanted to “get on”, but that’s been more about being recognised and respected for amenability and basic competence, and for trying to do things in the right way, than any burning ambition to “make my mark” or heaven forbid “leave a legacy”. Mid way through my career, while I wasn’t really concentrating, “getting on” kind of morphed into “reaching the next level”, and before I knew it the only pragmatic development plan “goal” that made sense to pitch at the annual performance review was to go for the top job. And the scariest thing is that finally I got it…

I read the text books and the blogs, I spoke to those who’d been there and done it before and were good enough to spare me their time, and I diligently researched the company, it’s plans, it’s performance and its people. And I popped it all into a well manicured “first 100 days” plan. I even bought a couple of new outfits. And yet still nothing could have prepared me for that first week, which quite frankly had enough curveballs in it to make a boomerang dizzy.

Day 1. Research on company performance is all well and good. Google is your friend. The problem is it all tends to be historical. Never worry, with a large regional, nay global player, surely there wouldn’t be much short term deviation, in what is a pretty stable industry. Don’t you believe it. I joined right at the tail of what has since been described as our “Shitstorm” Quarter. I’m more accustomed to them being named Q1 or Q2, but hey, a new company, a new culture to learn, so “Shitstorm” Quarter it became. Full travel bans. Recruitment freeze. Basic company lockdown. Day 1.

Day 2. And this one was rather more starkly relevant to the business I was inheriting, rather than the parent. Capacity is everything in my game. Without it frankly you are stuffed. Day 2 saw me being casually told that the capacity, in place for 10 years, in our largest market, was basically being halved. For good. From the coming weekend. And when I asked for the plan to cutover and manage this I was met with a truly frightening wall of blank stares, that told me loud and clear, that planning was not a current strength in our business.

Day 3. Perhaps a little more mundane, but day 3 brought with it the financial bombshell that the budget for the next financial year – still a good 3 months away, had been “locked and loaded” – only last week. Any level of begging, pleading and stropping could not prise back open the iron clad budgetary door. And of course, the team I inherited had been so comatose at the wheel that we had spiralled into a carnage ridden financial meltdown. Not recognised in the budget of course, as it was all recoverable with just that bit more (double) the effort. I knew then that it would be a long and painful 18 months. Oh, and I was told of a whooping cough outbreak that had been spreading around the office for “a while”.

Day 4. Now, one area that I had deeply researched was the bold new flagship project that our business had embarked on, after many years of contemplation and angst ridden wrist wringing. This project was to be the bees knees. Transforming our business. One of the major reasons I believed in the business. And of course only 6 months from launch it was essential for me to discover the truth about how it was tracking, before I signed up. No one needs to own a disaster and there’s only so many white elephants you can fit in the average closet. Everywhere I checked the message was the same. On track. Looking great. On budget. No issues. On time. Game changer. Day 4 was my first cross functional project meeting. Many of the same people I’d been checking with in attendance. And suddenly there was a lot of nervous paper shuffling and even more nervous sideways glances around the room. The pre meeting, it seemed, had highlighted a couple of challenges. Like a sudden 4 month delay and a material overspend that ran into a number with far too many zeros behind it. And suddenly the game that was changing was to become the hide the elephant game.

Each of the above however did not prepare me for the last curveball of the week. Day 5. I knew before I joined that it was a business with baggage. All are I guess. But I still find it slightly odd that in the very first week, while I was walking around the offices and operations, openly asking about the culture and what needed to change, that the word “nepotism” came up quite so frequently. The first clue to the state of the culture was the abject mouth-open shock of the people working there, that I was even talking to them. Not something that previous leadership valued so it seemed. And as ever, when people have suffered in silence and been without a voice for a long, once asked in the right way, they are very quick to find that voice and many don’t hold back. I was already putting feelers out to test the substance to the nepotism claims. So far the feelers had come up with a couple of office based marriages – no big deal or surprise there – a couple of brothers and cousins of lead team members, a more spicy rumour of a former lover of the previous CEO, but not a whole deal else. They must have assumed I knew, because on Day 5 I went to meet the head of one of our sub operations and nearly did a double take. It was a clone of the previous CEO. But younger. And smiling inanely with arms folded as he waited for me in the car park in the rain. Sure enough, it was the previous CEOs son.

As the weeks have turned into months the scale of horror has dialled down a bit. Or perhaps I’m become used to it. The job and the company are clearly nuts. The good news is that I’m coping. Sort of. The truth is that however diligent you may think you are, it is never enough, and it is only when you get in the door of a new gig, that you truly realise what you’ve let yourself in for. All you can do in life is tackle what’s in front of you with the skills and attitude you’ve acquired, and with the spirit that’s deep inside you – ideally an empathetic and positive one. As first weeks go, it’s not one I will forget.

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