A Tale of Blowing Whistles

Whilst I would love to believe otherwise, currently I am not aware of my blog having an avid fan base. Yet if there were such a thing it would surely have noticed a distinct lack of recent activity. Now I’m sure I’m not alone on that – the year has been mildly disruptive after all – and I’m sure there are many creative juices worldwide that have been stemmed, stifled and shaken, if not stirred, with the endless Covid powderkeg saga. For my leadership voyage though, Covid has been a mere aperitif to a far more startling and downright stupefying set of events and circumstances that have quite frankly rocked me to my core.

My original hope with this blog was to share some amusing anecdotes from a long and treasured globe trotting career in that nonsense many of us do called “business”, and maybe share a few snippets that help as well as entertain. Whilst blogging I finally achieved that corporate “peak” of landing a CEO role, and for the last year plus have been tackling a turnaround with gusto in order to achieve those double barrels of ambition – a worthy and stable business fit for the long suffering people that work there, together with a tiny morsel of self gratification to prove to myself what I’ve learnt along the way and successfully put it into practice. The voyage has been insane – enough maybe for a novel but more of that another time. However nothing tops the last 3 months since my removal of Mr Toxicity from the lead team followed fast by the rolling rumble of a quake called consequence.

Whilst it’s not what the writing manuals tell you to do, I will give you the ending first. You see I am sat here nursing a very welcome beer or three having been fully vindicated and cleared of the many and varied personal accusations against me, that have been meticulously investigated over a prolonged period as part of our corporate parent companies “world class” Whistleblower process.

I know something of whistleblowing. As a child I spent every Saturday travelling around with my dad to various eighth rate sports grounds and parks, as he donned a different shirt to the players and adorned himself with a whistle around his neck and took charge of groups of men. A curious child, I wanted to be fully involved in all the fun, yet it was very evident to me that there was something different about how one man was treated – by the players, the crowd, and even the woman behind the bar – than the rest. That person was the referee – my dad – just because he happened to blow a whistle. Even as a ten year old, just by association, I was treated with a similar level of caution. I rebelled against it for a long time and now I finally know why.

Fast forward to the present and in my leadership team Mr Toxicity was, is, and will always be a grade A arsehole. The sad thing is that deep down I knew that all along. Because, yes, I brought him back into the business. I convinced myself to do that age old – well meant but fundamentally flawed – adage of “giving someone undeserving a chance”. Lesson learnt. Trust your instincts and stick with them or at the very least do more upfront research and evaluate the worst case scenario before you give that chance to someone your instincts doubt. I found out too late and by digging around that far from being “on board” with all the critical cultural concepts we’ve been striving for like “an aligned and humble leadership team”, “how you do things is more important than what you do” and “it all starts with trust”, Mr T was in fact merrily slating the concepts – and me – to pretty much anyone that would listen, whilst pretending to nod along. Unsurprisingly Mr T was doing real damage in the roots of the business culture at the same time.

If I’m given the chance, I won’t be making that mistake again. Toxicity spreads like a pandemic. I knew it could destroy if you got the “wrong” leader. I have seen with my own eyes (and written about) when a fantastic culture can be annihilated almost overnight by a flawed and morally inept leader, but this is the first time I’ve seen first hand the creeping destruction created by the toxicity of a single individual on the team rather than the numpty leading it. My challenge now is to pick up the pieces and rebuild. You see Mr Toxicity has been smart. He has nurtured followers to his cause – self serving nonsense though it is. Rather than follow my suggested course of action of a dignified exit, signalled early, with head held high and glowing references; he has played along with our agreed plan whilst building a very different narrative internally with his cohorts and then changing his message to be “woe is me” right at the end. Sad, I thought after trying to talk him out of it, but his choice at the end of the day. Little did I know he also had litigation and coordinated whistleblowing on his list of parting gifts.

The litigation element, whilst initially surprising, was fairly predictable in terms of how it played out. An unwanted distraction for sure, and an added and unnecessary headache in a period where resilience is being tested to the core, but the law is the law and given we had followed it to the letter and done nothing wrong it was only ever going to be an irritant. The whistle blowing though was something else.

In its wisdom our global HQ has basically put in place a “must investigate everything always” policy in place which seems to be modelled on the principle of “guilty til proven innocent”. Mr Toxicity it seems knew this well, and went to town. Over 30 individual accusations dropped in to the hotline with startling yet impressive regularity. Alcoholism. Favouritism. Corruption. Incompetence. Sexism. Nepotism. You name it, I was accused of it. Nothing was below his personal ethical guttering. And of course some came from him directly, some anonymous from “concerned observers”, and some directly from his “wronged” cohorts and others he leant on. Not that I was meant to know of course. And it was not even just me he targeted, but anyone he deemed to be “not on his side”. HQ certainly gave the impression that they fell for it hook line and sinker, or at the very least they determined to investigate without question every detail of every accusation. So much so that I became convinced of things. Was I being followed outside work? Emails intercepted? Phone tapped? Office bugged? My peers and bosses started treating me differently, more cautiously, more warily, sometimes not speaking to me at all. Initiatives that had already been agreed to drive the business forward were suddenly put on hold with no clear explanation. Members of my own team were subjected to ridiculous and arguably defamatory questions about me and my behaviour and then sworn to secrecy. My boss actually started starting sentences with things like “well, if I have to replace you…”. When I reacted emotionally (which I did) I was blandly told it was a process that just had to be followed and that there was “external help available should I need it. Trust the process.”

The climax of the process was perhaps the most perturbing. I know too well that everyone has their own view of reality where the “hero” is usually yourself, yet in my own reality I have always put integrity above anything else, and I believe that on the whole I have lived up to those lofty aspirations. The bland and impersonal email from HQ informing me that the investigation was closed and the allegations were being treated as unsubstantiated hardly gave me the righteous fist pumping closure I required and deserved. The follow up phone call from my well meaning but flailing boss was worse. He didn’t realise I already had the email and boldly proclaimed that he could tell me the the claims were unsubstantiated. “Go and enjoy a beer and we will start next week as we were before”. Maybe for you. The silence that greeted him confused him somewhat. He was expecting gushing and joyous relief yet failed to understand that for me there was only ever one outcome, it is the collateral damage along the way that’s the issue. Maybe he will reflect and come to understand that it’s the very process that he trusts that is what is flawed, and and that is why this whole episode has fundamentally flummoxed me, even more so now it is over and I reflect.

So what now? Whilst Mr Toxicity is toast, his cohorts remain. I’m left second guessing which ones. Which is no good. And what’s to prevent him starting it all up again for a good old round two of CEO battering? More fundamentally, it makes you question why you do what you do, and critically the place where you do it. With an absence of trust – even with a well intentioned process – there is nothing. And nothing sums up my level of belonging and loyalty right now – which is sad given the effort that’s gone in to turning a failing business by a whole array of people. Resilience is something we are all learning in different ways as global events jolt us rigid from our prior relatively comfortable existence, yet I can’t help but see the irony that for me, it has been a good old fashioned single toxic individual that has put my own personal resilience under most scrutiny. And currently the toxicity is winning…

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