“Look Ray,” he said, “I know you have your stuff together. Sit here, gather your consulting fee and look for another job while you do. This is not about you. This guy does not deserve to be in business. I am going to take him down, take what cash I can and move to the job I already have lined up.”
These are the last words I heard upon exiting my first job after graduate school. How in the world had this company come to such a venomous end? The guy speaking was a man the owner trusted completely. Upon receiving news that I would be let go in the downsizing after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center I was told that based on performance I was a good choice. However, the owner preferred to bring his longtime friend and director of the manufacturing division in to restructure the company to survive the hit we had taken in our cash flow as a result of a vanishing sales pipeline.
How did I get here? Why was this guy so filled with poison toward this owner? Why was the owner so clueless?
The Back Story
I completed a master’s degree in intercultural studies with an emphasis on organizational development and leadership development. I became more and more enamored with the subject of organizational design and leadership development. I knew I wanted to take this new knowledge into business and work to improve personal and organizational performance. I did not know how to make the transition from directing and leading in the religious non-profit world to the business world. I knew two things, I had something very valuable to offer and a lot to learn (the curse of graduate education is that it provides new knowledge and in so doing also catalogues every students ignorance).
I alerted several mentors and close friends that I was not interested in another non-profit role but wanted to enter the business world to test the wings of my newly acquired expertise. Brian, a friend of mine (a recently minted MBA on his second post-graduate role) asked me to join his turn around team. I remember his pitch. The company he was hired to lead had a pioneering software product for managing the front desk operations of hotel and other hospitality property. The company had developed and protected an innovation the big guys had not yet thought of. The company was strongly capitalized. The owner had made a poor hiring decision and was ready to listen to business/organizational talent that could structure and propel his innovation forward. The owner would back away from daily operations and give Brian and his team the opportunity to lead forward. Brian recruited me to serve as director of operations, another experienced friend to lead sales. We rebranded, reorganized, restructured our way through the first three months and began to see the promise of building sales momentum.
I went to work understanding the operational functions of programming, customer service, human resources, and sales. I mapped a new organic organizational structure designed to leverage Brian’s business plan forward and began recruiting and retraining across all departments. Lora went to work restructuring the sales department. She worked through our database like a lioness stalking a herd of gazelle. Brian went to work rebranding the company and analyzing financials. These were heady days. We were succeeding in turning things around. The owner was happy, our customers were either happy or becoming happier and our innovation was protected and winning us sales from our bigger and more established competitors.
I was on the freeway traveling to the office in Anaheim, California before sunlight on the morning of 9/11 and heard the news of the first plan hitting the tower of the World Trade Center. I drove to work glued to the radio and stunned at what I was hearing. When I walked into the office instead of seeing the sales team on the phones to our Caribbean and east coast customers they were in the lunch room standing around a television set watching the horrifying drama unfold. Before the day was even over potential customers started calling to cancel their orders for our software. In the first 48 hours following 9/11 we lost our entire sales pipeline and began analyzing how long we could keep the doors open without any sales revenue.
The End – The Enigma of Human Relations
What a contrast to my first meeting with Brian. My last meeting with the owner ten months later was a dirge. “Ray,” the owner announced “I would like you to orient Bob (the director of operations at the company’s manufacturing division) on operations in the software division. Bob will take over operations of both divisions as we merge to survive this set back. I have known Bob for a long time and his law degree and experience are just what I think we need to survive. If there were any way financially I could keep you and your skills I would but without sales we are going into a hole at an unrecoverable rate.”
We negotiated a consulting role that would last for two weeks. I would have two weeks to find something new and turn over the reins of the software division.
I showed up to the office on my first day as an ex-employee turned consultant. When Bob walked into my office and described in detail how he was going to destroy the owner financially and why.
If you have insights into this catastrophic dynamic write your comments here. Over the next several weeks I intend to write on how business relationships disintegrate to the point that trusted friends turn into fatal enemies. The subject of betrayal and situations leading to betrayal are not new nor are they simply the fodder of English literature classes studying Julius Caesar. Do strategies exist that help owners and managers avoid this collapse of trust? What are your insights? Have you experienced a similar collapse of relationship? Have you seen it? Have you studied it?