I feel a great affinity with those protesting on Wall Street and other business centers right now. When I asked myself why, I remembered a key turning point in my own career: my response eight years ago to the then-shocking dehumanizing corporate behavior that’s become the norm in recent years.
I started my business career delivering interoffice mail—yes, rolling around a cart on behalf of the mail room—in 1986. By 2001, I was the COO of a division of a Fortune 500 company. In 2003 I decided to leave, and when I did, felt a tremendous sense of relief.
Ironically, my decision to leave was made on the spot when my boss asked me a single question.
She said to me, “I noticed that your support service levels are really high—your customer satisfaction is above the 90th percentile.”
I said proudly, “Yes, clients love our people.”
She said, “Well that’s too high. How can you reduce your staff so your service levels are in the 60’s, slightly above your nearest competitor?”
Stunned, I think I actually had to ask her to repeat the question.
It became crystal clear: my boss, the president of our division, someone who is now a very senior person at one of the three biggest banks in the world, didn’t give a damn about our people. No, to her, profit wasn’t just important, but it came before people, who, to her, were no more than service levels and widgets on spreadsheets. Sociopathic behavior at its finest.
That was intolerable to me.
Without thinking it through, I impulsively declared, “I can save you some more money,” and she asked me how, and I said, “let me go.”
Unfortunately, I had to stay long enough to do the deed but ultimately got away with laying off less people than she had asked since she was going to save my salary too. After the layoffs I cried. She saw me cry, and I think it actually disgusted her. (Mind you, this was the same woman, who when I was on my way out the door weeks later suggested that I open check cashing stores in impoverished neighborhoods because “those people will always pay a premium to borrow money.”)
So I left. I can’t tell you how many people told me I was "so brave" (which meant crazy.) My father reminded me that I was then 40 years old and that I could be throwing away my peak earning years, etc.,etc.
Yet to me it was not optional. The company had caught the disease of spreadsheet-itis. The invasion of the soul-snatchers was under way—and in a company that had previously been the object of my great admiration and affection.
I went on to learn about Leadership and executive coaching at Georgetown, and now consider myself to be “in recovery” as a leader, helping others to do the same—hence the name of my blog.
It’s the quiet rampant corporate soul-snatching that the protesters have awakened to. They were asleep through the invasion, and now that the body count is measured in the millions, and the greed and dehumanization of "innovation" and a "knowledge economy" are in full tilt, they are stirred and stirring, just as I did on that day not so long ago.
Smell the coffee? Good morning.
The Recovering Leader