Picture it: Tulsa, Oklahoma, early 2001.
I was an eager young marketing associate in my first job out of college, at a telecom company with a stick price soaring up the dot com boom’s exponential growth curve. The executives kept bragging on CNBC about how our customer list was growing, and our futures with it. No, we weren’t yet an Enron or a Worldcom, but we were right behind them! Well, they were more right than any of us knew. There was trouble brewing at my glamorous new job, and soon even a clueless kid like me could see it. But with only one exception, nobody talked about what we all saw except to downplay or deny it, and that silence sealed our fate.
Here's how you can avoid the same mistake.
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Picture it: Tulsa Oklahoma, early 2001. I was an eager young marketing associate in my first job out of college, at a telecom company with a stick price soaring up the dot com boom’s exponential growth curve. The executives kept bragging on CNBC about how our customer list was growing, and our futures with it. No, we weren’t yet an Enron or a Worldcom, but we were right behind them! Well, they were more right than any of us knew. There was trouble brewing at my glamorous new job, and soon even a clueless kid like me could see it. But with only one exception, nobody talked about what we all saw except to downplay or deny it, and that silence sealed our fate.
Here's how you can avoid the same mistake.
Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge! I’m Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild. My PhD in higher ed Leadership plus 17 years working in academic libraries from the front desk to the Dean’s office taught me a secret that I want to share with all of you. You don't have to be a perfect leader to build a better world. And your school or library? it definitely doesn't need to be perfect either.
So here's the deal. Educational and library leaders like you give me 5-10 minutes of your Monday morning. In return, I'll empower you to heal yourself and your school or library. No long interviews, no celebrities, no lectures, no nonsense. Just short stories and simple challenges you can implement this week. Each challenge is designed to coach you in the confidence, skill, and trust you need to let go of a little control. You and your team will begin growing humanely, managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively, and your school or library will build a more informed and educated world along the way.
Before we get started, I want to let you in on a little secret this week.On May 30th I’ll be releasing a free Kind Leadership Guild Guide—Mastering Challenging Conversations. This guide is gonna come in two versions. The free version of the guide is a set of annotated checklists that you can use to plan for, conduct, and move forward from a challenging leadership conversation. This guide will be released to all current and new email list subscribers starting on May 30,2022. But I’m also recording a bonus 5-part mini-course that will walk you through typical case studies of difficult conversations so you can practice ahead of time! When Mastering Challenging Conversations launches, that mini-course will be offered alongside the checklists as a $19 upgrade. But if you join the mailing list between now and May 30th, you’ll get the checklists and the course both for FREE. Just head on over to the link in the show notes.
That day I was doing some financial analysis on a customer list. Nothing fancy, really just ranking our customers for my boss by a few key metrics. The analysis finished, I stared at the screen in puzzlement. As expected, the top spot was our biggest customer, the “Baby Bell” whose 9 figure contract had launched us into the stratosphere of wall street earnings projections. But the gap down to the next highest one’s sales revenue was massive—80 or 90 percent lower. After a few more, the numbers took an even steeper plunge. OK, yes, we had grown our book of business on the back of our cutting edge network and the servers and routers that ran it, but frankly most of our customers were local rural phone companies or ISPs with small contracts of only a few thousand a year. At that point I totaled up the column, and was even more confused. I was—and am—pretty much self taught when it comes to matters of accounting. The numbers I saw weren’t anywhere CLOSE to what I had seen in our earnings statements or discussed on cable TV. And looking back at the previous year, they were going down, not up. If I was understanding this right, we were in trouble, and nobody was talking about it.
Unfortunately, that’s where my analysis stopped. This isn’t the story where the plucky young employee saves the company. I was the proud owner of a classics degree and figured I was probably misunderstanding the whole thing. I also knew the party line about the situation. But most of all, I was scared. I handed off that spreadsheet to my boss and muttered some things about the projections looking odd. He muttered some things about the data likely being old and incomplete. And he changed the subject and that was that.
In fact, between that day and the day about a year later when I was laid off in the runup to their bankruptcy, I only witnessed one person, one kind leader, speak the truth about the situation. He was a mid-level IT manager, it was the summer of 2001, and we were in a meeting to discuss technology as a means for attracting new customers. I was the junior person in the room, mostly there to listen and learn, and so I kept my yap shut and paid attention. The conversation was mostly focusing on whether our servers were cutting-edge enough or we needed fancier ones, and then the manager spoke up.
“We already have better technology than all our competitors, it’s not cheap and we charge accordingly for it. but our customers don’t need cutting edge, they need good enough. We are rocketing toward a brick wall at 500 miles per hour, and if we don’t either cut our expenses or get more customers, we will crash.”
Quiet descended on the table. A few people agreed, but weakly, with an air of “what can we do?”
It was clear nobody really wanted to discuss it, because nobody knew what to do, nobody had the authority to deal with it, and it was an uncomfortable topic that revealed the messy truth that our business model wasn’t sustainable. Then someone else steered the conversation back to safer waters, and we were back to business as usual. And like I said the company slammed straight into that brick wall about a year later. I don’t know that a more robust conversation in that meeting would have saved the company—the rot was too deep throughout the industry, and almost no existing telecom company survived the dot com bust that hit shortly after 9/11. But we’ll never know if an honest conversation would have led to a strategic shift, and that’s a bit sad. Especially when I think of all the talented friends and colleagues from that place who lost their jobs because it was so hard to speak the truth in that culture.
There's nothing so scary it can’t be discussed. If you want to resolve a problem rather than just complain or worry about it, then you must be willing to discuss it. Yes, even fight about it if necessary. Overcoming the fear of discussing uncomfortable things is one of the hallmarks of a true leader, whatever their job description may be.
So, here’s your challenge for this week. What’s the nagging thing that’s bugging you in your school or library that you haven’t quite figured out how to discuss? Well, make a plan to discuss it in a way that could move the conversation forward productively. You don’t have to start with the biggest elephant in the room—you can and should start small. And if it’s the sort of thing that could bring repercussions politically or in terms of job security, take steps to find allies. But if you want to lead your school or library top a better place, the first step is always, ALWAYS, discussing the things nobody wants to discuss.
Come on over to the facebook group and let us know in the episode thread. Don’t worry, it’s a private group, and we even have anonymous posting and commenting options if that makes you more comfortable. In the group, we’ll dig deeper into this topic this week, and answer any questions you may have as well.
Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give us a like or review—or even better, share this challenge with a colleague! Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.