Insights & resources
you never forget your first leadership mistake
by Tom Frank
The first time I was hired to be the CEO for a company with more than 100 employees, I was beyond excited. And confident. (And a little nervous). I vividly remember that first week. It was a complete adrenaline rush; press releases and media interviews, meeting with all my senior leaders, standing on a podium in the middle of a beautiful atrium delivering my first “All Hands" speech to the assembled employees. I had a plan.
During the interview process for this role, I studied the company, the industry and the people. I sought the advice of friends and associates, many who advised me against accepting the job. Those folks told me, in no uncertain terms, “The company is broken, the business model will not work and you will run out of money before you have a chance to prove a model that will.” I heard what they were saying, but I wanted that top spot more than I wanted to consider their concerns. And, even if those concerns were well-placed, I believed I was different. I had never really failed at anything important. Maybe this job was risky for other mere mortals, but I was me. I would figure out a way to make this company successful.
I bought a book for first-time CEOs. It was a good book and I still have it. However, by the second week, I realized the book didn’t have all the answers. And neither did I. Becoming exponentially more anxious than excited, I was losing confidence by the day. Many know what I was experiencing as imposter syndrome; the less clinical definition, “fake it til you make it.” So that’s what I tried to do. This new awareness didn’t stop me from trying to lead. I understood what I needed to do, but I didn’t understand exactly how to do it. Overwhelmed with opinions and discord between my management team, I was also juggling a steady stream of calls from investors and board members wanting to know when the miraculous corporate turn-around would be complete. Did I dare risk telling any of these stakeholders I did not have all the answers? I did not.
My first real lessons as a CEO were my experiences in vulnerability and humility. I felt like I had to keep that learning to myself. That was a big mistake. I was hired to have answers and now I had far more questions. I couldn’t ask for the help I needed because I didn’t know what that looked like. I was still seeking the advice of others, but always under the guise of validating or challenging what I was planning on doing next. Never did I start a conversation with the statement, “I don’t know what to do next.” I just didn’t think it was okay for the CEO to admit he had no idea to the people who were counting on me. Most importantly, I did not want to let down all the people who had placed their faith in me.
Years later, I know what I really needed was a safe, sane and experienced voice. I needed a smart partner. Someone who had already lived my story who could tell me what questions to ask, what signals to pay attention to and what decisions to drive forward. I needed a partner who was fully committed to my success without being equally dependent upon it. I needed someone who I could 100% trust. Unfortunately, at that time, I didn’t know where or how to find that person.
This is why I started coaching and leadership training when I was ready to wind down my career as an executive. I wanted to be that person I needed as a younger CEO but couldn’t find. It's vitally important to share personal experience (the good and the not so good) to help others who are navigating their own career adventures. To be that 100% trusted voice; the place leaders can go to to say “I don’t know,” or “Have you ever had to deal with…” or “How can I get better at…” I’ve found it is far easier to teach it if you’ve lived it. Ultimately, I want my own mistakes, missteps and miscues to be of benefit to a new generation.
By the way, my advisors were right. Unfortunately that first company didn’t make it. But I did. And so did other companies I’ve led since that one. I still believe experience is the best teacher. I am grateful to those who let me into their companies, their brains and their hearts. Thank you. We must always give it forward.
When the platitude doesn't reflect the intent
by eva schaible
Grief is not a linear process, and yet, we hear:
“This too will pass.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll get better.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“It’s time to move on.”
“They wouldn’t want you to be sad. They would want you to be…insert whatever positive platitude.”
“Grief isn’t real.”
“You just can’t look back.”
“Gotta put one foot in front of the other.”
“They are in a better place.”
“At least you had...the memories, the time together, etc.”
“You need to get over it.”
“You should try this... I’ve heard it helps.”
Ask anyone who is grieving, they’ve heard some variation of the above. Usually from someone they know well. Watching someone experience grief isn’t easy. We want to help, to say the “right” things. We may believe we can fix it, to make them feel better. And we want to feel less discomfort, of not having the answers. Instead of recognizing and owning the fact that we don’t know, we often deflect by saying or doing things to “make it better.”
But for whom are we making it better? The person who is grieving? Unlikely.
It’s a conundrum for us grievers. For the understanding of this often comes from the direct experience of loss. And it’s an experience that inevitably happens to us all and yet, one that we never want for others.
To my fellow grievers, I see your bravery, your resiliency, your strength to face the day in front of you. I will always try my very imperfect human best to hold space for you, in whatever way you need.
To those supporting us, who may not yet have the same experience, learn to sit with the discomfort and the quiet of not offering a platitude. I know it is not easy to lack the answers to the unknowns for someone we care about. We’ve been ingrained, to a fault, to find a reason. Promise you this — you’ll find a lot of impactful perspective and points of relativity about life through the witnessing. There is so much life in the learning, in the unfolding.