Sunday, June 11, 2017

You Are Who You Follow

It was a bittersweet day at work last Thursday, as we said goodbye to our CEO for the past 5 years, Karen Adams. A lot of people had anticipated last year that she would be leaving after the completion of our massive technological project called Compass. We implemented it early last year, but she announced last fall she had been asked to stay on and had agreed.

However, that was before the new provincial government rolled out new guidelines for the heads of agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs). Since staying on after that would have meant a 30-40% drop in pay, well, I don't think anyone blamed Karen for taking another CEO position with a mutual fund company back east.

It's difficult for me to articulate my relationship with Karen. When she first arrived, she was my boss's boss's boss's boss. She spent the first 90 days just trying to learn as much about the place, and the work we did, and the people who did it, as she could. She met with me as I was developing our first quality assurance program. I was pretty excited about it, as well as the work I was also doing on our engagement committee, and I guess it must have showed, because near the end of the meeting, she looked directly at me, and said, "I bet you're a great dad."

Now, I don't believe I've ever actually claimed to be a great dad, but I've made it no secret that I really want to be one. I was gobsmacked that this stranger, four levels above me on the org chart, could not only see my true priorities so clearly but could also make a casual assessment about me that I would find so gratifying.

So, yeah, from that moment on, Karen had a pretty loyal follower in me.

Shortly after that we had our first corporate summit, a company-wide meeting at the local Cineplex where everyone could hear the same message at the same time, something else I am a firm believer in. Later summits had skits and tremendously involved presentations, often mimicking popular tv shows like Oprah, or Late Night with David Letterman, but the first one was a bit more stripped down.

Karen needed to go over her speech a couple of times because she doesn't like to work with notes, so we retreated into the higher seats, away from where the sound board was being set up, so she could rehearse her content, and even asked me for feedback. It wasn't until afterwards I wondered why she would pick me for that, when there were executive assistants and vice-presidents galore for her to choose from. Regardless, I was flattered and grateful for a chance to contribute.

I worked with Karen and her staff on several summits afterwards, and even got to give feedback on off-site speeches she often gave, which is what eventually led to me taking a job in our Stakeholder Relations department (formerly communications), and reporting directly to her for a few months prior to getting our own director.

As a leader, Karen has a firm idea of what is important to an organization (people) and what isn't (autocracy). She knows what she wants, but is always willing to listen to alternative points of view. Unlike several leaders I can think of, Karen can have her mind changed on a course of action, provided you can make a good case for a better one.

Despite having all the drive and focus you would associate with anyone at her level of responsibility, Karen's leadership included tremendous amounts of joy and whimsy. Within 24 hours of getting into it with a staffer over the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, she had arranged a lunchtime Pepsi Challenge that over 150 people participated in. She could often be found cracking jokes with members of the staff as she made her way about the building, and her speeches included a number of well-delivered quips, as well as a genuine feeling of sincerity. I was astonished and touched when I saw she had written a glowing recommendation on my LinkedIn profile earlier in the week.

The combination of her departure and fear of the unknown in terms of our next CEO has taken its toll in many ways, so Thursday's send off was pretty bittersweet. We (mostly) respected Karen's wishes not to have too gushy or emotional of a farewell, limiting the commemorations to three short addresses by our three other executives, each accompanied by a small gift.

I guess because of my involvement in Toastmasters and my work with Karen on the summits and some of her speeches, I was asked to have 3-4 minutes of material on hand in case we got rained out and had to entertain folks indoors. The initial ask was a little vague ("I dunno, some jokes or a poem or something...") but after thinking about what I might say to acknowledge Karen's leadership and what her absence might mean for us going forward, I had an outline I was happy with and figured I could flesh out the rest on the fly if need be.

Last Thursday was the warmest day of the week, so I guess I needn't have worried.  I also knew that the EA who had asked me to be on stand-by had already caught some side-eye from Karen about the scheduled presentations, so I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't get a chance to do my little bit.

They did need someone to get things started and keep things moving, so I did a minimal amount of emceeing and then stepped out of the way so the thankings and the giftings could happen. Some of those voices were thickened with emotion, and I was grateful for the minimalism of our tributes. Afterwards I mingled with other staff while eating cake shots.

Eventually Karen wandered over to thank me and say goodbye, and I mentioned that I had been asked to speak if we got rained out. I told her that somehow I had managed to come up with a short bit that I felt captured most of how I felt about Karen's leadership and how it has prepared us for a future without her, and  I said, " if you ever want to hear it and you have 4 minutes to spare, you just need to let me know."

"Like a command performance sort of thing?" she asked.

"Exactly!" I laughed.

She looked at her watch for a second, then back at me. "How about now?"

"Like...right now?" I stammered.

"Like right now," she confirmed.

I hesitated, pointing her to a group of staff that I knew had been waiting for their chance to say goodbye, but as soon as she was done with them, she came straight back to me, and one of the Executive Directors who had wandered over.

"So you really want me to bust this out on you right here?" I asked, a bit nervously.

Karen nodded. "I really want you to bust it on me right here." She looked around, asking, "Do we need a bigger audience for this, or...?"

I took a look; most of the staff had left, and the majority of those who remained were board members I didn't know and a handful of executives, and I didn't want to make too big a deal of this than it was already becoming. I looked at Jon the E.D., who nodded his willingness to stay, and said, "This is good right here," and I started before a crowd could form.

Leadership is a funny thing. You can find yourself leading from a variety of places, like in the middle, or from the rear, especially if you are herding sheep. You might find yourself at the front of a group because everyone else around you took a big step backwards. 

But there are some people who need to be at the front, who have that combination of vision and persuasion and charisma that make it easy for other to follow them, even if they aren't precisely sure where they are being led to.

I think a lot about a Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War, Lewis B. Armistead, who fought at Gettysburg under Robert E. Lee. During Pickett's Charge, Armistead led his brigade from the front, taking his men across almost a mile of withering Union fire: bullets, cannons, and grapeshot. The smoke from the black powder weapons was so thick and the terror so palpable that he fashioned a makeshift standard by sticking his sabre through his own hat and yelling, "Follow me boys, and give them the cold steel!"

Armistead's brigade was the only unit to break the Union lines that day, but they could not hold it, and he himself was mortally wounded during the counterattack. There is a stone marker where he fell, and roses are left there to this day by admirers of his bravery. Those who followed him boasted about it for the rest of their lives.

Karen leads from the front too, under far less dangerous circumstances, obviously, but not without a degree of uncertainty and fear. She brought a clarity of vision to our workplace, not just about the kind of business we want to be and how we go about it, but the kind of environment we want to work within. She has had a profound impact upon our culture, and the way we interact with each other.

An organizational structure is kind of like a nervous system, and if you look closely at a group of nerves, you'll notice that they never actually touch; there's nothing there, it's a gap called a synapse. That space between is the most critical part of our neural impulses, the same way the interactions between us help define the organizations we work within.  Karen has built a culture of openness and respect, a breeding ground for new ideas that can come from anywhere, and not just the top.

We talk a lot about "you are what you eat", but I am beginning to think it might be more accurate to say, "you are who you follow". We should be careful about where we place our loyalties, and proud when we do so judiciously. But when you get to the top of the structure, who do the leaders follow?

If you are lucky, they follow values.

Karen has been a champion of values-based leadership since coming here, and not just our corporate values like Quality, Service and Accountability, but other, personal values I have come to expect from the leaders I choose to follow and not just work for. Values like honesty. Courage. Humility. Gratitude.

Karen has these values in spades, and has pointed to them throughout her time here as our leader. Now she is leaving, and that sucks, but the values remain, easy for us to find because Karen has pointed them out to us, like a compass. Navigating the way to a secure future, a better way of doing things, is the greatest gift a leader can give to her subordinates, and Karen has given us that.

Thank you Karen, for the leadership you've shown us, the gifts you've given us, and the values that will keep us moving forward after you've gone.

Karen's face was kind of crestfallen when I finished, and I was terrified that I had either overstepped my bounds, missed the point, or disappointed her with my hastily cobbled together speech, but this was not the case. "We totally should have had everyone hear that!" she cried. "Why didn't you say that when you were at the mic?"

"Well, it might have been because somebody was getting pretty upset at the amount of presentations and speeches already being done..." I offered.

A chagrined nod of complicity, "It was me, wasn't it?"

"I'm afraid so."

She thanked me for my words and my assistance over the years and gave me a hug. We had a few more words, and then said our goodbyes. I'm dearly going to miss that lady and the conversations I had with her.

I've been lucky to have had some great bosses over the years, all of whom have taught me something about leadership in some fashion, albeit in very different ways. I'm fervently hoping that this continues to be the case, but the truth is, Karen's shoes are not only big ones to fill, but have heels on them too. Here's hoping for the best!

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