Life At or Near the Top

Ambition is not something that one is born with; rather it is an acquired or developed trait born of desire. If, as an investment advisor, (of which I speak) that desire has as its target the executive suite you’ll find the light starts to flicker around year ten in the trenches. Of course, if we can manage a bunch of greedy, dumb-ass investors one can certainly manage just about anything or anyone. So it is, given time and circumstance, that the broker arrives at the corner office resplendent with a leather-topped desk, ready to make decisions to change the course of corporate history.

Life as an executive in brokerland can move like a freight train at speed or at a more plodding pace but, it always carries a lot of baggage. Sometimes that baggage can shift during the journey and if damaged there will be a price to pay.

Climbing Over the Dead

It so happened that (let’s call him John) was promoted from branch manager to the position of Regional Manager with a very prestigious national firm. He was one of several regional types who reported to the National Sales Manager who in turn had determined that the work load demanded more hands-on-deck to manage a growing but, unruly group of brokers in the field. Well…..not really. The real scenario was that the unruly troops were unruly because they were being poorly managed by the sales management team which included all those under the mandate of the C.E.O.

So, as John was unpacking his bags, shaking hands and exchanging smiles with his peers, plans were afoot to re-shuffle the deck in a dramatic way. Over the next few weeks the C.E.O., with his arm draped over John’s shoulder, dropped everyone in the sales management team into the corporate grave yard. John was pre-chosen as the untainted inheritor and as he assembled
his new team he quickly came to know and appreciate the meaning of carnage.

From My Cold, Dead Hands

Life around the executive boardroom table can be a bitch. The weekly peer reviews of department heads attempting to explain the performance of their charges is a head-banging experience at best. This clumsy attempt to update the status quo produces little in the way of meaningful dialogue and satisfies only the resting body at the head of the table who allegedly aspires to the concept of team management.

That brings me to (let’s call him James) and his boardroom table which was rife with revolution. C.E.O. Jame’s management style was mundane if not downright boring to the board members who were required to stand and deliver their weekly missives. Uneasy politics can be and is often born out of boring dissatisfaction. And so it was that voices for change began to emerge and they were met with stoned silence from the head of the table. Power is not something that is easily handed over and especially not to those who are calling for your head in a basket. And James who was vested with power knew how to use it and did so with the support of the firm’s major shareholders who, naturally, belonged to the same club as he did.

With votes all in this demure and uninspiring CEO opened his Monday morning by calling into his office and firing fifty percent of the revolutionaries. Change can be difficult whether it’s needed or not.

Going Low Pro – Surviving After The Fall

Rising in the spotlight after the executive initiation phase into the chambers of the privileged is much easier than rising from the ashes. In brokerland there is a likelihood that a fall from grace will occur as one makes their way through the maze of success, failures, truths and lies.

Firing an executive can take many forms but, the corporate smell of death is all too pervasive in those quiet corridors of the powerful.

Reading the writing on the wall brings a churning of the stomach and a visionary fear that the “end” has no bottom. It’s on days like this (usually not Fridays) that one asks “why did I ever give up that book”. For some it really is the end and they retreat into the real world and find a real job.

For others they’ll see the event as a poor decision on someone else’s part and they will re-bound to their rightful status come hell or high water. And then there are some (let’s call her Karen) whose corporate spirit has been emasculated by the step-down or outright termination; she then falls into a shallow grave and, when it’s safe, crawls out and quietly returns to the fray shrouded in low profile armour. In either a step-down situation or a termination involving a mid-term non-compete, non-discounted severance package Karen would opt for the easier way which offered financial stability. Fearful of returning to a high risk position again she would settle into and settle for a lower but, safer place on the ladder.

Let’s Have a Meeting – and Another and Another

When, as an I.A., your call into your regional or national sales manager is met with “he’s in a meeting, I’ll have him call you” an image of a dedicated and focused executive making important decisions come to mind. Right! And mores the pity because, often, it just ain’t so.

On the day that (let’s call him Joe) ascended to the near top of the ladder and an executive suite with its own can (read ‘HEAD’) the first person to greet him with a big smile and a big list of to-do’s was the secretary.

From that day forward the work schedule took our hero into a never-ending cycle of meetings with entities such as the compliance department, the budget team, the compensation committee, the marketing group and – God forbid – the H/R Department. All of this was very exciting to Joe because he felt his presence at these meetings was absolutely necessary; the new skill sets he would develop in this role would ensure that the corporate world would keep turning. Problem was that the skill sets he brought to the door in the first place were left at the door.

After bouncing around the executive corridors, darting in and out of other peoples’ meeting rooms and affixing his signature to an endless stream of paperwork, Joe sought refuge behind the only door he could lock from the inside – his private executive washroom. Pretty soon the accountants who invariably run the firm came calling and Joe’s toilet was flushed for the last time.

Hiring Your Successor – Are You Kidding?

In the wildly successful life of every executive the day will come when the C.E.O. declares that “persons around the boardroom table are expected to submit their succession plan within thirty days”. That’s when (let’s call him Grant) looks across the table into the horrified eyes of his fellow board members. All of a sudden sitting in the cat seat became distinctly uncomfortable and the bright view of the future began to dim. Regardless of being told just last month that he was doing a fabulous job, Grant felt the fear factor crawling up his back; in the risk business there isn’t an executive alive that doesn’t know that feeling.

So, what does our dear leader do? Does he recognize the better parts of practical management and search above his own credentials for a replacing candidate? Or does he cast about for some schmuck who wears brown socks with a grey suit. Professing to be colour-blind his choice is obvious and Grant returns to his happy and safe place. That is, until, at the Christmas party he sees his underling amiably chatting in a corner with the CEO and both are looking over his way. And guess what? They are both wearing brown socks! Planning for the new year might see a new emperor wearing new clothes.

In reviewing this rather bleak missive it almost appears certain that there are black clouds hovering over the executive suite on a fairly consistent basis. That, of course, is not always the case and life in that rarified atmosphere can be exhilarating and rewarding. But, the elements that boil and bubble in that air space can take their toll on even the most seasoned practitioner and game player. The politics of deceit, dominance, flattery and fear wander the corporate hallways and are often invisible to the naked eye. Refilling empty boardroom chairs is not unlike rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Disembarking at the executive train station in brokerland is, to some, just a stop in a long journey. And we all go on!

Written By: Brian L. Curry, CEO, Curry-Henry Group ©2016

“It’s a simple business, but it’s not easy”.

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