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Getting By

July 8, 2010

I’ve just got back from a brief trip to Paris, where I stayed with a colleague and his partner. Marie is the French equivalent of a health visitor. When Fred and I arrived at their place after our meeting, Marie mentioned that on her first visit of that day, she found her patient, a sixty-year-old man, slumped in his chair, blue in the face and obviously dead. It seemed that he had died of a heart attack. Marie had only seen him for the first time the day before. He had no friends, no family, and died alone.

What had he achieved in his life? Many things, perhaps, but none of them were apparent at the time of his death.

I’m not generally prone to morbid contemplation, but Marie’s story set me thinking about what people achieve in life, and what those achievements mean to them and those around them. I particularly thought about business leaders.

If you run a business, you have to keep your shareholders, your partners, your customers, your employees, your backers and your banks onside. You have to be the one who is constantly pushing out the envelope, looking further than everyone else, thinking the big picture.
The outside world sees you as the boss – the person with the ultimate power. But the reality is that you don’t have that power. You’re beholden to many interest groups within and without your company. Having the ultimate power over hundreds or thousands of employees does not mean that you control your own destiny or theirs.

And what’s your typical day? Thinking great thoughts? Turning your company from good to great? Not in the world I know. Your typical day consists of dealing with hundreds of emails, most of which have been copied to you because the sender is looking to influence you, sell to you, undermine you, and rarely to inform you. You read reports that are three times as long as they need to be, and use your comprehension skills to strip the out the bull and ignore the grinding axes. You’re constantly travelling for meetings with stakeholders, and donning the mask of confidence and decisiveness for the outside world. Many of the people you deal with you have little respect for, and trust only as far as you can throw them.

You make decisions that not only result in million-dollar spending, but launch hundreds of meetings among your staff that cost many times the value of the dollars you spend, and thousands of emails, more words than are written in the bible. Words that one day can be exhumed by a regulator, a court or a congressional hearing to prove your incompetence or criminality.

You watch your back, flatter your stakeholders, trust nobody except for a tiny band of confidants and hope for the best. Meanwhile, your spouse is complaining that he or she never sees you. Your daughter is taking drugs. Your son has dropped out of University. You’ve developed a hernia through overexertion in the gym. The only movies you see are in your hotel room. You never read books except ones about business. You spend most of your holidays glued to your Blackberry, or worse, chained to your laptop. You give interviews with the business press about your balanced lifestyle, the hobbies you never pursue and the country house you never enjoy.

If you’re lucky you end up being kicked upstairs to enjoy a lifestyle of non-executive directorships, country clubs and discreet affairs. It’s your turn to kick the CEO. If you’re unlucky, you get kicked out and spend the rest of your years trying to fill the void. Suddenly all that money is no comfort when you’re left with no purpose, no interests, no reason for being. If you’re even unluckier, you keel over while still in harness, either into the grave or a life of incapacity.

And what have you achieved? Increased shareholder value? Kept the company alive for a few more years? Only a handful of leaders can say that they have transformed their companies or changed the world – people like Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and maybe Mark Zuckerberg. Most other leaders have been cogs in the wheel, dependent for their self-esteem on the intravenous drip of power and wealth. Some have made a big difference – led their businesses in different directions, perhaps transformed them, but not in a way that anyone outside business would notice. Just another paper manufacturer has become just another mobile phone manufacturer. So what? There are others.

For all the glamour and prestige attached to the role, most CEOs spend most of their time just getting by. Going to meetings, dealing with email, waiting for the next crisis to hit them, the next fire to put out. Struggling to implement someone else’s objectives, someone else’s agenda, while being acutely aware that just around the corner there’s a tsunami, an earthquake or a tornado waiting to flatten them. Knowing that it’s important to have a convincing strategy, but even more important to have convincing excuses for having failed to implement it.

Who would be Tony Hayward today? Three years ago he rises to the top job in a world class company, BP. Suddenly his whole world is blown apart by a leaking oil well. Derision is poured upon him by institutions, self-serving politicians, the wounded and the damaged. The poor guy works for sixty days on the trot trying to cap the well, and when he takes a day off to go sailing, he’s accused of being uncaring. BP will never be the same again. Most likely, he will never be the same again. He’ll go down in history as the man who ruined the Gulf of Mexico. O fortuna, velut luna.

When I was twelve, I wanted to be the Prime Minister of my country. Reality quickly set in, as it does for most of us, and I spent my twenties having a lot of fun. In my thirties, as I rose through the ranks, I watched companies, for all their strategies, visions, missions and values, just getting by. In my forties, a partner and I started a business that was under our terms of reference highly successful. When we got to the point that we were just getting by, we sold them.

I’ve enjoyed running companies. I managed to avoid some of the downside because I never ran a public company – I was answerable only to a limited number of shareholders. But I’ve seen others go through it. Today I run a couple of smaller companies, and I’m even happier, because I have more time to think, to enquire and to discover. Hopefully I have time left to focus even more on trying to make a difference.

A by-product of having more time is that when I read the newspapers, I can focus on what interests me as well as sections like the business pages that I feel I must read. One of the delights of The Times, which is my regular paper, is the obituaries. They tell stories of extraordinary lives. Of people who have made a much greater impact on their limited worlds than Microsoft or Apple have made on the multitude. I find the diversity of their lives inspiring. They may not all have been as happy or successful as they would have wished. But to themselves and to others, their lives had meaning. They didn’t just get by.

If someone starting a career in business were to seek my advice, I would offer them five thoughts. First, feel lucky, because there are billions around the world who struggle to get from one day to the next. Second, be aware that you are going into a world where you will spend most of your time getting by, because that’s the nature of business. Third, never be content with just getting by, even if all around you seem resigned to it. Fourth, if you’re lucky, you will encounter a few moments of joy and triumph, or equally despair and pain, which shatter the equilibrium. And finally, imagine that someday someone might write the story of your life, and make sure you can look back with pride on at least some of the things you’ve achieved.

What do I personally learn from the lives of the nurses, musicians, war heroes, civil servants, explorers and, yes, CEOs and even politicians, whose lives are celebrated in the obituaries column? It’s not that I wish I could have lived a life like theirs. But if I can look back on my life and say that for at least some of my time, like them, I didn’t just get by, I’ll drop off my perch with a smile on my face.

I hope the guy in Paris had some great moments, however anonymous his death.

From → Business, Social

  1. Brilliant post !!.. specifically loved the last bit ‘But if I can look back on my life and say that for at least some of my time, like them, I didn’t just get by, I’ll drop off my perch with a smile on my face’.

    But, talking about obituaries, I have sometimes wondered that maybe I don’t need a big thank you after I am dead, or even a big send off (as a child I remember that I used to be scared of how much pain I would have to suffer when after my death my body is being cremated 🙂 ). I would much rather wanted to be deeply contemplated about, and sorely missed..tug-on-the-heart kind of miss.

    Getting by is not static, its just nurturing to prevent things from falling apart. Maybe akin to the role of cholesterol lowering drugs, or that of the USA president during the former cold war; once somebody told me that he is the most active when he is quietly sitting and having his coffee before going out to work.

    Liked your thoughts though.

    • I think you’re absolutely right about being contemplated and missed. My father died seven years ago. Now my mother has gone into a care home, I’m having to clear their house. He was a lawyer and a polymath, and evidence of his knowledge and interests was further reinforced by the hundreds of books (in addition to the thousand or more on display elsewhere in the house) my brother and I discovered in the loft. All my family miss him, and I think about him all the time.

      I also agree with your comment about getting by. The two presidents that come to mind are Eisenhower and Reagan. Getting by is not a bad thing. In the Middle East, although you wouldn’t think so by their emotional reaction to events, there are a number of leaders who believe if they do nothing about them, some situations will resolve themselves over time. And sometimes they do. Perhaps this is because they don’t have the media on their backs demanding instant reaction and immediate action, but in any world, quiet contemplation can help us to turn hurricanes into gentle breezes…

      Many thanks for your insightful post.

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