Why I’m Glad I Got Fired

I came to be an expert on collaboration because Carol Bartz both hired me and fired me — within 18 months. Here’s what happened.

A friend of mine, Godfrey Sullivan, asked me to consider running the operations for the Americas unit at Autodesk. Only sheer politeness kept me from hanging up. Autodesk? Yep. That CAD stuff, I asked? Ah-huh, he said. I’m sure I asked this next question in the kind of holier-than-thou voice that only a 20-something can conjure: Why would I shift my career from Apple and GoLive (a hot web authoring software) to CAD, where innovation levels and growth were single digit?

Why don’t you just come talk to Carol? he asked. The Carol he was referring to was Carol Bartz, now of Yahoo, then CEO of Autodesk. Even then, she had a reputation for being an ass-kicking executive who could handle any situation — and indulge in some genial profanity.

Carol wanted to promote someone from within; however, that executive lacked the broad discipline knowledge of channels, marketing and sales ops. I was being asked to be the complementary half: the internal candidate would be the outward-facing VP running the Americas, but I would run the internal operations of the $200M+ business, owning the title “revenues manager.” Convincing me took only this: “You’ll be among my top leadership team, fix anything that can and will go wrong, and you can drive every new strategy to drive our market growth.” It only took me an hour to decide. I was 29 years old and being asked to run a major division. A little bit of drool must have showed. A job perfectly matched to my skills. Custom created for me. By the CEO. A seriously ass-kicking CEO. Everything was perfect. The sunshine was brighter as I left the building, and I’m sure the birds sang a bit louder, too. I might have even skipped.

But here’s the thing. I had only considered what that role would mean for me; not how an unconventional role would feel to people who didn’t want to take direction from me.

I thought of myself as an accomplished, smart, results-oriented executive able to deliver the numbers while handling any problems that came up. Who I was was “perfect” for what we needed to make. But as it turned out, a bunch of people didn’t want to report to anyone other than the VP of the Americas. And Carol’s promise that I could fix problems turned out to be true — anytime people didn’t agree, I got called in. I was deemed “the fixer,” and not in a good way. The morning typically started with a 7:00 am call from Carol that almost always began with, “WTF is wrong with XXX”?! Then I’d spend the day putting together a fix plan for fixing an issue with a product shipment or the General Motors account.

Lots of businesses run this way.
Words like “productivity,” “efficiency,” and “innovation” are defined by goal posts of our own creation: number of units shipped, revenue and profit, EPS and shareholder return. But when you think of the world this way, you forget two things: first, people, and second, that the numbers themselves are not a product. Both are symptoms of a soulless approach to business: when who we are is dictated by strategy and metrics, what we make lacks humanity — in terms of both our products and services, and the cultures we cultivate.

While we were preparing a multi-year growth strategy that would ultimately go to the Board, I got into a disagreement about a marketing spend. I wanted the budget to be spent more on new customer acquisition and less on other marketing activities that were existing programs. My counterpart in the business unit directly responsible for this disagreed with my approach, believing it was important to maintain existing programs while expanding. First, we disagreed privately, then publicly. As each of us were in a place to lose face, we both wanted to win. I was a smart, accomplished, results-oriented person with a corner office, so I did what smart, accomplished and know-it-all people do: I focused on being right. I took the argument to the end of the corridors, I lobbied others to point out the flaw in my counterpart’s argument. I did some spin.

Today, I refer to that moment in my career as the equivalent of doing a corporate take-down — a kind of “stick your foot out so they’ll trip” move only slightly elevated from third-grade behavior. I know I sound like the villain of this story. That’s because I was.

And yet I honestly didn’t know another way.
I felt it was my role to get the ball across the finish line and I was going to do whatever it took to get it done.

And get it done we did. The Board approved our direction; and Carol called me in for a chat. I was psyched; it was clear I was going to get the attaboy for my superheroic efforts ’cause the Board had actually applauded the presentation. And at first, it started out that way, as she pointed out that she knew what I did to get the ball over the finish line. She knew I did what it took to win. She trusted my calls, she said. She knew I would deliver. But, she pointed out, what I had also done was alienate my team. I realized I was in the wrong, but I rationalized, referring to our tight timelines. She pointed out that the way I went about winning meant that the team would not trust me the next time. And ultimately, they might not execute the plan because of the way I’d created it. And while she was right (and I secretly knew it), I kept arguing with her about the goal being the goal, and the goal being about the win. She had me fired within a week.

So my biggest failure was borne directly out of my greatest success. This seemed counter-intuitive to me at the time, and it left me with a question. Or perhaps, better said, a series of questions:

  • Is it possible to accomplish great outcomes (the win) while doing so in a way that builds the organization’s ability to score the next win (winning repeatedly)?
  • If it’s not about the outputs and production, could it be about the way we produce? If it’s not about the absolute performance today, is it about people’s ability to perform over time?
  • If it’s not about the strategy being right, is it about the culture we enable?

I didn’t know, in that moment, the answers to any of these questions, but the questions stayed with me for some time. I began to ask “what is the opportunity in this”?

I know now something I didn’t know then about making people part of the process organically; by putting all ideas on the table and allowing people to not only feel like they have ownership but to actually have ownership, that changes everything. It’s not just about numbers; it’s about the love and devotion that enables the numbers. It’s about finding the soul of an organization, and letting that shine through. Apple’s transformation in the late 90s/early 00s is a good example that continues the story — they found their soul again and what they make today is a product of that soul. Apple is now about desire. Harley Davidson is another example, as is Fender. On the other side is Scott McNealy’s description of the merger of HP and Compaq as “two dump trucks colliding in slow motion.”

But just as my success led to failure, my failure led to success. Thinking more and more about these questions, I started a consulting practice that ultimately blossomed into a multi-million dollar business, with the idea that having a great strategy wasn’t enough to win. If we didn’t also address the organization’s ability to change, to behave differently, to believe in the new direction itself, then any good idea would simply fail. Strategy without an adaptive context to absorb the idea into its fiber would fail. Winning once wasn’t enough — organizations had to build the ability to co-create solutions and thereby win repeatedly.

I had changed.
I had changed from being an accomplished, smart, results-oriented person with the corner office to someone who was also a human being, wanting to belong and co-create something that endured. I accepted that part of me didn’t have all the answers, and that led me to ask more questions. Who I was after that firing was a fuller me.

Today, I am more than a “strategist” who can wield any model and approach. Today, I am a Behavioral Strategist who knows that the very way a strategy is created allows the organization to be successful. There is no “strategy” as separated from “execution” when we’re working with a creative class fueling a knowledge economy.

And I went about proving that the “how” mattered as much as the “what” to help organizations and the people involved to be their best. Those organizations — Adobe, Symantec, Openwave, and others — they were the places where I made amends, silently, to the friend back at Autodesk, and where I learned that the “what” and the “how” actually needed to be combined if the results were going to last. I focused on helping people collaborate so they could step outside being right, and focus instead on building what was right for their firms. Ultimately my first book, The New How, was my answer to the questions I asked when I left Autodesk. I suspect that I couldn’t have started on that journey if Carol hadn’t fired me. And for that I am glad.

(Note: This was originally published by Harvard Business Review. I want to respect the conversations going on there, so please don’t add comments to this post here, add it here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/03/why_im_glad_i_got_fired.html)

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