I (Dr. Cloud) was working with a company where a team was considering an acquisition that would require a significant capital infusion. In the executive team meeting where the opportunity was being discussed, several members pushed back strongly on the idea: “We can’t waste our time on this plan. It is impossible to get the financing that we would need to do this. We have to keep going forward with our incremental strategy, get revenues up, and then we can get the money. It is all about blocking and tackling. We just have to execute better.”
They gave reason after reason why no one would want to put money into their deal and why the supposedly hopeless effort to find money would cost them significant time, energy, and focus. “With our current P and L, there is just no way,” Jared, the really smart CFO said, and everyone agreed.
I felt like my hair was about to catch on fire because I had just come from a meeting with another company whose founder did not think this way at all. In fact his company would not even exist if he had. When he had started it, he was in bankruptcy from a previous business. News flash: it is not very easy to get financing for a new venture when you are in bankruptcy, as your credit and borrowing power are nil. It would not have taken the smart naysayers very long to say, “Forget about finding money for a new start-up. It is not going to happen. Your financials won’t allow it.” But he did not suffer from that kind of thinking. Instead he thought it could be done.
So he found an office building for sale that he knew would be perfect for the right big tenant. Then he went to a Fortune 500 company and convinced them to rent “his” building (that he did not yet own) at a rent very favorable to them, subject to his purchase of the building closing. Next, he went to a bank and sold them on the blue chip company who had signed a lease with him that would more than service the note. The bank financed the purchase of the building, and he pulled $10 million out at closing and used the proceeds to finance his start-up. About six years later this start-up had amassed over $3 billion in assets—assets created from bankruptcy, but not from bankrupt thinking.
How many people do you think would have said to him, “You can’t do that!” Most. And they would have sounded much like the team that I was listening to now, with Jared the CFO leading the negative charge. What concerned me about their exchange was that this kind of negative thinking had become the operating system for the company at large and was keeping them stuck. Their “thinking software” was driving the discussion that day, as it had been doing ever since Jared had joined the executive team. Virtually every meeting in the entire place was running that same “thinking software” that increasingly said “it can’t be done.”
Jared had been promoted to CFO when his boss had left for another company. He was valued for his smarts around analytics and for his ability to see things in the financial picture that Larry, the CEO , needed and could easily utilize. In a situation that had been complicated because of a complex merger and its subsequent integration, Larry had found himself upside down in the deal and dependent on Jared for his clear financial analysis. Jared had been a lifeline for Larry, and during the difficult crisis period, he had become his chief thought partner. Jared had helped him right the ship, and as a result, he had gained a lot of political and social capital.
The downside was that he was also affecting Larry’s mind and the mind of the rest of the team, in ways that had nothing to do with the integration problem he was helping to solve. The downside had much more to do with Jared’s general pattern of thinking. And it was slowly becoming the thinking of the team.
I suspect Jared would have aced the aptitude test for Metropolitan Life, or any other test he was put to. He was a really smart MBA CPA. But he was a negative thinker. His own software would produce thought after thought that was limiting and negative. He always saw only the downside of the risk—what could go wrong and why not to move out of the security zone. But he expressed all this negativity in the most cheerful way, never “sounding” negative at all. He just would gravitate to the reasons why something could not work, though in a very nice way.
I first noticed this dynamic at an earlier team-building offsite I had led. Larry, the CEO , had hired me to help him build the new team, since some chairs had shifted at the end of the previous year. In briefing me about the team, he had been very positive about Jared, and I was quite impressed with Jared through his description . . . until I actually worked with him at the offsite. After the first morning of a two-day retreat, I racked my brain trying to remember anyone I had ever known who was such a downer. Jared was “nice,” but—seriously—with every idea or thought that anyone had, his evaluation was Eeyore (from Winnie-the-Pooh) personified. But he did it so cheerfully. That was the sneaky part: a buzz-kill delivered with a smile. I was more than a little anxious when I realized I’d have to tell Larry that I thought his Superman was a Kryptonite vendor in a superhero outfit.
What was interesting was that later, when Larry and I talked and together unpacked the dynamic I’d first witnessed at the offsite, he realized how Jared had affected his own outlook, as well as the team’s, ever since he’d moved onto the executive team. Larry realized that he’d become more cautious, overly analytical, and that he wasn’t having “fun,” as he put it. I had not known him before, but it was true that he did not seem like he was having fun now. He had attributed the change to the difficult time they had weathered. But I attributed it mostly to Jared—or rather, to Larry’s adoption of Jared’s style of thinking. And yet Larry was supposed to be the one who was “ridiculously in charge.”
The team had made a similar shift as well. They were in the doldrums. They were just not energetic, and in their market they should have been. Things were hopping. In fact, the whole company should have been full of energy. But a fog of sorts had begun to take over Larry and his team. Gone were the drive and possibility that had existed when Larry had first taken the helm.
So back to the offsite: we began our work, and one of the projects was to come up with the operating values for the team, a common practice of mine. Even though the company had its values, I often like for teams to figure out the team operating values that will drive the behaviors that “drive what drives the business.” One operating value they knew they had to have was “innovation.” So we went to work on that one, and I started digging to find out what was keeping them from being more innovative, even though they had the talent pool and the expressed desire to pull it off. They could do it if they thought they could, I figured.
Slowly, without naming Jared (because they did not even know that the negativity had come from him), they began to pinpoint the thinking dynamics that had infiltrated the team and the company. “It seems like we are afraid to make a mistake,” one person said. “We analyze and analyze, and we do more and more research, but we don’t pull the trigger,” said another. “I think our risk analysis is not around the right metrics,” another offered. “We are paranoid.” “We need way too much consensus of too many people,” was another.
“We are too slow.” “Too afraid to lose a little money,” “Too afraid to get criticized by the board,” “Need too much certainty before we take a step,” and on and on the comments went. Eventually the real Larry began to resurrect. “Well, I didn’t come here to play defense,” he said. “We are going to change this.
We have to get this place moving.” And he did. As we began to define the behaviors that would drive the value of innovation, they got their mojo back. The team started moving forward again. They had “attended,” “inhibited,” and exercised “working memory.”
The kicker? Soon after they got moving again, pushing forward and taking some uncomfortable steps, including another difficult acquisition, Jared decided to move on to a different company. When I asked him why, he offered lots of solid reasons. But I think it was more than that. The reality, in my opinion, was that the team and the company were becoming too optimistic for him, and it was scaring him. So he left.
About six months later, the CEO and I went to dinner and were reflecting on how well the team was doing and how different the mood was now. He was profusely thanking me for my help, and I told him I appreciated his generous words, but I also told him something else about why things were so different.
“I think that everything is different because Jared is gone,” I said. “And I think that Jared is gone because you are different. You stepped up and put some boundaries on the negative thinking, and you created an environment where negativity could no longer live. You did it. All I did was just help you to do what a leader has to do. And you did it.”
He was ridiculously in charge.
Learn more about why some leaders get results and others don’t in Boundaries for Leaders.
Image courtesy of pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net