It is more important to stop going in the wrong direction, than to know which direction is right.
My father started a business in 1969. It was in the plastics industry and, yes, the “The Graduate” was right:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
It was a business that was successful from literally the year after its founding until 17 years later when it started to falter. Those early signs of weakness turned into the first massive loss of money in 1991. Then, just two short years later my father passed away after a very short, and unexpected, battle with cancer.
An only child graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering I spent the six years previous to his death learning about different parts of the business. I spent time in a number of different departments and even spent a short while on the factory floor — not as a manager but someone working the equipment. The hands on time certainly made me no expert in the industry but it did give me at least some appreciation for the day to day and where the money is being made, and now lost. My father was doing his best to retire during those years and relied on other people to engage my learning. A mentor of what his success was and what drove him he was not.
Days after saying goodbye to him I named myself CEO and the President in place at that time COO. We did not have those subtitles previously — my father was simply the Chairman (of the board) and he had a President running the business. With my father now gone the bank, who was obviously worried about the current and future performance of the business, moved quickly to say, “These are the documents to assign the $800,000 personal guarantee from your father to yourself. Please sign…” For a family that had everything invested in the business any kind of personal guarantee was a laughable concept and besides—what else was there to do? No other bank would take the business and if they did not have what they wanted the loan would have been called. In other words, I could sign it, risk the failure of the business and lose everything, or not sign it, and walk away without anything.
So, there I stood with literally everything on the line. I knew I personally did not have the operating skill to take over the business—that was part of my rational for taking the CEO title. More importantly I knew did not want to learn the skills needed to take over the operating responsibility. No, it was not laziness, rather it just was something I knew deep inside I would not be able to be good at. Thus, I knew I had to rely heavily on someone who had those skills and it was my belief that the current president and I could work together to turn the business around.
Though I do not recall the exact time frame it was not long after everything was settled with my father’s passing that the president called me into his office and explained his history prior to joining the company, his work at the company building the business over the years in different areas while it was growing rapidly, to finally rising to the position that he was in today as president responsible for all operations. He wanted me to understand how hard everyone worked to get the business to where it is today. He acknowledged the difficulties we were facing financially but if we just work harder he knew we would be able to once again return to being a profitable company. Sitting there it was kind of like hearing a driver describe how they started out on a straight highway traveling without a worry in the world for 17 years and then having to slow down to read the “bridge closed” ahead signs. Up ahead I could now clearly see the bridge is not closed but it is literally gone, and in front of me is the driver saying if we just speed up again everything will be okay. That straight line thinking from the success of the past would not get us over the chasm of doom that was now in front of us.
Then came the moment of decision in the form of a question from him. He asked, “…and why are you the CEO and I am the COO?” Meaning, not that I should take his place, but rather why he was not named both President and CEO. It was this instant that I knew without a doubt that I had to find a new driver. I am sure he never understood what happened at that moment. I did not feel threatened. I did not care what was on my business card. I only had one thing in my field of vision—getting around the bridge that was out and I did not care who would find the answer. What I did know at that moment was the answer would not be coming from him so we parted ways.
Of course that idea freaked everyone out for as I mentioned earlier I had no intent to take over his position. Everyone was now in a panic mode wondering how we could possibly survive without a leader for operations. (A ‘leader’ that micromanaged down to approving magazine subscriptions for his direct reports) I did not know what was next but now I knew at least one thing for sure. We were no longer heading blindly for the bridge that was out. Yes, we still might, heck would probably, crash and burn in some horrible way in the months ahead but at least we would be trying something different. For as the title of this writing states: “It is more important to stop going in the wrong direction, than to know which direction is right.”
Those first steps in a new direction were over 20 years ago now. In case you are wondering — things worked out pretty well after all.
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