Sometimes You Have to Be the One Who Speaks Up

That month Sandy came down to Georgia to have a meeting, a sort of review-of-the-troops to see how things were going. He brought his two right-hand guys with him, a man about my age named Jamie Dimon and another gentleman named Bob Lipp, who was Sandy’s most trusted lieutenant. Today Jamie Dimon runs JPMorgan Chase. Bob Lipp eventually became the CEO of Travelers Insurance.

Me and a handful of other guys who’d been around a good while were brought in. So there I was, in the room with Sandy, Bob Lipp, Jamie Dimon, and some other top executives. Sandy was sitting at the head of the table, chewing on a cigar, going around the room and asking each one in turn how he saw things. Were things getting better, were things improving? Now they were asking the troops on the ground. What would the troops say back? Sandy is a brilliant, self-made man, and he can be a very intimidating presence. A lot of jobs had been cut when New York took over. The A.L. Williams veterans in the room were as worried about
their own necks as they were about anything else. Nobody was about to go negative in front of Sandy.

One by one, everybody was saying things like, “Well, it’s been challenging, but I really think we’ve made a lot of the right moves, and things are going better, blah, blah, blah.” People talked about what projects they were working on, how they saw things improving in their particular area, and so forth. It was coming around to me. I was sitting there thinking, “Oh, this isn’t going well.”

Finally Sandy got to me. “John?” he said. “How do things look to you?”

What was I supposed to say?

In the half-year since Sandy’s team had taken over the company, there’d been this feeling around the office that these Wall Street guys were coming in and saying, “Here, let us show you country bumpkins how a real business is run.” I didn’t get the feeling that any of these guys were going to take too kindly to this particular country bumpkin telling them their business. But I just couldn’t see sugarcoating things. There’s a time for diplomacy and a time when you have to put caution aside and be candid. I knew this was one of those times. I figured this might be my last chance to have any influence here.

It was that fork-in-the-river thing again. When you see the path ahead of you dividing, all you can do is take the direction that looks and feels like the right one and trust that consequences will sort themselves out.

Okay, I thought, here goes.

“Look,” I said. “With all due respect, the situation here’s not bad — it’s worse than bad. It’s a disaster.”

As I pulled out a few pieces of paper I’d brought in with me, I still remember the silence that rolled around that conference table like a blanket of fog socking down an airport. I briefly ran down the numbers and walked through how things had crashed in the past six months. “The bottom line is,” I said, “we’ve got no checks going out. I don’t know how long these folks are going to hang in there with you all, but if they’re not getting a check, it won’t be long.” I set my papers down, looked around the conference table, and summed up with an image that had been running through my mind for days.

“Guys,” I said, “this thing is on fire. It’s burning. It’s the Hindenburg at Lakehurst.” For a moment, there was that dense fog of silence again. I couldn’t read anyone’s expression. Then there was some more talk. Before long the meeting broke up. As we left the room, the guys from New York were all murmuring to each other.

Well, I thought, what’s done is done. Had I opened my big mouth and put my foot in it up to the knee? Maybe I would get fired after all, regardless of whether or not the company pulled through.

The next day, I got a phone call from New York.

“John?” asked the voice. “Jamie Dimon.”

Oh boy, I thought, here it comes. I figured the chances were good I’d be clearing out my desk right after this phone call.

I said “hello” back.

“Listen, John,” said Jamie, “I just want to thank you for being so honest and for being the guy in the room who spoke up and told us how you really see it.” Apparently they’d talked after the meeting and decided that maybe this guy from Georgia had a ticket on the clue bus. I was not being fired. Even better, I was being listened to. That right there is one thing that sets people like Jamie with great leadership qualities apart from the rest: not only asking the right questions of the right people, but also listening to the answers.

About a week later, Bob Lipp came to Atlanta to have an emergency strategic and tactical session with a handful of us. Bob started out at Chemical Bank in his twenties as a teller and worked his way up to president before being tapped by Sandy to help create what was at this time the rapidly expanding empire of Primerica Corporation. Bob is a wonderful human being, brilliant businessman, and remains a very good friend to this day.

Bob met with me, my boss, and a few other long-timers, and we suggested some ideas about things we’d tweak with compensation. We knew we had to infuse some excitement into the sales force. At the moment, the only thing that was going to produce excitement was a little cash. We came up with an idea to create a bonus system without doing a lot of damage to the company’s bottom line, something based on monthly production that would put more money in our reps’ hands. About that same time Sandy sent a new CEO down to Atlanta to run things. Pete Dawkins had an unbelievable reputation. As a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and Army general, Rhodes Scholar, and Heisman trophy winner, Pete was a Renaissance man and the picture of an American hero. Having him on board was a great injection of much-needed inspiration to the sales force.

Once he was in Duluth and working with the company, it was obvious that his reputation was well deserved. Pete had tremendous integrity, character, and energy. He and his wife Judi threw themselves into the task of reinvigorating the company and for the next months they were flying around the country doing a ton of work with the field.

Between the innovations we brainstormed in that emergency meeting with Bob Lipp and Pete and Judi’s hyperkinetic activity, things at A.L. Williams slowly began to stabilize. It wasn’t as if we started seeing strong new growth or anything like that. But at least that sickening downward plunge slowed and stopped. We were pretty sure we were no longer heading straight for the ocean floor. Still, we’d taken on a lot of water. I didn’t know if we could bail fast enough or hard enough to stay afloat long.

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