Alan Swanson was fed up. STS was an industrial services company with solid margins based in Oklahoma City, but it just wasn’t growing. They had been stuck at a $100 million run rate for 18 months and had missed their sales goals for each of the last five quarters. He didn’t want to finish his career like this.
As CFO, Alan knew something was very wrong and it wasn’t the economy. Yes, the economy was in the tank, but some markets were consistently hitting their numbers while others were struggling. Alan had been an executive in the industry for 25 years and previously he spent 3 years at a competitor, Trans Services, based in Dallas. He prided himself on being able to read talent quickly. In his own mind, the reasons were loud and clear – there were too many B-minus players leading key markets.
A year ago and just six months into his tenure as CFO, he shared his views about the problems in Dallas with the executive team in one of their regular weekly meetings. Turning to Scott Jamison, who was responsible for half of the markets the company operated in, he said, “You’ve got B rate players there, Scott. I’ve been watching these guys for a long time and they aren’t cutting it! I worked in Dallas with Trans Services. These guys just aren’t A players, in fact I’m not sure they’re even B players.”
Scott stared blankly back at Alan for what seemed like a moment too long and then stammered, “I know Dallas has been struggling, but it’s just a tough market! We’re making progress now and we should see some improvement in sales by the end of this quarter.”
Susan Mitchell, President of STS, nodded her head affirmatively as Scott spoke, but Alan didn’t give up. “I know who their up against in Dallas, I don’t have much confidence our team has what it takes to make it.”
“Now Alan!” Susan voice was firm, “I know you’re frustrated. We’re all frustrated, but we just need to keep doing what we’re doing and things will turn for us.”
It was time for Alan to shut up. This was a losing battle, and maybe Susan was right.
Another quarter had passed and sales in Dallas hadn’t moved. Scott and Susan were wrong and he knew it. What made it worse was that the growth in other markets was beginning to slow too. Others were beginning to see the Dallas team was getting away with it while still getting quarterly incentives tied to profitability, he thought. He resolved to bring it up again in their next weekly meeting.
“Guys, nothing has changed in Dallas. Their performance looks just like it did last quarter! How long are we going to let this go on?” Alan spoke passionately and his frustration was evident to everyone sitting around the conference room table.
Scott shot back, “Alan, Dallas isn’t the only market that is suffering. The economy is tough everywhere right now.”
Susan then shut down the conversation, “Alan, I’ll take this off line with Scott.”
Clearly, Susan didn’t want to continue the dialog, but Alan had a few problems in his own group and so rather than open himself up right now, he bit his tongue and said, “Okay, Susan.”
Alan was boiling over, it had been a year since that meeting where he first expressed his views on Dallas and nothing had changed. Numbers don’t lie and the report he was reviewing just confirmed once again the fact that no one at STS was taking responsibility for their stagnating sales. Nothing ever happened when they failed to achieve their goals. As he vented to himself, he noticed Scott poking his head into his office. Alan couldn’t restrain himself, “Hey Scott, it looks like nothing’s changed in Dallas…” His starting salvo hung in the air.
Scott quickly grounded himself and shot back, “Alan, the real issue is that you don’t think I’m doing my job!”
Alan stood up and his voice was suddenly more aggressive, “You’re absolutely right. You haven’t solved the problem in Dallas and now you have five more markets that are struggling! As long as people are trying you seem to think that’s good enough. You don’t want to be responsible for results in this organization!”
“Alan, you just don’t get it, do you” said Scott. “You think STS is nothing but results! Well this organization is more just results, it’s about people and respect for others. Respect is one of our core values… a value you seem to have forgotten. No wonder they forced you out at Trans Services. We don’t need people like you around here either. You seem to get most of your satisfaction from grinding others into the ground.”
For the first time in ages Alan was stunned. He had no response and watched as Scott walked to Susan’s assistant just twenty feet beyond his office door and they started looking at Susan’s calendar. Still gripping the sales report in his hands, for a blink of an eye Alan felt embarrassed, but just as quickly, that feeling was replaced with the thought that he was proud that he was strong enough to say what he was thinking. His father taught him that being honest was the only way and Alan knew that there wasn’t anything he had just said that he didn’t believe to his core. He was right and that’s what matters most. Scott should be fired, so should the team in Dallas. It was time to clean house!
He looked out his window and saw the sun low in the western sky. He was more stressed than he first realized and was ready to head home.
Life had changed for Alan. Four years ago, the boys, twins, both graduated from college and moved to Seattle and Chicago. Helen, his wife, had taken early retirement from Southwest Airlines when they moved from Dallas to Oklahoma City for STS. She was a world-class gardener and had become actively involved in creating a new community garden.
He knew that sitting with her in their yard for ten minutes would settle him down. He walked into the back yard. There was Helen, deadheading the last of her roses. He kissed her on the check and then plopped down into a teak bench facing the rose bushes. Without a word from Alan, Helen quickly surmised the situation. “Rough day?”
After a long exhale, Alan spoke. “It started well, but certainly ended on a sour note.” Alan then gave her the blow by blow of his interaction with Scott. She smiled and while looking into his eyes asked, “Alan, what’s more important to you – being right or doing what is right?”
His cheeks flushed for the second time in an hour.
Without waiting for Alan to respond, Helen walked over to the bench and sat close to him. “It seems to me that you’ve done a great job identifying the problem, hun. Respect is so important to them at STS that they feel that can’t hold people responsible. It’s either respect or responsibility and they have chosen respect. What I learned at Southwest is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it must be both.”
“Yes, you need to hold people accountable while also being absolutely respectful. When we respect others, we treat them as people, not just problems. The Southwest Spirit that I was a part of for so many years was as much about having a warm heart and a caring nature as it was about ‘doing the right thing’. If your goal is to just ‘be right’ then I think you succeeded. If your goal is to help people change for the better, I think I’d give your performance today failing marks. Remember, it was the row you had at Trans Services with Bill that convinced you to leave. It sounds like the same thing could happen here. Is that what you want?”
“So, what should I do?”, asked Alan with introspection.
“Well, you might start with an apology to Scott. Now, don’t think that I want you to apologize for being right”, as she gently tickled him and smiled warmly. “I know you wouldn’t stand for that. Just apologize for your feelings and conduct towards Scott. I think it is safe to say that you weren’t trying to be respectful of Scott when you lit into him this afternoon, just right.”
“I suppose so.”
“Remember, your apology is more than just the words you use, it’s also how you feel. Respect is critical. Think for a second what kind of pressure Scott must feel. Scott may have the same challenge that you have.”
“How so?” asked Alan.
“He may be more concerned with how he is regarded, and less concerned about what actually happens. It’s the same concept that you are struggling with… wanting to be right instead of doing what’s right. You’re both more concerned with yourselves instead of trying to change things for good.”
As Alan stretched his legs out in front of him trying to honestly consider what Helen was saying, she continued, “But don’t forget, it will take time for both of you to change. I don’t plant seeds in the garden and expect them to immediately sprout, you’ve got to be patient and realize that it takes time to build trust. It also takes time to build responsibility into the process. How you would have responded to me if after telling me about what happened at work, I had immediately responded that ‘you were wrong!’? If the conversation had started like this, you would have clammed up and we would be having a very quite evening. You were wrong for treating Scott as you did, but the only way to help you see that was to have a respectful conversation.”
“Thanks, honey! I think I get it. I’m going to take a moment before dinner and give Scott a call.”
“Scott, this is Alan. About earlier today…”
Being right vs. Doing right
It’s far too easy to be right and do wrong. Both Alan and Scott may be right, but they sure aren’t doing right. We must act with integrity and respect. Take a moment as ask yourself, where in my life is being right more important than doing right? Then ask yourself what would doing right really look like?
Make a plan and do right.