As a young consultant, I had written a self serving letter to the President
of a bank in New Jersey. The letter was designed to generate work by being critical of the bank's systems. I arrived
at the bank with an older audit Partner and we were ushered into the President's office. The bank President then launched
into tirade about my letter and I tried to sink into the floor - I had let everyone down. The sage audit Partner absorbed
the onslaught and when the President paused for breath suggested that we move on to other issues. At the end of the meeting
the bank President took pity on me and told me I would be welcome next time. Afterwards, the audit Partner took my confession
at a local bar and we never discussed the issue again.
What I learned - when a subordinate makes a mistake and demonstrably learns
an important lesson, have a short memory about the mistake and take satisfaction in the subordinate's personal growth. It
is the hallmark of Partnership in a professional services firm and something that those of us who have been allowed to learn
from our mistakes will never forget.
An experienced Partner, I had done a significant amount of work for a
large specialty retailing chain. One day, the founder and Chairman took me aside to compliment me on my contribution. But
then he said "You have come in here, analyzed the situation, considered all the alternatives and have made recommendations
that have seemed very sound. But I founded and built this business for thirty years. I made hundreds of decisions each day,
I rarely had good information, and I didn't have the luxury of analyzing all of the alternatives. I got most things right
and many things wrong. Maybe you are not as smart as you think you are."
What I learned - he was right. Entrepreneurial leaders make the world go round. The
management consultant must always operate in a support role. Most of my wisdom has been acquired while working with people
who have created something new and who have created jobs for thousands of people.
I was sent on a training course for new Partners. We were given a survival
case study (crashing in the desert) which we had to solve individually and in small groups. Naturally, being full of
myself, I died a painful death. Worse, I persuaded a female tax Partner (who had the right solution) to join me in the wrong
What I learned - when one is trying to make a strategic decision, it is hard
as an individual to be right more than about half the time. I have re-learned this lesson many times - on Boards, on
committees and on project teams. The person who has the right answer is often the one you are least inclined to listen to.
The key to effective strategic decision making is to have the right team and to listen to each member carefully.
I participated in a public radio talk program about the demise of the
venerable San Francisco department store, The Emporium. With me was the union representative for the retail clerks. People
called in to suggest where the company might have gone wrong. Others called in to express their sense of loss and their concern
about the new competitors who were displacing family businesses across the country. There was an outpouring of emotion. I
explained how changes in the global supply chain were changing the competitive playing field.
What I learned - everyone wants to do a good job but consumers will vote with their
feet for the retail product and service offering that meets their lifestyle needs. Nostalgia and store brand loyalty have
their place, but company shareholders will demand that management find a way to attract customers (in today's parlance - deliver
a superior customer experience). That means change and sometimes it means starting over. In the end, it is the customer that
determines the outcome.
I got a dog for my daughter. Being a terrier, he is a very needy dog.
He's the kind of dog that would wreck the house if we neglected him, even for a couple of hours. He loves us and expects the
same in return.
What I learned - what kind of man would I be if I didn't respond to the dog's needs?
Come to think of it, what kind of man would I be if I didn't try and help everyone with their career and sense of personal
achievement? We all need a true friend from time to time.