Are You INnovation or Out?
For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the financial services company that left me an urgent voice mail message asking that I call them back immediately about my availability to lead their annual leadership retreat on a island off the coast of Florida.
All I can recall was how generic sounding their name was — something like National Investment Services… or Consolidated Financial Brokers…. or The American Banking Alliance — kind of like the corporate equivalent of John Doe.
Somehow, they had heard of me and, with their big company pow wow coming up, were looking for someone, with a track record, to help them “become more innovative.”
Never having heard of them before, I googled their name and, 1.73 seconds later, found myself on their website, slickly designed, I imagined, by someone with a special fondness for iStock photos of earnest looking models impersonating business people — models who must have just moved to L.A. to pursue acting careers, but found themselves, at 24 or 35, working part-time as waiters and jumping at the chance to pick up some easy money wearing a suit and a smile for a day.
Easy for me to say — me being the proverbial pot calling the proverbial kettle black with my big ass mortgage, family to feed and young entrepreneur’s dream of making it big so I’d actually have enough moolah, one day, to invest with a financial services firm. Not to mention all the time in the world to write my best-selling book.
My first call with the client was pleasant enough. They talked. I listened, choosing not to interrupt them every time they made their point with an acronym I probably should have known if I only I hadn’t spent my formative years living as a hippie, poet and monk.
OK, so they weren’t a solar energy company. So they weren’t asking me to help them end AIDS. I got it. This was business. The money business. The big money business — and I was in it, no matter how much Rilke and Rumi I read on the side. Money. This was about money. Money and the VP of something or other inviting me to meet with him and his team the following week on the 57th floor of a building on Wall Street. There would be a badge waiting for me at the security desk, he explained. All I needed to do was show my ID.
Thrilled? Was I thrilled? Not exactly. But this was a possible gig and I needed the bread, so I went.
The VP and his team on the 57th floor looked nothing like the iStock photos on their company’s homepage, though they did have a real nice view of Manhattan and a large mahogany conference table.
Our conversation went well enough. I asked all the right questions. They gave all the right answers. They sprinkled the conversation with football metaphors. I nodded. They gave me their business cards. I gave them mine. But on the way home, I began to feel a creeping sense of dislocation and dread — like I was auditioning for a movie I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be in — a movie being produced by a big man, sitting poolside, cell phone and martini in hand.
So when they called me back for a third meeting, I was betwixt and between. Do I simply trust my instincts and tell them I’m not their man? Or do I let go of my all-too-obvious self-righteous judgments and focus on the possibility that I might actually be able to help them get to higher ground?
Eternally the optimist, I chose the latter and decided to meet with them a third time — a meeting, sad to say, which only confirmed the fact that I didn’t like them very much and didn’t like myself for sitting in a room with them and enabling their collective hallucination of themselves as a service organization when all they really wanted to do was make more money. Lots more money.
More chit chat. More coffee. More “run it up the flagpole” platitudes that littered our conversation like hidden charges on a credit card bill.
This was the moment of truth.
My client-to-be, apparently satisfied with what was about to become his decision to engage my services, cut to the chase and asked me to quote him a fee.
The honorable thing to have done, at the time, would have sounded like “John, I wish you the best of luck at your offsite, but after deep consideration, I don’t think I’m the best possible fit for your company’s needs.”
But since I hadn’t yet mastered the art of speaking my truth I took the easy way out and doubled my fees, thinking that they would now be so ridiculously high it would be the client’s decision to end the relationship, not mine.
“That sounds about right,” the client exclaimed, extending his right hand to seal the deal.
Fast forward six weeks later.
It’s 8:30 a.m. and I’m on stage, in the Oakwood Room, on a beautiful island off the coast of Florida. Looking out at the audience, I notice that four of the gathered troops are sleeping, heads on the table. Someone in the front row explains to me that last night had been a “late one” and they’d all stayed up, drinking, until 4:00 a.m.
I tap the mic and begin speaking, trusting that the sound of my amplified voice would be enough to wake the dead.
Two of them snap to attention. The other two don’t, still snoring lightly.
I signal the people sitting next to their sleep-deprived peers to poke them, which they do, shooting glances at me as if I am a substitute algebra teacher.
This is, as far I could tell, not a leadership offsite at all, but a college fraternity weekend — big men on campus with stock options, golf shirts and a very high opinion of themselves. The collective attention span in the room is somewhere between a tse tse fly and a lizard. Nothing I say lands. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Only one thing is clear — I am the highly paid warm up act before another night of drinking — a small typographic box they can check off next quarter to prove they have done “the innovation thing.”
I may have missed the moment of truth back at my client’s office six weeks ago, but I wasn’t going to miss it today.
“Gentlemen and ladies,” I announce. “It’s obvious that some of you don’t want to be here. It seems you’d rather be golfing, napping or checking your email. I have no problem with that. So… we’re going to take a 20-minute break. Only return if you really want to be here. Otherwise, you’ll just be dead weight, screwing it up for the rest of us. Kapish?”
Twenty minutes pass. Everyone returns. Every single one of them.
And while the rest of the day didn’t exactly qualify as one of the great moments in the history of innovative leadership off sites, at least it wasn’t a total loss. Some good stuff actually happened. People woke up. People shaped up. People stepped up. And I learned a valuable lesson that would serve me for the rest of my life: Follow my feeling, not the money trail.
I hope you will comment: What might you have done in same situation? Should be noted that this occurred 10+ years ago, before the U.S. economic downturn or ‘recession’. This was a time when many companies seemed to be paying lip service to innovation. I’d like to think that innovation is better understood today, more mainstream. Innovation Excellence Co-founder, Julie Anixter insists, “Innovation is not an idea. Innovation is a Discipline.” What do you think? Are more companies doing a better job of practicing innovation? Share your thoughts/experience in comment section below. Thanks!
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