Misfortune is a fact of life in the roiling, manic world of business. Certainly, our Top 50 CEOs are no strangers to adversity. But, as their tales – in their own words, drawn from their own submissions – reveal, hardship is a wall they go through, around or over. Quitting, naturally, is no option.
There it is, again: the pit in the stomach, the sweat on the palms, the cold chill up the back of the spine as the world seems to spin out of control, if only for a moment. Why does it all feel so damnably familiar?
In fact, adversity – facing it, overcoming it, wrestling it to the ground – may be the most ennobling common denominator of all human experience. Certainly, it is in business. But even the bible has something to say about it. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” Seven days later, so the story goes, the Almighty snaps his spectral fingers and, hey presto, up goes the first sunrise. Talk about meeting a deadline.
Still, mere mortal chief executive officers deal with their own, albeit less cosmic, pressures nearly every day of their lives. According to the best management literature, adversity (and the emotional firebomb that oftentimes accompanies it) is what both motivates and scares them. It is, in other words, what keeps them simultaneously sane and crazy, (which, when you think about it, may be the eminent condition of the perfect entrepreneur).
One of the world’s most influential and thoughtful management thinkers, Peter Drucker, declared in his 1954 seminal work, The Practice of Management, “Nobody learns except by making mistakes. The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make – for the more new things he will try. I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre. Worse still, not having made mistakes he will not have learned how to spot them early and how to correct them.”
Meanwhile, consider 19th Century philosopher Thomas Carlyle on the subject: “Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man, but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred who will stand adversity.”
Now consider Carlyle’s 20th Century intellectual descendant and countryman Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
In business, that just about says it all. Keep calm, and, for God’s sake, carry on. But also recognize that possibly, just possibly, it’s the doses of affliction and hardship that can change the game permanently and, sometimes, for the better. After all, there’s no premium too pricey to pay for useful wisdom.
There certainly wasn’t for Kim Mason, president of RBC Royal Bank, Atlantic Canada Region. “I have built my reputation on a number of factors including being a very good judge of character and by being an experienced banking professional,” the Halifax-based CEO notes.
It’s understandable then that she doesn’t take being ‘duped’ lightly. Several years ago, when she was working in commercial banking in Toronto, she had assumed a client file from a former employee when everything started going sideways. “The client was a large construction firm that was constantly in need of credit increases,” she explains. “Within a year, we discovered we were being deceived; namely, the client was fraudulently reporting his receivables.”
While in court, defending his commercial honour, the client launched into a series of ad hominem attacks against Mason, including claims that he had hosted her and others at extravagant parties – none of which, she insists, “had ever really happened . . . I had been repeatedly lied to by this client, and in addition to my credit capabilities being called into question, now my personal reputation was on the line.”
Fortunately, thanks to what she calls her “fastidious attention to detail”, she had recorded every phone call and transaction with the client in journals and mileage logs. In the end, the bank won its case and Mason learned a valuable lesson: something about sticking to your guns when you know that right is on your side.
Of the three “fundamental philosophies” she espouses in her personal rules of leadership, transparency comes first. “For teams to be engaged and productive, they need to understand where the organization is headed,” she observes. “For this to happen, they need to trust in their leader. . . Transparency is about telling the truth and being comfortable in doing so.”
For many, overcoming adversity in their private lives has been just as instructive as anything they might have faced in their professional ones. In fact, resolving distinctly private trials, even those shrouded by the passage of years, have later resonated brilliantly in the workplace.
Just ask John Volcko, vice president and district manager of PCL Constructors Canada, a construction management firm and general contractor based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “When I was 16, my parents went through a bitter divorce that split up the family and my two brothers,” he says. “This experience made me fi ercely independent and determined to succeed to have a different life than my parents had. With hindsight, I have realized that everyone faces hardship at some point in their lives. It is an individual choice to use this hardship as a crutch or excuse to not reach your potential, or as a spring board to do better. My choice was to try and do better.”
That was certainly his choice last year when, faced with a slump in public-sector construction projects in Nova Scotia, he tackled the problem with the sort of cheerful grit that comes with knowing, from bitter experience, that “this too shall pass.”
Specifically, he says, “I implemented a three-part strategy with short, medium and long-term expectations. In the short term, we refocused our efforts on winning a greater number of smaller projects locally. In the medium term we shifted our focus towards more private sector clients including residential projects. (In the) long term, we expanded our project pursuit efforts into more robust markets like Newfoundland.”
Then there’s Dianne Kelderman, president and CEO of Nova Scotia Cooperative Council and president and owner of Atlantic Economics (based in Truro, N.S.).
“The worst thing that ever happened to me was a divorce at 33,” she declares. “I learned that my backbone is pretty strong, that I can face extreme challenges and come out stronger on the other end. I learned that trust is a gift to be earned and not betrayed. I learned the importance of family, friends and your network. I learned the importance and power of forgiveness.”
All of which has come in handy to the executive whose suite of operations manages a portfolio of assets and projects worth $62 million – though she had to bid farewell to one of her businesses last year, and not under entirely happy circumstances.
“No one likes to sell out to a competitor,” she says. “I would much prefer to be the one buying up the competition. However, in this case we had two choices – sell, or sue … for unfair market interference. The costs of launching a law suit would be huge not to mention the (negative) energy it would take. The good news is that we negotiated a selling price four times the original purchase price. We have happy shareholders and are investment ready for the next venture launch.”
The “importance and power of forgiveness” strikes again, perhaps? Of course, learning how to forgive oneself (one of the toughest adverse challenges, even when the times are otherwise good) has bundled more than one business leader down the royal road to enlightenment. Peter Conlon, president and CEO of radio frequency product manufacturers Nautel Limited and Nautel Maine Inc. of Hacketts Cove, N.S., knows a thing or two about that journey.
“Being fired for the first time was pretty traumatic,” he says. “I had just completed (a) two-year stint in Mexico turning a company around and generating profits with it for the first time in many years. When the posting was over, I had assumed that I would roll back to Canada into a senior role, capitalizing on the international experience and basking in the success I had created. When that magic new role never appeared, I left the company. While it was technically mutual, it sure felt like being fired!”
Still, he adds, “When I reflected on the underlying reasons for that happening, I recognized that, for my entire career up to then, I had been more interested in being heard than in listening. I finally realized how damaging it was to try to force your opinion on others, to constantly try to speak ‘at’ someone rather than speaking ‘with’ someone.”
Since then, he says, he’s worked hard on his people skills which inform his personal rules of leadership at companies with annual revenues in the $20-50-million range: “The most critical skills a leader needs are Active Listening skills. The most poisonous phrase in English is ‘Yeah, but. . .’ It suggests you have been spending more time formulating your rebuttal than listening. . . I have learned that there is such a wonderful flow of information, confidence and trust that comes from being truly interested in what others have to say.”
Indeed, Active Listening seems to have played a direct role in helping Conlon overcome an immediate threat to his business last year – a large business order from India that threatened to either swamp him or cost him valuable profitability. “To manage this, we brought in a project manager with deep experience in projects of this size,” he says. “While that may seem trivial to many people, it was a non-trivial decision for a company with a 44-year history of only hiring managers who were also individual contributors. We never hired people simply to manage. Thank goodness that changed.”
All of which is to say that just as adversity comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are CEOs to populate the problem-solving salons of the private sector, the lessons hardship teaches – about character, ingenuity, courage, and acceptance – are virtually countless. And, in business, every, single one is invaluable.