On Fear of Change

Thursday of last week, I was on a conference call regarding a change – a fairly fundamental one – that needed to be made in order for a client to move their marketing efforts forward, or even into 2016. But this conversation involved another, third-party vendor of this same client. This third party supplies something that is out of date and that is very much holding back said client and is in urgent need of being replaced. But rather than being a good partner to the client (long-term view), they quickly became combative, protective and launched into a litany of negative “you can’t” preceded by comments on how and why this change would be detrimental. But not to the client; to them (short-term view).

When the call was finished, I was speaking with a colleague with whom I have now had the joy of working at four different companies. We have a similar work ethic, thought process and skill set, so our take on this conversation was likewise the same. Except that from amongst the thorny, more than fifty-minute call, he had extracted one observation that not only succinctly summed this particular situation, but also another parallel conundrum we currently face. He essentially said that it’s companies such as this third party supplier, who made their money on one single attribute that has long since been outdated, which go out of their way to hold back their clients from progress because they have failed to – or refused to – make progress themselves. They have one last piece of leverage they hold onto and over their clients’ heads in order to ensure they remain – if not relevant – at least necessary to the client. Like the clingy ex who would rather be needed for what they have (required and resented) than loved for who they are (chosen of free will). Not attractive.

Ironically, also on Thursday, late in the day as I was cleaning out my inbox from the emails I had skipped over in preference of those more pertinent, I came across an all company chain that had been sent earlier, but which I had not opened. When I did, I quickly realized that this very thinly veiled snark that had been sent to the entire company was aimed at me and that three other people had piled on to help the originator of the first in the thread. The most surprising aspect of this being that I do not know and have never even met the person who originated the email, yet he somehow seems to think that he knows me – or at the very least has somehow, via what I am sure is most reliable fourth party information – got the measure of me.

You see, I was brought in to my current place of employment to help foster change. I’ve been brought in to do the same in many prior places of employment, but never have I met with the resistance to it in the way that I have in this particular experience, and so the comment my colleague made about this one particular company holding back the progress of the client for their own selfish reasons resonated with me even more so than it otherwise might have, as I see it often in people who have chosen intransigence and lack of progress over growth, learning, and opportunity, all at the peril of the company which pays their wages.

Many years ago, in my first job back in the US after many years abroad, I was brought into an agency to evaluate the team, and then do what I felt necessary to both reshape it and the resultant product offering of it on behalf of the agency. The CEO gave me what he initially said was carte blanche to do as I saw fit, but then when we came to a point on the list where two names appeared of people who had previously been “employee of the year,” he balked. I had no idea they had ever earned this award, and nor could I make myself understand why they would have, based on their current performance. A healthy debate ensued and in the end, I was allowed to do exactly as recommended, though visibly against what my new boss felt to be the right thing or even his preference.

It took me speaking to our leadership facilitator to finally understand wherein lay the difference between my view and that of the CEO, but it fundamentally came down to this: there are two types of happiness in the workplace. There is the false happiness predicated by muffins on the communal bar every morning and a super duper fancy espresso maker and beer cart Fridays,* and hipster love; and then there is the type of happiness derived from true, deep satisfaction of having done really good work, achieved goals, won agency ad awards, and done so as a team of like-minded individuals. The first type is transient and temporary; the second is lasting and pays dividends exponentially.

In that agency, almost 8 years ago, I fired thirteen people in the first four weeks, hired about the same to replace them, more thereafter as we became more successful, built a team of 32, and still keep in touch with, work with or am a frequent reference for a large number of them. Solid gold, each and every one.

What had happened to create the situation in the first place is something I now realize is more of a common occurrence than I had imagined. The CEO knew that his agency needed to move in a more defined and determined manner into digital, but he did not have digital knowledge himself, and in absence of knowledge – being a nice guy – he believed what you said. He liked community-minded, young, charitable people, and was impressed by talk. Happy talk, positive talk – helping the homeless, rescuing puppies, giving aged nuns foot rubs during your lunch hour and donating all of your income to the local commune for the good of the village – talk. So when I arrived and very quickly began asking the team I inherited very pointed, yet extremely basic, questions about the highly specific and respective digital skill sets they purported to have, the facade quickly came crashing down. Was I popular? Not initially, no. Was I in the end? Yes, because the team we built together was solid, hard-working, insanely talented and fiercely loyal to one another.

So when I saw the email chain on Thursday night, I was offended, yes: when you’re a bullied nerd as a kid, your bully radar never goes away. By definition, bullies are cowards who are themselves hiding an inadequacy that they fear your presence will expose. They’re afraid of what you will see, realize you take no s**t and that you are there to move forward, shepherd progress and turn a profit.

And I recognize them. They are the same kids I knew from age 6-16. And they are still there, coasting in the right lane as I and the rest of the hungry nerds zoom past them in the left. What they fail to understand is that if they had – either when they were kids or now as adults – spent as much time learning, growing and building themselves up as they did trying to take me and the other nerds down, we would be on parallel paths, traveling at the same speed, and towards the same goal.

So I will continue my life in the left lane and all of this, too, I shall pass.

Or as Bill Gates famously said: “Be nice to nerds. Chances are, you’ll end up working for one.”