Lesson Learned: Own What You Inherit
I was so excited. I had been asked to give an update to my public company’s board of directors. As a fast-track young executive, I was thinking, “This is it.”
It didn’t go quite the way I expected.
Three months earlier I was promoted to president of Sterling Professional Services worldwide. The office was located on 53rd Street and Madison Avenue on the forty-eighth floor. My office had a beautiful view of AT&T’s headquarters. I sat down at the desk of the last president who, by the way, was fired and thought, “I have no idea how to run a professional services business. I’m a software guy.”
But there I was. In short order, I realized the business was moving faster than I was learning. I was thirty-four at the time, so I made up the difference in hours worked. That’s when I realized the problem I was dealing with.
The recently departed president had no corporate structure in place. There were no managers anywhere. Everybody reported to him. He made every decision. That’s how he made a ton of money in a low margin business.
I wasn’t prepared to continue this strategy. I chose to add at least one layer of management to better stabilize the business. And I would pay for it with higher-margin business. Great plan. The problem was it didn’t reflect the reality of the current business or the prospective market.
I walked into the board meeting in Dallas, and I was impressed. Each person on the board had a great resume. A few cent millionaires, former CEOs of public companies, along with our majority shareholder and CEO, who sat right next to me.
I was ready.
They covered some other board business, and then the chairman said, “We brought Charlie Paparelli in to give us an update on our Professional Services business. Charlie?”
I started talking about what the business looked like when I took it over. I was running through a list of issues and threats. Within two minutes, my CEO grabbed my arm, which I took as my cue to shut up.
He took over and gave a three-minute update along with a modified forecast on my business. He answered a couple of questions. Then he asked me to leave the meeting.
“What the heck was that all about?” I thought as I waited for my boss outside his office.
On the way to his office after the board meeting, my boss asked me to join him. He sat behind his desk and pointed for me to sit in a chair .
He said, “When you are asked to give an update on the business, never, never, never talk about all the problems you inherited. The reason I gave you the job was to grow the business. I knew there were problems, and that’s why I fired the last president. Next time you present at a board meeting, tell us what you are doing to increase shareholder value.”
And there never was a next time to present to the board.