A Series: Learning From My Epic Failures (Part 2)

Organizational leadership Purpose Respect


Key Point: See the intro from Part 1 in this series for an explanation as to why I’m sharing these stories. I hope you find an insight or two.

It was 1996, and I had recently become the COO of a publicly traded (NASDAQ) computer reseller. I was promoted from the VP of Sales position. To my surprise, the Chairman and CEO who hired me was abruptly removed, and the company was now being led by the principal shareholder, who I had no real history with. (He is an exceptional businessman, and I came to admire him). He had never run a company in this market before. What we both realized, was that the organization had to be completely transformed. We had to urgently reinvent ourselves from a catalogue company, selling computers primarily to consumers, to a direct sales company selling computers and IT infrastructure to businesses. This market was being defined by IBM, Dell and Microsoft. The internet e-commerce world was just beginning. Apple under John Scully was struggling. CDW and Insight were leading the business reseller channel. Catalogue selling computers to anyone was rapidly disappearing. Everything was uphill for us.

My natural strength as a leader was to enrich the culture and increase the engagement of our team of 600+ folks. I threw everything I knew into recognizing, informing, developing and including employees. I leveraged every ounce of my leadership team’s energy to muster productivity improvements so we might compete more effectively. So, here’s what I learned in retrospect: Focusing on getting people to work more productively within a flawed business model is the wrong thing to do. While we were vigorously changing the entire business framework, I would have doubled down on that effort. This work has to be done at the top of the house. I was unwittingly asking too much of people before the strategic foundation was dramatically improved. (I recognize that this is very tough, kinda like changing the engine on a plane mid-flight). There is a difference between hard work and things being too hard. When the customer value and business model is right, hard work and productivity improvement builds momentum. When things are just too difficult, extraordinary effort results in survival more than progress.

(P.S.  Based on the work started by the Chairman and our leadership, the company did reinvent itself and thrives today, some 20+ years later).

Personal Leadership Moves:

  1. When you leave for what looks like a great opportunity and promotion, really look under the rocks and do your due diligence before saying yes. You may get a title and pay raise only to find that the strategic model makes it really hard to win. The reverse is also true.
  2. Make sure the trifecta of company purpose, business model, and values are right for you. If not, you might end up asking way too much of yourself and teammates. Hard work does not mean everything needs to be like walking in mud.

A great business model in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: I wonder how many Millennials really consider the company’s purpose, business model and values while they attempt to work their way up the ladder. This is a great reminder that no matter what position you hold at the organization you work for, it’s better to keep turning over stones to see what you’re really standing on.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis