Knowing When to Say No - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Knowing When to Say No
Coach Lombardi said, "Winning is the only thing." But a true leader carefully picks the fights he wants to wage and win.


Pharmaceutical Executive


Sander A. Flaum
I have always been a fierce competitor. When I was younger, to me business was like an obstacle course. I couldn't wait to climb over the next wall, hop through the tires, jump over the water. All I saw was the finish line. If I couldn't scale the wall, I'd go through it. It was all about getting there no matter what stood in my way. It's how I moved from product manager to CEO of one of the world's largest global healthcare advertising networks. And I stayed at the job for a decade and half never taking my foot off the gas. I laced up my running shoes every day and braved the walls and water hazards that were thrown up in front of me. Vince Lombardi got it right when he said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

But I had an experience recently that helped revise my perspective on the wisdom of attacking every obstacle on every course. I found myself not long ago walking into one of the most beautiful office lobbies in Manhattan. Before I reached the elevators, an impeccably tailored security guard politely noted my laptop and indicated his need to inspect it. He handled it with a gentleness I have yet to see in a New York airport. In the marble floored elevator, I watched the numbers quickly shoot up to 23. Stepping off the elevator I was greeted by my host and led into an oak-paneled boardroom. A lunch catered by the Four Seasons was on the table, and my host was pouring me a glass of cabernet. This was old school—no women, no people of color, no one under 50, just an old time board of directors with a sense of its own importance and a taste for the finer things.


HBA Redefines Leadership
The view from the windows—the best in the city—was spectacular. The room, the setting, the finery—they all said one thing: This was clearly the most prestigious board I had ever been invited to join. It was the clubby sort you imagine exists, but aren't quite sure is real.

The filet mignon and field-greens salad sat perfectly on my white oversized plate. A white cloth napkin was spread across my lap, a drink in hand as my host began making small talk. The CEO of this NYSE-listed company was a friend who wanted me on the board, as did several other directors. This was no interview; it was a lunch among colleagues of equal stature and power—or so I thought.

But just as I was beginning to relax, the lead director began grilling me about the weight and nature of my potential contributions. He was a personality I recognized from one of television's talking-head news shows. He loved to hear himself speak between commercials, and it seemed he had a script in front of him then. His celebrity status sufficiently intimidated the other directors, who sat by as he worked up to a rant.

I had a couple of choices. My usual stance was to engage in combat with such an individual, put him in his place with my knowledge of the drug industry, confident of my record and performance. I would treat him as a water hazard or a wall and go around him or over him. Contemplating what I would say when he finally shut his mouth, a new thought occurred to me, one I had never considered before: I could just leave.

After you've been in management for 30 years, your intuition tells you which people are open to new ideas and who just likes to hear himself talk, who likes to grow his ego instead of his company. You also become attuned to a company's culture—particularly, whether innovation is welcome or not. I took a look around, felt the weight of the crystal Waterford glass in my hand, then set it down on the slate coaster on the antique mahogany table. I felt myself rise from my chair. I couldn't believe what I was doing. Where was the old fighter? The Lombardi acolyte trained to win at all costs?

I stood, buttoned my jacket, and smiled as I addressed the threesome: "Being on a board is a lot of work. I believe in this company and what the CEO is doing, and I want it to thrive. That's why I'm here. Having said that, please understand my time is valuable to me, and I've been around too long to spend it with people I don't enjoy. I'm not enjoying this now and I doubt I would in the future." And then I did something I had never done before. I turned and walked out. My good friend, the CEO, intercepted me at the elevator and beseeched me to reconsider. I patted him on the back and left.

Through the lobby I sailed out onto a midtown street, buzzing with life. I spotted a cigar shop and soon emerged to light up before the MetLife Building amidst the energy surrounding me.

After all those years on the obstacle course, I may finally have learned the hardest lesson of all. Leaders play hard, of course. But there are times when it doesn't pay to play.

While I was puffing on my cigar still trying to process what I had just done, a teenager in hip hop clothes walked up. "Got the time, chief?" he asked.

I looked at my watch, smiling at his question.

"Only for meaningful things," I said.

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