For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)
• Tuesday, September 2
“Bill Palmer here,” I say, answering my cell phone on the first ring.
I’m late, so I’m driving ten miles per hour over the speed limit, instead of my usual five. I spent the morning at the doctor’s office with my three-year-old son, trying to keep the other toddlers from coughing on us, constantly being interrupted by my vibrating phone.
The problem of the day is intermittent network outages. As the Director of Midrange Technology Operations, I’m responsible for the availability and smooth functioning of a relatively small IT group at Parts Unlimited, a $4 billion per year manufacturing and retail company based in Elkhart Grove.
Even in the technology backwaters I’ve chosen to make my turf, I need to track network issues closely. Because these issues disrupt the services my group provides, people will blame the outages on me.
“Hi, Bill. This is Laura Beck, from Human Resources.” She’s not the person I usually deal with from HR, but her name and voice sound familiar…
Holy crap. I try not to swear out loud when I remember who she is. From the monthly company meetings. She’s the VP in charge of HR.
“Good morning, Laura,” I say with forced cheer. “What can I do for you?”
She responds, “When will you be in the office? I’d like to meet as soon as possible.”
I hate vague requests to meet. I only do that when I’m trying to schedule a time to chew someone out. Or fire them.
Wait. Is Laura calling because someone wants to fire me? Was there an outage I didn’t respond to quickly enough? As an IT Operations guy, the career-ending outage is the joke my peers and I tell one another daily.
We agree to meet at her desk in a half hour, but when she doesn’t share any more details, I say in my most cajoling voice, “Laura, what’s this all about? Is there a problem in my group? Or am I the one in trouble?” I laugh extra loudly, so she hears it over the phone.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” she says breezily. “You could even say this is good news. Thanks, Bill.”
When she hangs up, I try to think of what good news would even look like these days. When I can’t, I turn the radio back on and immediately hear a commercial from our largest retailing competitor. They’re talking about their unparalleled customer service and a breathtaking new offering that allows people to customize their cars with their friends online.
The ad is brilliant. I’d use the service in a second, if I weren’t such a loyal company man. How do they keep bringing such incredible new capabilities to market while we remain stuck in the mud?
I turn the radio off. Despite all our hard work and late nights, the competition keeps leapfrogging us. When our Marketing people hear this ad, they’ll go ballistic. Because they’re likely art or music majors, not people with a technology background, they’ll publicly promise the impossible and IT will have to figure out how to deliver.
Each year, it gets harder. We have to do more with less, to simultaneously maintain competitiveness and reduce costs.
Some days, I think that it can’t be done. Maybe I spent too much time as a sergeant in the Marines. You learn that you argue your case as best as you can with your officer, but sometimes you have to say, “Yes, sir,” and then go take that hill.
I pull into the parking lot. Three years ago, finding an empty parking spot was impossible. Now, after all the layoffs, parking is rarely a problem.
When I walk into Building 5 where Laura and her staff reside, I immediately notice how nicely furnished it is. I can smell the new carpeting and there’s even classy wood paneling on the walls. Suddenly, the paint and carpet in my building seem decades overdue for replacement.
That’s IT’s lot in life. At least we’re not in a dingy, dimly lit dank basement, like in the British TV show, The IT Crowd.
When I get to Laura’s office, she looks up and smiles. “Good seeing you again, Bill.” She extends her hand, which I shake. “Have a seat while I see whether Steve Masters is available to meet.”
Steve Masters? Our CEO?
She picks up and dials her phone while I sit down, looking around. The last time I was here was a couple of years ago when HR notified us that we needed to dedicate a room for nursing mothers. We were critically short of office and meeting space, and we had big project deadlines looming.
We merely wanted to use a conference room in a different building. However, Wes made it sound like we were a bunch of 1950s Mad Men Neanderthals. Shortly afterward, we were both summoned here for a half day of political rehabilitation and sensitivity training. Thanks, Wes.
Among other things, Wes is in charge of the networks, which is why I track network outages so closely.
Laura thanks the person on the other end of the phone and turns back to me. “Thanks for coming down on short notice. How is your family doing these days?” she asks.
My brow furrows. If I wanted to chitchat, there are many people I’d rather talk to than someone in HR. I force myself to banter about our families and kids, trying not to think about my other pressing commitments. Eventually I say, without much grace, “So, what can I do for you this morning?”
“Of course.” She pauses, and then says, “Effective as of this morning, Luke and Damon are no longer with the company. This went all the way to the top, with Steve getting involved. He’s chosen you to be the VP of IT Operations.”
She smiles broadly, holding out her hand again, “You’re our newest VP in the company, Bill. I think some congratulations are in order?”
Holy crap. I numbly shake her hand.
No, no, no. The last thing I want is a “promotion.”
Luke was our CIO, or Chief Information Officer. Damon worked for him and was my boss, in charge of IT Operations across the entire company. Both gone, just like that.
I didn’t see this coming. There wasn’t any chatter on the subspace radio. Nothing.
For the last decade, like clockwork, new CIOs would come and go every two years. They stay just long enough to understand the acronyms, learn where the bathrooms are, implement a bunch of programs and initiatives to upset the apple cart, and then they’re gone.
CIO stands for “Career Is Over.” And VPs of IT Operations don’t last much longer.
I’ve figured out that the trick to a long career in IT Operations management is to get enough seniority to get good things done but to keep your head low enough to avoid the political battles that make you inherently vulnerable. I have absolutely no interest in becoming one of the VPs who just give each other PowerPoints all day long.
Fishing for more information, I joke, “Two executives leaving at the same time? Were they stealing money from the stores late at night?”
She laughs, but quickly returns to her HR-trained deadpan, “They both chose to pursue other interests. More than that, you’ll have to find out from them.”
As the saying goes, if your colleague tells you they’ve decided to quit, it was voluntary. But when someone else tells you they’ve decided to quit, it was mandatory.
Ergo, my boss and his boss were just whacked.
This is exactly why I don’t want a promotion. I’m extremely proud of the team I’ve built over the last ten years. It’s not the largest group, but we’re the most organized and dependable, by far. Especially compared to Wes.
I groan at the thought of managing Wes. He doesn’t manage a team—he’s barely one step ahead of a chaotic mob.
As I break out in a cold sweat, I know I will never accept this promotion.
All this time, Laura has been talking, and I haven’t heard a single word. “—and so we’ll obviously need to talk about how we’re going to announce this transition. And Steve wants to see you as soon as possible.”
“Look, thanks for the opportunity. I’m honored. But I don’t want this role. Why would I? I love my current job, and there are tons of important things that still need to be done.”
“I don’t think this is optional,” she says, looking sympathetic. “This came straight from Steve. He chose you personally, so you’ll have to talk with him.”
I stand up and reiterate firmly, “No, really. Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ve already got a great job. Good luck finding someone else.”
Minutes later, Laura is walking me to Building 2, the tallest building on campus. I’m angry at myself for getting sucked into this insanity.
If I run now, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to catch me, but then what? Steve would just send a whole squad of HR goons to fetch me.
I don’t say anything, definitely not feeling like small talk anymore. Laura doesn’t seem to care, walking briskly beside me, nose buried in her phone, occasionally gesturing directions.
She finds Steve’s office without ever looking up, obviously having made this walk many times before.
This floor is warm and inviting, furnished just like it was in the 1920s, when the building was constructed. With dark hardwood floors and stained glass windows, it’s from an era when everyone wore suits and smoked cigars in their offices. The company was booming then—Parts Unlimited made various widgets inside almost every make of automobile, when horses were being vanquished from daily life.
Steve has a corner office, where a no-nonsense woman is keeping guard. She’s about forty, radiating cheerfulness and a sense of organization and order. Her desk is tidy, with Post-it notes everywhere on the wall. There’s a coffee mug with the words “Don’t Mess With Stacy” by her keyboard.
“Hi, Laura,” she says, looking up from her computer. “Busy day, huh? So, this is Bill?”
“Yep. In the flesh,” Laura replies, smiling.
To me she says, “Stacy keeps Steve in line. You’ll grow to know her well, I suspect. You and I can finish up later.” Then she leaves.
Stacy smiles at me. “Pleasure. I’ve heard a lot about you already. Steve is expecting you.” She points to his door.
I immediately like her. And I think about what I’ve just learned. It’s been a busy day for Laura. Stacy and Laura are on very familiar terms. Steve has HR on speed dial. Apparently, people who work for Steve don’t last long.
Walking in, I’m a little surprised to find Steve’s office looks just like Laura’s. It’s the same size as my boss’ office—or rather, my ex-boss’ office—and potentially my new office if I’m stupid, which I am not.
Maybe I was expecting Persian rugs, water fountains, and large sculptures everywhere. Instead, there are photos on the wall of a small propeller airplane, his smiling family, and, to my surprise, one of him in a US Army uniform on a runway somewhere tropical. I note with surprise the insignia visible on his lapels.
So, Steve was a major.
He is sitting behind his desk, scrutinizing what appear to be paper spreadsheets. There’s a laptop open behind him, displaying a browser full of stock graphs.
“Bill, good to see you again,” he says, standing and shaking my hand. “It’s been a long time. About five years, right? It was after you pulled off that amazing project to integrate one of the manufacturing acquisitions. I trust life has been treating you well?”
I’m surprised and a bit flattered that he remembered our brief interaction, especially when it was so long ago. I smile in return, saying, “Yes, very well, thank you. I’m amazed you remember something so far back.”
“You think we give out awards like that to just anyone?” he says earnestly. “That was an important project. To make that acquisition pay off, we needed to nail it, which you and your team did superbly.
“I’m sure Laura has told you a bit about the organizational changes I’ve made. You know Luke and Damon are no longer with the company. I intend to fill the CIO position eventually, but in the meantime, all of IT will report to me.”
He continues, brisk and businesslike, “However, with Damon’s departure, I have an organizational hole I need to fill. Based on our research, you’re clearly the best candidate to take over as VP of IT Operations.”
As if he just remembered, he says, “You were a Marine. When and where?”
I announce automatically, “22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Sergeant. I was in for six years but never saw combat.”
Remembering how I joined the Marines as a cocky eighteen-year-old, I say with a small smile, “The Corps really straightened me out—I owe them a lot, but I sure hope neither of my sons join under the same conditions I did.”
“I bet,” Steve laughs. “I was in the Army for eight years myself, slightly longer than I was obligated to. But I didn’t mind. ROTC was the only way I could pay for college, and they treated me well.”
He adds, “They didn’t coddle us like they did you Marines, but I still can’t complain.”
I laugh, finding myself liking him. This is the longest interaction we’ve had. I suddenly wonder if this is what politicians are like.
I try to stay focused on why he summoned me here: He’s going to ask me to undertake some kamikaze mission.
“Here’s the situation,” he says, motioning me to have a seat at his conference table. “As I’m sure you’re aware, we must regain profitability. To do that, we need to increase our market share and average order sizes. Our retail competitors are kicking our ass. The whole world knows this, which is why our stock price is half what it was three years ago.”
He continues, “Project Phoenix is essential to closing the gap with the competition, so we can finally do what the competition has been doing for years. Customers need to be able to buy from us from wherever they want, whether it’s on the Internet or in our retail stores. Otherwise, we’ll soon have no customers, at all.”
I nod. I might be in the technology backwaters, but my team has been involved with Phoenix for years. Everyone knows how important it is.
“We’re years late delivering,” he continues. “Our investors and Wall Street are howling. And now, my board is losing confidence in our ability to hit our commitments.
“I’ll be blunt,” he says. “The way things are going, I’ll be out of a job in six months. As of last week, Bob Strauss, my old boss, is the new chairman of the company. There’s a vocal group of shareholders trying to split up the company, and I don’t know how much longer we can fend them off. What’s at stake here is not just my job, but the nearly four thousand employees who work here at Parts Unlimited.”
Suddenly, Steve looks much older than the early fifties I had guessed him to be. Looking right at me, he says, “As acting CIO, Chris Allers, our VP of Application Development, will report to me. And so will you.”
He stands up and starts to pace, “I need you to keep all the things that are supposed to be up, well, up. I need someone reliable, who isn’t afraid to tell me bad news. Above all, I need someone I can trust to do the right thing. That integration project had many challenges, but you always kept a cool head. You’ve built a reputation as someone who is dependable, pragmatic, and willing to say what you really think.”
He’s been candid with me, so I reply with the same. “Sir, with all due respect, it seems very difficult for senior IT leadership to succeed here. Any request for budget or staff is always shot down, and executives are replaced so quickly, some never even get a chance to fully unpack.”
With finality, I say, “Midrange Operations is critical to getting Phoenix done, too. I need to stay there to see those things through to completion. I appreciate you thinking of me, but I can’t accept. However, I promise I’ll keep my eyes open for any good candidates.”
Steve looks at me appraisingly, his expression surprisingly grave. “We’ve had to cut budgets across the entire company. That edict came straight from my board. My hands were tied. I won’t make promises I can’t keep, but I can promise you I’ll do whatever it takes to support you and your mission.
“Bill, I know you didn’t ask for this job, but the company’s survival is at stake here. I need you to help me save this great company. Can I count on you?”
Oh, come on.
Before I can politely decline again, I suddenly hear myself saying, “Yes, sir, you can count on me.”
I panic, realizing that Steve somehow used some Jedi mind trick on me. I force myself to stop talking, before I make more dumb promises.
“Congratulations,” Steve says, standing up and shaking my hand firmly. He clasps my shoulder. “I knew you’d do the right thing. On behalf of the entire executive team, we’re grateful for you stepping up.”
I look at his hand grasping mine, wondering if I can backpeddle my way out.
Not a chance in hell, I decide.
Swearing to myself, I say, “I’ll do my best, sir. And could you at least explain why no one who accepts this position lasts very long? What do you want most from me? And what don’t you want?”
With a resigned half smile, I add, “If I fail, I’ll try to make sure it’s in a new and novel way.”
“I like that!” Steve says, laughing loudly. “What I want is for IT to keep the lights on. It should be like using the toilet. I use the toilet and, hell, I don’t ever worry about it not working. What I don’t want is to have the toilets back up and flood the entire building.” He smiles broadly at his own joke.
Great. In his mind, I’m a glorified janitor.
He continues, “You have a reputation of running the tightest ship in the IT organization. So I’m giving you the entire fleet. I expect you to make them all run the same way.
“I need Chris focused on Phoenix execution. Anything in your area of responsibility that takes focus away from Phoenix is unacceptable. That applies not just to you and Chris, but everyone else in this company. Is that clear?”
“Absolutely,” I say, nodding. “You want the IT systems to be reliable and available, and for the business to be able to depend upon them. You want disruptions to normal operations kept to an absolute minimum so that the business can focus on getting Phoenix done.”
Looking surprised, Steve nods. “Exactly. Yes, well put. Whatever you said, that’s exactly what I want.”
He hands me an e-mail printout from Dick Landry, the CFO.
From: Dick Landry
To: Steve Masters
Date: September 2, 8:27 AM
Subject: ACTION NEEDED: payroll run is failing
Hey, Steve. We’ve got serious issues with this week’s payroll. We’re trying to figure out if the problem is with the numbers or in the payroll system. Either way, thousands of employees have paychecks stuck in system & are at risk of not getting paid. Seriously bad news.
We must fix this before payroll window closes at 5 PM today. Please advise on how to escalate this, given the new IT org.
I wince. Employees not getting paychecks means families not being able to pay their mortgages or put food on the table.
Suddenly, I realize that my family’s mortgage payment is due in four days, and we could be one of the families affected. A late mortgage payment could screw up our credit rating even more, which we spent years repairing after we put Paige’s student loans on my credit card.
“You want me to jump on this and manage the incident to conclusion?”
Steve nods, giving me the thumbs-up. “Keep me posted on the progress, please.” His expression turns grave. “Every responsible company takes care of its employees. Many of our factory workers live from paycheck to paycheck. Do not create hardship for their families, you hear? This could get us in trouble with the union, maybe even triggering a work-stoppage, creating some very bad press for us.”
I nod automatically. “Restore critical business operations and keep us out of the front-page news. Got it. Thanks.”
Why, exactly, I’m thanking him is not clear.