Leaving On A Jet Plane (And He Won’t Be Back Again)

Remember John Denver’s song? I have a modern version.

A colleague who was coaching in a large, complex organization, found out that the president required coaching, but that he needed someone accustomed to top level executives, and not someone working with subordinates. My colleague recommended me.

The president and I spoke by phone, hit it off well, and he made a big show of flying to see me on the corporation’s jet. I picked him up at the private air terminal in Providence in my Bentley, and he told me he also had one. While I had ordered mine custom-built and waited four months, he had chosen an early model off the showroom floor and paid a “premium” of $15,000 over the sticker price.

Off we go to my home, and I discover that he has problems with the organization’s founder—still his boss—and with a subordinate who covets his job and is openly hostile in public venues. We talked about what was needed, got along well, and then I had to rush him back to his jet, because he had a dinner meeting from whence he came. He had come for two hours, but said he was satisfied and looked forward to my proposal, which I sent the next day via Fedex.

The highest option in my proposal was $45,000 per month for an estimated three-month minimum. That was completely consistent with analogous work I had been doing for over a decade at top levels.

When I followed up, he told me that the highest option was, indeed, the only one that made sense for him, but that he could never justify it. Employees would talk, his rival would use it against him, and his boss might question it. I asked how anyone else would know what he was paying me, and he said, “Accounting people talk.” I then told him that he could pay me out of his own pocket, which was not unheard of. He told me he couldn’t afford that.

I don’t know what that airplane round trip cost with him as the sole passenger, or what his travails with his subordinate and boss were costing the operation, or how he can pay for a quarter million dollar car out of his own pocket but not invest in his own future. I do know that we often run into this type of cognitive dissonance: The top person, the avatar, the leader, is afraid of what others will say and do.

Let this be the lesson: I’ve been in hundreds of executive suites, and the politics, emotions, assumptions, internecine strife, and bad decisions are no different from the sales force or the factor floor. They’re just playing with larger amounts of money.

You can fly high without riding high.

© Alan Weiss 2010. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “Leaving On A Jet Plane (And He Won’t Be Back Again)

  1. I ran into this once many years ago as an employee. I was negotiating with the owner for a change to my employment that would involve me working fewer hours while getting paid the same amount of money. The owner told me he couldn’t do it because it would upset the clerical/accounting staff.

    At the time, I thought it was just an excuse but perhaps he really was making decisions based on what the administrative staff thought. Sad, really.

  2. Alan,

    The cost of using the company jet was far more than your fee. If he really wanted to deal with his issue he would have found a way to handle your fee. If he could justify using the company jet, he certainly could justify paying your fee regardless of what his boss had to say or what his rival would have done.

    I’m thinking his boss would have thought it a good idea as it would have shown he was taking charge of the situation by finding a solution to what may be hindering him from move forward.

  3. No consultant should ever have low self-esteem. People can find their way to the tops of hierarchies and still need considerable help, either to stay there or not to topple it!

  4. Alan,

    It’s sometimes easier said than done. Too many of us believe that we don’t deserve what we have or achieved. Too many old records are playing in their heads that cause them to doubt themselves and their ability.

    His approach was right, to seek you out for help, but as you pointed out, his self-esteem faltered when he was more concerned about what would be said by the accounting department, his rival and thinking his boss might see it as a weakness.

  5. People who excel make it as easy done as said. A lot of things are difficult. The point is to overcome them.

  6. Alan,
    Is there a preventative or contingency action to deal with this?

    Situation: VP calls to talk about consulting and then says he has to talk to staff and get buy-in because he wants to empower them. (He’s a gatekeeper for his employees.)

  7. He’s not exercising leadership, unless he’s in GII mode, where the group makes he decision. I would guess that he’s either lying to you because he doesn’t want to say “no,” or he’s not the real buyer, or he’s just scared.

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