Linkedin Twitter Facebook YouTube Mail

A personal story about caring in corporate life

I remember this short story vividly. Like it happened yesterday. I had just turned 30. And I was given the opportunity to set up US based outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison in the Netherlands. At the time, they were starting to expand overseas. And it was only the second operation in Europe for the firm. But outplacement, that used to be a no hair, grey hair industry! And I was so young!

Late 1999, we chose the prestigious five star hotel l'Europe in Amsterdam as the location for the launch. Top managers came over from the US for the event, including the president: Steve Harrison. The gentleman whose name was on the door when you entered into our offices.

Steve was my boss and I had prepared everything in detail for our first operations review. I came up with a commercial pipeline, made a SWOT analysis and I prepared all the financials. All the usual things that you discuss during these kinds of reviews.

But the truth was, our figures did not look good at all! Our revenues went up, but we also had deep dips. To make things worse, we basically worked for only two big companies: Philips and Campina. Which meant we had unstable revenues and little spread of the revenue risks. I felt personally responsible that the firm’s excellent reputation could be at risk if we were not able to live up to the expectations from New York. So, all in all we didn’t have stable revenues, but what we did have was a lot of passion. But that's not per se a good basis to build a company on. After all, at the end of the day, every company needs to turn in a profit as oxygen to secure it's future.

Paul in New York, early 2000's

When I entered into my first management review meeting with Steve and his CFO, I was pretty nervous. After some opening questions, we got to the second page of my review presentation…the slide with the revenue numbers... and I became even more nervous. At that moment Steve takes over the meeting. With a theatrical hand gesture, he throws away all my preparations. And says: this meeting is not about your numbers! After that, for two straight hours, we talked about how I am developing myself and where I wanted to go with my career. That evening, I left for home inspired and recharged.

Years later, in hindsight, I started to realize how important this review had been for me. I was being groomed for the bigger work without realizing it. Steve knew that putting us in the rhythm of operations reviews was simply too early on that day. We were simply not mature enough yet as operation. We needed to take an extra step. He wanted to give it some extra time. With Steve's intervention, my emotional connection to the firm grew stronger.

Of course, in the years that followed, we had operations reviews every month where we were challenged. We discussed the profitability of our business, our revenue, working capital, delivery, commercial pipeline, acquisitions and strategy…essential subjects that need to be discussed to monitor the progress of every company. It was a steep learning curve. Especially, since I had to learn most of these things from scratch.

I will always be grateful for all the lessons I learned in those years. Having a large responsibility at quite a young age also shaped me. Creating, building and running a company inside a Fortune 500 company for almost a decade helps me in my work with our clients to this day. 

But, I also learned that at the end of the day we’re all people with the same hopes and fears. Steve's caring behavior during my first official operations review made a big difference for me in my professional development. For me it was one of those defining moment where leaders have an opportunity to make a real difference. Hard on the matter, soft on the people. For me it was inspirational. And to this day I always try to be hard on the matter, soft on the people when I work with teams and individuals.

Hope this inspires.

Paul Donkers

Steve Harrison published his book ‘The managers book of decensies’. I always liked it because it is so pragmatic. Decencies are often undervalued in corporate life. Pick it up online of offline if you can.

By Paul Donkers

"my purpose is to help improve strategy execution, to create high performing teams and coach for effective business leaders"

Share this column: