Reset and Re-imagine: when is it time to reboot as a leader?

Pete Kaczmarek
CEO Astrodyne, former SVP Rogers Corporation
This Month's Best Practice Forum Contributor/Leader

When Events Collide

Quantum Physicists talk about particles and speed-of-light collisions that yield great insights into the make-up of our universe. Now, I’m hardly a student of Quantum Physics – so don’t worry, this post is not about that. But these days I’m thinking that life can be like those huge particle accelerators used in today’s sophisticated quantum experiments. Sometimes, several events collide at high speed and out pops a very unexpected result – one with lasting consequences. This is about one of those times. Continue Reading

Let’s set up the collision: A few years ago, I was an executive leader in a mid-size public company specializing in advanced materials – think lots of engineers and other highly technical people in a complex set of global industries.

One of my duties, in addition to leading one of the 3 major business units of the company, was to oversee an annual Leadership Conference, which brought together about 120 of the company’s top leaders from all over the world. The goal (aside from the obvious benefit of getting the company’s far-flung leaders face to face) was to improve the execution of the company’s 5-year strategic plan, which was renewed annually.

Each year we would select a leader below the executive level to chair a planning council for the 4-day event; it was a great developmental opportunity for the selected person and his/her team of 5-6 others from across the company.

The gentleman selected to lead the council this particular year was known to be an accomplished technical expert, an “engineer’s engineer.” The experience was intended to broaden his exposure, and hone his presentation and team skills outside of typical technical projects. He selected a group of people that slanted heavily toward the technical as well (with an HR person or two thrown in for good measure!). The council went off to develop a program – keeping in mind the very practical goal of improving strategic execution.

I was astonished at what the team proposed to me. We should bring in facilitators who would help us unlock our “right brains,” they said. Creative thinking, emotional connections, unlocking peoples’ passions, allowing people to take more chances – that’s what we needed. I felt like checking the water coolers for banned substances. And that’s when my first a-ha moment occurred, the first particle in our accelerator, you might say:

When you select good people to get something done – you ought to just trust and support them.

So that’s how this conservative technical company found itself invaded by the “Art of Possibility” folks. Katalina Groh and her team were the second speeding particle in the story:

If you know you need to do something very different from what you are used to, get experience from the outside to help you.

Now for the third particle in our imminent collision. Behind the scenes, a big change was about to happen at our company. The CEO, who had been with the company for almost 30 years, was about to retire. The Board had initiated an internal succession process a few years earlier, and I was fortunate to be considered for the role. The other two candidates and I had worked hard for over 2 years to develop and demonstrate the skills to lead the company, and I’m sure all of us thought we had done well. The week of the conference, however, the Board rendered their verdict to our CEO and the 3 internal candidates: they had already hired someone from outside the company to be the next CEO. Our CEO would announce it to the assembled leaders near the end of the conference.

As the executive champion of the conference, it was my job to kick off and close the proceedings. Needless to say, I was deeply disappointed in the Board’s decision, and I struggled not to let it show. I knew I needed to enthusiastically embrace the new concepts that would be presented by the Groh team, right from the start.

After my opening speech, I was speaking with one of my most trusted colleagues, and though he knew nothing of the events related to the CEO selection, he said, “You usually are a pretty dynamic speaker, but this time you seemed flat. Anything wrong?” I realized that I was failing to hide my feelings of disappointment, and I resolved to work harder to overcome them for the good of the company and the exciting opportunity that the event represented.

The conference was beyond expectations, an amazing success. The company’s leaders almost magically began to open up, share and show emotions in ways they had never done before. The possibility of real cultural change seemed within reach, what we called a “reboot” during the conference. And yet, I still felt deflated that I would not be the one to lead the company through the transformation.

The turning point for me – the real collision of the three events – occurred during one of the breakout group presentations, in which one of the teams reported on a TED presentation whose lesson was:

You can’t always control what happens, you can only control how you react to it.

In a flash, I understood that that lesson was for me, right at that moment. I kept it as a running theme in my mind during the rest of the conference, and decided to use my closing remarks as my own personal story of disappointment over the CEO decision, and my choice to react to it as an opportunity for growth and a “reboot” for myself too. Feedback from the conference was overwhelmingly positive, and we began to see a new spirit emerge and spread in the weeks following.

Flash forward to today. I’m on to an exciting new chapter, leading a new company in a different industry with a different phase of growth and development. I’ve “rebooted” in many ways, but the key lessons from that collision of events a few years back will stick with me:

  • When you select good people to get something done – you ought to trust and support them.
  • If you know you need to do something very different from what you are used to, get experience from the outside to help you.
  • You can’t always control what happens, you can only control how you react to it.

 Quantum Physics lesson over for today.