The Scenario: An Unrealistic Demand
While working for a large, rapidly expanding non-profit, I was tasked with upgrading the organization’s technology. We anticipated doubling in scale over 12 months. Adding to the challenge was an already understaffed technology department, supporting antiquated technology. The task was daunting, but we had an amazing team.
My boss, the Chief Financial Officer, set lofty goals. However, a record of successes quickly built the organization’s confidence in our team.
As we neared a critical turning point in the year, an unrealistic demand was placed on me and the team for which I was accountable. The requirement was to replace the primary software tool of the company, in less than a month’s time. I was shocked by the expectation.
The already overburdened technology team had no bandwidth and the CFO would not accept changing priorities of other efforts. A replacement of such a critical tool would typically require months of planning alone. Yet I was being commanded to completely replace the system in a matter of weeks. I refused, insisting instead that we limped along on the antiquated system for one more season.
What Happened: Disaster – Fired
When I refused to support the initiative, I was given two options: do it, or lose my job. Unfortunately, my family was dependent upon my income. I saw no other choice and worked furiously to develop the best plan possible.
Those weeks felt like a scene from a horror movie where the victims run like crazy, but the slowly lumbering assailant remains steps away. I saw no way the project could end well.
As usage of the new system grew, failures increased. Eventually, the system failed completely – a result of poor planning, insufficient resources and inadequate training. Ultimately, I was called into the CFO’s office and asked for my resignation.
What I Learned: You Can’t Lead What You Need
I should have resigned the moment the CFO insisted on the project. I never would have though, given my family’s financial position at the time.
Had I volunteered my resignation at that moment there were two possible outcomes:
- The CFO backed off his insistence: I remained employed there and we addressed the solution properly at a later time.
- My resignation was accepted: The organization had no one to lead the effort and would likely delay the replacement until a later date – when it could have been properly addressed.
For the organization, either outcome would have been better.
It may have been the hard way, but I learned many lessons from this event, including:
1. You cannot lead what you need: If you feel you need the job you have, it will be much more difficult to lead in that role. Creating a sufficient savings to depend upon in times of crises, building a strong network and maintaining confidence in your ability to find alternate employment will help you lead more by needing less.
2. Build relationships at all levels: I also realized that I trusted the CFO to do what was right. However, he faced his own pressures. Ensuring strong relationships at all levels will help you avoid depending on a single individual (even your boss) in critical times.
3. Always have a backup: I knew the project would fail. Therefore, I should have invested more of the team’s effort in a back-out plan. As Mark Sanborn said in Up Down or Sideways:
“It is too late to add a backup chute once you’ve left the plane.”
This concludes the third and final post on My Great Failures and the lessons I learned. I hope you’re able to learn from my experience and save yourself some of the same challenges.
Question: What other lessons do you see in my failure?