Posted On 22nd December 2013

I hated my father and he hated me. It’s a long story and this isn’t the place. He was jealous of the opportunities hard work gave me, and he combined physical cowardice with a violent streak.

He did however say one thing (over and over again) which I agree with: “If you’re ever really in trouble, you are always on your own”.

Now, Dad meant by that “no one is worthy of trust”. I don’t completely agree with him. It’s true some aren’t there on the worst day of the year. They slink away. But not everyone will. Choose friends, colleagues, lovers wisely.

What I take from his quote is a bit different. There are some situations in life where only your choices, your actions, can have any possible impact. No one else, however well meaning, can make the final choice for you.

One such choice is this. “What do you do if you’re working for a failing organisation?”

Let me explain.

About a decade ago an Executive Search CEO I worked for was really into personal marketing. He specialised in provocative, even shocking performances at business conferences. He was notorious. This is one example.

This guy stood in front of several hundred directors and senior managers, and was taking questions. He was clearly bored by how inane they were (he was right) so he asked one of the audience himself:

“Tell me. What do you do if you’re in a failing organisation? I’ll give you five minutes to think about it”.

So, this slightly cowed audience of “somebodies” got their pens out and started scratching notes on turnaround plans, skills gap analysis, performance management and right sizing.

Anyway, after five minutes of this my boss stopped them and picked on Director after Director at random and demanded their answer. Then he shot it down:

Q: You! What?

A: Well, I’d start with a strategic analysis of the..

Q: Nah, shut up. You’re wrong. You over there in the purple pants suit.

A: Ah, I think a company is its people so I’d work with my HR Director on a development…

Q. Oh, don’t be so naive. You with the boring tie….

And so on. After five minutes of this pummelling he stopped the very last victim as she was suggesting reengagement with the client base through e-marketing. Instead he literally screamed at them:

“Wrong, wrong, wrong! You get the fuck out!”

Now, it’s hard in a short blog post to be as nuanced as I’d like. There are certainly occasions when personal loyalty and the national interest mean you should go down with the ship. But on the whole I think he’s right. Let me tell you why.

None of us are omnipotent. We can’t do everything. Some, many, situations are beyond anyone’s ability to save. The external forces are too malevolent, the dry rot too far gone. It’s hard to explain to recruiters after a really big smash that you were one of the good people solving things, not part of the problem.

And of course, my father was at least partially right. Some people will desert you at the end. Often at Board level. I was lucky enough to be in a seriously troubled company with a Board who kept telling us all to be loyal and stand firm. What we didn’t know was they had one year notice periods and were secretly building their escape routes while we stood in a line around them on a month’s notice taking the bullets.

Leadership should be seen as a privilege and an opportunity for sacrifice, not a prize to be used for enrichment. But, seriously, how often do we see this anymore?

So, run. You’ll have to use your own judgement as to when the time is right. There’s everything to be said for getting personal and professional advice before you make that decision. But, finally, you’ll have to make it yourself, and you really will be on your own when you do.

David Welsh

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