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A s k  t h e   E x p e r t

First published in Business Coaching Worldwide, Ask the Expert is a regular column of stories from the offbeat life of coach's coach Dr. Xavier Fink (his mother calls him Melvyn) as his colleagues interact at the sharp end of the business world.

Dr. Fink
Illustration ©
Janet Schatzman 2007-9

A Study in Logic: Sometimes It's Best to Just Walk Away

By Dr. Laurence S. Lyons

Based on a true story. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

The Undertaker stands to deliver his presentation and a dreadful hush fills the boardroom. The CFO's nickname is prophetic; his given name of Herb (Herbert) is equally apt. A small, squat, emaciated man, he resembles the Grim Reaper.

"Tough times," he says. A roomful of executive heads nod sagely in unison. Tough indeed. Apparently things have gotten so bad that no money has been spent preparing the usual overhead presentation. Herb performs unaided and in the raw.

"...require tough measures," he concludes bluntly. "We're running out of cash. We gotta do something fast." There is no resistance. They all know it.

"Us guys in finance have figured out the most logical way. I'm not expecting no arguments." Interestingly, the audience doesn't appear to be in an argumentative mood as Herb scours the room.

"Point One. Our biggest ticket item is salaries. So we gotta let people go. No two ways about it. The only question is who." The brick has been dropped, his audience's psychology deftly managed. At least, so far. Several VPs gulp audibly as if the noose already draws taught around the neck. Having hit the low point, now is the time for Herb to lift their spirits and offer his prepared plan as bait.

"Point Two. No board members are on my list." A large grin slowly spreads across Herb's cunning face. They can hardly believe their luck. But the point hasn't fully sunk in yet. Herb now has to reassure them. "Of course," he says as he smiles, nods, and chuckles lightly. It works. One by one they chuckle with him. "Of course!" they uneasily agree. Naturally it is understood but never stated that Herb, being the most accommodating of men, would happily bend Point Two for anyone who isn't completely happy with his entire plan.

"Point Three. The board will use the most efficient decision system for identifying the names on the goodbye list. The method we'll use has no names on the list." This is not as crazy as it sounds. They're not expected to get it quite yet. For now, he merely wants to grab their attention. He has, and no one dares question him. Yet.

"You see, I've noticed that when we've done similar exercises in the past, we end up with internecine wars between the functions. Right now, I'm sure you'll agree, we ain't got time for no boardroom carnage. Instead we gotta to be sensible and we're gonna be scientific."

Dr. Fink has noticed to his chagrin that jam donuts are not normally provided when he attends board meetings. Instead he tucks into the full platter of chocolate éclairs which he finds in the center of the table, typical fare for these occasions, each dainty pastry no larger than his little finger. A shame the tea is Earl Grey; Fink prefers Strong Breakfast. Yet he figures himself luckier than the poor souls whose names appear on The Undertaker's list. Or, to be more accurate, don't appear, so to speak. Fink understands that the full list-with names and salaries-is held captive somewhere in the dungeons of the finance department. Being quite sensible himself and something of an expert in the scientific method, Fink listens attentively to Herb and waits for the second boot to drop.

"Instead we've simply listed the salaries on your handout. Fully loaded of course, and ranked with the highest at the top." Herb hands out a printed page. Fink notices it contains just a single column of numbers.

"Point Four is an easy one for us to agree on," claims Herb. "Letting anyone go means certain disruption and every departure eats up our management time just when we should be concentrating on the business. So we propose to ditch the smallest number of employees necessary to make the required cost savings. Minimum layoffs equal minimum disruption."

There are so many nodding heads around the table, Fink regrets he has not brought along some fluffy dice. "Ahem," he interjects, "is that really so?" But they'll have none of it. Herb's plan gives them a way out, which is exactly what they want. And they don't want to hear otherwise. After all, Herb's plan is scientific, logical, and protects them, or so they think.

"Moving down the page we draw the line when the cumulative total reaches our savings goal. It really is that simple," says Herb.

"Oh, really?" questions Fink. But his is a lost cause. They are about to lynch him.

"All in favor?" asks Herb, who immediately gets the unanimous response he wants. Bar Fink.

"A request?" asks Dr. Fink. "In order to do my bit in the cost-saving exercise, I will not raise an invoice for my attendance here today. I cannot accept payment if no one will listen to me."

* * *

"And I didn't because they wouldn't," exclaims Fink as he relates this story in his keynote address to the Fellowship of Practitioners in Bankruptcy and Liquidation.

"It was a foregone conclusion. What with all the bonuses, inducements, commissions, flashy cars, and fat expense accounts essential for impressing high-ticket customers, The Undertaker's logic wiped out their entire direct sales force. As you might expect, turnover flattened off pretty fast. Within six months a small competitor bought the company up for a song and fired the board.

"Mathematics is the closest thing we have to unassailable logic. Physical laws can maybe make a similar claim-subject to paradigm. But businesses are complex social organizations with several logics in play. Healthy organizations allow these logics to compete in open decision making."

The fellows are most impressed with Fink. So much so that the chairman of the meeting offers him honorary membership.

"Thank you so much," says Fink. "But I don't think that would help my image."

It's nice to be asked. But sometimes it's best to just walk away.

© Laurence S. Lyons 2007-10 | Laurence S. Lyons identifies himself as the author of this work. | Illustrations © Janet Schatzman 2007-10. All rights reserved. | All trademarks acknowledged. The "Dr. Fink" characters and "Dr. Fink's Casebook" story title are proprietary to Dr. Laurence S. Lyons.

Dr. Laurence S. Lyons, unlike Dr. Fink and his friends, is a real person and internationally renowned expert in organizational transformation and leadership development. He is a member of WABC's International Advisory Committee, the Leader to Leader Thought Leaders' Forum (formerly Peter F. Drucker Foundation), and is a Visiting Academic Fellow at Henley Management College. He is the author of Creating Tomorrow's Organization (Pitman) and Coaching for Leadership (Jossey-Bass). A library of his work is available at www.lslyons.com. Read more about Larry in the WABC Coach Directory. Contact Larry.

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