The alarm shrilled and shook on the bedside cabinet announcing six thirty to John, who groaned and bringing his hand out from under the warm duvet, shut off the noise. He rolled forward to semi upright and yawned, pushing his hands through his hair. His mind gradually stuttered into life, there was something about today, what was it, he couldn’t quite remember. The cat jumped onto his lap and rubbed herself against the bristle of his weekend beard and then looked at him expectantly. He stretched, put the thoughts to one side and within thirty minutes was showered, dressed, had his sandwiches made and was out of the door and into his car.
“Hi Sandra”, he pushed open the passenger door and she slid in, her perfume wafting across to him. She pushed her bag onto the floor, fastened the seat belt and turned towards him smiling. They had a sort of thing going, a friendly occasional kiss type of relationship. It never seemed to progress but it didn’t stop either and he liked sharing the journey into work and back. Sandra was easy going, relaxed and fun to be around.
“So here it is, today’s the day, bet your looking forward to it” she said, twisting in her seat to get a good look at him. “And you’ve made a special effort, look at you all shaved, smart tie and is that a new suit?” She picked a piece of fluff off his sleeve and then pinched his cheek gently. “You’ll be great, just you see”. John had the strangest feeling of being examined in minute detail, his collar suddenly felt tight and his earlobes started to tingle, which was very disconcerting. He calmed himself down, checked this speed, he could do without another speeding ticket and drew attention away from himself by joking about the bright blue tights Sandra was wearing. They had a way of being rude to each other while exchanging compliments and Sandra looked great today, well she did every day and her legs especially.
“Morning John, have yourself a good day won’t you” said the overnight security man in reception. Now he was giving him strange looks too, a confident smile but with a lot of respect. Strange, strange and that same feeling of being examined, checked. No matter, he had a lot to do today, a key account to visit and hopefully move the big sale for the quarter one step further on. He bounded the stairs, got to his desk and began checking his emails.
“Hold on there boy, you’re in the wrong place”. His boss was leaning over him, a big grin on his face and now swiftly, was taking over his mouse and closing down his computer. Then he spun him around in his chair and pointed it down the length of the open plan office towards the executive suite.
Now John remembered and he felt slightly sick. It had meant to be a joke, his email chain of witty comments on how easy it must be to be the CEO, anyone could do that job, what does she do all day, etc, etc. He had sent it just to his level, his mates really, but as usual it had been passed on and guess what, the executive team thought it was great idea and perhaps yes actually, someone should have the experience of being the CEO for just one day. So, all their names had gone into the hat and by some quirk his had been drawn out. How could that happen with over a thousand staff he wondered, but it did. He remembered Sandra laughing hysterically on the way home and pretending to be him as the MD handling a meeting. Then his own boss the next day, saying he couldn’t wait to report to him. Two weeks ago it seemed funny, now on a Monday at 8.30 it didn’t.
He walked down the length of the office, everyone looked at him, some made comments, most just stared. Now he felt not just examined but somehow stripped bare, everyone had their eyes on him. And it was as though he could hear they thoughts too, some were reasonable and some just plain rude. Already he could feel the weight of expectations on his shoulders and he didn’t much like it. Arriving at Rachel’s office he knocked and waited. She was a busy MD, action was her motto, yet she always had time for everyone, although expected good time keeping and good manners. Late, that wouldn’t go down well he thought to himself. He coughed and pushed open the door and stepped into the large room. The clear glass desk framed by the huge circular port hole window looking out onto the busy street was empty, the leather chair still pushed in tight against it.
“Hi John, coffee?”. Rachel was sat on the sofa with the papers spread around her. She looked so relaxed. Normally on a Monday morning she was calling for last weeks sales, comparing against budget, against last year and likely to be just a bit antsy but in good way. She was dressed in jeans too, which was even more strange in contrast to John’s sharp suit.
“Okay the office is yours, I’ll be right here but I’m letting you lead, first meeting at 9.00. Just ask me anything, pull me in at any time, but I’ll try to butt out…. well except with customers of course. Diary’s on the desk. Enjoy ”.
By ten o’clock he was exhausted and to be truthful he couldn’t do much, he kept asking Rachel questions and she stepped in gently leading where necessary. In just that one hour he had growing admiration for her, for the executive team, for their skills, their knowledge, the ability to juggle endless demands, changing priorities. He realised what a tough job being the CEO was. Perhaps he wouldn’t be such a smart arse again.
Over their second coffee, they did a mini review and laughed about what was happening. Rachel seemed to be enjoying the day and for all her bark (and at times he’d been on the receiving end of that) she treated John with care and compassion.
“Okay, ready for the staff briefing” she asked. John looked at her, surely he wasn’t meant to run that. The Monday ‘heads up’ to everyone was a quick fifteen minutes in the atrium behind reception. Three power point slides, maybe a short film clip, sometimes just Q & A. Rachel made it look easy every week, relaxed, calm, very direct and motivating, even if the sales were slipping. He took her hand written briefing notes and noticed his hand shock a little. She just smiled and sipped her coffee.
The noise in the atrium was deafening, not from everyone talking, actually a few whispered to each other, but mostly they just stared. It was the the bombarding thoughts John was picking up. Each person he looks at shoots a different set of thoughts towards him. He feels like he is being blasted by both an extreme heat wave and a gale force wind simultaneously. It almost knocks him backwards and he has to lock his knees to stand upright. He feels his suit being ripped from his body, then his shirt and suddenly he is naked. He hands move involuntarily to his crotch and he tries to cover himself. But the comments keep coming, scorching his skin or making painful pinging nips on the flesh. Some stick too and weigh him down, stopping him speaking and some comments feel as though they have got into his body and are killing it slowly.
“John, John, it’s okay” he can hear a dim voice in the distance, just beyond the roaring, crashing words. “I’m right here” and he turns to see Rachel smiling at him. “Its normal, don’t let it get to you, breathe. Everyone is constantly looking at you as the boss, making judgements, projecting fears and worries on to you, it is normal. Relax, we’ll do this together”. And they do. Rachel starts and John watches as the thoughts, questions, hopes and doubts of people buzz and fizz around her and which she occasionally swats away. He leads on the sales results and key customer contact this week and the questions flying around almost bury him, although only one or two are asked directly, externally, into the room.
Sandra drives on the way home, he’s exhausted, part elated ‘he’s done it’ and still over whelmed by the sheer voracity of the demands and expectations. Sandra is chatting about cooking him dinner and occasionally touching his hand. He looks at his wrist, sees his shirt and suit still there and realises just what has been happening. Words and thoughts, particularly those unexpressed, can have a powerful impact. After eating he’ll write Rachel a thank you note and try to describe his experience and his admiration for the job she does and all executives do.
Grahame Pitts – March 2016
This story comes from a conversation with David about ‘always being watched, always on display’’ as a CEO and guidance from his own boss, around this in his first MD role. We all project onto others our concerns, hopes, thoughts; even more so to those we perceive as above us, our leaders. Perhaps we are reminded of our parents, or our family background in some way.
We all need to be aware of these unsaid, and sometimes unknown dynamics and all work to address them, regardless of where they are in the organisation and the hierarchy. Then our energy can be fully focused on the opportunities and the issues the business is facing today.