When Ego Gets In The Way

he pride of your heart has deceived you… Obadiah 1:3

Jackson didn’t like the person looking back at him in the mirror.   He not only let himself down, more importantly, he let 123 people down.

Within a mere 17 months he took his father’s 35-year old paving company from profitable to bankruptcy.  Harold would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what his son had done.

In three days he would have a meeting with the bank to see if there was any way to pull the cart out of the mud. He saw the chances as very slim because he knew that the bank was very angry with him.

Today, he had a lunch meeting with Bill Jacobs, the company’s production manager. Jackson called him Uncle Bill because his dad and Bill started the company some 35 years ago and Bill had always been part of the family. His dad trusted Bill, a quiet man, and often Harold sought his counsel. Today, Jackson needed to do the same.

When he arrived at the restaurant he saw that Bill was already there, sitting at a booth in the back. Jackson was on an emotional rollercoaster: embarrassed, frustrated, and confused were just a few adjectives that could describe his state-of-mind.

“Uncle Bill, thanks for meeting with me,” Jackson said as he sat down at the table. “I wish I would have asked for this conversation much earlier. You know, I had such big plans for this company and now it looks like it might be shut down. I can’t believe it has come to this,” Jackson said in a half-defeated tone.  “I know. No one was expecting this turn of events and everyone at the company is in disbelief, and frankly, a bit scared,” Bill added.

“Jackson, you know that your dad and I always had a very good relationship and we often discussed business issues together before a decision was made”, Bill stated. “In fact, when it was a big decision, your dad would involve several other trusted advisors and get their opinion before moving forward,” he added.  “It seemed to work for the past 35 years but things changed when you took over the helm,” Bill noted.  “Think back on the past year and a half and the decisions you’ve made at the company. How well thought thru were these? Did you ever involve anyone before you made a decision?” Bill asked.

Jackson started to get defensive: “Uncle Bill, you know I got a great education in business at UNC. Some of the decisions I made were pretty text book and should have worked.”  Bill countered: “Well I guess you’ve learned that what works in the classroom doesn’t always work in the real world.”

“Jackson, listen. I don’t know if you’ll be able to salvage this company but I can tell you for sure that if your attitude doesn’t change, the company is gone. I’ll support you anyway I can – if you want that – but you are going to have to change your behavior and do so quickly,” Jim stated very directly.

The waitress came by for their order and they asked for a few more minutes.

Knowing he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, he agreed to listen to Bill’s counsel:  “Uncle Bill I’m truly sorry for this mess I got the company into and if there is any way to save it, then I’m willing to listen.”  “Listening isn’t enough, Jackson,” Bill added. “You’re going to have to change and I’m not sure your able to do that.”

“Uncle Bill, please don’t give up on me. You’ve watched me for the past 17 months. What have you seen and what do I need to change? Please be honest with me,” Jackson said.

“Jackson, if I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: Your ego is way to big and has become your enemy,” Bill stated. “What do you mean?” Jackson asked. “Jackson, just be quiet and listen or this conversation’s over,” Bill shot back. “Ok, ok, I’m listening,” Jackson said.

Over the next hour and a half, Bill gave Jackson tough feedback.

“Jackson, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be confident in your abilities and take certain risks to grow the company, but since you started running the company, everything has been about you and the success you wish to obtain. Expanding our business from asphalt to also include concrete was a major decision that you took on your own. You didn’t ask a single person for their input. This led to huge capital investments and a work force that had no idea how to work with concrete because they didn’t have the proper training,” Bill summarized.  Jackson was quiet but his body language showed that the criticism hit him hard.

“Another thing that you’ve got to realize, Jackson, is that the employees watch you’re every move.  They know that you didn’t get the top job based on merit but because your dad owned the company.  What do you think the gossip was like when you rolled up to the company on your first day in a brand-new 7 series BMW?  I don’t think your dad ever had a new car,” Bill stated.

“You know what your dad was really good at, Jackson?”  Bill asked. “No, what’s that Uncle Bill?” Jackson replied.  “Well, he really took an interest in the employees and they knew it. Not only did he know everyone by name but he also knew the name of their spouse and probably even their children. Our employees felt that your dad cared. Now that you’ve been here for nearly 1 ½ years, how many employee names do you know?” Bill inquired.  “I guess I was too focused on the work and not enough on the employees,” Jackson countered.  “I think part of the problem was that you didn’t trust your employees and believed you had to micro-manager everything,” Bill concluded.

“Jackson, you asked for my honest opinion and I know some of the stuff I’m telling you probably hurts to hear,” Bill said.  But if there is any chance of righting this ship, you’ve got to make these personal changes quickly,” Bill said.

“Uncle Bill, your right. Your feedback is painful but your right. I have let my ego get in the way and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.  I will take everything you’ve said to heart.  It’s probably too late to save the company, but I really want to try. I owe it to our 123 employees,” Jackson stated.  It was the first time that a flicker of confidence came across Jackson’s face.

“On Thursday I’ve got a meeting at the bank.  I would really appreciate if you came with me,” Jackson said.   Bill replied: “Of course I’ll go with you, Jackson.  Let’s see if we can’t pull this wagon out of the mud.”


Ryan Holiday:  Ego is the Enemy

David L. Dotlich & Peter C. Cairo: Why CEOs Fall

Jim Collins: How the Might Fall