It was one of those moments we’ll look back in time and wonder what happened. It had a Rashoman-like quality, creating a different perspective from each of us that was in the room that day. While I had been a part of a number of discussions with senior executives, I’d never seen a CEO pushed into a corner by a compatriot. Dowdy was cornered, and cornered executives, like cornered animals, were unpredictable things.
I realized I’d been holding my breath, waiting for Dowdy to respond to Brockwell’s challenge. As I considered it, though, I was certain that Dowdy would play his ace in the hole, the card every executive puts on the table when they don’t want to, or can’t, make a decision. Dowdy was going to ask us for more information, more research, more cost estimates. Anything to keep from having to make the decision right now.
Dowdy glanced from Susan to Brockwell, studiously avoiding my gaze. My eyes were fixed on him, an intentional challenge. I was willing him to have the backbone to support the innovation efforts he had championed earlier. He cleared his throat like a gun shot, and I couldn’t tell which shoe would drop.
“You are right, George, that I have been advocating innovation, and I believe it is something we absolutely need to do.” My heart rose. “However..” My heart sank while he held up his hand to stave off any immediate reactions “However, I don’t have the time to get as involved as I suspect the team will need me to be. I have a suggestion, though.” My heart was pounding – was there a light at the end of this tunnel, or just a train approaching? “I’ll fully support you taking the lead on innovation, if you are willing to take on the work. You’ll have my full support and can act as the head of innovation for Accipiter, at least until I complete some other activities the board has asked me to complete.” He shot a conspiratorial glance at Brockwell, who decoded it and recognized what he was talking about.
In this game of hot potato, now Brockwell had it securely in his lap. There was no one else to pass it to in the room, as we all knew a senior executive would have to sponsor the initiative. He couldn’t pass it to Susan, and certainly not to me, and, as they say in the military, excrement rolls downhill, not up. You could almost see the mental abacus working behind Brockwell’s eyes as he weighed the alternatives. There probably wasn’t another executive who would push as hard as he would. Thompson had already proved unreliable. If Brockwell backed down, there’d be no reason to go forward. If he agreed, he’d take on another significant initiative just as Accipiter was heading into the yearly budgeting cycle.
Susan was carefully studying the nap on the rug in Underwood’s conference room, like a scientist trying to read ancient hieroglyphics. She was not making any eye contact, hoping like a kid at bedtime that Mom will overrule Dad and let her watch the late movie. Even so her face was flushed, and she was breathing rapidly. It was evident that this meant a great deal to her.
Brockwell finished sliding the virtual beads around and locked eyes with me. I knew what he would say before he opened his mouth.
“Let’s do it” he said. “I’ll delegate some of my responsibilities to Aaron” this he said with a glance to Dowdy, who nodded “and I’ll need to round up a few strong managers to help us make this project go forward” Again, Dowdy nodded. I wondered what this would cost him.
Dowdy stood up, signaling his part of the meeting was done. “Good. I’m excited about the project and about your role in heading it up. Sam, Susan, excellent work. I can’t wait to see the new ideas start flowing.” And with that he left the room, on to another meeting.
Susan looked a bit stunned. “What just happened?”
“We’re on, and moving the project forward. I’ll be the executive sponsor. You and Matt have convinced me. I’m sticking my neck out a bit, but don’t worry, there’s something in it for me, as well as for Accipiter. Now, let’s get the plans finalized and get started. Matt, do we have an agreement with your team?”
“OK. Susan and I will walk the vendor agreement and services agreement through purchasing, otherwise it will be another six weeks before we can get started. I need a day or two to clear up my calendar and bring a few other people on board. What say we kick off this project next Monday.”
I was excited but didn’t want him to think we came cheap, or easy. I pulled a small appointment calendar from my pocket and made a show of checking my availability.
“I can do that. Will we meet here, say at 9am?” That was one of the first of my assumptions that would prove to be incorrect.
“9am? By god man, by 9am I’m half way through my day. Let’s compromise and kick off at 7:30.” Susan shot me a glance that said just shut up and say yes, so I did. 7:30? That put me feet on the floor in my apartment at 6am. Was the sun even up at that hour?
We left the meeting and Susan and I thanked George and walked over to collect our things. She escorted me to the front, her excitement bubbling over.
“Can you believe it? I thought we’d lost our chance when Angus asked George to take on the executive sponsor role. I was ready to quit. And then George agreed to sponsor it. We finally have someone who will back us and support us on this project. I can’t wait for Monday.”
My emotions were boiling as well, but I tried to temper her thinking. “It’s good George said yes” I said “but we need to be sure we understand his goals and priorities. He may have different objectives than we do, so one of the first things we need to do is to talk with him, and understand how he sees the world.”
“You’re right, but I’m still excited.”
I turned, shook her hand and made to offer her my security badge. To my surprise, there in the middle of the reception area she threw an arm around me and hugged me.
“See you Monday” she said.
By Jeffrey Phillips
Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.
Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.