One of my very first management jobs was as the team leader on a consulting team that was supposed to help with the strategy for a joint venture between two companies. We had been called in late because the project wasn’t going very well. And, as I interviewed people and got to know more about the project, it was clear to me that it wasn’t going well because the basic premise behind the project was flawed (the strategy was wrong) – and I got the feeling that I wasn’t being told everything about the project.
So I tried to help both sides of the joint-venture see my point of view. One side agreed that there was a problem, but the other side (the side that hired my company) was steadfastly resolute in wanting to do the project the way they wanted to do the project. I tried to see ways to make the project work. I looked at it from all angles over a period of months. But I felt like I was enabling (and endorsing) a really bad idea.
I walked into the CEO’s office (the person who hired me into the consulting firm) to tell him that I couldn’t think of a way to continue in this job. He had some important advice for me: a decision to quit this project (especially as the project leader) would be the last decisions that I would make in this company. He told me that I may not be fired immediately after quitting this position, but that I’d never really be respected in the firm again — which would be even worse than being fired. I was told that it was the worst “sin” that I could commit.
I went back to the client and tried to find a way around what I thought was a bad idea, for two more weeks. Finally, in desperation — and feeling completely useless — I quit the project team. I felt bad leaving the other consultants to complete the job, but I just couldn’t go on in good conscience.
I was immediately assigned to an internal project and continued that project for months. None of the directors of the firm wanted me to be on a project with them.
Eventually the client’s business launched and was criticized in the industry press as a really bad idea. My consulting firm was named as having been involved in this idea. Then a few months after the launch, even more important news, the management team that I was working with at the client was indicted on multiple counts of fraud. I’d always felt that there was something strange going on, but never quite understood what. I was suddenly redeemed in the eyes of the company. I started to work again.
After only one year in operation, the new joint venture that we had been assigned to work on was closed down. Everyone agreed that it had been a total waste of money. And in my consulting firm, many people came to me (the CEO included) to apologize for the hard line they took with me — they admitted that they should have listened to my point of view. Everyone apologized.
I didn’t work at that firm much longer, but I remained friends with everyone. Twelve years later, I was named as a “Senior Advisor” to the Chairman of the Board — the CEO that had given me that career advice so long ago — at that same firm. He is also the coauthor of my most recent book.
Former Microsoft COO Robert Herbold tells an interesting story about a young, bright employee who came up with a great idea. As he pushed the idea toward implementation, each layer of management inside Microsoft made him change the idea slightly. Finally, the idea was right for Microsoft, but wrong for the market. When the project was launched it failed in the marketplace, but the employee got a big promotion. This young man had kept the internal political powers happy, but had lost sight of the market and his own sense of good and bad judgement in the process.
In a book called The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker, a former bodyguard for Hollywood actors, talks about how you just know when something is amiss. He tells people that if you are the kind of person who walks down a dark street and you are never afraid and then one night you suddenly feel discomfort on that that same street, you should pay attention to those feelings; don’t talk yourself out of them. He suggests that the brain is subconsciously processing a lot more than we can process consciously. Trust those “feelings” because they may be based on something very real and dangerous.
Moral: In life, we’ve all had to make compromises in our work and family life. Most of those compromises are probably right and good — a necessary part of being a member of society. But when you feel that something is beyond your limit of compromise or endurance, happily “soldiering on” is not necessarily the best solution. Sometimes the most ethical, honest, and safe action is just to say “no.” People around you may be offended and angry. You may lose your job. But you’ve protected your integrity — and possibly the integrity of your ideas and dreams. Your “no” may be the best thing that ever happens to your company.