Recently, I’ve been posting transcripts of the speeches I’ve been giving in a public speaking class. Today, I gave a speech I can’t post, but it meant so much that I still want to tell you about it.
The assignment was to deliver a persuasive speech that would convince a business to make a change. I pretended the class was the Executive Committee at a firm where I used to work and I tried to persuade them to fire my boss.
I worked on my 7-minute speech for two or three days, almost completely consumed by it. I stayed up late into the night, constructing a fictional business case to fire a real person I used to know.
She was a real person whom I allowed to make my life miserable for too long, and this speech was my chance to go back in time and do something about her. It was a chance re-write my script the way I would have wanted a movie to end. And it was important.
So I dove in.
Part I: Preparing for Battle
To quote my old boss accurately, I referred to old journals and emails with colleagues. To capture the essence of all the personalities in my anecdotes, I looked up old co-workers, scrolled through their LinkedIn updates and revisited stories on their personal blogs. I read the Glassdoor reviews of my old firm and checked out its Twitter feed.
I built a presentation slide deck, too. It was an artsy deck, with far fewer numbers or graphs than I would have used in my career. It had sexy fonts and carefully selected colors.
Intermission: The Fighter Needs a Pep Talk
Look, all this fuss might sound excessive for a school assignment, but if you’re going to go back in time and pretend to stand up to a bully in front of your modern-day friends, you bring your “A” game.
You choose font colors like an assassin.
You align text like a drill sergeant.
And you animate those bullet points, dammit, like fucking Pixar.
No detail is too small.
But I digress.
Part II: The Monster Rears Its Ugly Head
Once the basic deck was assembled, I realized I needed to build out an actual business case with math. And that’s when things got messy.
All these years, I have been convinced that this woman was not only bad at life, but also a financial drain because of all the people she chased away and all the chaos she caused. But to my surprise, when it came time to build the business case to fire her, the numbers just didn’t add up.
The best I could do was to demonstrate that the net benefit of having her, even after deducting the high cost of all the employee turnover, was still positive. At least on paper. I even compared her to my favorite former colleague and I calculated that my old boss was 1.8 times as valuable to the firm as he was.
It was painful. I loved that colleague. And I despised that boss. She did not deserve to be 1.8 times more valuable than a toenail clipping.
She was even winning the fake battle I concocted to feel better about myself. She really was a monster.
Part III: The Fighter Faces Her Inner Demons
Look—I’m a year into a full-time MBA program, which basically means that my brain has mushroom-clouded and reconstituted itself at least 15 times in the last 9 months. I’ve spent months giving presentations about cases I haven’t read and making arguments about companies I only vaguely understand. In the very least, I hoped I would have mastered the art of bullshit a little better at this point.
But I couldn’t bullshit myself on this one.
There it was in black and white, right in front of me on my own slide deck after all these years: The real executive committee didn’t force the boss lady out back then because it wouldn’t have made any sense.
They were accountants and the numbers didn’t add up. On paper, she was mathematically untouchable.
Part IV: The Fighter Sharpens Her Sword
My speech today was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., but I was up before 5 a.m. this morning. I was frustrated that I still hadn’t figured out how to mathematically eradicate that woman on paper. I wasn’t ready to let her win, but I didn’t know how to beat her.
I set up my tablet on the bathroom counter so I could scroll through slides as I was getting ready for school. But right away, the screen froze on this slide:
That slide is a direct quote from my old boss. She said this gem to my co-worker on her way out of the office one night. He was going to be working late and he was feeling bad about missing his kids’ bedtime.
In case it’s not clear, those words are what you say when you console a young father and you’re tone-deaf as fuck.
I stared at the words and I got angry at her all over again. Seriously, what the hell was wrong with her?
Part V: The Monster Loses its Footing
After stewing for a few minutes, I had a breakthrough: I realized that I was angry all over again but it wasn’t the same as before.
Back then, I hadn’t had a year of mushroom-cloud brainsplosions in an intense graduate program. I hadn’t spent months asking myself what leadership meant to me. I hadn’t ever even tried to understand the connection between leadership values and business results.
No wonder I couldn’t conquer the monster boss lady back then. I didn’t have the right weapons.
I knew then that today would be different.
I rebooted by tablet and began typing furiously. I finally knew how to end this battle—er, I mean, my speech—with victory. The monster was toast.
Epilogue: Indeed, the Pen is Mightier Than the Sword
Earlier today, I set forth the business case for firing my boss. I showed that while she brought in a lot of money, she also wasted a lot by driving people out of the firm.
And then I turned to that Executive Committee and addressed them in the way a bolder me would have done, if she’d had the courage—and a back-up job offer, just in case—back then.
When you look at these numbers, you might think to yourselves, “Hey, even with all the turnover, she’s still profitable.” And you might say, “Well, if she’s worth 1.8 times what he was, why should I care that she drove him out?”
And those are reasonable questions, but they’re the wrong questions.
The questions you should be asking yourselves are, “Who were you on the day you found out you’d been elected to the Executive Committee of this firm? What kind of leader did you imagine you’d become? Did you think about how you’d be remembered when this is all over?
“Did you briefly indulge in imagining what it would be like on the day you stepped down from the role, and all the accolades people would be rattling off after they said your names? Did you imagine what your spouse would hear about how it was to work for you, when your employees spoke at your retirement dinner?
“Do you remember how you felt the day the four of you sat down and re-wrote the mission statement? Do you remember how committed you were to ‘making it count,’ as you used to say, in life and in business?
“What kind of firm did you see yourself leading on that day? Did you see yourself leading a firm where only ‘shitty parents’ worked? Or did you see yourself leading a firm where you made it count? One where everyone made it count, because you accepted nothing less?
“Are you ready to lead this firm in a new direction? Are you ready, now, to make it count?”