Knowing the river

Slowly over time, I began to master the nuances of the organization and the job seemed less impossible.

While I was interviewing for the role of CMO at Korn/Ferry, I had breakfast with a woman who had run their communications function, and she was giving me the lowdown on the job.

"You know," she said as she sipped her coffee, "it is impossible to be successful at this job." "Oh really," I replied, trying not to choke on my eggs. "Why is that?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "you basically have 400 bosses because every partner in the firm believes that PR exists to support them, and you won’t have enough resources to satisfy them all."

I took the job despite her admonition. Six months into the role, I began to worry that she was right. Requests literally came in from all across the world, and I was having a difficult time discerning the mission critical tasks from the nice to haves. So I responded to them all as best as I could, and in doing so, worked like a dog. 

Slowly over time, I began to master the nuances of the organization and the job seemed less impossible. And eventually, it was no longer necessary to work the 14-hour days.

I was reminded of this experience during a recent fly-fishing trip I took with my brother to Northern California.

We had hired a guide, as we usually do, to lead us in a boat down the mountain waters in search of trout. Since the rivers can get quite shallow and motors are never used, the guides use old-fashioned oars to navigate the boats.

My brother and I generally request young guides because we know how much strength is needed to row, particularly when you have to go against the current. On our last trip however, we ended up with an older guide, and he surprisingly turned out to be one of our favorites.

My first thought when we got in the boat was that this guy wasn’t up to the task. As I watched him work the stream, however, I was amazed at how effortless he made it look. Apparently he had mastered the river so much that he never needed to row very hard.

He knew every bend and rapid, the good and bad fishing holes, and where the big trout liked to hang out. He was calm, pleasant, and his tranquility helped us relax and enjoy the day.

It made me think of my formative days at Korn/Ferry, and how furiously I had to churn to get the job done.

It also made me think of the many people I know who have big leadership roles. Some of them are pushed to their limits by the relentless demands on their time, judgment, and skills. But some people appear to glide through the job almost effortlessly – and it seems like they barely break a sweat.

To an extent, this disparity has to do with age, experience, and tenure at the company. And some of it is accounted for simply by personality type – there are warriors and there are wise men, and both can be good leaders. But mostly it comes down to comfort and confidence in the position.

When I worked as an executive recruiter, my clients would often seek youth, enthusiasm, and drive over age and experience. It’s a common bias, and no different than me wanting a young, strong guide to row my boat through a turgid stream.

But there’s something to be said for experience. It takes a while for someone to know where the rocks are hidden, where the rapids get dangerous, and what to do in case of a flood or a major storm. 

And it is nice to not always have to row so hard.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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