Welcome to the world of disruption

My parents unwittingly trained me to work in senior management. It certainly wasn't by design.

My parents unwittingly trained me to work in senior management. It certainly wasn’t by design.

Unlike today’s helicopter parents who constantly hover over their gifted children, I grew up in an era of Amtrak parents, who dropped us off at different stations of life and then hopefully remembered to pick us up when the trip was over.

From kindergarten through 9th grade, my parents sent me to the only Jewish school in town, which happened to be Orthodox. This means I spent half my day studying Talmud and Bible, all in Hebrew. By 9th grade, there were only eight other kids in my class, and the boys were separated from the girls. Then in 10th grade, they sent me to the local public school with 1,500 students from all walks of life.

In my second week of gym class, a guy who was guarding me in basketball wouldn’t stop fouling, so I gave him a little push. He didn’t hesitate to punch me in the jaw, and as they helped me off the floor, I realized that some of the rules in this school were different from the Hebrew academy.

To say I had to adjust to a new environment would be an understatement. But I grew to love it. And little did I know that I was learning to adapt to change, and to thrive in different organizational cultures.

I spent the first eight years of my career working in PR agencies. I was surrounded by young, driven professionals who were trained to churn things out quickly and to think on their feet. We would often drop everything for a new business pitch, then pedal furiously to catch up on existing client work. It was all about speed, creativity, and client service.

Then I moved to a Fortune 50 industrial company where I was by far the youngest person on the management team. The culture was heavily bureaucratic, and it was not uncommon to have a pre-meeting to discuss what would happen at the big meeting, followed by a post-meeting to figure out what we would do at the next meeting. To top it off, we were Japanese-owned, so I had to adapt to a culture of consensus.

From there I was recruited to a financial services company, reporting to a billionaire who believed conflict was healthy. The goal was to get to the best solution, regardless of whose feelings got hurt along the way. Consensus was of little value. Confrontation among executives was frequent, direct, and sometimes withering. The first time I got dressed down I felt like I was back in gym class getting helped off the floor.

Early in the new gig, my boss asked me to reduce the number of footnotes in the annual report, as he felt they were unnecessary. I reported back to him that our head of investor relations felt this was not possible.  He glared at me, then said: "If I believed her, do you think I’d ask you to do it?"

So I had to learn a new set of rules, and ultimately found the culture liberating. There was little time wasted on political finesse. You simply duked it out until the best solution became clear.

Through the years I’ve worked for several CEOs whose mandate was to drive change, and to rid the organization of complacency. In today’s world of disruption, this drive has only accelerated, and change is now a constant.

I wish my mom and dad were still around so I could thank them for preparing me so well to thrive on change. And for so many years, I thought they were just oblivious. 

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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