That feeling when you’re in over your head…

“Either you just hired a complete moron — or there is something severely wrong with the business!”

It was a dream come true! There I was, getting hired as the COO of a consultancy on the verge of commercial breakthrough. I was 31 years old and had never had any leadership ambitions. But hey, it’s a cool opportunity and who knows. Maybe I’ll end up as one of those “business-talents to watch” you read about in the newspapers. My overall task? To streamline the internal processes and prepare the company for scaling.

A couple of weeks in however, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. But the experience would end up giving me some of the most valuable business lessons I’ve obtained. Not only for me but also for the companies I since have been consulting. And ultimately it has shaped my career ever since. Going from traditional management to working with startups and corporate innovation. In this series of articles, I am going to share my story with you and the concrete learning points. The series is written both for the aspiring innovator or entrepreneur as well as the more seasoned consultant who might find enjoyment in some of the concepts I will introduce.

Back to the story.

“Either you just hired a complete moron — or there is something severely wrong with the business! I can’t get the numbers to add up.”. Not really the dream scenario telling this to your CEO at your very first evaluation meeting. But there I was, telling her the grim truth. Going through spreadsheet after spreadsheet I simply could not make it all come together. The numbers would not add up.

Our accountant quickly confirmed that my suspicion was correct. A fault in our accounting software had for a couple of months prior to me getting hired resulted in false monthly statements giving a false sense of the company’s economic health.

In other words. F#&k!

Now, from the outside the company showed a completely different picture: Our CEO was a star in her field and our board members some of the most experienced in the business. The employees were competent and passionate. We had happy customers, who gave rave revues and collaborators who loved working with us. Yet somehow — despite this amazing setup — the business had still managed to steer off track. The scaling adventure had become a rescue mission. In business however, there is only ever one viable direction you can go: Forward!

In business however, there is only ever one viable direction you can go: Forward!

I outlined a plan. Got the board’s approval. And we went ahead. Shortly after I found myself in a series of meetings with my CEO. Sitting across from us were coworkers I barely had had a chance to get to know. Now, we were informing them that they were out of a job. Sending them home to their families with bad news, worries about mortgages and a lot of unwanted uncertainty. Auch.

The scaling adventure was postponed indefinitely. I spent the next couple of months putting in place the right managerial processes and concept necessary to rebuild the company. In that process we quickly changed the monthly deficit to surplus. All in all, I felt confident that I had managed to make a turnaround as competently as could have been expected. But alas. the job, I initially signed up for, didn’t exist anymore. I handed in my resignation.

Now, a lot of things could have happened next. I could have slid into self-pity seeing how my comet-like leadership career was going fast down the drain. I could have blamed myself for all the things I mishandled or could have done better. I could have succumbed to stress as a result of being waaaaay over my head.

Well truth be told. I kinda did all three things. But another thing happened that prevented my untimely demise. The one thing I always had going for me had kicked in. Instead of blaming and shaming my curiosity had been awoken. And questions started bubbling inside my head:

How can a company with such a cool organizational setup and track record end up like this? Why do startups fail? And how do we manage it proper to prevent it from happening?

Reflecting on the experience I found that the traditional management toolbox while effective in getting the business operations running smoothly had flaws. Specifically, regarding forecasting and managing chaos. I realized I had been lacking a systematic and logical approach to company building. Or rather business model building. But what really surprised me in all this? The experienced people I asked for guidance seemed to be okay with the lack of a process in projecting and managing the future through uncertainty. To make budgets based on untested assumptions. Make strategy based on gut feelings and leaving tactics to arbitrary choices.

“That’s just a part of business”, was a sentence I heard more than once. But not truly managing risks was a part of the game I couldn’t reconcile with. Failure in some form can and will happen. But if toolbox if inadequate to prevent failure from happen we need first to fix the toolbox. There must be a better way to manage uncertainty. A more effective way to better predict the future. A way to better rein in chaos.

There must be a better way to manage uncertainty?

So, I set the sails for my journey to find a toolbox that could just this. And in the world of startups — I found it!

In the coming weeks I’ll share what I learned and how it might change how you work. You want to spare yourself for having to fail before learning and learning from my experiences without having to wake up in your own?

Feel free to leave a comment or join my network so you can follow along here on LinkedIn, where I will be sharing continually.

Making better entrepreneurs