Here’s a story about the ONE (and only) time a Chief Financial Officer told me to HUSH…
I was in my mid-20’s, serving as Lead Manager for a client that completed a highly complex business transaction. Even though the project was large and complex, I demonstrated my ability to handle the most critical elements, gain an understanding of the client’s business, and lead a very large team. In less than 18 months, I established a reputation of credibility with the senior leaders of the company, had won trust and influence with the Chief Financial Officer, and became a rising star with my firm. At the time, it was the highlight of my career.
Then a new CFO arrived.
The new CFO was the complete opposite of the outgoing CFO. On paper, the new CFO appeared to be a good match for the company. However, he was the epitome of what you would call a toxic leader. Within a few months of his arrival, his direct reports began to look weary and broken. I may even venture to say they looked oppressed.
The CFO showed no mercy to my Managing Directors at my firm. If one MD disagreed with the new CFO, he would request a new Managing Director on the account. This churn-and-burn of MDs continued for several months, yet I remained the constant Manager.
It then came time for my (now 3rd) Managing Director and I to present our annual plan to the CFO and his Chief Accounting Officer, whom I had developed a very positive working relationship. During the meeting, the CFO became combative and challenged our recommendations. My MD tried to proceed, but the CFO wanted nothing more than to shut him down. Then, I spoke up, thinking that perhaps the CFO would be more agreeable.
The CFO said, “There’s nothing you’re going to say that is going to change my mind, so just HUSH.”
No college textbook or course, nor any training had ever prepared me for THIS scenario. This was the first incident that a client, a C-Suite leader at that, had treated me this way. I kept my composure for the remainder of the meeting because I was determined show the CFO that I was a professional, even if he was not.
Afterward, my Managing Director and I walked back to our office in silence. My MD closed the door of our office and asked, “Should I go back upstairs and tell him we are resigning from this account right now?”
THIS was a pivotal moment. I could have said, “YES. Let’s get the heck out of here.” and would have easily been supported by my MD. I’d love to tell you that I did in full fledged bada$$ery, but that wouldn’t be the truth. In reality, I hesitated, and said something to the effect of, “No, we should finish our current work in progress.”
A few weeks later, the CFO put our contract out for request for proposal (RFP). I felt angry, hurt and betrayed because I invested so much into this client engagement. YET, I refused to be treated horribly by them. I told my leadership that I would help with developing our response to the RFP, but that I refused to be part of the engagement team to support the work. They honored my request without question.
Years passed, and I moved onto different engagements. One evening, our firm hosted an event that included our Chief Executive Officer. I introduced myself to him, and will NEVER forget what transpired next.
My CEO said, “I know who you are, and I heard about that story about how Client XYZ treated you. That CFO reached out to us to bid on the work again, and WE REFUSED.”
I CANNOT even begin to tell you the impact those words had on me. Yes, I went to hell and back with that particular CFO, but I also learned that my firm valued me enough that they wouldn’t subject me or any other members of our firm to that kind of toxic environment. My experience and response created a ripple effect on how the firm would choose to work with clients in the years to come.
So what’s the lesson learned?
- MAINTAIN PROFESSIONALISM AT ALL TIMES. You can (and should) remain the professional in the room, even if you aren’t the most senior person there.
- WHO HAS YOUR BACK? The best firms know that sometimes they’ll have to walk away from $$$ because it’s in the best interest of their employees. My firm walked away from a multi-million dollar deal because they valued its people (including ME) more than they did a toxic client and the money that came with it.
Have you ever encountered a toxic leader or customer? Are you working for a toxic leader now? Let’s have a conversation so you can take the next right step in your career: https://calendly.com/laishadaley