One of my students — let’s call him Steve — was a thoughtful individual and felt that his life was completely transformed by my course, Creativity and Personal Mastery. He was a senior executive in the debt restructuring division of a large bank.
He was very good at what he did and had been promoted many times. He was on track for elevation to the upper ranks of the bank hierarchy.
He came to me with an existential problem. “Professor Rao, I am completely out of alignment with what I do for a living,” he lamented. “What should I do?”
I asked him to elaborate.
“I handle large, distressed loans,” he explained. “Typically, these are companies in trouble and the free cash flow does not cover the debt service. We take control of the company, drastically slash costs, make it profitable again and then spin it out.” His division had made triple digit percentage profits for the last three years.
“So, what’s the problem?” I asked.
“First, the costs we cut are often human beings who are unprepared for being jettisoned like ballast,” he explained. “Second, we make the companies profitable in the short run, but they are often doomed to failure because of what we do. And, finally, we encourage business practices that I now find despicable even if they are borderline legal.”
I asked him for more detail on his second and third points.
“Let me give you an example,” he said. “We took over an appliance company and eliminated most marketing and customer support. This made it immediately profitable. It also ensured that customers would leave eventually, and the company would fold. But we expected to sell the company before that so didn’t really care.”
“And we work with vultures,” he continued. “They break rules and flout regulations. They calculate that they will not be caught. Even if they are, it will be years down the road and their profits will be more than the fines levied against them. We essentially transfer reputation risk to them.”
Though he did not recognize this, Steve was highlighting a broader problem with the way our economy is organized. We talked about his situation at length and what he could do in his situation.
Eventually he came up with a multi-pronged solution. It was not perfect, but he could live with it.
1) He built up his savings so he could survive for five years, or more, at a level acceptable to him and his family. This was easy since he never had a lavish lifestyle.
2) He built an internal team to do the restructuring and running of the companies his division took over. This team was more sensitive to the human and societal costs of the actions they took. He argued that this would be more long term profitable. He still had to work with some outsiders but he was able to get rid of the more egregious vultures.
3) He quietly lobbied against the rules that permitted the transactions he questioned to take place. He fully recognized that they were so well entrenched that his modest efforts would have little impact, but he did what he could anyway.
And, a year later, he quit to head a non-profit dedicated to children’s education in impoverished countries.
If you are in a similar situation as Steve, I recommend that you identify persons who are actively grappling with the problem you are and have come up with good solutions.
Here is an example: I came across Bob Chapman a few years ago and he has grown from strength to strength in the interim. Chapman acquires troubled companies and turns them around. He does not spin them out — he incorporates them into his family of companies. And he does not do mass layoffs. His mantra is that employees — he prefers the term team members — are assets and his job is to release the value of these assets and not to junk them.
He, along with CPM alum Raj Sisodia, has written a book about his approach.
You may also wish to view his TEDx talk.