When did you realize you might be successful?
Four years into my career, I was asked by the chief financial officer of the oil and gas company to look for revenue that seemed to be missing. After a couple of weeks, I identified a particular billing code that wasn’t being identified by either our accounting staff or the systems. It ended up amounting to $400,000 in revenue. Two weeks, later he sent me an e-mail and asked to see the results of the analysis that I had done.
Now this was a chief financial officer that was very sharp and bright, but he was known for having a temper. It was not uncommon to hear reports of executives running out of his office with sounds of loud thuds hitting the door as they were exiting. This was a very intimidating situation for a fourth-year accountant to come in to present to him, and I was three levels below in terms of reporting structure. So I went to his office and presented my findings.
After I was done presenting, he asked what code we had been using prior to this. I told him. He looked at me and he said, “Hmm. That’s interesting, because I asked my senior vice president, and he told me that we are billing the revenue from that particular code.”
I sat there thinking, “I’m dead.” Basically he’s saying my boss’ boss told him that we are billing all the revenue from this code and I’m saying that we have not. So one of us is lying.
Before I could backtrack, the CFO gets on his speakerphone, dials the senior vice president and doesn’t tell them that I’m sitting in the room with him. And he says, “Hey remember the other day I was asking you about this billing code? I thought you told me that we were billing all the revenue from it.”
The senior vice president says, “Correct. We have been billing all the revenue from it.” I’m sitting there thinking I need to look for a new job. The chief financial officer said, “Well that’s interesting because I have Bambo here in my office and he says there’s $400,000 in revenue that we haven’t been billing.”
What happened is that there was another code that was very similar to the right code but if you didn’t look closely you might think they were the same. He asked the senior vice president, “What code were you looking at?” He responded with the wrong code. And the chief financial officer just lost it. “You blankety blank blank,” he said, tearing him apart for 30 minutes. He stops and he says, “It looks like Bambo is the smartest guy here, so I’m going to have him responsible for collecting this revenue because I can’t trust any of you idiots.” I thought, I guess I can have a career here after all.
Thankfully, my senior vice president was such a gracious man. I went down and apologized to him. The credibility that came from that situation served to give me access to the executive level, all the way up to the owner of the company.
How have your leadership skills evolved since then?
We often get too into the weeds in trying to make decisions. As my career has evolved and grown, I’ve come to realize that there’s a certain level at which decisions are made, and beyond that level, it’s really just minutia.
President Obama was on “60 Minutes” and was talking about how he only wears dark or light suits. Early in his career he had different color suits and had to make a decision about what to wear every morning. Now as president, he’s narrowed it down to either dark or light. There are so many other things you have to think about. And some of the decisions you just don’t have time spend on.
Another observation has been the importance of actively listening. Gaining perspectives that you wouldn’t ordinarily have if you didn’t look around, look up, look down and see how other people are seeing the same situation. That’s been extraordinarily helpful for me.
Reading any business books?
I’m reading a spy thriller by Vince Flynn called “American Assassin.” His books are amazingly suspenseful. The last business book I read was by Thomas Friedman, “That Used to Be Us.” He’s talking about what made America great and making the case that we can be that again but we’ll have to return to some of the things we left behind.
— Interview with Vanessa Small