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A personal anecdote about caring in corporate life

I had just turned 30 and was given the opportunity to set up US based outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison in the Netherlands. It was only the second operation in Europe for the firm.

In late 1999, we chose the prestigious five star hotel l'Europe in Amsterdam as the location for the launch. Top managers came over from the US for the event, including the president: Steve Harrison.

Steve was my boss and I had prepared everything in detail for our first operations review. I tried to come up with a commercial pipeline, made a SWOT analysis and I prepared all the financials. All the usual things that you discuss during these kinds of reviews.

Unfortunately, our figures did not look good at all! Our revenues went up sometimes, but we also had very deep dips! To make things worse, we basically worked for only two companies: Philips and Campina, which meant we had very unstable revenues, little experience and there was a lot of risk for our new parent company. The firm’s excellent reputation could be put at risk if we were not able to live up to the expectations. We didn’t have great numbers, but what we did have was a lot of passion and a lot of good will.

Paul in New York, early 2000's

As you might imagine, when I entered into my first management review meeting with Steve and his CFO, I was pretty nervous. After some critical questions, we got to the second page of my review presentation…the bad revenue numbers page... I became even more nervous. At that moment Steve took over the meeting. With a theatrical hand gesture, he threw everything away and says: this meeting is not about your numbers. After that, for two straight hours, we talked about how I am developing myself and where I wanted to go with my career. That evening, I left for home inspired and recharged.

Years later, in hindsight, I started to realize how important this meeting had been for me. During that time, I was being prepared for the big work without realizing it. Steve changed the course of our session and saved me. With that intervention, my emotional connection to the firm grew stronger and my development accelerated.

Of course, in the following years, we had operations reviews every month where I was challenged. We discussed the profitability of our business, our revenue, working capital, commercial pipeline, acquisitions and strategy…essential subjects that need to be discussed to monitor the progress of every company.

Since I was just 30, I really had not seen so much of this world and I had little experience. I was impressed with LHH and, to be honest, I looked up to these people from the “Big Apple”, with their huge office right above Grand Central Station on 5th Avenue that was so big, you could really get lost.

But, I also learned that at the end of the day we’re all people with the same hopes and fears. Steve's caring behavior at that particular moment made a big difference for me in my professional life. Hard on the matter, soft on the people.

Hope this inspires.

Paul Donkers

Steve Harrison published his book ‘The managers book of decensies’. I always liked it because it is so practical. Decencies make a huge difference in corporate life and its importance is easily underestimated. Our short review about the book can also be found here.

By Paul Donkers

"my purpose is to help improve strategy execution, to create high performing teams and coach for effective business leaders"

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