{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Time to shine

Many years ago, younger me found himself on centre stage in front of an audience thousands strong.

Spotlit. With no costume. No props. No script. No slides. No safety net.

Just me.

Winging it.

My client’s firm hosted an annual gathering. Bringing together the great and the good to a single location, for several days of corporate brainwashing, wishful thinking, and happy-clappy kumbaya.

They hired a venue that had hosted sold-out performances by the likes of Coldplay, Kylie, and Madonna. Rented out an entire convention hotel. Packed to the rafters with staff and shareholders.

The show opened with the CEO holding court. Channelling his inner Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffett. Performing verbal alchemy about the organisation’s short-term performance under his stewardship. Telling outright lies about his vision for a glorious long-term future.

It was quite the performance. Part carnival barker. Part circus ringmaster. Part evangelical preacher. All politician.

He was a tough act to follow.

One by one, department heads filed on stage for their moment in the limelight.

Some provided status updates.

Some announced product launches.

Some performed speeches bordering on sermons.

All had visual aids. Seeking to distract their audience with chart crimes and PowerPoint presentations.

Slides featuring bespoke cartoons. Cinema-worthy videos. Professional graphic designs.

Never more than five slides. Never more than three dot points per slide. Every slide tells a story.

The good speakers were storytellers.

Opening with a lede that seized the audience’s attention. A controversial fact. Witty anecdote. Engaging character who tugged at their heartstrings. Layering on drama mixed with self-effacing humour. Building to a powerful resolution. Ending with a clear message and a definitive call to action.

Few of the talks were memorable.

Platitudes. Clichés. Bland corporate messaging.

Failing the “so what?” test.

Indulging the speaker’s ego. Forgetting to value the audience’s time.

Late afternoon on the first day, there was one talk remaining. Last slot of the day. The only thing standing between the audience and an open bar, drunken debauchery, and enough inappropriate behaviour to keep Human Resources busy distributing payoffs and redundancies for the next month.

My client was nervous. Pale. Shaking. Sweaty.

In small groups, she was a smiling assassin. Skilled in the arts of the corporate Game of Thrones.

Equally adept at punching a rival in the face as stabbing them in the back. Making no friends. Taking no prisoners.

Her rise through the ranks had been rapid. A keen intellect coupled with superb political instincts.

Making big promises. Taking bigger shortcuts. Picking the low-hanging fruit to harvest early credit. Then riding the kudus train up the corporate ladder, ensuring it wasn’t her neck on the chopping block when the promised big benefits failed to materialise.

Always the one leading the subsequent angry pitchfork and torch-wielding mob in search of a scapegoat. The unwitting victim was invariably the person who stepped up into the chair she had vacated. An effective means of vanquishing potential threats and challengers.

She had played the diversity and equality cards to full advantage. Crashing through closed doors. Climbing over dead bodies. Barging her way into a world ruled by old white men in grey suits. If she had to endure the discrimination, why not use being different and liberal guilt as a lever to get ahead?

There is nobody like me at that level. On that committee. In that office. Are you sure you are not being racist? Sexist? Discriminatory? Their absence suggests otherwise! C’mon, don’t be that guy. Show the world you don’t discriminate. Let me in.

Until eventually she crashed full-tilt into the glass ceiling.

It didn’t crack. Nor yield to her sheer force of will. Proving to be an impenetrable barrier.

Her face did not fit. She was not “one of them”. Until the world changed, she never would be.

Time passed.

Her career stalled.

Treading water on the brink of the C-suite. Twenty years ahead of her time. Face pressed up against the shop window, as the doors only opened to admit her male corporate rivals. Unable to find a way to break into the old boys’ club of board seats or the gravy train of non-executive directorships.

The best years of her life had been consumed by her reach for the top. Now she found herself aged in her mid-fifties.


Divorced, twice.



And alone.

Her former husbands realising too late that she was already spoken for, her chosen life partner was her career.

She had taken a mighty swing for the fences, and missed. This was not how her story was supposed to end.

Today she headed up an operational division. Vital to the firm’s survival. Yet in a decidedly boring “old world” way. There was no sexy technology. Shiny disruptive change. Exciting innovation revolution. Just turning the handle on a vast money-making machine. Same as it ever was.

The speaker ahead of her received a lukewarm round of applause from the conference audience, who were mostly relieved that the day was almost over.

When it was time to give her speech, my client’s face rapidly cycled from pale white to seasick green.

Without warning, she projectile vomited all over the floor and her designer-brand shoes.

I jumped back in alarm, keen to avoid having my suit painted with the little she had eaten for lunch.

I can’t do this” she stammered, before fleeing backstage with her hands over her mouth. I never did find out whether it was stage fright or food poisoning. A purely academic question by that point.

The conference host was already introducing my client as the next speaker.

The spotlights swung to stage left, where any moment now she was expected to come striding out with a confident smile and a humble wave to acknowledge the crowd’s obligatory applause.

After a couple of seconds, the host announced her name again. A question this time, no longer a statement.

The audience’s applause faltered, then came to an end.

A cacophony of muttering rippled throughout the auditorium. The crowd stirred into semi-wakefulness from their conference-induced stupor, by the prospect of something going off-script.

Could it be a scandal? Gossip worthy? Vaguely interesting?

Standing in the wings alongside me, the CEO fumed and muttered. A born psychopath, as is the case with all politicians and megacorp CEOs. You just can’t get the job if you are any other way.

This will not do”. Glancing around, his wild beady eyes locked onto mine. “You have to do it”.

With a mighty shove, he propelled me on stage. I managed to leap over the pool of vomit, and landed in the spotlight…

At this point in the story, I’d like to pause and ask the reader what you might have done in this situation? Finding yourself on stage. Before thousands of strangers. Armed only with your wits.

Would you have panicked and fled?

Perhaps a little bit of wee would have come out?

Made excuses? Rage quit? Ranted and raved at the unreasonableness of the situation?

Might you have stammered and goldfished? Performing an impersonation of a deer in headlights?

Or would you have risen to the challenge? Seized the moment? Embraced your time to shine?

Here is the thing: I wasn’t an employee of the client’s company, I was a consultant.

I hadn’t written the client’s speech. Nor made a significant contribution to its subject matter.

I had no idea what she had planned to say.

Her remit was business as usual.

Mine was to make change at the client’s firm.

To measure what they did. To monitor how they did it. To figure out what levers to pull to do it better.

Easy to say, hard to do. Harder still to identify those inflexion points, when the right answer shifts from faster horse to new car.

… I took a deep breath. Blinked at the bright lights that blinded me to all but the front couple of rows of the audience. Painted on a fake smile. And began to talk.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the next fifteen minutes. Time passed in a blur. The same out-of-body experience as when I’ve pitched to major clients, had important job interviews, recited marriage vows, or delivered the best man speech at a palace wedding.

I spoke of service excellence.

About the difference between a tradesman and a craftsman.

That every piece of work we produce is an exemplar of what we can do. A reflection of how good we are.

An advertisement.

A monument.

A reminder.

Every line of code crafted by an engineer. Every meal cooked by a chef. Every word penned by an author.

Something we will be judged upon. By customers. By peers. By experts. In the moment, and after the fact.

Everything we produce or every service we render is an audition for the next opportunity.

We each choose whether to produce something good, or merely something good enough. Worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant on food critic night, or as underwhelming as a McDonald’s drive-through.

Our clients, managers, and stakeholders demand we do ever more with ever less. Seeking that mythical beast named productivity. They throw endless obstacles in our path. Budget constraints. Changing priorities. Indecision. Resource contention.

Creating a challenging environment in which to ply our chosen trade.

Yet one choice remains constant: do we take the time required to do a job well?

Or do we compromise? Possibly letting down our customers. Certainly letting down ourselves.

Should the environment we work in not be conducive to excellence, then we are in the wrong place.

Service excellence is not about exceeding expectations. Nor is it outperforming mediocrity.

Service excellence is delivering what was promised. Without fanfare. Without friction. Without fuss.

It is doing our absolute best, regardless of whether anyone was watching. Simply because we can.

Al-khwarizmi. Archimedes. Berners-Lee. Curie. da Vinci. Gaudí. Ghandi. Pelé.

Giants remembered not because of the deadlines met. Meetings attended. Nor budgets adhered to.

Remembered for how they performed. What they produced. Artists and artisans in their chosen professions.

Service excellence should be invisible. Our default behaviour. What our customers quite reasonably demand of someone being paid to complete a task.

Somehow many of us have lost sight of that.

Today’s world is dominated by shipping early. Failing fast. Minimum viable products.

All polite ways to say doing a half-assed job. Cutting corners. Failing to do the thinking.

We should ask ourselves a question: if we didn’t take the time and dedicate the resources to doing a good job the first time, how can any rational person reasonably believe they will ever be given time and money enough to come back and get it right on a second try?

After the problem has notionally been solved.

After the customer feels they have already paid for that solution.

Why save our best work for special occasions? Why do our best work only by exception?

We each choose our time to shine. That time should be here and now. If not now, then when?

The audience applauded. I would like to think it became a standing ovation, but they were in a hurry to get to the bar.

A few people came up to shake my hand or ask follow-up questions. These were mostly young, yet to have the idealism knocked out of them by the harsh realities of the real world.

Several department heads filed past, shaking their heads or firing off death stares. Fearing my call to arms was subversive. Blowing budgets. Jeopardising deadlines. Challenging the status quo.

The CEO crossed the stage to shake my hand. Thanking me loudly for stepping in at the last minute. Painted on smile not reaching his eyes. Alpha male insecurity attempting, and failing, to crush my hand in his.

As the small crowd dispersed, he muttered that my client had been fired. “Stepping down for personal reasons”.

Sponsorship of the change project my client had engaged me to deliver would be handed to someone more reliable. Then it would be cancelled.

For now, I had shone too brightly to make disappear. The optics did not work. Instead, I was to attend site and look busy for the remainder of my contract, before indulging my particular brand of service excellence elsewhere.

The unfairness of it all stung a little at the time, but having change thrust upon me turned out to be a fantastic opportunity.

My next client did embrace and foster service excellence.

Operating a corporate culture of healthy competition, which brought out the best in those who could keep up. I have not experienced its like before, or since. Which is a great shame, because being surrounded by people at the top of their game doing their best work is truly inspiring.

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  1. Gentleman's Family Finances 11 June 2023

    Great Post.
    It’s funny how whilst companies are keen to espouse their radical, trendsetting, innovative side, they are constrained in the boa constrictor like company culture (where those who walked a bit differently were marched off the premises, or who didn’t fall on line behind the dear leader were ousted), sloppy bad habits and business practices.

    I’ve seen it before a few times – I’ve worked out it is better to go along with the madness (but only sip the koolaid) lest you end up an outsider, and you’ll end up being ostracised, pushed out or held hostage on the sinking ship.

    You can’t tell company culture from the inside of a company. But it’s there, pervasive, immserive and can be wonderful (or terrible).

    Best to retreat from the world to your craftsmanship cottage.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 June 2023 — Post author

      Thanks GFF.

      One of the advantages of contracting/consulting/freelancing is you get to experience a lot of different corporate cultures in a relatively short space of time. It is that experience which informs the compare and contrast, which in turn that makes it possible to identify what works and what doesn’t, what is missing or what gets in the way.

      As you observe, that is very difficult to do from the inside, becoming almost impossible once the worker becomes institutionalised. Workers cope and survive by surrendering to it, becoming yet another self-reinforcing part of the often defective machine.

      In the case of well functional cultures, that surrender propagates and persists corporate ideals and the institutional memories that preserve them. In suboptimal cultures… well just have a read of some of the reviews on glassdoor! When viewed in isolation there is strong selection bias, but when read in aggregate they can tell a lot about a place.

      I recall examples of corporate cultures that were viewed as being so toxic that their alumni were automatically screened out from selection processes for fear of contagion. Unfair on the individual, but the conditioned behaviours they often exhibited were cancerous. Think the worst aspects of investment banking or Big4 consulting, then triple it.

      My current workplace is experiencing cultural growing pains, as it transitions from rapidly growing startup into a mid-tier megacorp. At the beginning there were those who insisted on excellence, and indeed that insistence has in turn paid dividends by facilitating the rapid growth trajectory. However that “old guard” is steadily being pushed out the door now, as middle managers proliferate and activity becomes more important than outcome.

  2. Gentleman's Family Finances 11 June 2023

    institutionalised was the word I was grasping for.

    Your final words on “activity becomes more important than outcome” is really apt.
    My experience is that organisations end up in a rain dance of how things are done – if you don’t do the dance you are blamed for any and all failures.
    And eventually there comes a time when one rain dance is considered a heresy by the new shaman.

  3. Bernie 11 June 2023

    No response required, have you done roles for the NHS in your time?
    If so I suspect your experiences and tales from there would certainly make for entertaining reading.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 June 2023 — Post author

      Thanks Bernie.

      have you done roles for the NHS in your time?

      Healthcare sector yes, but the NHS specifically no. I have looked at a couple of fascinating projects over the years, with big feel good factors had they been successfully delivered, but each time the NHS simply couldn’t afford me.

      I have done a couple of stints in the charity sector. It was disheartening to see the sheer levels of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence in their procurement processes and non-executive directorships. The very definition of gravy train, when the funds could have done so much good had they instead been effectively delivered on the front line.

      I’ve also done a handful of stints with civil service organisations. Those organisations focussed on operational service provision were perennially resource starved and under funded. While for those in the financial regulatory space, money was simply no object, yet their remit was to be seen to be doing something while actually doing little of consequence so that the businesses they were tasked with regulating could do business.

  4. Ward Just 11 June 2023

    The awful ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment. Our company strategy is simply sell what we have and try to sell a lot of it. When I asked our MD to clarify what our strategy was, he said we had a very well defined product based strategy and that all sales folks should know this. It was at this moment that I began backpedaling, in the hopes of saving my job. It was a close call. Never question strategy, just look for ways to make incremental improvement – bring results. I’ve survived 3 reorganizations, results have certainly helped. We’ve grown a lot and I have enjoyed the ride. Now though I’m one of the oldest with one of the bigger salaries. Getting a bit scary here and weirdly enough, sometimes hoping for a good kick in the ass out of megacorp. We’ll see, experience still counts somewhat.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 June 2023 — Post author

      Thanks Ward Just, good luck with how that one plays out for you. It never ceases to amaze me how many corporate “strategies” simply aren’t strategies at all. Just a collection of senseless buzzwords (“synergies”, “data products”, etc) and a fear driven cult of acceptance. The emperor’s new clothes brought to life!

      In Australia there is a thing called “tall poppy syndrome“, where any poppy that begins to outgrow its peers is immediately torn down… usually by an angry mob of gormless lackwits who are whipped into a frenzy by radio shock-jocks or tabloid media. The term typically gets applied to sportspeople, politicians, celebrities, and business titans in the main. But it is equally applicable within the workplace whenever someone appears to be getting a bit big for their boots… or the financial equivalent in terms of what they cost when compared to their peers.

      The good news is that if you hold on long enough, you simply become too expensive to make redundant.

      The bad news is that the “strategy” then switches to breaking you and making your quit. Which isn’t much fun either.

  5. Ward Just 11 June 2023

    Got this from NY Times comments, love it!
    ChatGPT this:

    “Can you give me a paragraph of meaningless business jargon that sounds smart”.

    it responded thusly (middle management material I’d say):

    “Leveraging our core competencies, we’ll be able to drive synergistic growth by utilizing a best-in-class, customer-centric approach. Our forward-thinking strategic initiatives, coupled with our robust, scalable infrastructure, will allow us to capitalize on key market trends and disrupt the status quo. By fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration, we’ll be able to cultivate a high-performance team that can execute on our game-changing, paradigm-shifting vision.”

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 June 2023 — Post author

      Lol. I went to the BigData tradeshow last year. This could have been the vision statement, roadmap, strategy, and product description for more than half the vendors exhibiting their wares! 🤦‍♂️

  6. JBL 11 June 2023

    Sime of this sounded all too familiar I’m afraid, especially the alpha male behaviour at levels. Loved the ChatGBT paragraph. It really did make me chuckle – there is such nonsense speak out there.

  7. weenie 19 June 2023

    Very good – when I started at my current job, I realised that in terms of culture (read governance and regulation), the company was at least a decade behind the one I used to work for. I realised that I had to rein in some of my ideas as I could tell that if I continued along that road, I’d be considered a trouble maker, even a deal breaker. Fast forward the years and some of the old guard left and the new guard has instilled better and improved culture (for the region I cover anyway). Makes my job so much easier and I don’t feel like I need to hold back (so much!) any more!

    Loved that ChatGPT corporate babble! There was a lot more at the last company I worked at, not so much at this one.

    And well done you for stepping up to do that speech – certainly not something I could have done, I would have suffered a similar panic attack!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 June 2023 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      I’m glad your current site is advancing along the maturity curve. You must look like a rockstar to them, knowing what will happen next and the right way to approach the tricky questions!

      I must admit younger me used to get more than a little daunted at speaking to large groups. Public speaking is a bit like job interviews or sales, after a dozen or so the fear diminishes until it barely registers at all. These days I might sleep restlessly the night before a big speech, or get a little bit of butterflies backstage in anticipation, but once it is showtime I step into character, walk into the spotlight, and the nerves disappear.

What say you?

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