The Greatest Teacher

February 29th, 2024 | Leadership
The Greatest Teacher

Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 16 of Power Questions:

My client’s stock price is languishing. It’s treading water, going nowhere.

Without a growing stock price, the options owned by senior management are worthless. It’s hard to hire new executives. They are, in the worst case, susceptible to a hostile raider.

They hire us to figure out why this is happening. To suggest remedial strategies.

We put our best team of analysts on the case. We even seek the collaboration of a brilliant finance professor at the London Business School.

We create a report that is leading edge. It incorporates the latest capital markets theories and analytical models. It has charts and graphs that would rival the battle plans for Normandy. 172 pages.

We are proud of the depth, thoroughness, and incisiveness of that interim document. It is incontrovertible. Unequivocal.

Our first meeting to present the preliminary recommendations, however, is little short of a disaster.  We’re in a large meeting room at the company.  I barely get started when the executives representing the retail business begin attacking every aspect of our analysis. They defend their turf like grizzled, street-smart junkyard dogs. Anticipating our conclusions, they have even hired their own economist to refute the assumptions in our analytical models. We are blindsided.

“Well,” the CEO sums up diplomatically, “it looks like we need to do a little more work on this to resolve our differences of opinion.”

We leave and the report is heavier going back than going in.

Back at our offices, we lick our wounds. My boss, James Kelly, is silent as we conduct a post mortem on the event. James founded our firm. He is brilliant, as thoughtful a problem-solver as I have ever met. A silent-running, deep brook of experience. We spend the first twenty minutes mostly criticizing the client for being so resistant to our well-researched conclusions. (It’s so obvious. Can’t they see?).

James, who says nothing so far, looks up at me and asks, “What have you learned?”

We all stare at each other, then look side to side. We avoid James’s gaze.

“Well,” I volunteer, “we should have spent more time with the retail executives.”

“Agreed,” says James. “And what else? What did you learn about influencing people?”

“It doesn’t just come down to the numbers. They have deeply-held beliefs about their business. They’re emotional about it. We have to work at different levels—rational, emotional—to win them over.”

James nods. “And don’t forget political. Rational, emotional, political. All three must be considered. And what did you learn about relationship management?”

“We focused way too much on Trevor, the CEO. We didn’t realize how much he defers to his executives. There’s more than one client here. We undervalued the need to build relationships with the other leaders in the organization.”

James nods again. “Good. Oh—last thing. What did you learn about preparing for client presentations?”

I smile sheepishly. James has a maxim. He’s repeated it many times to us: Always preview your conclusions with the client. Never walk into a room unless every client executive present is briefed on what you’re going to say. Always know where they stand beforehand.

“I know. Always review our findings beforehand. With everyone. Encourage them get their fingerprints on it.”

Three months later, Trevor retires. A new, young CEO is appointed by the board to take over this troubled company. Richard Early is a hotshot, a take-no-prisoners executive who had already turned around two other major companies.

I have a very brief meeting with him shortly after he arrives, and I share a copy of our analysis with him. All 172 pages!

A week later, his executive assistant calls me. “Mr. Early asks if you could please prepare an Executive Summary of your report.” I ask her what he’s looking for. “He wants something in between the one page of summary conclusions at the front and the 172 pages of analysis.” I look at the 172 pages sitting on my desk, and grimace. I roll up my sleeves. I have my work cut out for me.

For days, I struggle to summarize our analysis. I work like crazy. No sleep. I don’t want just a summary. I want a statement, a manifesto that is clear and bold and compelling.

I finally reduce 172 pages to five, and send them to the new CEO. They are four hard-hitting pages. They tell a story. It’s a convincing, lively tale.

But several weeks pass. I hear nothing. I give up hope of continuing our work with this client.

A month later, Richard Early calls me personally on the phone. “Thanks for the summary,” he says. “Now, I finally understand what you guys are saying. I really hadn’t seen it clearly before, based on the huge report you gave me. Now it’s apparent. It gives the answers we need. In fact, I circulated your summary to my board. I think it makes a compelling case. Can you come up next week? I’ve got time on Friday. I want to discuss some possible next steps.”

Elated, I run to James’s office and tell him the good news. The CEO called me! Jim nods approvingly.

“So, what did you learn from this?” he asks me again. Not a single word of congratulations. All he says is, What did you learn?

“You don’t communicate with CEOs with one hundred slides. They digest information in short, concentrated bites.”

“OK,” James says. “What else?” I keep thinking.

“Top executives are not interested in methodology,” I add.

“That’s right. They want to know if they can trust you. Can you do the job? Are you among the best at what you do? Will you always put their interests first? By the way,” he continues, “what would you say you have you learned about trust?”

“More analysis and expertise doesn’t build more trust,” I say. “We needed to invest in more face-time with this client. And with Richard Early, as soon as he started.”
“Anything else?”

I keep thinking about the 172 pages I was so proud of. And the condensed five pages that sold the CEO on our work.

“Sometimes, less is more?” I’m reminded that Louie Armstrong said that it’s not the notes that make the music—it’s the space between the notes.

James answers me with a smile that slowly fills his face. I’m not sure which does more to make my day—the call from the new CEO, or James’s smile.

Note from Bob:  Click HERE to order your “Power Questions” book today!

Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel


Authors of Power Questions: Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel – Jerold Panas (1928-2018) was the world’s leading consultant in philanthropy and the CEO of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, the largest consulting firm in the world for advising nonprofit organizations on fundraising. Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on building long-term client and other professional relationships. He can be reached at Andrew Sobel.


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