A Modern HR Novel
business fiction · modern HR · entrepreneurship · corporate fiction · workplace culture
“I think of this as The Goal for everything HR. [The Comeback] really applies to how companies have to deal with new HR needs and the changes brought about by a more competitive environment for talent from companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple... [and] drives home the importance of humans as our most valuable resource...I strongly encourage that you get a copy of the book.” —Mikael Berner, CEO, Edison; Chairman, Berner International; Fmr SVP, Enterprise Division, Nuance Communications; Fmr CEO, BeVocal
CEOs, entrepreneurs, and HR professionals will enjoy this fast-paced fictional adventure through the fundamentals of modern HR.
Dominal Industries is battling a fierce new competitor and losing. With pressure building, CEO Mark Francis thinks his executive team can turn things around...with one exception: his Chief Human Resources Officer Jen Schmidt and her team are struggling to fill critical positions and reduce turnover. With her career in the balance, Jen starts working with a quirky, slinky-wielding consultant named Meg Beecham, who challenges Jen to reimagine her approach.
You’ll be cheering on Jen as she shakes up her department and turns HR into a secret weapon that drives business success. Whether you want to reduce turnover, increase revenue, or simply create a place where people love to work, The Comeback is an engaging corporate novel that inspires new respect for the competitive advantage modern HR offers.
“...jam packed with modern HR concepts and strategies that are practical and actionable. [The Comeback] really will help my clients address people issues with a more contemporary approach [and] drives home the point that people issues and HR are foundational to an organization’s success…such an interesting read.” —Dr. Heather Backstrom, Owner, Backstrom Leadership Strategies
“Great read…insightful, well written, good story line. Every H.R. professional and business manager should read this book.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“If you enjoy reading Pat Lencioni’s Business Fables, this book is for you!…It is not often that you find a business book, written by a first-time author, to be so well put together. No extra words to fill the pages, just solid actionable ideas told in a compelling fable.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Jen, Meg and Dominal Industries efforts to break through what first appears to be an intractable situation. The Comeback uses fictionalized company and employees to highlight very real business challenges and suggest innovative approaches that will improve processes and cultures in HR and across organizations…If you are feeling stuck, know you need some re-framing but aren't sure exactly where to start, and feeling pressure from board/senior management/competitors, this book can help push your own thinking forward. I especially found some of the specific questions that the HR team discusses internally and with other divisions as helpful for work I am doing both professionally and in volunteer organizations.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“The Comeback is a thought provoking read told through a relatable story and characters. The author presents some common business and HR problems, and takes the reader through the journey of rethinking how to approach them. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to starting thinking about HR in a modern way, including their approach to hiring and retaining talent in a competitive market.”
“This is the HR version of The Goal…It’s a wonderful, quick read and allows your mind the freedom to think about HR differently. The lessons are applicable in any leadership role. Annissa tells the story through humor, compassion and beautiful character development. All the feelings you have about your colleagues you will have about those in the book. And as they struggle through a business turnaround, you experience the challenges with them. Highly recommended for anyone - at all levels working in a corporate environment.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“The book kept me engaged because the story was both interesting and relatable. Anyone who has ever worked in business can relate to the issues that faced Dominal Industries. The author really painted the picture well and showcased how Jen, the head of Human Resources, had to pivot or it could cost the company's future. It was interesting to read what she faced and how she managed to HR into a strategic partner. Well written, intriguing story and worth the read.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annissa Deshpande is a former HR executive of a Fortune 500 where she oversaw the successful hiring of over 20k people in 150 countries annually and designed internal talent initiatives to achieve business results. She founded lōglab in 2015, and now combines her 20+ years of experience in finance, IT, and strategy to help companies modernize HR to grow revenue and create a place where people love to work.
SAMPLE FROM THE COMEBACK
Mark Francis, CEO of Dominal Industries, stood alone in his corner office late on a Monday afternoon and stared out intently at the brown trees and gray sky. He lightly banged his forehead against the large window.
It had been an unseasonably cold fall in Chicago. Even now, in early September, some trees had already shed leaves, revealing the first barren branches of autumn.
Mark shuddered, turning from the window to see financial reports strewn across the mahogany executive desk of the retired Dominal chairman and founder, George Jordan.
He stretched to get the kink out of his neck, recalling how proud George had been when he’d gifted the desk to Mark in celebration of his promotion to CEO eighteen months ago.
Since its founding in 1995, Dominal Industries had been a powerhouse, pioneering and manufacturing components required for health management machines, such as insulin pumps and blood pressure monitors. For more than twenty years, the Jordan family had held tight reins on the business, innovating both its product and business model to continue its domination of the market. Mark was the first leadership hire outside the Jordan family and was brought in to help George retire and sell the company.
Mark turned back toward the window. He had spent the better part of the afternoon going through the latest financial projections with Allan Chang, the chief financial officer for Dominal Industries, and reviewing the reports again by himself.
The news was not good.
Mark’s office phone began to ring—once, twice, three times—but he stood perfectly still, focused on his breathing, and continued to stare out the window. A few moments later, there was a soft knock at the office door. His assistant peeked in. “Mark, it’s Renata Campbell for you.”
Renata Campbell, the managing partner for Gold Private Equity, had orchestrated the deal for Gold to buy Dominal Industries.
“Thanks. Please put her through.” Mark moved slowly back toward his desk and sat down in his Herman Miller chair. He inhaled deeply and picked up the phone. “Hello, Renata. How are you?”
“Hi, Mark. I’m fine, thanks for asking.” There was a slight echo as Renata was on speakerphone. “Hey, I know you’re busy, but I need a few minutes of your time.”
“Of course.” Mark rubbed his forehead, preparing for the worst.
“I’m calling about the upcoming board meeting. I just want to give you a little insight on the internal discussions the investors are having.”
Mark knew what was coming. He pictured Renata standing at her lightly stained maple desk, smoothing her straight black hair in the Wacker Drive high-rise office building that Gold occupied. He braced himself.
“Look, I know you’ve seen the numbers. The investors are going nuts. To put it bluntly, they’re shitting their pants.”
Mark’s shoulders tensed. “Yeah, we’re going through the details here. I know it looks bad, but I’m on it—”
“Mark,” Renata said, cutting him off, “you’ve got to drive real results to turn this around. This has to be the best damn plan the board has ever seen, and you need to make sure you execute it flawlessly.”
“I get it. There are definitely some additional cuts we can make to help profitability in the short term to show immediate impact.”
“That’s not enough. You need to be more deliberate and thoughtful in your actions to regain the board’s confidence. They’re concerned that your team isn’t focused on the right things.”
Mark rose from his chair. “What do you mean?”
“Your sales strategy is unclear, operations seem inefficient, turnover is abysmal, and you still haven’t hired a head of R&D yet. For God’s sake, it’s been twelve months!”
“I know. We’ve been out recruiting, but it’s a tough market.” Mark began pacing as far as his phone cord would allow.
“C’mon, Mark, you know that won’t stand up. Xtele is making huge inroads into the market with cheaper versions of our products while probably building the next big thing, and you’re blaming a tough recruiting market? Really?”
Mark ran his fingers through his wavy brown hair, which had just started graying at the temples—the only physical indication that he’d turned fifty earlier this year. Again, he stared out the big window.
“Look, you know I believe in you. I was the one who pushed the investors hard to promote you to CEO, remember? I convinced the other board members that you were ready to deliver the high performance that we needed, even though you had been the COO for such a short time. I also fought hard for you when you barely missed last year’s targets.”
Mark picked up his Boston Red Sox stress ball and rolled his eyes, having heard this reminder many times before. “Okay, what do I have to do to gain the rest of the board’s confidence?”
“Get your leadership team focused, and do it now. This first quarter was a total disaster, and it’s only going to get worse. You gotta fix this. This is your last chance. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do. I assure you.” Mark mustered all the confidence he could. “I promise, we’ll demonstrate how we’re going to turn this around at the next board meeting.”
Mark hung up the phone, dropped back into his chair, and planted his head face down on the desk. A faint, dull roar could be heard from the adjacent building where machines churned out Dominal’s product twenty-four hours a day. He suddenly felt nauseated.
The leadership team Mark had carefully built over the past eighteen months were all hard-working, committed professionals. Though they hadn’t quite found their rhythm as a team yet, all the essential components were there. Some of the new leadership team members had left steady, good-paying jobs to take a chance with Dominal.
Then there were the 2,500 employees, some with more than twenty years of service. Their lives would be totally disrupted if Dominal had to be sold at a loss or started to lay people off.
Mark thought about his wife, Leanne, and their three kids. A lump rose in his throat. They’d never complained about having to sell their perfect Greystone home after he left Davis & Edwards and decided to take some time off. Leanne had stepped up in so many ways.
Mark cleared his throat and straightened up in his chair. He once again inhaled, held, and then exhaled. Suddenly, a flood of fresh ideas began to fill his head. He started typing like a madman.
A brief, loud knock interrupted Mark’s flow.
Jen Schmidt, Dominal’s chief human resources officer, opened the door and stepped in. “Hey, Mark. Do you have a minute?”
Mark nodded but continued staring at his monitor. Jen closed the door behind her and made her way over to the far end of his desk. She crossed her arms and stood for a moment, apparently hoping he would make eye contact.
“I wanted to let you know we just settled the Palmer case. He signed the severance agreement without incident. He accepted our first offer, which never happens. We’re quite pleased with the outcome, and I thought you’d want to know.” Jen gave Mark a satisfied smile.
“Uh, thanks, Jen,” Mark murmured without removing his eyes from the screen.
Jen subtly cleared her throat. He didn’t respond, trying to make it clear she was not going to get any further reaction from him on this issue. Just as she started to make her way to the door, Renata’s words about the open positions echoed in Mark’s head.
He snapped his head away from the monitor. “Hey, Jen, hold up a sec. How’s the R&D search?”
Jen turned around from the middle of Mark’s office, surprised. “We just discussed this in our last check-in. The team has been pounding the pavement.”
“Okay, but do we have any new candidates?”
“No, we don’t.” Jen sighed and tilted her head. “It’s a very tough market. We’re doing everything we can.”
“Are we, Jen? Are we really doing everything we can? It’s been twelve months!” Mark blinked hard, feeling the pressure build up behind his eyes.
Jen took a few steps toward Mark’s desk. “I’ve kept you in the loop the whole time. What more do you think we could be doing?”
“I don’t know. Our competitors are out in the market building the next big thing—meanwhile, we can’t even get one decent candidate in the door!”
“Mark, to be fair, you cut ten percent of our budget last year. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of doing more with less. I’m not sure what else we can do.”
“You need to come up with something!” Mark shot up from his chair. “It’s your job to get this role filled.”
“Okay, then.” Jen’s hazel eyes looked past Mark at the steady drizzle outside of his office window. She straightened her tan suit. “Well, let me think through some options and get back to you.”
“Wait, hang on.” Mark held his hand up and slumped back into his chair. He motioned for her to sit down. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “You know, Jen, I just never thought we’d be here. We were at the top of our game when George sold eighteen months ago . . . and then, boom. Xtele just comes at us from out of nowhere. Now we’re fighting to stay alive.”
Jen shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
“Look, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Mark folded his hands on his desk. “You know I believe in you, and you’ve done some really good work over the past year—including coaching me and other leaders through some difficult conversations and employee issues. Everyone at Dominal feels that you’re approachable. We all feel you have a lot of potential . . .”
Jen sat perfectly still, staring at the beige carpet.
“I know we’ve asked you to do more with less, and you never push back. But lately, it feels like you’re not focused on the right things. I think you need help rethinking your approach.”
Jen’s head jolted up. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well, you know how you always talk about coaches for our high-potential leaders who just need some guidance, right?”
“Well, now it’s your turn. I just learned about this consultant named Meg Beecham. She comes highly recommended from many people I trust in my network. She has a totally different approach to HR. Give her a business problem, and she develops a people solution. That’s what you need.” Mark handed Jen a business card.
“Okay.” Jen accepted the card with a bemused look.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to her. Just make an appointment with her this week.”
“With all due respect,” Jen began, seeming to snap out of her trance, “I’ve got years of experience, and it’s not like I’m new to Dominal.”
“Yes, you’re right. And your experience has been invaluable to us in many ways. I also believe you are the right person to lead HR long term, but we’re stuck right now. The board is all over us about turnover and key positions going unfilled for too long. It’s killing us. We need a fresh perspective if we’re going to stay alive. These are HR challenges—your challenges—and I think you could use some help taking a different approach.”
Jen sighed. “It doesn’t sound like I have a choice.”
“Well, the reality is we have to start thinking differently if we’re going to get ahead of Xtele. We need to get these problems under control, and fast. Meg can help.”
Meg Beecham stood in the hallway across from the hotel ballroom, adjusting the satchel bag on her shoulder. She smoothed her black jeans and pulled at the cuff s of her white blouse, which were accented with little embroidered sunflowers. She sighed and started to plod her way toward the hotel bar, exhausted from her talk.
She turned right, passing through a charming hallway lined with small, inviting conference rooms. Th is old hotel, which stood in the heart of Chicago, was one of her all-time favorites. She’d been thrilled when the conference sponsors chose such a unique location. Th e hotel retained so much of its original look and feel—a timeless feel that she absolutely loved.
At precisely three in the afternoon, Meg arrived at the entrance of the nearly empty hotel bar. She loved this watering hole right in the middle of the hotel’s historic lobby. The dimly lit room with a long, oversized oak bar from 1910 was the perfect place to take in a few craft beers and contemplate the bigger questions of life. It reminded her of the old pubs she’d frequented on her last trip to the English countryside.
The grand fireplace on the back wall spewed roaring flames, a perfect invitation to warm up at the end of a long autumn day. Out of the corner of her eye, Meg saw a woman sitting at a table near the back. Mid-thirties, shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a tailored black pantsuit, cream silk blouse, and black stilettos. The woman’s eyes were scanning the room anxiously. Meg figured this must be her prospective client.
“Hi . . . Jennifer?”
The woman stood up, looking slightly confused at the casually dressed woman in front of her. She reached out her hand. “Uh . . . yes . . . Meg? Please, call me Jen. Thanks for making time for me.”
Even though Meg’s black boots gave her two extra inches, Jen was still quite a bit taller than her.
“No worries, Jen it is. I’m glad we were able to make this work.” She put her bag down on the empty chair between them. “I actually just finished my talk a few minutes ago,” Meg went on, taking a seat in the three-legged antique chair across from Jen.
“How did it go?”
Meg shrugged and gave a tired smile. “I think it went okay. Hard to tell.” She picked up the small, laminated bar menu and studied it for a few seconds, then abruptly put it down, inclined her head slightly, and looked Jen straight in the eyes. “I know we just met, but can I ask you a favor?”
Jen blinked and jerked her head back. “Uh, sure, I guess.”
“So, I’m not the best at giving these keynotes. I mean, I practice hard, but it still just takes it out of me. So, right now, I am totally spent. Could you please be patient with me today, you know, if I’m a little slow?”
“Not a problem.” Jen chuckled. “I’m a working mother of two kids under six. I’m always running near empty. I completely understand.”
Meg smiled. “I appreciate it.” She tried to decide whether Jen matched the image in her head but was interrupted by the waiter.
“What can I get you two to drink today?”
“I’ll take a Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, please. Jen, how about you?”
“Well, uh, I don’t usually start drinking at three . . . but if you’re having a beer, I guess I’ll have a glass of the house white wine. Thank you.”
“Love that you’re willing to bend the rules,” Meg exclaimed.
Jen smiled weakly. “When did you arrive in Chicago, Meg?”
“I actually came in over the weekend and took in a game at Wrigley Field.”
Jen perked up. “Are you a baseball fan?”
The waiter arrived back at the table and quietly served their drinks.
“Not really. Back in LA, I have this friend who’s a big Cubs fan . . . always going on about how great they are. I figured the least I could do was go to a game while I was here.”
“I’m a huge Cubs fan, myself. Still get goosebumps when I think about the 2016 World Series. Sometimes my husband Dave and I rewatch Game 7 just to relive the magic.”
“To the Cubs.” Meg raised her mug to Jen. “My friend does the same thing and still tears up at the end. Who knew there could be so much history from a goat? What a game! I mean, how they came back from that rain delay . . . yeah, that was pretty cool.”
Meg lifted her beer to eye level as she spoke, studying its color more closely. “It’s a shame we don’t get this beer at home.” She took a satisfying slurp. “Well, here’s to the next 108 or so years! Hopefully you don’t have to wait that long again!”
“I’ll drink to that!” Jen laughed and took her first sip of wine. “And I hope we have another successful postseason. You know, it’s starting soon!”
Meg pulled up the sleeves of her blouse. “So, why do you think your boss asked you to reach out to me?”
“I’m not really sure. He just says he wants a different . . .” Jen’s eyes grew large, and she stared at Meg’s left wrist. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but is that a tattoo?”
“Oh, yeah.” Meg’s blue eyes glanced down at her wrist. “It’s Japanese kanji. Reminds me to be creative every day in order to be my best self.”
“That’s so cool!” Jen leaned over Meg’s arm like a curious child. “What’s your main creative outlet?”
“I write poetry,” Meg replied. “I’m not published or anything . . . it’s just a hobby. What about you? Do you have free time?”
“Very little,” Jen admitted. “But I do love to paint. I’ve been drawing and painting my whole life. Not as much lately, though. I miss it.”
“Any special type of painting?”
“Yes, I’m all about oil painting.” Jen’s hazel eyes brightened. “I love to take everyday sights and change the perspective of them through unique angles, colors, and shadows. It takes some thought and practice, but I find it really stimulating.”
“Good for you. I find artistic people look at situations from different perspectives and typically offer more creative solutions.”
“Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.” Jen took a sip of her wine.
“How’s your wine?”
“Actually, not bad for a house. I think it’s a sauvignon blanc.” Jen glanced around the room. “This place is pretty cool. I’ve never been here before. My husband, Dave, would love it.”
“Yeah, it’s one of my favorite places in Chicago. A hidden gem.” Meg felt a foam mustache forming on her upper lip and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Great craft beer selection.”
“Dave loves beer of all types, but when we go out, he likes to try different craft beers. I’m sure he’ll want to come here for our next date night.” Jen rolled her eyes. “So much for romance.”
Meg laughed. “What does Dave do?”
“He’s a finance director for an engineering firm. I give him a hard time about it, of course, but he’s a great guy. He’s been taking care of the kids a lot lately while I’ve been focused on work.” Jen sipped her wine. “What about you? Married?”
“Not anymore,” Meg said. “It was great while it lasted, but I think I’m just one of those people who does better alone.”
“Marriage certainly isn’t for everyone,” Jen said softly, “but good for you for realizing what works best for your life.”
“Thanks. Not many people understand.”
Jen nodded, and they were both silent for a few moments.
“So, how did you end up at Dominal Industries?” Meg asked.
“Well, I worked with Allan, our CFO, early in my career at this company called Leal & Franklin. It was a professional services firm.” Jen sipped her drink. “He was the finance manager back then. We stayed friends after we left, and he introduced me to Dominal shortly after it got sold to Gold.”
“A strong relationship with the CFO is key.” Meg acknowledged. “Tell me more about your background.”
She listened intently as Jen traced her background, from graduating at the top of her class at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign to taking on progressive roles in recruiting and HR in a variety of different industries—financial services, professional services, and tech.
“Your background is impressive. You’ve had some pretty significant roles, and it sounds like you’ve made a difference at every company.”
“Thanks. I’ve worked hard, but also believe some of it was being in the right place at the right time.”
“So, tell me a little more about what Dominal is facing now?”
“Well, we’ve recently been hit by a Chinese competitor that is quickly gaining market share.” Jen pushed back a few strands of her brown hair that were in her face. “Our first-quarter financial performance was terrible, and our full-year projections don’t look so great either. My boss, Mark, who’s also the CEO, is pretty stressed out. It sounds like our board is all over him.”
“I bet, that’s a tough spot. What’s your HR team like?”
“We have a good team—about ten people, including recruiters. We had to make cuts last year, but we’ve managed to make it work.” Jen played with the damp cocktail napkin upon which her wine glass was resting. “So, maybe you could tell me a little about your background, Meg?”
“Sure. Well, I have over twenty-five years of experience. I started my career in IT and then took on roles in finance, strategy, and HR. I’ve had a few executive roles at a national bank and was a global talent executive at a Fortune 500 before starting my own company.”
“Wow!” Jen exclaimed. “That’s great—and pretty unique. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a finance person who can write poetry.”
“You probably have, they just won’t admit to it.” Meg smirked. “People’s talents are surprising when they let you see them.”
“And what does your company do, exactly?” Jen sipped her wine slowly.
“Well, it’s just me, and I left the corporate world to pursue this passion I have for helping companies think differently about HR—you know, move it away from its focus on compliance. I believe it’s time to modernize the way HR functions, driving more growth and creating a place where people love to work.” Meg straightened up in her chair. “So, I mostly advise CEOs on people strategies and programs to help them get there. Think of me as a fractional chief people officer.”
“Interesting. But what if a company already has a chief people officer?” Jen sat up a bit and folded her hands in her lap.
“Don’t worry, I’m not here to compete or take anyone’s job. I promise. I’m here to add value. From time to time, I work with HR professionals, too, if that makes sense.”
“So, you work alongside them?” Jen surmised.
“Yes, or end up translating between HR and the CEO, who aren’t always aligned. I help get everyone on the same page.”
“Do you focus on any specific industries or company size?”
“I’m industry agnostic—anything and everything from manufacturing to Bay Area tech startups. I do tend to focus on middle-market and emerging-growth organizations—a lot of investor-backed companies.”
“Interesting.” Jen rolled back her shoulders. “Like us. So, tell me more about how you work with clients?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you have a process or methodology or program you follow?”
“Not really.” Meg folded the edge of her cocktail napkin. “I mean, you know from your experience that every business is unique.”
“True,” Jen acknowledged. “But surely you have a standard approach?”
“I guess my approach is to understand the business challenges and then figure out the gaps. From there, I come up with a people solution. That’s the only way you can drive better outcomes.”
“Hmm . . .” Jen wore a puzzled expression. “Do you have an example?”
“I recently had a client who’d missed their operating targets for a few years. When we dug into it, their performance management system seemed disconnected from their business goals. Each year, over eighty-five percent of their employees were getting a ‘meets expectations’ or higher, even though the entire company was missing its operating targets. I helped them redesign their approach. This past year, their performance management results matched their business results, and, more importantly, they hit their goals.”
“Yeah.” Jen exhaled deeply. “We face a similar challenge. It’s on my list to tackle eventually, but I’m not sure I’ve ever looked at things that way.”
“Yes, it does take a different kind of thinking.” Meg took a swig of beer. “But that’s usually why I’m brought in.”
“Well, that’s intriguing. But I just don’t know that I agree with Mark that this is the best way for me to be spending my time given current pressures.”
“Hmm.” Meg tilted her head. “What do you think would be a better use of your time?”
“I’m not sure.” Jen sighed. “It’s not you, Meg, it’s just that I feel like I should be able to do what Mark is asking. I have years of HR experience. It’s not like I’m new to the job.”
“It’s not a sign of weakness to bring in help.” Meg swirled the remaining beer in her glass. “As a matter of fact, it’s really a sign of strength. We all hit roadblocks no matter how much experience we have, right? And often a little help or a different perspective is what enables us to move forward.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Meg finished the last of her beer and put the glass down with a slight thud. “Look, I think I can help you and your team get focused on the key things you need to do to enable business growth.”
Jen cast her eyes around the crowd gathering at the bar. The room had started to get noisy, and it was becoming hard for them to hear each other. A small group of conference attendees waved at Meg when they walked past their table. Jen studied Meg’s expression when she waved back.
“Can I just say, you look exhausted.”
“Ha, thanks, kind of you to notice.” Meg nodded. “I do need some sleep—maybe on the flight home tomorrow—but I would like to continue this conversation. I’d love the opportunity to help.”
“Okay.” Jen swallowed her last sip of wine. “But I gotta warn you, between work and family, there’s not a lot of extra time. I’ll try my best.”
“I understand. We’ll do the best we can with the hours you have. I’d never want you to miss family time. That’s not something you can ever get back.”
“I appreciate that.”
“One last thought before you go: I do things a bit differently. I hope that’s okay.”
“You don’t say?” Jen cocked her head and smiled. “The finance–poetry combo was a dead giveaway.”
“Yeah.” Meg chuckled. “After I left corporate, I shed a lot of layers, but it’s made me better at what I do. Have you ever heard of the movie The Karate Kid?”
“From the ’80s? Yeah, I think I saw it when I was a kid.”
“Likely. It’s a classic, right? I loved it but forgot about it for years. Then, when I went out on my own, something brought me back to it. I ask every client to watch it. Are you open to this? I warned you I do things a bit differently.”
“Ha. Sure, I guess.”
“Great,” Meg replied, smiling. “You can find it on one of the streaming services. Let me know when you’ve watched it, and we’ll find a time to get started.”
“Okay, sounds good.” Jen gathered her purse.
Meg slung her satchel over her shoulder, shook Jen’s hand, and the two women started walking toward the elevators. “Thanks again for coming out. I look forward to talking again soon. And thanks for understanding how tired I am. I was re-energized by our conversation.”
“My pleasure,” Jen said, stepping into the antique elevator that Meg knew headed toward the garage.
Directly across from her, Meg stepped into another elevator and headed up to her floor. She couldn’t wait to order room service and hit the sack.
Jen’s cell buzzed wildly on the particle board desk in her windowless office while she held her landline to her ear, waiting for Shauna to answer. She quickly picked it up and saw a string of text messages from Mark. It was only nine a.m., and she had already taken a few calming breaths given the craziness of the morning. Jen needed her head of HR operations, and fast. She tapped her pen on the desk rapidly while she waited.
Her cell phone buzzed again. She sighed, seeing it was a text from Allan: Are you on your way? Mark’s anxious.
Jen texted back a thumbs-up emoji, hopeful that her longtime friend could placate Mark until she could get to the meeting. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that Shauna would pick up her phone soon.
Then, at last, Shauna picked up. “This is Shauna.”
“Shauna, finally! Hey, remember what happened the last time there was an accident at the facility?”
Jen’s cell buzzed again.
“Crap, Mark and Allan keep texting. I’m totally late for our leadership meeting. Anyway, remember how benefits misfiled the paperwork, and it cost the company a ton of money?” Jen played with the Wrigley Field paperweight on her desk while she listened to Shauna’s response. “That’s right, Shauna. Perfect. Yes, I need you on this immediately. Promise me you won’t let history repeat itself, okay? Thanks. Gotta run.”
Jen hung up the landline, grabbed her cell phone and a folder full of papers, and sprinted in her stilettos down the long, narrow hallway that showcased every award Dominal had ever won. She made her way past Mark’s and Allan’s offices, took a sharp right at the end of the hallway, and rushed into the board room just as Allan was presenting his department’s latest projections. She stumbled slightly as she neared her place at the twenty-foot white marble conference table that dominated the rarely used formal meeting room that George Jordan had insisted on during the last office remodel. Allan picked up the papers that had slid out of Jen’s folder and onto the beige carpet. He gave Jen a reassuring look when he handed them back to her.
“Ah, Jen, late as usual!” Rich Peters, Dominal’s head of sales, interrupted as Jen regained her balance.
Mark shot Rich a stern look. “Everything okay, Jen?” She adjusted her gray suit blazer. The large windows in the boardroom let in the bright, fall morning sunlight. Jen squinted a bit as she sat down.
“Yes. Sorry I’m late.” Jen smiled insincerely at Rich. “There was an accident in the facility, and one of the supervisors was taken to the hospital. I was on the phone making sure benefits prepares the paperwork correctly this time.” She turned to Mark. “That’s why I couldn’t pick up your call. I just didn’t want to repeat that costly mistake we made last year.”
“What’s the name of the supervisor who was hurt?” Mark wore a concerned expression. “Is he okay? What happened?”
“Peter Morrill. Um, he’s a . . .” Jen flipped through her papers. “Well, uh, I don’t have a lot of details about his condition yet. I believe he was stable and alert when the ambulance left.” Jen noticed everyone exchanging perplexed looks.
Allan leaned forward in his chair as though he was about to say something, when Michelle Johnson, Dominal’s chief operations officer, jumped in.
“Peter is one of our shift supervisors. He’s going to be fine. Apparently, there was an issue with the new honing machine, and he fell while evaluating the problem. Thankfully, Jerry was right there when it happened and reacted quickly to keep everyone calm and follow our safety procedures. I called his wife and plan to stop by the hospital on my way home.”
Jen gave Michelle a quick smile, grateful for her support. They were hired around the same time and got along well both professionally and personally. They enjoyed an occasional drink after work to discuss the ins and outs of juggling motherhood, work, husbands, and the Cubs.
“Thanks, Michelle.” Mark tapped his pen on the table. “Could you also give me his wife’s number? I want to call after the meeting and offer my personal support to the family. I will also stop by the facility after this meeting and thank Jerry personally.”
“That would be great. I know his wife would appreciate it. She was a bit nervous when I talked to her. I can’t imagine getting a phone call like that.” Michelle sighed. “But even she was relieved when I told her that Jerry was right there. I gotta tell you, I’ve worked with a lot of ops guys in my twenty years, and Jerry is by far the best director of logistics I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. We’re really lucky to have him.”
“For sure,” Jen added. “I’ll send flowers on behalf of Dominal.”
Everyone seemed to contemplate Peter’s predicament quietly for a few moments.
Mark broke the silence. “Okay, please keep us posted on Peter. Let’s get back to it for now. Allan, can you please pick up where you left off?”
Allan returned to presenting projections and explaining how his team was partnering with sales and operations to improve performance.
“Allan, I assume your projections include the reductions we made last year in HR?” Jen pointed to the numbers on the page. “Those were pretty substantial, but we’re committed to doing our part, even if it means we have to run lean.”
Allan gave Jen a friendly nod. “It’s all there.”
Rich shared the progress of the new sales channels his team had identified and how he was driving performance across the sales territories. He once again highlighted the pricing pressure he was getting from Xtele.
“Hey, Rich, can we go back for a minute?” Jen asked after Rich had finished. “How are you coaching—”
“Our competitors are giving big discounts,” Rich went on, cutting Jen off completely, “and I think that’s where we’re getting killed right now.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the grand room for a few moments. Jen and Michelle exchanged knowing glances. Allan shifted uneasily in his chair. Everyone was on edge awaiting Mark’s response.
“We’re not known as the cheapest provider.” Mark pursed his lips. “We’re the quality play. That’s one thing that differentiates us. We’re not sacrificing margins.”
“I know,” Rich argued, “but it’s hard to compete when Xtele is selling so cheap, and everyone else is discounting twenty percent on already lower prices. We’ve got to stay competitive.”
“Damn it, Rich—you know Gold will never go for discounts! We may as well pack up our stuff now if that’s all we’ve got.” Mark slammed the table with both hands.
Michelle stood up as she presented several operational improvements she was in the process of implementing, explaining how they would improve efficiency by twenty-five percent.
“We need to be completely sure of those numbers.” Mark looked at Michelle and then Allan. “If we’re off, the board’s going to be up our ass!”
“Agreed.” Michelle started to walk laps around the long boardroom table at a head-turning pace.
“Really, Michelle?” Allan’s eyes got wide. “You’re like the Energizer Bunny!”
“You know I can’t sit still!” Michelle exclaimed. “We ops folks gotta walk the floor.”
“If you say so.” Allan shook his head and shifted his focus back to the group. “Look, everyone, Michelle and I are scheduled to go through the numbers again to explore more opportunities later today.”
Everyone in the room seemed energized and ready to execute their action plans. Mark adjusted the collar of his light gray dress shirt and smiled slightly. He turned to his head of HR.
“Okay, Jen, you’re up.”
Jen passed her presentation handouts to everyone in the room. The team rustled through the pages.
Jen cleared her throat. “The good news is that our time to fill open positions is down, so we’re hiring faster. As you can see, turnover is steady. We’ve reached out to ten more candidates for the R&D director role this quarter, so we’re still pounding the pavement on that search. We’ve held down our HR operating costs from last year’s cut, and our employee claims and injuries are also down. All in all, I’d say we’re headed in the right direction . . .”
Sensing a subtle change in the room’s energy, Jen paused and glanced up from her handout. Everyone had their faces buried in her printouts, and she couldn’t read their expressions as usual.
“Okay, let’s continue with an update on benefits: We’re finishing open enrollment prep. More good news—our benefit carriers are only raising prices two percent compared to the standard five percent. Allan and I thought it’d be a great idea to split the two percent between the employees and Dominal to show we’re all in this together while also helping profitability.” Jen glanced at Allan.
Mark looked at Allan to gauge his response. Allan gave a small nod to Jen and then focused back on his handouts, apparently avoiding Mark’s gaze.
“Finally, on the last slide”—Jen flipped the page—“I’d like to talk about our cultural initiatives. We have a company-wide survey launching next month, which should help give us some insight into turnover.”
“Thank you, Jen.” Mark glanced around the room. “Anyone have any questions or feedback?”
No one made eye contact with Mark or Jen. The lack of interest was palpable. Jen felt defeated and wondered why the leadership team was showing such apathy for a key area like HR.
“Way to push the paper forward,” Rich said sarcastically while turning his head to Jen. “As usual, we’re all on the edge of our seats with the HR update.”
“Knock it off, Rich,” Mark snapped. “If you have constructive feedback, be professional and share it.”
“Nothing to add.” Rich sulked. “Sorry.”
“Okay, thanks everyone.” Mark wrapped up the meeting. “We’re getting there, but there’s still a ton of work to do. Let’s meet again tomorrow.”
“Thanks for making the time to meet with me, Mark.”
“My pleasure, Meg. Give me one second.” The intense, late afternoon sun was causing a glare on his Zoom call, so he adjusted his screen to see Meg clearly.
“No problem.” Meg sat in her home office with the unusual, gentle pitter-patter of Los Angeles rain hitting the windows. “It’s nice to be face-to-face, albeit over video. Were my initial comments on Jen’s deck helpful?”
“Yes, very much so. Appreciate you sending those over.”
“Sure. What else can I do to help?”
“Well . . .” Mark wrung his hands. “Like I said in my email, we’re in the fight of our life. We just did a first review of board presentations, and the sales, ops, and finance plans are making progress, but I’m worried we’re going to get creamed on HR.”
“I’ve worked with companies backed by Gold in the past,”
Meg said slowly. “They’re intense. You’re really going to have to be crisp and buttoned-up.”
“Yeah, exactly!” Mark’s eyes were wide. “But you saw Jen’s slides. You know the board couldn’t care less about any of that right now. We’re bleeding people!”
“You need specific actions.”
“Yes, we need actions!” Mark sat back in his chair. “Real, hard-hitting actions! Not crap and spin and future surveys! Ugh, sorry, Meg, I don’t mean to lose my cool.”
“No worries, I get it.” Meg smoothed her favorite black-and-white sweater with a hint of silver thread. She always felt these small embellishments brought her personality into a professional setting without being over the top. “Did you give Jen feedback?”
“I didn’t.” Mark glanced out the window. “And yes, I know I need to . . . she deserves at least that. But I’m struggling with what to tell her. Jesus, I’m doing a crappy job leading her.”
“Hey, go easy on yourself.” Meg tucked her short, blonde hair behind her ears. “What you are going through is tough, really tough. And even in normal circumstances, no CEO can solve every problem for every person on his leadership team. Part of being a good leader is acknowledging when someone needs support that you can’t provide.”
“Yeah, to be honest, Meg . . .” Mark cast his eyes toward the ceiling. “I feel like I’ve let the team down. I’m usually so good at spotting trends. Hell, it led to the end of my career at Davis & Edwards because I was so adamant about what I believed would happen. How did I miss Xtele?”
“No one can predict every trend.” Meg noticed a large puddle forming outside the French door of her office. She looked back at Mark. “How long have you been CEO?”
“About eighteen months.” Mark rubbed his eyes. “Took over from the founder when we sold to Gold.”
“Is this your first CEO job?”
“Yeah, before this, I was the chief strategy officer at Davis & Edwards for years. I saw the market fundamentally shifting and couldn’t get anyone to agree that we needed to change our business model. They ended up asking me to leave.”
“I’ve heard the story,” Meg acknowledged. “I’m sure that was hard. Especially because you were right in the end.”
“Yeah, I knew the challenges would be different as CEO, so I’ve really been focused on building the team.” Mark looked away from the screen and put his head in his hands. “You know, maybe I just took my eye off the ball.”
“Or maybe this wasn’t something you could have seen coming.” Meg tried to make eye contact with Mark. “Look, there’s no point in dwelling on the past—you’re focused now on mitigating this threat, right?”
“Yeah, but I am still struggling with Jen.” Mark shook his head. “You know, I really strive to be a servant leader, but . . . right now, I feel like I just don’t have it in me. I need her to step up.”
“Okay, Mark—first, we’re having this conversation on the best way to help her, so that’s exactly how you’re guiding her,” Meg said. “And second, you have to figure out the best use of your time. Dwelling on this situation with Jen is only using up your energy when you should be focused on getting ready for this meeting with Gold.”
“You’re right.” Mark sat up in his chair. “Listen, do you have time to help Jen get this presentation ready?”
“I will make time. But it’s up to you to talk to Jen about it. I can’t force her to accept my help.”
“Yeah.” Mark adjusted his glasses. “Any thoughts on how I should approach it?”
“Well, maybe start from a place of curiosity. Ask her what she thought the board’s reaction would be to what she presented.”
Mark shook his head. “She’ll most likely respond with, ‘As usual, no engagement.’ They never have anything to say.”
“That’s a problem, right? Given the issues you’ve highlighted.”
Meg took a sip of water. “I mean, you need the board to engage with what she presents.”
“I do.” Mark tapped his pen on the desk. “The problem is I don’t think she’s ever thought about it that way.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Meg agreed. “Her presentation is a tactical department summary when you need it to be a company growth action plan. Perhaps you can help her understand that leaders at this level are focused on the latter.”
“That’s good.” Mark jotted down notes. “I may use that with all of my team.”
“Look, the key to your approach is to be curious, not furious. Listen to what she has to say, and address it in a way that feels natural to you. You will guide her to the right answer.”
“Ha!” Mark chuckled. “I love the ‘be curious, not furious.’ That’s great. I’ll give it a try.”
After lunch, Mark trudged down the hallway to Jen’s office. He paused to look at his favorite award: Fastest Growing Company 2016. They’d earned it the year he’d joined the company. He smiled, remembering the excitement he and George had felt when they’d won and the fancy ceremony he and Leanne had attended to receive the award on behalf of Dominal.
Mark sighed and continued down the hall, reflecting on his
conversation with Meg and trying to prepare himself for the discussion he was about to have with Jen.
Just outside her office, he stopped, looked down at his black dress shoes, inhaled, and held it. After slowly releasing his breath, he walked through the door. “Have a few minutes, Jen?”
“Yeah, hey, sure. Have a seat.” Jen cleared the empty lunch containers from her desk and threw them in the trash. “What can I do for you?”
Mark sat down and glanced around Jen’s office. Her tattered particle board desk was on its last legs and had probably been around since Dominal was founded. Clearly, she had tried to brighten the space with some colorful abstract art pieces that matched the hideous pieces in his office, but they felt out of place. On her credenza, Mark noticed the single picture of her family posing by the 2016 Cubs World Series Trophy. He made a mental note that she deserved better furniture once Dominal got itself out of its current predicament.
“So, I wanted to talk to you about your board presentation.”
“Sure.” Jen pulled out a pad of paper from a drawer in the rickety desk. “What’s up?”
“Well, let me ask you, what did you think the board’s reaction would be to what you presented today?”
“Umm . . .” Jen seemed to stall for time. “Well, I don’t really know. For the most part, it’s the usual presentation we give to the board, but I modified it to focus on how we were going to address the turnover issue and to provide more detail on the R&D search like you asked.”
“And given the pressure we’re under, how did you think they’d respond?”
“Sorry.” Jen had a puzzled look. “I don’t follow.”
“Okay.” Mark brushed a speck off his gray slacks. “Did you think they’d feel like we have it under control and can fix the problems based on what you presented?”
“Well, I guess. I thought that’s what I covered in my slides.” Jen sighed. “I mean, it’s not like they really have a lot to say about HR.”
“But don’t they?” Mark argued. “I mean, they’re all over us about turnover and open positions. Isn’t that HR?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Jen looked down. “But they never seem to want to talk about what I present.”
“True.” Mark angled his head to the side. “And part of that’s my fault. I should’ve provided you with more guidance on how to engage them. So, let me try to start with that now. Look, what you presented today is a great tactical HR summary, but it’s not a board presentation.”
Jen shook her head. “I don’t follow.”
“There weren’t enough tangible actions in your plan and too many check-the-box activities that aren’t going to help us get out of our current situation. We need more hard-hitting actions from HR.”
“Okay,” Jen’s eyes widened. “But this is what HR does. I want to help, but you have to give me more direction. I’m not a mind reader.”
“Yes, and I’m not an HR person, and neither are our board members.” Mark put a hand on each of the chair’s armrests. “So, you need to think about this more as a company-level action plan. What are you going to do that is going to help Dominal solve its business problems? This is your area. You’ve got to figure out the right action steps, just like me and everyone else on the leadership team.”
Jen looked down at her hands in her lap. Mark could sense her frustration.
“I know you and Shauna have been working hard on this, but this just isn’t working. We need a new approach.” Mark tried to get back to Meg’s guidance—to be curious, not furious. “How did your meeting go with Meg Beecham?”
“We met last week when she was in town.” Jen looked up. “She is clearly smart. I plan to work with her as I have time. She’s just a bit . . . you know . . . different. Her first assignment was for me to watch The Karate Kid again. Anyway, Dave and I watched it—but I have no idea why. And now Dave’s practicing all the karate moves he picked up, and it’s driving me nuts!” Jen forced a thin smile.
Mark chuckled. “I remember that movie well. Ralph Macchio. Mr. Miyagi, right?” Jen nodded, and Mark was quiet for a few moments.
“Look, Jen,” he said gently. “I took the liberty of reaching out to Meg to discuss your presentation today. I think the two of you should go through it as soon as possible. She had some good initial thoughts based on our short conversation.”
Jen’s head shot back. “Well, I was planning to work with her.”
“Yeah, I know. Don’t take it personally, I wasn’t trying to go behind your back. I know I can’t give you the guidance you need to solve this problem, but I can give you a resource. Meg is someone who can help you right now. We need her. You need her.”
Jen’s shoulders slumped. “Okay.”
“Reach out to her and get on the phone with her first thing tomorrow. We need new ideas ASAP.”