Best of the Best (a story)

27 Dec 2018. Bob Kaplan

"Brace yourself, Phil," I told him, as we pivoted from praise to criticism. His eyelids flickered.

Earlier that morning it was a very different story, the opposite side of the coin‎. "The good news," I told him, "is very good indeed." That brought a hesitant smile to his face.‎

It wasn't his idea, not initially at least‎, to do this type of self-reflection. But his consuming drive to be better won out.

We met in a faux French chateau—complete with leaded pane windows, a slate roof, turrets— that had been converted into a conference center. From the way he looked around, I could tell he was impressed.‎

He was nattily turned out—gray slacks, narrow-striped shirt, blazer—all, I thought, of the finest materials. An expensive watch, maybe a Patek Philippe, was displayed prominently on his wrist. A pleasing sight, the entire package, save for his bulging waistline. Can he not control his appetites? I wondered.

I offered him a seat at the head of the conference table but he demurred and instead chose the chair opposite. There he sat arms folded. ‎I half-thought, belligerent? But plunged ahead.

"Phil, people sing your praises. Like a performance of the Hallelujah chorus."

"‎Give me a freakin' break!" I knew what he meant. I'd gone overboard. Still his demeanor told me he was not displeased.

"Okay,‎" I admitted, my eyes twinkled. "But one thing's for sure: you've worked wonders with IB. That's factual, right?" He signaled assent.

"You've moved mountains. How did you do it?

Now smiling, he jumped at the chance. "I've been on a crusade for the last several years to make this organization world class."

"Yeah, ‎people see that. One of your peers said: 'He wants to make this the top firm of its kind anywhere.'"

‎His face now aglow, he continued. "I'm amazed how well you can get an organization to perform. You put it together right, you get it rolling, it just exceeds your wildest expectations. And you've done it so many times it isn't just an accident."

He was brought in by the then recently appointed head of the whole bank, that includes retail banking and several other lines of business, to upgrade‎ Investment Banking. O‎nly fixed income was performing well. Equities, Institutional bonds, M&A, the trading operation: all just so-so. In just 3 1/2 years they shaped them up quite a bit. So much so that the industry rag, The Banker, made him the feature story and displayed a dapper, smirking Phil on the cover. The day it came out he handed out copies, like a street-corner newsboy, to everyone in sight.

On the strength of his contribution he was widely seen‎ as the heir apparent, the crown prince.

"You've attained greatness—is that fair to say?"

"I wouldn't go that far," he said, and meant it. As much as he cr‎aved recognition, it threatened him. "It just means I've got to keep it up and the expectations get even higher," he explained. ‎No sooner did he get a pure, well-earned shot of ‎self-gratification than his mind leaped ahead and spoiled it.

"You can't just enjoy what you achieve?" I asked sympathetically.

"I have always wanted to be included in the group of people who have high value. But I'm deathly afraid that I won't live up to the super-human image of I have of myself."

"You're not alone in that. Nowhere are successful people more mixed up than in their relationship to their strengths."

"Here's my excuse for being screwed up," he said. "I am the first-born child in my family, and the first-born grandchild on both sides. Certainly, you get an imprint that 'my hopes are resting on you.' To put it mildly."

I nodded, and went back to what's good about him. My segue was clumsy. "But, smartly, your ringing success is not all about you. The other thing you're know for is recruiting star players."

He nodded agreement.

According to your boss: "Phil has almost an uncanny ability to find the highest-performing people in a discipline."

"True!" he effused. "God, we have one of the best staffs of this type in the world. If you come out of an Ivy League school with an honors degree, that pretty much puts the thumbprint on you."

"People call you a 'talent junkie." He smiled. "Yeah, I've heard that."

Different from some very senior people he was not afraid to put super-smart people on his team. Just the opposite: he had them arrayed around him like jewels in a crown.

*                          *                          *

I told‎ myself, let him bask in the glory, and suggested a break. We took a walk around the conference center's park-like grounds.

"How does this grab you?" I asked, pointing to the landscape.

"It's okay," he said, unimpressed. "Have you been to Blenheim Palace?" I nodded. "Now that's landscape architecture at its finest. And there you can walk for miles."

Back at it, he spoke first,  "Okay, lay it on me." He grimaced like a kid about to be made to swallow bad-tasting medicine.

"In a moment, okay? Let's first take a step back. What's missing from the set of good things about you?"

"You tell me." He was in no mood for games.

"The way you work with people," I answered, letting his truculence pass and giving up on the attempt to bring it out of him. "As opposed to what you've accomplished—great results, great hires."

He took that in without comment.

"The problem is with your team, those very people. They're frustrated, very frustrated." He shook his head in disbelief.

"What do you mean frustrated!?" His face turned dark, his eyes wild with feeling. The groove‎ we had gotten into was shot to pieces.

"Where would they be without me?!" he demanded. ‎

"They're grateful for the opportunity. Of course they are. That came through loud and clear. But the reality of working with you day-to-day is a mixed blessing. ‎Their main complaint: they can't get through to you."

"Bull crap!" he shouted, glaring at me. "My staff has lots of influence, their expectations are too high."

"Well, take another look at the numbers. Everyone rated you down on that."

"I reject the data base." Hearing that, I almost fell out of my chair. "Things have settled down since that survey was administered. We'll have to redo it."

I just listened.

"I have a problem with this conversation. It's way out of context," he added. "The CEO is unbelievably autocratic; this pales by comparison." With that he walked out, an hour early.

By the end of the day I felt like a fence post that had been pounded—whack, whack—into the ground. Heading into this meeting I had a fairly good idea of who Phil was, but I was utterly unprepared for the raw force of his negative reaction. I was worn out, exhausted, but I hadn't given up on doing this guy some good.   

*                          *                          *

If you're thinking he is an extreme case, you're right, he is. But if you regard him as a thing apart, as a different breed altogether, well, that's not right. In all of us there is some of Phil, his pridefulness, his sensitivities, his reactiveness, however slight or hidden.

*                          *                          *

He got home in time for dinner. Though he put on a brave face, his wife, Camille, could tell he was upset. After dinner she led him without saying a word to their spacious sun room but not before he made himself wash the dishes. He knew it wasn't much but, in his mind, something was better than nothing.

With glass walls on three sides, the spacious, glass-walled room gave out onto the lush, closely cropped lawn. Closing the door behind her, she thought, "maybe the kids will leave us in peace for a while."

Gently she said, "So, Phil, how did it go?"

"Terrible," he fairly exploded with emotion. "Those ingrates, after all I've done for them—"

She interrupted him as he was about to take flight. "Was that all, Phil? What about the great things you've done for the bank?" She was wanting him to see both sides of the story.

"Yeah, sure, there was good stuff too. But what gets me...." ‎He started making the same case as he did with me.

A veteran of his storms, she saw through his arguments and yet she felt for him. "Phil, after all you've done for your people it must hurt, it must hurt a lot."

His face fell, he got choked up. She got to her feet and went over to him. Reluctant at first, he accepted her hug, and then buried his face in the crook of her neck. ‎She could feel the hot tears through her blouse.

At that moment one of their kids called for her and, with a squeeze on his arm, she went off.

He had not put words to the unspeakable horror of his team's displeasure with him. In his mind the reality of it remained shapeless, unformed.

     *                          *                          *

I knew of something I couldn't raise with him. It was told me in the strictest confidence by the head of trading, who had joined his team just nine months earlier.

Phil himself had worked his way up in trading, had been a stellar performer in his day. Now, though in a much bigger role, he dropped by the trading floor practically every day. He chatted people up, took a look at their blinking screens, refreshing constantly. The rest of his team had heard about these visits and did not feel a bit deprived.

The new head of trading liked it even less. ‎It took weeks for her to work up the nerve to raise it with him. Seeing his door open, she knocked and he motioned her in.

"Phil," she said, her cheeks flush with feeling, and then waited until he stopped doing emails. "I'm trying to establish myself in the role and your presence on the floor doesn't help. It gives people the impression you don't trust me."

"No, I don't think so. All I'm doing is showing interest. Wouldn't they think it strange, given my background, if I didn't walk the floor? Judging from their reaction I think they like my little visits." (In truth, they were just obliging the top guy.)

"Sure, once in a while, up to a point, but don't you see you over-indexing?"

"Frankly, I don't." Nor did he see that it was his need for attention he was gratifying.

"But you have them looking to you, not me."

"Hey, you're doing great," he said, deflecting."

Thanking him perfunctorily, she got up and left, as dissatisfied with the conversation as with the situation itself.

*                          *                          *

His wife was the single person in his life best able to influence him. That is, if she put her foot down. Even, as little as she liked conflict, if it took a shouting match.

The previous spring he'd gotten it into his head to buy a 48-foot sailboat with berths for the whole family; a Hinckley, naturally.

Excited he showed her striking photos of the boat. He could tell right away from the expression on her face that she didn't share his enthusiasm.

It was a short conversation. He backed off without a fight.

Over coffee with her the next morning, he was gracious in defeat: "Not every idea is a good idea." Actually, that was her line.

But the year before she lost a bigger battle, one that mattered a lot more. He had gotten into his head to move to a much bigger house, one so impressive that Architectural Digest would publish an article on it. Toward that end, he wanted the well-known architect, Robert A. Stern, to design it.

He had his heart set on an oversized great room with soaring ceilings and two-story windows. Never mind that Camille didn't like that idea and that Stern himself questioned it, arguing that it wasn't "human scale." Now visitors to their house couldn't help being struck by the great room's soaring expanse nor could they escape feeling dwarfed by‎ it.

*                          *                          *

The Saturday following our meeting he and Camille went out for breakfast, at her suggestion. She waited for a good moment, and then said: "So, Phil, can we talk about the input you got this week?" She placed her hand on his as she spoke. He softened and said okay. "I know it was painful." He nodded, still not speaking. "Painful but maybe useful."

"I‎ don't disagree." It was all he could manage.

"C‎an I make a suggestion?"

"Go for it." He was uncharacteristically open.

"What about inviting Elena to your next meeting with the consultant?" Elena, his whiz kid CFO, who more than held her own, was the one person on his staff he was truly at ease with. A lot of that was her. She was warm, friendly, comfortable with herself, which inclined people to lower their guard.

Unattached at the time, she was close to his family, came over for dinner from time to time and even once took care of the kids while Phil and Camille went away for the weekend.

"Elena could help you sort the wheat from the chaff,"‎ Camille, who had cleared it with Elena, went on to say.

"Not a bad idea." ‎He was surprisingly pliable.

A few days later he and Elena and I met for an hour.

"Elena, people say I'm hard to influence. What do you think? Is it true?‎" He leaned over and looked expectantly at her. ‎

"It is true, Phil," she said, sympathetically.

He leaned back. "They're not piling on?"

"I haven't seen their comments but, no, I don't think so. You've brought in great people who have a lot to offer. That's the whole idea, right?"

"Yes, that's the idea," he responded, looking pleased.

"Phil," I interjected, "What do you think great people want?"‎ 

"Let Elena say."

"They're dying to contribute‎. Not only do a good job in their area but influence your thinking, influence your decisions. From time to time. Not all the time."‎

"Okay, I can see that," he said. "I'm not the only one who wants self-satisfaction, am I?

*                          *                          *

But a month later it was as if this warm, pure and light-giving conversation never happened. ‎All it took was Phil's latest corporate initiative.

In his first year it had been Corporate Social Responsibility; CSR, they called it. Now, Diversity and Inclusion, both pet projects of the CEO. Responsible for rolling it out in IB, Phil had put together an elaborate plan.

When he broke the news to his staff, there was a collective gasp. His most senior person was the first to speak: "You've got to be kidding, Phil."

Certainly, nobody objected to hiring minorities, talented ones, and making them welcome. It was the lengths to which Phil proposed to take it.

His PowerPoint slide read:

  • Aggressive hiring targets for the current and the next two years
  • Two days of diversity-and-inclusiveness training for everyone
  • Initiative-specific 360 feedback for all managers
  • One-on-one feedback meetings with the consultants
  • An evaluation of the team's "inclusive leadership"
  • Data-driven team-building sessions

"Where is the time for all of this supposed to come from?" objected another person. Then another, in a not-too-friendly way, chimed in: "You've got to scale this back, Phil, you've got to." It was unusual for his team to take this kind of tone with him. A kind of emotional contagion had set in.

"Now, wait a minute," he insisted, "this is important."

"No one questions that, Phil," his senior guy responded. "But you've gone overboard," and warming to his metaphor—"and sunk to the ocean floor on this one." That elicited chuckles, welcome tension relief for everyone but Phil. He looked at Elena for support but she just shrugged her shoulders.

"I can see I'm getting nowhere," Phil said peevishly, and stood up, bringing an abrupt end to the meeting.

The corporate head of HR, who had attended the meeting, sought him out later and tried to reason with him. Phil heard him out but made no concessions.

A few days later, consulting no one, Phil emailed a revision to his staff. The plan was cut way back. Gone was the feedback to individuals, gone was the feedback to the team.

Was it spite, some people wondered. Of course it was.

People on Phil's staff also suspected that his real motive for the hyper-ambitious plan was to ingratiate himself with the bank CEO. After all, they reasoned, Phil had never championed inclusion and diversity (though in fairness he had never opposed it either). His staff was right in their supposition. In fact, he had once told me, "My superior's opinion of me matters to me most." He actually said that.

What his team couldn't know is that he came by that stance honestly. "Growing up I couldn't understand how others didn't do what their parents or other authorities wanted." His children had the same orientation. He had cultivated it. "I want to please my dad," said his oldest. "Our parents' opinion means so much to us."

*                          *                          *

Phil and I had followed up on the assessment meeting to decide how to alleviate tensions with his staff.

"Up for this?" I asked‎, just checking.

"Yup," he said without enthusiasm. 

"So your heart's not in it?" I inquired sympathetically.

"No," he admitted.

"Have you decided not to change?"

‎"That's what it amounts to."

"Okay, will you write that down?" I said pointing to the moleskin journal I'd given him. Despite everything, he'd brought it with him.

Too clever by half he wrote: "I haven't decided not to change but I am sure I've given you that impression."

"I'm concerned, Phil. You know you're putting yourself at risk?"

With a wave of his arm, he declared, "I have no need to fit into a conventional moral framework."

"These are your people speaking."

He shrugged and stared out the window. Then, turning back and in a low tone but not belligerently, he said, "I have to be true to myself."

It was a short meeting.

Six months later he was fired.

*                          *                          *

The bank CEO, Phil's direct manager, was able to hold onto his rose-tinted view of him longer than most because to him Phil's faults were only hearsay and he was dazzled by IB's performance. But the mounting noise in the system finally forced his hand. He had ballyhooed team play and could no longer abide the contradiction.

The CEO and HR head were considerate in their handling of Phil's exit. Rather than usher him unceremoniously out of his office, they gave him ten weeks to find another job and even allowed him to keep his office. But in another way they did him no favors.

"I was determined to hold my head high," Phil told him. I admired him for that—his courage, his effort to preserve his dignity. But continuing to come into the office was a mistake. Discretion would have been the better part of valor.

He even continued to take his lunch in the executive dining room. It was awkward, to say the least. People went out of their way to avoid him; at least that's the way it seemed. Certainly, no one but his true-blue lieutenant, Elena, sat with him and not every day. Even she didn't want to associate herself too closely with him in public.

You could cut the tension with a knife; it was ‎ghastly, she later told me.

One day at lunch, the two of them sitting at a table in the corner, she thought it might help to acknowledge the situation.

"It's like somebody died," she offered.

"More like someone's been murdered." He said, twisting his mouth oddly.

No question, though, that his career had plenty of life left in it. Within a month he was snapped up by a rival firm to head their capital-markets arm.

When I got word that he'd been dismissed I called right away. "I'm really sorry it came to this."

"You did what you could. You put the ugly truth in front of me. I couldn't handle it."

"Do you think I spilled the beans to the CEO?" I had kept my lips shut; that was what the contract called for, total confidentiality. But better to ask the question than wonder.

"For a moment that possibility went through my mind. But, no, they knew all along. That's why they brought in someone like you. No, I've got no issue with you."

"That's a relief."

"But my own guys, they went above me. That's a bitter pill."

"I can only imagine." 

"You know what they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

"How might that apply to your new situation? Clean slate, you know." It was a leading question. Would he say, I'll do better, I'll reform?

Instead, he was elusive.

"We'll see if I've learned anything," he said, wryly, charmingly, and got off the phone.