Best of the Best (a story)

27 Dec 2018. Bob Kaplan

As we pivoted from praise to criticism, I said, "Brace yourself, Phil."  

Earlier that morning, it had been as different a story as victory and defeat. "The good news is very good indeed,"‎ I told him.

Wed met in a faux French chateau built in the 1920s as a private residence and since converted into a conference center. It boasted turrets, a slate roof and leaded pane casement windows. I could tell from the way he took it all in that he was impressed.‎

Nattily turned out—worsted gray slacks, a dress shirt that might have been Charvet,  a blazer with a neatly-folded white handkerchief tucked in its breast pocket, and a Patek Phillipe watch sitting prominently on his left wrist, he could have passed as lord of the manor.

The fine figure he cut was marred by a bulging waistline.

As he was about to sit down, I motioned him to the seat at the head of the conference table. I had in mind sitting catty-corner. But he ignored me and chose the chair opposite.

"Listen to this," I enthused. "It's like the Hallelujah chorus. Gloria in excelsis deo."

"‎Give me a freakin' break!" He was right. I'd gone overboard. Still, his demeanor told me he was not displeased.

"Fine.  But one thing's for sure: you've worked wonders with Investment Banking. That's factual, right?" He didn't disagree. "How did you do it?"

Smiling, he jumped at the chance. "I've been on a crusade to make this organization world class."

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

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

He'd been brought in by the then recently appointed head of the whole bank to upgrade‎ investment banking. O‎nly fixed income was performing well. Equities, institutional bonds, M&A, the trading operation: so-so. In just 3 1/2 years, he'd shaped up those lines of business. So much so that the industry rag, The Banker, had made him the feature story and displayed a dapper and smirking Phil on the cover. He had a copy with him.

"What do you have there?" He handed it to me, cover face-up

"How about that? You're a star."

"I wouldn't go that far. I've always wanted to be included in that group of people who have high value. But it's a super-human image I have of myself that I can't possibly live up to.

"Are you not included in that group now?"

"Not according to the CEO. I walked around yesterday handing out copies. People were impressed. Then I poked my head in the CEO's office—the door was open. He said the right things, but his face told a different story."

"You're sure?"

"Couldn't miss it. I get the distinct sense he's holding out on me."

"You can't slough it off?"

"In my family I'm the  oldest, the first-born on both sides. Certainly, you get an imprint that 'my hopes are resting on you.' To put it mildly." So, I always did my best. I got good grades. I excelled in sports. But my father never gave me any recognition," he'd told me. "None."

Phil had been such a good pitcher that scouts went to his final games in his senior year of high school. In one game, he struck out 24 (of a possible 27 batters). "I hit a home run in the top of the 8th inning and that tired me out. I only struck out two in the 8th and 9th innings. But not a word from my father.

"My mother would tell me, 'Your father is very proud of you.' But somehow that didn't count."

"I get it, thanks," I said and went on with what was good about him. The players you put on the field—which you could say is half of a leader's job—you do a great job of. "The CEO himself said, 'Phil has almost an uncanny ability to find the highest-performing people in a discipline.'"

Phil enthused. "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 honor's degree, that pretty much puts the thumbprint on you."

"People call you a 'talent junkie.'"

He smiled. "Yeah, I've heard that."

Unlike some managers, he had clearly not been afraid to put super-smart people on his team. Just the opposite: he had them arrayed around him like jewels in a crown.

"Let's take a walk before we get to the concerns." I had wanted him to bask for a bit in the glory. He'd been receptive. It could have gone the other way. He could have choked on i.

"How does this grab you?" I asked, pointing to the conference center's park-like grounds.

"It's okay," he said, obviously unimpressed. "Have you been to Blenheim Palace?" I nodded. "Now that's landscape architecture at its finest. And there you can walk for miles." He had a point. The park was no match for the chateau.

            *                          *                          *

"Okay, lay it on me," he said, as we sat down again.

"In a moment, okay? Is there anything missing from the set of good things about you?"

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

"Okay, the way you work with people. As opposed to what you've accomplished—great results, great hires, and so on."

"Which people? Just come out with it, will you please."

"Sure. Your team; those very people."

"Ingrates. Where would they be without me?"

"They're grateful for the opportunity. Of course they are. That came through loud and clear. But they're frustrated."

"What do you mean frustrated!? Be specific." The groove we'd gotten into—shot to pieces.

"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." 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'd added. "The CEO is unbelievably autocratic; this pales by comparison."

Heading into this meeting, I'd had a fairly good idea of who Phil was, but I wasn't prepared for the raw force of his negative reaction. By the end of the day, I felt like a fence post pounded into the ground but I hadn't given up on doing this guy some good.   

*                          *                          *

The next time I was in their offices, the CEO pulled me aside.

"How did it go? What can you tell me?"

"Remember our understanding: I can't."

"Oh, right. Well, I've got something for you. He's developed an attitude—towards me. A negative attitude. I just realized it. Actually, another person on the leadership team pointed it out. It's subtle, but now that I'm attuned to it, unmistakable. I thought you ought to know. He's doing himself no good."

"Okay, thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

"Oh, one other thing. He's an attention-getter. What is that about—insecurity? Anyway, it turns me off. Probably makes me less likely to praise him—which isn't good.

*                          *                          *

If you're thinking Phil 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, however slight or hidden, there is some of Phil, his pridefulness, his sensitivities, his reactiveness.

*                          *                          *

He got home in time for dinner with his family and did his best to act normal. Fake 'til you make it, he told himself. After dinner, his perceptive wife, without saying a word, led him 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 room gave out onto the lush, closely cropped lawn. She closed the door behind her.

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

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

She interrupted him as he started to take flight. "Was that all, Phil? What about the great things you've done for the bank?"

"Yeah, sure, there was good stuff too. But what gets me...." ‎He began to make the same case.

A veteran of his storms, she clearly knew how to read him; she knew what to say. "Phil, after all you've done for your people, it must hurt; it must hurt a lot."

His face fell and he 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. ‎

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

He had not yet 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. The head of trading, newly hired nine months earlier, had told  me in strict confidence.

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 had taken weeks for her to work up the nerve to raise it with him. Seeing his door open, she knocked. He motioned her in.

Her cheeks flush with feeling, she began to speak but stopped when she saw he was still looking at the computer screen on his desk. "Phil," she said when he turned her way, "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? I think they like my little visits." (In truth, they were obliging the top guy.)

"Okay, up to a point, but don't you see you over-indexing?"

"Frankly, I don't."

"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 life best able to influence him. That is, if she put her foot down. Even, if as little as she liked conflict, 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'd 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.

Wisely, he backed off without a fight.

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

But the year before, she'd lost a bigger battle, one that mattered a lot more. He had gotten it into his head to build a house on a grand scale. He managed to arrange for the famous architect, Robert A. Stern, to design it.

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

But what took the cake was the fireplace. He chose a stone mason whose work had appeared in Architectural Digest. It was a stone retaining wall at Katherine Graham's house on Martha's Vineyard. Ashlar technique, which makes it look like the upper stones are supported by the lower stones. But that's an illusion. Cement that's not visible holds the thing together. In any case, a color photo of it was pinned to the builder's bulletin board. Phil came back from a trip to Asia to visit the bank's IB outposts there—Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo—to find the fireplace under construction. At first blush, he was pleased. A field stone wall—impressive. But then he realized it wasn't what he wanted; it wasn't what had been spec'd.

Right away, he had called Camille. "That fireplace: it's got to come down," he said.

"Do you have to?" she asked, a rhetorical question.

So it came down. They had to wait six months for the chosen mason to become available. But visitors seeing the fireplace for the first time all said the same thing: it was a work of art.

*                          *                          *

The weekend after the chateau meeting, he and Camille went out for breakfast. It was her suggestion. She waited for a good moment. "So, Phil, can we talk about the input you got this week?" She placed her hand on his. Softening, he 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."

"What about inviting Elena to your next meeting with the consultant?" Elena, his whiz kid CFO, who more than held her own with her older colleagues, 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 guards.

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

"Elena could help you sort the wheat from the chaff,"‎ Camille said, adding that she had cleared it with Elena.

"Not a bad idea," ‎he said, pliable as clay.

            *                          *                          *

A few days later, I met with both Phil and Elena.

With preliminaries out of the way, Phil went first. "Elena, people say I'm hard to influence. What do you think? Is it true?‎" He 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, of course, 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 want a say in 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 had never happened. ‎All it took was Phil's way of handling the CEO's latest corporate initiative. Not getting the recognition he wanted hadn't stopped Phil from trying to impress his boss.

In the CEO's first year, it had been Corporate Social Responsibility; CSR, they'd called it. Now it was Diversity and Inclusion. 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
  • 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" and data-driven team-building

"Where is the time for all of this supposed to come from?" objected another person. Then, in a not-terribly-friendly way, someone else 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 andand sunk to the ocean floor." That elicited chuckles. He looked at Elena for support, but she just shrugged her shoulders.

"I'm getting nowhere," Phil said; he collected his materials and left.

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? I wondered.

Phil's staff, I heard, had rightly 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).

*                          *                          *

In due time, Phil and I had met to decide how to alleviate tensions with his staff.

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

"Not really," he admitted. "I have no need to fit into a conventional moral framework."

"Does that mean you've 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."

"These are your people speaking."

He shrugged. "I have to be true to myself."

Six months later, he was fired.

*                          *                          *

The CEO was reluctant to part with Phil or, to be precise, IB's production under him. But the mounting noise in the system forced his hand. To the whole bank he had made much of collaboration and team play, and could no longer abide the contradiction.

He and HR head were considerate in their handling of Phil's exit. Rather than usher him unceremoniously out of his office, a not uncommon if brutal practice in corporations, they treated him with respect due him. They gave him ten weeks to find another job and even allowed him to keep his office. But in the end they did him no favors.

"I was determined to hold my head high," Phil told me. I admired him for that—his courage, his effort to preserve his dignity. He continued to go into the office and to take his lunch in the executive dining room. Discretion would have been the better part of valor.

No one but his true-blue lieutenant, Elena, sat with him at lunch and not every day. It was not a good idea to associate herself too closely with him, Elena told me.  

You could cut the tension with a knife but he seemed impervious. It was either a great acting job or an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize. Maybe his brute determination in another form.

For weeks, Phil and Elena kept up their lunchtime conversations. Topics ranged widely. Politics. Financial markets. The banking industry. Their personal lives. Never IB.

At one of their lunches:

"Well, last night I went bowling, by myself. Much to my surprise, m‎y average score was down 25 to 30 points. In the 125-130 range. That will never do. So a few days later, I bowled five straight strings. Well, my scores weren't better, but by the end I felt my form was improving. "

"Forgive me, Phil. What does it matter? It's purely recreational."

"It does matter."

"You're a strange bird."

"Guilty as charged."

A week later, he brought it up again. "Well, it worked. ‎The second string last night I bowled a 175. Proof positive I had it in me."

"That must have felt good."

"It did, but wait. On the next string I was in a great position to get into the 160s or higher. All I had to do was ‎fill a strike in the 10th frame and get at least a 7. Well, the first ball hit only one pin, the second only two. The worst two balls that night. I blew it and it really got to me. I had this intense feeling in my chest, like grief. "

"Honestly, I don't get it."

"Well,  I had the same‎ feeling at the end of the Eagles-Patriots Superbowl, when Tom Brady lost the chance to lead the team down the field to score the game-winning touchdown. The ball was stripped from his throwing hand. That time, I couldn't shake the visceral feeling either."

"What is it‎, a lost chance for greatness?"

"Something like that."

For weeks, Phil and Elena kept up their good if improbable conversations. "If he could bracket," Elena told me, "so could I. But there was no getting around the fact that it was ‎ghastly."

Finally, in the tenth and final week, she named it. "Phil, it's like somebody died."

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

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

            *                          *                          *

When I'd gotten word that Phil had 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?"  

"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." A leading question. What would he say—I'll do better, I'll reform?

Instead, he had been elusive.

"We'll see if I've learned anything," he said wryly and ended the call.