26 - Flailing Phoenix

How to Talk to a Flailing Phoenix: What the Purposeful Enterprise Sounds Like

Gary Weaver was perplexed—profoundly so—and the twenty minutes he had spent preparing for his next conversation had not helped one iota. It had been four days since it became clear that a shroud of uncertainty had descended upon Project Phoenix. Something once so promising now teetered on the brink. Its impending demise threatened far more than just its narrow but imaginative ambition.

Passan Technologies had been a pioneer since the early days and had dominated its markets for over two decades. Although the core offerings were still highly profitable, the brand had tired in recent years, and the appeal of its products was waning. Price realization was no longer what it had been, and recently, in a startling but perhaps warranted development, retailers had begun to decrease the number of shelf facings. While volumes in emerging economies still provided overall growth, they felt like poor cover for an entire product platform that was dependent on a series of legacy systems that were dated, cumbersome and very costly to maintain. There was definite unrest at Passan, but the clouds still held a few silver linings.

One significant bright spot that gave hope was the recently renewed internal communications focus on Passan’s historical strength in innovation and creativity. This campaign to restore flagging morale had produced some of the best associate engagement scores of the past decade, perhaps because leadership had taken the unusual step to factor those engagement scores into senior management KPIs. The historical strength on innovation and creativity had also become the backbone of a fairly successful brand relaunch nearly two years back. Part of that relaunch included a recruiting pitch that had proved quite compelling, and had brought to Passan some of the best engineers Gary had ever come across in his over 25 year career.

Gary, the leader of the “Creative Concepts Center” (or the CCC, as it was called), and his team had a mandate to deliver on the CEO’s promise to crack the code on a new digital innovation that could finally deliver the kind of immersive customer experience they all knew was essential if the company was to have any future success. Project Phoenix was the flagship initiative, Gary’s brainchild, in part an attempt to keep pushing the creative envelope and also to reach for the next generation of Passan success—a rather uncertain endeavor, to be sure. In light of the risks, he had asked only for volunteers to participate. A long list of people had come forward to join the team, and the optimism of the small cohort that had been selected was both infectious and encouraging. It was that precious optimism that now hung in the balance, for while the Project Phoenix team was small, it was well known, so the career trajectories of its members would be a clear signal to several thousand employees outside the boundaries of the CCC as to whether the brand claim to innovation and creativity was real or merely some compelling language.

Susan Bonner had been the perfect leader for Phoenix, Gary knew that with certainty when he asked her, and he was still sure of it today. She had won a place in the President’s Forum for five years running, which was no small feat considering that it was composed of only 11 associates, selected by their peers for exemplifying the core values of Creativity, Integrity and Quality. Susan had only a few times come to Gary to object to the funding reductions that had slowed the progress of Project Phoenix, but cash was getting tighter and the new CFO had instituted some tough staffing controls that had required a few adjustments. Gary had done his best to protect Phoenix, but now that growth was flagging, the analyst community had been critical of the overall R & D spend as a growing proportion of revenue.

When Susan walked into his office to absorb his decision about Phoenix, Gary knew that what he was about to say sent signals about her future as well, and he also knew that under these circumstances, and coming from his mouth as a representative of the company leadership, that the resonance of the brand would sound very different for this team, not to mention for Susan.

It was easy to talk about innovation and creativity when it was hoped for, much harder in the shadow of unmet expectations. What really mattered was what the team heard, and under these circumstances, no matter what he said, they would interpret all the unspoken messages in his actions. They all knew that Gary had nothing to show for Phoenix, at least, not yet, other than a sinking feeling and a hole in his budget. Some suspected that more layoffs might be coming. Gary knew he had to trim seven more people by the end of the quarter, and Phoenix was now the obvious target, as much as he hated the idea. Susan knew that too.

The consequences of the message that was to be received very soon by a nervous and disappointed team—and especially by a stellar leader—could very well embed cynicism and foster a defeatist attitude, further compromising their already slim prospects for breakthrough success. Gary feared this above all because he still believed they could deliver if they had more time. He was also sure that Susan had a great career ahead of her, so he just hoped he could hold her confidence through the tough hours he was about to spend with her sorting through the realities of the situation and making difficult choices. He knew he’d need the same as the group came to grips with the aftermath that lay ahead for the project they had so optimistically volunteered for.

Facing pressure for more R & D cuts, Gary wondered, “What would a brand that claimed creativity and innovation need to sound like to the leader of a flailing Project Phoenix?” Gary thought the brand was true and knew its core message could also speak to and inspire this team, even in difficulty, but he was still figuring out how. He knew that he served as the clearest extension of authority, and was acting as the clearest representation of that very brand for this team. He needed to get it right. Just then he heard Susan’s footsteps approach his office door. He could only hope that the words that were about to come out of his mouth would navigate through the narrow channel that held the truth.

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