I have been burning the midnight oil in the last two weeks and I feel like I need another break. The CEO asked all the senior managers to come together and prepare a solid business case with a strong narrative to explain the numbers.
Since I joined this company, the word “narrative” comes up quite a lot and I had to ask one of my colleagues what it is all about. The guy by the name Tito has been in the company for over 18 years and so I assumed he must know the ropes. So during one of the breaks I asked him, “Tito, I keep hearing this narrative line, what does it mean?”
“You are a smart guy, I am surprised that you have picked on so fast,” he said with a chuckle.
“It really is simple- it is the story you weave to defend your numbers to the bosses in head office.”
I asked: “Are you talking about doctoring numbers?”
“Not really,” he said. “Basically it is a way of coming up with reasons for good performance and excuses for bad performance in way that ensures you do not lose your job.” He then gave me many examples of what he had done in the past to create the “ right narrative.”
Later in one of our sessions, I figured out how Tito has survived this long in this business. He knows how to read what narrative is evolving and move in support of it. I noticed that a few managers had already formed the narrative while others remained clueless. So the sessions at times felt like a competition with each manager trying to run the show.
On Thursday morning, our CEO walked into the session. He was not wearing his blazer and had rolled up his sleeves and as soon as he walked in, he said, “ Guys we need to submit this case study let me see how far you have gone.”
I watched him listen to our presentations and I could tell he was not convinced. After half an hour he said, “ Somebody get me a flip chart.” Tito immediately stood up faster than some other managers who clearly wanted to impress the boss. He was back in such record speed that I could not help thinking that he had known that his would happen all along.
The CEO then proceeded to demonstrate to us what he called the “ Three scenarios and the three narratives.” Five minutes into this, it was clear what he considered to be the preferred option and narrative. He diplomatically steered the conversation to the direction he wanted. At the end of it all, he seemed very pleased with himself and said, “How soon can I have my business case.” I expected Tito to once again volunteer but this time he stayed mute.
Later on I got to understand why; the guy who volunteered was a newbie. He did not seem to have all the historical information. Tito then offered to help and said, “Why don’t we do this together?” Tito guided the discussion as the newbie manager turned it into some PowerPoint presentation. We finished in fairly decent time and the newbie told Tito, “ Listen why don’t we go with you and take the boss through this?” Tito “appeared” to hesitate but after a while he agreed.
One hour later we received an email from the boss saying, “ Well done Team!” Tito then passed my office and said, “ Let’s go get a beer.” After a few beers he seemed mellow enough, so I asked him, “I saw what you did today, quite impressive.” He chuckled and said, “ I have learnt that in this game you must always seem to participate but not in a way that you get blamed when things go wrong.” I said, “ really? You need to teach me.” He chuckled and said,” not today, next time.”