Spoiler: this is not an upbeat post.
I spend a lot of my life talking about resilience, grit and mettle. And recently I’ve been walking it. It’s been a silent few months on the blog. Here’s why.
- In typical, optimistic, energised fashion, I took on way too much.
- I just about kept on top of all the immediate, pressing, super urgent things. And the things that I really enjoyed doing.
- To a large extent, I somehow managed to claw back some time to be with my family and my parents and to see more friends.
- We spontaneously decided to buy a house, which prompted us to then try to sell our own.
- My dark to-do list grew and grew, a large amorphous lump of anxiety that took hold in my gut.
And then shit blew up in my face.
A couple of months ago I managed, with a remarkable lack of skill, to extrapolate myself from being CEO of two different organisations at once. I resigned as CEO of Discoverables Ltd, home of our web-based app, and took up a much more suitable role on the board. The team flourished without me and suddenly things that had been creaking and slow-moving were well-oiled and steaming ahead. We all knew that the money runway was running out this summer, but they charged on with faith and enthusiasm and smart ideas.
One of the many things that had been lurking on my dark to-do list was a large bill to HMRC. Although I know full well that HMRC need to be paid each month when folks are on salaries, with the myriad of other responsibilities I had inveigled myself in, I hadn’t checked that it was happening. Salaries were going out, and that was the number one thing. When it was discovered, a couple of weeks ago, that we owed HMRC a hunk, we realised that the runway was basically up. And so, suddenly, this powerhouse of a team of four, got reduced to zero. All because of my oversight.
For an epic fail, I think I’ve done okay. I’ve had to face up to my fuck-up, hear hard truths. The bill is paid, no one is liable, two of the four employees walked straight into other jobs, and the others are being courted thanks to their vast swathe of skills and experience. The platform we’ve developed is ripe for being whitelabelled for other companies and organisations who want to use it. It’s the end of a chapter, not the story.
But, for me that’s not really good enough. I like doing well. I usually do well. I talk about the importance of failure, but rarely do I screw up quite so royally as I just have. I am generally candid about when things are going well, when I’m glossing, and when things suck. I’m not much of a glosser, I’m more of a warts-and-all. So I’m a little more used to exposing my not-so-great traits to others. But that’s often in the abstract.
And there has been a level of personal shame around this very real, tangible financial error that has been—and still is—pretty damn eviscerating. It’s all the more pronounced because finance is not my strong suit. Money has not ever been a driver—at least, not an overwhelming one. Although recently since having a kid (and with a big mortgage on the way), I’m a little less naive and wide-eyed about what I want and need.
But in my professional life, I’ve worked hard at being better at the finances than I am naturally inclined. I’ve had a pretty good track record in getting funding for the projects that I’ve run, budgeting for them well and making fairly robust forecasts. When it’s been close to the line for salaries in a month, something has always come through. I felt that it was right to keep most of the money worries away from the team. I may well have been wrong. Within my organisations, spending is careful and accounted for. In my own bank account, I am more whimsical. Across both, I confess, my receipts are crumpled.
So there’s the shame. And then there’s the guilt. People have lost their jobs. Because of me. I find that really hard to stomach. But deeper than that, there’s the guilt that I’ve known that I’m crap about some stuff, that I’m ostrich-like, that I’ve got this dark to-do list, that I haven’t done anything about it. I kinda knew something like this was going to happen. I let this happen.
No, I did do some things. I hired a book-keeper, but my priority was getting salaries paid and I failed to check in about HMRC. I stepped down as CEO because I knew I wasn’t doing a good enough job, but I did that too late and without much skill. My attempts to do things to mitigate against my weaknesses were themselves weak.
When things go wrong, there are two attitudes that really wind me up. The first is when no one takes responsibility for an error, mistake or misjudgement. It does my nut. Whether or not it’s entirely your fault, just own it and deal with it. The second is when people ‘fess up to something, and then feel like that is enough in of itself. It’s just as they say in AA: admitting something is the first of TWELVE STEPS. Twelve.
So, I’ve taken responsibility and dealt with it. I’ve admitted my error: both the actual error and the reasons that led to it. But there’s a whole lot more to make sure that I don’t do something like this again.
There are simple, practical steps:
- I’m taking on a local book-keeper rather than a remote one to go through things together in person. I’m on a mission to give her receipts so smooth each month, they look as though they’ve been ironed.
- I’m hiring a professional organiser and declutterer to help me come up with ways to help me manage the paperwork overflow. For someone with a really clear vision, I’ve got a damn messy desk.
But then there are the bigger steps, bigger questions. Am I cut out for being in charge of finding money for lots of other people’s salaries? And if not, what the hell am I cut out for?Asides from thinking about the future, there are things to face up to right now. Number 4 on the AA 12 Steps is about making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Whoah. That’s the rummaging through the dark to-do list right there. Bringing it to light, and more besides. I’m scared to go there, but I need to get over myself, grow up and get cracking.
A postscript: a quick note on why I wrote this in the first place when it’s clearly not for pleasure. There are a few answers. Mostly because since I’ve told some people of my mistake and failure, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one. So I hope that this post might be solace to others who feel they’re alone with their own shitstorms or dark to-do lists or such. Hello, I’m right there with you. Let’s go get a whiskey.
Because there have been various generous accolades and opportunities for me recently, and it feels just downright disingenuous to smile and say thank you and like and retweet, when actually I’ve been outed as a total muppet.
Because it’s done me no good whatsoever not to air the dark to-do list to date, and I’m hoping that this will be beginnings of a better version of me. That’s the whole duck on water thing. This is me showing you how frantically my feet are paddling.
And finally because I’ve been learning a lot about leadership these last few months, and the sort I buy into is the sort that leads by example—and that when that example is bad, is transparent about it.
And FINALLY, finally, because if I ever appear to you that I have my shit together, I am probably about a duck that’s about to drown, so it would be great if you could buy me a drink and order me to tell you what’s really going on.
I was about to end on that bum note, when I headed off to Google to find an image to go along with this post. I’ve had this wedge of panic in my stomach for the last few weeks, and the thought of actually making this post live is making it spasm. So anyway, I googled “bill”. It’s given me enormous pleasure to see that the first three images returned are not of paper, but of Clinton, Maher and Cosby. I think I might have to print and stick these guys on the front of my new receipt folders. That would add untold pleasure to a chore.