Sunday, October 15, 2006

A line in the sand

Sarbanes-Oxley has given my company dozens of new responsibilities: complicated, labor-intensive recordkeeping and ass-covering, all of which requires the creation of lengthy procedures and endless documentation. The company doesn't dare put the money that they need to into these projects, because it's money that goes down a rabbit hole; they are, after all, initiatives that won't make the company rich.

Instead of creating a national corporate compliance department and staffing it, as they should, the company split the work into quarters and dumped it on me and my three counterparts across the country. They know we are already overworked, and the additional projects make it hugely difficult to run our offices, but remember, CEO's and CFO's are making these decisions. They have revenue targets to hit, and they have Wall Street boots to lick. They would love nothing better than to stand in front of a room full of reporters and crow that their "SOX" compliance costs 25% less than comparable companies'. Sure, for the people actually doing the work, life is hell, but those are just details, and true leaders don't sweat details. True leaders are on a first-name basis with every maitre-d' in town, and work short weeks so they can drive to the Hamptons on Friday morning to beat the traffic.

My job is to run an office of 100 employees, with an annual budget in the neighborhood of $100 million. I worked 50-60 hours a week before; now, I have forgotten what it's like to come home when the sun is out, and weekends are no longer for sleeping in, but for catching up. As soon as I heard we weren't staffing up to meet the new demands, I called Dan Johnson.

"You're beginning to sound ungrateful," he said, without a trace of humor.

"You hired me to run an office. Now you're asking me to oversee government compliance."

"Compliance is part of your job."

"It's most of my job, now."

"Do you know how many people would kill to sit at your desk, Steve?"

That's right, Dan, change the subject, because you know I'm right.

I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere with him. This was the job, and it wasn't changing.
But my strength has always been in managing people, in building strong relationships and finding effective solutions to business problems. Compliance, to me, is tedious and boring. Still, I did not have another job lined up, and the pay was good where I was.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006, 10:06am
Steve's office

I have reached the point of no return.

Emails continue to flood my inbox, employees with problems continue to flood my office, and new compliance projects continue to monopolize my time. I simply cannot do this anymore, without letting it take over my life.

I decide to make the call that I have been putting off for months, a call which will do serious damage to my career. I have stalled as long as I could, hoping that things would miraculously rebound. They have not.

"What have you learned today, Steve?" Dan says.

"That I'm no longer the right man for this job," I reply.

"Bad day, hm?"

"Bad year, Dan. If this were a six-month situation, fine. But my entire job description has changed. It's not the job I was promoted to."

"Steve, I don't have to tell you--"

"That other men would kill to have this job? Be my guest. Go and promote one of them."

He pauses. I'm sure most people don't have the balls to answer him that way, and he must be surprised.

"Steve, you are better than this. Are you just going to give up? Tell me what the problem is, and tell me what you need to solve it."

"The problem is Sarbanes-Oxley, and I need you to hire a national compliance department to get that work off my desk."

"Not going to happen," he replies sharply.

"Then you'll have to find someone else to do my job."

"You better think about this, Steve. This is career suicide for you. If you walk away now, if you just cave in and quit, it's going to affect you for the rest of your life. You'll never work in this business again, that's for sure."

He's right. A high-level executive my age who quits and does not take a similar or better position with another company will be judged unable to handle the pressures of a corporate insurance job. Word travels fast in the industry around here, too.

And you know what? I don't care. Maybe this is the level of commitment that is required to be an executive now; if so, I don't want to be an executive. I'm smart, and I work hard. I'll find another job, even if it means a cut in pay.

"Thanks for the heads-up, Dan."

"Are you giving your notice?"

"I'll give you until the end of September, if you want."

"Think it over, Steve. Get back to me on Monday."

"I've already thought it over. I wouldn't have called you if --"

"Monday, Steve."