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I May Be Wrong, But I’m Never In Doubt – The Ampersand May 2020

April 30, 2020

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


I’ve doubted very few big decisions I’ve made in life and I’ve absolutely never looked back on a single one, once made.  Sell a stock?  It’s sold. Why look at the price if you don’t own it anymore? Lose a game? Get over it. Have a bad day? There’s always tomorrow. I once gave a talk to a group of young entrepreneurs a few years after starting this business and was asked, “What was your Plan B, you know, in case it failed?”  No word of a lie, I had never even considered the possibility.  Indecision is regret’s first cousin and an equally unwelcome dinner guest in my house.


I was once giving a friend – we will call him Greg, because that is actually his name – some career advice. Greg is close to a scratch golfer (which means, a very good one).  We were driving back from a golf trip, debriefing on the weekend’s events, and conversation turned to his career.  As he’s prone to do, Greg was analyzing his career to death. Do I stay where I am? Do I leave? If so, how? If not, when? How do I take the next step? What’s after that? What if it doesn’t work?  Every possible permutation to the point of paralysis. I finally said to him, “you play golf the way I run my business; and you manage your career the way I play golf.” In golf, he confidently and without hesitation selects the club and executes the shot.  I, on the other hand, stand over the ball, run through inestimable swing thoughts, envisioning a virtual buffet of things that could go wrong and then, usually, watch it all unfold just as I’d imagined.


Understand, Greg hits the occasional bad shot, but it’s not from lack of confidence or vision or skill. Sometimes you just hit a bad shot. Same thing in my business. I’ve made a bunch of mistakes, for sure. But they’ve never been borne out of indecision or doubt and I’m totally fine with that. More importantly, as with Greg’s golf game, they were arrived at after much consultation, preparation, coaching, and contemplation.


Which brings us to today. This is my first pandemic, so please forgive the ignorance that may follow.


I vacillate daily, or is it hourly? (time in a pandemic is a strange construct), between the dueling emotions of, on the one hand, the arguable irrationality of our current predicament, one which sees, at time of writing, 7,778,052,228 of the earth’s 7,781,323,750 inhabitants not afflicted with Coronavirus (according to this website, which I now check more regularly than The Weather Network) and the competing emotion of catching the damned thing, losing a loved one, my business or all three.


I quietly flip flop in my own thoughts, while noisily debating with my family nightly (or is it weekly?) around, on the one hand, not wishing to appear to selfishly and unempathetically put economic interests ahead of the cost of a life, while on the other, needing to contain the spread, flatten the curve, socially distance and adhere to all the other directives I’ve absorbed since about March 16th, that fateful day I turned 50 while the world turned upside down.


“We need to get back to work and back to normal!”  Easy for you to say until someone you know loses a life.  “We need to stay home and shut the economy until it’s safe, no matter how long it takes!”  Easy for you to say until someone you know loses a livelihood.


Navigating this is like driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. Time moves bumpily; both quickly and slowly. June 6th, the day the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy expires, is hurtling towards us at light speed. Ask me to imagine life on, say, July 1st?  No clue…that’s waaaay too far away.  I fight frustration and temptation to blame while simultaneously working extra hard to feel compassion and empathy, two virtues my business partner of 11 years wrote about recently.  I genuinely appreciate and trust the efforts being made by our federal government, whom I normally despise. And, I look on in horror at the decline of a once great southern neighbour, whom I normally respect.  Incredibly, I’m not shocked by a President who suggests ingesting Lysol to give the lungs a good cleaning, yet I am alarmed at some of the censorship and shaming befalling other, far more credible, people than him.


I fear the virus.  But I also fear the recriminations from voicing in a public forum such as this my view that without a livelihood many do not have a life. While that shouldn’t be an overly controversial view, I’ve watched as friends and strangers post thoughts and comments only to be eviscerated, or worse, for stating an opinion.


The trouble with debating issues around COVID is that long before COVID we lost our ability to debate issues. In the blue/red, left/right, Fox/CNN echo chamber, there is tolerance for only two possible points of view: completely right and absolutely wrong. There is no, ‘hey, you know what? You actually make a good point. Let me think about that.’ On the comparatively benign issues such as legalizing marijuana or impeaching a president (ah, the good ol’ days), we could get away with binary outcomes. It’s not like people were dying, after all.  But the atrophy resulting from there being only one of two possible conclusions, is not serving us well at present.


The current crisis is so nuanced and complicated and unprecedented that it feels as though we are prohibited from forming one opinion on one day on one set of facts, and then having the intellect (and courage) to change that opinion as we learn more and the situation evolves. Our pride prevents us from acknowledging a perspective we once disagreed with. We’re so slavishly partisan to our views that we’re not allowed to pivot sideways; only retreat backwards, even as the underlying facts that supported, or weakened, our initial stance shift.


Why am I so confident when I make business decisions? Why is Greg similarly self-assured on the golf course? Because long before arriving at the moment of decision, we sought advice, agreed with some, disagreed with others, tried things, failed at things so that in the moment we could distill it all, take the best of what was left and, in an instant, form an opinion, make a hire, hold a high cut into a right to left wind to a tucked pin, and move on.


The health, economic, and political ramifications surrounding Coronavirus will be debated and discussed for generations.  Are governments exploiting the crisis to grab power?  Ask Rex on that one. Economically, how ever will we dig out from the debt we’re piling up?  Ask our kids, I guess. It’ll be their problem.  On the health front, were the two California doctors who suggested a counter-prevailing opinion, and subsequently censored, wrong?  Maybe. But do I deserve to listen to them and form my own opinion? Absolutely. Good Lord, when I’m even watching Tucker Carlson, let alone agreeing with him, there truly is an apocalypse upon us. Yet, here we are. Accuse me of opening my ears to another perspective. Guilty as charged. I’ll form my own opinion, with the best information at hand, process, distill and move on.


We’ve written in this space before, as recently as December in fact, about the importance of critical thinking as an essential attribute in any member of your team.  As we said back then, in our audacious defence of critical thinking:


“Why? Because when combined with the unique leadership challenges presently facing our local economy, and the even greater threats posed to the planet earth with the divorce of conscience from truth, the escalation of fake news, and the apparent sanctioning of lying as acceptable, we submit that the discerning skills and human aptitudes unique to homo sapiens matter more than ever.


And they matter in every organization, at every level. What Board doesn’t want those who serve upon it, what management team doesn’t want those who report to it, what client doesn’t want a service provider who counsels it, to bring to their daily toil a constructive, human, and critical outlook?”


And those “challenges” were pre-COVID!  Seems downright adorable in hindsight.


So where does that leave us? For a guy who hates doubts, I have mine. About keeping our grandparents holed up for months away from friends and family in their waning years, to protect them. About keeping kids away from camp, when their mental and physical health needs it most. About boarding up businesses, and laying off employees. About taking guidance from leaders; political, health, and economic; who put their pants on one leg at a time just like us, and no doubt have theirs.  Doubts, not pants, that is.  To paraphrase the title of this blog, I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt. Until now.


Our business is, unsurprisingly, getting rather beat up at present. Retained executive search is a discretionary, though important, expense easily cut in the face of other competing, more urgent corporate priorities.  While we will make it to the other side of this, of that I am certain; less clear to me is what will await us once we reach shore. It’s one thing not to drown while you cross the river; it’s entirely another to come ashore and discover a permanently changed and inhospitable landscape.  As we fight through to the other side of this, I can’t shake the image of the young girl who survived the plane crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco, only to be run over and killed by a firetruck on the tarmac as she fled the wreckage.  Too soon?


And while we soldier on, executing searches that were in the system b.c.e. (Before the Covid Era), we are currently burning the furniture to heat the house. New work, post mid-March, is at a trickle and despite our efforts to re-invent ourselves with unique and value-added offerings to our clients, candidates and community (some of which are featured here, on our new Pekarsky & CoVID web page) (that I can’t wait to take down)(did you get the pun?), it is disquieting at present. We are staying busy staying busy; leading webinars and roundtables, pitching for work, closing searches, writing, thinking, leading, creating but the cupboards will need restocking.


Ironically, it’s actually never been easier to run a search.  With everyone at home, in front of their computer, scheduling interviews with clients and candidates can happen very quickly. And the fear of being seen walking into our downtown office, or having a coffee with a member of our team in public, has all but vanished. No commute time to and from the office. Pants optional. Ending one meeting at 2:59 and starting another at 3.  No idle chit chat in the hallways or chance encounters in the +15s or spontaneous purchases cutting through the mall. Running a search is about the easiest thing to do, of all the things we’re trying to do, these days.


And just as Greg the golfer has found career success, and I have found a golf game, we can all learn and adapt and improve. But only if we’re willing to listen to others and only if we’re allowed to discern and distill all available resources and points of view to make the best decision based on the facts at hand.


Of that, I have no doubt.