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  • Mitchell York

If Your Boss Starts a Speech with "There are Three Kinds of People...." Run, Run Away

My last real job ended in 2001, shortly after 9/11, when the company I worked for laid off all of the employees in the division I was in charge of. The magazines in our division, all tech-related, were very sensitive to the Internet economy and the recession that followed the tragedy.

Shortly before I left, I got a new boss, an executive VP brought in from a competitor. Can’t remember his name. But I do remember the first meeting that I and several other senior VPs had with him.

He gathered us in a conference room. I can’t remember most of what he said. I was fixated on his heavy wrist jewelry. An expensive-looking, thick gold watch. A gold bracelet, like the ID bracelets kids wore in high school in the 1970s, but chunkier. As he spoke, he let his arm drop repeatedly on the table, causing a very loud thud of metal banging wood, over and over. The noise, if not his words, made an impression on me.

He had a copy of a tech industry newspaper he published from around 10 years earlier, during the heyday of print advertising, when computer publications were as thick as telephone books.[1] In those days, a monkey could have sold big ad schedules (and probably did). In 2000-2001, it was no longer so easy. But he picked up that yellowing copy of his old newspaper and let it fall on the table from a height of two feet, like he did his metal-laden wrist as if to say, “See what I did? What’s wrong with you guys?”

Then he said something that I’ve remembered ever since. He looked around the table with seriousness in his eyes.

“There are three kinds of people,” he said.

Uh oh, where is this going?

“There are people who watch things happen.”

Okay, and your point is…

“There are people who make things happen.”

Yeah, there are…

And then the coup de grace, “And there are people who say ‘What just happened?’”

Wow, that was profound. I had no idea what he meant, but it was definitely profound because his facial expression said so. This was before Google and the iPhone so I didn’t know then that he hadn't invented this pithy routine himself. He got it from somewhere else, but it sure felt like he made it up.

Then, after an awkward silence, one of my colleagues said, “What just happened?” (Oh, he was fired too.)

I was reminded of this meeting from long ago last night as I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a corporate fable about a new CEO who comes into a struggling tech company to do a turnaround.

She turns out to be quite masterful at managing the thorny relationships among her senior executives. She calls an off-site leadership meeting a few weeks after she starts at the company, and lets the team know that her conclusion: the team is completely broken.

At one point in the retreat, she asks each person on the team to recount five non-intrusive details of their personal lives that the others might not know. Turns out one of the team members studied dance at Julliard. One was the oldest of nine kids. One had been a batboy for the Red Sox. And the CEO was an All-American volleyball player in college.

The exercise didn’t magically fix the team, but it was the first step in a long process of building trust.

The story made me wonder if my old boss still had that disintegrating newspaper from the 1990s and if it survived many more table thumpings.


[1] For those who are too old to remember telephone books, there was a time when phone companies published directories of everyone’s telephone number and address. In some areas, like Manhattan, the phone book was at least four inches thick.

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