My (Long) Day At the Top

After years of writing about great (and not-so-great) business leaders, I got a chance to become one. Do I have what it takes? Or should I stick to my day job?

The lightning bolt wasn't a great sign. My first day on the job, and I was already losing control: A string of emails demanded split-second decisions for problems I had only just heard about; I needed to pull together a business-plan presentation for a product I had never laid eyes on; a rabid reporter lurked outside my door. Then, the single, jagged flash shot across my window. I gulped my Diet Dr Pepper. Maybe I wasn't meant to be an executive after all.

Not that I ever really thought I was. Sure, I've been covering management and leadership for 10 years, lambasting and lionizing executives, dismissing their best-laid plans with a few cutting words and anointing their successors with a few sparkling ones. But my actual experience with leading and managing has remained largely theoretical. Ironic? Sure, but I liked that.

Still, we all have to grow up sometime. So when Richard Wellins, an SVP at human-resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International (DDI), invited me to its intensive one-day "operational executive platform"--a simulation used to screen potential job candidates or identify and develop stars already in-house--I jumped at the chance. Over the course of one full day, I'd make strategic decisions, launch a new product, and deal with the challenges a boss typically faces. I'd be thrown curveballs by company brass, employees, customers, and media alike (all role-played by trained assessors). And then I'd receive an unvarnished evaluation of my work, a kind of psychographic leadership report card.

In the days running up to my visit, I logged on to DDI's Assessing Talent portal, which gave me financial and historical information about my fictitious company, Global Solutions, a robotics shop facing tough times in the year 2025. I also took a series of preliminary psych tests, or "leadership inventories," that would be analyzed in conjunction with my performance. Then I received my pseudo identity: Kelly Myers, a new VP whose predecessor at Global had just been canned.

Kelly and I, it turned out, had our work cut out for us: Margins were falling, inventories were rising, and the Jeeves--a robotic valet--had started doing odd things, such as cooking a client's favorite shoes and breaking into hotel rooms in the middle of the night.

The morning of the big day found me chugging coffee in my hotel room and trying to look the part, when the front desk called up to say my car had arrived. "But they're early!" I spat. "I'll be down when I can!" After I hung up on the poor woman, it occurred to me that I might have already blown my first test. Leadership? Yeah. In boot camp, maybe.

In the glass-skinned Pittsburgh headquarters of DDI, I was shown to my new "office." Ah! The faux-wood desk, the paper clips in the drawer, a suspicious box of tissues (would I be needing those?). A pleasant picture of boats distracted me from the view of the parking lot--and from the video camera recording my every move. I was disappointed to note that the workplace of 2025 was as drab as ever.

My email revealed a host of headaches, including a note about the Jeeves from a furious hotel manager and another from my boss: One of my direct reports was resisting the centralization of the sales and marketing functions. "It is imperative that you gain Marty's buy-in," he wrote.

Kelly and I dove in. First up was Marty, whom I motivated, I felt sure, with a deft application of both carrot and stick. Next came the hostile hotelier: I pulled out all the stops trying to placate her, offering a quick (and possibly nonexistent) fix that included temporarily substituting an earlier-generation robot. "This relationship is critical to our company, and we want to make you happy," I purred, adding an eye roll that was promptly captured by the now-forgotten camera.

I suddenly realized I hadn't gotten a single email in hours. "Oh, dear," said the coordinator. It seems there had been a computer glitch, not part of the simulation. When I rebooted, a good dozen emails lay festering in my inbox: Design an agenda for our off-site! Decide whether to move a guy from Asia to the inventory-reduction task force--today! Determine why all of our new-hire MBAs are quitting! Write a business plan by 4 p.m.! And, oh, by the way, you have a TV interview to address concerns that one of our security robots caused a teenager's death.

It was at about this time that the lightning bolt struck. "Not fair," I whined to myself, pining for my messy desk, my writer's block. No time for that now, though--I had a dead teenager on my hands. At least the interview would be a breeze, I figured, given my day job in real life. But when I tried to stay cool, explaining our position on the "unfortunate event," the jerk kept putting words in my mouth.

The rest of the day was a blur. More vile emails. An inspirational voice mail I had to record to introduce Kelly to the staff (in a brilliant, if unauthorized, initiative, I announced $1,000-to-$25,000 bonuses to anyone with "ideas that help the company"). I swore a lot under my breath. And then it was time for the business-plan presentation. Without a clue about how to crunch the production numbers, I had opted to concentrate on the marketing side of the Jeeves product launch--and to talk so much that my boss wouldn't miss the margin calculations or the ad budget. Amazingly, he actually seemed to buy it.

"My day finally ended. I left feeling like the white-collar equivalent of Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory."

I left feeling like the white-collar equivalent of Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory. I didn't think I had been a complete loser, but that just raised the question: If this ink-stained--and untrained--wretch could pass for management material, wasn't this whole exercise suspect? Could it really be worth the $4,000 to $12,000 that more than 1,000 companies have ponied up for DDI's full- or half-day assessments?

Kelly and I cuddled up together in the hotel for a brain-dead evening of reality TV, then returned to DDI the next morning for our results. Eric Hanson, executive consultant, and Audrey Smith, senior VP for executive solutions, took me through DDI's approach, which evolved out of a post-World War II assessment for potential candidates for the Office of Strategic Services. I asked Smith how a one-day simulation could truly predict someone's executive chops. She said I should see for myself--and in walked Jean Denuzzio. Denuzzio, an executive coach and a senior assessor, had a deceptively soothing, grandmotherly air as she explained that I had been judged on 11 competencies out of the 31 that DDI evaluates. Each was graded as either a strength, a proficiency, or, in DDI parlance, a "development opportunity." (I would later receive a more detailed, written report; if I were a real client, I'd develop an action plan both to build on the stuff I'm good at and to work on my "opportunities.")

Denuzzio started with the good news. "I was surprised at the number of email responses you handled," she said. I gave secret thanks for that speed-typing class at Monroe High School. She also said I had shown a real aptitude for "driving results," meaning I was focused and tried to get things done. And, to my surprise, my boss really had liked my presentation. I'd projected confidence, had decent ideas, shown some entrepreneurial insight, and demonstrated "solid business judgment."

I puffed up with pride. Maybe I had osmosed some of this management stuff after all. Hell, maybe someone would want to write about me one day. (I would soon learn that my personality test scored very high in the "attention-seeking" category.)

My euphoria didn't last long. "We didn't see a lot of creativity," Denuzzio said, moving on briskly. Say what? And my attempt to skate over my lack of financial expertise? Busted. My mood lifted again, though, when Denuzzio labeled me a "change agent." Hey, Fast Company worships change agents! Sadly, it turns out that, at DDI, a change agent is not the real driver of change (that would be a "change leader"). Change agents are means to an end. Tools.

"The other area, and it might be a nice area for you to work on," Denuzzio went on, "centered around your executive disposition." I felt my face getting hot. True, I have been known to blow a gasket from time to time. But I had played it so cool here. Hadn't I? "You come off as professional," Denuzzio assured me. "You are a person who speaks your mind. But when people challenge you, you have an edge, and it surfaced," she said, referring to my exchange with the TV reporter. She also noted that in my talk with Marty, my employee, I was "getting a little bit demanding." Now this was depressing. I had always considered myself good at communicating clearly and mentoring people. But my tendency to get impatient and irritated in times of stress--one that came out loud and clear in my personality tests--had gotten in the way of my abilities, creating, in DDI speak, a "derailer."

Denuzzio finished up her vivisection of me by going over the three personality tests I had taken--the "leadership effectiveness," "challenges," and "values" inventories. The first measures tendencies that usually help someone lead better; the second looks at those damned derailers; and the values inventory measures what motivates or inspires a person. Although the tests are an important part of the assessment process, they don't carry as much weight as the business simulation. "Our motto is, 'Behavior rules,' " said Denuzzio.

To my delight and horror, the tests nailed me cold. My passion for new and different challenges, my hardworking, ambitious side, my love of socializing and interacting with others--all there. But so, too, were my tendency to get snappish at stressful moments and my "low interpersonal sensitivity" (i.e., extreme bluntness). DDI doesn't make yes-or-no job recommendations for candidates. Yet I came away with the strange--and somehow disturbing--conclusion that, warts and all, I could, with a lot of practice and probably a lot of therapy, be Kelly Myers. I didn't have much time to think about that, though. Thankfully, I had a story to write.

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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