Better to be in the Arena Fighting…

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A place I used to work, perhaps 10-12 years ago, had (what I think, now) was a strange custom. Every Monday morning the whole company would get together to go through everything. There were around 70 of us, at the peak, and we would all stand around from about one-and-a-half hours going through sales, marketing, development, ops, specific projects and so on. This was tiresome, to say the least. I had this slight sense of dread each Monday morning as 10am loomed, and we all started shuffling to the space “around the boss’s desk” (difficult with 70 of you..).

Anyway, thinking back, the main points I remember from these meetings were:

  1. There were pastries every time – and you had to position yourself well, to get the “good ones”. Other than the specific point I make later, this is almost the only thing I remember from, probably, 100-150 hours of my life.
  2. The reviews from sales consisted of trying to sell (to us), why the latest lead was inevitably going to lead to untold riches. When this didn’t happen (months later), rather than updating us on “I’m afraid that dead cert didn’t cross the line”, instead these deals were conveniently forgotten. After a year, you begin to get cynical..
  3. Development – every week the same: “We’ve done an extra week of work on product X. Nothing really to show”.
  4. Ops – incredibly, almost every week, the update from ops wasn’t about servers, our technical infrastructure etc, but almost always seemed to be about desks and chairs – that we were getting new ones, that we were re-arranging the current ones to suit new starters, that we’d “had a rethink about the larger desks” and so on. An extraordinary waste of time.

So we’d endure these sessions every Monday morning – it filled the time until lunch – at the end of each session would be the CEO’s rousing finale, where he’d fire up the troops ready for the week ahead. This generally wasn’t great and, to be fair, how do you come up with something new week in week out? Particularly in quite a slow moving business where not a whole lot happened each week? “Go dev team, continuing to fix that next tranche of indecipherable bugs!!”.

But, there was one speech which I do remember, and still remember to this day. We’d been going through a tough period with our investors, questioning our progress, our organisation, our management (how dare they, with their millions of dollars sunk in to us :) ), and a lot of people in the company, who’d been trying to make progress on product, marketing and sales, had had to spend a lot of time dealing with requests for information from these people. We knew we had to do it, but still. We’d also had some issues with journalists, and analysts too, not quite seeing our way on things – whether they were right or wrong, again, it’s an exhausting process, trying to keep these groups happy when you have a day job to get right.

And it was at one of these Monday morning meetings that the boss stood up and gave a 20 minute oration on the topic of “Better to be in the arena fighting, than in the stands criticising and judging”. This is a relatively well known topic, and subject of such speeches, but it was such an impassioned 20 minutes, painting a picture of us in the company, fighting lions and gladiators (he had a background in the classics) whilst the petty and ill-informed outside world looked on, passing judgement without understanding the problems we faced (fighting lions!), that for once, it did genuinely rouse the company, and left us all leaving that meeting with just a bit more energy for the week ahead.

There were, in fact, two things that I took away from this event:

  1. The value of a good speech, particularly in terms of timing. Our boss knew exactly what the feeling was in the company at the time (that we were all trying really hard to do something, and were being ground down by external sceptics), captured that feeling and spoke about that topic, rather than something else. And, as I say, I think a background in Classics helps!
  2. The subject itself – I strongly agree with the principle that, it’s better to be having a go at something, however well or badly, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, trying new things, than to be on the sidelines, passing comment.

It’s why I’ve never been a fan of journalists or critics – far better to be a musician, putting out an average album, than a journalist critiquing that album. What positive contribution do you make!?

So, a great speech, given at the right time, with a point-of-view that I strongly support. I just wish I could remember something else from the 100s of hours spent standing around, chewing on Pret-a-Manager almond croissants (definitely one of the “good” pastries)…

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