April President's Message: Your Company or Your Friend?

Would you give up a friendship for the survival of an organization that you believe in? Some of us have faced this excruciating choice. I’ll share my own story, but first, updates:

  • April 18th, attend the San Francisco Retrofit Fair! SEAONC will host a booth. At the last one in 2014, SEAONC spoke with more than a hundred members of the public about earthquake safety and structural engineering. Want to join us? Contact the SEAONC office.
  • Help end duty-to-defend provisions in your contracts! See detailed announcment.
  • Share your experience over beer! At some YMF events, a SEAONC member briefly presents a recent project, what made it interesting, and lessons learned. Do you have an insight worth sharing? Contact YMF chairs Nick Herskedal or Anthony Trgovcich.
  • SEAONC Newsletter is now public! It’s no longer necessary to be logged-in to view.

Back to hard choices. At my previous company, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. I had served as the acting Executive Director (ED) during the formation of the Global Earthquake Model (GEM), and when it incorporated as a non-profit in Italy, I had to either move to Italy or find a successor. As hard as that choice seemed at the time, little did I know how easy it was, compared to choices yet to come.

Italy is a lovely place, but my family is here. I left GEM, but my disappointment lingered. So imagine my thrill, two years later, when the next ED asked me to rejoin GEM, working from California, to help with strategic activities like the five-year business plan. Unsuspecting, I found myself caught in what was effectively a turf war between the ED and the Science Board Chair, one of the co-founders. Both were my trusted friends. “Were.”

Whether intentional or not, each ended up undermining the authority of the other. The wheels were coming off the organization, quickly. For GEM to survive, the two of them would have to depart, and neither would do so willingly. Luckily the Board of Directors was still functional.

Over the next two years, an acrimonious leadership transition played out, with myself as an agent of change. It ended with “willing” resignations from both parties (at different times). They saved face, but nevertheless each felt forced out and humiliated, and each blamed me with personal attacks.

Neither friend has spoken to me since. The job is long-lost, as well. I couldn’t bear to stay when the few remaining loyalists still blamed me.

At the time, it hardly felt like leadership on my part, but in hindsight I find solace knowing that GEM now has at least a chance to thrive. The Board took a more active management role, and there is now a new permanent ED.

The point of this example is that leadership can require painful sacrifice. Many companies, especially in our profession, serve as a force for good through noble pursuits: making the public safer, yes; but also the more-mundane but no-less-important duty to provide sustainable income for employees. That is a nobleness that might just be worth fighting for, even to the point of sacrificing friendship.

If you ever have to face, or have already faced, a leadership sacrifice, take heart. You’re not alone. You’ll do the best you can. And most likely your best will also be the right thing in the end.

Addendum: This post recounts only the experience of the author and does not represent a SEAONC position.  There may be other perspectives of the events described.