It was a few years ago. I was working for a global education company in Johannesburg. The company itself did all kinds of work in education around the world. Its South African business included a large group of higher education campuses, delivering degrees and higher education qualifications. My role was as the head of the organisation’s marketing.
At that time, I think it was around September or October, I’d only been at the company for a few months, so I was still feeling somewhat unsure of myself. Yet for some reason, the MD of the South African business and I seemed to have built some sort of weird rapport. I think he liked me because I had a decent idea of direction of the brand, and I had some big ideas. Or something like that.
But you’d never say this if you were magically transported into some of the senior leadership meetings I had to sit in. I wasn’t immune to being interrogated and grilled by an MD who was fiercely competent but also notoriously aggressive. Sometimes I still feel like I’m recovering from some of that.
Anyway, along the way I detected a growing sense of respect for some of the work I was doing. I got invited to sit in executive director weekly meetings. He started calling me almost every day about something or other. I seemed to be included in more than I should have been.
One particular memory sticks in my head. All the managers and leaders of the higher education division of the organisation were on one whatsapp group chat. Probably 30 or so of us. It’s interesting, as a side note, thinking about it. The UK takes things like employee privacy and non-work hours seriously. With South Africa this was probably less so. This group chat would see action at all times of the day, including weekends – often directed at me, because someone saw something or had an idea. Marketers will know.
One night I woke up at 1am, to see my phone blinking. Whatsapp messages from the MD on the group chat. He’d found some rather unsavoury messages on our facebook page and asked what we could do.
I lay there for an hour thinking about this. Then realised I wasn’t going to sleep until I had peace of mind. So I got up to go look. At 2am I located the messages and “hid” them, so the public wouldn’t see them. I then went back on the whatsapp group right then and told him it was sorted. A rather genius move in the end. The next day people greeted me like a hero, asking if I ever slept.
So it wasn’t that much of a surprise I suppose, when a couple of weeks later I was asked to present to the global board of directors who were visiting the following month. Yip, the group of top execs from the UK and the US were coming to South Africa for the first time in a few years, and I was on a panel of 5 people to present our business to them.
These weren’t just any execs. Some of the names were almost mythical within the organisation. Weeks of preparation from large teams went into planning their stay. Tensions were heightened. Corporate busybodies were busier than ever.
Of the five presenters, two were from my division of the business. Myself and the Academic Director, an esteemed, articulate fellow, a good few years older than myself. Very much an academic. He was a professor after all. I got on well with him. We worked in the same building. We’d often sit and have long discussions and the company, the qualifications, the strategy. He was genuinely just nice. We’d usually come out of gruelling monday morning exec meetings and compare notes, often just smiling ruefully about it all.
What piled on the pressure with these presentations was all the preparation they wanted to do around it. From three weeks or so prior to the board meeting date where we had to present, we had to do ongoing dry runs of the presentations. The small group of presenters was our audience in these practise runs. But it had our MD and one of the global directors sitting in. Essentially this was my MD’s boss. So pretty high up on the old chain of command.
I remember feeling pretty stressed out in each of these sessions. After all, I was still fairly new. My directors were present. One of the global directors present. It was all quite tense. Luckily I didn’t really show it. I don’t think I did. But I got told all sorts about my presenting style in those few weeks. Apparently I “spoke too slowly” (an ongoing theme in those three weeks). I “dwelled on some points too long”. I “preempted slides too much before showing them”. I discarded a lot of it afterwards.
Anyway, as you can tell it all felt quite pressurised. Each time you had to do this you were judged, picked apart, right down to your body language and voice.
Then something happened that I still think about. Something so small, yet it changed so much of the way I viewed the workplace, and interactions between management and organisational leadership.
In one of these dry run presentations, my esteemed Academic Director was going before me, in his usual slot. I was sitting next to him. At one point I looked down at his hands as he moved them while talking. They were shaking. Shaking. Not enough to be noticed from a few feet away or through the screen where the others were in Cape Town. But shaking clearly.
There I was, a shitstorm of nerves going through me, and he was shaking.
How was I supposed to feel about this? Good or bad? Comforted or terrified?
I thought about this long and hard afterwards. I still do. The realisation that even the most senior of directors is often filled with these moments of fear and nervousness was probably one of the more liberating moments of my work career. There’s comfort in joint suffering. Lots of comfort.
Are we all just generally unsure of ourselves? Do some people just hide it better? Who knows. I’ve sat in many boardrooms since then looking at my peers in similar positions. Wondering if they feel fear and intense nervousness.
How many of them are completely free of nerves and stress in pressure situations? How many are worried? Worried about how they’re perceived. Worried that they’re winging it and sooner or later they’ll be caught out. Or very competent individuals just desperately lacking belief in themselves. I’m not sure, but I know it’s present most times.
In my years I’ve worked with maybe two or three individuals who I could say were genuinely fearless. Who’s brimming confidence was genuine. Funnily enough, these individuals, for the most part, didn’t have a boss. They were the boss.
I’ve tried to remind myself in the subsequent months and years that when in these high pressure presentation situations, most people feel the same. Most people are desperate to please the boss, to be competent, to get through.
If you’re wondering how those scary presentations went, the answer is, they went well. My academic friend and I did just fine. Of course we did. But three months later I was getting on a plane to move countries, leaving that role behind. And everything we stressed about seemed to matter so little when viewed in retrospect. I even ended up in the London global HQ of this company for a while on the same floor and a few yards away from the global MD’s office. One of the mythical beings himself.
Life goes on. The agonising battle in front of you today is just a fond memory of the future. Some mornings you wonder how you’re going to do it. Then one way or another it always seems to turn out ok. You get through. You always do. I should tell myself that more.