Three Envelopes...

There’s a classic business parable that goes something like this: 

On his first day on the job, a leader gets the chance to meet privately with the outgoing predecessor to talk about the job.   After a chat about the company and some job specifics, the outgoing leader says to the new leader “if you ever get in trouble, I’ve left three envelopes in the top desk drawer – open them one at a time and they’ll help you succeed.”

So the new leader sets about his job and everything is OK for a while, but he quickly runs into hard times.  He remembered what his predecessor had said and hurried to open Envelop Number One.  It read:

“Blame your predecessor.”

So the new leader set about a campaign of both subtly and not so subtly blaming all of the current problems on the past leadership.  This seemed to work.  People like a common enemy.  And a concrete place to point blame.  But after a while the perceived gains from this tactic wore thin and the organization ran into problems once again and degraded even further.  The new leader went back to his top drawer in search of Envelope Number Two.  It read:


So the new leader set about with some structural changes, implemented some new policies, and put new systems in place to better organize the team.  This also seemed to work.  People saw it as fresh and new.  They thought there was better control and predictability.  The numbers even went up.  But again, the perceived value of these things soon wore off and the organization was in trouble once again.  The new leader went back to his top drawer one last time, hoping for some good advice in Envelope Number Three.  It read:

“Prepare yourself three envelopes…….”

What strikes me as odd, even beyond this apt little parable, is that most leadership advice we tend to give these days, has absolutely nothing to do with leadership at all.  We tend to talk about good business tactics, management how-to, and organization structures.  But we never really get to the heart of being a leader.  Here are some things that I might include in envelopes to a new leader:

“Tell the story of where your company is going.”
“Go talk with someone you haven’t talked to in a while.”
“Find somebody you can talk with, seriously, about what you struggle with at work”
“Figure out how to really express gratitude today.”
“Write a really good narrative of why the company exists, and memorize it.”
“Go apologize, sincerely, for that thing you did last week.”
“Figure out what your biggest bias is, and actively combat it this week”
“Find a process or system that exists today, that causes people pain, and remove it.”
“Go talk with recruits, students, user groups, etc.  Everybody is a future employee.”
“Give somebody praise for a job well done.”