Updated: Aug 26
I can't recall exactly when I first went to Bratislava but it was sometime between the autumn of ’97 and the spring of '98. I was appointed as Group Head of IT for a TV business in August of '97. The holding company, based in London, owned and operated a number of TV stations in Central and Eastern Europe. It was my job to make sure we had common IT systems across the group.
We were making progress with most of the TV stations, yet there was one that remained a mystery: TV Markiza. The emails I sent to Markiza's IT manager seemed to fall into a black hole. TV Markiza had a bit of a reputation for being political and had several run-ins with the Slovakian government. There were rumours that the head of the station hired Russian Mafia, (Bratva) for protection.
So it was with some trepidation that I entered the TV station for the first time. It was 8:30 am, the TV station had a relaxed atmosphere, with small huddles of people drinking coffee and chatting. Maybe I'd been worrying about nothing, I reflected, while I followed a Bratva muscleman to TV Markizas's Boardroom.
I was shown to my seat at the end of a very long polished walnut table. I was trying to figure-out how much that had cost, and how that squared up with the lack of profit from Markiza since its launch three years earlier. When I looked up to see a man in a very expensive looking suit. He was the Director General of TV Markiza, Pavol Rusko. He took a seat at the other end of the table, and after the briefest of handshakes, I decided to fill the uncomfortable silence.
"Thank you for seeing me and you certainly seem to have an impressive operation here at Markiza”. I said, attempting to sound diplomatic, but probably sounding like a creep.
It felt very odd sitting four metres apart. Is this a mind-game he’s playing, or maybe just Slovakian culture, I mused. I couldn’t fathom why this was a one-on-one meeting with the Director General. Surely he’d want his IT manager to be there?
This is when things got even stranger. Mr. Rusko stared hard at me, waiting to see my reaction. He reached inside his jacket and slowly revealed a silver pistol. He placed it with a clunk on the walnut surface.
"I just want you to be clear about your visit today, Mr. Green".
He spoke with what I can only describe as a typical Eastern European 'gangster' accent; like the bad guy in a Bond movie. My mind raced as I tried to figure-out my next move. The pen and toothbrush in my jacket pocket weren’t a match his weapon. I gulped back the growing lump in my throat, and wiped my brow. The voice in my head asked if this was really happening, and without hesitation, screamed ‘YES’.
Enjoying my obvious discomfort for a little longer, he finally smiled, and said:
"I have arranged a full day of activities for you to enjoy and you'll be my guest at my Chateau for dinner.”
The Director-General showed me to the door with a pat of my shoulder, as if to say; “There’s a good boy, I know you won’t misbehave”.
Once again I followed the burly chap back to the TV station's reception area where a couple of young employees sat waiting. I discovered they were both TV presenters in their day-jobs, but today they would be showing me around the station, and joining me for dinner at Rusko’s Chateau. It took a while for my nerves to settle, but after an hour or so, I was quite enjoying their company while we tour the station. The one topic we didn’t discuss was IT. With self-preservation in the front of my mind, I didn’t ask why, I just went with the flow.
That evening the three of us were bundled into a huge black Audi and driven off into the night. Suffice to say, I was more than a tad nervous when we arrived at Rusko's Chateau. After a few glasses of wine, I relaxed enough to join in with the conversation over dinner. Once after-dinner drinks were over, I was again, whisked-off in the black limo, this time, without my two young friends. I don’t remember much after that, but somehow, I woke up, with a sore head, in my hotel bedroom.
I tell this story because:
It's permanently etched on my mind.I don’t know why these things happen to me, but they do. Karma I guess.
The experience had a lasting impact on me. A couple of years earlier, my propensity of applying logic to anything and everything, would’ve been unhelpful to say the least. This combined with the hubris of a young man in a senior role, could've sealed my fate. But then again, he probably had bigger fish to fry.
It's all about human interaction, unpredictability, risk assessment, values and trust. These are the most challenging aspects of change.Technology, is the least challenging (assuming you get the requirements right, before leaping to ‘solutions’).
I like the fact that this is an IT story which isn’t anything to do with IT.
Deferral can be the right strategy - let things play-out, gather more intelligence, choose your moment.
Just before joining the TV business, I had read about EQ (Emotional. Intelligence) and thank heaven I had. At least I had a rudimentary understanding of the four main aspects of EQ: Self management, Self awareness, Social awareness and Relationship management.
Any change initiative will meet resistance at some point. It probably won’t be as dramatic as my meeting with director-general Rusko. Yet, it might be concealed like the gun in his pocket; it won't be obvious why that individual or group hold a point-of-view. It’s important to develop an understanding of the values of the protagonists within your change story.
On the scale of difficult meetings, this was a ten. When business interactions get awkward, I remember the Director-General and his gun, to dispel any discomfort. It puts things in to perspective, so I can fully engage in the discussion and often defuse the conflict.
Just a few days after that trip, I conferred with a trusted friend, Jan, in Prague. And after we did a bit more digging, we found probable cause for Rusko's behaviour. We found he had majority ownership in a number of software and IT service companies who only served TV Markiza. After a bit more exploring with the Group CFO, we found the companies had been charging well over market rate for their products and services. This was one of the schemes Rusko had in place to ensure Markiza didn't make a profit and thus avoided payments to Group.
With the help of my friend in Prague, we got TV Markiza up and running on the group approved IT solutions within a matter of months of Rusko’s departure.
Being right isn’t good enough
Up to that day in Bratislava, I’d been an IT guy for most of my working life. This led to a propensity to apply logic to every situation. After all, that part of my brain had served me well as a software developer, so why not everywhere else? However, I had learnt about emotional intelligence the hard way, when I parted company with my employer, just before the TV firm. I hadn't “toed the company line” because it didn't make sense to my logical world view. However, as my old boss Keith used to say: "Being 'right' isn't good enough” or, in other words, I must learn to survive when logic fails, sage advice. I was proven correct six months after being ‘let go' can only be described as a pyrrhic victory.
I was already interested in the importance of Values and Trust, however, the tools and frameworks for understanding information systems ignored these dimensions. Yet, these were the very aspects that determine success or failure of a change programme.
Sometimes you’ll come across some powerful people who hold a particular perspective that’s unknowable to you. Unlike my story in Bratislava, they probably won’t be armed in the literal sense, but might still hold a metaphorical gun to your head. This is when logic takes a backseat and EQ rides upfront. Get to know the enemy, he/she will have a particular reason that they’re so against an idea. I’d say 60-70% of the time you can resolve issue by acting is a therapist who’s there to explore their concerns.
The other 30-40%, you probably need house peer pressure to get things resolved. However, this can be quite tricky. It's best to play an open hand to demonstrate that you're just trying to find the best solution. As Change Leader, you should keep an open mind about potential solutions. There will be plenty of others ‘solutioneering’. There’s no quick and easy answer to changing the mind of a power-broker in your firm. Coming to a resolution may take a long time - especially when you have a gun to your head!