(Names have been substituted to protect the identity of those involved)

Bob was a towering giant and the company’s marketing director. The marketing director played one of the most strategic roles in ensuring the success of this multinational business.   He was an astute senior manager, experienced and highly qualified (law, science and business) feared and confident. He was very intimidating especially in business meetings and managers were often under tremendous pressure when dealing with him. His reputation in the organization was well known and respected.  I was present when he once successfully challenged the finance director in a board meeting and was calculating financial equations in his head faster than anyone in the room.

I worked in the management accounting division and provided a commercial service to marketing for one of the strategic business units. I was pursuing a career in finance and was newly appointed to the position of commercial officer. One of my first tasks was to work on reviewing product margins, recommend selling prices and forecast group profitability. The discount structures were complex and comprised performance discounts, special customer promotions, support discounts, cash discounts etc. In addition, taxes such as VAT/ GST affected the calculations..  Calculating the net proceed of sales to the business was therefore complex and onerous. An incorrect assumption could easily result in a significant error.  Selling price changes had to be published and customers advised timeously etc. It was critical that the company got the selling price revisions right as the authorities could challenge them.

My job was to calculate the proposed selling prices and agree them with the marketing director for board approval.  I had done all the calculations, checked and double checked them and prepared a professional discussion paper to meet with Bob. Meetings were confirmed and I approached Bob’s office, which was a large oak clad office with a colossal desk.  Bob stared sharply at me from above his glasses that were pushed over his nose and his head tilted. Being a big fella, he dominated the space and his mere glance had the propensity to send a shiver down one’s spine.  I felt isolated and I reflected that this is probably how people felt when confronted by an intimidating situation. I sympathised with all those who were being bullied for example and thought how futile it must be for them.

Bob took the documents from me and immediately started perusing the numbers. He was quick and understood the concepts and principles and didn’t require much explaining.

However, when he took his fountain pen and started writing on his personal memo pad, I started fearing the worst. He plucked numbers and started his own calculation of the price increase versus what I had proposed to check my logic and accuracy. He muttered as he did this and then came the crunch when he told me that my numbers were rubbish. They are wrong he said, as he couldn’t reconcile to my proposal using his approach. I stood there dumbfounded for a moment. It felt like eternity. I couldn’t believe that I had made a mistake. This was incredible but his numbers were all there and looked right. For a minute I believed him and thought what a fool I had made of myself. Then I thought, how could I have made an error of this magnitude. Thoughts were flying through my head and fear was beginning to grip me. I came from a disadvantaged community, jobs were hard to come by and I struggled to get a job in commerce. Job reservations precluded one from even studying a tertiary qualification and I broke barriers to reach this stage. A stupid blunder like this and there goes all future opportunities to progress. Bob was a highly influential manager and if he communicated to the company that he had no confidence in me then that would be a  disaster for me.  The thoughts formed a multi-layered matrix in my head and I was experiencing all kinds of emotion. But I dare not show Bob how I was feeling.

I remember saying that my numbers were right. This annoyed Bob and he stood up immediately and towered over me.  The next thing he did sent a shock wave through me. He put his hand out and demanded that we bet on the accuracy of the numbers.  While he suggested a bottle of whisky, I knew that the other side of the deal was my demise.  I had 20 seconds to respond. All it took was 20 seconds of insane courage. My arm was extending itself out to him and I knew that it was an involuntary action.  My mouth was articulating that it agreed and it was then that I understood that insanity had taken over. I don’t know who was under pressure now, whether it was Bob or I.  It aggravated Bob when I accepted the bet and walked away to review his calculations and to establish who was right.

I was barely back at my workstation when Bob stormed in demanding to know the outcome. I then realized that he was under as much pressure as me but for a different reason. Nobody had dared challenge Bob like this before and here was a junior accountant taking him on board.  It was at this exact moment when I found that Bob had made a mistake in his calculations. Something that he should have known being the marketing director.  (But that proved that he was only human – something to remember in the future.)  He misstated a special customer support bonus that he had personally designed.  Correcting this in his formula, the numbers balanced to the last decimal and reconciled to my proposal.  Bob was quick and understood his error immediately.  He did not admit that he was wrong. At that moment I actually didn’t care whether he did or not. All that mattered to me was the relief of knowing that I did not make a mistake that was crucial for my future.  He told me that he owed me a whisky and looked strangely ordinary when he left my office.

My emotion was initially relief, which later translated to increased confidence and then positive moments. I tried to imagine what the consequences would have been if I had not accepted the challenge. I know that even though I was right, I would have come across as one who lacked confidence. In my job that was fatal and would have not augured well for me.  My future would have been bleak.

A few weeks later I was in a meeting with a few senior managers, my boss and fellow colleagues when suddenly Bob entered the room and looked for me. Held high in his left hand he had a bottle of the finest whisky and he shook my hand with his right with congratulations and left as abruptly as he had entered.  The people in the room were stunned and silent. It was unexpected and a rare sight indeed. Then I told them about my meeting and the bet.

I know that the respect and confidence that I had generated from this incident held me in good stead throughout my career and I   knew that Bob regarded me highly and that I could count on his support.  It only took 20 seconds of insane courage.

How often people miss opportunities like these. Even a tough situation like this had innate opportunities.  Do you have the 20 second courage factor?  Have you had an experience you would like to share with us?  We would love to hear from you.  Please let us have your comments.




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