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Of Mother Goose, Bill W, and God

Mother Goose(1)Last year, we fired a few clients and one fired us. I learned from each – which I think is the best a person can do.

Each of the clients with whom I asked to part company were bad fits…or became such. They did not value what we did. They called us at the last minute, giving us very little time to provide meaningful input. When we were able to offer advice, each of these clients made their belief painfully clear that they simply knew more than we did.  They were, in a word, uncoachable. As such, they fell under what we call “the life’s too short rule” and we fired them.

The year started out painfully for us when we were let go. I remember my client’s exact words: “we’ve decided to go in a different direction from a legal perspective.” Is there any worse phrase to be on the receiving end of in the business world than “we’ve decided to go in a different direction?” If there is, I don’t know it.

The fact is the client was right. We had worked side-by-side with them as they achieved an incredible amount of success. They grew from a $12,000,000 business to ten times that in the span of a little over a decade. They outgrew us. They knew it. Their New York securities firm knew it. And we knew it too, even if we didn’t want to admit to it or talk about it.

There is a prayer, often erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, called “The Serenity Prayer.” I’m certain you’ve heard it. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The earliest established date for The Serenity Prayer is its inclusion in a sermon by Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1940’s.  It later became woven into the fabric of Alcoholics Anonymous. Personally, I prefer to think it originated with Mother Goose in 1695:

“For every ailment under the sun

There is a remedy, or there is none;

If there be one, try to find it;

If there be none, never mind it.”

Whether from AA or Mother Goose, the distinction between futile and well-directed energy is critical to any business endeavor.

It was incumbent upon me to understand who we are as a firm and who we serve best. When I did not readily confront that reality, it was forced upon me by a client who did.

When we realized that certain clients were never going to fit well into how we work best as general counsel, we were wise to cut them loose rather than fighting to change what will not.

I have watched companies spend years trying to keep people who should have left them years ago. Sometimes the reasoning was “I can change them.” Sometimes it was “I know we can change things here to make them happier.” Other times these people stayed simply because those in charge wished to avoid an unpleasant conversation.

Whatever the case, preserving situations best ended is one of a chief executive’s toughest tests and highest forms of wisdom. What’s more, those circumstances bring to mind another saying it might be wise to take to heart:

“What is inevitable should be done immediately.”