Years ago, while I was establishing myself in a new executive coaching practice, I supported my family by working as a part-time, outsourced CFO. Here is a reminiscence of a deep learning I earned during one of those accounting gigs.
I sought help from my own executive coach with the very difficult behavior of a bookkeeper employed by my client. She had called several urgent meetings with the partners and each time threatened to quit, more or less because of me. These meetings were very exasperating as she made charges that were either too vague to dispute or clearly contrary to plain facts. For example, although we repeatedly assured her that she had her job as long as she wanted it she insisted she could not continue to work under such uncertainty and would resign immediately because we were conspiring to take her job away. The partners felt obligated to placate and mollify her because she was the only bookkeeper out of several they had tried who was able to make any progress in getting their bills out to clients.
I said to my executive coach, “I am stressed and bothered because of her unpredictable behavior, of course, but I am mostly bothered by the fact that it bothers me. I am so ‘trained’ and ‘transformed’ I ought to be able to deal with her behavior without becoming stressed, hurt, or angry. I try to remain calm, not react to her outbursts, and keep on working because I need this income. I do what is necessary just to keep getting paid, so why do I lose sleep and spend my non-billable time talking about her with my coach, family, and friends?”
By the way, is this scenario reminding you of anything in your life, right now?
My coach reminded me of the dangers of attachment, of identifying with our property or positions. We confuse preferred outcomes with necessary results. We grasp so avidly to particular bits of property or actions by others that we forget we can still be ourselves without them. We attach money or prestige to ourselves so firmly that we forget that we are not our results or our reputations. What I want is not what I am.
I then remembered the old samurai expression (I suppose all samurai expressions are now old).
The most effective warrior dies before entering the battle.
The bookkeeper was not damaging my body or physically invading my free time. My attachments were the only things making my life difficult. I was attached to looking good in the eyes of my client, I was attached to behaving “better” than the bookkeeper, and I was attached to getting the work done well and expeditiously. And, most of all, most confining, most painful, was my attachment to the money this project brought to my household.
The great irony, of course, was that being attached was causing so much stress and distraction that my work was deteriorating, my behavior was not laudable, and I was continually fantasizing about walking away from the client–and their money. My attachment was carving a rift between me and that to which I claimed to be attached. The more I grasped the further it moved away.
In that moment, I gave up any desire to continue working at this client. I no longer expected to make any more money there. It was all out of my control. All I could do was show up with complete flexibility and integrity and do what I thought best, moment to moment. It was an immediate relief.
This conversation and insight occurred while I was driving to the client’s office. After I dropped my briefcase in my office I went to the office of one of the partners. “You asked me to stop in as soon as I got here so we can meet with the bookkeeper.”
He replied, “Have you talked to anyone?” He closed the door. The bookkeeper had resigned again and the other partners were begging her to stay.
I said, “I am sorry to hear that. I want you to do what is best for you and your firm. Do not worry about me; I will be okay. If you need to hand my head to her, go ahead and fire me. I have other clients. If you need me to kiss her butt, I can do that. If you let her walk out, I will fix your accounting without her. I am okay whatever you choose and I think your firm will be, too.” Everything I had feared losing in the battle I chose to give away. I had nothing left to defend, nothing to fear. The bookkeeper might be looking for a fight but I had declined to participate.
After a little bit more discussion, I went to my office to await a decision. I was very surprised to notice that I was relaxed, clearheaded, and productive for the two hours they kept me waiting. Finally, a meeting was called with me, the bookkeeper, and one of the partners. The bookkeeper was able to voice all of her concerns; I was able to hear them. I reassured her where appropriate, apologized where necessary, and told her what needed to happen next. I made it clear that we would be bringing in other bookkeepers and that I would be checking her work. She agreed to everything, smiled broadly, and we all got back to work.
It was a miracle. The more I let go of controlling the outcome the better the outcome got.
Now, three weeks later, the bookkeeper has left peacefully and I have hired two excellent accountants. Oh, I also keep cashing their checks.
Great tale, Tony. Thanks for sharing!