Important Conversations

Geoff Smith's Blog

Posted OnJuly 04, 2022


It’s July, time to relax.  This blog has no deep message or purpose.  I wrote it a few years ago, and just recently found it while looking for something else: 

“As you get older, you learn what events have had the largest impact on your life, because they are the ones that you tend to repeat to others.  Then, as the years pass, they tend to winnow themselves out, until the finalists emerge as if by a process of subconscious elimination.  For me, several crucially important conversations come to mind, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. 

One was a very short conversation, but it requires a long setup. 

At twenty-nine, I had been at EllisDon for two years as Legal & Labour Relations Director.  This was actually a very cool job, but I wanted to get into the business side, so I started bugging my CEO father Don for a promotion.  He was generally OK with the idea, and it was decided that I would become the Ottawa Area Manager.  Ottawa was a very small operation then.  Don's idea was that the current Ottawa Manager, a rising star about six or seven years my senior named Roly Hein would be promoted to run the Western Canada operation. The current Western Canada VP, a bully type guy named Les Beyak whom Don had recruited a few years earlier and who was failing, would be replaced. 

Now, you need to know about EllisDon's Western Canada operation.  It had never been successful, and my Dad had consistently fired, demoted or moved aside every single person he had sent to run it.  It was a career graveyard at EllisDon. 

So, one day he called me into his office and got Roly Hein on the speaker phone, not mentioning that I was there.  On being offered this great promotion, the next step on the path to being CEO, Roly (being fairly astute) replied "No, thank you. I'm happy right here in Ottawa."  Now, my Dad was a very determined guy, but Roly would not be convinced.  As for me - young, ambitious and stupid - I could not understand Roly's reaction.  It was a big promotion after all, and I whispered to my Dad 'He's making a mistake'.  My Dad then bellowed into the phone, 'Geoff is sitting here and he says you're making a big mistake!'  And that was the end of my relationship with Roly.  Anyway, my Dad hung up, looked at me and said 'Well, I guess you're going out west'. 

Now, as I said, I was young, ambitious and stupid, but I wasn't entirely stupid.  My father had a tendency to not just to play people off against one another, but to put them in direct conflict and see who won.  What was going to happen, he said, was that I would move to Calgary and (sixty year old, experienced, prideful) Les Beyak would immediately be reporting directly to (twenty-nine year old, totally inexperienced, prideful) me.  As if. 

So of course I said "Fine, but I want to be in the room when you explain this to Les".  My Dad said "Fine, he'll be here Monday".  And I said "Fine".  And now it gets interesting. 

Monday comes, Les has been called to town, and I'm ready.  But my Dad said "Let me meet with Les for a few minutes, and I'll call you in".  That seemed fair so I repaired to my office and waited.  And waited, until it seemed as though something might be amiss.  I went down to the Boardroom where they were meeting and opened the door.  Nobody was there.  So I went to my Dad's office and found his Secretary.   

"Where's Don?" 

"He's in the gym." 

"What?  Where's Les?" 

"He just left for the airport." 

Screwed, and also angry, I waited for Don to exercise, shower and return to his office, then I barged in.  And here, after all that set up, is one of the most important conversations in my life. 

"What happened?" 

"It's all done, you're going to Calgary, Les is reporting to you." 

"And Les is fine with that?" 

"Yes."    

Now I was certain he was being less than fully truthful, but it didn't matter anyway, and I launched into a big speech. 

"I don't believe that Les will ever answer to me.  And you can't give me the responsibility to run an Area if you won't give me the clear authority.  There's no way that I can succeed in those conditions." 

I'm sure I made other arguments as well.  I'm certain I was very logical, and that anyone looking at the transcript today would completely agree with my points.  Let's just summarize it here as "blah, blah, blah". 

In the middle of my oratory, my father looked up from his desk, glared at me, and said: 

"Grow up."   

And then he looked back down at his papers.  He may have picked up the phone and called someone.  The conversation was over.  I had been dismissed.   

Except that I was still standing there, a bit dazed.  The door was right behind me, but it could as easily have been in a different county.  I think my legs had gone wobbly. I still can't remember how I escaped.  

Here's how it played out.  I showed up at the Calgary office the next Monday, scared but ready for my showdown with Les.  By coincidence, just as I was walking in, Les was walking out, overnight bag in hand.  I asked his secretary where he was going, and she told me Don had called him down to London again.  When he got there, Don fired him.  I never saw Les Beyak again. 

I asked Don if he was going to send out an announcement to the staff, and he said I should just go around and tell everyone that I was in charge.  So I did that too, and I will never forget the looks on the faces of some of our best people, as a team that had already been suffering from poor morale descended into something much worse.  It seemed crazy to me then, and it seems crazier to me now. 

Still, I'll tell you one thing.  I grew up.