Week 1: Houston, We Have a Problem.

Many of you know I recently accepted a role as an Executive Vice President after 27 years as a top-performing, C-suite Executive Assistant. I’ve decided to chronicle my journey each week as I transition from “the help” to the one creating the game plan, rallying the team, and executing to perfection, and all places in between. Tuesday, May 28th was my first day on the job. Here’s my experience so far, with hopes that it can help anyone currently dealing with similar issues to relate, share, resolve accordingly. Let’s begin.

Because of the week that I just had, I now have a newfound, tremendous respect for executives at this level. I’ve inherited a team that is de-motivated, a little bitter, and exhibiting a level of DGAF I haven’t seen in ages. My first day was walking into a situation where, through a comedy of errors, product that we’d worked diligently to produce and ready for shipment ended up getting woefully damaged by the shipping company we’d entrusted it to. Given the number of hours and labor that went into making those pieces, it was absolutely gut-wrenching to see photos from the client of those pieces with punctures, rub marks, scrapes, etc. As you can imagine, the client was pissed and my job was to do immediate due diligence to make sure we had followed protocol and not, inadvertently, caused the problem. Luckily, we did our job well, but a client with damaged goods is an unhappy client indeed. I did my best to help the client in the situation, but I’m afraid this is one of those experiences that will leave a bad taste in their mouth and cause them to think twice about using us again. Which is sad. Because we do stellar work. It was evident in the “before” photos of the product before it was prepared and loaded for shipment. But an experience is created end-to-end, not just at the beginning. Not just at the end. It’s the entire experience that determines a fully good or a bad one. And, sadly, this was the latter. Great way to kick off my EA to EVP journey! Yay, me.

My team consists of 3 people as well as a warehouse of about 10 fulltime craftsmen and numerous subcontractors who do specialty work like metal, powder coating, woodworking, etc. We also have a factory in Indonesia who are truly masters of all trades. Sorta. I’m quickly learning that aside from a language barrier and a gnarly 13-hour time difference, there is a very conspicuous difference in levels of professionalism. Bali is a beautiful destination. It’s lush and curious and heavenly in a way, unlike any other country I’ve visited. But it also has its challenges, especially as a hub for inexpensive labor in the industry I’m currently working in. There is a much more laid back approach to business, relationships, and execution that I’m already having a hard time wrapping my arms around. Our deadlines in the US are met on “Bali time” which means I’ve yet to get something back on the actual date it was promised. As an ex-career EA, this is frustrating beyond measure. As a new EVP, even moreso.

Back to my immediate team. While I’m never one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I find myself conflicted. There is a pervasive “fuck this place” attitude that I’m trying to pick apart. Numerous asks for the same task that go unanswered. Ordering simple supplies takes 3x as long as it should. Tons of complaints, but no solutions or ideas to fix them being offered up. And, most frustrating, bonehead mistakes occurring frequently costing the company 10s of thousands of dollars consistently and putting the company’s reputation and finances in danger. Poor communication. Poor follow-up. Lazy attitudes toward finding solutions on-the-fly. And two very different co-founders who have great hearts, but aren’t necessarily the strongest leaders in the wild. This is my new reality.

My challenge now is to really vet who’s here to win and who’s simply collecting a check. I can train-up anyone who’s willing to listen, ask questions, and try new things. I have little energy or time for the latter of the two. Having supported highly successful CEOs my entire career, I’ve adopted a similar attitude toward execution. Business is business. And it needs to be entrusted to those who are in it to win it. Those who aren’t need to go. Period. End of story. So, in my heart I know I will, inevitably, need to make some changes. After 27 years in the C-suite, I’ve developed an intuition that is pretty uncanny. I can tell you within a week of joining a company who needs to go, who’s there to slay, and who might be headed for the exits. It’s my superpower and one that I typically offer in a report to my execs within the first two weeks of joining a company. This situation will be no different.

My observations. So far.

Surrounding yourself with people having the same ethos, energy, and focus is what makes for a successful environment within which to execute with intention. When you have people who lack motivation for whatever reason, complain incessantly, take little initiative, and continue to skate by making what they believe to be harmless mistakes, you quickly realize that not everyone has the same end game in mind as you do. As a new EVP I feel even more urgency to “get it right.” While I would like to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch with an all new team, I simply can’t. These employees know all the players internally and externally, have the nuances committed to memory and have far more experience in the industry than I do. So I need them, to some degree. And therein lies the conundrum. Do I slow (actually stop) my “roll” and adjust to a slower cadence and whack attitude to meet people where they’re at? Or do I follow my instincts and start doing tons of due diligence to quickly learn the ropes, poach a couple of killers from my trīb and replace my flagging team with people who are hungry to make a difference, but who may not have the same amount of experience within the industry and potentially slow momentum until they’re trained up? Stay tuned for my final decision.

I took this role not because I needed it. I already have a business that is growing organically and exactly at the pace that I’ve set. I took the leap because I saw tremendous potential to not only gain all-new experience and make a lot of money but to also create waves of my own in an industry I’ve loved for years but doesn’t even realize it’s failing. It’s still stuck in this 1980’s fantasy simply because it supplies the articles we sit on, work from, and lie on every single day of our lives. Sure, materials have gotten cooler and designs have kept pace. But cheap knockoffs are flowing out of China and diluting the real craftsmanship around the world. Companies and designers are stuffing subpar merchandise into their designs to save a buck, but quickly realizing that the savings don’t really net-net out when all that shit they ordered falls apart after only a few months of repeated use. Smaller operations like mine produce quality work that lasts but often loses out because our price points are higher than China. Even with our Bali factory, we still have to compete pretty hard to snag bids or purchase orders that would usually go to China in a heartbeat. Thank you, Trump tariffs! As much as many of you like to hate the man, he is actually helping many US businesses compete against China by stemming the flow of cheap, Chinese products into the US without checking them financially right at the gate. Yes, I know the tariffs hurt some and will eventually cost American consumers more for Chinese-made products, but being one who is obsessed with quality, craftsmanship, and ‘MERRKA, and now as an EVP in manufacturing, with a tremendous gulp due to the source, I’m here for it.

Customer service is paramount. Still. However, I don’t prescribe to the whole the customer is always right paradigm. I am incredibly customer-focused. Been so for over 27 years as an EA. But I also believe that sometimes responsibility to perform lies with the customer as well. If I perform to the contract to the very best of my abilities with the intent to shock and awe, then my hope is that the customer will at least perform to what’s written in the contract. If that doesn’t happen, then it needs to come back to the table. I believe companies, specifically in my industry, bend over backward only to find themselves just bending over. In only 4 days into my new role, I’ve seen my company eat thousands of dollars in profits because customers have made last-minute changes, weren’t clear about their end game going in, or simply didn’t bother to double check specs to vet that, indeed, that’s the item they wanted. There’s a fine line between pleasing the customer and enabling poor behavior. Pleasing the customer is a goal and should always be top-of-mind. But enabling customers to run amok knowing they can get away with it and use the last time they got away with it as an excuse to do it again is an expressway to bankruptcy. I’m finding that part of being an effective EVP is laying the smackdown on customers from time-to-time to help keep the train on the tracks. By establishing clear standards, expectations, and boundaries as a company, it’s easier to hold everyone involved accountable to them. When deviations from plan are allowed to occur frequently, reciprocity is eroded as is respect for “the rules.” I’m seeing this in real time and am now doing my best to reign it all back in. And I WILL.

In Conclusion

EA to EVP isn’t an easy transition. Sure, my skills have been a godsend and I’ve been able to employ them in a blink. But there is so much more nuance to this role than I ever imagined and much of it has zero to do with actual skill. It’s about relationships and forging and maintaining them, and eating a lot of crow at times when others in your employ drop the ball. It’s finding a way to motivate people who truly don’t want to be motivated. It’s keeping a level head during tense conversations. It’s showing no emotion for fear of perceived weakness. It’s backing up all that talk with facts, figures, charts, graphs and metrics instead of assuming your opinion is enough. It’s seeing the big picture clearly and finding a way to paint it in such a way that others can align with the vision and understand their part in bringing it to fruition. And it’s about trusting your instincts even if they lead to some unpopular decisions…and being prepared to be wrong and the fallout it could potentially cause. It’s a lot. I won’t lie. But I’m here for it!

I’m exhausted. That was only a four-day work week, but it was one of the most intense and difficult I’ve had in about 10 years. There will be alcohol. And tons of reading and reports creation and cost comparos and “cool calling” and EVP shit. I haven't felt this excited in a long time. This is Tetris on a whole ‘nother level and I’m eating it up. Kudos to all execs in the wild. You have my respect and I’m honored to be counted among you.

’Til next week!

Phoenix Normand