The great stories handed down across the years become great because they transcend the decay of experience wrought by time to deliver fresh meaning for each succeeding generation. Beautiful patterns of imagery and artful language are amongst their tools, but their finest measure is the array of compelling characters and intricately woven tales used to work magic on the reader’s mind. They catch us up in dreams that become our own. The challenge for each of us is to find their relevance to our lives and do something with it.
The Odyssey is one of those tales, the story of the Greek warrior Odysseus (later called Ulysses by the Romans), a hero of the Greek victory in the Trojan War who sets sail for home with his men after ten bitter years of conflict. Although the story’s authorship is attributed to one ‘Homer,’ it was developed and passed along over hundreds of years in the oral storytelling tradition that preceded the written word, the broad cast of its story annealed by many tellers into the finely wrought tale we enjoy today. In written form now since the eighth century, it has inspired prequels, sequels, movies and retellings (eg James Joyce’s Ulysses) by numerous authors over the years. Its very name is used in common parlance to symbolize the hazardous journey of its tale.
The story starts with a simple premise that springs the whole saga. The Greek victory has angered Troy’s patron god Poseidon, ruler of the sea. He holds special enmity for Odysseus, whose cunning devised the Trojan Horse. To exact revenge, Poseidon subjects Odysseus’s homeward voyage to a series of increasingly difficult hardships, challenging the hero physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. By journey’s end, Odysseus has surmounted every obstacle but lost all of his ships and companions. He arrives at his kingdom home on the island of Ithaca in beggar’s clothing, penniless but rich in experience.
Longing to shrink the years and reunite with his wife and family, he has learned by experience to sense the unusual in familiar surroundings and remains alert for hidden dangers. He gains entry to the royal palace in disguise. He discretely makes himself known to his now-grown son and a few loyal householders. They reveal that his wife Queen Penelope is beset by suitors who declare him dead and demand that she choose one of them and remarry; all the while she holds out for his return. Home at last, Odysseus faces a final multi-layered test to re-win the love of his life. His victory over the suitors puts things right in his household and the reunion with Penelope is a fitting conclusion to the years of wandering.
I had occasion to recall one of The Odyssey’s more powerful episodes recently while in conversation with three different CEOs considering new roles. Each of these leaders has a long history of accomplishment in the business world, and their quests for success are by no means done. At the moment each has an array of intriguing choices bidding to become their next assignment.
The resourceful Odysseus is a worthy emblem of the questing leader, curious and adventurous in spirit, able to develop unusual ways of extracting advantage from his situation. What better model to examine for guidance in such circumstances?
In one particular episode, Odysseus is advised by the enchantress Circe that his pathway home leads past the Sirens, ‘incomparable beauties singing an irresistible song’ from a perch on the heights of their island home.
Square in your ship’s path are the Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Sirens will sing his mind away…
Such is the situation facing many who are recruited to a new role, lured by myriad forces trying to ‘sing their minds away.’ How do you decide what role to take? How do you know which is the right next situation?
Backing up a step, just how lucky are these three CEOs, having several jobs to choose from? On the one hand it’s no wonder: with a healthy US economy, a vibrant startup scene in centers across the country, and venture capital and private equity investors aggressively creating new businesses and leadership opportunities, there are more fresh CEO roles to fill than ever. Furthermore, turnover in the CEO role is constant. As one PE investor told me recently, of the acquisitions he makes for his ten-year funds, half of the original CEOs are gone within three years.
On the other hand, it’s surprising: getting access to the job choices you want is a quandary decried by many seeking the CEO role. You typically hear about CEO jobs when they are filled, not when they’re open. Headhunters are the access brokers, but the expanded domain of the chief executive makes the CEO search process more considered than other searches, difficult to see into, opaque even. The search consultants make carefully curated outbound calls seeking candidates but put up screens on the inbound. When you need them, they don’t seem to need you. In any case, their ideal candidate is more often than not someone who has done the exact same job before, a safely ‘been there / done that’ candidate. Your chances to branch out, try something new, do something you just know you can do, can seem fleeting.
The profusion of leadership opportunities tugs one way, and the charged selection process tugs the other, creating a tension that CEO job-seekers understandably find daunting. On top of that, once an investor-owner or a Board decides it wants you, some of the most powerful and persuasive voices on Earth clear their throats and reach for their song sheets. The executive search professional is given the word ‘you’re It,’ and a mellifluous chorus starts to ‘sing your mind away.’
When you hear that ‘Siren Song,’ what do you do? How do you make the right decision?
Well, what would Odysseus do? Like most job-seeking executives, our man wants to hear the song. Who doesn’t want ‘incomparable beauties’ to sing a song just for you—isn’t that the whole point? You go through the whole process so that the song will be sung for you and no one else. But how do you avoid the fate of the innocent who would founder on the rocks?
If Odysseus’s approach is a guide, you must prepare yourself in three ways for the Sirens’ song: force oaths upon your men, tie yourself to the mast, and lose your innocence.
Huh? What exactly does that mean?
Ahh, but there is the challenge of the great stories: find their relevance to your life and do something with it.
Herewith an attempt to say what such arcane dictates mean in this modern context:
- Force oaths upon your men. Gather your wise counselors about you, men and women, and keep them beyond the influence of the ‘incomparable beauties with their irresistible songs.’ Let them know the song only through you. Listening to you, their job is to hold you accountable to your best self. Have them pull on the oars and help you maintain a safe course past the rocks as you listen to the glorious music
- Tie yourself to the mast. Listen hard and enjoy the song, but don’t be swayed to take any action you can’t positively affirm as the right one. Learning is inevitably involved, as others will see things in you that you don’t see yourself. Learn something new but hold fast to who you are. Tap your feet but don’t start dancing
- Lose your innocence. Start the whole process on this point. Do it by developing a sense of the industry, company and oversight that’s right for you at this stage of your career. What amount of challenge will leverage what you know but motivate you to reach higher? What sort of board / owner / advisor oversight will optimize your impact? Build off what you’ve learned in your assignments to date and target a ‘just right’ range of possibilities. Remember that part of the CEO role is to provide a spark for everyone in the company; if you don’t feel it in your job, you won’t be able to create it for others. Force yourself to translate the Sirens’ song you’re hearing into your own call to action
In sum, boards / investor-owners are making a bet on you; you want to take a job where you can convincingly improve their odds. There’s a job in the right industry, the right company and with the right oversight out there. When you learn how best to listen to the Sirens’ Song, you’ll lose your innocence and navigate a safe passage to it.