The Dangling Man – T Minus 3 Days

Yesterday was spent transferring personal files off of my old T-42 Thinkpad just as its little hard disk started to max out (took me eight months to fill 40 gigs), backing up my Outlook .pst, taking pictures off the walls and handing over files to Rob O’Regan, the guy who will take over for me as the GM of Online at CXO. After an exit interview with the head of HR, a quick pass around the office to shake hands and say farewell (keeping it short, for nothing is more awkward than a sentimental goodbye), dumping the Thinkpad on Rob to return to IT and my card key to the building manager, I was out the door and in the parking lot, turning around one last time to snap a picture of the building with my Treo, and telling myself to stop being conscious of every action as "this is the last time I’ll do this."

 There is a strange sense of psychological dislocation when one lands between jobs. The worst separation anxiety for me was in the summer of 2000 when I left Forbes.com to join McKinsey after 13 awesome years at that great publication. A big send-off party, total embarassment as the staff and management roasted me for wearing bowties and pointed out other eccentricities (taking a born-again candidate for online sales to a strip joint; using a napkin stuffed under one lense of my eyeglasses as a makeshift eye patch after going literally cross-eyed during the weeks preceding the launch of Forbes.com ….) all ending with a sad and final thud as I drove out of Manhattan to Cape Cod with a car filled with mementos and my Herman Miller Aeron chair, a totem of the dot.bomb if there ever was one.

 Thirteen years at one place and it was time to decide if I was in Forbes for life — the kind of cradle-to-grave loyalty to a company that our grandparents and even parents may have had in their careers — or was I going to start flitting from one challenge to the next? McKinsey lasted barely two years — not abnormal as the average tenure at The Firm is about two years, and following the horror of 9/11, when I arrived in Manhattan that morning on the Delta Shuttle, the same morning the terrorists commandeered other planes leaving Boston, hearing a bike messenger mention a plane had hit the WTC and thinking it was a joke …. and then watching the whole affair unfold on a television set on the 34th floor of McKinsey’s midtown offices … seeing people completely covered in dust walk through a mobbed Grand Central like they had been rolled in flour …. and then riding a MetroNorth train out of town to New Haven just to get the hell away ….

Something changed me that fall in NYC that propelled me to take a twisted job in Switzerland trying to turn around a failed e-banking project for a consortium of private banks, and by January I was sitting in an office in Liechtenstein that smelled of manure from the cow pasture outside, kidding myself that I could learn German, completely freaked out that I was living the nightmare of turning around a bad dot.com project as the dot.com world was limping into irrelevance back in the states.

When the Swiss gig ended in the fall of 2003 I was, for the first time in my career, "on the beach" as they said at McKinsey, looking for a return to online media in a market that was severely depressed. So I went freelance — ghosted a book on IT sourcing strategies, consulted to a financial PR firm, helped a couple startups with their business plans — but the entire time hoping I could get back on the online bus and return to the kind of chaos and challenge that I thrived on in the mid-90s at Forbes.com, when everyone was a pioneer and you made it up as you went along.

Alas, the online media world had matured and there were no "great" jobs like the one I had in 94, when a single person could attempt to set technology policy, manage the P&L, be editor and publisher all in one messy job. I like chaos and deadlines — its the reporter’s DNA — but by 2004 all the online jobs were now structured and filled with process. The Wild West had been tamed and I felt like some hermit of a mountain man come down from the hills with a load of pelts to find that Deadwood had a Starbucks.

Signs of life in the online job market began to appear by the summer of 2004 and a year ago I was gunning for some interesting gigs — mostly in NYC — when Rob O’Regan gave me a call. The back story on Rob is that we first met at PC Week in 1985 when I left the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune for my first tech journalism job writing about LANs and error correction protocols and the early days of Microsoft and DOS. Rob was on the copy desk, I was in the business news section, and when it came time in 1997 to find a managing editor for Forbes.com I invited Rob in to see if he was interested in moving his life to NYC from New Hampshire. He wasn’t, but when I went looking for someone to help me get the failed McKinsey project off the ground in 2000, he was the guy I called, outlasting me at McK until 2004 when he joined IDG as the founding editor of CMO Magazine.

Rob told me CXO — the IDG unit that published CIO Magazine, CSO and at the time, CMO — needed someone run their online operations. The leadership of IDG, Pat McGovern the chairman and founder, and Pat Kenealy, the CEO, had issued the strategic imperative that the company diversify its publishing revenues and move more aggressively online following a somewhat weak move in the 90s. I started discussions with CXO’s management exactly a year ago, met the online team, and balanced the opportunity against a much more prestigious one with a massive global news organization based in NYC. In the end I went for the CXO job basically because the job was most like the one at Forbes.com in 1995 — lots of cross-function responsibility in tech, sales, operations and edit — and because it was evident that CXO might be building a network of brands aimed at the c-level functions in an organization, focusing on the point where technology affected the job function.

Cool, a network of c-level brands, the chance to reform the infrastructure, and a chance to see if I could rework the magic that put Forbes.com way ahead of its traditional competitors in the 90s (that formula was simple, "tools not text", databases and lists as opposed to stories).

So on May 2 of 2005 I arrived in Framingham (not the most pleasant location on the planet) and dove in. By August we were beginning to fly. Traffic — specifically page views and monthly unique visitors — were up and climbing and by the beginning of the fiscal year in October, we were already hitting the targets I set for the end of the new fiscal year. The sun was shining and the wind was at our back. We executed contracts to install a real content management system and search engine, were fixing the ad insertion operation, and beginning the laborious process of integrating the editorial operation.

Now it is a firm rule of mine not to be retromingent and fire the stern-chaser cannon as I sail away from one job to the next. IDG does indeed deserve its reputation as one of the best companies to work for in the world. Its HR politics, benefits, and decentralized culture are very staff friendly. The team at CXO Online was, in many regards, the equal and superior of the founding team at Forbes.com. The individuals there had a lot of hard won experience and perspective earned outside over the past decade and everyone, to apply one of my favorite phrases, "got the joke."

But along came an opportunity in early November that was too intriguing to ignore. Michael Laskoff, principal and founding partner of The Brand Asset Management Group in Manhattan, and a dear friend I first met at McKinsey, phoned to ask if I had a current resume available. Michael, the author of "Ask Your Ass", a delightful guide to unemployment and landing on your feet, screamed at me when I told him I did not have a fresh resume and told me I had an hour to clean one up. So I did and hence was introduced to the team at Lenovo.

So, here I am, in between phases of my career for 72 hours, feeling like Joseph in Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, waiting for induction into the regimentation of the Lenovo "army", tying up loose ends, and taking stock of where I’ve been and where I am going. This will be as severe a departure from my comfort zone as McKinsey was from Forbes, an emphatic step off of the media bus, which, to be frank, felt like it was beginning to careen a bit on bald tires. Now it’s hard core tech time — building a new brand for a Chinese company across the world and building its reputation in the very amorphous, frighteningly fluid world of the web. I am beside myself with fear, awe, and excitement.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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