The Three Envelopes


The best job goes to the person who can get it done without passing the buck or coming back with excuses.

~ Napoleon Hill

In my coaching and trainings assignments, I invariably encounter people who are always blaming their colleagues, manager and team for failures. They blame others to justify why things cannot improve or change. A coach can narrate relevant stories and metaphors to broaden and stretch people’s way of thinking. This story originally comes from master coach Marshall Goldsmith. The story you are reading below is his thoughts dressed in my words.

The CEO (Jim) of a large organization stepped down from his position. During the farewell party the retiring CEO handed over 3 sealed envelopes to the incoming CEO (John). Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were printed on those 3 sealed envelopes respectively. Jim said to John; open these envelopes when the organization is not making good profits and you don’t seem to know what to do. They have profound advice in them and you should open them in the ascending order of printed numbers. With a smile of gratitude, John agreed to follow the outgoing CEO Jim’s instructions.

After 9 months, sales went down by 30% and his executive team was struggling to get a grip on the situation. While sitting alone in his office that night, John opened the first envelope entrusted by the previous CEO. The letter has just one sentence in bold letters – Blame Jim, the previous CEO.

John called the press conference next morning and blamed the erstwhile CEO for this setback and he ridiculed Jim’s unwise decisions.

Now he had a second chance to prove his leadership and get the results back on track. He attempted a few changes and nothing seemed to work. In the next 12 months, the company sales reached the lowest number in that decade. John felt helpless. He opened the second envelope. It had one sentence in bold letters – ‘Blame the economy’.

In the press release next morning, John elaborately articulated the ill-effects of current economy on the company profits. By this time he had become an expert in blaming others and passing the buck.

Nothing seemed to work for John and that same year the organization declared losses. His executive team drafted a plan for workforce reduction. Buffeted by the third setback, John started looking for reasons to blame and opened the third envelope with new hope. He was shocked to read the words in the letter this time – Prepare three new envelopes for the new CEO.

I hope you get the deep message embedded in this humorous anecdote and avoid the game of blame. If you know someone who is currently smitten by this ‘blame game’ please share or narrate this story to that person. Let’s hope this story lights the candle of responsibility in leaders.

PS : I acknowledge the graphic from the net. Let’s focus on the message, not be derailed by facts or numbers quoted in the above story.

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