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The F.A.I.L. series STORY

The miracle had happened. I had made partner. 

 

I had just become the second youngest partner in IBM’s history and was given the opportunity to lead a $150M consulting business with over 800 people. 

 

Back in 2009, at the start of my journey with IBM Consulting, if someone had told me that in 10 years’ time I would be flying back from India, along with 180 other partner candidates, having presented our case for partnership to senior leadership, I would have never believed it. 

 

If they had told me that I would be accepted in my first year of eligibility, ahead of dozens of other candidates that had a decade more experience than me and led business units with revenue several times mine, I would’ve thought they’re pulling my leg. 

 

But my story and the unique approach I took to my partner presentation made a big impression on the leadership. 

 

It had been a hell of a ride. 

 

Where I failed, learned and grew in so many ways. 

 

Where I built key skills, met amazing people and achieved the financial independence I had always wanted.


This is my story of what led to that moment (and beyond!)

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"We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years" 

FROM DRIFTING TO INTENTION 

I arrived in Canada in 2002 as an international student, studying computer science and business administration, paying my way through school with odd jobs. 

 

It's interesting how seemingly small decisions can have outsized consequences. In my case, I decided to skip a weekly poker game and work on applying for a last-minute co-op opening at IBM's development team.  

 

I thought I'll be a developer for life, making good money and growing my career to achieve the financial independence I had always craved, 

 

I thought I was now golden. 

 

I enjoyed programming but it didn't take me long to realize it wasn't the right path for me. 

 

My manager and some helpful mentors encouraged me to explore other roles and after lots of interest interviews, I applied and got accepted to IBM Consulting.  

 

It seemed to be a great fit, checking all the boxes: 

  • Technical skills, check! 

  • People skills, check! 

  • Persistence and Work Ethic, check! 

  • Potential for a lucrative career as I move up, and travel, check!! 

I thought I was set and it was going to be smooth sailing and I'd be making the big bucks before long, right? 

 

Wrong!

 

Getting in was only half the battle. 

 

Being successful there required a whole new level of commitment I was just beginning to understand. 

 

I was committed to moving up though, and I found that success after dedicating myself completely to work:

 

Long hours, countless flights, hotel food, and lots of work on weekends.

 

Once I saw my leadership was recognizing my efforts, I felt validated and I knew I could be successful long term.

 

But I still hadn’t answered a few key questions for myself. 

The Key Questions: 

  • Why was I consulting in the first place? 

  • Was this my purpose? My calling? 

  • Was I ready to spend the next 20 years here trying to make Partner? 

 

I realized I was drawn to consulting initially because I wanted a job that allowed me to travel and challenge me with interesting projects. A job where no two days were the same and I could feed my curiosity about new industries and companies. 

I wasn't sure if it was my purpose, but at the time, it was clear to me that consulting was a natural fit. 

I got my first promotion in a typical timeframe

 

But I was struggling to find the motivation to strive for more. 

 

I was becoming comfortable in my role, 

 

What’s more, I was being approached by other firms offering me more money. 

 

A lot more.

 

I was at a crossroads…

 

Do I take a new role in a new firm for more money, yet still have the same questions I had before?


In the end, I knew that going to another firm wouldn’t make a big difference in the long run. 

 

I needed answers, so I went to the mentor I admired the most, a Partner at the firm.

 

Sitting in his office, I opened up.

 

"Honestly, I'm not sure how I could ever become a Partner, like you. It feels like climbing Mount Everest. I'm not sure if IBM is be the best place to do it." 

“Deniz, I know you can, the real question is, do you believe it?” 

 

“Believe it? Why does that even matter?”

 

“That’s all it actually takes. For you to believe.”

 

I stared at him like he was speaking in another language 

 

“If you can find that golden thread where it comes true, there is no better place to do it than IBM, where we will do the right thing over making money, every day of the year. I am proud to be an IBMer” 

 

Deja vu…

 

I remembered my first day at IBM. Where I had learned about IBM’s history, what kind of organization it was and what it stood for.   

 

Might sound cheesy, but I felt goosebumps. 

 

I learned that we are a company of innovation. 

 

That we produce more patents than any other company year after year, and have done so for decades. 

 

What really resonated with me was not just that we innovate, but that we are committed to doing it responsibly. 

 

This sounds straightforward and many organizations talk about it, but are they willing to back it up with action? I saw that at IBM.

In 2005, when genetic testing was starting to become prevalent, IBM was the first company to put workers genetic info off limits when it comes to hiring or assessing eligibility for healthcare plans.

 

In the world we live in today, I can’t think of another company I would trust with many of these cutting-edge technologies that will upend our world once they reach critical mass, from Artificial Intelligence to Quantum Computing. 

 

At that moment, I knew I was at the right place, 

 

The only question left was, can I make it? 

 

So I asked myself, 

 

“If I give myself the next 20-25 years, make a commitment now to make every small decision with this ultimate goal in mind, do all the right things, can I do it”? 

 

YES!!

 

The decision was made...And I was now well on my path to making Partner. 

 

Or so I thought. 

Fern Leaves

"Once I believed and made the decision, it all felt so simple and achievable" 

I'M FINALLY IN CHARGE... OR AM I?

Having a clear purpose and decision had made me light as a feather. 

 

I knew what I wanted, I knew what needed to be done, and I had given myself a long runway to do it. 

 

I became super-focused again, redoubling my effort instead of drifting into thoughts and dreams of alternative paths. 

 

I became one of the best consultants on my team and got another promotion to managing consultant. 

 

Everyone spoke highly of me. 

 

Clients, colleagues, and the leadership. 

 

I was a rising star!

 

I got my big break a few years in, when my manager left the company.  

 

They decided to promote internally, and appoint me to co-lead our small but growing practice. 

 

I was elated! 

 

The other co-lead wasn’t really interested in the additional responsibility, so I became the de-facto lead and the official lead not long after.  

 

"The elevator to the top has finally arrived", or so I thought. 

 

I start dressing a bit more smartly to work, buying a few nice jackets. 

 

I puff my chest out a bit more, walk with a bit more swagger. 

 

I lecture the team on conference calls, letting them know how much I know about the subject matter, reminding them of all the great projects I've delivered as an individual contributor. 

 

Unaware of the trap I’m setting for myself. 

 

They made me the leader for the simple reason that I was the best individual contributor on the team. 

 

Little did I know that this in no shape or form prepared me to lead people. 

 

I was more concerned about fixing everyone’s work that I felt was not up to my standards, where I should have been focusing on leading the team and charting the vision for the practice. 

 

So I was doing my work, redoing my team’s work and failing to lead all at the same time. 

 

I quickly dug myself into a hole, working 80-hour weeks and letting my frustration show. 

 

Unsurprisingly the team morale tanked. They felt like they would never be good enough for me. Plus, who wants to work with a boss who is always cranky? 

 

Soon after, one of the best team members quit. 

 

She was following my old manager to our competitor. 

 

I was so demoralized to hear it, as it not only meant more work for me, but also reflected poorly on my ability to lead a team. 

 

The next week, another person quit. 

 

A third one followed not long after.  

 

I was in shock. I felt like an avalanche was coming. 

 

I go home, depressed and burnt out from all the long hours I had put in to no avail. 

 

“Maybe I’m just not cut out for this” 

 

“How do I expect to become a partner if I can’t even hold together a small team?”

 

I was embarrassed to go to my leadership for help. 

 

I sought refuge with my coach, someone that made leading a team look effortless.

 

He suggested we go for a beer

     "Tell me Deniz, who do you think is in charge?" 

“Ummm, I don’t understand, since my manager left, it’s me”    

     “That is your first mistake Deniz, you are not in charge, they are in charge. 

“Huh, What do you mean?”    

 

     "They are on the ground working with clients, delivering the solutions we provide. You are in charge of          the people in charge. Manage things, lead people” 

 

This was one of those light bulb moments in my life that changed me forever.

“Manage things, lead people.” 

 

I realized all the mistakes I was making that was poisoning the team dynamic. 

 

“No wonder they were quitting”, I thought. 

 

With me finally helping rather than hindering the team, we quickly grew the team. 

 

From a team of 5, we doubled in size in no time. 

 

Before long, we’re at 30 people. 

 

I become a Senior consultant with managers reporting to me. 

 

Things fall apart again, people start quitting. 

 

"What the hell man?" I think

 

I realize some of my first line managers think they are in charge. 

 

Now I need to help create new leaders that understand who is really in charge. 

 

In order for them to be effective in becoming the leader for their team, they also need to understand the core values of our organization, and communicate our purpose with impact.  

 

I successfully managed to grow amazing leaders and I’m promoted to Associate Partner before long. 

My practice was recognized for having the second highest talent advocacy score, a measure of employee satisfaction, across 50 practices. 

 

I was getting noticed as a distinguished leader in our business, and inching closer to the holy grail.

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Making Partner

The final test

I'm sitting in a big conference room in Bangalore, India.

It's partner presentation day for IBM Consulting. 

 

Everyone has 10 minutes to give their presentations to the leadership of why they should be made partner.

I'm alert, excited, a bit nervous. 

It's a big day, a culmination of over a decade of focused effort.

I've rehearsed my presentation so many times, I can repeat it in my sleep and finish just under 10 minutes.

I sit through the other presentations, most of them are focusing on what that person has done and the revenue numbers they've achieved,

 

Most of them have revenue numbers an order of magnitude bigger than mine

"Good thing I've taken a different approach" I think, I could never compete on numbers alone

 

I had decided to focus my presentation on my story and why I want to be a partner, specifically at IBM, and nowhere else.  

But there was still some apprehension in doing something so different. 

"Will it land properly with the panel" I keep asking myself. 

- Next up we have Deniz Demirel

"I guess I'm about to find out!"

I take a big breath and walk up to the front. 

I start with my presentation, and as always, I start with the why. 

One of the panel members challenges me:

“Deniz, I like that you started by talking about why you want to become partner, and why you want to do it at IBM, that's all well and good, but can you move onto more important things, like your signings and what you have delivered and accomplished?”

 

I was first taken aback, a bit confused even...

 

I paused

 

When I understood what she was asking asked, I actually got upset. Emboldened by my core values, I challenged: 

 

“What can be more important than my Why?"

 

“I have shared details in my package about my numbers, achievements, and delivery, and happy to take questions on those.”

 

She smiled back. That’s when I realized that she was attempting to derail me and see if I really believed what I was saying.

 

It was a test, and I passed!

 

My response made them proud to be IBMer's, completely changing the energy of the room for the rest of the presentation. 

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PEOPLE DON'T REMEMBER WHAT YOU SAID, THEY REMEMBER HOW YOU MADE THEM FEEL

what's next?

It’s November 2019, a month after my promotion to partner 

 

I am loving the new role, new responsibilities and the status that being a Partner provides. 

 

However, the euphoria of making partner is starting to wear off. 

 

I'm booked solid most of the day and trying to get through a deluge of emails. 

 

An email pops up inviting me to join the next cohort coming into the Consulting Academy for a week retreat in upstate New York.  

 

I had been an instructor for the past 3 years, and truth be told, my motivations to join weren’t really altruistic.

 

I had initially signed up to bolster my business case for promotion as someone that gives back to the greater IBM community. 

 

My initial thought is "I don’t need to do this anymore, I made Partner already, and I’m super busy”

 

I press reply and quickly type up a polite "thanks but no thanks as I'm very busy right now" email.  

 

My cursor hovers over the "Send" button, 

 

I'm feeling conflicted.

 

I remember the enjoyment being an instructor gave me.

 

I recall my joy in seeing the sparkle in the students’ eyes when they had lightbulb moments, 

 

The pleasure in having them feel the goosebumps I felt when I was taking the training, feeling inspired and empowered. 

 

I remember how energized I was when I would come back from these sessions, full of purpose... Even if I was returning to a mountain of emails. 

 

It took me back to the first time I saw the sparkle in someone's eyes and felt that fulfillment. 

 

Long before being on the partner track, 

 

Long before that plane ride back from my partner presentation, 

Long before IBM... 

It's 2005, I'm in college and I tutor math as a way to make some money on the side. 


Jennifer, one of the students I've been working, gives me a call.

"Hey, I was wondering if you've tutored younger kids before?” 

 

“No, how so?” I respond

 

“Well, I have an 8-year-old sister who's having a lot of issues at school with arithmatic, can you help her?” 

 

I don’t know why but I said “Sure!” 

 

Little did I know she had learning disabilities, and I had never tutored someone that young. 

 

I’m sitting at the dining table at Jennifer’s house, across me sits a shy little girl with glasses, named Elyssa. 

 

Between us on the table is her homework, grade 3 math, basic equations mainly. 

 

I’ve been trying to get her to engage, but she’s avoiding eye contact and sitting with her arms crossed.  

 

I ask her to start the assignment, and she freezes, no response.

 

I start talking through the answer, and I realize she doesn’t understand any of it. 

 

I know that look when you are in over your head, and you just want to stick your head into the sand. That was Elyssa.

 

I decided to change the environment. She was nervous meeting a young man sitting in her living room, and so embarrassed she couldn't solve basic math, and I knew we would get nowhere this way. 

 

I saw a bag of marbles nearby, and I pulled them out and started playing a game with her.

 

I used the marbles to teach her basic arithmetic. Given it was a game, she was no longer afraid to fail, learn and grow. We eventually even got a laugh out of her, and she was finally relaxed around me. 

 

Three weeks later, I was going for our regular session. This time, she was bouncing up and down with a huge smile on her face holding up her week's graded assignment. She had finally passed, the first time in her life! 

 

The sparkle in her eyes gave me the same feeling I got from being an instructor at the Consulting Academy.

Bubbles

That magical feeling of seeing
the Sparkle IN someone's eyes

finding balance

Back to 2019 and my cursor hovering over the "Thanks but no thanks" reply to the consulting academy. 

I delete the draft and respond saying I'd love to attend.  

I go away for a week of coaching and come back with more energy than I left.

The sparkle was in my eyes! 

I had been looking for a new goal after making Partner, but this time, an infinite goal. 

I had finally found it, and it was to help as many people as I can rediscover the sparkle in their eyes.

 

I looked for other opportunities to get involved in coaching. 

 

I got involved with our new hires orientation week, covering the ‘IBM Way’ module and I’ve continued doing that for the past 2 years.  

That module has consistently been rated as one of the favorite segments by the new hires. 

 

Hearing from someone that was in their shoes just over a decade ago and is now a partner at the firm excites them and shows them the possibilities. 

 

Sparkles all around in everyone's eyes, including mine!

I had found my calling

I loved what I was doing and the change I was bringing about within IBM. But I was wondering if there is any way for me to expand that and take it beyond IBM.

 

Fast forward 6 months...

 

I get a meeting invite from Brenden, one of the associates in my team, a bright young guy who had been with us for a couple of years.

 

I join the call, "I have some bittersweet news", he tells me after the initial pleasantries  

 

“I've been doing some communication coaching on the side and now my business is taking off so I'm quitting my role to focus on it full-time.” 

 

He thanks me and says he's learned a lot.

 

My job is to retain this talent and make him a counteroffer to make him stay, but I see the passion, the sparkle in his eyes so I know it won't be of any use.

 

I congratulate him on how he’s grown his business.  

 

I tell him that I've been thinking of finding ways of expanding my coaching beyond IBM, and he says he would love to help!

 

I can’t thank Brenden enough for inspiring me and helping me take the first steps. 

I had failed a lot in my career, more than any other person I know, and that was a key part of my success.  

But I wish someone had given me the tools and wisdom to find success even earlier. I

I wish I had...

  • Understood the importance of viewing failure through the lens of a growth mindset 

  • Realized earlier that I can't do it alone, that building an intentional community is paramount to success

  • Learned sooner that financial literacy is critical to financial freedom and creating space in my mind

  • Received Coaching to figure out my WHY and make sure my path was congruent with my values

F.A.I.L. Series was born!

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teamwork makes the dream work!

I knew I could not do it alone, and immediately, two people come to mind:

Mayar, a friend of 15-years and one of the most well-read and knowledgeable people I know in the field of self-development, someone who was a coach to me in many ways on my path to Partner. 

Someone who's a natural community builder with an extensive network around the world, someone who has stayed involved at University of Toronto since graduation, mentoring students and giving back in different ways, for which he was recently awarded the Arbor Award for outstanding volunteer service.  

As luck would have it, he had left his job after a decade working in the aerospace sector and was taking a sabbatical to travel, recharge and discover what's next.

Talk about serendipity! 

 

We talk and he's immediately onboard. 

My first work retreat post-COVID was in Whistler, BC. While I was out west, I called a trusted colleague and friend of mine, who moved to Vancouver in 2019. Rather than grab dinner like we usually would, he suggested we meet in the middle, and drive out into the Squamish Valley and have a bonfire.

After maneuvering some large snow drifts, we finally found a spot in the middle of the wilderness next to a glacier stream.

As the tide slowly washed away our bonfire (twice!), I shared the initial vision for FAIL with Kevin.

Kev and I worked together at IBM, where his heart for people inspired me. In 2018, Kev had met with me in Toronto and asked how we could pivot to shift our focus from "the work" to "the people".

We had the unique opportunity to collaborate on some initiatives that ended up being monumental to the mental health and well-being of our Canadian practice. We collaborated not only on projects, but on team building initiatives, and strategies to better "see" our team.

Over the last year, Kev has transitioned from client consulting to internal facilitation of leadership and core consulting skills training, and he has been amazing at it, just like he has in every previous position he's held.

Again, the stars were aligning.

He was intrigued and asked me to introduce him to Mayar. They met and immediately hit it off, as I knew they would. I had finally assembled my team.

 

It just felt right

In the ensuing days and weeks we fleshed out what we wanted F.A.I.L. Series to stand for rather than be just another coaching program that blindly pushes people up the corporate ladder, consequences be damned.

Our goals were now clear: 

  • Create a community of amazing people that value success but are motivated by more than money

  • Design unforgettable learning experiences that promote growth while maintaining balance

  • Help our community unlock the dormant energy within and embrace the fact that FAILure is just the First Attempt In Learning

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Let's get started on your journey to success and fulfillment.

 

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