Archive for June, 2007

The “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives Strikes Again!

June 27, 2007

Interestingly enough, I actually had a run in with a character that must have read this section of the manual. I even wrote about the incident in 160 degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic. At the time, I wondered where he had picked up some of his tactics and techniques. Later, I found this chapter rolled up in an old copy of Golf Digest in his trashcan after he had left the company.

Chapter Six When You Know that They Know that You Know that They Know

It’s taken you a long time to create and build your corporate personae. You have your cronies and network of stooges in place. You’re living the high life of the company power structure. You’re even considered a sage with your own loyal following. But just when you thought you were on the fast track to the very top, some upstart seems to be causing problems. This person is sharp and independent, solves a lot of problems and is really getting noticed by your superior and others. They are even starting to gain some respect amongst your own direct reports. It seems as though your status as a powerbroker and guru is being threatened. This is not good for your feeling of self-importance.

The worst part of it all is that you sense that this individual seems to recognize that you are not as brilliant and important as you’d like others to see you. You might even get the feeling that somehow they’re “on to you.” It’s nothing that they’ve said or done. It’s more subtle and unnerving. They appear self-confident, thoughtful and knowledgeable. They ask a lot of questions and spend time analyzing issues. They don’t seem eager to simply jump into the latest wild goose chase or react to problems in a knee jerk fashion. They are more interested in working hard rather than working the system. They are disinterested in the trappings of power. They just want to get the job done. You need to quash this upstart now before they ruin things for you. Quick action is needed here and a few tips for dealing with this threat can pay off down the road.

If the interloper is a peer or someone with equal organizational status, first try playing up to them with a saccharine display of fawning. You might be able to buy the party off with some well placed but insincere compliments. Who knows, they may even be as shallow as you are. Offer to take them under your wing. Try to make them an ally – but a never an equal.

If that doesn’t work, contrive some ways to show them up, particularly in front of your superiors. Beat them to the punch with data or answers to questions in meetings, especially when high level officials are present. Interrupt and talk over them. Pretend that they aren’t even there. If they are new to the company, use corporate jargon and acronyms known only to the insiders. If they openly question what your words mean, roll your eyes and shake your head. If they were so smart, they’d know what you were talking about. The point here is to portray them as a poor unfortunate and unimportant dolt.

Enlist your army of stooges to feed you information that you can use to lob mortar shells on them during meetings. This tactic might temporarily stymie and embarrass this pest. Even if the facts or data might be untrue, some damage will be done. The truth will vindicate the enemy later – but only after the meeting. You need to show this potential threat who the real boss is.

Concentrate on finding picayunish details in memos or reports that they’ve written and exploit them by striking lines through them or circling them in red ink. Peppering these documents with giant red question marks and then circulating them around the office is another tactic that might show them up as well.

When all else fails, a few well-placed rumors or gossip might also do some damage. You have to figure a way to get this person into your hip pocket and put them in their place. It would be coup to get this individual on your side – better yet beholding to you. That would send a real message to rest of your peers and subordinates.

But if nothing seems to work, if the upstart appears not to care about or even ignores your overtures to join the fold or your attempts at embarrassment and intimidation – BE CAREFUL. They may know that you know that they know. They’ll be waiting and prepared for the next ambush. A direct confrontation will not work here. It may be time to rethink your long term goals.

PS Have you pre-paid your annual dues to the Society of Bad Executives?

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The Plan? What Plan? Oh, that Plan! There is NO Plan.

June 16, 2007

I wouldn’t blame anyone for not believing this story. It is rather unbelievable. Although I have changed the locations and names to protect the guilty, this actually happened and it would not surprise me to learn that it happens all the time.

Our company had a very large distribution center in the Pacific Northwest. It was more than just a distribution center for products produced by our operating plants. In fact, only about 20% of the center’s activities was devoted to moving our manufactured goods. The other 80% of the business that flowed through the center was comprised of a line of products that were purchased directly from outside suppliers and then resold to other customers.

These products were not part of our core business, required a totally different customer service staff, design engineers, sales people, accounts payable and receivable staff, computer systems, etc. It was a much more complex enterprise than our core business. The customer base was totally different as were the sales agreements. This “side-line” comprised about 20% of our company’s revenues, had 20 times as many customers and handled about 10 times as many SKU’s as our core business. It was a pretty healthy business in and of itself and made a nice contribution to our company’s bottom line. Over time we had been able integrate some of the general accounting activities into our corporate headquarters but not the major functions or systems.

Over the years, there were solid relationships built between the sales staff and the customers as well as between the suppliers and purchasing and design staffs. Of the 75 employees located at the distribution center, 40 were devoted to this business line.

I had caught wind that something was going on at corporate headquarters. We had lost a good deal of our core business at several plants and had lots of excess capacity and floor space at one of the facilities. You can guess what’s coming!

We were the type of company whose leader bounced from one strategy to another always looking for that low cost silver bullet and “miracle” workers to make lemonade out of lemon pits. He was out to prove the adage that “quality is free” – and, therefore, so should everything else.

My boss was a pretty down to earth guy but savvy and aloof enough to keep the top-level decisions a secret unless sanctioned by the president. I was heading out to the NW distribution center to help out with some auditing work when he popped into my office and closed the door. I was sworn to secrecy and told that it was very likely that the center was to be closed and the entire operation moved to another state where we had excess warehouse space. He asked me keep an ear open in case I heard any rumors while I was there. No one was supposed to know about this. I asked about timing and all he said was “soon.” Wow! This was a major event! Moving an entire business would be a major undertaking for the company.

The more I thought about it, the more complicated it got. With all those customer and supplier relationships, computer systems, etc. this was going to require a lot of thought and planning. The continuity of the business was at stake as well as the nice profit. I wanted to ask more questions but I sensed that my boss did not really want to talk about it any more. Despite his aloofness, I sensed that Bill had not really bought into this decision. I could always pick up those vibes from him. I took my trip, accomplished my task and returned with nothing to report.

About two weeks later, several members of the senior staff including Bill headed out on a mission. My phone rang at 3PM on the afternoon that they were scheduled to return. It was Bill. He was calling from his car on the way home from the airport.

“Well we did it,” he said,”It’s no longer a secret. The place will be closed in 60 days. We gave notice to the employees and landlord.”

“Whew,” I replied, “What’s the plan?”

“What Plan?” responded Bill.

“The plan for moving the business?”

“Oh, that plan!” he chuckled, “There is no plan.”

We ended the call.

It was not a joke. It was true. The employees and the landlord were notified that our company would be vacating in 60 days. The trigger had been pulled without a plan. Now the clock was running.

It seemed that the wheels starting turning very slowly after the senior staff returned. Being an engineer by training and interested in all things mechanical, our president began assigning the tasks of moving all of the conveyors, lifts, wrappers, stackers, inventory etc. to the junior engineers at headquarters. He always seemed fascinated by this stuff and so decided to concentrate on those tasks. He had set up a timeline that would guarantee that the distribution center could be phased out and the new warehouse phased in seamlessly through the judicious movement of the equipment. It was all so simple! He had even laid it all out on paper. The problem was that he hadn’t even thought about it until after the announcement had been made.

Unfortunately, the junior engineers had little experience in moving equipment and had problems lining up machine movers who could get the items relocated within the timeline and “budget” set by the president. The biggest SNAFU occurred when some huge conveying equipment was delivered to the new location but could not fit through the dock doors. Reconfiguring the new location to accept the new equipment was another nightmare and the installation seemed to take forever.

Meanwhile, the manager of the distribution center bailed out as did other key employees. The rush was on to get retention agreements with some of those that were left. But retained to do what, where and for how long? There had been no provisions made to keep and relocate any of them. It was assumed that they would just stick around and work hard until no longer needed.

Customers began screaming about back orders and demanding to know what was going on. They wanted to speak to their normal contacts but now most of them were gone. Many customers believed that we were going out of business. The headquarters sales manager for the “side-line” business was assigned to soothe the irate customers and set up a call center at our offices – the soon to be new home for the customer service function for the business. This was a real surprise to him as he had been kept in the dark about relocating the business until the last minute. It did not seem to matter to anyone that the customer service folks and order takers had quit or been released. Of course no one else was familiar with the products or customer agreements and even the sales manager did not know all of the details. New people had to be hired and trained in a real hurry. It was a customer relations debacle of the highest magnitude!

Integrating the computer systems was another disaster. Our president insisted that it should be as easy as “pushing a button.” A year and a half later, the button had still not been pushed. Everyone had to bounce back and forth between the two systems to get anything done.

The new warehouse personnel knew nothing of the SKU’s, shipping methods, storage methods, etc. for the new products. As it turned out, there really was not enough excess warehouse space at the facility where the distribution center’s business was moved or the personnel to handle it.

In the end, we lost about 50% of the “side-line” business. Our president insisted that the customers would come crawling back. They didn’t. Bill left the company and I was stuck holding the bag until I could follow suit. After he left, Bill told me that the company had reserved a sizable amount of cash to cover the relocation but it was just a quick estimate and hastily contrived. As it turned out, the costs came in at twice the amount of the reserve causing a large increase in our debt load and problems with our lenders. Had any savings been contemplated by making the move, I’m certain that they were eaten up with the lost business, cost overruns and interest on the debt. .

What in the world were these guys thinking? To undertake a venture like this without a well thought out plan was inconceivable. Could someone have actually thought that they could simply snap their fingers (or push a button) and pull this off? I knew that Bill wasn’t the type to sanction this sort of folly. His departure might have even been his vote of no confidence in it.

Perhaps in the minds of some of our brilliant business leaders, having no plan is better than having one and failing at it. Maybe it is pure arrogance and the need to hold all of the cards and not share information. Afterall, we minions are only expected to “execute.” We should start to plan ONLY after we have been graced with the assignment and regardless of short notice.

While the results may have been the same, had we all been brought into the planning process at some level, at least we would have given it a damn good try.

Read this discourse! There’s no recourse. We must co-source with no remorse. Understand? Of course!

June 9, 2007

Like the alliteration? I thought about using the title of this post as lyrics to be sung to the theme music from the old Mr. Ed TV show. Unfortunately, this is serious matter and there will be ample cynicism and great dose of sarcasm included in this multi-pronged rant. Prepare for a tirade!

The sterile and cleverly worded memo just came out. Headquarters has decided to “co-source” many of the back office functions. Thirty to forty positions are about to be cut and the work sent overseas. I guess these are just more jobs that Americans don’t want to do! Hmmm!

The propensity of corporations and consultants to create new words is absolutely amazing! Perhaps you’ve already seen or heard of this one. I must admit that “co-source” is new one on me. Not that I haven’t already seen the English language bastardized over the years by the corporate jargonistas.

I can almost forgive turning nouns into verbs and vice versa. Ever notice? You used to perform a “task” but now you’re “tasked” to perform. You used to “go get” something but now that something has become a “go get.” These are only minor irritations and relatively benign. It’s the use or creation of words to obfuscate or to suit some ulterior motive that really gets my goat.

In the old days, you’d get “volunteered” (we’d call it “stuck”) to work on a special project or take on a new duty. Today, you “champion” it. This, of course, is meant to make you feel as if it’s an honor and you have been chosen because of your Herculean strengths and abilities. When the project is completed (no matter what it takes on your part) you are to feel as though a laurel wreath has been placed on your head. Conversely, in the old days, if you balked at being volunteered because you had neither the time nor the resources to complete the project, you were told to “suck it up and just get it done”. Today, you’re admonished for being a “victim” or having a “victim mentality.” How about those loaded words for making you feel bad about yourself if you even think about voicing any dissent? In any event, old days or today, you’ll still get stuck with the project or duty and your reward will be getting stuck with more. This clever use of words is meant to somehow make you feel differently about it.

So “co-sourcing” has replaced “outsourcing” as “rightsizing” has replaced “downsizing” as “downsizing” has replaced “force reduction.” Feel better now?

Back to the memo. So now we enter into a discussion of how the firm needs to remain competitive, blah, blah, blah. Of course this is meant to “educate” the affected employees on the “big picture” and the “global economy.” Mind you it’s NOT that the company is losing money or has experienced some major set back. NO, it’s just a new program dreamt up by some corporate level whiz-bang who will be receiving a big bonus payout for cutting costs. Knowing the minds of these headquarters types as I do, I imagine that this education is being offered to obtain the reader’s “buy-in” to the program. “Buy-in” is another term that has been overused and twisted to suit the needs of these self-serving bureacrats.

When I was growing up, one’s “buy-in” meant agreement because one had been CONVINCED about something. Many of today’s so-called business leaders believe that simply providing information is the same as CONVINCING one of the merit of something. It’s quite a leap of logic but not beyond their arrogance. After all, they have provided the information. How could one NOT be convinced of its merit?

In the final sentence of the memo, the author thanks the employees for their continued support. Yes, now that you understand, just keep working hard until you’re gone. It’s the right thing to do after all. Don’t you agree?

I asked a few colleagues their opinions about the tone of the memo. There was general agreement that it was not solely intended to communicate the program or even the make affected employees feel better about having their jobs eliminated. It was also meant to in someway make the author feel better about having to publish the bad news. Poor fellow! I guess that the word “co-source” makes him feel more kindly about the whole thing.

The deed will be done and the people will hit the streets.

At least the author could have the guts to shoot straight with the employees. Oh! Here’s more alliteration to add to the title – OUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE.

A PhD Worth Her Weight in Platinum

June 2, 2007

I want to preface this post by stating that the Corporate Cynic will always give credit where credit is due. If you’ve read 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic as well as some of my other posts, you know how I feel about most consultants. However, I do not consider this individual to be part of that general catagory. I am even going to ultimately file this post under the “Real Leadership” category. Though not an official member of our management group, Dr. B. helped us mold our division managers into a great team.

I was thinking about an old colleague over the weekend and reminiscing about the time he recommended a consultant to help our division develop its new management team. Although skeptical at first, I found the experience enlightening and extremely beneficial. The rest of the division management did as well.

Our division was in its fifth year of phenomenal growth and we were a rather fragmented hodgepodge of operations comprised of units stretched from coast to coast. Each unit had a supervisor and fell under the jurisdiction of a district manager. The districts reported up to regional superintendents. We were lead by a general manager. Unlike most of our company’s divisions that would have normally evolved from our Midwest headquarters outward, our division had started on the both the East and West coasts and grew toward the middle of the country. Most of our supervisors and even district managers had started out as line workers themselves and were thrust into these positions due to the rapid growth. There was very little administrative support from our corporate offices. I do not believe they ever envisioned this division taking off as quickly as it did or even lasting very long. Our management group was comprised of a diversity of personalities and management styles. The units displayed an equally wide variety of practices and policies. It was becoming more and more difficult to foster a sense of teamwork and uniformity. Our new division HR manager had convinced the GM that we needed some professional help. As regional superintendent for one half of the country, I could not have agreed more.

My chum in HR said that he knew of a certain industrial psychologist that could perfectly fit the bill. Having suffered through previous interactions with consultants in the past, I was decidedly suspicious at first. Brother was I in for a pleasant surprise!

We flew our district managers in from around the country and began a three-day stint with Dr. B. Everyone including the GM participated. Dr. B was extremely down to earth, intelligent and well-spoken. She understood the audience and could get down and dirty when necessary. She was always in control but never cited any “mandate” from management to affirm her authority. No one felt intimidated by her credentials. We were treated like adults and professionals.

Dr. B’s program was not “canned” and unlike most other management consultant’s exercises I had been involved with over the years, it did not appear to be designed around the lowest common denominator. We were not forced to wear funny hats, perform silly role-plays or fold origami geese out of construction paper. It was definitely not your typical “Management Training.” We were each given a battery of tests and surveys that were designed to analyze the way we thought about things and solved problems. How we used our brains. Dr. B explained that there were no right or wrong answers and that we should be as honest as possible. She guaranteed that our individual reports would be kept confidential. The results were tabulated and we were each given an individual profile.

Dr. B then began to explain how to interpret our profiles. Of course she brought loads of overheads and charts. I will not dwell on Dr. B’s presentation about how the human brain works, the differences between people who use different parts of their brain and how these differences could work together to develop a “whole brain” approach to problem solving. That’s not important. What was important was the increasing interest being displayed by our group’s members in what the results revealed about themselves and others.

The discussions were lively and insightful. Even old Doug, the cantankerous curmudgeon (and smart ass) of the group had to admit that it was a worthwhile exercise. He even publicly confessed that he had purposefully answered the questions incorrectly hoping to skew the results. He openly apologized and asked to take the survey again, so he could learn and participate in a worthwhile exercise. If you knew old Doug, this was a real breakthrough.

In the end, everyone walked away feeling that they had benefited from the process. Dr. B had crafted her session well. She was never judgmental. The thrust of her exercise was not to determine whether we “fit” but rather how we “fit” and how as individuals we could interact with each other to benefit the whole. I still rely on this information today.

The take-away from all of this was not an assignment, new “buzz words”, or acronyms. It was self-awareness. It was about teamwork.

Dr. B’s program drew such rave reviews from our district managers that we rolled it out to our unit supervisors. Dr. B. was flawless again. She started making a lot of friends within the group and was held in deservedly high esteem. She was extremely accessible and even made herself available to individuals during off hours. Although, we only worked with Dr. B. for perhaps a total of four weeks over a three-month period, we most definitely saw positive and long lasting results from her efforts.

Based on our success, my pal in HR recommended Dr. B to the Corporate Vice President of Human Resources as someone who might also prove beneficial at corporate headquarters or the other divisions. Dr. B was even asked to a hold a session with the senior staff of the company. That was the beginning of the end! I had heard that she was asked to leave right after lunch on the first day. I believe she reported back to my friend that she had never experienced such a dysfunctional and closed-minded group. Perhaps they just wanted to wear funny hats, perform sill role-plays and fold origami geese out of construction paper.

Here’s to you Dr. B! For your help with our team, you are worth your weight in platinum. For your insight into the senior leadership, you’re worth your weight in diamonds.