Archive for July, 2007

Problem Solver, Problem Seeker or Problem Maker?

July 27, 2007

Last week, I was forced to attend a lot of lengthy, irritating and time wasting meetings. I abhor spending valuable working hours listening to some blowhards go on and on about nothing. The meetings were not intended as venues for characters that love to hear themselves talk and continuously steer the agendas off course. We were supposed to share valuable information, discuss real problems and come up with workable solutions. Nothing was accomplished. The blowhards walked away feeling smug and self-satisfied. It was pretty obvious that they had nothing to contribute and nothing better to do with their time. The rest of us had to tack on additional hours at the office to make up for the lost productivity. What a wonderful premise to blow off some steam about the whole thing!

The experience reminded me of a chapter from 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic about a manager named Bob. This chapter targets a type of manager or employee who spends a great deal of their time focusing on everything other than their own responsibilities. I have edited and abridged the chapter for the sake of brevity.

Bob had been transferred into our department as a midlevel manager. He was supposedly sent to our group because of his industry “expertise.” Even today, I am still unsure of what that expertise was. He certainly never displayed any technical or managerial expertise of any kind. Bob’s role was to head up an auditing section that had been leaderless for several months. The purpose of Bob’s section was to review, approve or challenge charges that had been invoiced by various suppliers. Bob was one of three other managers that reported to the same department head. I was part of that group.

I got the sense early on that our department head resented Bob’s intrusion into his “turf.” The auditing section had a lot of contact with suppliers who were all vying for favored status with our company. These vendors provided a lot of free lunches, invitations to golf outings, industry events, etc. The manager of the auditing section had always been invited to partake in these activities. Since the time that the section had become leaderless, our department head had assumed direct command and had become the beneficiary of many of these offerings. Having indulged at the trough, he was not very keen on giving up or sharing these perks. Our boss had also picked out his “pets” in the auditing section and he did not want those relationships tampered with either. But Bob had been sent to us from above and there was very little our leader could do about it. Although Bob had been advertised as an expert, it was clear that he had never served as an auditing department manager before.

Bob surprised everyone. He immediately embraced the boss’s pets and more than shared the “spoils of war” with him. In fact due to Bob’s contacts within the industry, he was able to steer even more of these “freebies” in our boss’s direction. This ingratiated Bob to our leader and created suspicion and mistrust with the other managers.

Bob was a blowhard and spoke in low slow monotone voice. He could go on for hours about minutiae if he wasn’t interrupted. Bob began to dominate our monthly departmental staff meetings with his ramblings about the day-to-day problems confronting his new section and how he and the boss’s pets had solved every one of them. It was as if finding the lost coffee pot was a major event requiring an hour and half dissertation. He seemed very excited about these types of activities but rarely spoke about getting overcharges cancelled or auditing concerns in general. Our leader eagerly gave Bob an attentive ear. They soon became fast friends. Bob began to receive constant praise for solving problems such as the distribution of office furniture as well as mediating clashes over the use of the copier. Our boss became so enamored with Bob that he dubbed him the department’s official “Problem Solver.”

Our regular staff meetings and even Ad hoc department sessions were transformed into “one man shows” dominated by Bob’s lengthy and boring dissertations. The rest of us were forced to attend and suffer through Bob’s droning. You couldn’t even get in a word edgewise to talk about real strategic issues or discuss operational problems. We just sat there, yawned, rolled ours eyes and began to wonder what Bob actually did when he wasn’t making mountains out of molehills and then claiming credit for flattening them. His speeches would go on for hours but he rarely spoke about auditing activities. The boss just smiled and nodded attentively at Bob’s every word.

Due to his contacts with the suppliers, Bob began picking up rumors and gossip about several of our company’s buyers and quality inspectors and eagerly shared them with the boss. Our leader, in turn, would immediately pass the items along to upper management. Even though the rumors would rarely pan out, our boss loved the opportunity to “blow the whistle” on other departments. You couldn’t even sit in the department head’s office and discuss a work related issue without Bob constantly barging in and bellowing his three favorite words that began every conversation with our boss, “Are you aware….?” This intro would then always be followed with the latest molehill to be turned into the Himalayas or bit of gossip that would be escalated into something like the Watergate scandal.

Bob’s “scoops” never seemed to concern supplier billing or anything having to do with his section’s auditing function. They were trivial in nature but he had a way of turning everything into earth shattering events requiring extensive time and attention. One would have thought that the boss would have seen through all of that. But the goodies and gossip kept rolling in and the boss even began to hold Bob up as a role model for the rest of us to imitate. He honored Bob with the additional title of the department’s official “Problem Seeker.”

Bob reveled in the accolades. However, his “Problem Seeking” activities reached the boiling point when he began sharing his opinions, rumors and gossip about the personnel within the other department managers’ sections. Of course our boss would take every observation made by Bob as gospel. This triggered some really heated confrontations between Bob and the other managers. We all began to see Bob for what he really was – an attention grabbing “Problem Maker” with a lot of time on his hands.

It all came crashing down when an internal audit revealed that tens of thousands of dollars of erroneous billing had slipped through Bob’s auditing section and been paid out to suppliers. Recovery was unlikely. The pets had missed it. Bob had been too busy investigating everything and everyone else to even be aware of it. Someone had to take the fall and it sure wasn’t going to be our department head. I believe that Bob as well as the pets were put on probation and passed over of annual increases. Bob was furious. He really believed that our leader had betrayed him. How could such a hero suddenly become a zero? Relations between Bob and the boss were never the same again. Bob eventually transferred out of the group.

Take this story for what it’s worth. It sure made me feel a lot better thinking about what might be in store for other blowhards of Bob’s ilk. Know any Bob’s in your organization?

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Honey, We’ve Shrunk the Company!

July 20, 2007

I just heard from my old pal Joe P. He’s still with one of the outfits that I worked for several years ago. I sometimes feel sorry for Joe and worry about him. He’s a good solid manager and extremely hard worker but he just can’t get out of there. Seems his lack of formal education and company specific expertise has kept him sort of trapped in a niche business. Joe doesn’t appear to be too worried though. He’s in his late 50’s and his kids are grown and married. Joe always said that if push came to shove, he would get a job running a lathe somewhere. His needs are simple and he claims that all he requires is a “living wage” and medical benefits. Is it the truth or wishful thinking? I don’t know. I do know that Joe got screwed over by his former employer (a family owned and operated business) where he worked for 20 years before coming to the firm where we met. I could tell that he felt somewhat humbled and even a bit shamed by that experience. The irony of it all is that he had no control over the circumstances that led to the collapse of that company. I guess he’s just that type of guy. Joe recovered his pride. He learned his lesson and set about a plan. Since that event, Joe swore to sock away every penny he could. He paid off his house and has a nice nest egg put away. I think he’ll be OK.

So now on to Joe’s report. I’ve written several stories about this place in the past: very poor leadership, ever changing (or no) direction, everything done on the cheap, tremendous debt load, revolving-door management, lack of cash, constant meddling, expensive consultants, etc. Get the picture? It started out as a mid-sized and multi-unit corporation and there were big plans. Now it’s just a mere shell of what it once was. According to Joe, the latest scheme seems to involve the sale of several of its capital assets as well as its only profitable finishing operation, albeit a small one, to raise cash. What a pathetic turn of events but not at all unexpected given the ineptitude and arrogance of senior management. I checked it out through some channels and what Joe tells me appears to be true.

Strange thing though, Joe reports jubilation in the executive offices. Perhaps they’ve paid down the debt and even repaid some of the investors! The CEO and Treasurer can’t stop beaming and patting each other on the back. The shameless self-congratulatory banter seems to go on and on. It’s like being proud to have sold the family heirlooms to pay off credit card bills that were run up for expensive vacations, foolish investments and other intangibles or worse yet, to have sold your family’s generations-old mansion and move into a small apartment for the same reasons. A stroke of genius!

Bah! Who needs a big and unwieldy company to manage? Let’s keep it simple! We need to concentrate on what we do best. Back to basics! We’ll be back on top soon! Knowing these characters as I do, I’ll bet the rationalizations are flowing like the executive cappuccino machine. These were the “no excuses” people; the brilliant leaders who berated and brow beat the managers, refused to listen to anyone and always had a bushel basket of snappy answers. I wonder what snappy answers they gave to the employees of the operation that they sold down the river. Maybe those folks – those who survive the sale anyway – will find themselves in a better place. I hope so. These were good people. Speaking of the executive staff, I understand that they’re all still firmly entrenched and as comfortable as ever. They have no intentions of downsizing their lifestyles. So what if the corporation continues to shrink into oblivion. It’s not like it’s their fault.

I asked Joe how long he thought the place might keep going. He wasn’t sure but commented that he couldn’t see it lasting more than a couple of months. I don’t know enough about their finances to know what’s really going on. I will predict that these same “leaders” will eventually move on to enjoy hefty salaries and lofty positions with different firms. They are heroes you know. They’ll commiserate with other executives at their new establishments and share stories about how the employees at their old companies let them down, couldn’t see the big picture, couldn’t execute their brilliant strategies, etc. They’ll probably even play off their newly acquired “expertise” at closing down operations, disposing of assets, etc. Then they’ll be allowed to work their magic all over again.

I wonder when the garage sale will occur? Maybe they’ll sell the forklifts and office equipment to help fund their exit packages. It’s a shame but predictable because they have no shame.

Let’s Raise the Organizational IQ at HQ

July 12, 2007

An acquaintance of mine who is a manager in a division of a nation-wide corporation recently related an experience involving a serious run in with a lower level employee at their corporate headquarters. It seemed that the headquarters employee had really overstepped his authority and was interfering in the operations of the division. This incident really received high visibility due to the fact it involved someone at the home office. My chum was a bit rattled over all of the hoopla caused by the event and the excessive zeal with which HQ employees defended the transgressor. Luckily, my colleague won out but the incident reminded me of several skirmishes that I’ve observed over the years between division and headquarters staff.

The corporate headquarters of huge multi-divisional companies can sometimes be a strange and intimidating place for divisional unit management. Having once worked at both the headquarters of a large multi-unit corporation as well at one of its divisions, I can attest to this fact. I began my business career at corporate headquarters and spent 18 years there. Moving on to a position in one of its operating units for another 9 years really opened my eyes. Since those days, no matter where I’m working, I am always wary of the greeting, “We’re from the home office and here to help.”

Maintaining a close and harmonious relationship between HQ and various operating units is always a tricky proposition that requires consummate skill in the training of staff employees at the headquarters level. Sad to say, but in my experience, this is greatly overlooked to the detriment of the entire organization. I will even make a correction here because it isn’t necessarily the “training” per se but rather the “mindset” of certain headquarters types that needs to be monitored, corrected and controlled.

There is a misconception among many headquarters employees that the central office IS the company and the operating units are mere diversions or, worse yet, even nuisances that just create more work for them. Many do not realize that it is actually the opposite that is true. There would be no company without the operating units and without the units; there would be no headquarters for these types to inhabit.

The attitude of headquarters personnel is oftentimes shaped by the aura of power that pervades many central offices. Exposed to the arrogance, ego-ism, and excesses exhibited by many of the senior officers who are located there, it can be tempting to glom onto these behaviors and become part that culture. For this reason, lower level employees must be insulated from the top brass and educated as to their real roles in the organization. This can be a serious issue, particularly if a lot of the central support staff is located at the home office.

I will not venture into the nepotism, favoritism and cronyism that can launch headquarters employees with no real world business experience into “corporate stardom” based solely on the fact that they inhabit the hallowed halls and rub elbows with the elites on a daily basis. I’ve already written enough about that. The issue here is when regular staff members get caught up in the ether and begin to think that they command some special power or privilege over those who happen to work outside of the inner sanctum.

Here are a just a few examples from my own experience:

The “jerk of a clerk” – Wayne was a clerk in the traffic department at headquarters. At HQ, he was universally regarded as one of the laziest so and so’s you’d ever want to meet. Wayne was tolerated due to the fact that he had tenure and no one else really wanted to perform the function. His job was to track down over the road trailers and keep them loaded and moving. To accomplish this, he was required to perform a lot of tracing via telephone and FAX. As the company started to grow and open new units, Wayne began to pester the local operations to folks to run around the countryside for him in order to locate this equipment. He had even conned a new plant manager into spending up to ten hours per week driving around the city seeking out trailers for him. Of course all of Wayne’s shenanigans were guised as edicts coming from “Corporate Headquarters.” This guaranteed compliance and no complaints. It took quite a while (and a savvy division manager) for everyone to catch on to Wayne’s antics. The amount of valuable time and resources wasted at the unit level to perform Wayne’s function was significant.

The “star of HR” – Suzie was a clerk in the HR department. She processed and filed a lot forms. She was, in fact, the official “keeper of the forms.” Two of the forms that she processed were health insurance claims and performance appraisals. The company had started up a new unit in the city where the central offices were located and so Suzie was sent out to show all of the new hires how to fill out the insurance forms. She was also to supply the new managers with performance appraisal documents. This seemed innocent enough at the time. But Suzie was from “corporate” and few outside of HQ, including most of the new management realized her true role there. Suzie was treated like a queen at the new unit and loved the attention. She made a lot of friends amongst the new employees.

As more operations were started, Suzie was sent out again and again to perform the same tasks. Word spread throughout the new operations that Suzie liked to be wined and dined. It was fun and exciting to have someone like Suzie come out from headquarters. Again, no one understood her real role. Then something strange began to happen. As the new employees began disagreeing with their managers over performance related issues or disciplinary measures taken against them, they began to turn to Suzie. Instead of referring the issues to the appropriate parties at the division or headquarters, Suzie decided to get involved. She was, after all, from “corporate.” Untrained and unschooled in company policies and supervision, she began to take the sides of her new “friends” at the units against their managers in disciplinary issues. This created real havoc.

Even after Corporate HR finally intervened and put an end to Suzie’s antics, it took quite a while to repair the damage. When an experienced divisional HR manager was hired to oversee the function for the new divisions, many of the employees actually believed that this new manager reported to Suzie at the corporate office. She continued to field complaints and attempt to intervene with unit management well after she reverted to her “keeper of the forms” duties.

The “re-engineered engineer” – They never seemed to be able find anything for Todd to do in the corporate engineering department. His skills had been eclipsed by newer hires and he had been resting on his laurels for some time. When some new operations came into the company’s fold, Todd was sent out to help evaluate machinery and equipment. Todd worked with the local folks and designed some new equipment and modifications to old machinery that were passable at best. But Todd was from HQ and the local engineers and production managers always acquiesced to his advice. He made it known that he had been sent on a mission from the home office.

As time went on, equipment failures, low productivity and machine malfunctions caused many of the local engineers and even maintenance employees to submit designs for better and more efficient machinery and modifications. They would pass their suggestions by Todd but he would refuse to give his imprimatur. Todd’s opinions held sway at many of the divisions due to his connection to the home office. It took a sharp and independent plant manager to finally bypass Todd and seek help at a higher level. The plant manager’s engineering staff was afraid to go above Todd’s head. This misplaced fear caused months of good production to be lost.

The“accountant not to count on” – Grace was an accountant in the home office. When the company started acquiring new operations and opening new divisions, Grace was “graced” with a staff in order to consolidate the financial data from the various units. Grave was a stickler for detail. Most accountants are but not nearly as “sticklerish” as Grace. The corporate CFO and Controller had already put out guidelines and due dates for reporting. All of the units knew these requirements and were adequately staffed to meet them. Grace seemed to have other ideas.

Grace began by nitpicking the financial reports and demanding detailed explanations of even the smallest of variances. She then decided that the due dates for reporting set by her superiors for unit reporting were much too liberal. She slowly began to demand the reports earlier and earlier so that she would have more time to nitpick them. The units believed that Grace had changed the requirements at the behest of her superiors. The tighter she set the requirements, the less accurate the reporting became. This resulted in more and items for her to nitpick and report to her bosses. Grace was always able to deliver the consolidated reports within the guidelines set by the CFO. Along with the reports, she would also deliver a laundry list of the units’ reporting errors and inaccuracies. This really started to make the division accounting folks look like a bunch of morons.

The CFO became very upset with the reports and called in all of the financial managers for a meeting. Grace sat with her arms folded and scowled at the division accountants while the CFO read the list complaints and errors that she had compiled. Someone finally spoke up about the compression of the reporting deadlines. Others quickly chimed in. Grace excused herself from the meeting. You can guess the rest.

It’s OK to be at headquarters. Again, I did it for 18 years. There are a lot of perks:

– You get all of the leftovers from the various catered executive power lunches
– You get to sign the giant 5’x 5’ birthday card for the CEO
– You might get your picture in the company newsletter
– You might get to participate in the executive NCAA basketball pool (if they can’t get the pot up high enough)
– You get to see how the other half lives

The danger is allowing all of this to go one’s head. So let’s raise the organizational IQ at bit at HQ instead. We’re all in this together.

PS I used to love the leftover chocolate chip cookies

Unleashing the Power of “Followership”

July 3, 2007

I must admit that I am suffering from “leadership” fatigue. Over the last few weeks, I have read at least a dozen articles recounting either the five or the seven or the ten (or God knows how many) traits and characteristics of successful leaders. Opinions offered by ex-government and military officials, authors, CEO’s, consultants, academicians etc. are extolled and posted everywhere. I’m surprised that no one has published the views of Madonna, Ringo Starr or Sean Penn.

All of these articles seem to have one common theme; they all focus on the traits and characteristics of either the rich, successful, or powerful. Many were written by the already rich, successful and powerful themselves. It is as if we should all aspire to behave in these manners in order to enjoy the fruits of prestige, wealth and celebrity that these fortunate individuals have attained. That’s OK as long as the articles are only meant to inspire. It’s pretty obvious to me that barring some miracle, nothing we do will ever gain us this Nirvana. There is an incredible amount of “luck” involved here.

Anyway, It was on the last “list” that I reviewed, this one excerpted from a new book, that I began to notice something – many if not all of these traits can be found in ordinary folks. This started me thinking about how us ordinary folks view our business leaders in general and workplace leaders in particular. These are the people that most of us working stiffs confront on a day-to-day basis. If the “leaders” can share their views with the rest of us about the traits and characteristics of other leaders and if we all share many of the same traits and characteristics, then not much really separates us. We just haven’t been as lucky. Since the leaders themselves rarely attribute their success to luck, our views should be just as valid.

Leaders cannot lead without “followers.” Everyone has a boss to one extent or another. Just think about it. We are all followers of someone. Even if one happens to be self-employed there are those to look to for affirmation and direction. Yet, although we the “followers” are obviously in the majority here, no one seems to care about how we view leaders and leadership. Sure, you can go to various websites where employees tell stories, complain and vent about bad leaders. Many business pundits and intellectual types, though, routinely dismiss these comments as the rants of the “unwashed” and disgruntled employees. These are complaints and criticisms. They are not being offered as inspiration.

It is a fact they we cannot always choose our bosses and the workplace is certainly NO democracy. Yet in our politically sensitive world, pressure groups often hold some sway with the movers and shakers. So I’m going to invent a new term – Followership: the state of being a follower or being disposed to be a follower. Having officially defined a new status for us ordinary folk, perhaps all of us followers can now exert some pressure on our leaders or on those who appoint and anoint them. Perhaps we can inspire them.

As a certified follower myself (since I have many bosses), I feel it incumbent to share my own views of what I look for in a leader. Here are some characteristics (just four) of the type of individual that I’d like to “lead” me through the working world:

The ability to communicate clearly – Good leaders provide clear direction. They ensure that they are understood both verbally and in writing. They use unambiguous language and request feedback to ensure a meeting of the minds.

The ability to accept responsibility – Everyone makes mistakes. It takes a true leader to admit when they have made one or done something wrong.

The ability to provide support – One cannot perform a job without the proper tools. Good leaders ensure that their followers are adequately supplied, equipped and trained. They make that their business. They do not leave their followers to fend for themselves.

The ability to recognize that a leader is also part of the team – A leader is not separate from those than follow them. Although they have a different and unique role, they must identify with the group being lead and become part of it. Their self-interest can be no more important than that of their followers. If it is, they are no more than cattle herders or slave drivers.

The reward that I offer a leader is not wealth, success or power. It is much more important that than. It is my recognition of them as a leader out of respect rather than for their titles, power or celebrity.

I personally could care less about their “passion” for the business or their pithy slogans and sayings. Arrogance, pomposity and self-promotion have nothing to do with leadership. Most, if not all followers already recognize this.

So what do you think? What do you look for in a leader? Perhaps we can get a trend going here. It’s worth a shot. Help me conduct my own unscientific survey of the “Followership.” Post some comments below. Maybe Madonna, Ringo Starr or Sean Penn will even chime in! Thanks.