Let’s Raise the Organizational IQ at HQ

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

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2 Responses to “Let’s Raise the Organizational IQ at HQ”

  1. Bryan W. Alaspa Says:

    Thanks for your website. You have become a regular site to check on when I write my blog entries for the online magazine Management-Issues.

  2. thecorporatecynic Says:

    Thanks Bryan. i enjoy your posts on the Management-Issues Blog as well.
    Drop by as often as you’d like.

    Cheers!

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