Archive for April, 2008

Courage as a “Value” gets Redefined for the Corporate Culture

April 30, 2008

During the last six months, I’ve heard stories from two different colleagues on what seems to be the latest fad in corporate America. While each works for totally different companies, their stories are very similar. It seems that the new trendy programme du jour is all about “Corporate Values”. Sounds very high-minded, eh? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t be writing about this if it had anything to do with morals and ethics or any other personal or societal belief systems. This is all about what the corporation values – and you’d better as well if you know what’s good for you!

Corporations are now developing “Values Statements”. I guess that the old “Mission Statements” (fad from the ‘80’s & ‘90’s) are now passé. These “Values Statements” sure sound real high-fallutin’ all right. They’re chock full of emotionally charged trigger words like “Honor”, “Resilience”, “Ingenuity” and “Courage”. The one statement that I’ve seen so far is as impressive looking as the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights.

I remember years ago when companies started to hire real live evangelists and charismatic preachers to stir up the lower level management and rank and file employees with near religious zeal about their firms. In hindsight, I believe that it was probably more of an Elmer Gantry-esque response to the Japanese style of management that had become very popular yet was seen as a threat by many American businessmen. The corporate elites loved the loyalty, teamwork, camaraderie and “all for one” spirit of that culture – but didn’t like the team drinking, carousing and the costs of cradle-to-grave employment that came along with it. Couldn’t more of employees’ energies be channeled into generating profits rather than hangovers and pension liabilities? Why not use the religious angle? It seemed to be working on TV at the time. Anyone watching the mesmerized followers of the televangelists had to be amazed and impressed. Although that fad came and went, the proponents of psychological gimmickry live on in the corporate suites.

So let’s see just how these new “Corporate Values” are being developed and what they actually mean. If you’ve read any of my past treatises, you know that corporations are always looking for the elusive employee “Buy-in”. Nowadays, there seems to be an overriding need for the corporate elites to convince themselves that they have convinced employees to not only share their values but also take “ownership” of them. Of course, the rewards for taking ownership are never the same. The stock options, perks, bonuses and golden parachutes are reserved for the upper echelon. The rest get to keep to their jobs but are expected to “feel” as passionate about the business as their superiors do – and work even harder. What better way to obtain this “buy-in” than to have the employees themselves develop these values? (But not without the appropriate level of supervision from above)

The process seems to go like this: Teams of employees are assembled under the guidance of a corporate “minder”. Each “value” is trotted out to the team for roundtable discussions and definition. Here’s where the “spin” takes place. This is where the common societal definition of a “value” is cleverly nuanced into having a slightly different meaning to fit the needs of the corporate culture. It’s groupthink at its best, lead by a well indoctrinated facilitator. When the reeducation camp is disbanded, the new definition of the “value” is published with all of the fanfare of a revolution. That’s right! The employees have defined the “values” and will now support them to the death. Off with the heads of any nonbelievers!

So my friend and I went over the new definition of “courage” as determined by one of these groups in his company. We all value courage and I suppose we all have a slightly different perception of what it is and what it means. In the context of my chum’s organization, “courage” is defined as the ability to accept and support decisions that one may disagree with. Hmmm. I never would have guessed that. I would have thought that was a better definition of “acquiescence to authority”. Oh well, I guess it makes one “feel” better to think of oneself as “courageous” rather than “acquiescent”.

Start the revolution without me.

Like Bad Pennies, Bad “Leaders” just keep turning up

April 24, 2008

Last week’s post about an old boss from thirty years ago triggered this week’s saga about a current situation. I’m not saying that I haven’t seen my share of poor and bad leaders throughout the intervening years. They never seem to go away. Just read my archived stories. No matter how enlightened a corporation claims to be, there’s always room at the top for another “Born Jerk”.

I’m still working on integrating the remnants of my recently purchased division into the bosom of another mega-corporation. We’re peanuts to them but they still want us to report separately for a while so they can see if their investment paid off. Fair enough! It’s keeping me employed for a while longer and, noting the complexity of the integration, I’ll be around for another couple of months.

It’s always interesting to see the differences in policies, procedures, systems, jargon and cultures between corporations. My division was formerly owned by another mega-corporation and I must admit that I went through quite a culture shock when I signed on there. I’ll always remember being invited to a corporate level finance meeting three or four days after my hire. I hadn’t even found the washroom yet but was subjected to two days in the “Tower of Babel”. I felt like I was attending a meeting at the United Nations – only bereft of the headphones to hear the translator. I guess that’s to be expected when you’re an outsider. One thing, though, doesn’t seem to change from company to company anymore; there’s always at least one real jerk somewhere in top level management. I found him quickly in our new owner’s organization.

The folks on the integration team are friendly and helpful at least to the extent that they can be. They’re under intense pressure to integrate the division and are as unfamiliar with our systems and procedures as we are with theirs. I’m working with the integration finance guy named Dave. Dave is a real sharp cookie. He has a lot of experience and a perfect personality for an integration team. He asks loads of questions, explains things well and has a grasp of the issues confronting both sides in the integration process. We get along fine and have accomplished a great deal together. But Dave has a boss, a powerful headquarters level vice president named Art.

I have only met Art once. It was on the day after the sale was consummated. He arrived with Dave to begin the integration process. Art seemed very frenetic, almost chaotic at times. He’d lose things easily and appeared confused by whatever he was told. He’d jump from topic to topic and never seemed to focus on anything. While Art talked a mile a minute, Dave was mostly silent during those initial meetings. It was obvious that Art was a powerful figure within the corporation. Dave was very deferential to Art’s every whim. Art left after two days and I must admit that I felt quite relieved upon his departure. That relief sure didn’t last long!

Dave occupied the office next door and we worked through detail after detail leading up to the close of our first reporting month under the new ownership. Dave requested that I perform the close as normal and submit all results to both himself and Art.

I prepared the usual summary report for the month’s activity, reviewed it with Dave and submitted it to Art via E-mail. Thirty minutes later, my phone was ringing off the hook. It was Art. He was obviously using a speaker phone and sounded frantic. “These numbers are wrong!” he screamed. He then began talking so fast and using so many acronyms that I couldn’t even keep up with him. He must have been shuffling papers around on his desk and tapping numbers into a keyboard as he spoke. The background noise as well as the echo from his speaker phone obscured what he was saying. He put me on hold twice, once for twenty minutes. When we finally reconnected, I waited for him to slow down and tried to get in word edgewise, “Just what seems to be wrong?” I calmly asked. He then went off on an even faster paced tirade and kept jumping from item to item. He was obviously reading from a report that I had no access to. I tried to answer his questions as best I could but he would never let me finish. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about!” he bellowed. “I don’t know where any of these numbers come from. I can’t see how you are getting these results! I need a detailed analysis! I call you back in two hours. Have it.” He then hung up.

I went back to my worksheets and prepared a more detailed analysis. I already had all of the data that fed into the summary and so it only took me about an hour to dissect it. I sent the detailed report via E-mail. 30 minutes later, my phone was ringing off the hook again. Mr. “Speaker Phone” was back and raring to go. “What did you send me?” he blurted. “The details,” I answered, “I can you walk you through each line item.” “I can’t wade through all of this!” he rattled, “I’m an executive! I don’t have time for this!” He then hung up. I sat there stunned for a few moments.

Dave popped into my office and asked me what happened. He had just received a call from Art. I explained the situation and unloaded my thoughts on what a complete Ass Art had been. What did I have to lose? I’d be gone in a few months anyway.

Surprisingly, Dave not only concurred but added a boatload of his own observations. My conversation with Dave confirmed that Art was indeed a jerk of the highest magnitude (but a jerk with high position and power). Dave mentioned that his call from Art was predicable. Art complained to Dave that I didn’t know what I was doing (although I’d been doing it for three years) and that my report was wrong (although Dave told him that it was correct). According to Dave, the entire debacle was not based upon the fact that the results were “wrong” but rather that they were not what Art had “expected”. Art did not understand our processes or reporting conventions and could not have cared less about them. Art didn’t any details. He had a number in mind and that was all that mattered. Dave then related that corporate HQ was recording some top level adjustments that were known to Art but not to Dave or me and that the final numbers would reflect Art’s expectations. “Then why did he put me through all of that?” I asked. “Because he’s an EXECUTIVE,” laughed Dave, “Didn’t he tell you that? I’ve heard it a million times.” Dave then went into his own tirade about Art. Imagine an executive that refuses to listen, doesn’t share information, makes wild accusations, hangs up on subordinates, demands that things be done at the last minute, expects everyone to be mind readers and is never wrong. That’s our Art. According to Dave, Art has one of the highest turnovers of staff in company and the most complaints filed against him with HR. Dave also mentioned that he had put in for a transfer and couldn’t wait to get away from Art.

I guess that you just can’t escape these characters. If you’ve read 160 of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, you’ll recognize that this guy is virtually Gene Jones reincarnated. It’s like Déjà vu after thirty years. It’s interesting to see just how far modern corporate leadership has come at our enlightened mega-corporations.

Seems like there will always be fodder for the Corporate Cynic.

Mean Gene, The Attitude Survey Machine

April 17, 2008

It had to happen sooner or later. My former company has decided to take an employee attitude survey! This will be the second one in two years and prompted by yet another massive reorganization. The last survey was the impetus for my post If the Employees are Starving for Information, Let Them Eat Cake Dated 9/27/07 and categorized under Never Fail to Amaze. We’ll see what transpires this go around. I’m sure that my contacts will have some great stories to share.

Attitude surveys always remind me of an old boss of mine named Gene. I reported to Gene at a company that I worked for way back in the Pleistocene Era. If anything good came from my relationship with this character, it was that he provided me with the model by which I measure all bad managers. I have never met anyone quite like him. I will forego all of Gene’s other bad behaviors and distasteful characteristics for the purpose of this narrative and hone in on his apparent paranoia (more on that later in the story) about how he was perceived by upper management. It’s an interesting tale about employee attitude surveys.

Gene was always fixated on the superficial. A middle manager at the time, all of his energies seemed to be focused on “impressing” the executives. Backstabbing, double-crossing, blindsiding and one-upping his peers whenever possible were part and parcel of Gene’s tactics used against other managers to gain a leg up on them. He had a real reputation amongst them as a conniving weasel. But his antics were just not reserved for his perceived rivals; they extended to Gene’s direct reports as well. He was a sneaky and vindictive manipulator. You see Gene was also constantly concerned about anything could prove to be an “embarrassment” in eyes of his superiors. Mistakes or missed deadlines on the part of the staff were treated as capital offenses. Failures to help him “one-up” a peer or impress a superior were viewed as high treason. The good news about Gene was that his nature was extremely transparent to the rank and file. The bad news was that top management seemed oblivious to it. People of Gene’s ilk always act differently around their superiors. In Gene’s case, he portrayed the saccharine toady when with the upper crust. You’d think he was St. Francis of Assisi if you saw him in action around them. He was quite different with the staff.

Gene was the ringmaster of an insane circus. His department was comprised of about a dozen employees. Gene was constantly reprioritizing the workload and sending the staff on wild goose chases to impress the bosses. He’d volunteer or hijack anyone at the drop of vice president’s hat for a special project that might prove to be “a feather in his cap” as he’d put it. Always on the lookout for gossip or “embarrassments” that he could use against other managers, Gene had even developed a network of stooges to sniff out the “dirt” for him. Those that fed him the ammunition would be held up as “heroes” and “loyalists”. But sooner or later (usually sooner), he’d lose interest in them after their usefulness waned. He could turn on an employee in a New York minute. Today’s “pet” could easily become tomorrow’s “pariah”. Because of Gene’s management style, the mood of the department was always cold and distrustful. The staff avoided him like the plague. There was a lot of turnover. Gene had this insatiable need to be respected and revered because of his ability to “impress” his superiors – regardless of his tactics. Anyone who openly voiced any disdain for his behaviors was destined for the career scrap heap.

We worked for a rather paternalistic and enlightened company at the time. Back in those days, companies seemed to be a bit more concerned about how employees perceived the working environment, culture and management. It appeared odd that Gene could continue in his ways unchecked and below the radar screen of the Human Resources Department. We’d have employee attitude surveys every few years but Gene was always prepared. I don’t know how he did it but somehow Gene would always get an advanced copy of the questionnaire. He would then pre-survey the staff seeking out those “anonymous” responses that might prove to be “embarrassing” to him. If he couldn’t sweet talk or cajole an employee out of their convictions, he’d tell them flat out that they were wrong and wrong minded. Forewarned about the survey results, Gene would concoct the most outrageous interpretations of the data from his department in an attempt to nullify or devalue it. Every excuse and explanation from, “they didn’t understand the question,” to “here’s what they really meant to say,” would be thrown on the table.

I recall that after one devastating survey, HR asked some of Gene’s reports to participate in private conferences. Gene was irate when not given the chance to participate and be allowed to “set the record straight”. He paced around for hours while the employees were behind closed doors with HR. Later in the day, he cornered me seeking comfort and support. Gene reported to have overheard that one of the staff had described him as “paranoid”. “Paranoid! ME! Paranoid!” he wailed incredulously. He then laughed and walked away. It was like a scene from the movie The Caine Mutiny. Remember Captain Queeg?

All Gene’s antics and shenanigan’s must have worked. He remained a manager for many years. Oh, they’d buy him books and send him to charm school but nothing ever changed. I found out much later on that Gene was really a known commodity in the HR circles. Top management knew he was a goof but considered him to be harmless. I felt somewhat vindicated after hearing this news. I always knew the guy was a jerk. I didn’t bring me much solace, though, when I thought about the employees he had driven out of the company or whose careers he had wrecked. So much for those memories about attitude surveys!

What would “The Duke” say about the Trivialization of Non-executive Functions?

April 10, 2008

You can thank Carrie from Carrie’s Nation for this rambling rant. This is all her fault!

That’s just a joke my friends. In her most recent comment on my April 3, 2008 post about the downside of outsourcing (sorry co-sourcing), Carrie stated, ”Everyone has those weird odd jobs that take way too much time, which management refuses to acknowledge takes more than 10 minutes per week to complete.” True enough. But it’s not just the importance of and the time and effort invested in the “odd jobs” that executive management refuses to appreciate or even recognize. There are entire functions that receive the same treatment.

I’ve been managing accounting operations for over thirty years and seen this time and again. Every time the cost reduction bloodhounds start sniffing out staff cuts, there are four functional areas that immediately become trivialized and then targeted for the chopping block: accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll and inventory control. And these are just the areas that I’m most familiar with. I’m certain that other managers have their own axes to grind with the executives over the required staffing levels of other functions as well.

I know how important those four accounting functions are. I know what can happen when full time attention is removed from them. There is a lot more involved in these jobs than meets the eye or sometimes even understood by the incumbents themselves. I’ve seen the disasters that can be created when these functions are left unattended for even two or three months.

Through the years, I’ve cautioned employees involved in these areas to be extremely cautious when approached by pompous CFO’s (who’ve never really worked a day in their lives) and/or fast talking consultants (who actually know better but whose fees are predicated upon pinpointing areas for reductions) and asked about what they do and how long it takes them to accomplish their tasks. I always remind these employees of the old axiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

People are proud of their work and always want to impress their superiors and outsiders with how well they their perform their jobs. Because of this, there is a tendency for some employees to cut their own throats with their own words. When the consultant asks, “Tell me what you do?” The accounts receivable clerk answers, “I post cash receipts to open invoices.” The consultant then responds with the infamous set up question,“And how long does that take you every day?” “Oh, I can get that done in an hour or so,” beams the clerk trying to impress the consultant with their prowess and efficiency. I cringe every time I hear this because I can see the wheels turning behind the consultant’s beady little eyes. “Hmmm, an hour a day! What are they doing for the other seven; skylarking, surfing the Internet, talking on the phone? The employee has just cooked his/her goose and may not even realize it. The report back to the executive suite will be devastating. It will reinforce the notion that the function is easy and equally unimportant. I’ve seen the same scenario play out in each of the other three functions that I mentioned earlier.

What’s never asked about is the time and effort spent on supplier account maintenance and customer account housekeeping, collection calls, straightening out paychecks or payroll tax issues, inventory cycle counting and correcting bills of material issues. These are the items that take the time and require the experience of the employees. This is the tender loving care that will be lost when the positions are cut or consolidated. The effects won’t surface immediately, but when they do – look out below. And who will be held responsible when things go awry? Why the functional managers of course! How could they allow this to happen?

Now hear this! I am most definitely NOT advocating featherbedding here! I’m talking about intellectually honest management. I’m talking about rational staffing to meet real requirements and a true understanding of the effects of short term cost reductions.
But that all seems to be lost in the knee-jerk top level reactions to short term needs. You see the executive elites no longer believe in the long term continuity of the corporation. Everything is for the NOW. All costs must cut immediately. The next month’s or quarter’s bottom line is all that’s important. Who cares if the functions fall apart due to neglect over the next year or two? Many of the executives will have moved on to other lucrative engagements by then.

Interestingly enough, the opposite seems to be true when the elites analyze their own executive functions. It sure seems strange that their pals and favorite consultants can always be paid huge salaries and fees to come aboard to enhance the “strategic” position of the firm or to focus on a single issue needing attention. .I’ve seen the exorbitant salaries, recruiting fees, sign-on bonuses, relocation allowances as well as the “contracts” replete with golden parachutes offered to these characters. But someone hoodwinked “the board” into approving them and so it’s OK to have more generals in the bunkers and fewer troops in the field. What way to fight a war!

I’ll end with one of my favorite movie lines. It illustrates my feelings about this dichotomy. See if it makes any sense to you. In the film The Comancheros, Texas Ranger John Wayne goes through the arrogant southern aristocrat and gambler Stuart Whitman’s belongings after arresting him for murder. The scene takes place on a riverboat back in the 1840’s. Wayne has handcuffed a sleeping Whitman to a bedpost. As he rifles through the detainee’s jacket, Wayne finds the bill of sale for Whitman’s clothing. I believe that “The Duke’s” reaction goes something like this, “$300 for a suit of clothes. Where I come from, we could outfit twenty men for that kind of money.”

Do we need more working lawmen or more arrogant aristocratic gamblers?

“Outing” some of the Downsides of Outsourcing

April 3, 2008

In a previous post, I promised to give an update on the outsourcing (sorry “co-sourcing”) project that’s been going on at the corporation where I used to work. Who could have guessed that it’s not going as smoothly as anticipated? Here’s just one anecdote from a single division of the company on the effects of the latest fad gone bad.

Ann was an AP clerk whose position was eliminated last month due to co-sourcing. Prior to making the decision to let her go, no one bothered to ask Ann what she actually did or how she did it. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the new brainiacs at corporate HQ mandated that her position be eliminated on a date certain. Ann is gone.

Poor Marie! Her misfortune was geography. She just happened to occupy the cubicle that was next to Ann’s. Marie is a staff accountant who has been with company for two years. Her only interface with Ann was the fact that they sometimes ate lunch together. Now Marie is being inundated with piles of mail, requests for emergency checks and investigations into why suppliers are not being paid. The operating and purchasing folks could care less about the co-sourcing project. They need things done. But why are they all now coming to Marie? According to these folks, the answers are simple but equally ridiculous:
1. Ann was their “go to” person and Ann took care of them,
2. Ann was in the Accounting Dept. and Marie is in the Accounting Dept.,
3. Ann is gone and Marie sat next to her and
4. Ann and Marie were seen together.
Although Marie protests and tells them that she has nothing to do with accounts payable, they pester her incessantly anyway. Some will even wait for her to vacate her cubicle and then secretly swoop in to drop requests on her desk or chair. Marie’s voicemail and E-mail inbox are now full to overflowing. Marie is overwhelmed.

Marie’s boss, Jim, is in the same boat. He’s only been with company for six months. Jim was initially told about the co-sourcing project and the fact that Ann would be leaving. Coming to work for a large corporation, Jim assumed that that the project had been well thought out. Get real Jim! Jim is now being attacked by even higher level operating and purchasing folks over the same issues. In Jim’s case, however, the frenzy goes beyond simply dealing with the needs of that constituency. It seems that Ann performed a lot of other accounting related tasks that were not exactly of an accounts payable nature. Ann had been with the company for over ten years and had survived a variety of previous reorganizations and downsizings (sorry “rightsizings”). Over the years and through necessity, Ann had taken on a variety of different tasks, all of which were mundane but no less essential. No disrespect to Ann, but in a lot of cases, she was really unaware of how important some of these duties were. She just performed them with aplomb. Now Jim is finding out exactly how deep in the hole he is.

Jim has complained to the co-sourcing project leader at corporate HQ. He was informed that only certain accounts payable functions were being co-sourced and that many related duties were still his responsibility. But never fear, the bulk of the tasks had been transferred and he was only being left with a few. Uh Huh! He was also reminded of the cost savings associated with the project. In other words, “Too Bad.” Jim has also gone to his superiors to make them aware of the other problems. Tough luck, Jim! YOU should have thought of that earlier! Now Jim and Marie are stuck “holding the bag”. They are frantic, frazzled, and overwhelmed. Marie is actively seeking employment elsewhere.

If my hunch is correct, you can multiply this story a hundred fold throughout the many divisions of the corporation.

As I’ve written before in the post Ed’s “No Excuses” Program: Had it really worked for thirty years or thirty years ago? dated 3/16/2007 and filed under Never Fail to Amaze, it doesn’t seem to matter whether outsourcing, co-sourcing, cost reduction programs, etc make any sense or are apprporpriate in the context of an organization. What matters only is that it’s the latest fad. If GE, Toyota, and Microsoft are doing it, it must be good. They know what they’re doing and we must do the same. The whizz-bangs at corporate HQ are brilliant. We must trust them to know what’s best. Of course none of this will ever affect them, so it’s always OK.

Instead of analyzing the workload first to eliminate the arbitrary, superfluous and redundant tasks and requirements, the focus is always on cutting the resources. What a back-asswards approach to problem solving! Even after reducing staff, they will continuously come up with new requirements and even more compressed timetables – turning the arbitrary, the goofy, and superfluous into the essential.

When will they learn?