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

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.

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