Archive for the ‘Never fail to Amaze’ Category

Never Treat the “Temps” like They’re Expendable

June 27, 2008

Boy would I like to have been a fly on the wall during the upshot of this debacle!

I ran into Bill the “temp” last week. He was out in the parking lot smoking a cigarette and looked as though he needed a friend. I’ve run into Bill before. He’s an older gentlemen who was recently “right sized” from a company where he had worked as a middle manager for over twenty years. Both Bill and another “temp” were recently brought on to fill in for Liz who is off on maternity leave.

We’ll return to my meeting with Bill in a moment.

Liz is an executive assistant to a powerful, (and of course) pompous and arrogant senior vice president of something or other. She was a “coat-tailer” who had followed her boss to the company from another firm. Both Liz and her boss have been around for about three years. I never paid much attention to her but I definitely get the impression that she is not very well liked by the rank and file around the office. I guess she has developed a sense of entitlement and “status” due to her connection with a powerful superior. I’ve heard that Liz is both distrusted and feared by many due to the fact that she will blame anyone and everyone for any mistakes or errors in the reports that she prepares for her superior from data provided by her boss’s subordinates at the division level. Regardless of the real causes of the errors, Liz’s boss always takes her word over anyone else’s. She is, in a word, untouchable.

I suppose that when you’re as powerful and important as Liz’s superior, you rely on your aide de camp for everything and, therefore, support and protect them at all costs. It seems that Liz can get away with just about anything. I guess that she is even perceived to be so important that it requires two “temps” to fill in for her while she is away. But that’s only part of the story.

You see Liz’s boss has a reputation for being a real jerk as well. Overly demanding and idiosyncratic about the goofiest things, this senior vice president is the stuff that I love to write about. I have done some research on this character and found that he has probably never really worked a day in his adult life. He has a five star education and it appears that he had actually started his career at the executive level. How does one do that? Anyway, I hear that he is always lambasting his subordinates over the bad news, errors and mistakes that result from the reports provided by Liz. Based upon some comments that I’ve heard from others, Liz’s boss does not think much of anyone in the organization.

Well, Liz goes off to have a baby and the temps take over her duties. Things progress for a month and then all hell seems to break loose. I heard that the temps have been working awful hours and putting up with a lot of guff from Liz’s boss. The rumor mill has it that they’re pretty much fed up.

Back to my meeting with Bill.

So I walked up to Bill in the parking lot and asked him how he was doing. He shook his head and began telling me about the confrontation that he and the other temp just had with Liz’s boss. It seems that since the time that Liz left, both Bill and the other temp have struggled to get the reports completed for their new superior. Not only were they poorly trained by Liz but Bill says that the report formats themselves were fraught with formula errors. It seems that a lot of the data reported by the divisions became distorted and irreconcilable due to all of the mistakes in Liz’s calculations. The boss would hear nothing of it. He demanded the reports be prepared on time and could care less about the cause of the errors. He was an executive and not interested in the details. The truth of the matter, according to Bill, is that this senior vice president was clueless about how the reports functioned or how the formulas worked. He only wanted to see the results on time. Both temps were chastised each time they’d mention uncovering Liz’s mistakes or ask for his help or advice. Tempers were beginning to flare

The final straw hit the camel’s back earlier that day when Liz’s boss asked the temps about the monthly forecast report that was due later that morning. They replied that they didn’t even know what he was talking about. At that point, Liz’s boss flew into a snit. Bill said that he did all of the talking in defense of the two and told the executive that Liz had not gone over the extremely complicated forecasting process with them. At that point, the irate executive called Liz at home and asked her if she had reviewed the forecast with the temps. At first, Liz insisted that she had. But as Bill interjected himself into the conversation on the speaker phone, Liz relented and admitted that she had forgotten. Her boss then asked if she could review it with Bill but Liz whined about being too tired. The conversation ended. The now red faced executive instructed both of the temps to “just figure it out”. The deadline was looming and he didn’t care if they had to stay there all night to get it done. At that point, the other temp stated she had appointments for that evening. The executive replied that he didn’t care about her problems. Having endured enough, she quit the assignment and exited the building.

Left to his own devices, Bill said that he had attempted to reverse engineer the forecast to determine how to proceed with it. He wasn’t getting anywhere and his attempts to gain information and insight from the executive were fruitless. “I’m a level B executive!” Bill was told, “I want results not excuses! I’m not concerned with details. I want answers.” “Don’t you think that you have a responsibility to know what your assistant is doing?” asked Bill, “Didn’t you ensure that she had adequately trained us before she left?” Bill said that the executive was silent although he could tell that the man was seething. “I’ve been managing direct reports for years.” said Bill, “As a manager; I’ve always felt that I had a responsibility to make sure that people got trained properly and that operations ran smoothly. I always followed up.” Bill said that he received no further response. Frustrated and disgusted, Bill went out for a smoke.

So I asked Bill what he was going to do. “You know I need to work.” he confided, “But I don’t need this.” I have not seen Bill since.

An office-wide call went out for “volunteers” to help the executive during Liz’s leave. There have been no takers. I wonder who is preparing the forecast.


If It’s Pop-tops vs. Laptops, I know where I stand

June 13, 2008

I admit that I’m a little late with my post for this week. I had to take a business trip out of town. I was gone until yesterday. Traveling for business sure isn’t what it used to be but I thought that I’d use the time wisely and make some observations about today’s business travelers.

It’s tough enough coping with endless lines through security and the weather and other flight delays but the business travelers themselves have created their own form of “in-flight” irritation. There’s the never ending chorus of ring tones on the aircraft AFTER the flight attendant has instructed everyone to turn off all electronic devices, the muffled cell phone chatter by those who absolutely MUST stay on their calls even when we’re taxiing to the runway and the flight attendants’ repeated reminders to those who absolutely REFUSE to shut down and stow their laptops in preparation for landing. Sound familiar? Did I mention the legal sized brief cases and wheeled carts containing three or four carryon bags that today’s elite traveler MUST bring on the plane? None of it can ever be stowed beneath the seat in front of them. They must always usurp the ENTIRE overhead bin so that granny can’t even safely stow her chapeau to prevent it from being crushed. God forbid that they check any luggage. How important they must be!

I’ve always treated the pre-boarding time at the airport as a respite from the pressures of the business world. Traveling creates enough stress of it own and I’ve found that a good newspaper, magazine or crossword puzzle provides some modicum of relief while enduring the wait. We were delayed again last night and thankfully they wouldn’t board the aircraft right away. I wandered off to quiet spot as I had an hour to kill. I found a vacant group of four chairs that were attached (you know what I’m talking about). They were all vacant. I plopped down and noticed that I was right across from a bar. It was maybe fifteen feet away.

It wasn’t huge place. There was room for maybe six barstools. I could see the TV hanging on the wall from where I sat. There was a baseball game on and three fellows were sitting at the bar drinking beers from cans (no glasses) and intently viewing the game. The bartender was watching as well. It all looked quite sublime until I noticed a character at the end of the bar. He was standing with a cell phone to his ear. An open laptop sat on the bar in front in front of him. He seemed quite obnoxious. Something was definitely going on.

When he wasn’t pacing and yelling into the phone, he was banging away at the laptop and inserting and removing some kind of card into it. He was extremely frenetic and kept screaming into the phone and strutting around behind the other three patrons who were trying to enjoy their beers and watch the sporting event. There was a glass of beer near the laptop. I assumed it was his. There was maybe a sip or two gone from it. It was obvious that he wasn’t there to watch the game or enjoy his brew.

I watched this continue for about forty-five minutes. The other chaps seemed to be getting a might irritated and shot him a glance or two. The announcement finally came over the loud speaker that my flight was to begin boarding. Mr. Loudmouth must have been on it as well. He grabbed his laptop (still open and running) with one hand, nuzzled the cell phone between his jaw and shoulder, grabbed the glass of beer with his free hand that he had threaded through the handle of his wheeled cart and began to speed away. It was quite a juggling act. The bartender noticed it all and called after him. “You can’t take any drinks away from the bar,” he shouted. Mr. Loudmouth stopped in his tracks and gave the bartender a dirty look. He took a swig from the glass and hurriedly set it down on the bar. The other customers shook their heads and ordered a few more cans of beer. I could hear the bartender popping the tops as I left the area.

When I arrived at the gate I watched this goof head down the jet-way. He was still banging away at his keyboard and carrying on some loud conversation on his cell phone. Thank God he was not seated near me.

What kind of life does a character like that have? What an obnoxious boor! I thought about the other three guys back at the bar. I quickly decided who I’d rather be stranded with in an airport.

When will the Legendary Seagull finally disappear into the Sunset?

June 4, 2008

Like the tales and sagas of seafaring nations, every office or company has its lore. Here’s the story of a curious bird whose departure seems long overdue.

The division had been reorganized three or four times during the last ten years. Most of the employees were new or had been transferred in from other units. The latest iteration of the division occurred four years ago and, as usual, it was extremely top heavy with a plethora of vice presidents and their retinues but with very few employees to perform the actual tasks. Jim was part of that bevy of heavy artillery.

No one seemed to know where Jim had come from or how he came about his title and authority. Jim had been with the corporation for several years and had served in a variety of roles at various business units. How he found himself at this division seemed unclear. He never really appeared to do anything. Although his departmental staff seemed confused and dysfunctional, Jim never showed any leadership or gave any direction. It was as if all of Jim’s new subordinates were expected to just know about everything through osmosis or find things out on their own. Jim kept everything to himself. He had two extremely loyal assistants that he had brought along with him but they were a tightly knit group and didn’t seem to want to get involved or share information with the rest of the staff. The three appeared aloof and disconnected.

During the ensuing three years, Jim picked up the nickname of “the seagull”. This moniker, known to all at the middle and lower levels, had been bestowed upon Jim due to his penchant for flitting into meetings, “crapping” over everything and then flitting out. Everyone dreaded his intrusions into ad hoc sessions and conference calls. The pest would suddenly appear from nowhere, plop comfortably down and screech a few criticisms (usually while crunching on a mint or a handful of peanuts). I personally found that habit very rude and annoying.

He never had anything good to say and always seemed smug, critical and disgusted. One thing could always be counted upon; his mere presence was guaranteed to result in additional workload. Jim was one of those guys who must have believed that the value of an executive is measured by the amount of non-value added work that they create. Jim was the master of dreaming up detailed schedules of minutiae and analysis upon analysis of the analysis. But the results of all of this “make work” never seemed to go anywhere or prove anything. There was not enough staff to get the required work of the department completed on time, let alone comply with Jim’s whims but the seagull’s two loyalists continuously pestered the staff to conform to Jim’s demands and arbitrary timetables.

About a year ago, the CEO of the corporation announced another major shake-up and canned the division’s president as well as several vice presidents including Jim. We all got the memo and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps now we’d see some real leadership and get new direction (or maybe just direction). We anxiously waited for the next shoe to drop. There were plenty of good veteran middle managers around who could fill the void.

About a week after the memo, the newly appointed interim president of the division decided to hold a “going away party” for the departing executives. Punch and cookies would be served during an hour long gathering in the cafeteria on Friday. Although most of us didn’t even know what many of these characters even looked like, we decided to drop by for the free food. We also wanted to see how Jim would act. We stuck around for forty five minutes or so. There was quite a crowd with each now ex-vice president surrounded by their own cohorts. There was a lot of laughing and back slapping – but no seagull. Where was he? Had he already flown the coop? No. About five minutes later, my coworker spotted him standing near the doorway. Jim had already raided the candy tray and was popping nuggets into his beak from a fistful that he had grabbed. Someone finally approached him and they began a brief conversation that we could not overhear. All we could see was the usual smug expression on Jim’s face and his eyes rolling as he conversed with the employee. Then, as suddenly as he appeared, Jim rubbed his hands together to remove the crumbs and disappeared out the doorway.

Later that afternoon, my coworker grabbed me by the arm in the hall. “He’s not leaving!” he shrieked. “Who?” I asked. “The seagull!” He replied. My chum then told me that he had spoken with an employee named Bret from Engineering. Bret was the fellow we’d seen with Jim in the cafeteria. Bret had approached Jim to wish him luck but Jim simply ignored Bret’s well intentioned bon voyage and stated that he wasn’t going anywhere. “That’s impossible,” I said, “The guy got canned by the CEO himself. You read the memo.”

But it was true. On Monday morning, the bird was back in his roost. He seemed a bit subdued but it was evident that he was NOT cleaning out his nest. Over the next few months, the seagull returned to circling the department looking for a landing site and a place to poop – and more critical and negative than ever. Rumors flew about how he had simply “refused” to leave after being fired or had pleaded with corporate HQ to allow him to stay. We all knew of his perceived self-importance but I had never (and still have not to this day) seen anyone defy the public commands of a corporate CEO. Two month’s later, a memo from HQ reported that Jim’s title had changed and now included the prefix “acting”. However, all reporting relationships remained intact. What did this all mean?

A few more months passed and yet another memo from corporate headquarters revealed that a search was being conducted for a replacement for the position of vice president that Jim had originally held with the division. Jim was mentioned in the memo with a slightly different title that was no longer prefixed with “acting”. Again, all reporting relationships remained the same. The memo did indicate that he would soon be departing. There was no specific date mentioned.

It’s now been almost eight months since the last memo. I’ve left the corporation but still stay in touch with one of my co-workers. I called my friend the other day. He didn’t even wait for me to ask the question but just started making a squawking noise into the telephone. “He’s still there?” I asked in disbelief. “I thought geese were bad about crapping all over the place,” answered my friend, “Seagulls are worse and apparently they don’t migrate.”

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?

Distressed about Job Stress? Don’t Worry, Your Employer isn’t!

March 25, 2008

So a new survey just came out from Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm: 48% of US employees report that stress caused by working long hours is affecting business performance but only 5% of companies are addressing this concern.* Hmmm, sounds like a new way to weed out those burnt-out malcontents and replace them with a new crop of eager and happy loyalists that, of course, will work for less and give even more. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical (and conspiratorial) here. Maybe the other 95% of companies are really just trying to help everyone out!

Layoffs, outsourcing, the mortgage meltdown, health care costs, increased taxes, high gas prices, the affect of the plummeting stock market on 401K’s (did I forget anything?) are all contributing to workers’ stress. To help take your mind off all of these woes – just work more hours. Ah, that’s the ticket! Wasn’t there a popular Reggae song about this a while back? Don’t Worry, Work longer.

This isn’t even funny anymore. Last week, I watched as the company that I used to work for chopped another 35 administrative and technical positions. The “non-surprise” for the survivors was that none of the work was eliminated and none of the deadlines were changed. Those who remain will just have to do more. But the few keep getting fewer, more tired, cranky and scared to death of what could be next. What a great way to work and live! To top it all off, the corporation has embarked upon one of those “Help us define the ‘values’ of our company” programs. Talk about adding insult to injury! This is just the latest gimmick to get the employees to buy in to what the top executives “value”. In my view, all the talk about focusing on the customer is just a smokescreen. Controlling overhead costs is what it’s really all about. Actions speak louder than words. Just ask airline passengers how they feel about that industry’s focus on them as customers!

Just who are those 95% of companies that don’t seem to be concerned about stress? Could it be that crop of global multi-nationals that have gobbled up many US companies? Is it our own homegrown corporations and business enterprises that have become so bottom line driven that they no longer care about the effects of stress on their once oft-advertised “Most Valuable Resources”?

I realize that the days of paternalism in American industry are long gone (if they ever existed at all). Employees are now simply a commodity to be purchased at the lowest price and run into the ground. The innovative technologies that should be utilized for creating growth in business are simply being turned into “innovative” tools to squeeze more labor out of the workforce. Look, they’ve given you a laptop, a cell phone, a blackberry, and one of those blue gizmos to stick in your ear so you can walk around appearing to talk to yourself like an escapee from an asylum.

You’re hooked up and on call constantly. Deadlines are becoming more and more compressed. It might be 4AM where you live, but it’s time for the daily teleconference with corporate HQ overseas. Get up and get going. As long as you’re up, could you also get the report ready for the regional meeting at 3PM? That’s Pacific Standard Time, of course, and since you happen to work for the division in Oklahoma, be ready at 5. You get to leave an hour early for a parent teacher conference and are then asked to work most of the weekend to make it up. Vacation? Who will prepare the trend report on Monday, participate in the conference call on Tuesday, attend the forecast meeting on Wednesday…. and on and on? There are no back ups or even the smallest of redundancies. Work from home? Of Course, so long as you do it on Saturdays and Sundays.

I got into conversation with a group of survivors who were talking about a guy in IT named Mel. It seemed that Mel was working seven days per week “Isn’t that illegal?” cried one of the participants. “Well, maybe not”, answered another, “You see he works from home on the weekends. They don’t count that as working.”

Where is the executive leadership in all of this? Buzzing around in their Gulfstreams? Please don’t feed me some line that the executives are simply trying to keep the corporations viable and that the stockholders and boards of directors are demanding more and more from them. Some would argue that the Execs are as helpless as we are. Nonsense! I’m not buying it! Remember your 401K or retirement plan? You’re a stockholder too. They sure don’t seem to be doing a very a good job at keeping your investments safe and growing. Their answers to decreased profitability always seem to result in cost cutting and staff reductions. The usual reactions from the ususal suspects. What about the egregious salaries and golden parachutes for the executives who fail? I sure don’t remember being asked to approve of those at the last stockholders’ meeting.

I’ve always believed that an employee should never have to leave work at the end of the day not knowing where they stand. Did they do a good job? Did they contribute? Perhaps that’s all a bit idealistic and seems certainly outdated. The Corporate Cynic’s own survey indicates that many employees are actually beginning to dread even getting up in the morning and going to work. Where have we gotten to? I don’t like what I’m seeing.

* Careerbuilder article, Sunday March 16, 2008

An Encore Posting of my Rant about Outsourcing…er, sorry!…Co-sourcing

February 27, 2008

Carrie, the host of Carrie’s Nation got me thinking about several themes I ranted about in my last two posts. To complete the trifecta, I’m going to rerun my post from back on June 9, 2007. It’s filed under the Never to Amaze. I believe the theme is as relevant now as it was was then. Please enjoy!

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

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!

PS There’s more to come on this story. The project is now being implemented but not without major problems. Seems that the brainiacs who concocted it forgot a few important details.

When the CEO goes Adrift in the Channels of Business Communication

January 29, 2008

Inspired by some recent comments posted by Don, here’s a little story that might drive home some of the points I’ve tried to make in my posts filed under the Never Fail to Amaze category. The names of the companies mentioned here are fictitious but the events really happened.

I was working for EFG Company. We were a mid-sized firm in the throes of slumping sales and profits. The CEO had recently met with the Board of Directors as well as some consultants that they had brought in to help pull things out of the doldrums. The stockholders were not happy with our financial results. We were all waiting to see what new directive would be coming down the pike. Something goofy always seemed to happen after these events.

It was January and the beginning of a new fiscal year as well as our newly mandated “breakout” period. Each week and particularly at the beginning of the month, we’d have a management meeting to discuss the forecast for the month and the progress towards meeting it. The customer service manager would always report on open sales orders. The sales forecast was a key indicator and driver of the upcoming month’s activity. As the customer service manager led us down the open order list, the CEO frantically interrupted in an excited manner, “What’s going on with these NABCO orders?” he snapped, “This can’t be right. These orders are down 50% from last month!” The customer service manager replied that the NABCO orders were received electronically and that was what the latest data exchange indicated. “That can’t be right,” reiterated the CEO, “I recently spoke with NABCO’s president, Don Black. He told me that orders would be unchanged.” The customer service manager repeated that the orders had always been received electronically and were always right on the mark. The CEO was unimpressed. “I want a full investigation into this and a report back tomorrow. Either you’ve made a mistake or you’re obviously not getting the right information.”

NABCO had been a customer for several years. They were a huge corporation and we only had dealings with one of their smaller divisions. As a supplier to NABCO, we were probably in their “peanuts” category. They represented about 10% of our sales. We all knew that the orders from their plant in Kansas City were received via EDI. We could not understand the CEO’s fixation on the issue.

The next day, we met again. The customer service manager reported that the electronic data exchange had been verified and the orders were correct. “I don’t believe that!” interjected the CEO, “You can’t just rely on electronic data. Don Black told me that the orders hadn’t changed. That’s the whole problem here at EFG. There’s too much reliance on electronics and data. We need more personal relationships with our customers. You’d better develop a personal contact at NABCO and get the straight dope!”

Ah ha! It was the old “develop personal relationships with the customers” catchphrase. That must have been the latest mandate and “Programme du jour“ dictated by the board and consultants. Based on prior history, we figured that this new focus on customer contact development was being triggered by a requirement to increase EFG’s sales and market share. EFG hadn’t prospected any new customers or developed any new products in years. It made sense that the board would push for this.

Sales had always been within the personal purview of the CEO. He fashioned himself as a sales “guru” but never really accomplished anything. He must have received a strong message of disapproval and strict marching orders. We middle managers knew that since the blame for poor performance always had to be shared, (You know how bad things always roll down hill.) we’d catch the brunt of it all. If the new theme pushed by the consultants was developing personal customer relationships, then the original context of that message or to whom it was being aimed was irrelevant. WE needed to correct OUR behaviors. The CEO would teach us. We now understood what “wild goose” we’d be chasing and why.

So the following day, we met again. This time, the customer service manager reported that he had spent most of the previous day tracking down the NABCO buyer who was in charge of our account. The EFG salesman who had originally landed it was long gone and the contact files were outdated. This was compounded by the fact that NABCO had a huge bureaucracy and their buyers had turned over many times. When he was finally able to get through a live person, they confirmed that all NABCO orders to suppliers were sent electronically via EDI and correct as transmitted. As a side note, the customer service manager reported that the NABCO contact seemed miffed that their EDI process would even be questioned. NABCO had spent a great deal of time and money developing a paperless data exchange. Strict adherence to NABCO’s EDI system was a condition of doing business with them. They wanted no more and no less of the materials that they ordered. “Well I spoke with Don Black again yesterday,” scowled the CEO, “He’s the president! He said that there was no problem with our orders. You’re not talking to the right person. If we only produce at 50% of last month’s orders, we’ll miss our sales quota with NABCO and lose the account! You’d better start getting some better contacts. This is why we’re failing!”

The circus continued for another week during which a tremendous amount of time and energy was expended tracking down everyone at NABCO we could think of to verify the data. Our operations folks even went as far as contacting a night shift foreman at NABCO’s Kansas City plant to verify their production requirements. Our CEO was furious. HE had the correct information from HIS contact – NABCO’s president. WE were incompetent and unable to develop personal contacts with the customer to validate it. When the incessant scolding from the CEO had reached its apex, the customer service manager sheepishly asked if he could personally contact Don Black to determine the reason for the apparent disconnect in the information. The CEO became even more infuriated by the mere thought of that. How could anyone dare question the information provided by the president of NABCO? Besides, Don Black was HIS contact. WE were supposed to develop our own. WE were the one’s who were to blame for lack of sales.

In the end, we produced to the NABCO orders that had been received via the EDI transmission. We followed the same process we had for years. There were no non-conformances or production shortfalls reported back to our firm. NABCO’s orders remained down for months. In time, all of the tension and tempers finally subsided. The CEO never broached the subject again. He just suddenly stopped talking about it. We simply moved on to a different fire drill. Overall, EFG sales never increased that year.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those conversations between our CEO and the president of NABCO. I’m sure that the channels of communication in the areas of cutesy small talk regarding professional or college sports, golf, yachting, summer homes on Cape Cod, villas in Tuscany or whatever CEO’s and presidents converse about were clear and concise. A “personal relationship with the customer” had probably been developed. Did the president of NABCO actually know (or even care) about NABCO’s purchases from our company? Was an increase in sales or new products even discussed? Wasn’t that the whole point of developing the personal contact?

Unfortunately, when it came to the day-to-day business dealings between our firms, our CEO (that brilliant “Titan of Industry”) did not seem to understand that communication at that level was better left to an agreed upon tested process and those who operate it. It was his job to increase sales and not to meddle in the ordering process. Who was really failing here?

And you wonder why I never fail to be amazed?