The Next Level

The novice in the corporate world, devoid of proper understanding or experience of working in a mighty corporation, would be tempted to think of levels in companies as merely referring to the different steps in the ladder representing the ‘org. structure’ diagram, famously displayed in orientation courses and analyst reports. But the true power of the terminology and concept of the ‘levels’ phenomenon will take you to a different level (pun intended!).

The Director of Marketing could be explaining to a group of sales personnel the features of a new line of cosmetics that the company was about to launch. The presentation could proceed on these lines:

“At the basic level, these products are the essential, bread-and-butter items on anyone’s dresser, helping to complete the basic grooming and preparation for the day.

But, we don’t stop there (we did not think you would stop after one statement).

We want to take our offering (here you go) to the next level!

Our products are meant to boost the customer’s self-confidence, assert their personality and conquer the world (huh, what is happening here? conquer the world with a Cologne spray?).

So, go forth and educate your customers (Amen)”.

Levels are not absolute, as you may well have guessed by now. Creation of new/next levels in the blink of an eye is a master move practiced by seasoned managers to duck out of questions and topics that are well embedded in their sphere of ignorance. Let us hear this conversation between a manager briefing his team about a new system to track expenses in the company.

Manager: So, you look at who has incurred the expense. If the person belongs to the distribution department, you allocate the expense to that department code; if from sales, allocate to Sales; and so on.

Team Member-1: How about if the employee belongs to an indirect department such as Human Resources? Should we allocate to all direct departments in equal proportion?

Manager (looking nervous):Hm…I see….Wow….Interesting… I think that is a good suggestion….

Team Member-2: Sir, how about expenses incurred by a contractor providing supplies to our pantry?

Manager (visibly rattled): Oh…. really…(looks around desperately)…. You have taken the discussion to a whole new level… we have not thought of these additional levels of complication. Maybe we should differ this to the next phase of the system.

Team Members: (whatever man…..)

The ‘levels’ curve ball can be used, with telling effect, at all levels in the organization. In a meeting of departmental heads, the Controller, Finance could carefully lay down budgetary allocations for controlling overtime pay, stating, “I need all of you to keep your employee overtime expenses below 5% of your total payroll”.

“But my staff, mainly the drivers, have to work significant hours of overtime that the nature of their work demands”, quips Liz, the Director, Transportation.

The Controller, clearly annoyed, comes back with a quick retort, “Oh Liz, you are jumping the gun and taking this to the next level. We have not yet come to the point of taking care of exceptions such as …….

“But, sir, the nature of work for these drivers has not changed in decades. How is this an except…..”

“We are out of time. Meeting adjourned”.

Preparing for Post-Covid Work Life

Corporate culture is guaranteed not to let any opportunity slip by and the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly no exception. In fact, I am tempted to say that the pandemic itself is not a blot, not even a dot, on corporate ingenuity.

While I agree that dealing with the impact of the pandemic on the economy, work place and life in general is a very serious affair, one cannot help but notice the feverish pitch with which different sections of companies – not just the company where (you think)  you work – trip over the feet of one another in getting you ready!

We went over the communications circus practiced with great vigor during the lockdown but the effort aimed at getting-back-to-near-normal-work seems to be even better, or worse, depending on which side you are in. There are elaborate emails, illustrative diagrams and, of course, the inescapable zoom calls to describe in great detail every square inch of the repurposed office space, which is beginning to look like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from different puzzles mixed up.

Then there are the excruciating instructions on how to enter and exit the building and various sections of the office through mind boggling one-way lanes wherein one wrong turn might mean having to exit the building and start over. And, in some strange combinations of one-way traffic lanes inside the office, you may find yourself incapable of accessing the toilet in a hurry.

It looks like, at any point in time, no one will be more than 6 feet away from one of the sanitizer stations, which may quickly be replacing flower pots and fire extinguishers stuck to the wall. Comprehensive scheduling systems are being put in place to reserve your toilet breaks; and meal breaks are strongly discouraged. The most optimal scheduling algorithms ensure that no two people working in the same department or a project are in the office on the same day, thus effectively rendering the office to be another remote location.

Paperless offices may at last be really coming into vogue. Post-it stickers and other forms of stationery will be removed from circulation. Incoming mail, if at all permitted by your office rules, will be quarantined to a point in time where the contents become redundant. Birthday parties, the life blood of office culture, might be a thing of the past. Meeting durations may blissfully be limited to fifteen minutes, the maximum recommended time between successive hand washes.

All said and done, the corporate world is not going to allow itself to be outmaneuvered by silly pandemics!

The Dashboard Driven Company

A company without reports is like a social media group without topics for gossip. Reports for a long time have been the lifeline for many corporate managers to hang their hat on. The computer rooms of the erstwhile mainframe computers era used to look like mini printing presses, with different reports fondly referred to as “the 2-inch thick report”, “the 10-inch master report” and so on. A manager’s importance in the organization was directly proportional to the number of reports that he or she was entitled to receive.

Enter the age of interactive computing. ‘Information at your finger tips’, ‘Reports at the touch of a button’ and similar slogans egged the senior executives forward to the point where they quickly hired secretaries to click on the computer programs that would spew out reports for them. The fact that the reports, in whatever shape or form, remained largely unread was a moot point, lost in the ‘bigger picture’.

Reports soon gave way to Dashboards. ‘I want everything in one place’; ‘I want to see one version of the truth’; ‘I want all relevant information presented on one screen’; ‘I want a quick snapshot of what is going on in my region’ – these are some of the popular ‘justifications’ for wanting to have a Dashboard where information is required to be presented as though the audience were a preschooler – colorful pies, multi-directional arrows, cascading stairs and other visual attractions.

Dashboards in any organization start with the objective of providing complex information in a simple fashion. The VP, Sales wants to know how the company is trending in sales, which products are selling well, which regions are doing badly, and so on. As soon as this information is presented, the same VP wants to see this year’s numbers compared with data during the same period last year, immediately expanding the scope and complexity of the dashboard. In jumps the VP, Finance who wants the cost of sales presented alongside on the same dashboard. This trend of being ‘all things to all men’ continues till the dashboard becomes just an entry point for literally hundreds of, you got it, good old reports.

So, what goes round comes around. While the presentation of data in fanciful formats, also known as dashboards, is the center of focus for many organizations, the all-important aspect of what actions need to be taken based on the information available remains an elusive after-thought.

 

Corporate Communications During Lockdown

In the strange, surreal environment that exists today due to the pandemic, many of us are working from home and trying to adjust to a world devoid of ‘bio breaks’ during meetings and exchange of gossip through ‘water cooler conversations’. I would assume that I am not alone in voting ‘corporate communications’ as the most painful aspect of being confined to the four walls or, in the case of some lucky ones, the basement of your home.

I dread opening my Inbox every morning. There is a plethora of communications from my HR department on how to stay motivated, what training courses I can take while being under house-arrest, how I can energize myself, followed by how I can calm myself down. This feels like the time when I was five years old and my mother, grandmother and various other elders were teaching me how to become a good citizen. Comparison to death by a thousand paper cuts is not all that far-fetched.

Why is there an assumption that I need to be propped up constantly? And why is there the gross misconception that I have any less work now than before? Frankly, I have been so used to working from home over the years that I don’t need constant pats, more like blows, on the back to continue doing what I have been doing all my life.

Wait, there is more….as they say on those blessed commercials on TV. The ‘corporate’ office also encourages employees to communicate with one another to ‘stay in touch’. This is misconstrued by many eager-but-held-back-so-far-by-decency coworkers to unleash a hailstorm of their own. These take place by way of mass emails or through group chat facilities, paid for by the company on an emergency basis. The contents vary from photos of their pet snakes, videos of piano recitals by their toddlers, vivid descriptions of their dishwashing adventures and daily walks in the woods. I get it – people want to stay in touch. But what about actual work, at least as an afterthought?

In large organizations, you might start hearing from sections of the company which you never knew existed. You might get ‘guidelines’ from the Manager for Digital, peer-to-peer social media communications. You  might also hear from the Office Manager responsible for removing or repurposing unused furniture (who is using any office furniture now?). Or from the VP for global communications strategy – do I ever get a break?

Amidst all that is going on in the world today, one thing stands out, steady as a rock – the ability for the corporate giant to tie itself, and others, into knots!

The Analysts

In writing this next episode of my inside look at the corporate world, I am going to take the liberty of stepping outside and shining the light on another group, the stock market analysts. This group, in a manner of speaking, is like a super-company which has perhaps reached even greater heights in skullduggery than the most astute corporate gurus.

There is no gradual rising up the ladder for a member of this analyst group. Each one is a self-proclaimed pundit from inception. They have the final word on any situation or company, or both, except that the final word is never a conclusion or definitive recommendation on anything. If you think any of these ‘experts’ will tell you which stock or mutual fund to invest in, you will be sorely disappointed – the best you are going to get may be something like, ‘subject to global winds of uncertainty, we see a potential for this company to add value in the long run’. ‘How long is long?’; ‘Value for who?’; and, ‘What is Value anyway?’

When an analyst rates a stock, the words are well designed to be ambiguous enough to cover his/her backside when (not ‘if’, you may note) the predictions fall flat. ‘Outperform’, ‘Underweight’ and similar terms may give you the impression that you are looking at an advertisement for a gymnastics show or MMA event. And it becomes even more complicated, read incomprehensible, when the ratings of multiple analysts are averaged out on a scale of 1-5 and you get a ‘recommendation’ of 1.49. You might as well toss a coin to make your decision.

When these analysts form a panel to discuss ‘stuff’ on TV or other online media, it feels like you are watching an alien invasion of your property, read sanity. The topics discussed and the language used are bizarre and so full of jargon that discussions in any corporate meetings sound like nursery rhymes. Terms like ‘forward looking same-store performance’ and ‘earnings per share adjusted for reverse splits’ leave you mesmerized and frightened at the same time. To top it all, an array of charts and graphs are shown, moved around and superimposed on one another till you are dizzy with vertigo.

Data is the analysts’ forte and invincible weapon. Any point of view can be proven or dismissed using ‘relevant’ data. So, the analysts, over decades, have come up with more and more ratios and ‘indicators’. They could bind you into a tangled web with price-to-earnings-to-growth and return-on-equity ratios while befuddling you with operating income from ongoing operations. When they run out of numbers and ratios, they invent new ones by dividing two existing numbers.

If you feel the need to run for your life from the assault of these analysts, I would recommend you head for your backyard and, along with the squirrels, bury your precious savings.

Calendar-Run Company

Of all the innovations, rather intrusions, of technology in day-to-day life, nothing comes close to the digital calendar in occupying the top spot. I am sure everyone (excluding those who live in a cave) is familiar with the uncomfortable buzz that your electronic devices emit to let you know that it is time for your next meeting or activity.

Those of you who are old enough to remember will long for the good old days of manual diaries and paper calendars, some hung on the wall and some others stuck to your fridge, where you had to make an entry with a pen or pencil indicating when your rent is due or when someone’s birthday is.

The corporate organizations of today seem to be run by a bewildering array of digital calendars. The calendar is no longer a productivity tool, as many management pundits would have to believe. You are effectively a slave to the master, the Calendar! In the spirit of an open office, other peoples’ calendars are game for you to insert entries at will – all you need is a blank space in time that is common across the designated audience. It helps if you are the boss as your subordinates cannot refuse your calendar ‘invite’ and you even have the authority to overwrite their ‘personal time off’.

There are many quirks in the world of calendars that provide humor and entertainment in their own right. For example, any calendar invite worth its salt will have a long list of dial-in information, for global participants, along with a series of code numbers to validate your identity. Getting past all these numbers and entering a virtual meeting on time could be a nerve wracking experience.

Then there are the innumerable updates that follow an original calendar invite.  There may be a dozen corrections to the original date, time, location (meeting room numbers are my favorite), invitees and even the very subject of the meeting – all of which will result in updated invites that will land in your inbox in random order. If you want to retain your sanity, you are best advised to ignore all these updates and hope that you will have the good (?) fortune to be at the right place at the right time.

Calendars are huge status symbols in the office. A full calendar that runs several weeks, even  months, into the future is an indication of how busy you are and, in turn, your importance in the organization. The fact that many of the meetings (the best ones are those that repeat every week or even more frequently) on the calendar are a complete waste of time is beside the point and is not to be questioned. This is where it helps to have friendly colleagues across multiple departments who can mutually invite each other to meetings, and follow up meetings, as needed. There is an ongoing, informal competition for executives to own the busiest calendars, with winners fighting hard to stay at the top.

Calendars can be used to avoid, or at least postpone, serious work. By ‘blocking your  calendar’ (a term that is all too familiar in the corporate world) for relatively unimportant, or even fictitious, discussions and tasks, you can effectively make yourself unavailable for any real work. If you manage to make yourself a part of a team that is geographically distributed, you will be able to practice this master trick with impunity, as no one person will know what all you are (not) doing – your calendar is your armor.

As with every other tool or technique in the corporate world, the calendar phenomenon can be used to your advantage.

Helping Hands

The title, ‘Helping Hands’, might tempt you to believe that we are talking about some charity organization or movement aimed at the have-nots of our society benefitting from kind acts of the have’s. Let me set the record straight by stating, right at the outset, that we are not talking about any charitable initiatives here but alluding to a corporate strategy of Machiavellian proportions.

You see them all over the office – the kind hearted colleagues who are always willing to give you a hand. They will help move your desk, fetch you a cup of coffee, proof read your report, debug your code and even attend meetings in place of you! It all looks like a good natured party of sorts till the seasoned veterans enter the fray.

At the individual level, the ready-to-serve helper seems to materialize out of thin air whenever you are struggling with an impossible task or assignment.

“Hi buddy, I will help you put together the Sales Forecast – I just finished helping Amy with hers”

“I see that you are struggling with your budgets allocation. It is truly a beast unless you know the tricks to make the numbers balance. I can give you a hand”

“I just couldn’t help overhearing your grouchy manager rudely telling you to finish reviewing those contracts by this evening. What an insensitive human being, piling things on top of what you already have to deal with. Let us work on it together”

Sound familiar? While on the surface such camaraderie looks like a godsend to a battered soul, taking up such offers of unsolicited help quickly turns out to be a disaster because the ‘helper’ has no clue of the task involved (notwithstanding tall claims to the contrary) and you end up undoing their ‘help’ for many hours. And, to top it all, everyone in the office is made aware of how much assistance you received from the Good Samaritan!

At the higher echelons of management, this concept of offering help is used in a structured way to hog the limelight and build careers. Let us take a look at a meeting where the CEO is assigning an initiative to improve customer service to the Head of Customer Service (Stacy). A savvy manager from Marketing (Tom) could hijack the situation as follows:

CEO: So, Stacy ……. Let us get the show on the road. Contact all customers and tell them about our new initiatives and focus.

Stacy: OK, I will look into it and come up with ……..

Tom: Hi Stacy and others, I would love to help. You know, we had started something very similar in our own department and ……

Stacy (confused and surprised): Oh, but Tom, I am not aware that you guys were working on this.

Tom: I was referring to the research study undertaken by the Product Management group five years ago. We were helping them out but the project was canned after a few days.

Stacy: Oh, I see….

Tom: But, don’t worry, Stacy, we have started compiling a great database of all customers, by region, by market segment and a host of other factors.

Stacy (suspicious and skeptical): Yeah, I have seen that list. It is pretty outdated. I am not sure……

CEO: Stacy, this is a big initiative. Take all the help you can. Tom, thanks for your offer. Get right on it.

Tom: Any time, Sir.

Stacy (collapsing into her chair): Whatever……

Out of Office

People in various offices have been taking vacations (fondly referred to as PTO – paid-time-off, in case you did not know) for decades, if not centuries.  However, it is only in recent times (this century?) that this phenomenon has attained the status of a ceremony. Let me explain myself before you shoot me down.

People in large organizations (as well as small organizations pretending to be large organizations) have the need to know where their colleagues and coworkers are, on a given day, in order to palm off work or, if feeling kindly, ask for help. Fair enough that globally shared calendars are annotated with who is not available when.

Taking this a step forward, it is also understandable that you let people know about your unavailability when they try to contact you via phone or email. Enter the ubiquitous ‘out of office message’ (let us call it ‘oom’ to make it interesting!). Those who have spent enough time in the corporate world readily know that receiving a oom is equivalent to death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you are lucky, the oom could be a one-liner such as “I will be away from …. to ….; will respond upon return”, delivered at lightning speed in response to your email. But, more often than not, you are likely to get a multi-page essay on the following lines:

“Thank you for your email. I am sorry I am not able to be of assistance (did I ask for help?) as I am away exploring colleges for my son who is entering middle school next year (do I need this detail?). The Internet connection could be spotty at times as I am traveling through mountainous regions (someone, please shoot me!), but I will check my mail periodically…….. I will also check every night ……Thank you for your understanding (did I just pull out a bunch of my remaining hair?)……. Hope to catch up with you soon (no, no, never….)”.

There are variations and extensions to this popular corporate game. In a group email chain (a corporate norm, by the way), with everyone hitting the reply-all button, multiple copies of the delightful oom (perhaps from multiple people on PTO at the same time) are generated in no time. The more diligent veterans of the game do not fail to create an equivalent oom on their phone extension in case someone is still old-fashioned enough to contact them over phone.

The oom concept can also be used to brag about yourself and your domain of control, to emphasize your importance in the organization. Take a look at this elaborate oom:

Thanks for contacting me. I am away on vacation in the Himalayas (I bet you did not know I was a certified mountaineer). I know your call is important and needs urgent attention (even if you think otherwise). Please contact:

Joe at …, for Sales related matters

Amber at …, for Payments

Mary at …, for the Cafeteria menu

Ben at …, for HR related matters

Kate at …, for the upcoming Customer Conference related matters

My executive assistant, (Yes, I have an executive assistant), Liz at …, if you would like to wish me Happy Birthday (I will keep a count of people who did not wish me on my birthday)

(Unsaid disclaimer: I may not be in charge of all the things mentioned above)

The Dotted (line) Company

Geometry seems to be an integral part of the corporate world as we have seen in some of our earlier analysis. But nothing has been as cunningly used, with (un)predictable effect, as the dotted line. Early novices in the corporate world created the concept of defining and drawing an organization structure as a chart containing a series of parent-child relationship, connected using a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines.  Modern day management gurus have successfully neutralized the structure, and any discipline represented by such structures, by introducing the ubiquitous dotted line!

For the uninitiated, in an organization chart, a dotted line, in its simplest sense, represents an informal reporting relationship. But, before you get your hopes high regarding your understanding, let me warn you that there is a lot more unwritten, implied meaning to be derived by reading between the lines (pun intended). A dotted line serves various purposes, chief amongst them being to confuse the structure by diluting authority and responsibility, the cornerstones of an organization structure.

For example, in a company that has multiple manufacturing units at different locations, there is a finance department in each location reporting to the General Manager of the respective unit. At the same time, the head of finance at each location has a – you guessed it – dotted line relationship with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) operating out of the Head Office.  The CFO could use the dotted lines as strings to play on the puppets attached at the end. This informal structure serves as the recipe for conflicts in priorities, daily activities and everything in between for the local finance departments who are forced to spend all their time managing a major standoff between their solid and dotted lines!

To understand the full power and destruction potential of the dotted mode of operation, listen to this conversation in a team meeting on an IT project.

Cindy (Project Manager)(trying to keep the overall project on track): I understand that the requirements have been gathered from all user departments. So, we can proceed with ……….

Jim (senior team member): Yes, Cindy, I believe we have completed the scope definition for the system.

Ron (HR specialist): Hold on a second. We have not fully vetted the legal requirements affecting part-time labor. We need to analyze those.

Cindy: But Ron, this issue has been raised many times in the past three months – why was no action taken to finalize legal requirements?

Ron: Cindy, I have been deputed to this project from HR, so I only have a dotted line relationship with you, the PM. I was ……

Cindy: But what does that have to do with you completing the requirements analysis, now that you have been on the project for three months?

Ron: I needed to ask for an additional resource from Legal to help with this analysis but since I only have a dotted line to you, I could not make that request to you.

Cindy: For God’s sake, why could you not ask your own HR manager that you needed help?

Ron: It is complicated – since I was temporarily assigned to you, my direct, solid line reporting within my department was suspended for the duration of the project – preventing me from placing any requests and so…

Cindy (exasperated): Why could you not have brought this up months ago?

Ron: I was still new in the company and was undergoing orientation from the Training department on all the dotted line relationships that I was part of.

The Expressive Company

Communication is perhaps the life blood of civilization. Humans invented language (one too many of them if I may add) to clearly distinguish and differentiate homo sapiens from animals. However, with technological advances and the elimination of verbal communication (in favor of shortened messages/texts, pictures, emojis and other forms of visual art), conversation following the rules of any language is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The corporate world does not allow itself to be left behind in this regard, or in any regard, if you will. Interpersonal communication (a subject on which many a career in Human Resources has been built) has taken on a new dimension that is often bewildering in its inability to convey anything to the receiving party.

For instance, listen to this exchange between two managers talking about their Director:

Manager-1: Hi buddy, how is it going?
Manager-2: Pressure, man.
Manager-1: Oh, what’s the matter?
Manager-2: Just…. this Director ….. you know (throws up hands)
Manager-1: I see… (clearly does not see or understand what is going on)
Manager-2: Always the same thing……. you know what…… she is weird …….. (rolls eyes
and sneers)
Manager-1: Any problem with your work?
Manager-2: No, man…. it is just totally bizarre…… you know what …….. I am like
“Whaaat?” (points to a computer)
Manager-1 (trying desperately to understand and/or help): Anything I can ………
Manager-2: Whatever….. I’m just goin to…… what’s  the word ……..   (wrings hands and
heads to the restroom)

A senior Director of Sales, training his new sales executives on the nuances of selling the company’s products, takes the (non)communication to an entirely new level.

Sales Director (SD): Welcome one and all. We will see how to put some (pumps his fist)
into selling…..
Sales-1: (punch the customer in the face?!…..)
SD: You should try and spot the …. you know …… influencer by …… hmmmmm….. (winks)
Sales-2: (what? how?)
Sales-3: Sir. How do we project our company as being different from the pack?
SD: (caught unawares):  Ha…. different?…..sell the .….brand …… we have a different             brand ………
Sales-1: In what way, sir?
SD: (clearly rattled): We are ….you know….. (makes gestures that look like a tall                     building collapsing)
Sales-2: You mean, crush the competition?
Sales-3: (whatever, man….)
SD: (perspiring profusely) You will learn ……. through experience ……