The Corporate Bus

Buses have been an integral part of the corporate world for quite some time. Before you summarily dismiss me as a raving lunatic, please indulge me and read the rest of this musing.

The bus has been used as a metaphor, simile and variations thereof in a number of situations and contexts. Perhaps the most honorable mention has been in the book, Good to Great, by James Collins. James’ simple advice to the CEO of a company, who is pictured as the driver of the company bus, is to make sure that only the right people get on the bus and to let them decide/dictate the journey details.

We also often hear this, somewhat rhetorical, question: “What happens if Tina is run over by a bus tomorrow?” And then there is the “Who is in the driver’s seat – we or the customer?”, not to forget the “Hi buddy, you are late – you missed the bus”.

But the one that most people are aware of – and have perhaps experienced at some point in time (!) – is the act of throwing someone under the bus. While the act itself may appear deceptively simple, the finesse needed to practice the skill is not to be underestimated.

When you are a novice trying to learn your tricks in your organization, you typically do not have anyone (excluding, for this discussion, the security guard) reporting to you. So, as part of your learn-to-throw-under-the-bus, level-101 course you might try things like, “I did not attend the meeting because my colleague ….. did not send a meeting invite” or “Mary (the secretary) brought me a very spicy burger which forced me to spend half an hour in the restroom”. The important lesson to learn here is the ability to spot opportunities where you can practice your skill, be spontaneous and be able to think on your feet.

At the next level, when you are a manager, you ruthlessly practice your art on your hapless subordinates. If you are late in submitting your monthly report because you completely ignored or forgot about it, you declare, with a straight face, that (you pick a name) had horribly mixed up the numbers before going on her ill-timed, one-day sick leave. To add to the effect, you profusely apologize for having missed the deadline and swear never to depend on others, even in your own department, for such critical tasks. And then you send a nasty email on the subject (for the first time) to the employee now crushed under the bus. End of episode!

The black belts of this art are, of course, found in the highest levels of the organization. They can throw armies under the bus (or tankers, if you prefer) with nonchalance. And they can include peers and also superiors in their gamut. Here is a scene with the CEO, VP Sales and VP Services:

CEO (Tom): I believe our customer, Allied Manufacturing, is refusing to sign the new five-million dollar deal for our new pumps – this is crucial to meet our current targets.

VP Sales (Jen): Yes, Tom, we are having difficult negotiations. I understand that they have not been very happy with our level of service on existing equipment and ……

CEO: What is the problem John?

VP Services (John) (clearly surprised): Well, I don’t know….we have fixed all their problems promptly and, in fact, we have had no issue or complaints for the past 4 months……Who in Allied…..

VP Sales: John, people don’t always say things to people openly but we heard from our ‘sources’ that….

CEO: John, I cannot have a dissatisfied customer. Hurts our business badly. Go get a fix on the (non)issue.


John (from under the four wheels): Can someone tell me what happened?

Work Expansion

When your boss tells you to get something done, you think you need to get on with whatever you have been asked to do, complete the task and hope for some brownie points. Wrong, totally wrong, you novice, ignorant of the nuances of the corporate kingdom! Read on to find out how an experienced veteran would handle this.

The seasoned professional, of course, starts by saying an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to the boss. Then she proceeds to make a mental (followed by a physical) list of all possible people and departments that could even remotely be roped in. This is followed by the creation of as complex a list of subtasks, not all of them related to the main task, as possible. And then comes the master stroke – assigning a whole series of interdependent subtasks, one by one, to clueless, unsuspecting individuals or departments, making it impossible to know who needs to do what and, more importantly, who is responsible for anything.

For the benefit of those struggling to visualize what in heaven’s name I am talking about, let us illustrate with an example. Say, your boss, the VP of Sales, has asked you, the Director under him, to prepare a competitive bid for selling office supplies to a prospect that you are trying to win over from a competitor. You immediately call for a brainstorming session of about 40 people including your secretary, your company’s Administration manager (to know how office supplies are used), the janitor (to know how much paper is found in waste paper baskets every day) and some junior assistants in your office to start collating various statistics in the industry. You try, as far as possible, to avoid involving the actual Sales representative assigned to sell to the prospect under consideration.

A few days/weeks later you are sitting comfortably and reviewing an amazing array of data on manufacturing costs of paper clips in different countries, results of scientific research on the relative performance of different types of shredders and similar ‘base data’. You have successfully kept your boss (un)informed of ‘progress’ being made while shooing away the anxious salesperson for the account who is a nervous wreck by now trying to put together some numbers for the customer quote due in two days.

Things naturally, and inevitably, reach D-day. You are of course busy chasing various people who have no clue as to what they are supposed to do or what you are expecting from them. You yell at the salesperson (in front of your boss, of course) for not being able to get an extension of date for submission of the quote. You make abundantly clear to everyone in sight that you have been working 24/7 to get this complex assignment completed on time but are being let down by an incompetent organization that you are forced to work in.

Somehow, at the last minute, a proposal is hastily assembled, in spite of your objections and interference, and sent off to the customer. Your boss calls, thanks you for a job well done and proceeds to tell you that you need to get started with preparations for a sales review meeting scheduled for the following month; you quickly say, ‘yes, of course’ and – yes, you are spot on – a brainstorming session is on its way!

Jason Calacanis – Angel Investor or Man with a Mediocre Mission

Corporate Life:

Here is some new insight into what works in the corporate world!

Originally posted on How To Get To The Top:

Although one’s management style here at Amalgamated Industries is a little dated, for example I like my people to wear jackets and ties in the office and drink tea from cups not mugs there is a young whippersnapper from across the pond who has some interesting points. I should mention that he often wears a baseball chapeaux reversed but that does not necessarily make him a hardened criminal.

Jason off to a Union meetingJason off to a Union meeting

He is Jason Calacanis, I wonder if he is related to the Suffolk Calacanises, lovely people one used to hunt with his Lordship. Anyway, apologies, I digress, Mr Calacanis has some pointed advice for young people who are just starting their careers:

In your career you will find that life is a zero sum game: the winners get the prime positions and the person who comes in second place for that position is the first loser—not…

View original 275 more words

Management by Smartphone

The smartphone (with or without the i-prefix) is an integral part of the body and soul of every corporate manager (and non-manager) to the point where anyone using a device that merely enables you to talk and listen might as well be non-existent.

Unlike for naive mortals, in the hands of the corporate wizard, the smartphone is not a mere electronic device. It is the ultimate weapon that combines the power of control, confusion, denial, deficiency, one-upmanship, redirection, (mis)management, amusement and much more.

The smartphone is the best way to prove that you never start, I mean, stop working and, in turn, ensuring that your subordinates don’t. This is easily achieved by setting reminders to yourself (on the smartphone, of course) to generate one-liners (rumor has it that there are easy-to-use, free applications that can do this for you) such as, “hope you guys have completed the ppt deck”, “are we all set with the new product launch?” or, even more importantly, “have you reminded Liz to ensure that John has booked the limo to pick up the customer tomorrow morning?” What is most important is the timing of these emails, the best times being closer to midnight and in no case any time during daylight hours. And it must have the tag line, “Sent from my iPhone/Blackberry/you-know-the-game” for authenticity about you being on the move.

In addition to being able to make preemptive strikes as described above, the smartphone can be used as a massive routing device. To the veteran manager, it is child’s play to redirect a detailed email to a colleague or subordinate with a curt message varying from “FYI” or “what do you think?” all the way to “cannot open the large attachment on my iPhone – could you please take care of this” – and move on to the next ‘important’ mail item such as a stock market analysis link sent by a friendly business acquaintance.

The smartphone also offers the invaluable feature of being ‘on’ or ‘off’ in an instant. You may be on a conference call one instant and excuse yourself the next with one of the approved, industry-standard excuses – “sorry, bad cell reception”, “I am going through airport security”, “the blessed battery is dying – I swear I charged it half an hour ago”, “the doctor is calling me”, to name a few. You firmly establish the fact that you, the ever busy corporate problem solver, want to be involved but are handicapped by, yes, your smartphone. “I wish we were back in the days of face-to-face meetings”, you say with a chuckle and march forward.

Amongst the arsenal of tricks at the disposal of the pretentious manager, the smartphone is undoubtedly right at the top!

The Helicopter Manager

Do you hear the buzz above your cubicle or sense a shadow lengthening on your desk? It is your helicopter manager hovering around, keeping a protective, though annoying, eye on you.

The helicopter manager behaves pretty much like the helicopter parents, who are constantly monitoring and annoying, if not choking, their kids. This type of manager is not to be confused with the Seagull Manager whose actions may appear to be somewhat similar but whose motives are definitely different.

The helicopter manager is very endearing at the beginning. When you are a novice entering the corporate maze, this manager takes charge and makes you feel at home (people with helicopter parents, please excuse the pun). He points out everything from where you could sharpen your pencil to the shortest route to the restroom. He personally introduces you to people in the mail room and helps tackle the IT guys who set up your computer, no mean task even for the CEO of your company.

But soon the hospitality and the kindness start wearing you off and you start noticing the subtle ways in which your colleagues attempt to perform escape acts – pretending to be on the phone, having a coughing fit requiring a visit to the water cooler or even trying to disappear under the table or behind closets when the manager walks by. You soon find yourself joining this select group of researchers in pursuit of the utopian solution to the threat.

The helicopter manager treats everyone as though they were permanently in the kindergarten class. She not only acts on the basis that everyone and everything requires monitoring and supervision but is also prepared to co-perform every activity that each subordinate is required to complete. Here are some samples of such a manager’s behavior:

“I am just checking to see if you read the email that I sent yesterday and you acknowledged today.”

“Have you scheduled time to complete the 5-minute activity that is due six months from now – just don’t lose sight of it.”

“I liked the brief that you wrote for our press release. I just made a few corrections to two of the paragraphs and rewrote the other ten – good job!”

“I changed the variable name in your program from country-origin to country-of-origin; makes it much clearer I think.”

“I know you are working on collating the monthly sales figures for all our 500 sales reps. Can you email me the spreadsheet as each number is completed – I can then cross-check this with my own numbers that I will be independently collating in parallel. This will make the final comparison exercise that we will do together much easier. And, oh, please don’t forget to use the ‘comma’ separator for numbers greater than thousand.”

So, what is the moral of the story – the next time you hear the buzzing sound, run like hell!

Pass The Buck

While some skills to prosper in the corporate world might be considered optional extras, passing the buck is a fundamental trait that one cannot do without. In fact, if you don’t have this skill you probably don’t belong there – and most certainly will not be climbing the organizational ladder any time soon.

An amateur manager says, “I will do it”, while the professional (which, for ease of reference, is what we will call our pass-the-buck veteran) will always come up with a quick, “I will get it done”. First and foremost, you need to get rid of any thoughts of doing any task yourself – if you can do so this without batting an eyelid, you are half way there.

Often, passing the buck is referred to by its more respectable name – delegation. While delegation is meant to give authority to someone else to act on your behalf, without absolving yourself of ownership and responsibility for the issue on hand, the professional would brush aside such nuances with a dismissive wave of the hand.

With sufficient practice and experience, the pass-the-buck game can be played in multiple dimensions/ directions. You can pass laterally or vertically, up or down, within the organizational chain. Passing down any and all tasks that come your way to your subordinates is the easiest of the three and can be done with some degree of legitimacy, in the name of carrying out your ‘managerial duties’. It helps if you have a sizable department(s) under you.

Passing horizontally in the organization requires intricate knowledge of real and imaginary duties of different sections of the organization. The more complex the organization structure the easier this task becomes. For example, if you are asked to organize a conference call, your response should be, “Yes, as soon as I can get Facilities Management to allocate a conference room for this; then, I will get the Procurement department to get us a telephone instrument with speaker; and then ask the Networking department to install and verify connectivity – I will chase these things down”.

Passing the buck upwards requires the skills of a grandmaster. Even to think of assigning blame, sorry responsibility, to your boss, most likely a more accomplished professional than you, requires above-average courage. Such an act might involve saying something like this to your superior: “I have completed the sales report for one of the hundred territories under you; you can easily incorporate the figures for the other ninety-nine as the figures have not changed much from last month”.

Passing the buck is a skillful game that must necessarily defy the common saying – ‘What goes up must come down’. If it comes down, you have obviously failed!

The Seagull Manager

The seagull manager is such an integral part of the corporate scene that it is difficult to separate the two with any reasonable or even unreasonable force.

Those unfortunate souls who are not up to speed on corporate nuances, please educate yourself here. The seagull manager is sort of fun to watch from the periphery, if you have managed to stay outside the sphere of influence which, I hasten to add, is considerable and, more often than not, includes the entire organization. It is definitely prudent to assume that you would be showered with you-know-what sooner or later and be prepared with suitable cleansing agents.

The seagull manager descends on meetings in the blink of an eye. Let us say you are discussing the layout for a new office and attempting to logically divide the space based on departments and who needs to work with whom. In comes the seagull manager (call him ‘SM’ for ease of reference) and the conversation goes like this:

SM: Hi guys, what are you all up to?

Staff-1 (trying to hide the papers in front of her): Well, not much…..just reviewing some stuff …….

SM (quickly glancing at some other papers on the table): Oh, I notice some layouts being worked on…… let us see….. is this the space for the HR folks? Why are they next to the Payroll people?

Staff-2 (desperate to avoid the reset button in the layout exercise): We were told they needed to interact …. Moreover, this was finalized in our last meeting and ……..

SM (already looking at a text message on his phone): No, no….. that is not correct.. you need to revisit and review this.

Staff-1 (panic clearly showing on her face): So, what would you suggest?

SM: Come on guys, learn to work smart – you know the requirements, don’t you? I can’t be doing your job for you…..I need to deal with other things now… (runs off).

There you have the seagull effect – intrude, criticize, confuse and leave!

Seagull managers have a very distinguishing trait in their armor – deliberate lack of knowledge, making them eminently incapable of offering any solutions even if they wanted to. But they are quick to pounce on opportunities to point out imaginary problems and non-existent risks. For instance, in a project review meeting, when everything looks good and under control, the SM can put the brakes on, if not put the entire project in reverse gear, with something like, “But what if Peter goes on vacation from tomorrow? We should build an effective backup for everyone’s activities before we move forward with the product launch. Jane, could you look into mitigating this (non) risk?”

Seagull managers ply their trade globally and are immune to changes in location, departments and roles – mere feeble attempts by organizations to limit their sphere of damage. The only known way to counter their attack is to buy good raincoats!