The Job Title Quagmire

‘What’s in a name?’ said an unsuspecting Shakespeare, referring to the smell of a rose. One can only pity this simpleton, unaware of the far reaching (or non-existent) implications of the corporate job title game.

Let us start you off with a little quiz. Who is a Manager, Coordination? What does he/she (not) coordinate? What is the difference between a Director, Global Communications and Director, International Branding – or for that matter, Director, Cross-Border Messaging? Not to be outdone in the technical arena, you might want to ponder over the roles of people with such daunting titles as Vice President, Network Infrastructure Management and Mobile Devices Integration, Chief Security Officer Customer Systems and Disaster Recovery as well as Manager, Cross-Platform Integration and Back Office Support.

I could go on bombarding you with more information but I suspect you are already reeling under the shame of your ignorance and therefore I will let you enroll yourself in the appropriate courses – or, better still, join a suitable organization after checking out their ‘titles’ policy.

Job titles are nothing short of manna from heaven where rewards (or corrections, if you will) are concerned. There is no better system known to mankind – I mean corporate-kind – than to promote-demote an employee, especially at senior levels, than to offer exotic job titles. For example, if the Manager Customer Service, responsible for the important task of supporting all customers, is not performing well, simply make her the Director Customer Experience with the all-important job of collecting real and imaginary surveys from customers – while allocating the original customer service job to a competent individual.

Job titles (and associated non-jobs) help the CEO, and others holding power in the corporate world, to bestow favors on their friends and other sycophants, inside and outside their company, while seeming to reorganize and restructure the organization, allegedly for ‘meeting the challenges in the market place’. Thus, if you happen to be lucky enough to work for such an enlightened organization, you might wake up one day to a barrage of HR announcements about a new VP, Cross-Cultural Team Building, a new Chief for obtaining testimonials from customers to be put on the company website (sorry, I could not come up with a concise title for this coveted position) and a Director of Digital Social Media Marketing Ideas (is there any other kind of Social Media?) (Note: this person is responsible ONLY for generating random ideas, to be passed on to other people, with yet-to-be-announced job titles, for execution).

Job titles also help divide (more like fragment) portfolios that should logically remain integrated. For instance, when you have to fill the position of Director, Transportation for your company’s fleet of buses, and you have to (or want to) promote three of your favorite managers, you could create three seemingly different job titles: Director Route Planning, Assistant Senior Director Fuel Efficiency and Director, Special Duties for Fleet Vehicles Acquisition Planning. And here is the best outcome from this brilliant move – with conflicting objectives, these three Directors will require – you got it right this time – another Director, Transportation Coordination to resole their infighting!

Here is the takeaway for those who have made it this far into this article – the next time you are up for an appraisal review, fight hard for a fancy title if nothing else of significance is being offered!

The Working Lunch

The uninitiated rookie in the corporate world is unequal to the task of understanding the basics of what a working lunch entails. It could take years, even decades, to master the nuances and exploit the potential of this concept.

On the face of it, the term ‘working lunch’ could be mistaken to simply mean a way for the busy executives to continue working while they incidentally take care of keeping their biological engine refueled. On closer observation, it would become clear that nothing is farther from the truth. For the sake of clarity, it should be mentioned here that the act of two (or more) executives unobtrusively munching away on their sandwiches while discussing the terms of their proposal to a client does not constitute a working lunch. If it is not visible to the larger audience in the office, it fails the test.

A working lunch just does not happen – it is always carefully planned, many times weeks ahead of time. It is as much a part of any meeting agenda as the official topic of discussion itself. It needs to be carefully timed and scheduled after taking into consideration various people who will be arriving late for the meeting (obviously, flying in from another city/country) and those who will be leaving early (for the same reason, in reverse). The duration of the working lunch cannot be seen to be excessive – the ideal duration is zero minutes – though in reality it can be extended as long as it takes to finish all tete-a-tete’s that invariably start during a working lunch.

The menu for a working lunch cannot be taken lightly either. Secretaries and executive assistants are known to have lost their jobs (or received promotions) on their ability to pick the right items and flavors. The menu should, simultaneously, be tasty, healthy, sumptuous, nutritious and exhibit other characteristics to dispel any doubts of being commonplace. ‘Unhealthy’ drinks such as Coke should be included so as to enable executives to pick tonic water and green tea.

What happens during these working lunches makes an interesting study. Discussion regarding lunch starts right at the beginning of the meeting when important presentations are halted to review the lunch menu that is circulated. Significant time is spent on asking for items, such as specific salad dressings, that are not on the menu. Finally, the secretary walks away with a lunch order that has very little in common with the original menu. Fulfilling this order keeps many staff members in the office busy the whole morning as they head out in different directions to various restaurants.

After much anticipation, and sometimes nail-biting wait times, lunch arrives. Executives open their presents, sorry lunch boxes, and take a satisfying bite, making all the hard work of listening to various presentations worthwhile. Various topics, quite unrelated to the meeting or the business on hand are initiated and the ensuing discussions continue long after the scheduled lunch break is over. The beauty of the situation is that, as all the executives are still technically in the meeting, everything looks official and ‘business as usual’ to the outside world!

In today’s world of virtual working, working lunches are a great way of getting executives into the office. However, if you look at the overall gain/loss of productivity of the people involved (don’t forget all the administrative staff working hard to make these lunches happen), especially as compared to going out to a nearby restaurant, you might well be in for a surprise!

The Status Update Circus

Status Update – the dreaded phrase that could quash every corporate employee in the blink of an eye!

While the need for keeping abreast of what is going on around and below you is an absolute necessity to function properly, the amount of time spent on updates increases exponentially with the size and levels in the organization. One almost wonders whether there should be a metric such as ‘percentage of time spent on status updates versus doing actual work’ in the same way that we talk about percentage of money spent on administration and fund raising for not-for-profit organizations.

The beauty of the situation is that most, if not all, of the executives involved in getting status updates almost always have no clue as to what the problem; nor are they able to contribute to the solution. Consider the following scenario when a customer has reported that the phones provided by your company are not working.

Day-1, Hour Zero: Support desk technician receives a message from the customer and dutifully logs the issue in the customer support database.

Day-1, Hour-1: Support supervisor assigns the problem to the Support engineer to troubleshoot and fix the issue. Support engineer shoots off an email to customer asking for more details. Starts looking through known error database.

Day-1, Hour-2: The sales representative in your organization tries to call the Manager, Operations at the customer office for exploring some upselling opportunities for additional network devices. Unable to get through their main telephone system (which is, of course, down at the moment) contact is made via the manager’s personal cell phone. The sales representative comes to know that the telephone system is down and informs his Sales Manager.

Day-1, Hour-5: The Sales Manager has ‘escalated’ the ‘calamity’ up his organization hierarchy and now the VP, Sales (on a vacation in the Caribbean) is making calls to every C Level executive in the organization (at various locations, naturally) to warn about the ‘impending disaster’ with a customer situation.

Day-1, Hours 2-9: The Support engineer has been trying to get some relevant information about what went wrong from the customer but nobody at their office has the time to gather and provide any details – worse, they don’t seem to be affected by the lack of ability to communicate!

Day-1, Hour-9: Matters have reached a feverish pitch in your company. Meetings, (yes you guessed right!) for status updates have been organized ‘asap’. Excruciatingly minute details of the non-existent sequence of events are being invented, sorry assembled, by technical staff who have been pulled out of their regular development work. In line with protocol requirements, levels of details are being suppressed, I mean summarized, as status updates are being reported to higher levels.

Day-1, Hour-24: Still no additional information is forthcoming from the customer, at the grassroots level. One is almost led to believe that there is no impact to their business operations (ironically perhaps, as the phone system is down, there are no status-update calls that staff are forced to attend and so they are able to focus on their real work!). However, it is an entirely different scene at your office. A war room has been opened to monitor, yes, status. A conference bridge has been opened to enable anyone with any non-information to provide updates – CNN style. The CEO has also joined the fray and has tasked two VPs from unrelated departments to provide him updates at 15-minute intervals. This in turn has the effect of several clueless managers in those departments demanding the engineering and support departments to provide them with information, starting with a primer on how-telephones-work.

Day-2, Hour-4: The Support engineer at the customer office returns from his one-day vacation and notices that the daily reset procedure for the phone system has not been followed by his rookie substitute. This in turn has caused the messages mailbox to overflow and consequently shut down the entire system. A quick reset solves the problem and the phones start ringing again.

Day-2, Hour-6: All the senior executives in your company are assembled in the CEO’s office discussing ‘contingency’ plans ranging from installing a completely new system for the customer, free of cost of course, to rehashing the company’s sales plans should the customer terminate their business. As is normal, the status update process has failed when the problem has actually been resolved and the senior management is unaware of the current status!

Day-3, Hour-1: Upset with the delay in getting status updates, the CEO has ordered a through review of the status reporting process and a VP, with a budget of a million dollars sanctioned out of emergency funds, has been tasked with identifying and putting in place a new system.

In corporate life, the status review/update process is not merely a means to an end – it is an end in its own right!

The Remote Office

“Could you please organize a conference call tomorrow morning to discuss this?”

This one statement perhaps exemplifies today’s office better than any other description. Welcome to the world of the remote office!

One of the most significant and visible results of the revolution in communication technology in the past two decades is the concept of people at all levels in any organization working from home or out of any office location of their choice – fondly referred to as ‘the virtual office’ in corporate jargon. This, in turn, has resulted in the proliferation of the ubiquitous conference call (companies who identified the need for this early and invested in the business of connecting people are laughing their way to the bank!). Let us get inside such a call and enjoy the fun.

The COO of Company-X, a consumer products company, is informed by his executive assistant, Jane, that monthly reports from various departmental heads are not arriving in time. In the erstwhile world of simple organizations, the COO would have walked across the floor to his direct subordinates’ offices and told them to be prompt in the future – or sent out a one-paragraph, paper memo to the relevant executives. But, this is the connected world where there is no place for simplicity and therefore the COO asks Jane to organize, yes you guessed it right, a conference call.

Thus starts a 2-day process of ‘synchronizing’ calendars while Jane jumps through multiple hoops and systems to scan through the calendars and schedules of people – including calling the secretaries of several executives who either don’t maintain or share their calendars. After much effort and nail-biting tension, Jane strikes gold! There is a precious slot of 30 minutes 3 weeks from today when all the concerned people have no engagements, I mean, other conference calls! Of course, being a ‘virtual’ company, the time slots extend anywhere from 4 AM to midnight in their respective time zones but the executives are anyway expected to be time-agnostic.

If by now you are heaving a sigh of relief and saying ‘mission accomplished’ to yourself, you obviously have no clue as to how these things work. Over the next three weeks, there is a flurry of phone calls, emails and other modes of communication between various parties trying to rearrange the time for the call to accommodate more pressing emergencies such as, yes you guessed right this time, attending calls on more important issues such as rearranging office furniture and finalizing the cafeteria menu. Finally a compromise is arrived at by moving the start time of the call by 2 minutes and some executives agreeing to the supreme sacrifice of excusing themselves 3 minutes early from their previous calls. In the meanwhile Jane, the COO’s assistant, of course, has had no time to attend to mundane matters such as getting her boss to sign customer contracts.

It is D-day and D-time minus 10 minutes. Jane has initiated the call and is desperately trying to have the COO get off the previous call. She is petrified that if for any reason this call should get canceled by the COO, she would have gone back to square-1, like going down the largest snake in a game of snakes & ladders. She is lucky and the COO gets on to the call just one minute late.

The call then proceeds as follows:

COO: Good morning everyone …….

(loud noise)

Exec-1: ….sorry folks, I am at the airport boarding my flight; I will put myself on mute now.

COO: That is OK – safe travels. How are the others doing?

(….detailed descriptions of various school games and charity events……)

15 minutes later……

COO: OK, let us get down to business. Why are the monthly reports not coming in on time?

Exec-2: I always email it one day ahead of the deadline.

Exec-3: So do I.

Exec-4: What is the deadline? I thought it was the fifth of the month. I always email it on the 4th evening.

(……. more chatter and explanation of when the report is sent by various other executives….)

Exec-10: Isn’t the information in the monthly report the same as the contents of the flash report that is sent at the end of the last week of the month?

(…..murmurs and shuffling of papers….)

Exec-1: Sorry I need to drop off now, as the flight is ready to take off. I will catch up later. Bye.

COO: We are almost out of time and I know that many of you have other calls to get on to. Let me ask Jane to organize a conference call to review the flash report. Thank you all.

Thus concludes another chapter in the endless book of communication that defines the world of remote offices!

The Project Manager – Jack of all trades!

The position titled ‘Project Manager’ is the manna from heaven or the kiss of death depending on whether or not you are the one holding that position. Moreover, since this is usually a temporary (though not necessarily short in duration!) job created and destroyed as needed, no one in the organization is immune from becoming the victim – I mean, being asked to be the Project Manager!

Let us analyze this hapless creature in some detail. First, the Project Manager (PM for short, from now on) holds responsibility for everything under the sun without a clue as to what even one ray (of the sun) is. The PM is expected to rely on a host of subject matter experts (fondly referred to as SME’s) to assist him/her in navigating the project jungle with a bewildering array of trees, I mean activities. These SME’s naturally treat the PM, at best, as a necessary nuisance and show scant respect. Updating the PM is the last thing on the minds of project team members and the clueless PM is often seen chasing and begging them for updates around the water cooler.

The project plan (often pasted together from multiple printouts and other color coded pieces of paper), charts, tables, spreadsheets and other documents act as the companions for the otherwise lonely PM. He/she is constantly grappling with tallying the list of outstanding issues and incomplete activities across multiple spreadsheets knowing fully well no one is ever likely to bother about or agree with any of the lists anyway. The day before the project review meeting is perhaps the worst nightmare for the PM. Depending on what is at stake and who is attending the review, the meeting could be variously referred to as a Checkpoint, Gate, Go-No-Go or other imaginative terms. More often than not, the PM is expected to present at these meetings what the powers-that-be want to hear rather than the project facts as they are. Huge problems may need to be carefully camouflaged or completely hidden while minor problems are highlighted with great fanfare, only to be solved with a flick of the wrist, figuratively speaking.

The complexity of the project management game increases exponentially based on the number of ‘other’ PMs, representing various factions/vendors/customers/ stakeholders, participating in the game. This situation while, on the one hand, ensures the longevity of the profession that produces and nurtures PMs, also vividly exemplifies the utter lack of control the PM experiences in today’s corporate world where just one person is never in charge of any one thing.

Amongst other benefits, the PM offers a one-stop shop for directing blame. While every issue on the project manager’s tracking sheet (a coveted and aggressively guarded asset of any PM) can be analyzed ad infinitum, with various participants having widely varying opinions regarding what worked, what did not and why, the universal judgment, especially from senior management (which would include anyone and everyone above the PM’s pay grade), would be that the PM is to be blamed for not ‘managing’ the project properly – a responsibility the job title amply exemplifies. And, after every project meeting where he/she is blamed for the dozens of items not going well on the project, the PM is forced to work on coming up with corrective actions which in reality sets the scene for more items to be added to the failed list in forthcoming review meetings.

No wonder the species called PMs often choose to give themselves a distinct identity in the form of the Project Management Office. The PMO in the organization serves the important purpose of being a target for everyone else to hate and point fingers at. Long live the clan of PMs!

The Hurry-up-and-Wait Game

This game never gets boring or outdated – the popular hurry-up-and-wait phenomenon. It is like driving on a busy city road with endless traffic lights each one of which seems to punctuate your progress with a well (ill) timed pause. The difference in the corporate game is perhaps the fact that your act of ‘hurrying up’ is directed by someone else.

At the basic level, this game looks like a harmless prank, played on one’s subordinates and colleagues, where you set unrealistic deadlines for completing a task, knowing fully well that the next step is weeks, if not months, away from being started. And, if you arm yourself with project plans and other ammunition to chase people up, your performance is all the more impressive.

It takes considerably more experience and skill (read, skullduggery) to take this game to the next level. Let us act out this corporate drama:

Scene-1:

It is the senior executives meeting for new product introduction at the corporate office of an automobile parts retailer. The Vice President of Sales, armed with data from extensive market research, has come up with a plan to introduce a unique new design of seat covers and other accessories for the new model of a car from a leading manufacturer. The manufacturer has planned to have this car on the market in the next two months and the VP is keen to take up the position of being the first retailer to offer these accessories to the discerning buyers and hence reinforce the company’s position as the provider of innovative solutions to its customer base.

The Director of Merchandising, known for his draconian ways of getting things done by hook or crook, to seemingly impossible time scales, jumps up and shouts, ‘This is a great idea; we will get these accessories ready in time for our stores to sell when the new car comes out’.

Scene-2:

The Director of Merchandising calls his team on the following Sunday morning for a briefing. He has already canceled the vacations of two of his team members. He announces to his team, ‘Folks, we (not I!) have accepted an interesting challenge. We need to design, source and get on the shelves of our stores new accessories for a new model of the car (….) in 4 weeks (he is already hurrying up!). I know this is normally a six month process but, hey, you are all smart people, aren’t you?! So, let us get this done. We will have review meetings every other day (read, ‘out of the already compressed time scale, I am going to take away valuable time through these reviews which will add zero value to the process’).

The senior designer on the teams asks, ‘But, John, we need to first get the design details of the interior of the car from the manufacturer – this itself could take 4 weeks!’. John, the Director, already on his cell phone with someone else, waves his hand and says, ‘Don’t bother me with minor, operational details; you can sort this out without getting me involved’

Scene-3:

The car manufacturer has run into some production issues and the launch of the new car is delayed by three months. Wanting to avoid public embarrassment, their COO calls the dealers and in turn the retailers and shares, in confidence, news about the delay and seeks assistance in managing the perception with consumers. The news percolates down to the Director, John, who cleverly ‘pockets’ the information!

Scene-4:

John’s team members have been working non-stop for three weeks. They have exchanged acrimonious emails with their suppliers, had shouting matches with their subordinates and completely ignored their families. They have visited some of their stores and bulldozed the concerned store managers into rearranging their display areas to make room for the upcoming new accessories. The irritated store managers, after exchanging choice words with the ‘goons from head office’, have moved some of the (currently) fastest selling items away from their prime spot in the store to make room for the new dream products arriving soon.

Scene-5:

This is the (original) D-day, coming two months after the first meeting. John’s team members are a nervous wreck but by moving heaven and earth (not to mention the accessories, half way across the globe) have the designated items on the shelves prominently displayed in each of their stores. The store managers, by now aware that the launch of the car has been delayed by the manufacturer, have started firing salvos (email’s) abusing the head office team. In the meanwhile, John is getting his team into a huddle and telling them, ‘Guys, great job done on the car seat and accessories project. We have ……. another critical task that needs to be completed in the next 2 weeks ….. sorry you need to hold off on your planned vacations for some more weeks….’. The senior designer begins to ask, ‘How come we did not know about the delay in the launch of the new car till today?’ but John cuts him off in mid-sentence and eggs him on towards …..you guessed it ….. the next round of the hurry-up-and-wait game!

Art of Projection

A major weapon in the hands of the corporate manager is the art of projection. In simple terms, it is the skill to extend, extrapolate and project simple facts (and non-facts!) to project the desired image, often resulting in stunningly sensational impressions.

Anyone, and everyone, who has been part of the corporate world would have seen from close quarters how a manager projects his subordinate’s ideas as his/her own. Whether it is a simple but effective change to the design of a key product of the company or a brilliant improvement in the processing of accounts payables, the ‘savvy’ manager is quick to project that he/she is the brain behind the idea.

Then there is the leader who constantly uses narratives like, “we built this company from scratch”, “my team is my family”, “all my people are owners of the business” conveying an impression of equality in ownership, power and responsibility. The reality in the organization could well be that the power, wealth and decision-making power are fully centralized with the leader while the ‘family members’ are merely required to follow orders.

The ingenuity with which certain past events are projected by corporate executives is nothing short of spectacular. Take for instance, the Vice President who tells his (unsuspecting) audience at the customers’ meeting, “I was really at the cross roads 20 years ago – having to choose between pursuing a career in corporate law in New York versus joining a startup in Phoenix. I decided to forgo the lucrative law profession with a high, six figure salary in favor of following my heart and joined the startup, living out of a garage!”. The fact would have been that he had no job and his personal friend bailed him out by letting him work in his (the friend’s) company.

Another popular variation of the projection game is coordination. The task of coordination can be quickly turned into one of skillfully inserting oneself into various situations, projects and meetings. This is obviously easier when you are at a reasonably high level in the organization structure. You could place yourself into various committees, swat teams, governing bodies, etc., with the hope (and intention!) that there would be others who can and will do the actual work. Your main focus will be on how to speak out about the status and progress of work being done (by others) in front of people who matter, such as your senior management and customers. If you do this really smartly, your own team members will also start believing that you are actually contributing!

One of the most effective ways of projecting your prowess is to answer every question that comes up during a discussion (with customers, business partners and other external entities) and pretending to be able to get anything done within your organization – usually by throwing various colleagues under the proverbial bus. Committing to unreasonable, if not downright impossible, schedules with a client, giving away free services, usually in the name of building a better relationship, and even giving away sensitive and confidential information are all variations of the theme of positioning – more like posturing – yourself and your (doubtful) importance!