Catching Up

“Sorry I am late – was unable to locate this meeting room in time – could I quickly catch up on the discussions so far?” This every day phenomenon halts the progress of many a meeting and puts everything in rewind mode.

The ‘catching up’ syndrome is a sibling to the ‘status update’ malady in corporate life, with equal power to disrupt and, many times, derail the rare phenomenon of forward progress in corporate meetings.

The golden rule in the deployment of this powerful tool is that you cannot be a junior member amongst the attendees – a junior associate in any meeting does not have the privilege of catching up that also goes hand in hand with his/her lack of privilege of coming late to the meeting – a prerequisite that lays the foundation for the need to catch up. Viewed in a positive manner (grin!), this is one of the unofficial perks of going up the executive ladder.

Let us follow the meeting for a few minutes to realize the magnitude of disruption and interruption that can be unleashed:

A meeting of territory managers is under way to determine the change in pricing strategy needed to respond to a recent price war initiated by a competitor. All the past data on sales and prices have been circulated and reviewed before the meeting so that the managers could focus on future actions during the meeting.

Enter their boss, the VP of Sales.

VP, Sales:… (hassled and short of breath) Sorry to be late as I was (choose option-1, option-2,…option-n)… What are we doing here?

Manager-1: We are finalizing our future pricing strategy to respond to recent increase in competition.

VP, Sales: Really?! Wow, I thought we were to talk about marketing campaigns here…anyway, what’s with the prices? I thought we already had the lowest prices in the market.

Manager-2: The detailed price analysis and trends are in the reports circulated last week. Clearly, we are …..

VP, Sales: Sorry guys, I am not up to speed on what is going on. Could I (hurray!) catch up on what has been going on?

Manager-3 (stunned face): Two weeks ago, our competitor cut the prices of many of their SKU’s by 20% and also offered multi-buy discounts. We are……

VP, Sales: Sorry to interrupt you but could you bring up the slides on how we have fared against competition over the past (fill in the blanks) years?

The meeting ends with the VP running off to another meeting to catch up on an unspecified agenda.

To the seasoned practitioner, catching up is limitless in its scope. You don’t need to stay on topic to catch up. For example, during a sales meeting such as the one mentioned above, in addition to asking questions on anything about prices and competition, you could also inquire about new products design; or transportation issues; or recruitment matters that some managers have reported in the past few weeks; even a company picnic that one of the regions had the previous week.

Catching up often has the effect of being a tête-à-tête for one but causes utter disruption for others and the organization. But, hey! Who can bell the cat!

The World of Small Talk

Let us get one thing straight at the beginning – there is nothing ‘small’ about small talk. More often than not, it occupies center stage and is accorded much more importance than the main topic or issue on hand – which it is intended to lead you gently into.

‘How are you?’, ‘How is it going?’ or a more trendy ‘Howdy?’ may not always attract what you are expecting by way of response – a mono-syllable ‘Good’, ‘Fantastic’ or, if you are really lucky, a mere grunt. Your feeble attempt at interacting with an office colleague, with the ill-founded intention of acting sociable, might be the trigger to an extraordinarily elaborate and vivid description, in excruciating detail, of the happenings in the addressee’s life over the past day/week/month/year – as an added bonus, you might also get to know similar details of others who may have had the misfortune to ask the same question ahead of you.

It is agreed that small talk is not everyone’s forte – I have my full sympathy for the hapless souls who struggle to break the ice while interacting with strangers and friends alike, whether at a party or in an office setting. But, on the flip side, those to whom small talk is nothing but second nature have the power, singly and severally, to borrow a legal term, to reduce productivity in the office to statistically insignificant numbers!

Unlike most other activities that have the proverbial time and place to be practiced, small talk is omnipresent and, to the seasoned practitioner, requires no tools of the trade and no preparation time. It is unleashed without notice and hits its mark instantaneously. You could be helping yourself to a cup of water or coffee (while wishing for something stronger) in the break room, when you inadvertently become witness to or get entangled in the intricate details of someone’s child’s birthday party over the weekend or the dinner menu in a restaurant that will be part of a colleague’s vacation festivities next summer.

Extricating (as opposed to the more polite behavior of ‘excusing’) yourself from small talk is a skill that is learnt the hard way and usually after having endured the consequences of not doing so multiple times. Some commonly practiced techniques, with varying degrees of success depending on the practitioner and situation, include responding to nature’s call (assuming that the conversation is not currently taking place in the facility), feigning the onset of an unknown illness, mailing a letter (assuming the current time is close enough to the last mail clearance event for the day) and several variations of these themes. Of course, the universally accepted path to salvation in the corporate world would be the need to go to your next meeting – this is where it really pays to fill your calendar with (real and imaginary) meetings! The last resort to escape from the onslaught of small talk is to rudely walk away – clearly a trade-off between maintaining your {sanity, composure and even health} and being ostracized.

While general small talk around the office can usually be tackled with some personal inconvenience and longer work hours to make up for lost time, the real impact to business occurs at the highest levels in the organization. Here is a snippet of a conversation between the CEO of the company and VP, Procurement of a prospective customer:

CEO: Good Morning! How are you today?

VP: Hi, hanging in there (cough), we have this deadly flu going around town!

CEO: Oh dear, what a shame! My uncle, who lives in your area had the same …….

VP: Yeah, it is strange that even people who have lived here for 20 years are still affected by ……..

(15 minutes later)

CEO: How long have you been there? Where did you live earlier… which college did you go to……

VP: I was at …….

CEO: ……that is really interesting ….. my nephew is also applying to the same School….wonder if you know……

VP: Yes, of course… let me look up my contacts list …….abigail, arnold, arthur… here he is asante…..

(30 minutes later)

CEO: And, by the way, I believe you are asking for a 30% discount on our products. That could be a problem…..

VP: Hi, I really don’t have the time to go into all the numbers now…..why don’t I ask my Manager, Technology Purchases to call someone at your place ……maybe next month, after he is back from vacation. I am sure we can work out something.

CEO: ….I was really hoping to get this order in this quarter……well….. hello … OK…. if you have to go you have to …..catch up later.

So, that is the world we live in – keep it going, but do keep the focus!

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!