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!

The Magic of Numbers

What is a world without corporations? What is a corporation without an interwoven medley of departments? And what is an array of departments without a group of bean counters at the center – the Finance department? Numbers rule the corporate world – let us see how.

Numbers come in various shapes and complexities – forecasts, budgets, sales, inventory, labor hours, direct cost, indirect cost and many more real and imaginary figures, often fondly referred to as metrics. And newer measures are invented every day – sales per FTE (got you there – stands for Full Time Employee), ratio of seasonally adjusted inventory of items in the warehouse versus the factory shop floor and, in the digital age, clicks on icon-A versus icon-Y on your company website.

While the Finance or Accounts department is the custodian of numbers in a company, they by no means have monopoly over the generation or, more interestingly and intriguingly, the interpretation of these. The Sales department usually takes the lead in showing a positive growth in anything and everything. The Head of Projects will always have you believe that all projects are well under control while repeatedly asking for more money. The HR department can always show you that your department (in fact, all departments) is overstaffed at any point in time, even after the tenth round of layoffs for the year. The best magic is of course reserved for the highest levels such as Board meetings and shareholders briefing, where the uninformed audience (Board members included) is taken on a roller coaster ride and comes tumbling down with graphs and spreadsheets. The hapless individuals are often seen running for their lives after the event!

The power and beauty of data analysis is that the same data can be used to camouflage, sorry ‘reveal’, exactly opposite results. Pundits of analysis will convincingly show you how any data can be shown to align with any position on the 360-degree circus, I mean view, that is such an integral part of the corporate culture. For example, your year-to-date sales might be down 300% this year compared to last year but by showing the figures as a comparison of sales between the same 22.5 hour period (carefully chosen window of time) this year and the previous three years, you could be seen to have achieved a 1200% growth, ‘year-on-year’ to boot!

A simple and effective way to mesmerize people without revealing the plain truth is to divide (sometimes, multiply and add too) basic numbers. It helps a lot if you have categories within categories. If you have a large inventory of slow moving computers in your product portfolio, you combine the sales of several similar (and dissimilar) products and define a new measure called, ‘dollar sales achieved in mid to small devices per marketing dollar spent’ and your managers, staff and others will have no clue as to how you are doing. Another proven method of providing misleading information is to reorganize. An overstaffed services department could quickly be segregated into engineering design, solution development, delivery management, quality assurance (add a PMO – Project Management Office – if you feel like it) with the same (or more!) number of people and it will take several months, if not years, for the organization to figure out that it is the proverbial old wine in a newer, bigger bottle.

In the corporate world, one can add a new dimension to a popular saying – Lies, damn lies and statistics…….. AND Ratios!


In the game of corporate chess played by professionals, deniability is a move reserved only for the grandmasters – comparable in strategic importance to the capture of the opponent’s queen.

For the common man, deniability might sound like a legal process to be practised only by the defense attorney in a murder case. The term might even be confused with the word, ‘disclaimer’, that dutifully appears at the end of just about every document in today’s business world. Let us try and understand this corporate phenomenon in a simple (wink, smile!) manner – while, of course, denying any (un)intended consequences!

Deniability in its simple form is the art of making promises without any intention to fulfill those. Take for example the HR Manager who promises you a salary review and potential increase after 6 months of ‘good performance’ to entice you into joining the company, taking a significant cut in your then current remuneration. Your line manager, when the magical six months are up, will plead ignorance (yes, you are learning fast the different shades of deniability) of any earlier promises made. Your attempts at raising the issue with the HR Manager will be met with strange occurrences of selective amnesia! The more conscientious HR Manager might point you to the recent changes in Section 14.3 of the HR policy that prohibits reviews before 12 months of continuous service!

More sophisticated forms of deniability require significant planning. During the sales cycle for a major ERP system, the deployment engineers are deliberately absent so that the ‘knowledgeable’ sales team of the vendor, which could include executives all the way up to the head of sales, can position the company’s offering as the panacea for all evils. All questions from the customer regarding the system’s capabilities are met with an emphatic ‘yes’. The customer signs up to what they consider a great deal and it is now time for deploying what promises to be the mother of all systems. When the vendor’s deployment team starts explaining the conditions under which the system would function and the time it would take to reorganize the company’s processes to use the new system, the customer is naturally taken aback. In sheer naivety, they try to recall the discussions during the sales process, all knowledge of which the vendor’s delivery team promptly denies! Thus begins a long cycle of acrimonious mudslinging between the two companies, even as the sales team moves on to greener pastures!

In practicing the art of deniability, one should be skillful in using ambiguous words and stating partial truths. You never say, “it works” but state something like, “it has never been known to have failed in the past”. If the customer asks, “will we get 24/7 support”, you aggressively counter with, “you may call me on my cell at any time”. The answer to, “are there any outstanding issues with the product”, is, “all known errors to-date have been fixed in the latest release”. After gaining adequate experience in handling these situations, your responses and conversation will begin to have an automatic stamp of deniability. This is when you graduate from being a mere practitioner of the art to being a mentor to others!

Deniability has come to pass as a strategic tool in corporate management – in much the same way as spying on your private life goes under the name of ‘market intelligence’ and ‘personalization’ (topics that deserve to be individually dealt with in their own right!). One can only nostalgically look back upon the times when a deal used to be sealed with a handshake!

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!