We are on the same team

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We are on the same team. Sounds like words of wisdom from a football coach goading his players to work and play together as a team. And this could easily apply to the corporate world but with a cunning twist.

It is often, perhaps always, that different departments in the company work at loggerheads with one another, often with diagonally opposite, self-serving objectives. But, in line with the cloak and dagger principle of corporate culture, everyone pretends to be working towards a common purpose, often that of the ‘other guy’. To leave no room for error in conveying this pretension, all quarters keep reiterating, ‘we are on the same team’.

Take the classic case of completing a major IT project for a customer. The sales department, right up to the VP of Sales, has promised the moon to the client. As the project team, with a well defined project plan consisting of 2000 activities, kicks into high gear trying to deliver to their mantra of on-time-on-budget mission, they are presented with innumerable deviations from scope by the client, who insists that these were promised to them by the company’s sales team. A classic tug of war ensues and internal ‘escalations’ in the company result in endless meetings. This is where the VP of Sales, Ben, steps in and announces to the Director, IT, in the presence of the CEO, “David, are we all not on the same team – trying to satisfy and retain the customer? Why do you not want to listen to the customer?”. David sarcastically replies, “Yes, we are on the same team of losing money for the company”. The CEO loses his cool and shouts, “Ben and David, get this mess sorted out” and what does he conclude with – you got it – “we are all working for the same company”!

This amazing principle of vehemently disagreeing while repeatedly expounding the exact opposite is found at all levels in the organization. Between engineering teams and their nemesis, the dreaded quality assurance team. Between the Controller, Finance and the CEO who wants a favorable portrayal of the company’s financial results. And between the Office Manager, who is desperately trying to furnish the new C-Suite conference room for the upcoming annual executive meeting the following week, and the Purchase Manager who is trying to negotiate a 10-dollar discount with the supplier.

Fun is always round the corner in the corporate world.   

The Certified Company

Certifications have existed from time immemorial and have provided a sense of ‘tested and found to be up to scratch’ feeling for mankind.  When one is groping in the dark for making a choice amongst several options, the option that is ‘certified’ offers relief comparable to manna from heaven.

Businesses – corporations if you will – have relied on certifications (diplomas, degrees, membership and other credentials) to select employees to work for them. This has resulted – especially in the field of technology – in the mushrooming of ‘institutions’ and professional (!) bodies that hand out certificates like candies to kids. Elaborate and clever formulae have been devised to hand out these certificates even to people who do not have the basic skills – for example, a criteria that accepts hundred hours of working near a computer as a substitute for knowing how to use the computer!

But, where the certification process reaches its pinnacle is in certifying the company itself. This has been a master coup in the corporate world that has grown in strength in this century. There are independent bodies – and approved agencies, to boot – who will test and certify your compliance to standards (sound familiar?), all for a convenient fee of course. There are bewildering acronyms, with bizarre numbers attached at the end for telling effect, to make these stamps of approval look super impressive – ISO 9001, SOC 2 Type II, Six Sigma and anything else you can dream of.

Obtaining these credentials are symbols of prestige for some organizations but for many others it is a matter of survival. Not having these labels attached to your company name immediately puts you in the dog house and excludes you from doing business with 99% of the companies who anyway need your products but are not allowed to get these from your company because of – you guessed it – their own certifications! It is a vicious circle of I-cannot-win-but-will-not-let-you-win.

The beauty of many of the certification drama, I mean process, is that they don’t tell you what you should do but point out a million things that you are not doing in your company! They beat around the bush ad infinitum and tell you that your organization should have processes and controls in place to ensure checks and balances. The desire to jump out of the window on the 10th floor is not uncommon during (even, after) the certification exercise.

In summary, certification of compliance is another clever ploy invented by the masters of the corporate world to keep a category of people perpetually employed.

Idiosyncrasy at the top

There is many a perk associated with rising up the organization hierarchy – corner office, expense budgets, free lunches with clients and so on. But, perhaps the most coveted one is not measured in monetary terms.

One can generously refer to this as ‘being yourself’. ‘free to do what you want’ and other similar terms. However, the correct notation would be to call it out for what it actually is – idiosyncrasy. The most visible aspect of the C-suite executive  – how one behaves – is also the most privileged part of the position.

There are the simple behavioral patterns such as not (never) being on time or not reading any reports. Get a bit more aggressive and you have exhibits like texting or calling up subordinates at ungodly hours and assigning (non)urgent tasks; or disturbing people at work to discuss imaginary business scenarios or trivial matters. 

Many times, it feels like the very things that you are told not to do when you are a lower level minion in the organization become badges of honor when you are at the top. ‘Do not yell when someone else is talking’, ‘Don’t fall asleep while you are in a meeting’, ‘Don’t swear at others’ – are some of the low level thresholds that are routinely breached at the top.

But, wait … there is more (of course). Not being focused, known as multi-tasking in corporate jargon, is a major privilege at the top. Whether it is reviewing the sales strategy for the next year(s) or attending a meeting for the introduction of a new software system in the organization, the rule remains the same – don’t come prepared and don’t focus on what is going on. Keep texting and look harassed (remember, the C-suite is always solving serious world problems). And to keep others on edge, randomly ask questions like, “Why do you say that?”, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” and send people and topics into a tailspin.   

‘Innovation’ is another powerful weapon used by the C-Executive to dispatch people down endless rabbit holes repeatedly. Under the garb of making matters worse, I mean better, the hapless subordinates – Directors, department heads, programmers and janitors – could be asked to redraft presentation material, improve business models, redesign offices or rehash company product lines without a clue as to what the objective (if any) is. It keeps everyone working, often at cross purposes, without achieving any results – for which they can be blamed later.

By far the greatest idiosyncrasy, in terms of collateral damage, is when the boss decides to ‘connect’ with people in the organization. These highly undesirable incidents happen in the form of town halls, by barging into meetings where there is a critical mass of people or simply by descending on a group of unsuspecting employees in the break room. Starting with a simple, “Hey, how is it going?”, the conversation quickly moves up a notch to, “How did the customer receive the latest release of our product?” and, after a few minutes of not listening to what is being said, ends disastrously with one of the following outcomes:

  1. some essential meetings are cancelled
  2. a tangential, incompatible or even infeasible change is made to an established product or process
  3. a bunch of senior executives are assigned (in absentia, of course) a set of initiatives that will distract them from all of their regular duties

No wonder there are designated individuals – often with titles such as Secretary and Executive Assistant – in every organization, whose job it is to minimize the effect of the idiosyncrasies of their bosses by eliminating the flow of information to and from their masters! 

The Next Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Members: (whatever man…..)

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

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

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

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

“We are out of time. Meeting adjourned”.

Preparing for Post-Covid Work Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dashboard Driven Company

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

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

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

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

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

 

Corporate Communications During Lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Analysts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calendar-Run Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacy: Oh, I see….

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

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

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

Tom: Any time, Sir.

Stacy (collapsing into her chair): Whatever……