Gossip as a Corporate Strategy

While the management gurus pound you with advice on great strategies, propagated all the way down from Peter Drucker, simple day-to-day tools are often seriously overlooked. Gossip, in the hands of the shrewd executive at the right level, beats any of the management theories taught, after paying thousands of dollars, at management schools. In many cases, it takes small talk to an entirely different level with richer rewards.

First, all gossip is not the same. Second, for the best effect, all gossip must be released to the right person at the right time. Two low level executives may have a casual conversation in the parking lot wherein they may exchange gossip about the habits of a new Director who has recently joined the organization; or exchange rumors regarding an upcoming promotion and who the favorites are; or even the affair between the CEO’s secretary and the VP of HR. But such exchanges of mundane gossip do nothing more than help foster a feeling of comradery between the executives.

To become a strategic tool, the art of gossip must be refined and used with a touch of finesse – and this comes from experience and constant practice. Let us say it is the budgeting season where favors, I mean budgets, are being doled out to various departments. The CFO is struggling with cutting costs by chopping off funds approved earlier. To ‘help her along’, you, the Head of IT, whisper into the ears of the CFO, “Hi, I hear that our CEO is rather upset with the lack of returns from the liberal serving of dessert during our quarterly sales review meetings –  and maybe….. the funds are better used for buying more laptops for our IT department…”. Later on, you feign surprise when you are told that your IT budgets have been approved without any cuts.

At the highest levels, judicious injection of gossip into conversations helps keep your subordinates on edge and plunge them into (un)healthy fights over non-existent issues. Let us look at a scenario where the COO is having a ‘casual’ conversation with the VP of Administration.

COO: Hi Jason, how is it going….

VP, Admin: Very well, thank you. Just struggling with controlling increasing travel costs in the company. I …….

COO (“here is an opportunity”): I have been noticing that too. I hear that the sales people are having fun parties while on visits to unqualified prospects.

VP, Admin: Thanks for that tip (I don’t care if this is true or not). I will tighten the belt.

Soon, there begins a cold war between the VP, Admin and VP, Sales on a non-existent problem. Travel expenses are brutally cut down leading to disinterested sales people refusing to travel. In the meanwhile, the originator of the gossip, the COO, with one less thing to monitor, moves on to ‘tackling’ other ‘C’ level executives in the company.

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The Budget Cycle

Fair Warning: This is not for novices and beginners. You need to have gone through several “…101” courses (Evasion 101, Misleading 101 and Cover-Up 101 to name a few) to be admitted to this Game of Budgets.

Every organization believes that if every department and every area of business is tied to a strict budget, things will automatically be under control. The corporate mantra for governance is ‘budget versus actual’. It is therefore no surprise that seeking and getting sumptuous budgets approved feels like a real life enactment of Hunger Games.

Though the budgetary cycle is only an annual affair (incidentally, ensuring job security for hundreds of spreadsheet-wielding finance wizards and their deputies), if you are responsible for running anything at all in your company, you do not rest for one minute from thinking about past/future budgets. The cornerstone of your planning should always be more ‘projects’ on your list than anyone or any organization can dream of completing in centuries. For example, if you are a Facilities Manager, you need to have an endless array of ‘to-do’ items such as ‘repaint the underside of shelves in the records room’, ‘enlarge the company logo displayed all over the office’, ‘increase the number of water fountains in the cafeteria’ and ‘change the ringtone on all phones in the office’. Moreover, to ensure that you get noticed at the right time by the right people, you also should have a sprinkling of projects such as, ‘change the color of the one-month old carpet in the CEO’s office’ and ‘replace the coffee maker in the Board room twice a month’.

A golden rule in budgetary exercises is to be aware of past ‘performance’. As a departmental head, you never want to be in a situation of having underspent or underutilized the previous year’s budget. This is like signing your own death warrant by inviting a lower budget for the coming year. Therefore, you keep a very close eye on what you are (not) spending throughout the year, especially accelerating your spend, if needed, towards the end.

A common topic, which is inevitably linked to monetary budgets, is the issue of headcount. Managers fighting for an increase (or against reduction, during desperate times), is a familiar scene in all organizations. The savvy manager stays ahead of the pack by using colorful presentations of the innumerable tasks (refer earlier description of ‘list of projects’) that her team has to take care of. For good effect, the resources are divided and subdivided into minute ‘buckets’ to project an image of insufficient staffing for every task. For example, the above-mentioned Facilities Manager would classify her mail-room staff into those responsible for sorting Fedex packets; sorting UPS packages arriving in the afternoon; delivering confidential, priority mail to ‘C’ level executives; and so on. Divide and Conquer of sorts, I suppose.

The grand finale of any budget exercise is the meeting of the apex committee for final approval. Needless to say, several sub-committees would already have done their work and filtered out the less fortunate departments’ requests. Interestingly, significant budget allocations are in order for these sub-committees themselves. Many a time, these committees are master show pieces to demonstrate company wide ‘participation’ while all the shots are, by default, called by the ‘Chief of Staff’, who has the ear of the CEO and others on the top floor.

In line with all corporate meetings, the apex committee uses a randomization algorithm to cut or approve various budget requests – such randomization ensures an atmosphere of luck and chance, rather than one of need and purpose. And then, everyone moves on to preparations for the next cycle, providing an opportunity for the losers to have one more try.