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……

Out of Office

People in various offices have been taking vacations (fondly referred to as PTO – paid-time-off, in case you did not know) for decades, if not centuries.  However, it is only in recent times (this century?) that this phenomenon has attained the status of a ceremony. Let me explain myself before you shoot me down.

People in large organizations (as well as small organizations pretending to be large organizations) have the need to know where their colleagues and coworkers are, on a given day, in order to palm off work or, if feeling kindly, ask for help. Fair enough that globally shared calendars are annotated with who is not available when.

Taking this a step forward, it is also understandable that you let people know about your unavailability when they try to contact you via phone or email. Enter the ubiquitous ‘out of office message’ (let us call it ‘oom’ to make it interesting!). Those who have spent enough time in the corporate world readily know that receiving a oom is equivalent to death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you are lucky, the oom could be a one-liner such as “I will be away from …. to ….; will respond upon return”, delivered at lightning speed in response to your email. But, more often than not, you are likely to get a multi-page essay on the following lines:

“Thank you for your email. I am sorry I am not able to be of assistance (did I ask for help?) as I am away exploring colleges for my son who is entering middle school next year (do I need this detail?). The Internet connection could be spotty at times as I am traveling through mountainous regions (someone, please shoot me!), but I will check my mail periodically…….. I will also check every night ……Thank you for your understanding (did I just pull out a bunch of my remaining hair?)……. Hope to catch up with you soon (no, no, never….)”.

There are variations and extensions to this popular corporate game. In a group email chain (a corporate norm, by the way), with everyone hitting the reply-all button, multiple copies of the delightful oom (perhaps from multiple people on PTO at the same time) are generated in no time. The more diligent veterans of the game do not fail to create an equivalent oom on their phone extension in case someone is still old-fashioned enough to contact them over phone.

The oom concept can also be used to brag about yourself and your domain of control, to emphasize your importance in the organization. Take a look at this elaborate oom:

Thanks for contacting me. I am away on vacation in the Himalayas (I bet you did not know I was a certified mountaineer). I know your call is important and needs urgent attention (even if you think otherwise). Please contact:

Joe at …, for Sales related matters

Amber at …, for Payments

Mary at …, for the Cafeteria menu

Ben at …, for HR related matters

Kate at …, for the upcoming Customer Conference related matters

My executive assistant, (Yes, I have an executive assistant), Liz at …, if you would like to wish me Happy Birthday (I will keep a count of people who did not wish me on my birthday)

(Unsaid disclaimer: I may not be in charge of all the things mentioned above)

The Dotted (line) Company

Geometry seems to be an integral part of the corporate world as we have seen in some of our earlier analysis. But nothing has been as cunningly used, with (un)predictable effect, as the dotted line. Early novices in the corporate world created the concept of defining and drawing an organization structure as a chart containing a series of parent-child relationship, connected using a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines.  Modern day management gurus have successfully neutralized the structure, and any discipline represented by such structures, by introducing the ubiquitous dotted line!

For the uninitiated, in an organization chart, a dotted line, in its simplest sense, represents an informal reporting relationship. But, before you get your hopes high regarding your understanding, let me warn you that there is a lot more unwritten, implied meaning to be derived by reading between the lines (pun intended). A dotted line serves various purposes, chief amongst them being to confuse the structure by diluting authority and responsibility, the cornerstones of an organization structure.

For example, in a company that has multiple manufacturing units at different locations, there is a finance department in each location reporting to the General Manager of the respective unit. At the same time, the head of finance at each location has a – you guessed it – dotted line relationship with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) operating out of the Head Office.  The CFO could use the dotted lines as strings to play on the puppets attached at the end. This informal structure serves as the recipe for conflicts in priorities, daily activities and everything in between for the local finance departments who are forced to spend all their time managing a major standoff between their solid and dotted lines!

To understand the full power and destruction potential of the dotted mode of operation, listen to this conversation in a team meeting on an IT project.

Cindy (Project Manager)(trying to keep the overall project on track): I understand that the requirements have been gathered from all user departments. So, we can proceed with ……….

Jim (senior team member): Yes, Cindy, I believe we have completed the scope definition for the system.

Ron (HR specialist): Hold on a second. We have not fully vetted the legal requirements affecting part-time labor. We need to analyze those.

Cindy: But Ron, this issue has been raised many times in the past three months – why was no action taken to finalize legal requirements?

Ron: Cindy, I have been deputed to this project from HR, so I only have a dotted line relationship with you, the PM. I was ……

Cindy: But what does that have to do with you completing the requirements analysis, now that you have been on the project for three months?

Ron: I needed to ask for an additional resource from Legal to help with this analysis but since I only have a dotted line to you, I could not make that request to you.

Cindy: For God’s sake, why could you not ask your own HR manager that you needed help?

Ron: It is complicated – since I was temporarily assigned to you, my direct, solid line reporting within my department was suspended for the duration of the project – preventing me from placing any requests and so…

Cindy (exasperated): Why could you not have brought this up months ago?

Ron: I was still new in the company and was undergoing orientation from the Training department on all the dotted line relationships that I was part of.

The Expressive Company

Communication is perhaps the life blood of civilization. Humans invented language (one too many of them if I may add) to clearly distinguish and differentiate homo sapiens from animals. However, with technological advances and the elimination of verbal communication (in favor of shortened messages/texts, pictures, emojis and other forms of visual art), conversation following the rules of any language is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The corporate world does not allow itself to be left behind in this regard, or in any regard, if you will. Interpersonal communication (a subject on which many a career in Human Resources has been built) has taken on a new dimension that is often bewildering in its inability to convey anything to the receiving party.

For instance, listen to this exchange between two managers talking about their Director:

Manager-1: Hi buddy, how is it going?
Manager-2: Pressure, man.
Manager-1: Oh, what’s the matter?
Manager-2: Just…. this Director ….. you know (throws up hands)
Manager-1: I see… (clearly does not see or understand what is going on)
Manager-2: Always the same thing……. you know what…… she is weird …….. (rolls eyes
and sneers)
Manager-1: Any problem with your work?
Manager-2: No, man…. it is just totally bizarre…… you know what …….. I am like
“Whaaat?” (points to a computer)
Manager-1 (trying desperately to understand and/or help): Anything I can ………
Manager-2: Whatever….. I’m just goin to…… what’s  the word ……..   (wrings hands and
heads to the restroom)

A senior Director of Sales, training his new sales executives on the nuances of selling the company’s products, takes the (non)communication to an entirely new level.

Sales Director (SD): Welcome one and all. We will see how to put some (pumps his fist)
into selling…..
Sales-1: (punch the customer in the face?!…..)
SD: You should try and spot the …. you know …… influencer by …… hmmmmm….. (winks)
Sales-2: (what? how?)
Sales-3: Sir. How do we project our company as being different from the pack?
SD: (caught unawares):  Ha…. different?…..sell the .….brand …… we have a different             brand ………
Sales-1: In what way, sir?
SD: (clearly rattled): We are ….you know….. (makes gestures that look like a tall                     building collapsing)
Sales-2: You mean, crush the competition?
Sales-3: (whatever, man….)
SD: (perspiring profusely) You will learn ……. through experience ……

The Plan-B Syndrome

“But, what is your Plan-B for this?”

This single sentence could nullify all discussions and decisions painstakingly made over a three hour meeting and render null and void days and months of planning for a new initiative. Hearing this dreaded question in the middle of a discussion is like being handed down the death sentence.

For the uninitiated audience, let it be known that ‘Plan B’ is corporate lingo for ‘alternative solution’ or ‘safety measure’ while attempting to do something new. ‘Rollback strategy’ and ‘failsafe mechanism’ are some alternative references (Plan-B?) to the said terminology.

While planning implementation of a new employee leave/ vacation management system, after hearing the 100-step process, with built-in measures to correct any mis-steps, from the IT department, the HR manager could easily put a spoke by asking, “But, what is your Plan-B?”.  The conversation could then go on somewhat like this:

IT Manager: Er….. if you are asking about something going wrong, we have built in measures to correct and recover each step…. And, we…….

HR Manager: You don’t seem to understand. What if the system just does not come up?

IT Manager: We have tested it for three times the expected load and we have mirrored the system for disaster recovery……

HR Manager (looking exasperated): You don’t seem to have taken into account the organizational catastrophe of this system not being available for logging vacation time. What about employee morale under such circumstances?

IT Manager (looking exhausted): M’me, we have gone through these things several times with your team. We all have agreed that your existing paper-based records can be used for some more time, if needed. I am not sure what more we need to do.

HR Manager: But you don’t have a clearly defined Plan-B. Going back to manual records is demoralizing. What if the system fails after all manual records have been  destroyed? I must review this with senior management before I can agree to go ahead with Plan-A (your new system).

Thus comes to an end one of many new initiatives in an organization where the introduction of a new system is put on hold or buried in a coffin for lack of an imaginary alternative that is not needed.

World of Acronyms

Corporate life is full of acronyms. In fact, many a corporate veteran talks only in acronyms. If you have felt inadequate, even downright miserable, in the corporate jungle for not being able to understand what is going on in conversations filled with acronyms, and felt like an outsider struggling to get in, rest assured you are not alone.

Mission and Vision statements (a corporate tool in its own right) are perhaps one of the most frequent landing spots for ingenious acronyms. DELIVER (Drive, Energy, Listen, Innovate, Validate, Exemplify, Review) could be a poignant expression (no doubt coming out of a million-dollar consultancy) that the CEO proudly put out. But to the novice employee – the corporate equivalent of the ‘layman’ – this looks like random babble coming from a child learning new words. What are you Validating? And, pardon my ignorance, what is this Energy business – are we supposed to drink Gatorade at work?

I must admit that glib acronyms look slick in presentations using power point slides – I have sat through many – especially when the flashy acronyms are designed to interlace, intersect and fly across large screens. What better way to egg people on to action than to have them DONT (Do, Own, Novel, Try) or have them MISS (Make It Seriously Simple). Once you get the hang of it, you will notice that you can confuse, I mean communicate, any idea with any sequence of letters – they soon start looking like stock symbols!

To me, entertainment in the office comes in the form of listening to two executives having a ‘business’ conversation with liberal use of acronyms:

Executive-1: Hi, how is it going? (sorry, no acronyms in this greeting)

Executive-2: Busy, pal. Trying to get this RFP (Request for Proposal) done by EOD (End of Day).

Executive-1: I know the feeling. My CTO (Chief Technology Officer) told me TYT (Take your time) but in no time turned around and told me to complete the API (Application Program Interface) document by COB (Close of business)

Executive-2: Honestly, IMO (In my opinion), these guys are nuts.  That is why I frequently WFH (Work from home) and put out an OOO (Out of office) notification.

Those trying assiduously to climb the corporate ladder might spend their time learning all the acronyms in the organization but the real smart ones invent new ones!

One Trick Pony

The corporate world is full of one-trick ponies. If, as someone lost in the maze of corporate strategy (whatever that means), you feel that you are hearing, seeing and experiencing the same stuff over and over again, please take solace in the fact that you are not alone.

Quite simply, most managers and executives in an organization learn something early in their careers and make it their one-solution-fits-all-situations mantra as they make their way up the corporate ladder. The more conscientious ones may try to put different finishing touches to their single ‘trick’ from time to time but the vast majority don’t even bother with such nuances.

Say, an administration manager does a simple job of setting up a new lunch room in the office consisting of just ten steps – procure tables and chairs, install water cooler, provide a television, etc. Upon successful completion of this ‘major project’, she adopts this ‘ten step process’ to deal with any and all future assignments that she undertakes. Many moons later and in a different situation, while taking on a much more complex project such as relocating a ten thousand-people office, she can be heard explaining eloquently to her subordinates who are juggling with dozens of vendors and hundreds of different types of equipment that her ten-step process from time immemorial must be adopted.

Moving from company to company offers obvious advantages to the one-trick pony as the new company has no idea of the success or failure, or even applicability, of the trick in question. The ideal environment for the one-trick manager is where his singular panacea for all evils is merely discussed and never put to action. What better glory than to have your proposal discussed but never put to test!

Consultants benefit most from the one-trick phenomenon. Almost all consultants are getting things done by others rather than doing anything themselves. A smart consultant merely has to be part of, even aggressively attach himself to, an assignment or project forming part of services rendered to a company unfortunate enough to hire such services. Let us say that as part of implementing a new Human Resources (HR) system, the consultant puts in place an appraisal and career planning process. Once this project is done, the consultant has one specific way of doing appraisal and career planning that he will carry to his grave. In that journey of his, for the next several decades of his career, he will tout his wisdom and experience in dealing with a variety of organizations, (large and small, local and global) categories of workforce (factory workers to software architects, CEOs to janitors) and apply the same – you got it – one trick.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “From my vast experience in dealing with such situations……”, run for the hills!