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! 

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!

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……

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!

Doing Versus Getting It Done

“Let  me make one thing very clear – you are doing the job and I am the one getting it done”. These words, uttered by my manager in response to my naïve assurance to ‘get it done’, early in my career, decades ago, still resonate with a vengeance in my ears!

In the corporate world, you learn something very fast – you never do anything on your own and, to the extent possible, even avoid being a member of a team that does anything. Something to do with plausible deniability, auto-protection against failure and a host of other reasons. You always ‘get it done’. Hence the growth of myriad layers of organizational hierarchy aka middle management, coordinators and ‘touch-points’ in today’s corporate world. Even a simple task such as checking to see if it is raining outside seems to require an army of people who are – you guessed right – ‘getting it done’!

There are several variations to this theme of getting-it-done. Take the case of the much maligned concept of project management. A ‘project’ can be anything from ordering lunch for ten people to building a new office building. A seasoned project manager is capable of identifying the same number of activities and steps for completing both ‘projects’ by building in a whole host of intermediaries, each of who is getting it done through the others (in ‘Factorial N’ ways, for those who are statistically minded).

In the world of modern IT and software, you have one person writing the actual code for a feature in any system and a plethora of team leads, planners, release managers, testers, integrators, customer interface artists and what have you – who are all getting the job done, without really knowing what the job is. As an added bonus, multiple organization layers and mysterious stakeholders ensure that the job is never correctly defined or understood, which in turn provides stability for this structure to be never dismantled!

An interesting aspect of the getting-it-done phenomenon is that you don’t need to be remotely connected with what is being done. In an executive meeting to discuss and improve customer service, while the sales and customer support people are brainstorming ideas for improving response times for customer calls, the ever-entertaining and annoying head of payroll chips in with, “Guys, I know you are all busy and doing your best, so I will jump in and offer my services to coordinate and establish processes to provide measured responses commensurate with the type of incoming calls from customers – happy to get to the bottom of this and get this resolved!”. Needless to say, this is followed by stunned silence and a premature closure of the meeting.

The Self-Deprecation Tool

I am not sure if this phenomenon is unique to the corporate world or is equally prevalent in other walks of life too – the delicate art of insulting the other person by insulting yourself.

Before you wrack your brain to figure out the sanity level of yours truly, let me begin with an example – ‘is it me going mad?’. There you go – by asking you this rhetorical question about myself (knowing fully well that I am NOT mad) I have indirectly (no, it is actually very direct!) implied that you are mad!

Hopefully you get the trend now. Let me illustrate with a few corporate scenarios that are worthy of being patented under ‘corporate culture’. You say to a coworker, “I don’t know about you but I am drowning in the new system”. What you actually mean is, “How can you and others readily accept and adapt to the new system that is doubling our workload? You guys should be protesting”.

Then there is the famous dumb question routine. In a meeting to discuss the new customer service procedures, after a long presentation explaining every nuance in the game (most of which has gone way beyond your comprehension), you get up and say, “Pardon me, this is a dumb question but ……..”. While the truth is that it IS a dumb question, you desperately make it appear that you are the smart cookie that is pointing out a flaw. The higher the level of the executive asking the question, the dumber it usually is – with the added advantage that everyone else cannot even laugh out aloud.

A variation of this dumb-question routine is to randomly interrupt a discussion and say, “Excuse me if I am getting ahead of myself but what about …..”. The unsaid stuff here is, “Know you lesser mortals that I am ten steps ahead of you. Many of you may never reach there but in the unlikely event that someone does get there through the logical sequence of traversing the other nine steps, I am not going to wait for someone else to steal my thunder”.

Here are some more I-will-insult-you-by-insulting-me favorites:

“Maybe I am missing something here but when is lunch scheduled?”
(actually, “Can’t you guys see that it is way past lunch time?)

“This is perhaps not the right forum to ask this but I was wondering …….”
(“You idiots, I know about this topic also – I was just joking about the right forum”)

“Perhaps we can compare notes later but your conclusions appear to be very unusual”
(“I have no notes and I have given no thought to this but I am quite certain you are wrong”)

In the dog-eat-dog arena of corporate games, self-deprecation is a vintage sport played by none but the best in class.

Kicking the can down the road

As with most corporate jargon and complex phrases, the term, ‘kick the can down the road’ has a much simpler expression – ‘make it someone else’s problem’. Being a natural part of human behavior, this skill sits very well in the corporate world.

In its simplest form, corporate managers, and even rookies, can easily postpone discussion on a difficult topic by simply stating, “let us sleep over this issue” or “let us take it up in the next meeting (which conveniently does not take place for several months) or with a curve ball, “can we get more data points before we make a decision on this?”. Quite often, in meetings, troublesome topics are deliberately scheduled last on the agenda to provide ample opportunity to be skipped or postponed.

A more serious form of this game is in dealing with customer commitments. It is the dream of all sales executives and managers not to say ‘No’ to prospects and customers. “Can your video game software help me balance budgets?” – Yes, this add-on feature will be given to you free. “Can your company guarantee peak performance, with a dedicated service representative, for three years?” – Yes, of course. “Can your product make me fly?” – Yes, we are including this feature in our next version! These responses, apart from being wildly imaginative and tangential with reference to what is being sold, also make promises to be fulfilled by someone else at a later point in time – classic ‘kick the can’!

At the professional level – call it the NFL level – the can being kicked is the company itself. This is where the C-suite executives (the CEO, CMO and a variety of other C’s) use decisions and indecisions to tide over serious issues temporarily, often at the cost of long term setback – comparable to increasing the size of the fuse on a detonator instead of removing the explosive.  For example, to make up for a poorly designed product, instead of fixing the design, you deploy more support staff to field customer complaints, hoping that customers don’t desert the company before you, the CEO, do. As the Vice President of HR, you appease people by offering inconsistent pay revisions to different groups of employees till everyone is equally dissatisfied – and then you jump ship leaving your legacy – also known as the previously-kicked-can – for your successor to grapple with.

For the suave executive, the ability to kick the can down the road must be matched by the ability to quickly move places.

Meeting Agenda

Anyone who has lived, or even smelled, and survived the shenanigans of the corporate world would be aware that at the core of the corporate culture of wasting time – alternatively called ‘keeping busy’ – is the endless loop of meetings. What is even more fascinating, and appalling at the same time, is the ingenuity of defining an ‘agenda’ for the meeting.

Let us take a look at some of the most common items that masquerade as legitimate agenda ‘topics’:

How did we get here:  This is a common opening theme for many meetings, especially those that have no obvious necessity or purpose. This opens the door for a gruesome postmortem of anything and everything (related or unrelated to the meeting) that happened in the past, that everyone is already aware of. This is somewhat like a doctor in an emergency room, before treating a heart attack patient, calling for a detailed discussion on the treatment options that have evolved over the decades.

Summary: This item is a constant companion to ‘how did we get here’ – in many cases, it may actually be the same as the first item as pretty much nothing new is added or accomplished in the meeting. Between these two agenda components, a kind of relay race is set to carry the baton forward to eternity.

Q&A: The questions and answers session is tagged on to every meeting agenda in the fond hope that people attending the meeting would actually pay attention to what goes on and, then, have the courage and patience to prolong the meeting by asking questions.  A very subtle, but effective, hidden agenda (pun intended) for this topic is to fish for agenda ideas for subsequent meetings.

Next Steps: What is the purpose of a meeting if it cannot beget more meetings in short order? Very often, this topic helps carry forward the same agenda items from the current meeting to a future one since nothing has been achieved, other than consuming coffee and other beverages, in this meeting. And, the real measure of success of a meeting is the increase in the number of ‘topics’ to be discussed in the next meeting (see Q&A above). An (un)intended, and often unpleasant, outcome of Next Steps is the assigning of vague and intangible ‘action items’ to unsuspecting audiences (present and absent in the meeting).

Parking Lot:  The purest form of meeting agendas always includes a ‘Parking Lot’, which is often not in the actual agenda but springs up on a white board in the meeting room. This is where the master of ceremonies, the agenda owner, keeps noting down things that cannot be solved in the current meeting (due to lack of sufficient ‘data points’, if I may add). This provides a ready escape route for one and all not to bother about coming prepared to discuss, leave alone resolve, any of the agenda topics.

If ever there was a competition for definition of an endless loop, ‘meeting agenda’ would be a very strong contender!

The Offline Company

I think I got you there – you thought you were about to read about a company that has no online presence and does business only through traditional means such as brick-and-mortar shops or traveling salesmen. Wrong! I am referring to the management cliché, that is all too prevalent, of deferring discussion on any topic or issue during a meeting by simply opting to ‘take it offline’!

Meetings are fundamental to the practice and growth of mediocrity and non-performance in corporate life. In large organizations, it is quite easy to mandate the presence of a bewildering array of representatives from various departments for any meeting. The crux of the matter is that no one knows how or why the other departments are involved – because no one knows why their own department is involved in the matter! And, since no one comes prepared with any relevant information, key issues meant to be discussed during a meeting are always side-stepped and marked for ‘offline’ resolution, defeating the very purpose of the meeting.

Let us track the (non)progress of such a meeting with the stated purpose of determining sales targets for the coming year After losing considerable time on scheduling the meeting through a complex algorithm using linear programming techniques to accommodate all participants, the meeting is finally convened. Of course, in keeping with contemporary organizational practices, very few people are physically present at the venue – most are virtual via digital technology.

Martin (CEO): Good morning and welcome. As you all know, we are in a tough market and there is increasing pressure from our investors to double our sales next year. So, Jason, what do we have by way of plans to achieve this?

Jason (Head of Sales) (clearly taken aback by the CEO’s expectations): Er..Hmm… Yes, Martin, we are putting together an aggressive plan to penetrate new markets. We expect a significant increase in the breadth and depth of our coverage. We …

Martin: OK, what does that mean in real terms?

Jason: Liz, could you please share our analysis and projections?

Liz (Market Research): Yes, Jason. We are currently thrice as big as the smallest competitor in our vertical, not considering the international sector. Next year, after adjusting for regional variances and accounting for GDP growth, we should be twice as big as the median competitor in year-on-year sales growth. This, of course…

Martin: Sorry guys, what numbers are we talking about?

Jason: Martin, in the interest of time and to deal with other items on the agenda for this meeting, could we take this offline, outside this meeting?

Martin (clearly enraged): What other items? Was this meeting not meant to focus on sales targets for next year?

Jason: Yes, yes. We will deal with that offline – I promise. Could we now quickly discuss participation in trade shows next year?

Martin (exasperated): Could we not take that offline?