6/21/2005

Corporate Politics

I enjoy observing the differences in management style between small companies and large corporations. A worthwhile working definition of a small business, in my opinion, is one where the management understands the work that their employees actually do. By that I mean that, for example, in a small landscaping business, the owner knows that his employees dig holes in dirt. In a large multi-national landscaping corporation, if such a thing exists, the regional VP may have never used a shovel in his lifetime. Once an enterprise grows past a certain size, it seems to need the services of a professional management class. My advice to anyone who starts a company that reaches that magic size is to get out, quick, because the best times are behind you.

My last employer, a niche software development shop, was a small company, employing 15-20 employees and was run by the owner/president, who had a background in software development. It is a pleasure working for people who understand the business they are in. You do not spend your days explaining the obvious to your boss and when you screw up, he understands immediately what went wrong. Blame and correction, or kudos and rewards can be assigned immediately and accurately. This is the way to train a dog and it works for humans too, by and large.

When I worked in the IT department of a somewhat larger brokerage house I watched one of my managers live through the hell of corporate organizational madness. His name was Dave (and was the predecessor to John that I wrote about in a previous blog entry), and in his position he was always caught between competing senior VP’s of client departments. Naturally, they all thought that their respective projects were the most important going on at the firm and each demanded full-time support from Dave’s limited resources of about 6-7 software types, of which I was one. He was not high up enough in the corporate pecking order to resolve priority conflicts between the competing VP’s. He could not tell them anything. They told him. What was needed was someone in our IT department who sat at the same organizational level as those VP’s and who could therefore force them to co-operate for the greater good. After much lobbying, especially by Dave, such a director was hired and became Dave’s boss. Unfortunately he was a nitwit. And worse, he knew nothing about software development and not much about the brokerage industry. But his credentials were apparently impeccable and boy did he own nice suits.

I vividly remember Dave telling me about the meetings that he had with the new director. They met frequently to discuss the very problems (“challenges”, I suppose) that I described above. Dave repeatedly asked the new guy to help him arbitrate between the competing VP’s demands. The new guy’s solution was to tell Dave to resolve the issues and report back to him. But because of the corporate structure, that was the precise thing that Dave could not do. He pleaded with the new guy to help him, but all the new guy could do was to ask Dave to file weekly status reports. In the end, hiring the new guy increased Dave’s workload and did nothing to fix the “challenges”. He was a net drag on the department and would have been so even if he worked for free. Very soon after that, Dave, one of the most competent and conscientious managers that I reported to, resigned.

That category of professional manager, like the new guy director, can only exist in large corporations. They do not survive in any other ecosystem. I have met several of them in 3 different large companies now and I would not hire any of them to run a hotdog stand for me.

The moral of the story is this. If you go to your boss to ask for guidance and advice, about something over your head that you can do nothing about, and his response is to tell you to fix the problem and write a status report about it, bring your resume up to date.

1 Comments:

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert,
Your story made me laugh, and sure sounds familiar, especially Dave's progression from problem-solver to emigrant. I've watched that happen many times, where a competent person will correctly diagnose a systematic problem and make valiant steps to correct it, only to see it either made worse or more frustrating.

It amazes me that managers are not better at seeing the signs. I could usually predict who would be leaving within the next six months. They exhibit fairly obvious telltales. At one company, I watched no fewer than three key people become persistently frustrated and and make that subtle shift from fully engaged problem-solver to sinking-ship-deserter. In two of the three cases I even predicted it to top management and suggested ways to forestall it, and wasn't taken seriously. Each time, I thought, now they've done it, we're going to have real problems now--but each time, they managed to pull the situation out by dumb luck.

Finally, one such defection turned out to be truly damaging, and the company made a distinct downhill turn that continues to this day.

Mike

 

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