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Forced to choose between being a follower or a leader, I would reluctantly choose to be a leader. But I would far rather be neither, because I perform poorly in both roles.

The trouble I have with being a follower is that I am not a passive person. I am quick to express my opinion, and ideas come quickly to me. But under all but the most enlightened management, these are not traits that are appreciated. Consequently, as a follower I either have to suppress my thoughts or risk antagonizing those who are supposed to be in charge of them.

This situation leads to repression, which either slips out in the form of sly and generally unwelcome remarks, or over-compensation, in which I try so hard to conform that I end up applying to myself some of the wonderfully inventive eighteen century terms for describing underlings, such as toady or lick-spittle. Probably no one else would think those words apply, since I don’t give management insincere compliments or anything like that, but the point is that this is an uncomfortable self-image to have.

Even worse, having managed in my time, I’m always second-guessing those further up the ladder, and thinking – no, knowing – that I could do better. I keep thinking that, if I were left to manage matters, everything would go more smoothly. Telling myself that this belief is probably a delusion does nothing to keep me from holding it.

Like most people, I can deal with being a follower if I get my exercise and rest, and keep up my other interests. But it’s an inherently unstable situation, and sooner or later I crack from the strain.

Being in charge is preferable because of the greater autonomy. I enjoy setting priorities, and being responsible for decisions.

All the same, as a leader I’m only slightly more at ease than when I’m a follower. If nothing else, knowing how I chafe as a follower, I’m constantly wondering I’m affecting those around me, and what they think of me.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t believe in leadership or hierarchies. My observations and personal experience has convinced me that, for all the emphasis on leadership you hear from management gurus, no one – including me – has any clear idea of what leadership is about.

What worries me is that I will start to confuse myself with the role – that, instead of thinking in terms of tactics or strategies, I will start to use my position as a justification of expressing my ego. I worry that I will get used to having people obey me, and actually get to like the power. If I’m not careful, I may start pressuring myself into actions that the leadership role logically demands, but which I would be reluctant to do in my personal life. The chance of losing myself in the role is always all too likely.

Even trying to be an egalitarian leader is only a palliative. Priding myself on an open door policy, talking about how I am against the cult of leadership, claiming that someone can replace you in a couple of years – all these things, I worry, will only hide the rot that is slowly setting in.

Nor, I suspect, that worrying about such things do anything except make me even less of an effective leader. In the end, I find being a leader only slightly more endurable than being a follower.

Given a completely open choice, I would far rather work in a group that pools its efforts, and hammers out tactics and strategies in discussion. But this is largely a fantasy born of reading stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and I’ve rarely and only briefly ever found such a situation.

Instead, I prefer the role of consultant or freelancer, in which I negotiate an exchange of services as something like an equal, and I’m less likely to twist myself out of shape. Being a freelancer isn’t always easy, but it’s the role that comes far nearer to preserving my self-respect than being either a follower or a leader.

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What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

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Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail ran an article about freelancers who were considering finding full-time work in response to the recession-cum-depression of the last couple of months. Being a long-time freelancer myself – and someone who has never been happier than when working for himself – I found some wry amusement in the assumption that freelancing is riskier than full-time employment. Not only do I believe that freelancing is generally safer than full-time employment, but I suggest that freelancers are better equipped to weather the uncertain economy.

Admittedly, a recession is a bad moment to begin a freelance career, if only because so many other people may be attempting the same change. Obviously, too, a freelancer’s ability to survive depends on what services they offer; for instance, if you offer web design services, in hard times people might be tempted to put off improvements and changes to their web pages as non-essential.

However, in general, freelancers have distinct advantages in troubled times:

  • Freelancers are already established: As full-timers are laid off and try to support themselves on freelancing, established freelancers already have the contracts and – most importantly – the reputations to keep themselves employed. Many of them have an established customer base, and they can focus on assignments rather than on marketing themselves – a process that usually takes a few months.
  • Freelancers are more versatile: Full-time employees are generally slotted into narrow specialties. By contrast, freelancers can offer new, related services as the opportunity or need arises. For example, if you are a technical writer who finds that clients are putting off updating their documentation, perhaps you can branch out into public relations or graphic design.
  • Freelancers are used to working on multiple contracts at the same time: While full-timers often have the luxury of concentrating on one project at a time, most freelancers juggle multiple projects at the same time. Part of the reason may be freelancers are so afraid of being without income that they often overbook themselves. However, an even larger part of the reason is that they don’t always find a single project that brings in enough income by itself. A recession simply makes this situation even more likely. So, in this sense, the habits of the average freelancer become a useful survival mechanism during a recession.
  • Freelancers have established social networks: In any sort of job-hunting, connections are important. But, while full-timers often neglect networking because of their false sense of security, freelancing is like constantly looking for work. The result is that freelancers may be prepared to replace work lost to the recession with other assignments.
  • Freelancers are better prepared psychologically for losing work: Many full-timers invest a lot of their self-image in their employment. When they lose their position, they are devastated. But freelancers do not nurse the full-timers’ dream of a job for life. They expect to work on many contracts during their careers. So, when one contract is canceled, it means very little to freelancers – unlike full-timers, they are not devastated. While they may regret the loss, freelancers know that some work will never materialize or be canceled, even in good times.
    In other words, a recession is only a freelancer’s regular situation intensified. They know how to deal with the situation, and don’t need to change their attitudes to survive – unlike full-timers.

I’m not surprised that The Globe and Mail could find freelancers who were considering full-time employment, but I suspect that they are in a minority. Although all the freelancers I know are alert to the economic situation, they seem reasonably confident of their ability to survive it. Unlike full-timers, they find little new in troubled times.

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One of my pet peeves about business is the constant consternation among executives about employees doing personal business on company time. Even if the transgression is just a few minutes browsing on the Internet, it’s viewed with the greatest concern. Business experts talk earnestly about what such loss of productivity might mean to the nation, and devise ways to spy on employees, or to block web sites that employees might like to view. Doing business on company time, they gravely explain, is the worst sin of our secular age – stealing from your employer. What annoys me is that such concerns are a grotesque hypocrisy.

I’m not talking, you understand, about the extreme cases, where a middle manager spends five or six hours a day on a gambling site, or a system administrator watches porn all day. Such behavior is obviously unacceptable to anyone. I’m talking instead of people who take five or ten minutes a couple of times a day to read a news or hobby site, or to dash out on a family errand.

Of course, even this behavior was unacceptable thirty years ago, when people worked regular hours and rarely deviated from them. After all, the lost time quickly adds up.

But the workplace is different today. Instead of receiving an hourly wage, the average office worker is on salary – a ploy that forces them to work hours of unpaid overtime. Especially in high-tech, the norm is to take advantage of this situation, putting heavy pressure on those who leave after eight hours and implying that anyone who doesn’t devote evenings and weekends to the company are not being good team players and letting everyone down. More than once, I’ve encountered supervisors who had a habit of starting meetings ten minutes before the end of the day and forcing people to work overtime, knowing very well that the social pressure would keep most people from objecting.

And only rarely does anyone get a day off to compensate for their extra hours. Rather, unpaid work has become the norm.

Under these circumstances, how dare employers complain about the loss of half an hour or an hour a day when they are averaging twice that in unpaid overtime from their employees? If anything, they ought to be glad that employees are taking short breaks. Otherwise, productivity would decline steadily after about nine hours. By taking those breaks, employees are actually making better use of the time actually spent working, because they are more refreshed than they would otherwise be.

An employer with any knowledge of human nature should be glad that employees know how to pace themselves. Otherwise, employees risk falling into the unproductive habit of a resident doctor I once knew. When I asked how she handled the thirty-six hour shifts that are part of the hazing ritual for new doctors, she explained, “I try to make all my decisions in the first twelve hours. After that, I just try not to make any mistakes.”

Anyway, what choice do employees have except to conduct personal business on company time? When employees are working long days, often the middle of the day is the only time they have for errands or personal business. Very few stores are open at 10PM – assuming that someone staggering home after a fourteen hour day even has the energy to stop to shop.

At any rate, employees are doing nothing that many executives haven’t done for years. Despite all the pep talks about the importance of leadership, the average manager works far less strenuously that the average employee. The exceptions are those who have a hands-on approach, and lend a hand in anything that needs doing, and they are usually in a startup. The average manager thinks nothing of doing exactly the sort of thing that annoys them when employees do them.

And perhaps that’s the problem, Maybe the executives who worry about productivity are simply irked that average employees are claiming perqs that used to be reserved for them alone.

When companies pay overtime or don’t cajole and threaten free work out of their employees, and managers set an example of dedication, then they will have a right to complain about what is done on company time. Until then, so long as employees put in the number of productive hours listed in their contract, they have every right to reclaim some of their free time.

So far as I’m concerned, the employees aren’t the ones who are stealing.

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The other week, I heard that a former employer had gone out of business. I reacted with the same pleasure that an octogenarian might feel on reading the name of an unpleasant former colleague in the obituaries. I was glad to see the company go, and my only surprise was that it had crawled along as long as it had. I had been expecting to see it go under for years.

As you might guess, I was not particularly happy there. I used to take long walks at lunch, regardless of the weather, just to get away from the place, and would amuse myself by composing words to a parody of “Chantilly Lace” that I called “Genteelly Bored.”

Part of my unhappiness was the circumstances. It was my first full-time position since the dot-com crash. After being one of the powers at two different companies, I felt demoted to be working as a technical writer again, no matter how often I told myself that no honest living was shameful. But I felt massively under-challenged, and chafed at having to take directions, although I remained polite.

But a larger part of the problem was that, having been a leader (of what quality I’m not sure), I knew that the company officers and executives were border-line competence at best. The CEO was not only fond of purges, which inevitably included people with key knowledge, but also of inflicting the latest management fads on the company. He was fond of regular, excruciating company meetings at which he kept showing the same slides over and over. When I left, he was trying retreats at which select members of the company would discuss a book on the management best-seller lists – a move which instantly divided the company into the privileged and the under-appreciated. He never did seem to understand that he was sending mixed signals, and, when I briefly shared an office with him due to overcrowding, he used to wonder why no one was passionate about the company.

The other executives were no better. The vice-president of toadyism, as I called the CEO’s right hand man, was infamous for making decisions without bothering to gather necessary information.

Another executive, a fundamentalist Christian, tried to take me to task for using, “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?” on my screen saver. He thought it obscene, and was put out when I suggested that he had better things to do than chastise me over trivia and I refused to apologize on the grounds that I had done nothing wrong.

Then there was the testing manager, a little man who decorated his office in unread books and inspirational posters, and would spend hours designing spreadsheets with the largest color palette that I have ever seen. He worked long hours, and like to call meetings with me just before I was leaving for home. But at least he didn’t last as long as his probation.

“Blind leading the blind” was the phrase that kept occurring to me when I had to deal with any of these characters. But although interacting with them was bad enough, what was especially hard to handle was the fact that I had enough experience (and enough memories of my own incompetence) to know that they were mismanaging the company, and making what could only be a marginal business at best a loser. I discovered that to see incompetence that you know how to correct, yet to be able to do or say nothing is one of the most uncomfortable mental states possible.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. If I hadn’t been so uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have started trying to write a book on OpenOffice.org. The book was never published, but my efforts over the fifteen months I was at the company have since repaid my effort many times over as I cannibalized the chapters for articles. I also started doing a couple of other articles per month, and I still remember the pleasure when I had earned enough from articles to buy my new computer. There was another short contract between my work at this company and my transition to full-time journalist, but if I hadn’t been so bored, I might never have done the ground work for a career change. So I can’t say that the company didn’t do me an unintentional favor.

Still, I wish there had been a wake. I would have attended, if only to dance on the coffin.

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Today, I was interviewing someone who stated that any company or free software needed a leader who was passionate about the work.

The idea was that, being a leader, they could quickly make the decisions necessary for the smooth running of the company, and that, being passionate about the work, they would make desirable decisions – or, at the very least, spare their subordinates the problem of making no decision at all, which the interviewee saw as often worse than making a wrong decision.

Given what I know of the interviewee, I wasn’t surprised to hear this belief expressed. All the same, I was amused that, shortly before the interview, I had read a new release announcing that a former employer, who also believed in being a passionate leader (perhaps he reads the same books on management as the interviewee) had just sold 95% of his company after five years of trying to make it consistently profitable. And if that is not a sign of bad leadership, what is?

As the interviewee expounded his theory, I couldn’t help thinking that you can passionately make the wrong decision at least as often as the right one. If anything, if you push logic aside in favor of inspiration, you’re probably more inclined to make wrong decisions.

Also, although I kept silent – interviews not being about me, I strongly believe – I couldn’t help thinking that, nine times out of ten, when people talk about leadership, they are viewing themselves as the leaders in question. What other people might think of the arrangement they are expounding hardly enters into their consideration. The assumption always seems to be that non-leaders will automatically follow.

I suppose that some people might exist who want a leader to make decisions for them. Or, at least, if they do exist, such people might explain neo-conservatism. But, I’ve never met them. The most apathetic and most obedient alike always seem jaded or cynical about their situation, if you can get them talking in a place where they feel safe.

For the most part, I suspect that people are not looking for a leader so much as a sense that their input into a decision matters. Nothing can be more irritating to someone with specialized knowledge than to find that their experience has been ignored in the decision-making.

I remember one long, hot summer when I was working on a design and writing project with a company. Whenever we held meetings, the CEO would arrive forty minutes late. He would then spend the next twenty minutes vetoing all the decisions the rest of us had made before his arrival – so far as I can see, simply because he felt like asserting his authority. Those of us who were consultants soon got into the habit of being late ourselves, and of not talking about anything to do with the project until the CEO arrived.

Needless to say, we were fuming, partly about the waste of time, but partly because our suggestions, which we believed were in the best interest of the company, were being ignored.

Very likely, we were sometimes wrong n our decisions, but, given our experience, we were almost certainly right more often than the CEO, who had no relevant expertise in the project – only a passion to have things his own way.

Such experiences explain why, whenever someone talks about visionary leadership, I start getting very apprehensive (at least when I have to endure it; when I don’t, I just shake my head). Somehow, business in the twenty-first century has got hold of the idea that leadership is some sort of natural trait or at least something that is an end in itself.

The idea reminds me of people who believe that a writer simply needs to know how to write, and has no need for expertise on their subject – in both cases, the odds of poor performance increase to near certainty, probably because so much time is spent disguising ignorance and inability.

Personally, I think leadership is simpler than that. These days, I tend to avoid situations where leadership arise, having decided that I have no particular wish to lead, and that I most definitely do not want to led.

However, in the past, leadership roles continually came my way – probably due the wrong-headed belief that if you are skilled in one area, you are somehow fit to lead. When I could not avoid such roles, however, I quickly learned that they were not about me, or making me feel good.

To me, leadership decisions were simply a matter of problem solving: I gathered what information I could in the time allotted, consulting people when I needed to, made a decision, then moved on to the next matter needing my attention. But, then, I’ve never thought that any leadership that wasn’t hands-on was worth a damn, anyway.

To this day, I have no idea how effective a leader I was. Nor am I likely to find out now. But it seems to me that there is far less to the role than those who aspire to it like to pretend.

Passion? Vision? So far as I am concerned, passion is for martyrs, and visions are for saints. I’ve always been aware that I wasn’t so exalted, and that I had a job to do.

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When you are trying to get something done in a large organization, frustration easily sets in. Before you know it, you can start fantasizing about shouting and name-calling and finding a throat that your fingers fit around – while in reality you slink off, feeling helpless and foolish. However, as I was reminded this past week trying to get action from the local health system on behalf of my hospitalized spouse, the secret is to use more indirect methods.

The first thing to remember is to never show that you are losing your temper. Show anger, and you’re giving the bureaucracy a reason not to listen to you at all. If you have to, retire to the washroom to snarl or cry, or go for some strenuous exercise after your efforts are done. But while you are talking to the members of the organization, keep calm. Smile. Say “Thank you,” even if the person you’re talking to has done nothing but obstruct you.

At the same time, never give up. In the typical bureaucracy, most people want nothing more than to go about their work quietly, and with a minimum of fuss. If you keep showing up, then after a while, they will be more likely to help you so that you go away and stop disturbing the quiet of their days. Calm, polite insistence should be your goal.

In addition, remember that you have to play by the bureaucracy’s unwritten rules – even if you are trying to get its official ones changed or rescinded (or maybe I should say especially when you are trying to get the official ones changed or rescinded). That means you need to have a simple, clear statement of what you want done, usually expressed in terms of a concrete action or two.

Even more importantly, the need to obey the unwritten rules means that your main strategy is to get allies in the system. Who can make your request a reality? Or – often more to the point – who can exert pressure on decision-makers to act in the way you want? Find out, and get those people on your side, advocating your cause within the organization. They know the structure far better than you have any hope of doing, often on an unconscious level of which they probably aren’t aware. Moreover, the more of your allies that surround the decision-maker, the harder the decision-maker will find resisting your request.

Finally, never forget your objectives. With these methods, you have a strong chance of realizing them. But if you’re expecting the decision-makers or the people who have been obstructing you to apologize or show any remorse for their lack of helplessness or failure to live up to the alleged ideals of their organization, you’re fantasizing. Settle for getting what you want, and keep polite even as you get it. While the primitive part of you might like to rub in the fact of your victory, resist the temptation, just in case the decision-maker balks at the last moment. Your purpose is not emotional satisfaction – it’s realizing your goals.

Getting a bureaucratic organization to get something done when you’re an outsider is like starting an avalanche. Anyone can set a boulder or two tumbling down the hill, and the result can even be spectacular. But finding the right pebbles to shift so that a large part of the landscape permanently moves (and doesn’t take you with it) is much harder. It requires patience, indirection, and an understanding of the landscape. But, in the end, the results can be farther-reaching than any expression of frustration or anger.

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