Posts Tagged ‘corporate life’

Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

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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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As a sometime-consultant and a sometime-manager, I’ve sat on both sides of the interviewing table many times. Which side I prefer is impossible to say: Given a choice between the tension of trying to sell myself to a person who’s largely unknown to me and the discomfort of judging strangers, I will gladly choose none of the above (no doubt that explains why I’m in business for myself). However, being the interviewer does have the advantage of giving me a wider view of human types than being an interviewee. Over my career, two interviews in particular stand out as examples of some of the things you should never do when you go for a job.

Both occurred when I was a manager at a startup specializing in GNU/Linux. I was new to both startups and free software, but I was learning quickly – in fact, I was the only manager, up to and including the CEO and COO, who had any sense of the software life cycle or of free software (and even my knowledge, I admit now, was new and shallow in a lot of places). However, I had hired before, so I ended up on the hiring committee, along with an HR veteran from the startup’s parent company who was there for guidance.

The first interview looked good on paper. He had years of Unix experience, and claimed to know something about GNU/Linux as well. However, one look was enough to show that we’d made a mistake in calling in this interviewee. Looking like he had come straight from makeup to play an English academic, circa 1936, he wore a thick brown suit of tweed with patches on the elbow that looked decades old. His glasses were even thicker, and didn’t match his suit. On his feet were mud-splattered running shoes. His hair was not only uncombed, but looked as though he might have lost combs in its tangles.

His posture – well, a bonobo would have called it shambling and stooped, and died of shame to be seen holding himself that way.

Shaking his hand, I also realized that he was a heavy smoker. A miasma of tobacco swirled around him, nearly visible and making me gag.

This interviewee sat down at the boardroom table, and immediately put his feet up on a chair. Then he leaned back and cradled the back of his head in his hands.

Questioning him, we soon learned that he had applied for the job because “he needed the money.” He had no idea what the company did, and had no questions about it when provided an interval to ask some. Although it was a startup and therefore demanding of everyone’s time, he told us that his idea of an ideal job was one where he could work maybe ten or fifteen hours a week.

I was sinking lower in my chair, embarrassed for him, when the HR veteran interrupted the interviewee.

“No, no, no –” he said. “This isn’t working.” He then gave the interviewee a five minute lecture on the basics of dressing and deportment for a job interview, while I sat watching them, even more embarrassed.

From the way the interviewee slouched away, I don’t think he absorbed much of the lecture – especially since he asked for his resume back, saying it was his only copy.

The second bad example was an applicant for the same company. Its horrors were different, but no less intense.

This second interviewee had worked on a free software project related to the company’s core business. Several programmers knew his work in the community, although they had never met him, so we brought him in.

Once again, first impressions said everything. This applicant was appropriately dressed for a corporate interview, but, from the first, everything about him showed that he considered the interview was only a formality. He was a round man of average height, and everything from his gestures to the slight sneer that was the natural position of his face at rest suggested that he thought himself condescending to apply for the job at all.

This time, we finished the interview. Looking back, though, I really have to wonder how. The interviewee was so patronizing that I had a faint urge the urge to either make deflating comments or to punch him out – and normally I am neither rude nor confrontational.

The problem was not what he said, but the way he said it. Of course we would want to hire him, his tone seemed to imply (although he was no clearer than the first interviewee about exactly what the company did, and no more interested). Of course we would pay him what he asked. Of course the knowledge test we gave all programmers would be the merest formality. And we would let him work on whatever interested him, wouldn’t we?

All these implications came with little sniffs and flicks of the head, as if condescending to be interviewed was almost more than he could bear. I half-expected him to take out a pomander and sniff it, the better to endure the tawdry atmosphere of commerce around him.

Then we introduced him to the lead programmer and team leaders – and the way he shook their hands, you might have mistaken him for visiting royalty.

I don’t remember how we ended the interview process – probably with some version of “Thanks, we’ll call you when we’ve made a decision” – but I do recall that I was exasperated beyond belief.

Needless to say, he was as much out of the running as the first candidate, even though he had survived longer in the interview.

Both these candidates had their own brands of obnoxiousness, but they shared some common faults. Neither gave any thoughts to first impression. Both were so egocentric that they never thought to curb their natural tendencies in the hopes of getting employed, or to find out anything about the company they were applying at. You name a basic mistake in interviewing, and one or both of them made it.

In fact, the behavior of each of them was so extreme that, looking back, I wonder if either had any genuine interest in employment. Perhaps they were only being interviewed so that they could continue to collect unemployment insurance. But I think that their real roles in life were to provide bad examples and good stories. And certainly, they have played both roles many times since.

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