5150 Business Strategy

Life in the Corporate Fast Lane and Still Remaining Intelligent

Archive for the category “Swimming Against the Tide”

I Don’t Give a Rat’s Ass 2

The partner of an accounting firm we utilized for the annual audit turned out to personify all that is bad in the public accounting world. He had his head up his ass and turned out to be a member of the whack pack. The bank that referred him to us turned out to be official members of the whack pack as well. This audit partner barely knew what work in process was all about but he pontificated as if he originated the term – can you say bullshitter.

I can only assume that the audit partner and the banker involved did not realize that accounting and finance required an affinity for understanding, not only numbers, but what drives the numbers. Neither could find their way out of a paper bag if it involved understanding what financial ratios were about or what they meant to a business in reality. To them the numbers were just numbers and the underlying processes were lost on them. Trying to work with them was a losing proposition. So, we showed them the door.

I was told by the auditor who we hired to replace the whack packer that it was the first time he had heard of an auditor being fired prior to finishing the audit engagement. In retrospect I should have seen it coming since the audit team was staffed with what appeared to be foreign nationals where english was a second language, along with contract auditors who were brought in to supplement this firms thinly experienced staff. In the interest of keeping peace I allowed the incompetence to go on for way too long. By the time I pulled the plug this whack packer had already done all his damage, or so I thought.

Enter the whack pack banker who chose to contact the newly fired auditor. Of course, if you fire an auditor there must be something wrong with the company versus something wrong with how the auditor is performing, right? Ignore the fact that we, as the banks client, had provided copious amounts of data to the bank and kept them in the loop throughout the entire relationship. Another example of supposed professionals not understanding the parameters they are charged with monitoring. The extent of their understanding was that debt to equity should not exceed 3.0. Ask them what might drive debt to equity and their eyes would glaze over and the response was ,”..we only know it should not exceed 3.0, don’t question our requirements”. Head up ass syndrome.Completely clueless.

According to the auditor and the banker we were on the edge of failure, had no future, and the doors would be closing. Funny, three years down the road and the business is thriving. What gives? What gives is that nothing these whack packers predicted through their great expertise came to pass because they were wrong, wrong, wrong. Wow, what a surprise – auditors and bankers who are clueless. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident – incompetence in critical positions which influence the future of businesses is far too common.

I still remember the whack pack auditor and our last meeting where he declared that, “.. your charts and tracking are bullshit” when it came to identifying financial trends. Well, Einstein he was not as the benchmarks we utilize have proved to be invaluable despite this whack packers pronouncements. He was so convinced that all the accounting processes we had in place were deficient – funny, seems like his skills were the only thing deficient as the auditors we brought in to replace this numb nut found no deficiencies. Say what!! Of course this is the same numb nut who refused to work on the account because we had not paid his firm as per the terms. I pointed out that he should review the executed contract and, guess what, we were in compliance. This was typical of his incompetence. Adios, dipshit.

Similarly, the bankers thought we were too deficient to be granted lines of credit. We were schmucks that would be destitute in very short order. WTF, we not only got a larger line of credit but better loan covenants as well when we kicked them to the curb. Tell me it ain’t so Joe DiMaggio. How can this be?? It can be because incompetence appears to know no bounds, it pervades organizations at every level and can be devastating to a business. Luckily the “I don’t give a rat’s ass attitude” allowed us to persevere and rise above the whack packers.

Note: a good audit firm works with you to get the job done, not against you. They understand the inherent limits in working in the real world that prevent following accounting rules to the “T”. The same goes for a good banker, they work with you and understand that the world businesses operate in is not perfect – not everything happens as scheduled.

Lesson learned: don’t let the whack packers get you down. Make changes as necessary until you find the relationship that works for all parties involved. Jettison those who lack the intelligence to understand the realities of the environment your business operates in.

I Don’t Give a Rat’s Ass

Looking back this phrase was a turning point in my career. The architectural firm I was working for had fallen so far into anarchy that the staff dictated what was acceptable direction for management. After evaluating processes I made a decision to change the vendor the firm was utilizing to process payroll.

This international firm was utilizing bush league vendors that were ill prepared to meet the needs of the firm. However, the payroll manager felt she knew better than I what was best for the firm and opposed any change. Of course this was the same payroll manager who committed to keying payroll data into several systems, not once but three times. Think about it – actually keying in daily information for a firm approaching 1,000 plus employees three times. Her claim to being state of the art was the color coding of the spreadsheet to highlight anomalies! Can you say – REDUNDANT, or to be less politically correct – dumb ass.

So, a meeting is arranged to meet with the payroll vendor in order to inform them of the decision moving forward. Things had gotten so bass ackwards at this firm, however, that immediately upon telling the sales rep that we had decided to make a change he replied, “Well, from discussions with your payroll manager we have decided that moving from us would be the wrong thing to do..”. After the shock of the sheer audacity of this vendor to think he could overrule a decision,  I made the now infamous statement – “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you think is the right decision for this firm. This meeting is over and you can pick your things up and get out!”.

The payroll manager in attendance went pale from shock and the vendor stammered his surprise at what he obviously took to be an inappropriate response. The staff at this firm had grown so accustomed to having their way on every issue due to weak and ineffective management that this turn of events indicated an unwelcome shift in the power structure. So much so that the payroll manager went straight to the human resource manager reporting my disgusting use of language and that she could not work with “that man”, meaning me. Remember this is San Francisco where liberalism rules and trampling upon the rights of vendors and not allowing for socialism in the decision making process is akin to being the second coming of Rush Limbaugh.

The immediate impacts were not evident but over time it became apparent that the human resource manager, as well as my payroll manager, saw me as the antichrist. Let me say that human resource managers are a valuable and indispensable resource in any firm unless……  the human resource manager is the source of dysfunctionality. In that case they become an impediment to needed change as they enforce the status quo and can essentially blackball anyone in the organization that they find fault with – that was clearly the case here. Not only was the human resource manager dysfunctional but it could be argued that she should have been on a heavy dose of antidepressants – pass her the bottle of zoloft, please!!!! Ditto the payroll manager in question.

It was OK for her to question my judgement in an open meeting attended by staff. When I responded in kind, however, she would reprimand me for not being a “team player” and lecture me on the inappropriatness of raising issues in a public forum. What was good for the goose was not good for the gander – can you say double standard?  Of course, as the human resource manager she carried so much more credibility for understanding the inner working of the human psyche and what motivated people. In reality she understood nothing about human nature except on how to deflect criticism from her own shortcomings by painting others as deficient. Truly an unbelievable display of the ability of someone being mediocre at what they do running amok in an organization.

This is the same person who at one meeting asked me to step outside to settle a dispute – not to discuss the differences mind you, but to fight it out. I would have done so except I was in a no win situation – if I step outside to settle the dispute she would claim I initiated the transgression whether it was verbal or physical. If it became physical, which I am sure she would claim, I for sure would lose as she would have kicked my ass being the little spark plug she was. Actually, I think I could have fought her to a draw but it would be a close decision.

The payroll manager had written her ticket out of the organization and I replaced her shortly after this incident. The human resource manager lingered on for my tenure at the firm continuing to cause innumerable bad decisions to be made and was quite instrumental in several large scale disasters – a failed ERP implementation being one that cost the firm $5.0 million. Can you say OOPS…………..my bad.

As you may have surmised by now, many of the most dysfunctional situations I have experienced occurred at this large prestigious architecture firm. Contrary to what most may think, I look back on these as good experiences as they not only tested my professional skills in ways that no other organization could, but also the personal fortitude needed to survive the experiences and come out stronger. They laid the groundwork for future successes. As I have always said, if you can survive in the worst most unpleasurable business environment then anything less than that is a cake walk.

Lesson learned: I don’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone thinks about a situation they have no business being involved in and/or for which they lack the credentials to offer valuable insight or knowledge. Many business decisions must be made which will not please everybody, it is the nature of the beast.

MTV Real World

Entitlements, that is what MTV, and various other bad girl/boy shows, message to everyone is. You are entitled to sit on your ass all day and party all night in a luxurious house with all amenities paid for. Feel free to go out and get drunk, act bad, and come home to have sex freely and with whomever you want, no consequences since it is always party time.

Is it any wonder that when the “real” real world collides with the MTV Real World that people find out that life is a little more complicated? That in the real world you must take responsibility for your actions and only you can change the course of your life. That no one owes you a job, a house on the beach of your choice, or that going to Clubs 24/7 is a god given right.

It is sad that we have made what people see on the worst of these reality TV shows as something to aspire to. Audition to be on the Real World, Big Brother, The Batchelor, Bad Girls Club, Pregnant at 16, or any number of “reality” shows to demonstrate just how really more dysfunctional you can be. This is what we have come to – let’s all compete to show how desperate and ill-mannered we can be!!! Hey, count me in on this lifestyle – where do I sign up?

What is even worse is the effect it has on the business world. I am not so sure, however, which came first – our knee jerk reaction to preserve individual rights or the reality shows. Terminating an employee nowadays is a major undertaking which many times puts managers in the same place as someone who has been raped.

The insinuation is almost always that the manager doing the firing either 1.) did something wrong during the termination process or 2.)was incorrect in their assessment of the employee being terminated. The manager is put into a position of having to defend their actions no matter how well the process is handled. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Much like the person being raped being put on trial versus the rapist.

Why is this the case? One reason is because entitlement makes it OK for an employee to underperform. Why should they be any different from the miscreants they see on TV who are able to get by on minimal effort and still vacation in Cabo San Lucas for what appears to be 365 days a year. It is a sad reflection on current societal trends that work is seen as an entitlement, something which you have a right to even though you don’t perform.

I can count on less than two hands the number of employees I have had to terminate for cause. Without exception every one of those employees deserved to be terminated and for every one of them the spotlight was on me as the terminating manager. Every step and decision was analyzed and critiqued to the point of questioning the final decision. These were slam dunk cases – sleeping on the job, inability to perform job requirements, near assault and battery on another employee, and dishonesty in the hiring process. Yet, the entire process was not one of supporting the decision to terminate but one of questioning the grounds for termination. How many times do you need to find an employee asleep at their desk before it is safe to fire them??

The safeguards we have in place to protect employees has swung so far the other way that to say a job is an entitlement is not an overstatement. Every employee I have terminated truly believed they were entitled to the job and, therefore, saw no reason to change their behavior. They all had a history of being terminated from other positions, which points up another effect of this entitlement attitude. That being, if you don’t recognize you have a problem you are unlikely to change how you behave. Guess what – that means you get terminated over and over again.

We send ambiguous signals to employees being terminated much like breaking up a relationship – hey, it is not you it is me that is the problem. They move on and repeat the same mistakes because they never acknowledge they are the problem. Are we really doing them a favor by muting the responsiblity they bear for their actions?? I don’t think so.

Lesson learned: “Reality Show” is a poor definition for what airs on television these days. “Alternate Reality for a Short Period of Time Show” would be more apropos.

It’s in the Delivery

Jim, it is not your message we don’t like but it is in the delivery. Usually this is said after the umpteenth time I have tried to deliver the message in the most politically correct way possible. This usually is followed by, “You just don’t understand the circumstances”. As if I had not delivered the same message, about the same situation, a million times before. No, maybe it is not me, but you, that needs to wake up and smell the roses, or usually manure by the time we get to this point.

Here is how it typically goes:

First time: Hey everybody, we better watch out for the cliff coming up – don’t you think? No one listens, over the cliff we go.

Second time: Hey everybody, remember last time we went over the cliff, wasn’t much fun was it? Let’s watch out for that cliff, OK? No one listens, over the cliff we go.

Third time: Hey everybody, I am really tired of warning about the cliff, think we can listen up this time and avoid going over? No one listens, over the cliff we go.

Fourth time: OK, YOU FUCKING MORONS I HAVE WARNED YOU ABOUT THE FUCKING CLIFF SEVERAL TIMES, NOW STOP FUCKING AROUND AND STOP!! Response: Geez Jim, no need to get upset about this and we really don’t appreciate how you delivered the message. Plus, you don’t seem to understand the circumstances that precipitated us going over the cliff previously. We would appreciate it if you would not speak to us that way.

No, I think I understand what the circumstances are – a complete lackadaisical attitude of management to address known problems in a proactive and assertive way. Therefore, the problem continues to cause havoc amongst the staff until someone has the wherewithal to question why we don’t change things. Of course, then you get the “you just don’t understand and we don’t like your delivery” speech. It is always flipped over on to the person raising the obvious as if they should just shut up and go along for the ride over the cliff – over and over and over.

I was asked once by a senior manager why I had to address a situation in such harsh terms. My response, because when I have raised the issue in subtle, but less direct, terms you don’t get it. These are the same people, however, who have adopted the attitude that the person raising the obvious is the problem versus the fact that nothing is done to address the real problem.

A classic moment was at the architecture firm that was trying to implement the new ERP system but did not have a clue they were headed towards the cliff. After several months trying to get upper management to see the impending cliff they hired a new IT manager who was charged with getting the mess organized. He delivered the “your delivery is a problem” speech which set me off on my usual response. It did not matter how the message was delivered – nice, slow, articulate, spelled out, in English, in French, with sugar on top, or laced with invective. Of course, the new guy coming in sees the delivery as the problem when the real problem was the inability of management to listen to the input they were receiving in an intelligent manner. Plus, they had succumbed to groupthink which immediately belittled opposing viewpoints.

Isn’t it funny that the delivery of the message is a sufficient enough excuse for people to ignore the obvious problem multiple times? It becomes the standard excuse for why managers continue to make bad decisions. Well, had he delivered the message to me better I would not have made the same mistakes over and over again – does that really make sense to anyone? Mediocre management relies upon this excuse as a crutch to justify their poor practices.

Lesson Learned: question management that uses delivery of the message as a sufficient excuse for bad practice, it never is. It is the ultimate straw man argument.

Quack Quack

Blah, blah, blah, quack, quack……. It never ceases to amaze me at what passes for sage business advice. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry now believes they have the infinite wisdom of the universe. Quite frankly, past experience is not sufficient prerequisite for dispensing advice to the masses.

I love when the consultants main claim to credibility is that they are associated with other supposedly knowledgeable consultants – the more the merrier it seems. One goofball lending name recognition to another goofball – it is a pyramid scheme. Quack, Quack.

Take the ex-CEO of a large architecture firm – he moves to a consulting firm where he is embraced as a management guru. Does anybody ever check these guys background to see how they got to where they are. Most likely they were shown the door when their ego grew too big for the office they occupied. Quack, Quack.

It is like a cult of personality, where what you actually have done is not relevant. It is what everyone thinks you have done and, especially, what the other so called management gurus think you have done. It is circle jerk city as they perpetuate their own little cults to keep everyone hanging on every word. Quack, Quack.

The pearls of wisdom that get dispensed are priceless, meaning I wouldn’t pay a dime for them:

  • Cash is king – I need a consultant to tell me this!! Quack, Quack
  • How small firms can survive… Quack, Quack
  • Strategic Planning imperatives Quack, Quack
  • Characteristics of great leaders Quack, Quack
  • My humble beginnings led to great things Quack, Quack
  • Reduce your expense, Increase revenue to make profit.. Quack, Quack
  • How to develop your staff to achieve greatness. Quack, Quack

Of course, the most important credential you must possess to be a world class consultant is to show your altruistic side by volunteering for the charity of your choice. It shows your humble side and proves that your head is not up your ass all the time. Time for me to adopt an orphan child from Biafra, volunteer to take inner city kids to a ballgame, and donate to the charity of my choice. Quack, Quack.

I was told once that this large architecture firm had such a good network that speaking ill of them was frowned upon. This from a headhunter that, no doubt, was beholden to the firm for some portion of their livelihood. The undisputed message was “don’t speak poorly of them as there would be consequences”. Great advice if you wanted to perpetuate the cult… I suspect that I am not on their Christmas card list. Quack, Quack.

I live in the real world, not the world that was created by pseudo intellectuals that believe they are owners of the indisputable truth. Quack, Quack.

A recent industry rag highlights the “comeback” of a Concord California firm with full page photo of the outsider “chick”, their terminology not mine, that is spearheading the rebound. Left unsaid, but alluded to if you read the article closely, is how the firm fell onto hard times. Could it be that, as the twenty year Human Resources manager said somewhat cryptically, they had too many people in mangement who became accustomed to being in their comfort zone? Where was the outside Board member that was quoted in the article or the ex-Chairman of the Board when things were hum drumming along? Of course now they are quoted as if they are the second coming of Socrates speaking with great wisdom befitting their wise experienced ways. These will be the same guys sitting on some panel discussing the next great management craze as if they are experts when, in fact, the only thing they were expert at is preserving the status quo. As for the outsider chick, it is still too early to tell if the results will live up to the hype. The psychology major CFO’s quote is so cliched it is hard to take seriously – managers taking ownership of their budget, geez really. Quack, Quack.

The pattern repeats itself everywhere – management becomes entrenched and defends the status quo, performance declines to the point where action must be taken, “new” ideas are brought in to reinvigorate company, and the same entrenched management claims to have found Jesus. Quack, Quack.

Lesson learned: beware of those who claim to have found religion as they are generally the ones who perpetuated the old religion.

Doing the Right Thing Versus Doing Things Right

A very subtle distinction which is lost on many in management and leadership roles. They become caught up in making sure that things are always done right without first seeing if they are actually doing the right thing – doing the wrong thing extremely well but to no avail.

Political correctness sometimes dictates doing the wrong thing even though just about everyone knows it is not the right thing. My mantra has always been that I will not sacrifice doing the right thing just because it is not the politically correct thing to do. Unfortunately there are many others who will turn a blind eye and do the most expedient thing in order to keep favor with upper management, especially if that management rewards those who stay in line at the expense of rocking the boat.

Companies enforcing policies without evaluating the changing environment they are operating in risk falling out of step with changing times. How many times have you heard someone say, “we do it this way because it is our policy”? There is no reexamination to see if the policy fits the current situation, it is done this way because we “want to do things right”. You could provide copious examples of why the policy no longer fits but the policy thumpers will treat you as unenlightened and admonish you for not wanting to do things “right”. Trying to get these wrong headed people to see that something they are doing may not be the right thing is akin to being a salmon trying to swim upstream. Going against the flow by doing the right thing may sometimes be very dangerous to your career.

Obviously, some things are not worth fighting over and you need to pick your battles. I have found, however, that many in management find it easier to do things right since there are no negative consequences. Making the decision to do the right thing can have career limiting implications and the lack of back bone in some managers makes it easier for them to cop the plea, “I did everything right”.

I would venture to say that many of the largest business debacles over the last decade were facilitated by managers who convinced themselves that doing things right was more important than doing the right thing.

Lesson Learned: doing the right thing is not the same as doing things right.

Learn to Duck – Part 2

Continuing the theme of the last post, the same CFO at a landscape architecture firm showed monumental bad judgement when it came to hiring practices and, once again, I took the shit as it hit the fan.

I was responsible for hiring a government accountant to support our federal contracts. After an extensive interview process I made an offer to the best qualified person. So happens the person was female and after accepting my offer of employment she disclosed that she was pregnant.

CFO comes into my office and first words out of her mouth are, “How could you hire a pregnant women. Couldn’t you tell?”. After the urge to bitch slap her passed I let her know couple of things:

  1. I hire the best person for any job, period.
  2. Last time I checked not being pregnant was not a bona fide occupational qualification
  3. She should build a bridge and get over it

She couldn’t get over it though as she visited me daily with new ideas of how to retract the offer, none of which were legal. Of course she wanted me to implement these illegal tactics, but I declined given her propensity to duck when shit hit the fan. No doubt had I retracted this offer and the person were to file a claim with the Department of Labor she would have wanted to know what the hell I was thinking.

The thing that amazed me to this day is that the CFO was a woman, hear me roar!! She had no problem playing the feminist card when it suited her but I found it reprehensible that she so easily abandoned her “principles” when there was pressure to do so.

Yes, there were others in upper management who were calling for the new hires head – she should have told us she was pregnant was the most common refrain. Followed by, you should have known she was pregnant – as if this was supposed to somehow guide me away from the most qualified candidate. Silly me, I thought the measure of success was filling the position with the best person regardless of age, sex, race or, in this case,  pregnancy.

Next time I guess the proper course of action is to supply all female candidates with a pregnancy test kit – no, not as a condition of employment but we will view your refusal as a personality defect and, therefore, may not find you suitable for the position!!! Obviously, it draws into question a candidates moral turpitude – you let yourself get pregnant when you needed to work, shame on you.

The entire episode illustrated the dirty little corporate secret of discrimination against females who are pregnant, or who might have a higher likelihood of getting pregnant. Instead of racial profiling there is pregnancy profiling – hiring based upon demographics that indicate someone might get pregnant and leave the firm in the lurch when they go on maternity leave. As this episode also illustrated, the discrimination is not confined to males but occurs at the senior management level and crossed gender lines. Ignorance, it seems, knows no bounds – it appears to be an equal opportunity defect.

I weathered the storm, the person I hired remained employed, went on maternity leave, returned to the firm, and is still working at the firm today. Of course, I left the firm for various reasons but feel vindicated that my hire remains employed – I guess she turned out to be the right person for the job after all!!

Lesson learned: hire the best person for the job as surrounding yourself with the best inevitably makes your job easier.

Learn to Duck When Sh*t Hits the Fan


There must be a seminar, or course, that some managers take that teaches the fine art of having authority but ducking the responsibility. Especially when it comes to directing subordinates, or others, to perform duties which are unpleasant and/or which go sideways. It is a fine art which, in my opinion, reveals those who are unprepared and lack the leadership skills to be in a management position. Instead of stepping in to defend and justify actions of  a subordinate they have learned to duck, also known as being good at playing politics, and let the subordinate take the load of manure which rightfully belongs on them. Why has it become acceptable in some senior management circles to toss subordinates under the bus for their own shortcomings?

A case in point: at a landscape architecture company I was directed by the CFO to layoff one of the admin staff, let’s call her Marti,  due to lack of work. I had heard through the grapevine, but could never validate, that this CFO was not particularly fond of Marti. The rumor was that this CFO had frequent run ins with Marti when she first joined the company as controller and that Marti was the equivalent of employee number 1 –  she had been employed during the formative years and grew with the company. She was well liked and respected by all levels of the organization except the CFO.

Regardless, being the diligent soldier that I am, and seeing that there was sufficient justification for the layoff, I scheduled the termination call. The day comes and I inform Marti that her employment is being terminated. By the end of the day the CEO of the firm is demanding to know why Marti was let go. You see, the CEO and other senior management had built up a close relationship over time that, unknown to me, extended to giving Marti preferential treatment.

Do you think the CFO stepped in to explain that Marti was terminated at her request? Of course not,  not only did she not step in to accept responsibility but she had the gall to question the method followed for the termination. It was the most gutless move I had experienced in my career and displayed a lack of leadership that made it clear that this CFO could not be trusted. It was a turning point in my relationship with her and one which eventually led to my leaving the firm. It became clear that she would make decisions, and take actions, for political reasons at the expense of doing what was right. If you are reporting to someone like that you either decide to move on or become accustomed to being a human pin cushion. No doubt had this layoff been seen as overwhelmingly positive she would have been the first to step up and take responsibility for having the foresight to adjust staffing levels. Given the decidedly negative outcome, however, she was more than happy to duck the sh*t as it hit the fan.

It is the problem when on the job training is happening at the CFO level – she was unprepared and ill equipped to take responsibility for her decisions. A more capable manager knows that just as there is no responsiblity without authority that the inverse is just as true – when you have authority you should take responsibility for your decisions and defend those acting on your behalf.

Not too long after this the firm was acquired by a larger company. Being  “key” in the transition process, but as I had seen the true colors of the CFO,  I put little credibility in her assurances that I would be taken care of. No, there would be no more appointments to the ownership group – don’t worry other benefits would compensate you for not profiting on the sale of the company. Yeah right, and when Marti was let go you stood up for the decision you made. As it turns out even this was a blatant falsehood since shortly after I left the firm several other “key” staff were elevated to ownership. A case of once bitten, twice shy or – fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me. I am rarely fooled twice.


Lesson learned: take responsibility for the decisions you make and stand up for staff who implement those decisions.

Bright Lights, Big City

Recognize the skyline? It is Hong Kong where I spent many weeks coordinating the annual audit and Asia software conversion. Not the first time that I became cognizant of the differing social norms between different cultures, but definitely one where the contrasts were much more apparent.

The female CFO of the firm had failed several times in getting the auditors in Hong Kong to submit the audited statements in a timely manner. These were needed to perform the consolidation up to the company level. I was tasked with a visit to meet with the external auditors and impress upon them the urgency of the deadlines.

Dutifully I wing my way over and established a meeting with the audit firm expecting that I would need to pound the table or, at the very least, exchange harsh words regarding their inability to meet deadlines. The meeting was anticlimatic since the audit manager, who was male, proceeded from the beginning of the meeting to berate the female staff accountant. Along the lines of, “You have done a great disservice to the firm and this must not happen again”. That along with profuse apologies regarding their tardiness and assurances that it would not happen again. This before I could even launch into my unhappiness about their peformance and the need to improve.

Lo and behold, the next audit was completed on time,  as was every audit done after that. A tribute to my extraordinary skills at managing the audit relationship? I wish this were the case but it was apparent to me that it was more a cultural defference to a male dominated society. While the female CFO had been ineffective in enforcing the deadlines my one visit did the trick simply because I was a male.

Maybe not politically correct here in America but not seen in the same light in Asia where I was a rock star!! I said the sky was purple, the sky was purple. When I attended meetings everyone waited for me to be seated. If there were not enough seats others remained standing until I sat down. Tea ladies were at my beck and call to insure that my coffee was always waiting and/or refilled. I had to force people to let me hold the door open for them. It was the most visible manifestation of different cultural norms that enforced levels of entitlement. Whereas here in America we mask these levels with such titles as staff, associate, senior associate, and principal.

In some firms these levels become dysfunctional as they lead to attitudes of entitlement, mostly by upper management, that it is OK to belittle staff members contributions to the overall success of the firm. The most enlightened statement I heard was made by the CEO of an engineering firm who said, “Every person in this firm will be treated the same regardless of who they are and anyone found guilty of not following that philosophy will be fired”.  Sadly, once I left this firm it became apparent how rare that philosophy is in business today. There is truth in the saying that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Side Note: If in Shanghai be sure to check out the Peace Hotel Jazz Band, a great example of the influence of American Jazz on the international music scene.

Lesson Learned: be aware of cultural norms when dealing in the international arena.

Catch 22 – Corporate Insanity

Ever feel like the inmates were running the insane asylum? I sure have. Sometimes I wonder how American business, and society in general, survives with the lunatic fringe I have witnessed running some corporations.

The amazing thing is that you are treated like Jack Nicholson’s character – the crazy one for not going along with the insanity. The ultimate Catch-22, if you don’t go with the flow then you are the dissident, or crazy one,  but if you go with the flow you become a participant in the insanity. Some corporations are caught in this cycle of dysfunctional behavior at the highest level but they call it “company culture”. What is even more insane is that some corporations wear the company culture badge with honor, as in “this is part of our long and illustrious history”. It is akin to bragging about being an alcoholic for the last 20 years. What, you don’t think an alcoholic is proud of their drinking prowess and ability to down a handle of vodka in one sitting? Why should a company be able to get away with bad behavour any more than an individual just because it is part of “their culture”?

For six months I did internal audits at a large architectural firm – see the post, “The Cobblers Children Have No Shoes” – to escape the insanity of the San Francisco Corporate office. Little did I know that the insanity, or culture as they would call it, was replicated in every office from California to New York. It was an amazing lesson in the power of upper managements ability to spread dysfunctional behavior to every corner of the company. Part of the internal audit was interviewing staff and management at every location on their views of the company – good and bad.

From staff the most common answers received were:

  • I was misled when hired as management only cares about billable hours not work life balance. Actually had one employee break down in tears because she just had a child and was led to believe she would be able to have a flexible work schedule. Nada.
  • This is a good place for 1-2 years and then I am outta here. Generally from newly graduated students looking to put this prestigious firm on there resume. A variation of the, “nice place to visit but you would not want to live here” saying.
  • Upper management only cares about upper management. There is little substantive change. No one listens to the employee.
  • What’s with all the red – red is the adopted color of this firm. I don’t think it is because they are Sammy Hagar fans and some of their offices do come across as bordellos as the red can be overwhelming.
  • Advancement is based upon how well you play the game, not what you know.
  • If you are good at what you do this is not a firm to stay at. They retain the mediocre as they do not rock the boat.

Then, from management interviews:

  • We are a firm without walls that values staff
  • The “culture” is not for everyone. Those who don’t stay cannot acclimate to the “culture”
  • We do world class architecture
  • Actually the telling thing was that several of the regional managers of this firm “dodged” the process.

Not so surprisingly management at this firm was far out of touch with what the rank and file thought of the firm. In fact, when the findings were presented to the upper management the results were roundly dismissed. Reason being, we did not understand the company “culture” which had allowed this great firm to be successful. It was truly a case of the inmates running the insane asylum. This firms upper management still believes there is nothing wrong with the way the firm operates even though a majority of those who come into the firm have no intention of remaining any longer than they need to. A firm which survives on its past glory and thin veneer of respectability. The most despicable part of this firms culture was that it enforced a caste system which literally saw anyone below upper management as less worthy and deserving of their lower place in the food chain. For all the posturing about caring for the employee, at the end of the day the employees were the last thing on this firms agenda.

Those who do stay are little better than Moonies who adopt the mantra of management and become nothing more than automatons spitting back the propaganda that they realize guarantees their advancement in the firm. A highly political firm where being in favor with those who hold the reigns of power insures a clear shot up the ladder of ownership. Piss on the wrong parade and you might as well kiss off any chance for advancement. It was the first firm where I learned that no matter how good you are there are limitations to what can be done within a firm so constrained by its “culture”.

In a classic moment I was chastised for my “self promotion” by the prodigal son who went on to say that those who succeeded in the firm were team players, not self aggrandizing ladder climbers. Yeah, and a crack whore is not interested in their next fix but only in being a productive member of society. Another sign of how out of touch upper management was with what the true culture of the company was about. The prism through which upper management saw the culture was distinctly tinted, and they fail to see how distorted the prism is. Like being caught in an episode of the Twilight Zone where what everyone on the outside would say is dysfunctional this firm saw as part of their culture.

From day one at this firm my main objective was to get out as soon as possible, the culture was that stifling. This firm also took pride in their “boomerangs”, employees who left the firm and then returned. The truth of the matter is that only mediocre talent would return to a firm like this as anyone else with a modicum of self worth ends up escaping. There is not a chance in hell that this firm will ever count me as a boomerang!!

Lesson Learned: beware of a firm which stands behind “company culture” as a justification for dysfunctional policies and procedures

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