Refusing to Suffer Fools
Something I was reading the other day reminded me of the ridiculous antics that a few companies I worked for have performed in an attempt to adopt the attitude du jour on the proper way to run a business. Probably the most outrageous example comes from a satellite earth station system design company in the last century, but there were other notables.
Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, the in-vogue practice for companies was the shedding of old ways of doing things - you know, those things that for most places had worked so well - and adopting a new philosophy. After all, the world was changing rapidly for the better; our president even boldly declared "the end of the traditional business cycle." The chairman of the Federal Reserve admonished investors to beware the feelings of "irrational exuberance," but business titans continued to race forward at full tilt. After all, in such bountiful times when nothing could go wrong, what would be the harm in testing any and all new ideas? From my perspective, it was basically an avant-garde management style that required a new way for employees to think about themselves and the company. A "new paradigm," it was called. That word paradigm imposed itself into the lexicon of a workforce that largely could not even spell "paradigm," let alone understand its significance. Personally, the word I associated with the rapidly progressing, omnipresent force was "dubious." I just never bought into the hype, and did not fully trust those who did.
It was the era of the Tech Bubble inflation, so of course any company that didn't buy into the de facto philosophy was doomed to failure, either from outdated procedures or from being placed on an unofficial black listing. Your company must have been being run by a bunch of Neanderthals if it was not yet on the roster of companies who had paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to self-proclaimed expert consulting companies that would assure your placement on that list. In retrospect, we all know how that whole thing turned out - everything came crashing down in the Spring of 2000. So much for the new paradigm.
And now, "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey would famously say.
By far the most egregious example of said managerial tom foolery, in my personal experience, was with the aforementioned company in Colorado. It was not the most efficient company for which I have ever worked, but the people were hard-working and they had a good cadre of engineers, technicians, and group-level managers. My manager's manager and I got along very well, so I had access to him on matters other than just my current assignment (which was designing up/down links for S-band and C-band transceiver racks and antenna plumbing). He let me know about the impending changes, from which nobody would be exempt.
Fortunately, enough time has passed that I do not recall all of the idiocy that ensued on the personal level, but I vividly recall the final, company-wide presentation at the end. It was a real grand finale. Remember while reading what comes next that a popular consulting firm was paid (from what I was told) more than $100k to do this.
We were all assembled into a formal meeting hall with a banquet of sandwiches and fruit, pastries, coffee, sodas, the works. After being properly nourished, we filed into the auditorium and sat in a theater area in the front of which was a large stage. The division president (CEO, head honcho, whatever) made a few short opening comments, and then the lights began to dim.
A door opened in the back, behind all the rows of seats, a ray of light shone through the opening, and then, attired in black funeral garb, in filed the entire management staff, some bearing the palls of a large casket. As the somber, eerie music played, the troupe made its way ceremoniously down the aisle and up onto center stage. While all eyes were on the aisle performance, someone had placed a casket hoist - the kind used to lower the casket into a grave - on the stage. There the pall bearers dutifully and lovingly placed the casket. Last rites were pronounced, and the prez delivered a eulogy.
Who had died, you might wonder? No who, but what. The old way, yesterday, the bygone, a foretime, auld lang syne, that which was. Old practices had assumed room temperature. Farewell, and good riddance.
Suddenly, the casket sprang open and a resurrected New Way emerged, full of life, as a promise of hope to everyone in the room. Mr. CEO burst forth in a now joyous tone, heaping praise upon this new opportunity that was being given the Company, and exalting the One who had made it possible. Yes, the One was the consulting firm's founder and his faithful staff that made it all happen.
Aside from the fact that the parody was probably offensive to some of the more religious folks in the audience, the entire menagerie that ensued led up to a mockery of the hard work those people had put into building their company. It seemed both insulting and vacuous. I was embarrassed for everyone. Having only been there for a few months, it really didn't attack me personally, but a lot of dedicated people who labored intensely were taken down a notch or two by it.
My manager's manager played his role in the production magnificently, in fact, he came across as well as a professional actor. Afterward, he admitted that he was somewhat insulted by the entire process, but his job was to assist higher level managers in accomplishing their vision for the company. I left the company a few months later.
The first, although not as severe, instance of that "new paradigm" thing that I can remember occurred at a company where I worked in the early 1990s. Its employees had birthed the company out of a small R&D effort of a larger company. The system they developed was ground-breaking for the day, and worked extremely well. It was a good mix of RF, analog, digital, mechanical, and software engineering all in one products (actually a set of products) that did one thing with almost magical efficiency.
As is all too often the case, a larger company bought them and decided it had a better idea (no it wasn't Ford). New top-level management was eventually installed locally (the mother ship was in a different state), and along with it, new ideas. Hmmm, this is beginning to sound like I have something against Management, but I really don't - at least not at the local level. In fact, I have always had high regard for lower and mid-level managers.
In this instance, the imposed new philosophy required a sort of internal and self-reflectance by every employee. e were required to write formal assessments of our own professional performance and of our personal impressions of ourselves. The professional part I could sort of support, since it is good to take a step back and look at your own professional goals and accomplishments, as well as failures. Even the personal assessment was almost acceptable, but then they really crossed the line.
We were corralled into meeting rooms in groups of 10 or 12 people, and were told to write out our impressions of everyone else in the room, including positive and negative behaviors. Anonymity was promised, in hopes of motivating people to open up with honest feelings. There was absolutely no way that I was going to sit there amongst people I work with on a daily basis, and many of whom I had great respect, and criticize they way they behave. If someone repeatedly does something that I cannot tolerate, I will either confront him/her, or seek a different assignment. If necessary, I'll leave the company, but I was not about to risk embarrassing someone in a captive environment. Seemingly trivial things can devastate a person who is openly or secretly hypersensitive to how other people perceive them. It was cruel and unnecessary, IMHO.
I know when it was my assessment being read, because when it came to the criticizing part, the only thing for the reader to echo from my paper was something along the lines of, "I choose to not criticize my fellow workmates in this venue." It got real quiet in the room at that point. I had signed my name, so that there was no question as to who had been uncooperative, but it was not made public.
As it turned out, nobody delivered any form of truly scathing criticism of anyone else, but then that really proved the folly of the entire exercise because surely with that many people who interact five days a week, there were things that could have been said that would result in hurt feelings. Full and open honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to harming people without cause. I really liked the people there.
Case #3 comes from yet another early adopter company (I've worked at a lot of companies). There, I experienced my first exposure to the "group hug" philosophy. For weeks I successfully avoided participating in the meetings, but finally I was ordered to go. Reluctantly, I stopped work on the airborne ECM receiver system that I designed and was testing (which was requiring about 60 hours/week for a couple months) to go to the session. I was fuming mad. When I arrived at the assigned meeting room, through the window in the door I could see everyone standing in a circle, holding hands, all eyes closed. I almost threw up. I walked in while they were all chanting "om," (might have been something else) signed my name to the attendance sheet, and left. Nobody ever questioned me about it, and I never mentioned what I had done.
There have been a few other minor similar episodes, but as the decade went on, the fervor or was it a fever) gradually petered out. Its collective damage had been done, but a lot of people got rich off the scam.
One common thread that runs through all those companies was that they all obtained the majority of their revenue from government contracts, either defense or national security. Maybe it was just that during that era, those were the only types of companies for which I worked. Can anyone provide instances of the same disease infecting commercial companies during the 1990s?
Flash forward half a decade, and I found myself working as an RF applications engineer for a company I consider to be by far the finest, most down-to-earth corporation with which I have ever had the privilege of associating. The founders, a couple RF engineers and a wizard of sales guy (who is also a Ham, BTW), built an industry-leading company from the ground up, and put together a crackerjack team to launch the company into stardom. Opening their doors in a small business park around 1992, the vast majority (other than those who have retired) of the first 50 employees still work there. Everyone I worked with was top-notch, whether in RFIC design, production test, sales, HR, accounting, procurement, or shipping.
They treated me extremely well, so much so that I stuck around for 6-1/2 years. Never in the entire time was any idiotic feel-good program imposed upon the employees - the founders would never approve of it for themselves or the employees whom they valued highly. I left only because RF Cafe was consuming so much of my time that I had to decide between neglecting the website, or neglecting the full-time job for which I was being paid generously to perform. I took the pay cut in order to tend to RF Cafe full time.
It was a fine way to end my tenure in the corporate engineering realm.
Having been out of the corporate world for three years, I have lost touch with current trends in such shenanigans. If you send me your examples (no company names, please), I will be glad to post them.
Posted July 13, 2010