One of the best compliments that any author can receive is a request for the ‘next chapter’. I had a number of such requests after posting the first part of this series. For that I am grateful. I suppose that I am often read as an author of a serial crime novel – providing bits at a time to readers who follow the story line hoping to discover the villain before the author has decided to disclose his identity. Or maybe my writings in this vein are taken as a melodrama – with all the tension and mystery that goes with them. In any case, I am grateful for the attention and responses.
Abstractions vs. Hand-To-Hand combat: One of the toughest parts of my job centers on the process of coaching and mentoring. I am of the opinion that anybody, with enough effort and dedication, can become a subject matter expert. In an important way, such individuals are insulated from their clients by the edifice of their accumulated knowledge and established position. But coaching and mentoring are a different matter.
There is very little that is abstract about good coaching or mentoring. The job of the coach is to drive towards the very things that a client does not want to talk about. And, in the process, he will suffer abuse, dismissal, condensation, indignation, dissimulation, avoidance, transfiguration, vilification and much more. The truth is, I can’t see why anybody would want to be a good coach. Perhaps that is why most of them settle for delivering commoditized drivel that strokes their client’s ego and keeps the revenue stream flowing by never addressing, let alone solving, the problems. But, I digress.
The Story Continues: During my interviews with both the senior management team and the decision-makers within their customer base, I became aware that there was a fairly toxic mix of trends developing – some of which were in full flower. I broke them down into five major areas. First, there was an increasingly dysfunctional attitude permeating the management team. Second, the value proposition of the company had become diffuse. (One of the its strengths in the early going was a finely focused value proposition) Third, professionalization of the culture was not keeping pace with the company’s growth. Fourth, effective management oversight was needed but lacking. And, fifth, there was no shared vision for the future of the company.
At this point, I must asked the readers indulgence. In this world of short messages and bite-sized comments, it is difficult to focus on complex issues that are interrelated in complicated ways. But that is exactly what is required here. Although I have described five separate areas and will discuss them serially, they are really of a whole and so closely interrelated as to be inseparable. The tendency to quick judgments about ‘having left something out’ should be reserved until the end of the series.
Management’s Disease: In ancient Rome generals and emperors who had won a great victory received, on their return, a triumphal procession through the city’s streets. Always in this triumph a slave stood in the chariot behind the victorious general. Over the general’s head he held a garland of laurel, signifying victory. Into the general’s ear the slave repeatedly whispered a caveat: ‘All glory is fleeting. All glory is fleeting’. One of the major dysfunctions of today’s corporate culture is the deification of management – particularly successful management. The Romans understood the complex nature of the celebration of success far better than do modern Americans. In this case, the stakeholders had decided that the management team was, at least, to be seen as minor deities. Their successes were celebrated but the message of the slave at the back of the chariot was lacking. As a result, a sense of both omniscience and omnipotence had settled in – and, in some cases, flowered to a full bloom of hubris.
This hubris showed up strongly in two members of the team. The first was the CEO – who had taken to strutting around as if he was Napoleon. He had even placed a bust of the midget emperor prominently in his office. His behavior had become imperious and he did not tolerate either disagreement or extended discussions. This was a kid who, only a year back, had been deferential and open to help from other, more experienced, people. Most saw that as one of his strongest assets. Now he was seen as hard-headed and hard to get along with unless you were prepared to play the role of sycophant.
The second member of the team who caught the hubris bug was the in-house corporate counsel. Now, I am not a fan of mid-level government contractors having such a team member. In this case, the lawyer and the CEO seemed to be cut out of nearly the same bolt of cloth. And the effects were very toxic indeed. Their combined attitudes lead to some very difficult conversations with long-term clients of the company. They began insisting on non-typical clauses and prerogatives in their contracts and often simply ignored others that conflicted with their ‘understanding’ of the situation and the client’s needs. This often over the objections of the client.
The Failure: It is unreasonable to expect that humans who have success will evidence humility in response. I don’t say it never happens, but we should always be both surprised and pleased when it occurs. The failure here was on the part of those whose job it was to oversee management and to insure that it ‘protected and extended’ shareholder value – in other words, the board of directors of the company. Remember the slave whispering in the general’s ear? Do you think that he was there at the general’s request?
Many who found themselves in my role would have begun to focus on the hubris of the management team. In my opinion that would have been a big mistake. The inattention that allowed hubris to flower would also protect its right to do so – at least until things had gotten so bad that that position had to be abandoned.
Starting without first finding the right place to start is a ‘kamikaze raid on a vacant lot’
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II