Corporate Follies (Adventures in Leadership)

Weird Al Yankovic Mission Statement video image

I have an MBA in Technology Management. I didn’t choose my field because of a particular interest in business; rather, I did it because it was easy, and somebody else paid for a good share of it. A few years ago, when I reconnected with an old girlfriend, she was shocked that I’d given up the arts. “I did it to make money,” I admitted. “I can live with that,” she said.

To paraphrase Bill Cosby, I have an MBA because I don’t want a PhD. The only reason I might get a doctorate would be to make people who insist on being addressed as Doctor call me Doctor; Bob Orilio, one of the great profs at SUNYIT, beat me to that. Buisness is essentially knowing the right words to say, as “Weird Al” Yankovic demonstrates in his new song, Mission Statement. In crisp harmonies, he strings together dozens of Jack Welch-worthy buzzwords and suggests there’s not much else happening behind the curtain.

Don’t trust anyone who calls themselves a Leader. This is big nowadays. We don’t have bosses or supervisors, but Leaders. They go to training sessions and retreats about Leadership – I’ve been to some of them. Here’s the big secret: somebody is a leader if they lead. Applying a label or attending a seminar doesn’t mean shit.

I frequently drive past a local insurance agency that touts itself as one of the best places to work in New York State. They earned the appellation by submitting a portfolio of why they are the best to some panel, which agreed to agree with them. (Do you ever think about all of the awards that are bestowed, and how essentially bogus most of them are? It reminds me of the dance competitions my daughter used to participate in, where the minimum award was Gold. You can get all kinds of trophies if you pay the right people.) Anyway, I applied for a job at this Great Company, and the man who interviewed me bragged about his involvement with a local leadership development group. I told him I expected him to be straight with me throughout the interview process, and he assured me he’d be upfront and honest. Hah. Weeks went by, he didn’t contact me when he said he would, and when I called he stalled by asking me to send references, or send another resume because he’d misplaced the first one. After two months I gave up on the Great Company, and I was amused to read this man had recently served as president of the same leadership development group he’d spoken about.

I’ve known lots of graduates from leadership development programs, and what they all seem to have in common is networking in bars. I’ve yet to see anybody come out of a leadership development program better than they went in. I’ve got books on my shelves from the sessions I’ve attended that might have provided “Weird Al” with lyrics for his song, but otherwise they say very little.

I’ve been endorsed on LinkedIn for all kinds of things: Process Improvement, Team Leadership, Analysis, Troubleshooting… (I think I received the endorsements because somebody hoped I’d return the favor.) Is anybody looking at my profile and saying, “Now HERE’S a guy who is good at Process Improvement and Team Leadership.” I don’t have anything against LinkedIn, but it’s really just Facebook for Business Geeks, with a side of pretension.

One of my best friends has been out of work for some time, and he walks the walk and talks the talk. I can’t believe somebody doesn’t snap him up, until I remember how business leadership really works. I once had an internal interview for a company I’d worked at almost two years. The hiring manager arrived ten minutes late, walked into the room and didn’t sit down. “How long have you been with the company?” Almost two years. “Come back in eight years.”

Middle management (translation: Leadership) exists to perpetuate itself. They will spout buzzwords and reorganize themselves and attend meetings and reorganize themselves again. The work gets done in spite of them, and they get their profit sharing. I’m writing as someone who does the work, and also as someone who has a degree in bullshit (4.0 undergrad, 3.73 graduate).

Peformance reviews are a great example. I remember a review I had about ten years ago. My supervisior reviewed the job categories, explained how I’d excelled at all of them, then delivered my final score: 4 out of 5. I asked what I could have done better. “Nothing, you’re doing great.” Then why didn’t I get a 5? “Nobody gets a 5 on their first review.”

Another company I’ve worked at follows the Jack Welch system. That is, 10% of workers are high fliers, 20% above average, 30% average, 30% need improvement and 10% should be managed out the door. If a manager has 10 employees, one of them must get a 5 and one must get a 1. Even if all are doing a good job, the buckets must be filled. In five years at that company, I had four managers (oops – Leaders.) My evaluations were essentially rorschach tests, indicating more about my Leader than my performance.

All of this isn’t to say there aren’t good leaders out there. They are few, far between, and frustrated. I mentioned one to a CEO I knew, who replied, “He’s OK, but he hasn’t really produced.” Another of the great ones told me, “My mission is to see every one of my employees promoted above me.” He failed miserably at that, but he put a lot more money in my pocket, which is why I got into business to begin with.

Found a job in a great big office
And I really love this place
I got my very own scotch tape dispenser
And I’ve got a private parking space
And I got my coffee mug with my name right on it
In big bold letters, so everyone knows it’s mine
Don’t even touch it, cause it doesn’t belong to you
And I’m watchin’ you, so don’t get funny

“Weird Al” Yankovic, Dog Eat Dog