Friday, 10 July 2009

Words from the genius

(being the first, not very good album by the GZA/The Genius)

When John Kay recently wrote an article arguably excusing, if not quite defending, bank CEOs, it got me thinking about those other, not quite as senior executives. I mean who is out there right now defending or even helping them? No-one, thats who despite them needing it judging by the story I once heard about a recently appointed exec who did something in clear breach of company policy.

For the HR Business Partner involved this was due to his naivety and inexperience and most definitely not an obviously nepotistic act that successfully alienated hundreds of staff. Except we don’t even need to take the HR bod at their word to know why the modern executive needs help. The cult of leadership that defines so much of corporate life to the extent I keep getting spam at work from training companies asking me if I want to unlock its secrets, by definition means there’s no need for leaders (i.e. executives) to have the foggiest notion of what it is the businesses they lead actually do or how they do it.

Except unfortunately they do. Now mebbe Oliver Williamson might intervene at this point, getting all transaction costy to say that’s not an issue because recruiting that type of executive has so far generated the highest returns. Except that’s post-hoc rationalisation that is and doesn’t take the opportunity cost of the alternative into account.

Besides that still leaves us with all these poor execs trying to make their way in a corporate world whose politics they understand, but whose markets they don’t. The obvious solution at this point is to get a consultancy in to outline a big project that will make everything best in class. Result! Theres the exec with consultants fanning his ego 4 times a day outlining a project that will give him enough resource to start doing some of the patronage type shit that got him his company beamer in the first place!

Except now he discovers the project approval committee he sits on has received a report from elsewhere in the business that comprehensively destroys the rationale for his pet project. No it’s not as nice as the consultants' report (they’ve a team of 20 MBAs in India who for 2 rupees will produce the whizziest power points imaginable), but it is clear, factual and well-founded. So what is he going to do? Even worse, what if that was you!

First of all DON’T PANIC! Instead take comfort from the fact anyone na├»ve enough to challenge the status quo regardless of how credible or coherent the analysis, is clearly not executive material.

Second, remember the golden rule; in business all success is due to great leadership and all failure the result of circumstances over which no individual could possibly have exercised any control let alone forseen.

Third, use one or all of the following tried and tested strategies (complete with shit acronyms) to make sure any opposing view can be safely ignored. In fact, if you’re so inclined use them aggressively enough to completely discredit whoever contradicted you in the first place. Bingo!

1) The Captain Pedant (CP): The CP is easy and can be applied to any report. The mechanics are straightforward – find a fault, any fault, then blow it completely out of proportion to discredit the entire document.

Because no report is perfect it should be relatively easy to spot something. Except, that involves having to read the whole thing and being able to understand the subject matter, which can be difficult to square with the all the other important meetings you need to attend and your basic competency level.

But, that’s OK because you can start with the basics, like is there a vaguely complicated diagram you can spend 10 minutes asking about? Can you plausibly get away with saying the exec summary is too long? Even better is a department that changed its name after the report was written referred to by its old title? Better still get someone else to read it and on their suggestion point out “labour” should be “labor” and that it’s not a “gutter-dynamic-shifting flange”, but actually a “dynamic-gutter-shifting flange”. Sure all this might strike the man in the street as superficial mince, but for a high-flyer like you it’s actually a rich source of reasons as to why an entire report can be safely ignored. I mean if they can’t get the small stuff right, what else have they got wrong?

Even better there’s a good chance no-one else round the table has read the thing, which means you’ll create the impression you actually know what you’re talking about and are a stickler for detail, a definite positive if your career to date has been in sales.

2) The academic (the Bad A): Oh, oh, despite you playing the CP someone who actually read the report is claiming to be impressed by its overall thrust. Again, don’t worry – an executive with time to read every paper he's sent is clearly an executive on the way out, in fact he’s probably already in discussions with HR about his early retirement package. Besides, now you can do the “Bad A”.

In business to call something academic is to discredit it, because in business “academic” is commercial’s idiot brother and that’s that really. Hence, the only decisions worth a damn are “commercial decisions” and the only kind of experience required is “commercial experience”.

Call something academic and you tap into a deep-seated prejudice that means allova sudden the best aspects of academic research – that it strives to be objective, informative, independent and substantiated (yes the reality is different, but hey ho it’s something worth aspiring to) – become weaknesses. So are there lots of facts supporting the argument? Thats academic that is. Are there any numbers, graphs and possibly even formulae? Definitely academic. Even better if its formatted in such a way that even vaguely reminds you of a university essay, then by definition it’s academic and as such can be completely ignored because its irrelevant to the kind of hard, commercial decisions you and everyone else round the table takes every day.

And again you come out smelling of roses because you’ve made clear that for you if it ain’t commercial it ain’t jackshit. Ooo, whose all hard nosed allova sudden.

3) The Mom and apple pie (MAAP): Shit. The report actually stated in clear English in the first few lines of the exec summary that you’re project could drive the company into the ground, listing both the reasons why and practical alternatives. But, that’s OK because there’s always the MAAP.

Somewhere, sometime, someone wrote out a meaningless list of mince packaged up as the "core-values" of “how we do things round here”. These will be so vaccuous no-one could possibly disagree with them and in there somewhere will be something along the lines of “we value our customers through the good times and the bad”.

Because this report is essentially saying for gawd sake don’t do the bad, it'll fuck the lot of us, you can ignore that and instead respond with a MAAP quote. Brilliant! Everyone round the table has to agree because they were at the same strategy weekend held at a rather good hotel where the CEO came up with that bollocks in the first place. I mean to not agree with you that the report is a bad thing is to be disloyal so of course they will.

Still smelling of roses? Definitely, you’ve just quoted the CEO fer gawd’s sake.

4) The offline long-grass (OLG): Except mebbe the CEO or committee chairman just realised the facts are so fecking obvious the points made can’t be ignored. Damn, you might be thinking, but don’t. Theres a meeting agenda after all and because by now you’ve used the CP, the Bad A and the MAAP and there’s still lots of important decisions to be taken, you can now play the OLG – just say rather than take up any more time you’ll take this off-line and pick up with the report’s authors (by which you mean sponsors) so that everyone can move onto the next item. My, my aren’t you the time conscious fecker and masterful with it too. Go tiger, Grrrr!

So despite your project being completely discredited, you’ve now created enough time in which to get this temporary hiccup sorted out. And in dealing with the report off-line you can now reapply the CP, the Bad A and the MAAP all over again in a one to one setting with a wee bit of BM on the side!

5) The Big Mate (BM): Off-line is when the BM comes into its own. First off any report worth its salt should be circulated in draft form round all interested/affected parties before being submitted. Don’t like it? Then hit it with the CP, the Bad A and the MAAP either individually or all at the same time. Has that not worked? Nae bother, just find out who is sponsoring this report and whether you're more senior than them. Then do the BM during a wee quiet chat about how at the present time this might not be in the business’s interest, or anyone else's for that matter i.e. I am senior to you so shut it.

But, what if the sponsor is just as senior as you are you're thinking? That’s OK, the kind of maverick willing to put his name to critical reports won't have as many patrons as you do amongst the upper reaches of the organisation, so all you need to do is have a quick chat with one of them, then drop their name in an email to the sponsor and hey presto, the report is gone because your BM is bigger than his BM.

Now thats before a report has been submitted, but don’t worry you can take the same approach now its OLG. Even better if you kick the report into limbo by inconsistently applying the CP, the Bad A and the MAAP, the poor sod that wrote it won’t have a clue what to do because they're probably the kind of schmuck that thinks black is indeed black when its black rather than the lovely shade of orange the CEO has been partial to ever since that 2 week strategy course he went on at Insead . Even better the more irrational and unreasonable you are the greater the paralysis you'll induce, which means the author will rapidly acquire a reputation as someone who can't deliver.

There you are, problem solved. Apply all of these strategies often enough and rest assured you’ll soon be so senior you can simply disagree with things for no reason whatsoever. As for the project, its costs and eventual losses, just remember the golden rule; in business all failure is the result of unforeseen circumstances over which no individual could possibly have exercised any control.

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