Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How To Redefine “What Is Best For The Company.”

“Office Space” Movie Night Party via Bashionista.com

Chapter 9: Part 10

Ever hear the phrase “we need to do what is best for the company?”  What was the context?

Was it someone explaining to you your basic job responsibilities, or was it someone justifying an unpalatable decision?

I asked the people I interviewed about the phrase “the good of the company.” Hare are answers from two leaders I respect and introduced to you earlier in the book.

Remember Harry T Lobo, the Wolf CEO from Chapter 4, who struggled in a toxic environment in Chapter 6?  Harry feels that it is his job to do what is best for the company BUT  he focuses on what is best in the long term.

Harry told me that one of the things he found difficult in his time at the toxic culture was the incredible pressure at the end of the quarter, when  “60 percent of revenue came in the last 48 hours.”  The sales team was incentivized to do crazy deals to pull business forward, which in the short run helped maintain the stock price. In Harry’s opinion, this built a “house of cards” because it was that much harder to make the number the following quarter.

Another admirable leader we met was Janet “power mom” Wolf in Chapter 7.  Janet told me of a situation where site closures were explained to the remaining employees as a positive step because they brought various product development teams together in house. Closer coordination would get products to market more quickly, and thus better serve customers.  Janet  had visibility to the decision making process of those senior to her, and thought the layoff was more about cost savings, combined with an arrogance that the other sites, brought in by acquisition, were not as good.  Janet told me that executives made comments like “what do those people do all day?”

Janet did not think the loss of the personnel and expertise would  benefit the company in the long run.  The company did not offer any relocation packages, which in Janet’s opinion “spoke volumes” about what the executives thought of the people.

The lesson here is that even in a toxic culture, there are leaders who define “the good of the company” in terms of the long term interest and who value people.  The trick is to find these leaders, and the pockets of relative calm and sanity they can provide.  For example, Janet  talked about how she tried to shield her team from the buffeting from the top.

When I was caught up in my corporate idolatry, I would never have considered certain positions because the products were not cool or important enough.  But as work because less important to me, I became more open minded, and was delighted to get a job out of the limelight.  There was less stress, and I had the bandwidth to focus on health and family.

Who are the leaders in your company who seem to focus on the long term?  Have you ever considered working for them?  Is there a department that in the past seemed too boring that is work considering?

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The Network: Insurance Against a Layoff

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 12 

In the last post, we met Janet Wolf, the power mom who set clear expectations with her managers that she would have time contraints and would always get her work done.  And she remained connected to her kids activities while consistently getting to do “bigger and better things” in her career.

Janet is a Wolf, someone who is concerned with both the success of the organization and the welfare of the people she works with. (see this post from Chapter 4 for more on Wolves.)  And like Harry Lobo, she found herself in a difficult political environment.  Janet described it as “ten smart guys at the top” who seemed to think that everyone else was “dispensable.”

Janet’s last manager at that company had “no desire to spend any time on talent management.  [His attitude was] ‘Get it done or else you suck and get out of here.’”  This was difficult for Janet, because her values put her priorities in a different place.  Janet thought that developing people was the key to successful long term success of the company.  And her network, both professional and personal, was huge, which was critically important after an unexpected layoff after five years.  Janet’s comments, which she shared with me a month after the layoff, illustrate how her identity quickly shifted.

“These people don’t value me, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not valued.  Your identity is so tied up with a company and a role but then you realize that you are above all that.  It doesn’t matter that you may or may not be affiliated with a company right now.  It’s been an interesting awakening for me, to realize that.  I’ll be ok.  Yes, I do want to do something exciting next but its ok if it takes a while.  It took a week for me to come to [figure this out].  I got so many calls and emails from friends.”

And given the size of her network, it didn’t surprise me that Janet soon had another position that she described to me as her “dream job.”

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When Stress Goes Up, Perspective Goes Down

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 6

In the last post, Harry T. Lobo, the high integrity executive we met in Chapter 4 who was demoted after a year as COO, even though from an objective standpoint the company met an aggressive set of revenue and product launch targets.   When Harry described himself as exhausted, I asked if the CEO pressured him by calling him at home.

No, he said “the pressure more subtle and psychological, the ‘you’re not really up to it’ sort of thing.  Harry described feeling “bruised and battered,” and at times questioning his own competence.

“It’s not as if I’m sitting around not thinking about this day in and day out.  If it’s still not good enough how the hell can I possibly improve? How can I be getting this wrong with all the work I’m putting in?  But then with me the grit and determination comes in, and I say ‘I’m not going to be defeated by this.  How CAN I address some of the issues being raised here?’  It means either going back to what you were doing with renewed confidence to push it a bit harder, faster, etc.  Or you could say, ok, I’m doing something wrong here.”

In my opinion, those very qualities that made Harry an effective CEO in his next position – loyalty, tenacity, self confidence – worked against him in this situation.  Sometimes, continuing to fight is not the right answer.  In hindsight, Harry understands that the CEO’s expectation of 15% growth because “the technology was so great” was not rational.  But at the time, when he was in the thick of it, just wasn’t possible to take that longer perspective.

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What Happens When High Integrity CEO Meets Toxic Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 4

If you take a high integrity  person and put them in a toxic and/or unethical culture, which would win?  In other words, to what degree can an individual influence and change corporate culture?  It’s a question we’ll come back to multiple times in this chapter.

Lets start with an extreme example: What if Harry T Lobo, a highly respected and effective CEO we met in Chapter 4, were made the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a company thought by many to have an unethical culture. (Greg Smith’s very public resignation made public the callus and thoughtless way Goldman treated their clients. See this post on the subject for more.)  Harry, who is not known for his modesty, didn’t think he could change the company value system.  Harry told me “[It would] depend on the company, and how long the value system existed.  Goldman Sachs [is very big and is] proud of the way it operates.”  Harry explained to me that everyone working there shared those values, and the organization is too big to change by the CEO alone.

It took Harry five years to change the culture of the mid-sized organization he is currently running.  When he arrived, the company was full of “empire builders,”  with a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.”  People who were resistant to the values he was instilling are “no longer around.”  Harry said that he let this happen over time, as people realized they no longer fit in they left, and people who espoused the values he was looking for were promoted.  (And see this post to see a case where Harry dismissed someone for being manipulative.)

This is a common theme I heard throughout the interviews I conducted, and is well described in the literature: People who fit best with the company values, whatever they may be, will tend to be promoted more quickly.

So how did Harry respond when he was working as a Senior VP in a toxic culture?  Did he change the culture, or was he changed by it?

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What If Successfully Managing Workplace Politics Doesn’t Bring Balance?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 18 (Conclusion)

This chapter I’ve shared stories that illustrate how the people at work can contribution to corporate idolatry.  But as the following story illustrates, even the best of people, working for the most admirable of Wolves, are subject to strong influence from both circumstances and the workplace culture.

One senior product manager we’ll call “Jill” had a Fox manager who pushed and pushed in private to get the product out, and then publically pointed the finger at her when disaster struck.  According to Jill, after leading the team for a year “it felt crappy to sit in the room, and watch everyone look to my boss to find a solution.  They acted like I wasn’t there.  But later in the meeting there came this moment when my manager gave me a look that seemed to say ‘what do I do next?’  I looked him in the eye, and although I knew exactly what needed to be done, I said nothing.” And the outcome?  The Fox manager was soon moved to a backwater of the company, while Jill delivered a solution and recovered her reputation.

After that time, Jill was able to manage the politics much more effectively, and while the environment wasn’t exactly supportive, it wasn’t hostile either.  But the story does not end there, because Jill was still in a very poor situation.

Jill’s competition released a product that the customers liked better, and her marketing programs and sales pep talks were not going to change that.  Circumstances were beyond Jill’s control, but she pushed herself to the edge of ruin in a futile effort to regain market leadership.

Jill believed that her heroic efforts could result in a major change in the marketplace.  Psychologists call this the “Illusion of Control.”  I call it another face of idolatry.

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