Leadership and Management in America; What’s the Problem Here? Part 4

Special cases and summary

I will readily admit that because I do operations this is considerably easier for me. It’s not difficult to compare the number of outlets installed or poles replaced in a day. If you are trying to lead an office force, you are going to have to figure out some reasonable and objective standards with, and for your people.

This bears only tangentially on my experience so I’m going to let Michael talk about the current culture (sounds toxic to me, by the way) in the technology sector.

My issue with “fail fast”, and the more general cavalier attitude toward business failure observed in VC-istan, is that people who espouse this mantra generally step outside the bounds of good-faith failure, responsible risk-taking, and ethical behavior. When you take millions of dollars of someone else’s money, you should try really fucking hard not to fail. It’s a basic ethical responsibility not to let others depend on you unless you will do your best not to let them down. You should put your all into the fight. If you give it your best and don’t make it, you’ve learned a lot on someone else’s dime. That’s fine. The problem with “fail fast” is that it sounds to me a lot like “give up early, when shit gets hard”. People with that attitude will never achieve anything.

Usually, the worst “fail fast” ethical transgressions are against employees rather than investors. Investors have rights. Dilute their equity in an unfair way, and a lawsuit ensues. Throw the business away recklessly, and end up in court– possibly in jail. One can’t easily fire an investor either; at the least, one has to give the money back. On the other hand, a remnant of the flat-out elitist, aristocratic mindset that we have to kill the shit out of every couple hundred years (cf. French Revolution) is the concept that investors, socially speaking, deserve to outrank employees. This is absurd and disgusting because employees are the most important actual investors, by far, in a technology company. Money investors are just putting in funds (and, in the case of VC, money that belongs to other people). They deserve basic respect of their interests for this, but it shouldn’t qualify them (as it does) to make most of the important decisions. Employees, for contrast, are investing their time, careers, creative energy, and raw effort, often for pay that is a small fraction of the value they add. Morally speaking, it means they’re putting a lot more into the venture.

I’ve seen too many sociopaths using “fail fast” rhetoric to justify their irresponsible risk-taking. One example of a fail-fast acolyte is someone in his mid-20s whom I once saw manage the technical organization of an important company. I won’t get into too many details, but it’s an ongoing and catastrophic failure, and although it’s evident to me at least (because I’ve seen this shit before) that he is personally headed toward disaster, it’s not clear whether the company will follow him down the drain. (That company is in serious danger of failing an important deliverable because of decisions he made.) I hope it doesn’t. First, he took a scorched earth policy toward the existing code, which was written under tight deadline pressure. (Despite this twerp’s claims to the contrary about the “old team”, the engineers who wrote it were excellent, and the code quality problems were a direct result of the deadline pressure.) I don’t consider that decision an unusual moral failure on his part. Give a 25-year-old programmer the authority to burn a bunch of difficult legacy code and he usually will. At that age, I probably would have done so as well. That’s one very good reason not to give snot-nosed kids the reins to important companies without close supervision. I remember being 18 and thinking I knew everything. A decade later… turns out I really didn’t. Taken too far, the “fail fast” mentality appeals to impulsive young males who enjoy waving a gun around and shooting at things they can’t see and don’t understand.

My second encounter with this person’s “fail fast” sociopathy was in a discussion of hiring strategy, in which he discussed building “30/60/90 plans” for new hires, which would entail milestones that new employees would be expected to meet. As a way of setting guidelines, this is not a bad idea. Technology workplaces are a bit too dynamic for people to actually know what a person’s priorities should be three months in advance, but it’s always good to have a default plan and baseline expectations. New hires typically come on board, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what’s expected or how to “on-board”, and a bit of structure is a useful. This little sociopath wanted to take things a bit further. He thought it would be a good idea to fire people immediately if they missed the targets. New hire takes 35 days to meet the 30-day goal? Gone, after one month. No chance to move to another part of the organization, no opportunity to improve, no notice, no severance, and it’s all made “fair” by putting all new hires on a PIP from the outset.1

OK, I find this interesting as well as toxic. I wouldn’t work for this fool, and I would expect that if you do you’re going to have a bad experience that will have repercussions throughout your career.

Then there is this. All companies have jobs that are just plain boring, and lots of them are filled with university graduates that are (at least supposedly, intelligent and educated) although I really don’t understand why. It doesn’t take a B.A. Degree to run the switchboard or get coffee. Here, read this:

I would like to dedicate this article to all of my fellow intellectuals who, by no fault of their own, have found themselves trapped in a fluorescent dungeon of boredom, forced to test the limits of their sanity  by relentlessly performing thoughtless and menial tasks for upwards of 40 hours a week.

It’s a tough economy, and it seems that having a handful of college and graduate degrees can only soften the blow so much. So here we sit, after investing years of our lives and hundreds of thousands of (the government’s) dollars into our educations, only to be performing jobs that a high-school drop out with a full-frontal lobotomy would fail to find challenging.

In order to first determine whether you fall into my target demographic of weary office drones I have prepared a short quiz.

IF:  

  • You are concerned that the incessant tingly feeling in your head might actually be your mind slowly going completely numb

  • You have experienced at least one sudden-onset moment of clarity during which you stopped pouring your boss’s coffee and thought to yourself “wow, I really miss thinking.”

  • The highlight of your month is an office birthday party (free cake almost compensates for a life devoid of any real meaning, right?)

  • You find yourself flying into a fit of uncontrollable rage when someone uses your mug- I mean come on; it had your NAME on it in TWO places! TWO! (I’ll save you some serious introspection time: it’s not really about the mug.)

  •  The cashier tells you that you owe $2.83 and you realize that counting out the change is the most action your brain has gotten since…you can’t even remember when.

  • You see a computer screen when you close your eyes to go to sleep at night

  • You know more about your boss’s kids than you do about your roommate

  • On at least one occasion you have accidentally answered your cell phone by mindlessly reciting the mandated greeting used at your office: “Thank you for calling ____, this is ___ speaking, how may I help you?”

  • You’re fairly confident that a machine could do your job…not even a fancy machine…on some days, possibly even a stapler.

  • You have wondered on more than one occasion if your co-workers think you’re mentally challenged. The tutorial on how to sort mail by recipient and place it in their corresponding mail box was definitely a red flag…However, the explicit instructions given on how to stuff envelopes (“you have to fold the letter into thirds, you can’t fold it in half or it won’t fit.”) was really just a slap in the face. 2

How are you going to supervise, motivate, make a team player out of this person? Is there some way you can make their job at least somewhat interesting? I don’t know either but, I do know we are wasting an irreplaceable resource here, so we’d be well advised to figure it out. She may well have valuable input but, you’ll never know until you ask. A lot of these jobs have been automated, which is why really bad typists like me type these days but still, there has to be a way.

You know, I, like you have been watching the nonsense at GSA all week. Could this be why the government has this sort of problem more than we do in the private sector? I don’t recall ever seeing an office type government job that I couldn’t have done in half the time with half the people, maybe they are just bored out of their minds.

OK then, obviously I don’t have all the answers, and the answers I have work for me but may not for you. That’s why when in doubt I fall back on our military heritage and look for the answer there, large (or even small) corporations have existed for about 150 years, armies go back at least to the siege of Troy in our tradition, experience counts, so use it. I saw this article the other day, Trevor sums up these themes very well:

Nestled amidst the swampy forests of Fort Benning, Georgia, the image of Iron Mike is a common site.  No, not Mike Tyson.  Rather, Iron Mike, the U.S. Army’s Infantry symbol and mascot.  An advancing soldier, rifle clutched in one hand and his other arm raised above his head, beckoning others forward.  The infantry motto….Follow Me!

It’s this image that inspired a nineteen year old Army Private in the early 90s, not only for its romantic visage of honor and courage, but for the message it held up as the standard for leadership.

Half a decade later, it was the Navy’s touted values of Honor, Courage, Commitment that helped round out my vision of what leadership means.  It’s a combination of all these that defines the highest quality of leadership to me.

  • Follow Me

  • Honor

  • Courage

  • Commitment3

Note that Trevor has explained the bullet points very well go and read his post.

Summary

This is hard for me to sum up. Partly because we have limned problems in various sectors with different actors which probably mandate different means to obtain optimum (or even acceptable) outcomes. If you’re the person in charge of a company with all these type of actors, how are you going to generate a paradigm that will encompass the receptionist with an M.A. degree, the programmer who dropped out of high school and forgot to shower all week, the lineman who learned his trade in the US Army in Iraq, the social climber without any respect for others, the office manager who never made a mistake, and all the rest. I would bet we all have different answers and I haven’t a clue who’s right or wrong, or in between. But if that’s your job description, you had best figure it out, if you want your company (and you) to succeed.

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