Monday, April 24, 2017

Surviving in an Enterprise in a leadership role without doing anything

Most of us have read the 3 envelope parable on corporate challenges and careers; for those who have not, an abridged version. A newbie leader is given 3 envelopes by the outgoing incumbent to be opened only in cases of dire trouble. He opens the first one when challenged in a management meeting and confronts the wisdom: Blame predecessor ! A year passes when again he is in trouble; the second envelope ? Restructure, create new strategy. Survive ! Final envelope’s turn comes after a gap which reads: Create three envelopes !

Corporate world is full of pseudo professionals who survive and at times thrive with their mastery of jargon, leaning on others, taking away credit from own team, agreeing to their immediate managers, sucking up to those who matter and finally using vendors to give them dope that makes them look good. The malaise is a lot more in the technology world that invents acronyms, jargon, and new fads with regularity confusing even technophiles; tech vendors are happy to provide spinal support in return for business.

The masqueraders can be seen at most conferences and seminars nodding intelligently at speakers and asking questions; they flock together and stay away from the intellectuals. They are not to be confused with the incompetent who shy away from any public appearance who only focus on internal politics and their survival depends on the first or second envelopes at different times with different folks within the company; their survival is also reliant on finding a godfather or some capable team members.

Pareto’s principle applies here too but inversely; the majority are able to get away with their pretenses and a small segment gets caught often shunted out by bell curve distribution. At senior levels the collateral damage is high to the enterprise, setback in business or industry at times difficult to overcome; weeding out such ineffectives takes time and effort which most companies are reluctant to invest. It also reflects badly on their ability to hire talented good people or separate cheese from chalk !

Take the case of this large enterprise which hired – let’s call her Suzy – to a senior position; she had come through the interviews well with help from an insider who coached her on what to say. Nothing wrong with that, everyone seeks whatever help they can to ace an interview for a position that they want badly enough. Such was the situation for Suzy too as she had been force exited from her past company post restructuring, a fact that remains undisclosed. She chatted her way through to securing the position.

Her inherited team compared her behavior, expertise, skills, knowledge, connects in the industry, understanding of the industry, personal traits, leadership qualities, desire to connect with them, essentially sizing her up as a leader who will influence their future. The comparison by the team with the earlier person was obvious and natural, the results however not in her favor; she recognized the fact and created an impregnable veil shutting off any discussion. The team knew the disadvantageous position thus prevailing.

The team toiled harder only to be cut off from credits scored by their work, giving them no visibility nor allowing any of them to interact with decision makers lest they expose the insecurities of their leader. Any attempts to bypass the straightjacketed process were met with reprimands and promise of future retributions. The iron lady brushed aside her rusty demeanor allowing those who made up her coterie to gain favors at the expense of the others with resultant attrition in the inherited team as collateral damage.

It was a matter of time that Suzy will reach the third envelope stage, except that she had been able to demonstrate progress for now with the first (envelope) being pulled out like a trump card whenever something was not as expected. It was a matter of time that management took cognizance of the fact that the past was distant and she had had enough time to change it. It was a matter of time that the Board recognized there has been no significant initiatives from her stable despite the rising costs and industry moving at a faster clip.

Different enterprises wake up to eventualities at different stages of their progression; when growth and profitability is above target, no one really cares for the deadwood, they are too busy celebrating. Search for termites starts when everything is not hunky dory or when a new leader takes over reins and has no history, baggage or axe to grind. Eventually the overdue surgery takes place cleansing the system to restart; then there are companies who are reluctant to take tough decisions, they embrace mediocrity for long.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Torn between emotion and objectivity, making the right career choices

Midlife crisis hits in many ways; the feelings it brings include and not limited to – confidence crisis, loss of direction or drifting, introspection and wallowing in self-pity on opportunities not captured and mistakes made, jealousy of more successful peers and younger generation, withdrawal into a shell, overtly aggressive behavior, and a feeling of loneliness to name some. At times like this there is a tendency to reach out to friends and family to seek their opinion which normally results in more confusion and inaction.

He had faced a similar situation almost a decade back, a little early to be called midlife crisis but that is how he described it. A life event triggered him to leave a well settled corporate life and move to another location closer to the family elders who needed the support. Not financially wanting, he took his time to evaluate options and took a leadership role in a small company which was beginning to gain traction with customers thus shedding the label of a startup and moving to being a growth phase company.

He (let’s call him X) fitted in well into the ecosystem and took up the challenge with vigor of a younger man; the team he built loved him for the fact that he had grown from the trenches and was ready to walk with them whenever they wanted his support. He balanced professionalism with human touch, customer friendliness and the ability to support the team when they needed. They revered him for the guidance and insights that helped them grow too in their individual roles as the company gained momentum.

Growth brought management changes, fresh investors, geographical expansion, global aspirations, and associated trials and tribulations. The new leadership team had different goals, objectives, and aspirations for the company and people; they brought in excitement of potential glory the company should aim for, stretch required by the team, a new culture that divided the teams into those who loved the new vision and those skeptical of the direction. Neither had a choice but to follow the new and hope it succeeds.

In the restructuring of the company few decided to find alternative pastures aligned to their shade of green; those who stayed back did so in the anticipation of a better future. Promises were made across the board, go-to-market strategies changed, product vision altered, and customers informed of a better future with the glory the company planned to achieve. X empathized with the founding team with whom he had grown the company, but found the new roadmap clearer and better than the existence of the past.

The new energy kept the team going for a while; quarters passed by, visions of peaks of achievement started fading and murmurs of discomfort could be heard in hushed voices. Timelines for promises made were extended as they attempted to build some euphoria with news of potentially fresh investments and high value customers. Closer to the top, X though uncomfortable did not feel the need to ring alarm bells and kept going. He kept the business afloat with a steady trickle which was earlier frowned upon as irrelevant.

Quarters transitioned into years with natural attrition shrinking the company a little more than natural; the morale of the team reached new ebbs as the powers that be kept the charade going – happy days will be here again soon ! X was in a quandary on own stretched patience and the lack of outcomes and not much to pacify the team. The growth never came, the money remained elusive, and soon it was evident that the golden era was a grand illusion, the new leadership team had failed the company and its believers.

Frustrated and a decade older, X ruminated over the lost years which he had invested; while he had enjoyed the early years contributing, he was unable to breakthrough the maze created as a result of leadership changes. He sought advice on next steps and career moves from a few he trusted and respected; one such conversation was candid and hard hitting, necessary to break the impasse waiting for good times to come. At the end of the mentoring session, X was free of negativity and clear about the future.

Milestones have shifted every time, outcomes have been mysteriously missing; the new leadership team has no credibility to promise or deliver. Cut your losses, stay focused on what matters to you and move on. The world has a lot to offer to high professionals who know what they can achieve; break out and find a new world which you deserve. Cut the emotional bond and take a rationale decision, go and create a better future for yourself and family. The Mentor had seen X struggle in the last few years and wished him well.

The future belongs to those who dare.