corporatism

All posts tagged corporatism

I shall avoid naming names, but when I worked for Juniper we had a certain CEO who pumped us up as the next $10 billion company.  It never happened, and he left and became the CEO of Starbucks.  Starbucks has nothing to do with computer networking at all.  Why was he hired by Starbucks?  How did his (supposed) knowledge of technology translate into coffee?

Apparently it didn’t.  Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ former CEO, is back at the helm.  “I wasn’t here the last four years, but I’m here now,” he said, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall).  “I am not in business, as a shareholder of Starbucks, to make every single decision based on the stock price for the quarter…Those days, ladies and gentlemen, are over.”  Which of course, implies that that was exactly what the previous CEO was doing.

What happened under the old CEO?  “Workers noticed an increasing focus on speed metrics, including the average time to prepare an order, by store.”  Ah, metrics, my old enemy.  There’s a reason one of my favorite books is called The Tyranny of Metrics and why I wrote a TAC Tales piece just about the use of metrics in TAC.  More on that in a bit.

As I look at what I refer to as “corporatism” and its effect on our industry, it often becomes apparent that the damage of this ethos extends beyond tech.  The central tenet of corporatism, as I define it, is that organizations are best run by people who have no particular expertise other than management itself.  That is, these individuals are trained and experienced in generic management principles, and this is what qualifies them to run businesses.  The generic management skills are translate-able, meaning that if you become an expert in managing a company that makes paper clips, you can successfully use your management skills to run a company that makes, say, medical-device software.  Or pharmaceuticals.  Or airplanes.  Or whatever.  You are, after all, a manager, maybe even a leader, and you just know what to do without any deep expertise or hard-acquired industry-specific knowledge.

Those of us who spend years, even decades acquiring deep technical knowledge of our fields are, according to this ethos, the least qualified to manage and lead.  That’s because we are stuck in our old ways of doing things, and therefore we don’t innovate, and we probably make things complex, using funny acronyms like EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, STP, MPLS, L2VNI, etc., to confuse the real leaders.

Corporatists simply love metrics.  They may not understand, say, L2VNIs, but they look at graphs all day long.  Everything has to be measured in their world, because once it’s measured it can be graphed, and once it’s graphed it’s simply a matter of making the line go the right direction.  Anyone can do that!

Sadly, as Starbucks seems to be discovering, life is messier than a few graphs.  Management by metric usually leads to unintended consequences, and frequently those who operate in such systems resort to metric-gaming.  As I mentioned in the TAC Tale, measuring TAC agents on create-to-close numbers led to many engineers avoiding complex cases and sticking with RMAs to get their numbers looking good.  Tony Hsieh at Zappos, whatever problems he may have had, was totally right when he had his customer service reps stay on the phone as long as needed with customers, hours if necessary, to resolve an issue with a $20 pair of shoes.  That would never fly with the corporatists.  But he understood that customer satisfaction would make or break his business, and it’s often hard to put a number on that.

Corporatism of various sorts has been present in every company I’ve worked for.  The best, and most successful, leadership teams I’ve worked for have avoided it by employing leaders that grew up within the industry.  This doesn’t make them immune from mistakes, of course, but it allows them to understand their customers, something corporatists have a hard time with.

Unfortunately, we work in an industry (like many) in which the stock value of companies is determined by an army of non-technical “analysts” who couldn’t configure a static route, let alone explain what one is.  And yet somehow, their opinions on (e.g.) the router business move the industry.  They of course adhere to the ethos of corporatism.  And I’m sure they get paid better than I do.

Starbucks seems to be correcting a mistake by hiring back someone who actually knows their business.  Would that all corporations learn from Starbucks’ mistake, and ensure their leaders know at least something about what they are leading.

A post recently showed up in my LinkedIn feed.  It was a video showing a talk by Steve Jobs and claiming to be the “best marketing video ever”.  I disagree.  I think it is the worst ever.  I hate it.  I wish it would go away.  I have deep respect for Jobs, but on this one, he ruined everything and we’re still dealing with the damage.

A little context:  In the 1990’s, Apple was in its “beige box” era.  I was actively involved in desktop support for Macs at the time.  Most of my clients were advertising agencies, and one of them was TBWA Chiat Day, which had recently been hired by Apple.  Macs, once a brilliant product line, had languished, and had an out-of-date operating system.  The GUI was no longer unique to them as Microsoft had unleashed Windows 95.  Apple was dying, and there were even rumors Microsoft had acquired it.

In came Steve Jobs.  Jobs was what every technology company needs–a visionary.  Apple was afflicted with corporatism, and Jobs was going to have none of it.

One of his most famous moves was working with Chiat Day to create the “Think Different” ad campaign.  When it came out, I hated it immediately.  First, there was the cheap grammatical trick to get attention.  “Think” is a verb, so it’s modified by an adverb (“differently”).  By using poor grammar, Apple got press beyond their purchased ad runs.  Newspapers devoted whole articles to whether Apple was teaching children bad grammar.

The ads featured various geniuses like Albert Einstein and Gandhi and proclaimed various trite sentiments about “misfits” and “round pegs in square holes”.  But the ads said nothing about technology at all.

If you watch the video you can see Jobs’ logic here.  He said that ad campaigns should not be about product but about “values”.  The ads need to say something about “who we are”.

I certainly knew who Chiat Day was since I worked there.  I can tell you that the advertising copywriters who think up pabulum like “Think Different” couldn’t  write technical ads because they could barely turn on their computers without me.  They had zero technological knowledge or capability.  They were creating “vision” and “values” about something they didn’t understand, so they did it cheaply with recycled images of dead celebrities.

Unfortunately, the tech industry seems to have forgotten something.  Jobs didn’t just create this “brilliant” ad campaign with Chiat Day.  He dramatically improved the product.  He got Mac off the dated OS it was running and introduced OS X.  He simplified the product line.  He killed the Apple clone market.  He developed new chips like the G3.  He made the computers look cool.  He turned Macs from a dying product into a really good computing platform.

Many tech companies think they can just do the vision thing without the product.  And so they release stupid ad campaigns with hired actors talking about “connecting all of humanity” or whatever their ad agency can come up with.  They push their inane “values” and “mission” down the throats of employees.  But they never fix their products.  They ship the same crappy products they always shipped but with fancy advertising on top.

The thing about Steve Jobs is that everybody admires his worst characteristics and forgets his best.  Some leaders and execs act like complete jerks because Steve Jobs was reputed to be a complete jerk.  They focus on “values” and slick ad campaigns, thinking Jobs succeeded because of these things.  Instead, he succeeded in spite of them.  At the end of the day, Apple was all about the product and they made brilliant products.

The problem with modern corporatism is the army of non-specialized business types who rule over everything.  They don’t understand the products, they don’t understand those who use them, they don’t understand technology, but…Steve Jobs!  So, they create strategy, mission, values, meaningless and inspiring but insipid ad campaigns, and they don’t build good products.  And then they send old Jobs videos around on LinkedIn to make the problem worse.

An old theory of personality holds that people fall into two types–A and B.  Put simply, Type A personalities are highly aggressive and competitive, whereas Type B are not.  We all have seen this broad difference in personalities.  Some people we encounter seem ready to walk over their own grandmothers to get ahead.  Like all stereotypes, this is a gross oversimplification, but there’s a lot of truth in it.

In the corporate world, type A personalities tend to rise to the top.  Why?  Because their very personality is aggressive and competitive.  They like to push, push, push for what they want and are willing to drive their agenda at any cost.  They frequently are talkers but rarely listeners.  They also judge people through their own lens.  If you’re an introvert, quiet, or deliberative, if you’re a listener instead of a talker, they think you are not “driven” and probably not worth listening to or promoting.

The question is:  does being type A make you right?  Does it make your opinions more valuable?  I cannot think of any reason why being aggressive and competitive makes you more likely to be correct about anything.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  If you don’t listen well and are always pushing your own agenda, you’re less likely to consider the opinions of others, which means your decision-making is less well-rounded.

I’ve pointed out before, that quiet, deliberative people, type B’s, are often the ones you really want to listen to.  However, in the corporate world, they are often kicked to the curb.  “He never says anything in meetings,” the type A’s say.  Well, if you hired him maybe he’s actually a smart person but has a hard time contributing in a meeting with 20 people all talking fast.  Maybe he needs time to digest what he heard before providing recommendations.

Type A’s tend to be in positions of power not necessarily because they are smarter but because they fight for position in hierarchies.  This is not to say they are without value.  Their decisiveness and drive are very important to a healthy organization.  They can break indecision and move companies forward in ways type B’s cannot.

The key for both personality types is the old Greek maxim:  know thyself.  If you’re type A, you need to be careful not to be too aggressive.  Listen to your quieter colleagues, accept that they may have a different personality, and meet them where they are at.  Call on them in meetings, give them time to deliberate and come back to you.

For type B’s, you need to learn to speak out more.  You’re probably more respected than you realize, and when you do speak, you’re probably listened to.  Try to find forums that are more comfortable for you, like expressing your opinion in writing or 1:1’s.

Sadly, because of the cutthroat nature of the business world, I see little self-awareness and frequent domination of businesses by type A’s.  At the end they may get people to follow them, but if they’re leading you off a cliff, their drive may not be such a good thing.