Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't Look Back

The company for whom I currently work has been through a very rough patch lately, prompting me to leave for greener pastures. But I’ve given them three weeks’ notice, so I’m still technically an employee. And as an employee, I’m entitled to particpate in corporate events.

Today was our quarterly division meeting, in which various members of the management team go over the numbers and lay out the expectations. Those expectations are usually rather obvious (“improve customer satisfaction”) or vague (“find synergies within corporate business units”). In the past, the numbers have borne out management’s expectations for satisfaction and synergy. The management team strain themselves to pat one another on the back, make grandiose declarations of how hard they’ve been working to achieve those goals, and point happily at the sales projection charts. This meeting always takes place at 8 a.m., and coffee and pastries are served. Thank God for the coffee, because otherwise, the snoring would be a terrible distraction.

But this quarter, things are different. Horrible mismanagement has left the division finances in a shambles. Large numbers of employees have defected, and have not been replaced. The Executive Vice President in charge of the division was shown the door only a few weeks ago, and the division was handed over to another Executive Vice President whose qualifications are unknown to the employees. The meeting was scheduled for the unprecedented hour of 3 p.m., and even more shocking - beer, wine and hot hors d’oeuvres would be served.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Are they trying to butter up the employees, or anesthetize them?” While my supervisor informed me that my presence would not be necessary (all other employees are required to attend), I thought it might be worth seeing. If it turned out to be another snooze-fest, at least there would be beer. Plus, the management team would have to play a delicate heel-and-toe game to avoid exposing their obvious incompetence and present some kind of believable leadership. There was a definite possibility that at least one of them would be wearing his weasel suit.

The show began with a feeble corporate video titled “A New Beginning,” which presented animated versions of those pompous motivational posters that display some kind of dramatic photo accompanied by one word, such as “Determination” or “Perseverance.” This display was accompanied by the kind of music you are forced to listen to when you are on hold waiting to talk to your insurance agent.

Then the new Executive Vice President was introduced, who wore a suit with no tie, as though he wanted to seem approachable and yet still maintain his authority figure status. I noticed that all of the rest of the management team were also wearing suits with no tie as well. There must have been a memo on the subject.

He spoke with a thick New Jersey accent, and had a kind of bemused approach to his remarks, as though even he thought it was all bullshit. But he also had a kind of confrontational style, as if to say, “Just because I don’t take this seriously doesn’t mean you don’t have to.”

He quickly set the theme of the meeting, declaring that “We’re not going to dwell on the past, but rather, we’re going to look to the future.” That meant no discussion of recent events that might be embarrassing to management.

The part that I found interesting was that he made a lot of contradictory statements. For example, he spoke about leadership, and then, by way of example, said, “We should be the first to jump on the bandwagon when there’s no risk involved.” He declared that we must “Remove the barriers to progress,” and then said, “More often than not, we are the barriers.” So should we all quit, thereby ensuring progress?

But he showed his real colors when talking about Sales. “Sales runs the world,” he declared, “Everybody works for Sales.” This is the kind of thinking that I believe will hasten the apocalypse. And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, he talked about a group developing some kind of college student loan program for parents of pre-K kids. “We’re getting into these people’s pockets while their kids are still in preschool,” he declared, proudly.

Other management team members spoke briefly, and then the new Executive Vice President returned to the podium. His demeanor darkened, as though he realized he had been too light, too flippant, and needed to get tough. He reiterated the theme of “Not looking back,” and to my stunned amusement, immediately fell face-forward into a rhetorical trap of his own making, spouting the 60’s-era cliché, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Well, that was it. I got my money’s worth. And trust me, when I leave, there won’t be any looking back.

No comments: