In June, 2020 on the main page I committed to a running Lesson List named ‘Ropes’ in tribute to a font of career counsel I should have paid far more attention to, in the Queens MBA program. I didn’t fully appreciate its value then, but this book is WORTHY! Updated many times; new editions span the decades, it’s called…:
‘The Ropes To Skip and the Ropes to Know: Studies in Organizational Behavior‘- 2nd Edition by R. Richard Ritti and G. Ray Funkhouser
It doesn’t matter which edition – just read it ESPECIALLY if you have no previous experience in a large firms or didn’t grown up in a home where a parent would candidly discuss what happens in a Big Office.
Let’s be clear- working in a large organization has many advantages vs ‘precarious’ project work, consulting work, …and/or… no work! It brings with it, among many other appealing aspects:
Training the deep, narrow training that allows you to drill into a function and learn about it in exclusion of other functions/ distractions
Discipline of seeing how ‘corporate plans’ & ‘corporate governance/filings’ elicit awesome, complex-yet-successful cross disciplinary efforts (it truly is like watching an elephant dance)
Benefits -usually! eg vacations (the word alone makes project workers wince) medical, dental, insurance, pension – these bring peace of mind to you and to loved ones
Cross functional exposure– start in Purchasing, but end up in Marketing? Start in Marketing, end up in Sales? Start in Finance, end up in Operations? The breadth of large organizations lets you see how other functions work, skills required, the resulting lifestyle, etc
‘Brand recognition’- big companies are known; when you introduce yourself at a professional event, LinkedIn, on a cv, the mere company name may convey ‘known/inferred core competencies’ to you as a professional
Global opportunities– a college used the slogan “From here, go anywhere”; a tagline applying well to large companies in Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), Advertising agencies, Research agencies, Financial, Industrial, Mining & Manufacturing firms, Auto makers, Software, Gaming, Entertainment… the list goes on. Big organizations see talent as global. Shine in 1 market & you may be reassigned abroad. The World can be your oyster; such assignments are life-changing; they bring growth, maturity, perspective.
But in order to survive & thrive at big firms, you must acknowledge that they simply don’t function like smaller firms. So…..
Here we go! Following are some subjective views & undeniably biased stories of surviving as a professional in a big organization, picked up in different roles, companies, industries, nations -and anecdotes from colleagues, past & present. I’d love fresh additions; if you have story ideas, please Comment (or send an email to ensure anonymity- a discreet choice I’d salute, given the risk involved!)
Ropes Lesson 1: Titles Can Deceive
Case 1. The Situation: Junior Manager (JM) is a mid-level manager at the Canadian Hedquarters of a ‘BigCompanyBloor’ a US-based Global Consumer Packaged Goods giant. An announcement appears: a Vice President of a functional area has been promoted to ‘Senior Vice President (SVP), Strategy’. Having encountered this Exec previously in meetings, JM is tempted to congratulate him, when seeing him at coffee break. But JM has also noticed that the SVP’s spacious (out of the way) new office has no Office Admin staff and, in fact, no staff at all.
Action: JM leaves the SVP his privacy. The SVP left the firm within 2 months.
Result: JM builds and burns no bridges; he lets the SVP keep face & privacy.
Lesson 1, part 1: An ‘SVP Strategy with no reports’ may be code for “we will help you transition out by giving you a well-appointed on-site office & title, from which to do an executive job search“.
Case 2: Situation: at this same CPG firm- BigCompanyBloor- a year later, a new SVP Strategy, let’s call him Waggs, is announced, this one is from the USA Headquarters and will have shared access to a part time Office Admin assistant for help, but otherwise no specific stated responsibilities.
Action: After what happened to the previous SVP Strategy, JM is polite to, but doesn’t go out of his way for, the new SVP. However, one Canadian-based SVP, ‘Dan’, immediately bends over backwards to ingratiate himself to the new SVP Strategy. JM notices the company newsletter chirps that, in his previous role, Waggs was a MOVER who all but revolutionized the firm, in his 2 years of stateside work. JM chokes upon reading of Waggs’ claimed stateside accomplishments; JM was involved in those projects & knows Waggs’ role was minor & unimpressive, but the company PR Dept evidently wants it known that Waggs is ‘on the way up’. Also evident in the newsletter? Waggs has never worked outside the USA; JM is relieved that Waggs has no real functional role in Canada; he doesn’t trust Waggs to understand the market.
FollowUp: Waggs makes Canadian friends, notably the ever-ingratiating Dan. After a year of little accomplished in Canada, but no career blunders, Waggs is transferred back to USA HQ to become…. the worldwide CEO.
Lesson 1, Part 2a: ‘SVP Strategy’ is often a ‘temporary title’ but not always a signal of career doom; eg it is a perfect ‘park you here’ title, eg for an exec waiting for the next step up. After all (this is the opposite of the Peter Parker insight coined by the late Stan Lee), with little responsibility, there’s little chance to fail.
Lesson 1, Part 2b: Study your company history of executive pathways! BigCompanyBloor’s Board felt any CEO candidate must have (i) ‘Project Champion’ and (ii) ‘International Experience’ on their cv. Waggs had been earmarked as the Heir Apparent CEO; a PR Department can create ‘Project Champion’ spin; but Waggs had to take a temporary expat transfer (Canada will do- and is close to home!) to notch the second of those qualifications.
Lesson1. Part 2c: ‘Catch a Rising Star’. Dan read the signals correctly ie saw this one coming & ingratiated himself with the Heir-Apparent. When Waggs became global CEO, Dan also moved stateside, getting a big promotion in a classic ‘slipstream’ move.
Lesson 2: Learn the Power Cues
The 5 sources of power identified by French & Raven do exist in the workplace: Coercive, Legitimate, Referent, Reward & Expert Power https://www.toolshero.com/leadership/five-forms-of-power-french-raven/
All 5 types exist; you will be wise to do the work; learn who has which type (for added insight, learn how they got it ie how they earned the power!)
Coercive Power: Most typical of tyrants, a Machiavellian ‘fist’ approach works better short term than long term. Whether a chainsaw-wielding workforce shredder (eg infamous late Jim Duggan) or high ranking elected official (who terminates any FBI investigators, leading Attorneys & HealthCare advisors who question Great Leader’s omnipotence); you can recognize Coercive Power users; staffers are run scared if they’re near. Coercive Power might be defined as being able to force your will upon someone, yet an intriguing sub-type of Coercive Power is the ability/willingness to cause harm- Destructive Power. This is the power used eg by a ‘colleague’ whom you boat-ize before a meeting (brief them beforehand, win their commitment to support you in the meeting) who ‘does a 180’ & condemns you & your POV in the meeting, in front of management. You must network well to find who has ever used this especially treacherous form of power.
Legit Power is power goes with a role/title. If you respect your firm, you typically give respect to those with Legit power, ‘the power of the position’. Typically these Managers worked their way up, gained understanding of your role & your reality en-route. Of course, there are exceptions -people in a management role for other reasons (nepotism, optics, etc). Regardless, if they hold the title, they hold Legit power.
Referent Power, the power of influence, French & Raven point out, is most potent if accompanied by another form of Power. Still, their observation predated global Social Media. Referent Power has escalated with SoMe; actors are asked to speak to the United Nations, erotic home video stars are licensed by luxury brands, vloggers get roles as MC’s or talk show hosts. Gain a following 1st; money follows (any publicity, is good publicity?). This is an age of sometimes-fleeting ‘Influencer Status’; just how Influencers got to be Influential may have little to do with know-how, and more to do with know-who (The Apartment, anyone?), sometimes “there’s no there, there”- but no matter who they are, if they can move the Perception needle, they have Referent Power.
Referent Power may reveal much about a company’s values; at one firm, a legendary Sales Manager had risen from Field Rep after ‘scoring a coup’ on a trusting wholesaler by dumping tons of near-expiry goods on them. At another firm, the lone person without VP-level Legitimate Power seated at the Head Table of all Sales-Marketing Executive meetings, was a legend- ‘RD’ was a mere Account Manager by Title, but he held more power than any VP. The legend? He ‘saved’ his firm’s supply arrangement with a small SouthEastern customer by going to bat for them in the 1960’s. At risk to his own career, he convinced his firm to ‘lean forward’ & kept supplying the customer, despite that customer’s ‘cash flow challenges’. The customer’s cash flow issues turned out to be temporary, the Supplier won the enduring trust and loyalty of the account – that account was… WalMart.
btw Referent Power may exist in intriguing places; the holders of Referent Power at one firm? The Office Moving staff; they ALWAYS knew who was next up for demotion or promotion!
Reward Power in large organizations Reward Power may be held by the Human Resources Department. In a large org, you may find the HR staff might fit a bimodal distribution: ‘Procedurals’ who punch forms into systems, see staffers as ‘Resources‘ and sleep well after filing layoff notices; and ‘PeoplePeople’ drawn to the Human side of the Human Resources field by above-norm empathy, who care about colleagues (generally I dislike labels; but this observation has been shared to me for decades by many colleagues in many industries, who alternatively dread, or revere, their HR colleagues). Rewards are also offered by Direct Managers, of course. In the MeToo era (per Nissan’s Brie Larson TV ad) you should stand your ground with a manager to ensure Rewards due to you are not delayed or withheld for the wrong reasons.
Expert Power is a power form shrouded in stories; it’s difficult to verify until you sit with someone and – better yet- work a project with them. I strongly recommend you decide for yourself who has Expert Power. Expertise can be something that is based on false myths (see Lesson 1); I’ve often found Expert Power in sleepy corners of big buildings, held by now-ignored, unfashionable silver-haired middle managers. (Ageism has a tragic ‘lost potential’ impact for many companies & their staff). Many ‘less glamorous’ departments or functions are staffed by folks of all ages who bring incredible savvy to a project.
The Cues: I’ve mentioned some of the working/ relationship power cues above. How to identify the 5 forms of power will also depend on the organization. Each firm has a ‘hidden language’ – who gets invited to the ‘important’ meetings (especially off-site!), who gets a corner office, who may show up late without being questioned by a boss, who gets the blue garbage can vs the beige ones (I kid you not- this was a Visible power cue at a firm!). So….Learn the power cues at your firm!
Lesson 3: Success Requires Gamesmanship; You can’t ‘not play’
Aspiring manager Mel aimed to be build her business & be promoted based chiefly upon that. She said so with pride when she met her mentor Tarik, a senior manager at the firm. He squirmed, asked her to take a seat “That’s your game plan?” he inquired.
“That should be enough” she said, with conviction.
Hmmm. Tarik paused. “Hmmm- this firm- it’s big. Larger and arguably more complex than the little company you came from- agreed?”
“Agreed” chimed Mel.
“Then, Mel, please consider that, although an individual’s performance is easily visible to be their own at a small firm, it isn’t easy to be sure who is responsible for what, in a large firm.”
“Mel, let me keep this as simple as possible. “Success has many fathers; Failure is an orphan”.
“Said another way, Mel, others may try to tarnish or steal your successes. They may also try to foist their own failures onto you, or the failures of others in the firm. The OrgChart is a Pyramid; competition is tight. Gamesmanship is NOT an option. So just prepare yourself for that”
“I don’t like games, at least not when it comes to other’s livelihoods”
“Most of us don’t, Mel. …….Do you play team sports, Mel?”
“Recreational soccer- yeah”
“Mel, the examples I just gave are examples of Playing Offence. Not every team excels at Offence, or uses to Offence as a preferred game style, right?”
“Many managers use a Defensive game; armed with copious notes documenting who did what, when, or who contributed what, when. They develop a diverse, courageous & reliable support network of like-minded colleagues, across departments. If a sly competitor tries to steal credit, backstab or lay blame, Defensive players are ready. They respond instantly with articulation, poise & conviction- and they don’t stop until they have left ZERO doubt what the truth is.”
“Yes, Mel, a counterattack- precisely”
“Our soccer team isn’t great at Offence; we wait & wait; when opponents overextend themselves, we seize the chance, reverse the flow, strike quickly & lethally”
“Your team doesn’t hesitate – you simply ‘go for it’ instantly?”
“We sure do!”
“Then, my aspiring & talented protege; I’ve no more to teach you on this topic. I look forward to hearing about some of your ‘games’. I won’t have to wait long; there will be games” [Tarik wondered: is that where they got the idea for the title of “There will be blood”?]. “There’s Offence & there’s Defense – but no Sidelines. Everyone is in the game“
Lesson 4: Project Management is Hard
Managing Projects is tough in practise. Perhaps because it takes plenty of
- soft skills to coach updates,
- listening savvy & maturity- to see through bafflegab
- analytical skills
- the courage to intercede before an issue goes critical’
Find the ‘chokepoints’ in advance –all companies have ‘chokepoints’ attributed to certain tasks &/or individuals. Chokepoints vary from the sensible to the ridiculous; don’t ignore the possibility that the obstacle that slows or stops a project, is something utterly ridiculous!
Would it be possible for a multi-Billion dollar firm to assign one (& only one) person to the role of doling out UPC codes for line extensions & new products? What if NO ONE was cross-trained or empowered to take her role when she went on vacation or was ill? That chokepoint could destroy your timeline. Ridiculous? Yes of course it is! But true nonetheless. Prior to Webex Zoom, etc, I worked at a firm that asked middle managers to create & run ’empowered’ task forces, but required the team to book meeting rooms weeks in advance, even as ‘reserved’ Executive Boardrooms sat empty. Ridiculous? Yes! And true!
My advice: find a trusted mentor who has managed recent projects at this firm! They can advise you of the chokepoints. Remember: few organizations admit the existence of chokepoints, be they a process, or a person. If a mentor whispers their identity, treat the information with great discretion. (It’s like gold, Jerry!)
Let’s say a mentor identified a potential project chokepoint as the dispenser of UPC’s; if that person ever heard you suggest that her role was a potential timeline impediment (or, heaven forbid, a ‘chokepoint’) then every project you worked on, would meet ‘unexpected’ delays, courtesy of either her or her network.
The 5 Minute Myth: Has a boss ever said ‘you worry too much’ about getting all sorts of Project departmental approvals- assuring you each “will take 5 minutes”? Beware expecting ‘a quick sign-off’. You may expect to use ‘management by walking around’ for tactical tasks, right? One department manager, who kept an extraordinarily clean desk, would see no one without a booked appointment. Made no difference how tactical the question was, how little context info was needed. Her presence could never be booked the same day. She needed ‘time to prepare’ -to help her prepare, she required you to prepare a multi-paragraph request with your identity, the brand, product, budget, request topic, reason her input was requested, date time & method when you pre-informed your boss you were seeking her input; description of the most similar 3 previous requests & their outcome, what happens if approval is not received today, etc etc etc.
5 minutes????????? Not likely! Half an hour to write an email, + 5 minutes to e-book a slot, followed (days later) by the meeting. [the firm’s ‘360 Degree Evaluation’ process graded managers on ‘Poise, Organization, Time Management …’ no rating for ‘Sense of Urgency’or ‘Respect for Other’s Time’!].
I refer to such folks as ‘Teflon Types’ – you try to get something cooking, but with them, nothing sticks. A colleague referred to dealing with them as ‘entering the Bouncy Castle’– every request came bouncing back. The best part? when the project was completed, this same manager claimed to have ‘co-managed’ the project with me.
Project Management, in large organizations, is highly vulnerable to Scope Creep. Students laughed at a consumer survey for a large Drugstore chain. It had evidently begun as a basic Customer Satisfaction survey, then evidently a free-rider jumped aboard (“While you’re at it, can you also just…”?), then another topic was added, etc.. The final survey was painfully overlong – a smorgasbord that inelegantly jumped from topic to topic to topic like a game of Whack A Mole. A case of Scope Creep, with a predictable (awkwardly awful) outcome.
You should feel free to defend a crucial company PROJECT! Be courageous– push back on Scope Creep!
Tools: Can’t leave this topic without suggesting you use the superb array of project management software tools. The array of options is always changing, but always helpful. MS Project, GANTTs, PERTs, use whatever tool is readily available to, and understood by, your Project Team colleagues.
Lesson 5: beware Executive Vanity Projects
Dante’s sign at the entrance to Hell read “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” – this applies to Executive Vanity Projects. For junior staffers in a large organization, “Do enough, but don’t over-commit, and NEVER commit yourself to ‘ordinary success metrics’ on time-and-money-wasters!”
What type of project am I talking about? Executive Vanity Projects are never explicitly labeled as such. You must learn to ‘read the code’ and recognize their ‘signature’ odour.
Executive Vanity Projects (let’s call’em EVP‘s) are championed by senior executives who no longer have ‘direct line budget’ responsibilities. When an Exec’s ‘ole buddy’, now the Owner or SVP of ‘some agency’ (ad, promotion, PR,…) comes callin’, Exec/Execs push down on ‘line managers’ (the ones whose performance review depends on producing line results) a ‘request’ for them to contribute funding to a (not-in-budget) ‘essential new priority’.
EVP’s aren’t remotely ‘essential’ and only RARELY generate OK results.
So what should you do? Two tips that I wish I’d known long ago.
(i) In the ‘group briefing meeting’ to line managers, savvy managers show enthusiastic support at the briefing, then work behind the scenes to minimize their financial contribution of their own business’s or band’s budgeted funds! They ‘play the game’. Everyone with a dose of common sense in the room knows it’s a pig- and you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
(ii) At the briefing’, do NOT ask meaningful questions. It’s a Jenga moment, a Glass House, the Emperor’s New Suit. If you were to ask “Can you please expand upon what specific display tool will get us support in both the grocery chains and convenience stores?” you would be greeted with your Exec’s stern look… and a platitude-laden response from the smug Agency Rep. Displays and merchandising support? Not gonna happen. Everyone knows. We’re all just going through the motions.
Repeat disastrous results of EVP’s don’t seem to eliminate them entirely; that would take a force of nature (or an astute CEO’s scrutiny). They keep happening, every year or two, in large organizations everywhere.
Consumer Packaged Goods ‘Group Promotions‘: the brands target different demographics, different psychographics, different ‘best-fit’ channels for merchandising,…. ie hey have nothing in common aside from being owned by the same parent. How to Recognize them: The Briefing includes phrases such as “shared cause”, “critical mass of the brands” or “thud factor”. Another cue you’re facing a Vanity Project- any project where, at the briefing, someone says “All boats rise with the tide”
’10 on 1′ (or ’12 on 1′, or ’24 on 1′) Lean Management sold in the 1990’s was promised to “improve a Manager’s productivity” by “bringing them closer to decisions”. It ended up burying them in administrative duties.
‘Vendor Consolidation‘ convincingly sold to Retailers in 2000’s, promised to ‘boost the productivity’ of mid level Category Managers, by reducing the number of suppliers they can buy from. This left them with biased category advice, weaker product selection, declining sales— precisely at the same time that e-tailers were emerging and ‘crushing it’ with shoppers, based on superior selection and niche appeal.
Some non-business examples:
WWI British Command’s Slow Walk tactic; Blue Bloods who would never themselves see the battlefield, thought of this. Their vanity wasted tens of thousands of lives.
WWII British Command’s Big Wing (as described in Michael Korda’s With Wings Like Eagles). Launching every RAF plane from every squadron so that they all appear together in the sky– by the time the last ones were up, most of the fuel would be spent, the range eliminated, and you’d have a pretty visual, but an absolutely vulnerable nation.
Canadian military elite’s Buy Canadian WWI idea & disastrous Ross Rifle.
Who thinks to support these schemes? Execs with no grasp of reality &/or no accountability for line results. Which is, regrettably, no small pool to draw from.
LESSON: If you smell an EVP coming, make nice noises, be outwardly supportive. (these juggernauts will not be denied)- but do work behind the scene to remove or minimize the risk to your business, and to your team.
LESSON 6: PAYROLL RULES!!!!!
Sounds facile, but the 1 Internal Department whose calls you NEVER delay replying to, is Payroll! If they miss their dates, EVERYONE gets hurt, no matter how high or low in the firm. Let them down & you will never live it down.
Financial Accounting (getting statements out per Sarbanes etc), Legal and Human Resources should also be on this list, but imo while they have important inquiries, they’re rarely URGENT -nothing trumps a Payroll inquiry.
While we’re on the topic or who to respond to quickly and respectfully, for EXTERNAL inquiries there’s one source who, if they call, I AM ON IT. That’s the Office Of The Privacy Commissioner, an A++ Priority source. Ignore them & the firm might fall. Put’em on your TOP TOP PRIORITY list.
Lesson 7: Informal, Casual Meetings …aren’t
An awesome Eton grad who lead Schering-Plough, Roger Gawne would see his employees in the common workspace, sit on the edge of a desk & engage in an informal update. Staff revered him, managers wanted to be him. We never came close. But we can be inspired how he over-prepared yet made it all look easy & relaxed. Maybe he was sweating inside; maybe not. Learn from his example: ‘Casual’ doesn’t mean winging it, nor being unprepared.
Yes A CEO can say “I’ll get back to you on that” in a casual Q&A. He rarely did. He answered on the spot; he was ready! Anticipated questions, thought of a theme for the update, touched base with that theme repeatedly. A master at work.
Be inspired by his mentoring. I’m not ashamed to over-prepare for ‘casual seeming’ encounters- coffee chat with an industry associate, a ‘quick sit-down’ with my manager. When a guest speaker is booked, or a co-instructor assigned, I research them; their LinkedIn, website, professional Social Media feeds (not their personal-feeds- imo that’s ‘past the gate’).
When Roger ‘turned over the mic’ to one of his senior managers at a session, initially we might be caught without a ‘timely & tight’ bit to say. Initially! In time, his managers elevated their game; we arrived ready. If called upon, we would look surprised to be asked, then relay a pithy, friendly casual bit. Tight & timely.
And off the cuff, mais non?
LESSON 8: GLAMOROUS … ISN’T
Lesson 1 indicated that Job Titles aren’t always what they seem; per the SVP Strategy example (if you recall; it may bode well, or spell doom). In large organizations, glamour is often viewed through tinted glasses.
Title Inflation: It takes years to reach ‘Manager’ status in a Marketing role; Sales roles are different; Sales professionals’ titles are inflated (or, perhaps more kindly, ‘elevated’) to show respect for customers who expect to deal with a senior person. If a big account is assigned a ‘Rep’ or ‘Assistant Manager’, a customer’s first impression might be: “Will a ‘rep’ be empowered to really help me?; shouldn’t I be speaking to a Manager”? Many Ad Agencies/ & Promotions Agencies also ‘elevate’ titles for this reason. It’s not uncommon for a Marketing Pro to move from ‘Brand Manager’ at a CPG firm to ‘Director’ at an Agency. Management Consulting takes it further, making VP’s out of poised young prodigies wearing superbly tailored suits & carrying the weight of 5 to 10 whole years work experience (Who in the Executive Suite will take high-level strategic advice from a mere Manager?)
Glamour misperception also extends to tasks & duties. Cue the National Sales Meeting or Launch Meeting. You fly to a getaway national sales meeting location, after working massive overtime preparing for that meeting WHILE DOING THE REST OF YOUR JOB UNABATED, then present a new lineup, field the Q&A, explain the Sales Aids, strategize Account Specific rollout / promotion plans, etc, etc, etc. When you return to the office (and your now even fuller InBox) nonMarketing coworkers make snide remarks …. “So, How was NEW ORLEANS? Gain much weight on the Cajun cookin, or were you (wink wink) keepin ‘otherwise busy’ in the alleys off Bourbon Street?”
When we hear such comments you …must….restrain…fist of death.
Bet that, for every person who says it to you, a dozen others think it. A person I’ve known forever, an accountant at a CPG firm, called Marketing coworkers ‘Marketeers‘. She chuckled how they’d show up late to the office & complained how accountants work ‘so much overtime’ for a couple months in budget season. The Marketing staffer who arrived late at the office was probably back on a RedEye from Edmonton. The ‘exotic’ ‘National Sales Meeting’ for which the accounting people see expense reports (“restaurants! bar tabs! they’re doin nuthin but partying!“) involved Marketeers putting in a few 15 hr days, and was preceded by months of 70+ hour weeks, followed by ‘Marketeers’ doing more weeks of catchup & further Key Account calls. ‘Marketeers’ do live a life of leisure & glamour (cue the Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’)
Also misunderstood as glamorous? Trade Shows. (I detest them!). Weeks of panic-stricken preparation, long sweaty travel days carting in booth materials & supplies, setting it all up, then early early meetings, then LONG days feigning ‘enthusiasm & warmth’. All day you must be ‘ON’ -sensing for THE OPPORTUNITY; recognizing that opportunity, then booking a ‘casual’ coffee, or bar meeting/meal, or arranging an evening of custom entertaining till the wee hours, while avoiding being seen taking follow-up notes, reordering what the booth is short of, dealing with inevitable booth issues… Back from the Trade Show, carting the booth materials back into the office, coworkers (from Accounting?) will sidle up “Soooooooo…. I hear Vegas/Atlanta/ Philly/ SanDiego… is pretty fine this time of year…Must be nice!”
Dear Marketeers: a warning: you won’t recall a thing about that town, just the airport, convention centre & the clients/contacts. All you know is you got your rental returned on time & somehow caught your flight & brought back all that stuff, took all those follow up notes, got home & showered by 3AM. Tomorrow you will arrive at work at 10AM, get dirty looks from coworkers for “arriving late”; then you’ll be free to start digging out from new ‘Asks’ that accumulated since you left.
Glamorous– just don’t spoil the Grand Illusion (cue the Styx!).
“Yes, Ms Accountant; you’re right; Vegas was… well, YOU KNOW (chuckle) What happens in Vegas…”
Lesson 9: Chuck a Duck? or Be Stuck with a Duck?
Ever been in a group meeting & noticed your boss doesn’t get the same ‘check-in looks’, ‘floor time’ or ‘final word’ opportunities as their peers? That’s a possible indication that you have a Lame Duck boss.
How will that impact you?
(i) your division or department won’t get the biggest budgets, best budget flexibility, praise, internal exposure, or support from other departments
(ii) your boss’s direct reports won’t be considered for the best new cherry projects, job assignments or promotions, as their peers.
(iii) you won’t be going to the biggest ‘sales meetings (or perhaps just the most senior managers on your team will go)
What’s going on here? You chose the wrong horse in a race. So what can you do?
Gently turn back the clock to when you were hired and ‘sorted’ into a particular department or business line, and ….
OK that isn’t going to work. But the point is: the signals were probably there before you joined. Do your subtle, persistent homework well in advance of accepting that offer!
“Too late; I’m in; what can I do?” A Mentor is critical (like Tarik in Lesson 3). They’re no lame duck, and might be able to get you on the list for more prominent projects, fairer recognition.
And what about that Lame Duck Boss?
I detest labels; I’ve seen some decent managers labeled Lame Ducks (LD’s); a dismissive, disrespectful and imo unethical label. Dead Person Walking? Some LD’s are more talented & better people managers, than their HotBoy/HotGirl competitors. Don’t give up on your boss. Help’em out; eg keep your ear to the ground- intell is a BIG asset for a boss; the next time you hear a competitor may be arranging to de-boatize your boss in public, alert him/her & let them get out in front of that. You might be surprised how capable your boss is. Next time you hear budget cuts are coming; tune them in ASAP. If your network fuels their Intell, you may bolster their power & image. A newly confident boss, even if not the highest profile, can do your career a lot of good. And- bonus!- you will sleep at night.
Ultimately- it’s your call. Fight for them, or abandon them. You decide. I’ve always wanted to be able to sleep at night; for me, the choice was easy- Protect This House.
Can a Lame Duck become a White Swan? Make a big recovery? It can happen, although that’s rare. Bright Exec’s not politically too adept nor long term thinkers, may become revered Plant Managers. Great ‘people persons’ who were easily stressed, may find new careers. Capable, skilled leaders, who simply picked the wrong team in a company inter-division power fight, might be quietly ushered out. But a ‘landscape shift’ may occur, too. If there is a shift in the ‘critical skill set’ to better leverage strengths in a formerly Lame Duck’s wheelhouse, that Duck may start to look glorious again.
Lesson 10: Something To Engage Everyone
I smile to think of a bright co-worker, ‘Nick’, a Financial Analyst. He detested ‘presenting’, so we’d work together on meeting prep. He would rehearse; I would give feedback. But in truth, it was I who learned from him.
He awed me one day when he took a perfect presentation.. and added an error.
Hard to admit a seasoned Marketing manager learned a big lesson from a Financial Analyst about…….. audience engagement way before business people even used that expression. Nick knew it, heart & soul.
He knew his audience (our boss) was a micro-manager who needed to feel needed. They needed a role. So Nick served our boss that opportunity.
We both presented; I watched as Nick put COGS detail info up on screen – did our boss ask about the 40% Cost Of Goods component? The 32% figure? The 6% figure? No- our boss asked about the 0.5% figure and wanted to be sure of its ’rounding’, on which Nick had ‘made an error’.
Job accomplished. Our boss felt engaged, felt needed, they had made a contribution. The error wasn’t big enough to cost Nick trust/equity, but it kept our boss from picking away at the more troublesome, significant figures.
Nick knew that our boss, a fine ‘people person’ who was excellent at detail, gravitated to details (this boss would eventually end up being an excellent Plant Manager- a role where both their top talents were leveraged). Nick taught me a Life Lesson; when I sold Kroger, I’d include something for the Logistics Manager in the room & perhaps ask them a (relatively minor) question, for which I’d already know the answer. When I pitched Publix, I’d bring something for the Category Manager and their boss. One boss loved trivia; I’d include nuggets on his favourite sports team including at least 1 dated answer, so he could ‘update’ my answer for the latest record-setter. It generated dialogue, got’em involved, gave’em a role. It got’em engaged -years before Marketers used that expression…. although even that was decades after a FINANCE staffer, named Nick, had it down pat.
Who is in your audience? Can you get’em all engaged? Have you got something for everyone? What specifically might make them feel like they have participated? contributed? Learn from Nick!
Lesson 11: Evaluate The Evaluation Method?
Most large organizations use an evaluation system that is a mystery until the day the manager calls you in. This has some advantages: when it’s time to trim staff, it’s not difficult for a manager to justify a ‘did not meet expectation’ score on a grid, apply a mysterious weighting, come to a ‘Development Flagged’ conclusion, put’em on Probation with a near-to-impossible list of ‘Must Do’ accomplishments over the next 3 months.
Sadly, it’s not rare. The outcome tends to be for an employee to: (i) seek another role inside; (ii) deny they’ve been targeted for exit, then do almost-nothing differently for 3 months; or (iii) read the writing on the wall, start networking, buff up the cv.
If you’re lucky to work for a large firm that has a clear, transparent, performance appraisal process, congratulations. But all such systems can be ‘worked’ by managers. Government & Crown Corporations are especially prone to it; they have many employees very capable of career growth, who opt to thankfully ‘keep their heads down’, not attract attention or raise the bar. Want to know why Government employees often do the bare minimum– but do it cautiously, safely? That’s why! If gaming of performance metrics is commonplace, then there’s little worth to true performance, no upside to exceeding the norm. (I challenge you, post-covid, to be in the lobby standing by the elevator of any Government Office or Crown Corp building at 4:31 or5:01PM; you will be stampeded to death). Extra effort? Why bother.
Of course, for-profit firms could never behave that way, right? Hmmm.
The larger the firm, the less visible one employee‘s performance is. This opacity is a boon to HR-Consulting firms who swoop in with deftly branded ‘custom solutions’ for performance appraisals. All of which end up being gamed by managers & employees. Until the HR firms come out with a new vision system (ie a ‘patch!’). Then that system, too, gets gamed. So…What’s going on here?
A performance appraisal system is only as good as the ‘spirit’ of the system & the flexibility for a manager to interpret it on a broad level, consider contributions not anticipated by the HR shop, not on ‘the grid’. But such flexibility for a manager is, in itself, risky! Give a manager too much flexibility & they might fire employees without reason or cause of ANY kind. Cue the lawsuits.
So we’re forced to use rigid, myopic grids & forms that fall short of adequately gauging an employee’s worth or contributions.
Which brings us back to Lesson 4: Project Management on multi-functional or matrix organizations. A firm’s 360 degree performance metrics system (or ‘Up & Down’ or ‘Contact Input’) evaluated an employee’s behaviour & style, eg Poise, Organization, Time Management. NO WHERE was there a rating for ‘Sense of Urgency’, ‘Respect for Other’s Time’ or ‘Risk Orientation’. The system did include ‘Innovation/Creativity’, but managers interpreted that at a ‘micro’ level; order tacos for a lunch meeting rather than sandwiches? YOU ARE A TITAN! Bring a manager a truly Big Idea? They’d look at you puzzled, if not horrified.
What was the organization’s downfall? A lack of innovation & urgency. Qu’elle surprise!
Should they have changed the Performance Appraisal system? In hindsight, yes they should have. But systems don’t replace a firm’s culture or values, anyway; they’re simply used/gamed by people to reinforce the values.
In the 1980’s, the Toronto-based Canadian division of a global CPG giant was seen by Global HQ as overly cautious; Global Ops sent in a European dynamo, ‘B.C’., as SVP, who pushed the firm’s HR Dept & Brand recruiters to consider (for the 1st time) hiring entrepreneurs, candidates with small Business experience, risk-takers. Did the new hires get a chance to show their worth to ‘BC’? Nope. Between risk-taker BC and the newbies, were 4 layers of cautious middle management, who couldn’t relate to these new hires & tried desperately to ‘fix’em’, help them ape behaviours that made them successful at the firm. Some of the newbies adapted; most didn’t. In <18 months, most of the new hires were out.
The upshot? Culture rules! Don’t bother to ‘evaluate an evaluation system’ to find what’s important at a large organization. It’s just a tool; it’ll be subsumed (or gamed) by the firm’s pre-existing Culture. Tools come & go. Culture endures.
Lesson 12: Be Ready! No Impromptu Meetings
Lesson 7 covered preparing for Casual-looking presentations. An adjunct lesson? There are no impromptu meetings. Lesson 4 (on Project Management) seems to fault an overly meticulous coworker for red-taping or ‘bouncing back’ under-prepared requests. But make no mistake – you must prepare to make ALL requests, prepare for every meeting. A revered colleague used to begin each sit-down with students aspiring to be managers, with “So…why are we here?”.
It’s not a philosophical inquiry! It’s a practical one.
Be prepared with: How long do you need? What is the Context? (briefly!) What is the ‘ASK‘? (what are you asking the attendee for? A critique? Alternatives you weren’t aware of? Signed Approval? To please doublecheck a timeline? Name of a Contact or Source to give more info?). What have you already done/found? (and where did you find that?).
If requesting a manager’s OK to proceed, arrive armed with: What resources are you asking for? (cost, time, staff)? What supports your proposal? (objective figures, in-market success examples)? What will you do next? (specifically)
Have all of this ready referenced in your head; do NOT read it! But also: have it &/or any necessary tools, in print, or (already powered up) digital format- if that format may further help an attendee’s understanding.
Arriving PREPARED each time, signals respect for a colleague/manager’s time. A workplace will inevitably have ‘chats/social conversations’; there are times we (subconsciously) ‘need’ such interaction more than normally. But ask yourself – are YOU the ‘social butterfly? Are you initiating ‘No Goal’ conversations or social conversations, or extending how long they last? Are you usually the last one to exit a ‘session’? If so, the next time you need a Business-driven chat, you may find colleagues avoiding you, believing it’ll be the start of another endless, aimless chat, when they have work to do.
Should your cv be READY? Always. You never know what the future will bring. Layoffs, an unexpected high-fit new opportunity. And what about your ‘spike’? Your examples of performance? Got’em ready? If asked now for your Elevator Speech, could you recite it? [if you don’t know what an Elevator Speech is, make that your first step towards being better prepared]
Part of being prepared is having a network of supportive professionals to critique your work, your progress, your views. Such a network is a blessing. Thanks Dr Annie Pettit for suggesting this Lesson Topic; I can’t say I’ve done it justice- and all its flaws are entirely my own. If a seasoned pro takes the time & care to comment, it’s a sign of their pay-it-forward attitude (follow her at @LoveStats )
Lesson 13: Office Geography 101
My ‘work office’ (college building /campus) is changing; I’ll soon have a new ‘work home’. I feel sadness in departing, at the end of an era; a decade at Seneca Markham, among amazing faculty I’ve been a privileged to know & work with.
Memories flood in: inspiring mentors no longer on staff, no longer with us. In a rather pedestrian turn, it occurred to me that an environment played a role in the feeling of loss.
It shouldn’t matter that much. But Office Geography does matter. It really does.
Office location matters; office dimensions matter; office layout matters. Most of all, office mates matter. We enjoyed an eclectic, outspoken mix of roomies in M500. Given 15 workstations & mixed shifts (our ‘real’ offices were classrooms), there were typically only 3 to 5 staff in M500 at a time. Adequate for teamwork, exchanging ideas, sharing updates on newly discovered student needs, yet not so many as to promote noise, parties, distractions. Quality & Quantity: Perfect!
Could geography be more important than it seems on the surface? Could it be part of a Vision? Thank the late Bob Carroll (who passed 2 years ago, this month) for M500; negotiated relentlessly to gather his faculty team together in M500 to share updates & ideas, let students benefit from multiple industry perspectives, have new faculty benefit from experienced hands.
Consider how brilliant that decision was, and what an impact it had on generations of students – and dozens of faculty, passing through M500.
When I worked in New Product Development at the Globe & Mail at the (now gone-condo) Front Street digs, my desk was amidst an eclectic team of experts in CRM, MarCom, Reader Analytics. But what mattered more is where it was NOT. The Globe physically separated ‘Church & State’ – ie the Business managers & support were kept away from ‘Editorial’ ie journalists & editors who produced day to day content. No respected source of objective news coverage wants to risk a WE-style conflict of interest. Keep the bizfolks off the floor! #Respect
When you join a big organization, you rarely get a chance to view your workstation in advance. In TV & Films, newbies at big organizations immediately measure their workstation & desk. OK those dimensions might ‘send a signal’ about your power, influence, access to resources. But that kind of ‘signal’ might be inaccurate, meaningless.
Got enough space to get your work done? Enough power outlets? Awesome! Impress them with your output, not your footprint!
What should you pay attention to in Office Geography 101? Your new mates! Why are you with these particular mates? Who made that decision? And the corollary; who is not located here? If your new manager says “Set up your stuff anywhere”, is it a positive sign of an empowered, flexible workplace? Or does it indicate attention to detail is lacking – and your sponsor hasn’t put effort into a decision that can be quite significant?
Location. Location. Location.
Lesson 14: POSTURING PAYS OFF
Appearances matter – looking composed = looking capable at big firms. That sweat after unloading two 25 tons trucks at your loading dock job? It was earned, accepted, revered. But that hair out of place, or bead on your brow, in a large firm? It can undermine your status.
It’s another reason savvy managers at big firms value “intell’; they maintain a pervasive network using the gamesmanship described earlier, to be informed in advance when their peers are taken by surprise. ‘Posturing’ to demonstrate composure ‘off the cuff’ is evident at the dreaded ‘Managers’ Meetings’ or at a faculty meeting at a university or college.
For a moment, let’s leave aside ‘getting on the agenda’ for such meetings; that’s a powerful way to maximize posturing possibilities. One can devote an entire lesson to that tactic alone; and I’ll do that in the future.
Let’s focus on 3 other posturing tactics: ‘take the baton’ posturing, ‘by association‘ posturing and ‘press‘ posturing.
To be in the right track position to ‘take a baton’ & run with a topic raised at a mega-meeting, a SavvyPro might work the admin staff eg “I need an advance copy of the agenda, since…” (insert a company-beneficial cause). SavvyPro might go further, secure a list of speakers, a copy of any decks, videos, examples, etc. SavvyPro is anticipating when to ‘take a baton’.
Then they can play the role of helpful Direct Report when a Meeting Chair ‘opens the podium’ – offer a YesMan cheer & story in support of the Chair’s point. The story? A rehearsed 2 minutes of ‘barely relevant’ self-congratulation. These aren’t the kind of meetings when one interrupts, or asks for evidence; SavvyPro can embellish all they want. I heard that a SavvyPro followed a Chair’s point with a heartfelt speech urging peers to enforce an Integrity Penalty Process “because it’s vitally important- vitally!”. A colleague who had repeatedly enforced the tedious process (for the greater good; zero rewards/recognition were ever gained) just smiled, knowing SavvyPro, on staff for years, had never prosecuted a case. Never. Not once.
‘Grandstanding’ or ‘Posturing’ works. Attendees, especially new hires & recently recruited Execs, got a favourable impression of SavvyPro the ‘contributor’. And no facts were ever checked. Victory! Points Built! Think of how few chances exist like this! At a mega gathering, profile-building opportunities might occur. But wait! Why leave it to chance? SavvyPro’s don’t just seize the moment; they anticipate the agenda, arrange the moment.
The second tactic: ‘by association’ posturing, brings the whiff of success to a manager who drops the name of, someone or something laudable. Per Lesson 1: one couldn’t possibly count the times that CEO Waggs would drop the name of the successful product line he was parachuted in on, after the work was done. Often his speeches began “When I launched …” Yes Yes Yes – we know- you came to be associated with that success.
A New Product Manager at a Canadian food firm would start almost every sentence with “When I was with Procter…” as if you should treat whatever that followed, with reverence. In truth, he was never a P&G employee. Never. He had momentarily worked at an agency executing a P&G promotion or ad campaign in India. I guess, technically speaking, that entitles him to say he was “with Procter” the way I might say “I was with Bain“. [years ago, when advising a company on a high value takeover, Bain asked for input from a colleague, who got me into a couple conference calls, as an unpaid subject matter expert].
Yes I fondly recall “when I was with Bain“.
The third tactic: press posturing; eg advertising & marketing industry journals/magazines/e-zines, have a ‘light journo touch’ that helps ingratiate their mag with B2B advertisers; no Church-State rules here!. Little fact checking goes on- opening the door for marketers to market their favourite product… themselves!!! Some ‘dynamo’s’ manage to catch 2 or 3 ‘covers’ a year, with the help of their own -err, sorry, the company’s- PR pro. Brand Managers, Marketing Directors, VPs, CMO’s all romancing the press to tell their stories.
Several industry ‘stories’ have been on categories for which I bought Nielsen data; I knew the ‘dynamo’ being interviewed should be apologizing for a dismal campaign. Instead, they basked in the press glow, touting ‘record shares’ or ‘gaining traction with paradigm breakers’. Huh? But that dynamo does sport such a confident smile, and that IS a nicely cut suit he wears for the cover photo.
Posturing to the regular, investigative press corp, as opposed to the soft touch industry ‘zines, is of course a different matter altogether. Could be dicey- hard questions might be asked, facts might be checked, competitors interviewed. (The Toronto Star is a rare, laudable bastion of real investigative journalism, and a true Church-State ethic; I hope their new owners respect that legacy).
Posturing by anticipating a baton toss. Posturing by Name dropping. Posturing by Story-telling to the ‘print-it-before-you-fact-check-it’ press.
All are effective; all build profiles. So what if the substance is not .. substantial! The SavvyPro’s win the moment. Props to the Pro’s who Prioritize Posturing! The rest of us just focus on doing our jobs, managing our business, our people. Maybe The Star will investigate which career strategy is more successful? My bet? Posturing pays, and pays better.
LESSON 15: SIMPLY THE BEST!
Lesson 14 was a tad sobering- and it begs an offsetting entry. Working in Big Organizations offers plenty of offsets. Beyond the training, resources, fine agency partners, travel, brand profile and a chance to focus (to go ‘narrow & deep’ in a specific expertise) there are also…. the people.
Although it’s true some ‘unusual types’ survive & even thrive in the opacity of Big Orgs, the sheer number of colleagues brings social possibilities, social wins. Perhaps, lifelong friends.
When you face encounters together & let yourself be seen toiling, losing, winning, stressing, letting off steam, we see the real you. A Big Org’s relentless global talent hunt is our win; we meet a more eclectic, diverse set of folks than in our neighbourhood, or while toiling in small business, perhaps more than in our alma mater, too.
Some of them will become lifelong friends. Lucky you! If not for Big Orgs, would you have ever met them? Unlikely! Years after you’re no longer co-workers, you might hire them for a project. Or they’ll hire you. No one wants to let a biz partner down- but we’re even more reluctant to do any less than out level best, for a friend. There lies TRUST.
More importantly, they’re… friends! To tell it like it is, swap stories, share life lessons, a laugh at ourselves. I included Lesson 15 to encourage you to leave the door open to new friendships. Besides immediate family – and friends that somehow stayed connected since grade school – workmates past & present are among my most respected trusted, valued & caring…mates.
Lesson 16: 25 Tips for Aspiring Managers in Marketing-Related Fields
Today: a list of 25 career tips shared previously with near-to-graduating students in marketing-related fields. Subjective stuff- as always. Hopefully you will find some of this to be useful.
Lesson 17: Beware Relationship Landmines
These words are courtesy of a colleague I massively respect:
“There are always hidden relationships and hidden agendas in large organizations that might not be apparent. Never badmouth someone as you never know if there is a connection. The boss is really close friends with the receptionist. The major project you’re critiquing for the boss was done by one of her rivals in the company. Two people that seem to be on opposite ends of the table are actually quite good friends. You’re given a task that highlights a weakness in another department. This is because the person that assigned the task can’t do it themselves for political reasons.”
Wow- bang on!
Don’t ignore the most obvious of landmines: the self-inflicted one. Although I don’t have sensitive antennae, even I noticed 2 coworkers seemed ‘too close’ – she would attend his meetings, and he would attend hers, despite being assigned to unrelated businesses. It turned out that – marriages notwithstanding- the 2 had a more-than-platonic friendship. Both managers ‘found new opportunities’ before long. Encouraging extramarital activities was not on the midwestern corporation’s ethically OK list.
AS ALWAYS: more posts are coming; there are plenty of ‘stories’ …and lessons to be learned. Have an idea for a post? Please don’t hesitate to connect at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading! Good luck in your career!
LESSON 18: Proof First, Perfection Later
Let’s see if this scenario sounds familiar:
You are on the outside looking in at your dream role at your dream firm; then you learn of a (widely posted) role, apply (along with tens of thousands of others) … alas, no response! You wonder why you’re not invited in to show your passion?
I recently saw a meme by a recent grad frustrated that they haven’t yet won their dream job role. It may not mean much to reach out to them saying “Patience”. In fact, their fire is a desirable quality. But it isn’t enough; you need passion and skills. Hope the link works: https://meme-arsenal.com/create/meme/1544965
What I find intriguing about getting your ideal role at a large firm, is this:
1. It’s a large firm; they have the brand /resources to attract/find people who are eminently qualified – and proven qualified- NOT just ‘hope to eventually show you I am capable’ qualified!
2. It’s a large firm; there are OTHER roles in that firm where you can prove your mettle, learn the ins & outs, do some powerful networking,…
(btw: this meme contains hyperbole; an applicant might miss this, but to yell at an employer, while wearing a logo t-shirt & ballcap, may not be the best way to present yourself)
So- some thoughts:
Build prove skills in volunteer/charity roles; this says tons about your work ethic AND your Values
Take applied ongoing certifications / education (emphasis here: applied).
Gain related/adjacent skills & ‘sell’ their relevance
Network like crazy
Consider a role in your dream company that is related or interfaces with it (want to work in Field Sales? start in Inside Sales Support or Field Merchandising); esp a role in which you DO have experience.
A small organization/ startup may be more likely than a large organization to fully value your cross-training or multi-departmental skills if you try ‘a move across’ to the role you desire. Nonetheless, once you’re ‘inside’, the rest is up to you. Study the winners, learn the growth areas, analyze what distinguishes the performers in that role, build your network. All of this lets you get Advance Information- ie Early Detection of an upcoming role (one not yet posted); that’s key! It means the hiring party can (still) tailor the ‘Required Qualification’ list to exactly your background. Does this happen? All The Time! The employer has already decided who to hire -you!
Think you have what it takes for a role, but haven’t proven it yet? Then start with 3 Career C’s: build your case; build your contacts; and get ‘close’!
Before we leave this topic: APPLICANTS: Beware KEYWORDS & TYPOS.
NO TYPO’s! This includes tech program names (‘exel’ anyone? ‘MicroSoft’?), brands, city spelling (‘Mississauga’ has undoubtedly crushed more than 1 applicant), ‘duplicate duplicate’ words, someones’ misplaced apostrophe.
YES TO KEYWORDS! Do include all the Keywords from the job posting, in your cover letter &/or cv. Algorithms, not humans, do the 1st screening at most firms for posted roles (you would use them, too, if you saw how many replies a typical job post attracts!).