The root of the problem lies in five basic management concepts that became popular in the 20th century and continue to propagate stupidity. As long as the business world kowtows to these obsolete management concepts, we'll be plagued by managers who screw up.
Some of these concepts are dearly held panaceas for much of the business world. Even so, they were ill-considered and ill-conceived from the start, and should be jettisoned for the good of everybody.
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Thousands upon thousands of articles in the mainstream business press characterize CEOs as "courageous" because they instituted a downsizing. Apparently, the decision to fire people is so difficult, that the CEO who takes that path must be a brave and lonely soul. He's putting the interests of the investors ahead of his own kindhearted inclinations, and making the difficult decisions that will allow the company to remain profitable.
But, wait a minute, Chester! How, exactly, did the company get into a situation where it needed to fire people in order to remain competitive? Sure, markets change like crazy in today's world and business conditions become challenging. But isn't it the job of the CEO and the management team to predict those changes, and to staff the company appropriately, and retrain people, so that those challenges can be addressed?
Here's the truth. Downsizing is a sign of failure. It means that management has failed and rather than doing the right thing -- which is to quit without severance -- they're passing along the penalty for that failure to the people who, in good faith, tried to execute the flawed strategy that top management pursued.
That's why top managers (and the kiss-butt journalists in the mainstream business press) love the word "downsizing." It makes the results of failure sound like a strategy, rather than a desperate way to remain profitable after top management has made a complete pig's breakfast of things.
So, as we go forward, let's stop calling it downsizing. Let's call it what it is: firing productive workers because top management was a bunch of overpaid pinhead losers who shouldn't be allowed to run a company again.
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A few years before he died, Peter Drucker was interviewed on NPR. In that interview, he pointed out what should be obvious to everyone -- that all this talk about "leadership" is a bunch of horse manure.
Yeah, yeah, the idea of leadership sounds neat -- especially if you're in management -- and it makes a manager sound all charismatic and exciting.
But what is a "leader," anyway? What does a "leader" do?
I can't hear the term without thinking of the leader of a marching band. That's the person who takes a big stick and makes it go up and down, while the band does the work of actually making the music.
One reason I think of that image is that, in my experience, most of the time the "leader" of the team is the person who found a parade and then got out in front of it. (I once heard an executive in Fortune 50 company describe that odious behavior as "smart business practice.")
The concept of a "leader" means that credit for what the team does goes to the leader. And you see it every day, in the bloated salaries paid to "business leaders" and in the ridiculous way that some CEOs parade themselves as if they were rock stars.
You see it in the lower levels, too, where managers bloviate about leadership and "inspiring" people, when in fact they're usually just making everyone under them want to puke.
What Drucker said -- and I agree with him -- is that the business world doesn't need leaders. It needs managers -- people who can actually manage a team of people.
Being a manager means being in service to the team. It means giving the team credit and making everyone else successful.
So, as we go forward, let's stop enabling all these tin-pot "leaders" by pretending that they're doing anything other than grandstanding. Let's value the real managers, who actually do the hard (and largely thankless) work of making other people productive.
When you talk to people who work in "Human Resources", they pretend that they're all about helping people to become more successful. But the truth is that the entire concept of HR is really just a way to make sure that employees don't act uppity.
What better way to let people know that they're expendable commodities than calling them "resources"? Indeed, the entire concept of HR is designed to make the process of dealing with real live people as bloodless as dealing with electricity or shipments of iron ore.
As for the functionaries who've glommed onto the term, whenever an HR group gets involved in anything, you get a patina of psychobabble that overlays the opinion that an employee is about as important as making sure the trash gets picked up.
Let's face it. Many, and probably most, HR groups are just spies and shills for management. Don't believe me? Try taking a complaint about your manager to the HR group and see what happens.
Once people are reduced to "resources", you can pretend that making them work unpaid overtime, or firing them because top management screwed up is "better resource utilization." Most of all, the term communicates in no uncertain terms that you're completely expendable.
How come you never hear C-level executives being called "management resources"? No, no, of course, not. Those guys are essential! Those guys are the leaders! They're not replaceable like the hoi-polloi, the plug and play "human resources" at the bottom.
You want to know what a CEO does? He manages a group of 10 to 13 people. Here's the truth, boys and girls. Being a CEO is marginally more difficult than being a line manager who manages a group of 10 to 13 people.
CEOs do not "run the company". They manage a group of other managers who presumably are smart enough to -- guess what! -- manage the group of people who work for them. There's no reason in heaven or hell that a CEO should get paid more that few multiples of what the "human resources" who actually do the work.
So, as we go forward, let's stop talking about "human resources" and start calling people what they are: people. People who have real lives and real ideas and real emotions and who, frankly, are doing work that's often more important than that of the top executives.
Back in the 20th century, there was all kinds of talk about how technology was going to empower people. Applications like email and, later the Internet, would create a free-flow of ideas, making it possible for individuals and small organizations to counterbalance the power of large institutions.
Today, however, it's abundantly clear that technology isn't empowering employees; it's empowering management to spy upon employees. And technology isn't empowering small organizations; it's making it easier for large organizations to drive the smaller ones out of business.
As evidence of this, look at what's happening to Wiki-leaks, probably one of the only organizations in the world that's actually making a stab at the kind of information empowerment that was promised in the past. The big financial institutions, one by one, are using their clout to shut it down, even though the organization has not been charged with any crime.
Consider as well, the so-called "net neutrality" act recently passed.
There's a concept in business called "the law of inverse relevance" which can be stated as "the less you plan to do something, the most you must talk about it." That generally takes the form of laws and regulations that do the exact opposite of what their title says they're going to do.
The "net neutrality" act is a perfect example. Rather than making sure that the net remains neutral, it actually makes certain that wireless companies will be able to throttle any business or business concept that threatens their profits.
The way this "empowerment" concept plays out in business is the insane idea that new technology is going to make people more innovative, more entrepreneurial, more creative, yada, yada, yada. Such total BS. All those things come from the heart, not from the hand.
So, as we go forward, let's stop talking about technology as "empowerment" and start talking about what really counts: human creativity freed from the limitations imposed by bonehead "leaders" who think they're managing "human resources".
Many traditional business leaders have a militaristic view of the way the business world works. A glance at the titles of popular business books-Marketing Warfare, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Guerrilla PR-offer ample testimony for this widely held viewpoint. We're told that we must imitate generals and warlords if we want to be successful managers.
Taking all this to heart, many executives talk as if they were planning the next world war: "This product will do major damage in the marketplace! We've armed our sales force. We've targeted the right set of customers! The new ad campaign will explode into the territories! This is going to be a major victory! Our troops are ready!"
Here's the problem. If a company's executives really believe that business is warfare, then that dogma will be reflected in nearly everything that goes on inside the corporation. Strategies that don't fit the dogma-regardless of their potential for success-will be rejected because they are literally "unthinkable."
For example, executives who believe that business is a battlefield will almost inevitably assume that victory in business goes to the largest "army" and they'll build large, complicated departments stuffed full of people and resources. Even when customers would be better served by a smaller, more focused effort, there will be an overwhelming drive to build a massive corporate "army" that's "strong" and ready to "fight."
Military-minded managers also find it all too easy to become control freaks. Because they see themselves as generals and officers, they tell people what to do. They think that good employees should shut up and follow orders. This behavior destroys initiative as people wait around for top management to make decisions.
And because top management is often the most isolated from the customer, the company loses track of what's needed in the marketplace. Further, the "business warfare" mentality makes it impossible to put the decision making where it belongs-at the lowest level of the organization.
Military thinking also distances employees from their customers. To the militaristic company, customers are, at best, faceless territory to be "targeted" and "captured" with marketing and sales "campaigns." This strategy discourages the viewing of customers as living, breathing human beings with opinions, interests, and concerns of their own.
BTW, the entire "business warfare' concept, with its buddy-buddy, band-of-brothers, shoot-'em-up consciousness seems ludicrous to many women. Not having spent their childhood playing soldiers in the sandbox, many women find it pretty ridiculous that a bunch of grown men can act as if their boring meetings and dry-as-dust ideas were high adventure and global conflict.
The militaristic organization almost always discriminates against women. From time immemorial, warfare has been a male pastime, and though women have often fought and died in wars, they're generally considered second-class soldiers. Men who think that executives should be generals in three-piece suits find it extraordinarily difficult to envision a woman in a position of power.
So, going forward, let's deep-six the militaristic jingoism and start talking about business in terms of relationships, agreements and profitability. Then we'll all be better off.