ejd’s on The Origin of the Corporate Culture by Means of Endless Meetings

This was a lead-in for the next post, but it took on a life of its own . . . it evolved, if you will, into a separate post.

I hired into GM in January of 1978, quit August of 1983, contracted right back into GM in September 1983.  In May 1984, a friend of mine  and I were asked by GM to start a company GM would then contract to do work for them.  In June 1984 Hartwick Professionals, Inc. was born, and continued until June 2004.  The majority of the work we did was for GM, and 95% of the projects I personally worked on were for GM.  Porsche and Navistar projects were sprinkled in there just to irritate me, but for the most part GM was my work environment for 26 years.

Working for, at, or near GM translates into attending meetings, where ambitious people practice what they have correctly surmised about getting ahead in big corporations; giving presentations.  The longer, more boring, and pointless the presentation, the more one was assured of speedy travel up the ladder to the top.

“Hmmm . . . “, I thought.  “I should leverage what I have learned, and provide guidance for those interested in corporate careers”.  Hence my primer entitled “on The Origin of Corporate Culture by Means of Endless Meetings, or The Preservation of Mediocrity in the Struggle for Power”.  It’s presented free for all who hope to reach the high level of management where common sense is no longer needed or recognized.  Mind you, morally I can’t recommend one following this path, but it is lucrative.

Most of the primer is actually a review of history, and it goes like this; sometime in the early 1900’s an intrepid but talentless corporate cog had the inadvertently brilliant idea of cataloging the productive work others were doing, and presenting it in the form of a chart.

His motivation is unclear, but one can surmise that wanting to mask his lack of understanding of the “what” and “how”, he opted instead to concentrate on the “when”.  Little was required besides asking people who were doing actual work questions such as “When did you start?” and “When will you be done?”.

He then presented the information he gathered as a line superimposed on a calendar.  Upper management liked it (they too had little understanding of the process, but back then they were still able to tell time), and said so: “We like it!!  Come sit by me and tell me all about these here dates.”  

Well, others took note of this and scrambled to duplicate the feat by running out and asking questions like “How much does this cost?”, and “How many people are working on this product?”, and “Just exactly how many screws do you use?”, and “What material is that?  How about that one?” of the workers that were trying to get stuff done.

Soon charts were flooding Upper Management with all sorts of information, and larger and larger conference tables were ordered to accommodate all the chart makers orbiting Upper Management.  

It was hard to argue with success.  People doing actual work were consistently passed up for promotions because, since they were working, upper management never saw any of them.  On the other hand, people documenting the work got to stand in front of management and present their findings by waving their telescoping pointers, and reading out loud what was on the chart for all to see.   

“We can plainly see,” they would intone in their best megaphone voice, “that we are trending upward.”

It mattered little what was trending, as long as it was trending up.  Unless it was cost; cost, it was quickly learned, should always trend lower.  And so Middle Management was born.

Soon people ran out of things to track.  What were enterprising new-comers to do?  Well, they studied the situation . . . and came to an important realization.

It was not the charts themselves; it was the time spent in front of Upper Management.   Thus the concept of “face-time” was born.

And how does one increase face-time with Upper Management?  Why, consolidate the information of course!  So they went to the people who were asking the workers for data, and asked them what their data showed.  They then put multiple trends lines into a single chart.  This allowed them to both undermine other people’s face time, and to increase their own.

For their part, Upper Management was truly impressed.  They needed to pay attention to only one chart.  Upper-Middle Management was thus born; managers who took the work of Middle Management and presented it to Upper Management.

As a side note, one day a young manager had the brilliant idea to color the lines to make them distinguishable from each other.  Thus were graphic departments conceived, and flourish to this day.  Countless people making pretty graphics showing data consolidated from people who summarized data obtained from people who actually do stuff.  Not that  Middle, Upper-Middle, or Upper Management knows what actual work is being done; they are only concerned with the aesthetic of the charts.  3D charts, bicycle charts, scatter graphs . . . you name it, and someone came up with it.

As a side-side note, Microsoft push into the corporate arena was aided by something called the Powerpoint Presentation.  A brilliant stroke of genius that name.  You could almost see a manager’s ego inflate as they uttered the words; Powerpoint Presentation.

But back to my primer . . . things are no different today than they were when I started at GM.  The key to success boils down to just a few simple rules one must follow.

As soon as you can, get yourself invited to a meeting.  Not as the poor sot who has to answer questions someone else will then chart, but as someone with his own little chart.  Make sure it’s a little chart.  Your direct manager will then not feel threatened, for his own charts will look good in comparison.

He (I say he, but these days it might also be a she – if it is a she, make sure you are a she as well; shes only help other shes, just as hes help other hes – unless they are directed to help other shes and shes are directed to help other hes) . . . where was I . . . oh, yeah . . . he will be so pleased your little chart made his chart look good, that he will ask you to attend future meetings . . . and to bring your little charts.

The next step is tricky.  You must slowly enhance your chart so as to show you have “the ability”, but still leave it a lesser chart to that of your manager.  Eventually the manager will realize your chart-talent, and will ask you to prepare the charts for the Weekly Meeting; this will make him feel like he’s Upper-Middle Management material.

He’ll still be the one presenting charts at the Monthly Meeting with Upper-Middle Management, so he will not feel threatened by you holding the reins of power to the Weekly Meeting.  You now must exercise patience . . . the day will come when your manager will have a conflict in his schedule, and will ask you to cover for him at the Monthly Meeting with Upper-Middle Management.

That is your chance!  Unleash your full chart-making prowess, and put it all on the line by adding your name (very small, but easily readable) on the chart.  Your manager will not be there, so he will not know of this betrayal until it’s too late.  A word of caution . . . make two charts; your fancy, balls out, here-is-my-chance masterpiece, and a regular one.  You see, sly managers sometime test their underlings.  At the last minute the sly manager is opt to say “I’ll go; my schedule just cleared up!”, in which case you hand him the regular chart.

Yes, it’s a setback, but on the upside your manager is now convinced he has a docile flunky to use at will.  Eventually your chance will come, and you will have your moment in front of Upper-Middle Management.  When you do, make sure you only present good news.  You see, they will have to present it to Upper Management during their Quarterly Meetings, and they do not want to present bad news to Upper Management.

If it’s bad news, Upper-Middle Management will ask you to present it to Upper Management, and once you do, you will be forever tainted as the bearer of bad news; if that happens, you can kiss your career goodbye.

The better the news, the better odds you have of catching the eye of an Upper-Middle Management manager.  If you do, in short order you will be reporting to him, and you start the process all over.

Through Quarterly Meetings, onto Semi-Annual meetings, and finally the Annual Review with the CEO.

I will not sugar-coat this; it takes years, and sadly some retire before ever reaching their goal.  You have to be patient, and you need a little luck.  You can help it along by quickly learning each new version of PowerPoint, and learn to integrate Excel spreadsheets, animations, and perhaps even multimedia, into your PowerPoint presentations.  A perennial favorite is a clip of someone making something . . . it will remind management just how privileged they are to be so far removed from actual work.  It will make them feel good, and when they feel good you profit.

What?  Yes I am serious!  In my years dealing with corporations, I have never witnessed anyone who did actual work rise through the ranks.  Worse yet, I’ve seen aspiring managers well on their way up the ladder slip up and do something useful.  Bad mistake!!  Upper Management will notice, and those aspiring managers are tainted with the “He’s useful where he’s at” stink.  Their career stalls, and they are stuck actually working for a living.  Poor saps.

So, remember . . . don’t do anything that might be construed as useful or productive.  Avoid presenting your own work; it must all be derived from what others have done, for that is the mark of the successful manager.  It’s the way Upper Management will recognize you as one of their own.

Good luck.