Friday, April 30, 2010

Deciphering the Things Bosses Say

Chances are you’ve had a conversation with your boss where he or she says something that sounds a little bit lopsided – or perhaps even crazy. Or maybe you were the boss and you found yourself saying something that – in retrospect – you’re really not proud of.

Here are some of my least favorite things I have heard bosses say:

“That’s just the way the system works.” I’ve seen managers use this line when delivering a less-than-appropriate assessment. This boss probably believes what they are saying. But what they really mean is, “My boss told me I had to do this,” or “I think you deserve more but I failed to get you the result you deserve.”

“I can’t let you take that opportunity/promotion because you’re too valuable.” This is a classic response to an internal (within the same company) job opportunity. This boss (usually) doesn’t really want to keep you from achieving your goals. What this really means is, “You have great skills and I’m worried about how I will replace you.”

“You’re working too hard.” Sounds a little crazy, right? The truth might be that this boss is afraid of losing resources. She may want the job to look harder than it is, or perhaps protect lower-performing employees from being fired.

“You don’t want to do that,” or “Do you really want to do that?” This one is tricky – some great bosses will use these words when they want to help you think things through. If your boss is a good mentor, this is likely the case, but there’s also a chance that this boss really means, “I don’t want you to do that,” or “I’ll look bad if you do that.”

The craziest thing a boss ever said to me was, “You didn’t get the job because the last two managers they hired were female, and this time they needed to hire a male.” In his defense, he was telling the truth (and he was relaying a decision made by someone else). I was appreciative that my boss was willing to share what really happened (and I did get a management job shortly thereafter), but it was nonetheless – crazy.

It’s your turn. What’s the craziest thing your boss has ever said to you?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Working for a Large Corporation

When I interviewed new hires to work for my prior employer (a large high-tech corporation) I was sure to include a discussion on what it means to work in a large corporation. I would start by telling candidates that…

The good news is you work for a large corporation.

Besides the access to benefits (like say, health insurance), one of the biggest advantages to working in a large company is that you can change jobs – often multiple times – and stay within the company. For someone like me who is always up for a new challenge, being able to move from a development team, to a marketing group, to services, and back again, provides the intellectual challenge that many people seek – without having to update the resume and embark on a job search.

There’s also more flexibility in moving from technical roles to project management roles, to personnel management roles in a large company, simply because those jobs exist. At the same time, if you are the type that likes to become an expert in something – to go deep – then large companies can be a great option because the technical career paths extend higher into the company.

Larger companies tend to have more physical sites (and branch offices), as well as more diversity in co-workers, making them good places to grow and collaborate.

Until the last decade I would have also said that the large company provides a feeling of family, but I find that for most that’s no longer true. Many employees are working remotely or from home, and may never even meet their co-workers.

I have also crossed job-security off the list of benefits of a large corporation. While this used to be true... not so much anymore. Instead of staff balancing occurring across business units (e.g. down-sizing one unit to staff a new team), too often jobs are cut completely, or staffed overseas. And that brings us to the flip side of the coin…

The bad news is you work for a large corporation.

There’s a phenomenon similar to a Vulcan mind meld that happens within large companies. Each company has a culture, and successful employees conform to that culture. This can be a good thing, but for many it means that it’s harder to be seen (and heard) as an individual.

And large companies really do have more red tape. It’s harder to get decisions made, and employees have less autonomy. You may have a brilliant idea, but by the time you follow all required processes, and review it with all the stakeholders, and get your executive team to buy-in, there’s a good chance that it may not even resemble what you started with. Of course, there’s also a chance that the end product may have improved with all the input and collaboration. What do you think?

What have you found to be the good and the bad in working for a large corporation?

Friday, April 16, 2010

How to Incent the Wrong Behavior

Story time…

Recently I called my satellite radio service provider to change my ongoing service. I had signed up to automatically renew the three units I had active at the time, but was no longer using one of the radios. I wanted to continue the service on two radios and cancel the third. Sounds simple, right?

The first time I called (about a month before my subscription would renew) I was told that I should call back a month later. The representative at the service center was clearly reading from a script, and no matter what I said including, “I’d like to speak a manager,” I couldn’t get her to assure me that it had been canceled. In fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t.

So I called back a few days before the renewal date. This time the service rep understood my request, and said she would need to send me to a special center. (Okay, we’re getting somewhere.) The special center turned out to be a sales rep. Our conversation went something like this:

Sales rep: “I understand you’d like to cancel your service.”
Me: “No, I just want to cancel one of the three radios. I’d like to keep the other two active.”
Sales rep: “Why do you want to cancel?”
Me: “I’m not using it anymore.”
Sales rep: “I can offer you a 50% discount for one year.”
Me: “No thanks, I’m not using it.”
Sales rep: “Okay, I can give you a 50% discount on your other two radios for a year.”
Me (surprised): “Really? What’s the hook? Am I signing up for anything more than one year?”
Sales rep: “No, just something I can offer you today.”

I take the offer and run. Good for me. Bad for the service provider's bottom line.

So, what happened here? I was fully prepared to pay full price for service to the remaining two radios. It’s pretty clear to me that the sales rep was incented to keep customers. If I just canceled the one radio she would have been dinged for a ‘loss’. Instead, she was able to log this as a ‘save’, and was most likely compensated for that.

Ahhh… a perfect example of how to incent the wrong behavior.

Déjà vu, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen sales reps sell a competitor’s product instead of their own company’s product because one unit (not the one who was responsible for that product’s P&L) decided to compensate the sales team more for it. I’ve seen sales reps offer a discount on pricing because a discretionary promotion was in place (that the rep was incented for), even when they could have sold it at the higher price.

It is truly amazing how an incentive can affect behavior. And it can get really messy when different stakeholders are competing to incent the sales teams.

Have you witnessed this too? What’s your story? Share your examples of incenting the wrong behavior with a comment here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Galleon Case Revisited

It’s been nearly six months since the first six defendants were charged in the Galleon insider trading scandal and six months before the last of those six defendants, Bob Moffat (formerly of IBM), entered a plea.

When I posted my first article on this topic titled When a Senior Leader is Charged With a Crime, I was both dismayed and outraged that something like this could happen in the IBM family. When I posted the news that Moffat had entered a guilty plea, this forum received a record number of hits. The consensus of the readers here (based on comments and on forums) is that justice is being served, but also that this is a sad situation for IBM and the IBM family.

Moffat has admitted he was wrong, and according to statements by his lawyer Kerry Lawrence, Moffat is “deeply sorry for the embarrassment his conduct has caused to his family and to his former employer, IBM”.

So now what happens?

Of the original six defendants, only Raj Rajaratnam (the alleged ringleader and Galleon founder) and Danielle Chiesi (New Castle consultant who allegedly passed on tips from other defendants) are pleading “not guilty”. Their criminal trial will begin in October.

Four defendants are cooperating with the prosecution, including Rajiv Goel and Anil Kumar (two of the original six arrested). Mark Kurland and Bob Moffat have entered guilty pleas but are not cooperating with the prosecution.

Sentencing for Moffat is scheduled for July 26th. According to his plea agreement, he will face up to six months in prison. Other defendants will be sentenced between April and July. All of the defendants are currently released on bail.

There are some key issues to be resolved before the criminal trial begins. Wiretaps were used to obtain key evidence – the defense is arguing this evidence should be thrown out because the government did not follow the requirements of the Wiretap Act in obtaining authorization to record the telephone conversations. A hearing on that issue is scheduled for mid-June. Also, Rajaratnam and Chiesi have asked that their cases be heard separately.

There is a related civil case, which has been delayed until February 2011, to give the lawyers enough time to prepare following an anticipated decision in July on whether the wiretap evidence will be allowed in the civil trial. While the criminal trial may result in some defendants going to jail, the civil trial is where the court will rule on returning monies that were obtained illegally.

More details can be found in this summary from NY Times Dealbook.

The big remaining question is “why?”

It doesn’t appear that greed was the motive in Moffat’s case. From what we know of the charges, he did not profit financially from any of the trading based on the information he provided. It has also been suggested that perhaps Moffat had a more-than-professional relationship with Danielle Chiesi. Indeed, she was the link between him and Rajaratnam.

We may never know the details, but I think it’s possible that the motivation behind this was neither money nor sex. I think it’s very possible that Moffat may have simply gotten carried away with the need for power and prestige – that being a Senior VP at IBM and a contender for the CEO job was simply not enough for him.

What do you think?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mad Men (and Women)

Now that Mad Men Season 3 is available on DVD and has arrived at my door, I’ve gone back to re-watch seasons 1 and 2 before I jump into the most recent season.

Every time I watch the show I find something new that I can relate to. For example, I can really empathize with Sally Draper (Don and Betty Draper’s young daughter) who is shuffled off to dance lessons, rushes to the door of her suburban home to welcome Daddy home from work, and is tucked into bed at an early hour. Yes, I can remember my parents having fancy dinner parties where my siblings and I were allowed to stay up just long enough to say hello, then shuffled off to our rooms.

But it’s Peggy Olsen that most intrigues me. Starting as a secretary she impresses her boss with her creative skills, and lands a job as a copywriter on the creative team. She is that woman who was a first, paving the way for so many of us to be accepted in the corporate world into positions that were previously reserved for men.

Peggy’s boss is Don Draper – the creative genius who woos clients with his clever tongue, and always manages to have a stroke of brilliance at just the right time (oh, don’t we wish it really worked that way). But he’s truly her mentor, guiding, collaborating, and providing her with opportunities. And, at least so far, Peggy’s career hasn’t disappointed me as I watch her get promoted, and then asked to join the new firm that is being formed at the end of season 3.

I recently came across this article in the Boston Globe, written by Myril Axelrod, a real life Peggy Olsen who worked in a professional capacity at an ad agency in the 60’s. By her account, the way women are depicted in the Mad Men series is largely correct. There were few women professionals, women were primarily perceived in stereotypical roles, and they struggled to break through to executive levels.

In reading Axelrod’s account, it reminded me that, no matter how difficult it still appears for women in the workplace today, we have indeed come a very long way, and we have role models like Myril Axelrod to thank. (Imagine ceremonious glass raising here.) Here’s to you Myril, and all the other Peggy Olsen’s who were courageous enough to be the first!