Curing the Corporate Condition

September 25, 2015


The Inspiration For This Piece

My good friend Frank, who works in software development at the University of Pennsylvania (specifically the Abramson Cancer Center), wrote a rather intriguing post last week about the way business works today, and it got me thinking. You see, Frank’s one of those people who “tells it like it is,” or at the very least isn’t shy about saying what’s on his mind. I’d even say that he’s been a voice for many who don’t feel like they have one. He fearlessly approaches uncomfortable topics in a way that disarms and neutralizes opposition with a rare ability to blend diplomacy and candor.

People who don’t know Frank might consider him to be brusque or arrogant, disregarding his sometimes provocative opinions as deliberately controversial, dramatic, or alarmist complaints. But having known him for most of my life, I can tell you that he’s one of the few people whose words really make me stop and think. He rarely speaks on a topic without exploring all sides to fully form his position, something that is difficult for most people when it comes to topics like religion, politics, morality, and matters of the heart.

Frank is one of the only people I know who can truly remove himself from a situation and extract emotion in order to deliver an informed analytical perspective, and he bears less resemblance to a whiner or complainer than anyone I know (myself included).

That’s the type of person who, in my opinion, earns respect just by being who they are – whether you agree with them, like them, or not. I’d like to share with you not only my friend’s angle on the corporate condition, but his simple recipe for overcoming it and achieving personal success in spite of it all. 

The Unfortunate State of (Typical) Business Today

Even in today’s increasingly progressive and modern job market, much of the world of big business is still tangled in the red tape and organizational vagueness fueled by corporate rhetoric. When I think of business as we (most of us) know it, I have to ask “Where did this modus operandi come from, and when did it start influencing company culture so universally? Why can’t all companies be like the ones we read such glowing reviews about” (think Fortune’s list of 100 Best CompaniesGlassdoor’s Employee Choice Awards (Best Places to Work), and Forbes’ The 25 Best Places to Work list)?

Is it self interest? Is it a mindset? Is there some elite understanding that’s only accessible via extreme corporate transformative breakthrough? I would say that most businesses, regardless of size, have their own brand of dysfunction. It doesn’t mean each company is all bad – many are probably decent places to work with a handful of issues that are change-resistant for one reason or another, and that likely affect different workers in different ways.

In most cases, company dysfunction seems to fit like a comfy old sweater with holes in it that hasn’t been washed. The sweater-wearers know they’d look and feel better if they cleaned the sweater and patched up the holes, but it’s just too darn comfortable and easy to continue walking around that way, since it’s not really hurting anything. 

Rather than change into something more presentable, they’ll wear that stinky, hole-y sweater around the office like a security blanket until enough people complain, but the sweater always finds its way back. Also included in the corporate dysfunction action figure costume are cloudy goggles and a cape which cloaks the wearer in the magical powers of indirectness and ennui.

It seems that traditional corporate governance, rules, and protocol (bureaucratic, hierarchical red tape) were designed to make it easier for people at the top to manage and lead, usually at the expense of meaning, value, and happiness for the employees who really make things happen. Sure, a company’s set of policies are a necessary evil, but all too often the human element is lost and “by-the-book” management takes things too far by leaning on the employee manual like a crutch (or getting so lost in their own routine that they forget to engage with anyone else).

How often have we been told, “We can’t do that because it’s just not the way things work around here,” or “corporate would never go for it,” or “that’s not a top-level initiative this quarter”? Even decision-makers and department heads are familiar with the frustration of having to veto good ideas and redirect concerns because of the standard order of operations.

There are certain other unspoken commandments which create palpable frustration and tension in the common corporate environment. 

Allow me to share with you Frank’s interpretation:

1) Accept limitations imposed by corporate leadership upon you and the collective.

2) These “limitations” are the very justification for the jobs of the people who get paid more than you. They are meant to provide security for those “above” you and keep you from advancing too far.

3) You will be conditioned to believe that your “success” only exists within the limitations dictated by leadership and, that without them you will not flourish (diminishing your capabilities and the importance of your work).

4) Don’t try to be a catalyst for change. You will fail (and most likely threaten leadership, inviting scrutiny). 

5) Don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors in the pep rallies held by leadership to over-emphasize minor accomplishments made over an extended period of time.

6) Those claims will be embellished by a laundry list of pretentious corporate buzzwords that make “leadership” feel like they sound important. (See my list of annoying business jargon below.) 

7) The people at the top will take credit for the progress that you’ve made, and insult your intelligence through exaggeration and not giving credit where credit is due. 

8) Every time you try to challenge the status quo you will be backed into a corner by being reminded that you’re lucky to have this job, which would insinuate that you should be intimidated and could lose your job for trying to change things.

It’s surprisingly easy to “drink the Kool-Aid” and start believing these unspoken conditions when you think you’re fighting hard not to. Even if no one has said these things outright, it’s challenging to remain inspired, diligent, and happy at work when things function as if all of the above statements were made directly and aloud.

It Doesn’t Have to Slow You Down

Now let’s get a few things straight: My friend Frank is not some embittered, entitled whiner. He is evidence that money is only a small piece of job satisfaction. He’s worked really hard to get to where he is and he gets compensated well for what he does. He’s not a disgruntled, mean-spirited, unhappy person and that’s the reason so many people take him seriously. Frank’s no stranger to obstacles and neither is his field – he continues to prove every day that you can creatively change the world. 

Frank develops software that is used to find new ways to understand and treat cancer, from imaging techniques and simulations to predictive modeling and treatment scenarios which help to plan courses of medication and therapy unique to each patient. Simply put, nothing would work if his role was removed. Doctors and oncologists depend on it – it is a necessary part of an equation that could not be solved if not for the tools it provides and the work he performs.

But even in spite of the way Frank perceives corporate operations, he resists the urge to let it tarnish his professional identity or reduce the quality of the work he does. He still believes that we all have vital roles, no matter how big or small they are. So ignore what you’re fed and don’t “buy in” to the limitations. Instead, let them make you better and believe this: There are no ceilings except for the ones you construct. 

You can get wherever you want to be by being great at what you do. And if you don’t see a clear path where you are (and the current structure doesn’t leave room for you to plow through and forge one), then go make one somewhere else. The same so-called limitations exist for everyone and you can shatter them whether you’re a CEO or an intern.

Now let’s take a look at Frank’s recipe for success:

1) Identify something that you love to do.

2) Get so good at it that no one will ever be able to make you believe you’re not the best.

3) Do work.

And while you’re doing the work:

1) Focus on the work, not the other people doing the work.

2) Have conviction, and stand behind the work you do.

3) Do not compromise the quality of your work, even when that quality is not valued by “leadership.”

4) Demand that your worth be noticed and that you are compensated accordingly. If you’ve become the best, you have earned the right to say so (whether another colleague has more tenure or education than you or not). 

5) Teach everyone around you how to be the best, too – without holding their hands. Inspire, don’t instruct.

“At the end of the day, you are more than a paycheck. You are a creator. Go. Bleeping. Create.”

The Moral of the Story (or in Annoying Corporate Lingo, “Key Takeaways”)

The lesson here can be divided into two distinct messages, one for leadership and management and the other for employees at any level.

Moral for leadership and management: respect and value talent on an individual level. Embrace a culture where ideas are celebrated and unique perspectives are nurtured and rewarded. Compensate fairly, not according to what someone looks like “on paper.”

Moral for employees: don’t believe there’s a ceiling or limitations holding you back simply because the people above you haven’t shattered those limitations themselves. You very well can and may accomplish more than someone who is senior to you and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be applauded and rewarded for that. But it’s just as likely to be shunned and even penalized today. Don’t focus on the outcome. The only way you can get to where you want to go is to work hard and be the best you can be.

Create. Achieve. Perform. Set yourself apart. 

And while you’re being awesome, try to eliminate some of this ridiculous corporate vernacular from your vocabulary:

ROI, low-hanging fruit, laser-focus, synergy, buy-in, reach out, moving parts, scalable, best practices, thinking outside the box, drill down, robust, hard stop, next level, out of pocket, window of opportunity, touch base, breaking down silos, do more with less, tee it up, paradigm shift, circle back, move the needle, bottom line, at the end of the day, data driven, wrap our heads around, win-win, ballpark, competitive, team player, take this offline, net-net, limited bandwidth, sharpen our pencils, stake in the ground, results-oriented, due diligence, leaving money on the table, 30,000 foot view, deliverables, going forward, open-door policy, best-of-breed, value-add, push-back, up and to the right, re-org, phone it in, run with this, ramp up…

Unless, of course, you’re about to go “break down silos” internally by telling your “results-oriented, data-driven” boss that you just discovered the perfect “win-win” solution to a global problem and that if he doesn’t “ramp up” his appreciation of your efforts by giving you the resources to “move the needle” and “run with this,” then he can take his “low-hanging fruit” and throw it right out the “window of opportunity” because you are no longer interested in doing “more with less” and you’re going to put your “stake in the ground” by “reaching out” to that recruiter who contacted you last month about a “next level” opportunity with “competitive” pay where you could get more “buy-in” “at the end of the day.” How’s that for “ROI,” Mr. “push-back?” You heard me. “Phone it in.”

Join the conversation! Do you work for a great company where individuality, change, and ideas are embraced and celebrated at all levels? Are you recognized and rewarded for your work? On the other hand, can you share an experience (past or present) where you felt cheapened by imaginary limitations, procedural red tape, or leadership who wouldn’t listen? How do you excel and persevere in either environment and keep a positive attitude?

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