to Kill a Career
by Barry Maher
The president of a large financial
services company went on a fact-finding tour of regional offices. When he got to
Illinois, the local management carefully handpicked several veterans and a
couple of promising new recruits to the fact-finding dinner. The new recruits
were the most gung-ho in the office. The veterans could be counted on to behave
with discretion; they understood company protocol. Jim Aronson, the most
knowledgeable, if the most cynical, veteran in the division was deliberately not
invited. Jim understood his value to the company, and wasn't interested in being
promoted. No telling what he might say to the president.
But Aronson being Aronson, before the
dinner he sought out one of the new recruits and took her aside.
was young, ambitious and intelligent. She was a sincere, dedicated, hardworking
Pollyanna, a likeable lady in her late 20s. She wanted to be a manager, and
everyone knew that in time she would be.
Shelly had been around just long enough
to realize that Aronson was absolutely right when he said that the regional
offices had one problem that overwhelmed all the rest. That problem was the
yearly evaluation program that based pay increases on activity rather than
genuine achievement. Overspending, empire building, procedures for the sake of
procedures and reports for the sake of reports were rewarded at the expense of
"Then there's the hard feelings
these things generate," Aronson added. "All these vague personality
issues: Not a team player; lacking in
loyalty; no initiative. You've seen
them. A lot of times, they're more accusations than assessmentsa chance for management to get even
with those they don't like. How do they measure that stuff?
How can anybody refute it? How
can you work on improvement if your SOB manager still doesn't like you next
Shelly nodded. Aronson even armed her
with article that he'd clipped from an old magazine. Among other things, it
mentioned a study showing that performance evaluations were usually followed by
a drop in performance of upwards of three months.
"Around here it's longer than
three months," he insisted. "Around here it probably lasts right up
until time for the next evaluation. This company is 15 years behind the times.
They need to be focusing on behaviorsproductive behaviorsnot personalities. Met 83 percent of
on-time goals; reduced consulting costs by 11 percent. That's something I
can do something about. What they're measuring now is who's doing the most
busywork and how well they suck up. No wonder we lose so many of our best
Shelly was ready that evening, if a bit nervous. At the lead table on a dais sat
the president, along with the regional vice president and all the
management. The invitees were at floor level at two smaller tables.
After the dinner, the president stood
up. "As you know," he said, "We're here tonight because I wantI needyour frank and open feedback. Your
comments, your suggestions and, yes, if it's warranted, your criticism. This, of
course, is a safe environment. A completely safe environment. You have my word
on that. You can say anything you feel has to be said without fear of
retribution." He smiled. "No matter how many of your bosses might be
sitting up here beside me."
Everyone laughed. Shelly laughed. But
unfortunately she didn't catch the edge of nervousness in the other laughter.
Then, one by one, all the invitees had
their chance to get up and say their piece. About how wonderful it was to have a
president who cared enough to come out and ask for their opinion. About how this
kind of openness was what separated this company from the competition and made
it such a fantastic place to work and build a career. About how this kind of
thinking was why the company was a true industry leader.
No one mentioned the company's industry
leading turnover or why it trailed the industry in virtually every other major
benchmark. The problems that were mentioned were small, usually process-related.
The president would assign either the regional VP or the division manager to
"check into the situation and see if we can improve on our systems and
procedures." No one anywhere took any notes on these
"assignments." No one even recorded that they'd been made.
Shelly's turn came near the end. She
stood up. Respectfully, she thanked the president for coming. Then she said,
"The problem I'm concerned with is a little more basic." She didn't
notice the sudden concern on the face of her immediate boss at the lead table.
"Have we looked into whether our current evaluation and compensation system
is rewarding the wrong type of behavior?"
Nobody actually gasped out loud. But
the psychic gasp was nearly loud enough to be heard. To an outsider, the
question might seem harmless, but every single person at that dinnereveryone but Shellyknew just how verboten the topic
was. Six years previously, before his promotion, the president had been the
prime mover behind the development of the standardized system she was
questioning. It had been his crowning achievement.
"We've looked at all types of
compensation strategies," the president said coolly and dismissively.
"We know what the competition is doing. After studying all the alternatives
I think I can safely say that we've got one of the finest compensation systems
in the industry." He pointed to the man seated beside Shelly.
"But, sir," Shelly insisted,
compounding her mistake exponentially. "It's everybody's major gripehow unfair the assessments are. And how
counterproductive. Instead of rewarding people for cultivating more beans and
cultivating them as efficiently as possible, we reward those who find more and
more elaborate ways of bean counting and re-counting."
This last was a virtual Aronson quote,
and all the local managers knew it. But Aronson was untouchable.
"Everybody's major gripe?"
The president's voice was cold. "Then why didn't anyone else here even
mention it? Not one single person. Anybody else here agree with MsMs, what was your name?"
"Channing, sir" she said,
tensely. "Shelly Channing.
"Anybody else agree with Ms
Channing here?" His tone made
it plain that nobody in that room could possibly agree with such an absurd
proposition. Not surprisingly, nobody did. "But I think I see your problem,
Ms Channing. Your problem is that you're in the wrong line of work. We aren't
even in the bean business."
smiled. Everyone else laughed nervously and he called on the next invitee.
Without knowing it, Shelly Channing had
just destroyed her chances of ever being promoted to management within that
company. Within six months she was gone.
And afterward when local management
told the story, it was always as an object lesson on how not to behave in front
of upper management, and on the danger of not properly selecting and briefing
your people before such a meeting. The next time a VIP came to town, the
regional vice president personally instructed the local managers that this type
of incident was not to be allowed to happen again.
In other words, they were to make sure
that, in their fact-finding, upper management would find no embarrassing facts
they didn't want to find.
So it didn't happen again. But it
should have. It should have happened in every meeting--until the company
realized and acknowledged they had a problem. Even if for some reason there
really was nothing they could do about the problem. At least properly
acknowledging it would give them a chance to explain why there was nothing they
from Filling the Glass: The Skeptic's Guide to Positive Thinking in Business
Barry Maher (Dearborn 2001).
Copyright 2013, Barry Maher,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Maher consults, writes and
speaks on professional development, motivation,
management and sales. Filling the Glass: The Skeptic's Guide to Positive
Thinking in Business was recently cited by Todays Librarian as
[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books.