Some bosses believe strongly in the old adage ‘style over substance’. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert admits he can usually give those bosses what they want, thanks to his years of theatre experience.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to accept the idea that ‘business theatre’ can be a legitimate art form. By that, I mean the manipulation of workers, workplaces, and activities in such a way as to give an outsider a completely false impression of what’s going on inside a business. Sort of like the way a shady mechanic will paint over a patch of rust on a car in order to give the false impression that it’s structurally sound when it most certainly isn’t.
Business theatre didn’t come naturally to me, which is odd because I had a lot of experience with actual theatre as a kid. As best I recall, I got my first acting role in 1977 when my parents were teaching up at Lake Superior State College. I got to be the tyke who asks the narrator for a bedtime story in a Winnie-the-Pooh stage play. When I was in fourth grade, I got to play a singing and dancing ‘wicked witch’ in a traveling musical theatre production (we’d run out of real girls to play the girls’ parts, so …). My last big stage role was as a fascist bunny rabbit  in the musical Alice in Oz. I learned a great deal about narrative conventions, and interactive storytelling, and dramatic personae from all of that time spent entertaining audiences with goofball comedies. What I failed to get my head around for the longest time was that all of that on-stage experience could be quite useful in the cut-and-dried, suit-and-tie world. It turns out that there’s often a need for distracting acting in the workplace.
As an example: I was commissioned as an Army lieutenant in 1991. In 1992, I signed in to the 61st Medical Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas – I joined a brand new unit that was being built from scratch. Barely a month into my assignment as a Medical Platoon Leader, our Battalion Commander – we’ll call him Colonel Bob  – ordered my platoon to stand up an Aid Station out in an empty field for what we derisively called a ‘dog and pony show’. We were told that we were going to put on a non-functional ‘static display’ version of our primary medical setup so that a troupe of civilian visitors could take an up-close gawk at it.
Being the dutiful little soldier, I got out the official manual  and had my troopers set the Aid Station up exactly as it was supposed to function in wartime. When my company commander came round to inspect us, he compared our layout to the manual and told us that we’d done quite well. When Colonel Bob came by, though, he ordered us to rearrange all of our litters, chests, and tables. Instead of having the civilian visitors walk through the tent from entrance to exit the way that real casualties would process, Colonel Bob told us that he wanted the tent to be arranged an a non-functional diorama with all of the kit on one wall. He said that he intended to roll up one of the long tent sides, so that he could treat the Aid Station like the backdrop in a play while he gave a stirring speech to his distinguished visitors from the local Chamber of Commerce.
My soldiers were confused by the change of orders, and more than a little bit miffed. Rearranging everything to the new specs would mean that we’d all be getting back to the garrison late in the evening. The younger soldiers would arrive too late to get dinner in the mess hall and would go their bunks hungry. We were all cold, wet, and miserable from having wasted a day working in a muddy field under a constant cold drizzle. I was doing fairly well at maintaining an officer’s stoic disposition, right up until Colonel Bob decided that we needed to procure an electrocardiograph machine to add to the ‘display.’ That’s when I (quite foolishly) started arguing with the man.
I informed Colonel Bob that we weren’t authorized an EKG machine. We’d never actually use one, because it was outside our clinical scope of practice. Moreover, running down the batteries in a portable EKG rig (that we’d have to borrow from another unit) would be detrimental to the highly expensive machine for no legitimate military or medical purpose.
‘I know that, lieutenant.’ Colonel Bob said. ‘But I want one because it looks more medical.’
I’m fairly certain that I wasn’t going to punch Colonel Bob for his insolence, but my commander couldn’t be sure of that. Before I could unleash my blistering (and wholly unprofessional) snarky retort, my CO’s hand grabbed my collar and jerked me out of the tent. Two soldiers drove back to base to sign out an electrocardiograph machine from the base hospital, and I was ordered to guard a very important hedge on the other side of the field until Colonel Bob left the area. A few minutes after I took up my post, my Platoon Sergeant joined me, having muttered (where the Captain could hear him) that Colonel Bob was a w****r.
Afterwards, my CO, my Platoon Sergeant, and I had a very calm and rational discussion about the situation after we sent the enlisted soldiers back into garrison to eat and dry off. My sergeant’s argument, distilled down, was that we shouldn’t be using American soldiers and equipment to carry out a con-job on a bunch of civilian marks. It was inherently dishonest. I added that we certainly shouldn’t be forcing soldiers to toil pointlessly in the freezing drizzle for a cause that had nothing whatsoever to do with official government business. My commander listened patiently to us and admitted that he completely agreed with all of our points. He then pointed out that Colonel Bob’s orders – while questionable – were not technically illegal. He had never told any of us soldiers to lie to civilians; rather, some audience members might be passively deceived by what they saw. That distinction was within bounds for the colonel’s authority. Therefore, we were going to salute sharply and get the job done as-ordered.
As it turned out, the visitors from the local Chamber of Commerce were not the least bit impressed about a soggy tent in the middle of a muddy field on a cold winter’s day. I doubt that any of them noticed that there was a forlorn little electrocardiograph machine beeping cheerily away on top of a stack of blankets. None of them were paying any attention to Colonel Bob’s anaemic oratory; they just wanted to go home. We had so much in common …
That event stuck with me for years (obviously). At the time, I was outraged that we being less than completely truthful with an audience. I took my professional responsibilities waaaaaaaaaytoo seriously as a twitchy little subaltern. I can laugh about it now.
During my time at Fort Hood, I got quite familiar with the Army’s aphorism: ‘If it looks good, it must be good.’ That was Colonel Bob’s mantra: he demonstrated that he really didn’t care about substance. So long as people, processes, and things looked the way that they were supposed to, he didn’t really care whether they were rotten under all the shiny new paint. That was simply his way of getting through life: side-step leadership problems with a little prestidigitation and some sparkly distractions. I may not have cared for it, but It worked for him. 
Over the years, I met a lot of senior managers and executives who came from the same school of thought as dear old Colonel Bob. Style over substance was their go-to technique for getting past whatever career obstacle was causing them grief. Spray painting the grass green so that it looks healthy from a passing car isn’t just a military pastime. It’s universal. In fact, I’ve found that it happens a lot more often in the corporate world than in the ranks.
In one memorable instance, I was building out a new Dot Com company. Two days before the company’s so-called ‘grand opening’ party, one of the senior directors had himself a nice little public freak-out because (he opined) our brand new building didn’t seem ‘busy enough’. He complained that potential investors and clients wouldn’t be suitably impressed if they came to our globally-broadcast cocktail mixer and PowerPoint deluge and saw some unoccupied desks.
I was called into the VP’s office and got soundly thrashed over why I hadn’t completely kitted out the ‘entire company’ with PCs (I was the company’s acting head of systems and networks at the time). After counting to ten, I calmly pointed out that we only had 120 employees working in a building that had been constructed to house 200, and that every single employee had at least one (if not two) PCs issued. Facts be damned, the director reained livid about the 80 ‘empty’ cubicles. ‘We’ve courting investors for an IPO,’ he hissed. ‘We have to demonstrate that we’re a world-class Internet company and that we’re overflowing with hard-working talent! Go outfit every one of those desks by tomorrow morning!’
Having learned from the aforementioned ‘it looks more medical’ cock-up, I bit my tongue anddidn’t point out to the frenzied VP that the company wasn’t then (and was never going to be) a ‘world class’ anything. Instead, I asked if I had budgetary and contractual authority to solve the problem. The director – let’s call him ‘Bob’, for consistency’s sake – told me to do ‘whatever it took’ provided it was sorted before the dignitaries showed up in 36 hours’ time.
No problem. I called up a mate of mine at a VAR  in Dallas and told him I needed 80 brand-new CRT monitors, keyboards, and mice before dawn the next morning, and would pay him whatever he felt was fair for the lot. My VAR, in turn, called up a bunch of his buddies from the amateur rodeo circuit that he moonlighted at, and they spent that night stuffing boxes into a rented lorry. My VAR paid his university roommate a hundred quid cash to drive the lorry from Dallas down to Houston that night, where I waited (alone, naturally) on the loading dock to sign for the delivery.
The next morning, when the rest of the Dot Com crew stumbled into work, there found a shiny new monitor, keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, coffee mug, and legal pad on every single desk in the building. Not they were useful for anything, but they ‘looked right.’ VP Bob was happy. Most everyone else was aghast that we’d wasted several thousand quid on unusable detritus. Whatever.
When the would-be investors came-a-calling that night for the big ‘launch party,’ I doubt that anyone noticed the deception – or cared. The majority of the people that I met in the audience were either journalists or energy sector folks … Remember that this was well before most people were expected to have basic technical literacy in order to function in the workplace. Most of the people helping themselves to the complimentary wine and beer couldn’t figure out what in blazes an ‘Oil and Gas Services Reverse Auction Online Marketplace’ was supposed tobe, let alone how many outfitted desks it would take to actually make one work.
The Dot Com folded ignominiously the following summer, as predicted. I have no idea what happened to all of those unused monitors. It’s a shame, because I could really have used one around the house. Ah, well.
Anyway, I have a duffle bag full of these ‘let’s put on a show’ stories from my days in industry, and most of them are pretty funny. True, most of them were exasperating to deal with at the time. They’re amusing now, though. The villains have all disappeared – and most of them to better jobs, at that.
I don’t know if you have to suffer this kind of nonsense in Europe; here in the USA, it’s as common a practice as shaking hands or exaggerating on PowerPoint slides. Some folks just can’t accept the idea that a company’s, a product’s, or a person’s actual substance is more important than how it appears at a casual glance. A few folks – usually very successful folks with a healthy measure of power – are convinced that they can dazzle the masses with some fey glamours and fast talk.
To be clear, I disagree with that essential premise. I’m a firm believer that looks are inherently deceiving, especially when you don’t understand what you’re looking at. Therefore decisions should be should be made based on demonstrable facts rather than ephemeral perceptions. That being said, I also accept that I have to work with and for people that believe exactly the opposite. Usually ‘for.’
That’s all right. Business theatre is just another form of artistic expression. Most of the time, the Bobs of the world only want to polish the proverbial turd until it can impress a casual viewer. Perhaps I’m being too charitable, but I’ve found that most irrational executives are not interested in actually pulling a con; they just want to ‘gussy up’ their domain in order to impress an outsider. To the style over substance crowd, painting over the cracks in the office walls is no different than buying a shiny new suit. And that’s fine. So long as we’re not venturing into illegal or immoral territory, then I can certainly help make your desired illusion come to life. Close enough to life, at least.
I’ve gotten very good at biting my tongue and engineering the stage magic. I’ve also gotten quite good at stealthily reinforcing those fey glamours with some actual substance. I’ll agree to build you your castle in the clouds. Just don’t get upset with me when you discover that it might just actually do something (other than look fabulous in a vacuous sort of fashion). The way I see it, if I have to have my name associated with some project or production, it darned well ought towork. That’s a strictly personal objective, though.
If that’s not possible, though, then art-for-art’s-own sake is good too. May as well put on a good show for its own sake and wink at the audience. After all, a pay packet spends the same whether you earned it for working … or just for putting on a good stage play.
 Seriously. I played ‘The Marching Hare,’ a humourless and militaristic rabbit who served as the play’s clueless ‘straight man.’ Foreshadowing for my future military career? Probably, yes. Except for the foot-tall bunny ears.
 Everyone who deserves a measure of anonymity in my columns is Bob.
 U.S. Army Field Manual 8-10-24, first printing. I’ll likely remember that until I die.
 My commander clued me in that Colonel Bob had failed his promotion boards twice because he’d spent his entire career at the Pentagon and didn’t have any ‘field experience,’ so his mates had engineered a command opportunity for him so that he could round out his CV. Sure enough, after two years of running us in circles, he got his promotion and got to go home to the Five-Sided Wind Tunnel.
 VAR = Value-Added Reseller. Essentially, a sales guy for tech equipment who usually has access to a warehouse full of new-in-box office kit.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.