One of the worst sins that a leader can commit is to squander her subordinates’ labour. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert shares a story of hubris, abuse and avoidable workplace despair.
In 1939, John Ford released his epic Western Stagecoach. Two months later, Cecil B. DeMille released his own epic Union Pacific. These two films convinced theatergoers and film critics alike that Westerns could be something more than just cheap, inconsequential ‘B movies’. The latter’s box office success retroactively justified its estimated $1 million production cost and led to a golden age of great cowboy films. In a way, these films also set an unrealistic expectation for businesspeople everywhere: if you have a killer idea for a market-dominating product, it’s okay to spend recklessly on it during development. The market will prove you right in the end and will make you rich, if only you commit to your vision and ignore all of your naysayers. Hell, the entire Dot Com economy is built on this concept. It’s the credo of every entrepreneur who ever begged his or her VC for a second round of financing.
I’m not going to argue that you shouldn’t believe in your dreams.  Instead, I submit for your consideration a cautionary tale about a company that bet the proverbial farm on a… let’s say ‘grandly ambitious’… new product line. Not that there was anything wrong with the product itself; it was fine. The real problem came when the company’s leadership committed damned near all of its resources to launching the new product before it could be proven viable in the marketplace.
To be charitable, this wasn’t an original concept. The company’s new ‘product’ was a radical expansion of an existing, proven and profitable product. In many respects, the initiate mirrored the plot of Union Pacific: the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act authorized pushing the existing Union Pacific Railroad westward across the vast American frontier to California in order to link the East and West coasts with a massive logistical corridor. Railroads already existed, and had been instrumental in helping the Union armies crush the Confederates during the American Civil War. The new product was a massive expansion of a technology that already existed. So, too, was this company’s new product: they were taking their flagship product and expanding it into all-new territory in order to better serve a prized (and demanding) client.
I got involved in the mess when Mongo – yes, this is another Mongo story – summoned my boss Mario and me to his office. Mongo announced that I was to drop everything else that I was doing and start creating all of the new operational doctrine for a new business objective… that I’d never heard of before. I had no idea what Mongo was talking about, but Mario did; he’d been involved in the preliminary discussions. Mario promised to back-brief me, so I saluted smartly and left.
Mario filled me in on the general concept behind the new product expansion and told me that the new line was intended to be a completely parallel operation – independent from the main production line. A second team was going to be hired that would duplicate everything. I asked why we weren’t using the existing, established group. Mario shrugged and told me not to question the logic. It was Mongo’s plan, and he wouldn’t brook insubordination in the form of questioning.
Later that week, I introduced myself to the fellow coordinating the new product’s activation. We’ll call him Bob, as usual. This Bob was frenetic. He was a high-energy bloke, to the point of being hyperactive. He was 100 per cent on-board with the initiative, and gushed about how grand it was going to be once it was fully operational. He earnestly wanted to be selected as the new team’s leader, and therefore wasn’t disposed to hear anything ill spoken of the glorious endeavour.
I told Bob that I’d been seconded to him to help establishing all of his new doctrinal products. Since his team planned to deviate significantly from the organization’s common performance standards, we’d need to craft both deviation documents (to explain where they varied from normal operations) and all-new process guides (to define their all-new functions). Bob said that he was fully on-board with the project, and promised me his full cooperation.
I asked Bob for his operations plan. Specifically, I needed to understand his organizational structure, core functions, official remit and major points of deviation from the company’s existing standards so that I could plot out what-all needed to be created. Bob promised to share everything… and then walked off. Later that day, Bob popped into my cubicle and gushed at me for 20 minutes. I listened politely, then asked him again for the core content that I needed. Bob promised to get it to me later then scarpered off without giving me a thing. This seemed to be Bob’s management MO.
Later that week, Bob IMed me and invited me to a meeting with a third-party vendor. I grabbed my notebook and dashed off. Three hours later, I left the meeting completely fatigued. I’d spent the entire afternoon bombarded with questions that I couldn’t answer about a new tool that I’d never heard of and about processes that no one had shared with me. Bob had promised to bring me up to speed on anything, then dashed away without actually conveying any information. All I knew for sure was that this new tool – whatever it was – was utterly crucial to delivering the new product.
I asked Mario about the new tool, and he revealed that he knew all about it. He’d led the original evaluation effort and was supposed to have been the company’s expert on it. I asked why the hell he hadn’t gone to the damned meeting. Mario said that he’d been quadruple booked for the afternoon, and had assumed that I’d be able to stand for him… even though he hadn’t prepared me for it at all. I let Mario know that I was quite cross with him over setting me up for failure, and he promised to come along the next time to address any technical questions that folks might have.
Sure enough, Bob called me the next day about another ‘hugely important’ meeting. Like the previous day’s, this meeting was already underway. I tapped Mario, and we both sidled in. As before, the crowd had dozens of questions about tools, processes and designs that I had no visibility into. Mario, on the other hand, had all of the answers and did all of the explaining while I took notes.
This pattern repeated five more times that week. Then it repeated again the next week. After about 50 some hours of participating in the New Took Circus, it became clear that I had nothing whatsoever to contribute – all of the major players wanted Mario there to address questions that only he could answer. I was superfluous, and I told him so. Moreover, all of the tool decisions had to be finalized before Bob could hope to answer any of my questions about his new team’s organizational structure, core functions, etc. I was effectively paralyzed, unable to perform my required tasks.
Mario smirked and admitted that my participation was a waste of time. We met with Bob and agreed that Mario and I would trade places – I’d cover some of Mario’s meetings to free him up while he helped Bob get things sorted regarding the new tool deployment. Bob and I filed a status report with Mongo informing him of the change, and we all went back to work.
Six weeks later, I got called into another random meeting in Mongo’s office. The Great Tyrant spent 20 minutes grilling Bob on how the new project was going (‘Just great, sir’) before turning to me. Mongo demanded to know how the doctrine development effort was going. I politely pointed out that I’d withdrawn from the project over a month prior while the new tool deployment work got sorted, and that the doctrine couldn’t be written yet. Mongo exploded.
‘I told you that you are going to do this work! No one else,’ he roared. ‘You are going to drop everything else and get this project up and running before the end of this month!’
Bob simply sat still, manic grin on his face, and said nothing. I tried to keep face blank. ‘There’s nothing to write yet,’ I said. ‘Bob’s team hasn’t worked out yet how they plan to deviate from existing standards. They haven’t worked out how to use their new tool. They don’t even know how they’ll interface with the rest of the division.’
Mongo imperiously waved away my objections and reiterated (quite angrily) that I wasn’t pulling my weight. I let him rant and then collared Bob outside Mongo’s office. I demanded to know why he hadn’t backed me during Mongo’s tantrum. He’d bloody well agreed to the mission change, and it was his decision to make as the project coordinator! Bob merely stammered a weak apology and bolted.
That encounter showed me that Mongo was completely out of touch with his people when it came to this project. Based on the clues that I’d seen, Bob had been blowing smoke up Mongo’s backside for weeks – misleading him with vague assurances and obfuscating the difficulties that the team had been grappling with. Further, Mongo’s decision to have me whip up a batch of process guides for Bob’s team had been nonsensical since none of the required precursor decisions had been made. Putting Bob in charge of coordinating the implementation effort had been barmy, since Mario was the only expert in-house that could make the crucial decisions about how to make the tools work that the rest of the endeavour hinged upon. Mongo had chosen the wrong people to work the right tasks in the wrong order, and it was all coming apart.
Of course, what was obvious to everyone outside of Mongo’s office was completely lost on the man himself. You couldn’t have a conversation with him. His mind was made up about whatever you wanted to discuss before you came in the room (regardless of whether he had any actual facts), and no amount of dialogue could sway him. I began to understand by Bob hadn’t intervened when Mongo chewed me out; from Bob’s perspective, what was the point? Mongo wasn’t interested in facts and would never admit to having made a mistake, so anything that Bob added would only draw Mongo’s wrath onto him. I didn’t respect Bob’s decision, but I understood it.
More happened on the new product initiative over the next three months, but only three elements are worth relating: first and foremost, all of the core organizational structure decisions that Mongo had mandated were reversed. Instead of becoming a completely independent operation running parallel to the main body, the crew was integrated. Instead of being entirely run by new employees with zero institutional experience, the ‘old hands’ with critical ‘tribal knowledge’ became the key players in standing up the new product. Mario – the subject matter expert on the new tool – was transferred to run the tool group full-time. Most of Mongo’s original plan was scrapped.
Second, the company went through a huge convulsion. Mongo’s division was broken up into independent functions that were then transferred to other divisions – along with all of their people. Mongo kept ahold of Mario, Bob, the new tools and the new product… but little else. Of the 15 members on my team, 11 of us were declared redundant and were given a nice going-away cheque.
Third – and most importantly – we learned from Mario that the decision to gut Mongo’s division had been made months before it was announced. The Great Tyrant had already decided who he wanted to keep and who he was willing to sacrifice before we’d ever started work on the Grand Endeavour. All of the drama that we’d endured and all of the work that we’d performed had been largely superfluous. Yes, Mario’s decisions about the new tool had been important. The two lads that he’d ‘arbitrarily’ assigned to his tools team were kept on after the downsizing. Everyone else’s work? Almost completely useless.
Case in point: all of the doctrinal content generation work that I’d spent months slaving away at was made completely pointless as soon as the restructuring was announced. Mongo’s organisation was constructed and run based on an international industry methodology; level one teams triaged issues while level two and level three experts solved them. Everything was tightly integrated according to the structure laid down in the governing methodology. Therefore, since the new product was intended to mirror the structure, function and approach of the parent organisation, all of the policy, process and procedure content that I wrote for them was based on the parent organisation’s formal methodology. As soon as the restructuring was announced, the industry methodology went completely out the window. Everything that I’d written for six months was rendered obsolete overnight.
Mongo had known that. Mario broke the news to us a week before we all packed up our cubicles and went out separate ways. Mongo had always known that the change was coming. He’d helped plan it. He knew that our frantic scrambling was pointless. There had been no point behind his imperious commands and harsh reprimands other than to keep us minions distracted while the company’s metaphorical clock ticked down to termination day.
Mongo’s antics had been like a railway overseer castigating his labourers to lay down more track across the barren, baking wastes, day after day, knowing all the while that a impassible gorge lay just over the horizon. Our labour wasn’t productive and didn’t contribute to the company’s overall success. It was strictly a diversion… and that’s why I condemn Mongo for his conduct.
Yes, I was cross over the many acts of mismanagement and didn’t care at all for his unwarranted bollocking. Those were symptoms of crap management. What really burns me, though, was that Mongo knew that he was about to put hundreds of his own people out of work. He had months to help soften the blow. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with valueless busywork, he could have invested in making his about-to-be-redundant personnel more marketable without giving away that the layoffs were coming. He could have diverted funds into training and certifications. He could have engineered transfers out of his division. He could have done a hell of a lot to help his people transition to something better. Instead, Mongo cracked his metaphorical whip and shouted at his underlings. It was an utter waste. A pathetic farce. A cruel joke. That’s what I find unforgivable.
Let’s take us serfs out of the equation for a second, though, and consider the cost of all that squandered labour: Mongo shrewdly bet the farm on the new product line. He gambled his capital expense funds on acquiring and deploying the new tool – that made sense. At the same time, he frittered away his operational expense funds on thousands of hours of pointless busywork. In that respect, Mongo exemplified the hubris and grand ambition of the Dot Com titans: he spent recklessly on nonessential pursuits in the hopes that the final market launch would absolve him of all his fiscal sins. Once the market saw the product, the profits would come and all would be forgiven.
I never did find out how things worked out for Mongo and the survivors. I could Google it, but I reckon that I have better things to do with my time.
 You shouldn’t, but that’s a subject for another column.
Title Allusion: Cecil B. DeMille, Union Pacific. (1939 Film)
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.