Work advice for future CEOs

Late last fall, the owner of the company visited our regional office. It was a grand affair and scads of flowering plants were brought in to line the corridors which he would bless with his presence.

I never saw him but I enjoyed the plants. However, whoever arranged for the pots did not arrange for them to be watered or taken away, so slowly the corridors became full of the ghosts of blooms past. Once a day I take my coffee cup to rinse it out in the women’s bathroom, quite a distance from my office, so I started to fill it with water and give some to each plant along the route back to my office. Now the only green plants are the ones along my route.

Darling, what a perfect metaphor for how to behave at the office. A 30 second change of behavior (fill coffee cup with water before leaving the bathroom) means that in the midst of a large, arid, soulless, cement office block I walk by flowering plants several times a day. Small changes create positive impacts.

The flip side is that small aggressions will eventually accumulate into volcanic eruptions from the oppressed. Accepting a position of authority means accepting that you now have to be the adult and heed Field Marshall William Slim’s timeless advice: “You will neither eat, nor drink, nor smoke, nor sit down, nor lean against a tree until you have personally seen that your men [and women] have first had the chance to do these things.” And the reason you heed is that the end of the quote is: “If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the ends of the earth.”

One boss refused to give anyone a perfect score on any metric for the yearly evaluations, explaining that there was always room for improvement. I argued that he was not being reasonable – if someone did everything that was required, they should get the perfect score. He refused. And then management changed the yearly evaluation so that certain work tasks were not included.

The result was fore-told – everyone did only and exactly what was required. There were 2984 excuses to no longer do the work that was no longer measured in the yearly appraisal and all the other work was done as per instructions without any additional effort. It was amusing as the work of our section continued on as normal, but our boss gradually realized that we were all working less and could not be coerced to take on extra projects, work late or do last-minute requests from upper management. He tried to appeal to team spirit but two free lunches a year were no substitute for pay raises, promotions and bonuses. He worked himself into poor health but never admitted his mistake.

Oh the bosses I have had – the one who screamed, the one who lied, the one who played favorites, the one who held long meetings for no reason, the one who insisted that every team member reply to every e-mail he sent, but would never acknowledge or reply to an e-mail he received. And where are they now? They are with les neiges d’anten, the snows of yesteryear.

Some are still with the company, but not in positions of power. Their formerly gruntled employees got disgruntled and started to complain. The complaints became so numerous and frequent, it was easier for management to replace a troublesome leader than replace all the staff on the team.

And you never want to work with a man who was the team-leader and is now a team member. Oh the pouting, the sighing in meetings, the stomping in hallways, the aura of aggrievement that follows him like a cloud of mosquitoes. And it’s impossible to explain to him that by being more fair (and more kind) he could have avoided this fate. Men like that don’t believe in fairness or kindness, only in what they can get at any one moment.

Darling, think long-term. Play the long game. Politeness and even-handedness to all. Share knowledge and give assistance where you can – avoid shirkers and complainers. And if you are in charge of anything, share the praise and accept all the blame yourself. You must have your whims in life and, more to the point, you should always allow others to have whims. Never be so goal-focused that you do not allow lee-way for others, especially at work.

Another boss was obsessed with the thickness and darkness of the lines in spreadsheets to the point of calling meetings to explain the proper font size and line style for different reports. To the point where one employee, whose secret is forever safe with me, downloaded extra software that allowed one to have more precision than ordinary, off-the-shelf spreadsheet software allowed. Then he proceeded to make all the lines in one report infinitesimally different thicknesses and shades of black. Then he ran a protection protocol and saved it with the regular program so that if you clicked on the line, it would show that it was the regulation size. Our boss looked at the sheet and instinctively felt something was wrong, but when he checked, all the stats were correct. He twitched, triple-checked, sent it to other people to check and fumed. He knew something was wrong but he could not prove it.

Then this boss called for a group-meeting at 4pm on the afternoon before a long weekend. So our darling co-worker asked for ALL the half-yearly reports from the whole team and fussed with each of them. Our boss twitched himself into a hissy fit, resulting in him yelling at a co-worker, who ran to HR in tears. Goodbye to that boss.

Behave well, Darling. Behave well and behave well and behave well.