Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Tale of Fred E. Frog

Unfortunately I am engaged in a number of activities at the moment, which do not allow me to devote very much time to my usual pontifications. Hopefully by January all of my distractions will have faded into the past and I will once again have time to comment on the passing parade. So in the meantime, I will leave you temporaily with a little morality tale. This tale -- like so many morality tales is rooted in truth and describes some aspects of corporate America as I experienced it.

The Corporate Jumping Frog
A Management Morality Tale

Consultants are known for arriving on site, diagnosing the problem (too many enemy submarines), offering a solution (boil the ocean), collecting their fee, and moving on to the next ridiculously simple problem. (I really don't mean to pick on consultants, I are one, but as a group you must admit we make easy targets). However, for many of us at the far end of the management scale, we see some executives who seem to have moved from oblivion to greatness, without actually doing anything, or at least not bringing anything to conclusion. These people are like frogs jumping from lily pad to lily pad, catching all of the flies but never getting wet. How do they do it? Well if I knew the answer to that question I wouldn't be writing this essay I would be lolling on the beach with the rest of the frogs. However, we can look at the career of one of these frogs and watch as he jumps from lily pad to lily pad.

Fred E. Frog began his career as a philosopher-at-large but soon discovered that the last person to successfully ply this trade was Aristotle, so he quickly moved into business. Not as a salesperson, after all they have quotas and are measured. Engineering was out because it was not only difficult but there were schedules and deadlines. Accounting was out because every single bean had to be counted and if you were one bean off there were those troublesome procedures and measurements. Ultimately Fred E. Frog landed a job in marketing, but not the hard part, but the planning part. The part where you ran focus groups, interviewed people in cool places, and wrote lengthy reports summarizing the data without adding any personal opinions or conclusions. It was on this, the first of many lily pads that Fred E. Frog learned that reports should be lengthy, detailed, and boring. Charts and graphs should be excluded unless they are on a logarithmic scale accompanied by a series of completely incomprehensible formulas. (Actually the formulas don't have to pertain to the charts because if they are complicated enough no one will understand them anyway.) If the reports can be expanded into more than one binder that is even better because that assures that no one will ever read it. The cover letters and executive summaries must be concisely written but avoid drawing conclusions, after all that is the role of an executive, not a lowly marketing analyst. Having produced a number of these exquisitely bound reports and been singled out as a high producer Fred E. was ready for the jump to the next lily pad.

As the Product Manager for a new product, Fred was in a high profile position whose responsibilities included marketing forecasts, garnering R&D funding, product promotion, and progress reporting to the Vice President of Marketing. A truly wonderful job because the engineers did the work, the marketing team did everything else, and all Fred E. had to do was report progress. Of course his colleagues spent time with the engineers (a scruffy lot), lobbied for money (the beady eyed accountants), and worked with the sales team (well-dressed fellows) to refine the requirements and forecasts. The Frog devoted his time to preparing flashy full motion progress reports, playing golf at the same club as the Vice President of Marketing, and trolling for a better job. Before the product development cycle was completed, Fred was successful at landing another opportunity and was asked to head a task group to solve an account problem that was plaguing the Vice President of Marketing. At last Fred E. Frog was on his way. He was now known as Mr. Frog with an office and a job where he could claim all success but failures could be placed upon someone else. After all, the troubled account was already failing so if it continued to fail Mr. Frog arrived too late to salvage it. If by chance it succeeded, he could trumpet his success from the rooftops. It didn't take long before his success at turning this troubled account around landed him the job as Assistant to the Vice President. Of course it was unfortunate that the account cancelled their contract but that wasn't Fred's fault, after all the account was already in trouble and if the customer had just waited Fred would have been successful.

His first job as Assistant to the Vice President was to go back to his old job and fire the Product Manager who succeeded him. It seems the new product was a failure. The engineers complained that they never had enough money to do it right and the sales forecast wasn't large enough to warrant further investment. The troubled account was now suing the company so Mr. Frog reluctantly fired the account manager who couldn't seem to get the account organized. Clearly it was time to show his stuff, so Mr. Frog turned his attention to training. It seems the account managers were improperly trained. Fred commissioned some minions to create a fun but effective training course for account managers. The class was to be known as Fred E Frog's Management Seminar and it was a booming success. It was fun and entertaining and thousands of dollars were spent training everyone. Banners, buttons, and balloons were given by the score to the various students. After attending the first two classes (Fred never actually taught the class) he firmly established to his superiors that the class was a booming success and asked to be assigned to something more challenging. With such a track record of success, everyone agreed that Fred's talents would be better used in an operating environment.

Fred was made the temporary President of a troubled business unit. Of course Fred didn't know what the problem was or even how to determine it because he had never actually managed anything before. Up to this point Fred's career had been a series of starts with no finishes but he had learned the fine art of distraction. Therefore, he immediately terminated the incumbent management team, which showed the President he was action oriented and was on his way to getting things under control. Then he hired a new management team including a new financial officer, and set about telling everyone at corporate headquarters what a great job he was doing. In the meantime the seminars had ended, everyone had had a great time but there was no discernible improvement in the quality of the account management. This was not surprising since Fred had never set up any process to measure the effectiveness of the seminars and by the time they were completed the senior management team was on to something else. As expected the only thing they remembered was how great the seminars were. The new management team at the Business Unit was struggling to catch up, to get their financials in order, and trying to make sense of what was going on. Mr. Frog set about his usual routine of flashy progress reports and trolling for new and greater opportunities. The President of the company was so impressed with Fred E. Frog and how he had taken control of the troubled unit, that he promoted him to the position of Vice President responsible for several business lines. Fred E Frog was written up in the company paper, photographed, and interviewed by the press, and held up as an example of dedication and hard work. Here was a successful executive destined for even greater things.

I'm sure all of us recognize Fred E. Frog because all of us have encountered more than one of these executives who never seem to be tainted with failure or measurable contributions. Life in the corporation is much like life in the pond, the larger the pond the more frogs you find. The irony is that many of these Jumping Frogs jump over people more technically qualified but less skilled politically and they jump into some very important jobs. As you can see from this little example the technique for jumping is not difficult but like so many simple things doing it well is quite another matter. However, this is not about how to jump, but about what to do with a jumper when you see one. The surest way to thwart a jumper is to actually measure their performance and report the results. While this will certainly shine the light on the jumper it is like a flashbulb. The light is intense for a moment, it exposes everything, and then leaves everyone blinded. If the timing is good and the right people are watching you might be successful in pulling the lily pad out from under the frog, but just as often no one sees the truth because jumpers seem to be invisible when viewed from above.

In the actual case that Fred E. Frog is based upon the jumper did in fact become the President of a major corporate division but when he tried his usual stir things up and move on ploy, he finally got nabbed. The company President wouldn't allow him to change jobs until he could demonstrate some tangible profit improvement. Mr. Frog had never actually managed anything to completion and really didn't have a very good idea of how to go about organizing a team much less something as complex as a division. He floundered about, attempted repeatedly to change jobs, but the President kept him on a short leash and his repeated attempts to move on just raised the President's suspicions. When Fred realized the jig was up, he tried to bring in competent people to help him, but his reputation was such that very few would join up. As expected by those who knew him things went from bad to worse and Fred E. Frog, like the Captain of the Titanic, went down with his lily pad. So the facts eventually caught up with Mr. Frog and justice was served, but justice is blind and the Sword of Truth does not always find its mark like it did in this case.

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