Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Visit To The Bank

Today was another adventure in paradise.  My wife was feeling much better and since we had to go to the bank, she decided to return to driving.  That is married driving, which all married men understand because that means I do the mechanical part while she provides instructions like “you’re going too fast”  “watch that car” “turn here” while I provide the yelling.  Nevertheless, we arrive at the bank with only a minimum number of threats of divorce.  We live in a small town so our bank is small and VERY conservative.  You know right away that this is a conservative bank because the metal detectors are on the exits rather than the entrance.  No one is walking out of there with any money if they can help it.  If you think an opium addict suffers from withdrawals you should see these people.

On this particular day we had deposits to make, to set up an automatic deposit of our social security checks, and to meet with our financial advisor who makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like Bernie Madoff – or maybe it’s “he makes Bernie Madoff look like Scrooge – I’m not sure.   But first we elected to eat a cookie which is considered part of our interest payment – in fact given their interest rates that might be the entire interest.  Unfortunately the clerk – Ms Darling --  who usually handles our deposits wasn’t there so a new clerk – Ms Ditzy -- attempted to help us.  This didn’t go well because there were too many checks going into too many accounts with money being transferred into accounts and between accounts sort of like the old shell game – now you see it – now you don’t – guess which account is overdrawn!!.  So after several attempts to explain what we wanted, we split up with the wife moving on to another clerk – Mr Helpful --  to set up the automatic deposit.  The government assures us that this is a simple procedure (insert wild laughter) so you can guess how well this went..

Mr Helpful – who knows us and should have known the result -- made the mistake of telling my wife that this could be done on line.  As soon as I heard him say that I knew that was like waving a red flag to a bull and quickly ducked under my chair, thus totally distracting Ms Ditzy but avoiding any thrown objects as my wife explained what she thought of the federal government, their expectations and their abuse of senior citizens.  This harangue caused Ms Ditzy to lose her place and we had to start the entire depositing process from the beginning while reversing what had already been done.  I didn’t comment as she crumpled up the deposit slips and notes and hurled them against the partition separating us from the social security discussion going on at high volume next to us. 

During this growing circus like atmosphere our financial advisor arrived with a merry smile, good humor and a friendly greeting.  He quickly determined that maybe this wasn’t the best time as my wife incorporated him into the discussion of government incompetence and abuse of senior citizens.  Seeing any hope of a commission vanishing before his eyes he retreated to his office as our usual teller—Ms Darling arrived and began to give orders like a drill sergeant.  She immediately directed Mr Helpful – to be helpful and call the social security hot line and masquerade as my wife.  This was a government office and they wouldn’t know a citizen from an elephant so it wouldn’t matter that he was neither a female nor my wife.  A newly hired clerk (Ms WTF) who had been watching these events with wide eyes and open mouth was told to handle the deposits, while Ms Ditzy was instructed to handle the money transfers, while Ms Darling supervised.  We were then dismissed to meet with Mr Madoff our financial advisor.

Mr Madoff immediately launched into his magic act using magic words apparently gleaned from the Business Channel, spiced with key words from the Weather channel and COPs while shaking his head and looking grim.  After checking all of our investments and assuming the expression one usually associates with an undertaker, he shook his head and said that he needed another $10,000 if there was any hope of salvaging our future.  So I shuffled out and informed Ms Ditzy that I needed to withdraw $10,000 immediately, which caused her to fall over her computer in tears while Ms Darling wrote the check after re-computing all of the deposits just completed by Ms WTF.  The check was then handed to Mr Madoff who tucked into his briefcase so fast you might have thought it was written in invisible ink.  So we left the office to a round of applause and cheers from the entire staff.  But just as we were about to leave the alarms went off , the cheering stopped, and Ms Darling announced in a hysterical voice “OH MY GOD – we accidently deposited $24,000 into your checking account.  We immediately dashed for the exist and thus ended our banking adventure.





Sunday, January 20, 2013

Driving Grandpa

My wife and I elected to spend some time in Dallas.  We had intended to rent a car while there but our college age grandson offered his car.  Now this is a typical college car, meaning that the hood is one color, the left front quarter panel another, and the right another color altogether--quite a fashion statement for an aging grandparent.  Of course the back seat is filled with used gym equipment and clothes while the floor looks like the remains of a fast food tasting bonanza.  Still this was low cost transportation generously offered by our grandson. 

I needed to go shopping so I wheel out of the driveway and onto the busy street leading to the market.  I go about a hundred yards when the dreaded flashing lights come on.  I pull over and fish out my driver’s license.  The nice young policeman – looking and acting very professional – asks me for my driver’s license, which I give to him.  He looks at it, then at me, then the car, and then the humiliating pile of trash in the back seat – says with stunning clarity – you’re from Michigan?  YES – I reply with friendly enthusiasm trying to distract him from asking what I would be doing in a car like this.  Then the dreaded question of “Can I see your proof of insurance and registration ?”   Using my most disarming smile I explain that this is my grandson’s car but I’ll check.  I open the glove box and it is stuffed with napkins, papers, wrappers, and as far as I can tell newspaper clippings from the Titanic disaster.  Nevertheless, I make a heroic effort of rummaging through the pile of debris but clearly testing the officer’s patience.  After a period of nanoseconds to me and glacial ages to him, he says “fergetaboutit”.  What’s your grandson’s name?  I give him the name explaining that he is in college in Oklahoma. 

At this point the officer retires to his cruiser and returns with more questions.  Where did you say your grandson is?  Oklahoma I reply.  If he is in Oklahoma why does the car have Texas License Plates?  His parents live in Texas I said.  OH – Whose car is it?  His? I say in my most suspicious voice.  The officer then asks me who owns the car?  Of course at this point I have no idea and honestly reply – I don’t know.  During this exchange the officer is carefully cataloguing everything in the backseat.  Finally, he says” Your registration is expired – did you know that?  At this point I have visions of being arrested for a stolen vehicle.  Before I can respond he also points out that the inspection sticker is not only expired, it expired two years previously.  I can only explain that this isn’t my car, I don’t know who owns it, I don’t know how my grandson got it, I’m innocent!!

The nice young officer clearly can see that I am just a grandfather totally confused by modern society and asks – “Do you know why I stopped you?”  Before I can say “grand theft auto” he says “your brake light is out – you need to get that fixed.  He simply laughs and returns to his cruiser.  I complete my errand and return the car.  As I exit the car the bumper falls off!!  Maybe a car rental was a better idea.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Managing With The Liberal Arts III

There are many management lessons and techniques to be gleaned from the liberal arts. These can be found in books, plays, and history because the modern corporation parallels the kingdoms of old. Of course the names change but the modern corporation has its kings, princes, barons, courtiers, enemies, allies and even the praetorian guard, they rise, they decline, and they fall. For the modern manager to learn how to succeed in the corporate world he need look no further than Machiavelli. Through the years Niccolo Machiavelli and his writings have been seen as amoral and unethical. Indeed a person accused of duplicity or scheming is described as “Machiavellian” but actually Machiavelli was just putting down in writing how to achieve and maintain power. He did not condone or recommend the actions he describes, he merely documented the reality. Those lessons described by Machiavelli in the 15th Century still apply and can be seen at work in any large corporation today.

One of the challenges facing a newly hired manager is gaining control of his organization. Naturally this new manager has the support of his superiors but is that enough? Machiavelli addressed this problem”

For, although one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province one has always the need of the goodwill of the natives.

This is a simple and obvious lesson – when taking on a new position do not alienate the incumbents because they can obstruct you in many ways and ultimately cause you to fail. But Machiavelli also goes on to address the downside in case there is resistance from individuals.

Upon this one has to remark that men ought to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones, they cannot; therefore the injury that is done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

The message here is clear. When you assume control of an organization treat everyone fairly and with respect for them, their positions, and their opinions. But if you encounter opposition from an individual do not spend a lot of time trying to win them over. Do not ignore them, transfer them, or demote them, terminate them, because they will work against you and could ultimately lead to your destruction. But for the incoming manager, Machiavelli offers further advice:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all of those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order.

Essentially Machiavelli is telling the new manager to move very cautiously when introducing changes and the greater the change the more carefully he should move. But sometimes the new manager has been brought in specifically for the purpose of purging the organization of inefficiency and incompetence. In these cases the new manager changes processes and procedures but also will generally conduct a layoff. But Machiavelli also offers some advice on this activity as well.

It is to be noted that in taking a state the conqueror must arrange to commit all of his cruelties at once, so as not to have them recur everyday … by not making fresh changes to reassure people and win them over by benefiting them.

For some this advice is self-evident but many times the new manager takes some immediate actions and then steps back. After some analysis then he introduces more changes including purging people. These periodic changes can go on for an extended period and invariably lead to poor morale and performance which impacts the reputation and performance of the manager. But Machiavelli offers some further insight into how the new manager should proceed.

He who becomes prince by help of the nobility has greater difficulty in maintaining his power than he who is raised by the populace, for he is surrounded by those who think they are his equals and is thus unable to direct or command as he pleases.

When an outsider is imposed on an organization as the new manager, the incumbents may challenge his authority because he will know less than they do about the processes and procedures. When the manager has been promoted from within he can expect the support and obedience of the staff because he may not be expected to make changes. The outsider on the other hand must demonstrate to his superiors his ability to meet their goals and objectives and this cannot be done without inflicting pain on others.

These are simple examples demonstrating how Machiavelli’s descriptions of how power can be obtained and retained. There are many more in his works and they offer practical solutions not normally found in modern texts on management. But there are many other authors whose discussions of historical events can be easily translated into lessons for the modern manager; among these are Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz, whose writings can be translated into marketing as well as leadership.

Reading contemporary books on management is not discouraged but there are many lessons to be learned from the kings and princes of history. In many cases these historic lessons are more realistic than what is found in contemporary literature because they illustrate the results of bad decisions as well as good ones.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Management and the Liberal Arts II

In any library or book store you can find dozens maybe even hundreds of books on management written by many experienced and some inexperienced managers. These books purport to teach you how to manage in simple terms. In essence these books tell the reader that if you just follow the processes and techniques you will be a successful leader and manager. Of course as we all know that things “as seen on TV” don’t always work as shown and the same is true with these books as well. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books and the processes and techniques are usually sound but at best they simply bring you up to the level of your peers who have read the same books. But in general these management books really don’t address management at a theoretical level nor do they give any indication of the downside of a failure to understand the foundation and exercise of power because management is essentially an exercise in power. However, this insight can be gained from many sources within the liberal arts and perhaps one of the best sources is Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s lessons in power are much more specific and useful because they cover the ups as well as the downs of power. In his three plays, Richard II, King Lear, and Antony & Cleopatra Shakespeare shows how power is not enough and a failure to understand and exercise power leads inevitably to humiliation and destruction. In all three of these plays the title character enters at the height of power but in the end dies humiliated and destroyed due to his lack of understanding the basic nature of power. Richard begins as a new king with inherited power. In modern terms this would be similar to a loyal subordinate or new hire being promoted to the top spot. Lear is an aging King who desires rest without the day-to-day responsibilities of running the kingdom. In modern terms Lear is the CEO who becomes Chairman of the Board while delegating the daily exercise of power to subordinates. Antony is a subordinate who has clawed his way to the top but thinks that the power delegated to him is his alone and because he is Antony. All three offer lessons in the exercise of power and the need to understand its source and how to employ it.

All three of these leaders see their authority as tied to them personally and that authority alone gives them the right to lead. Of course Richard has succeeded as King and being king is enough in his eyes to justify all of his actions. People should simply obey him without question. In modern terms this is the executive who has been given the top job and thinks that because of his position no one should question him. Of course Lear has been the successful monarch and feels that his power is his by right and tied to him personally. This attitude regarding personal power is very visible with Antony who sees the power delegated to him by Rome is his personally – power is Rome – Antony is power. But their failure to really grasp the source of their power leads all three inexorably to death and destruction. Of course in modern management the failure to grasp the source of power rarely leads to death but it certainly can lead to failure and humiliation.

The executive who follows the King Richard model is the executive who brings in his cronies while ignoring the incumbents. This is the executive who is out to change things and bend the organization to his will without regard for any past history or recommendations from the incumbents. In this scenario the incumbent executives will typically react by ignoring the inner circle cronies and their edicts. This will evolve into passive aggressiveness followed by active resistance unless the executive mends his ways which he rarely does. The irony here is that the executive usually fails to understand why he failed and why his subordinates opposed him when he was acting in their best interest and the best interest of the company. The lesson is that when you come into a top spot you may bring some trusted colleagues with you but you cannot ignore the incumbent leaders. They must be consulted and included in the planning and execution.

Lear is a rather sad case because he truly believed that his power and influence was his personally. King Lear divided his kingdom. He thought that he would still be in control and influential in the running of the kingdom. Of course he was ignored, ultimately humiliated and destroyed. There is an excellent modern example of this with Lee Iacocca former President of Ford Motor company. When Iacocca was fired from Ford he was stunned to find that many of his “friends” of 25 years would no longer return his phone calls. Like many other executives Lee thought that his power and influence were tied to him personally rather than to his position. But the reality is power is tied to the position not to the person. A bitter lesson that Lee learned and this seems to be a hard lesson for many executives to grasp. Once you leave a position the power and perks leave as well but on the positive side so do the sycophants, courtiers, and hangers-on that you thought were friends.

Antony’s view of power is more complex. He feels he achieved his power through his military conquests and it is his and his alone. He fails to understand that the power he wields is Rome’s power and not his individually. In modern terms we find the Antony style manager to be the one who has risen through the ranks and survived bruising political battles. But with power he feels it is his by right and he is free to act as he chooses. This type of manager commonly runs into trouble when his personal goals conflict with those of the organization. To some extent an organization can withstand the conflict but if the leader persists in viewing his power as his personally then inevitably he will be stripped of that power. This may come about through termination, resignation, or simply being moved aside without power.

There are many management lessons to be learned from the liberal arts and Shakespeare is simply one such source. These plays by Shakespeare show how power can become destructive to the person once they think that the power belongs to them and not to the position. This is a trap that all modern managers must be cognizant of because their power belongs not to them but to the position. Power always belongs to the group or organization and a failure to recognize that subordinates and peers as well as superiors must be taken into account.