Sep 10

Would you have kept Peggy working late?

The most recent episode of AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ probed even deeper into the exceedingly dark side Office-window-sam of Don Draper (nee Dick Whitman).

In last Sunday’s episode, ad man extraordinaire Draper worked late into the night to develop new strategies for a Samsonite Luggage campaign. Not content to suffer alone, Don forces his creative aide de camp, Peggy, to work right alongside him. The endless evening ends up costing Peggy a surprise party thrown by her soon-to-be-erstwhile boyfriend (but draws her closer to Don in some very interesting ways).

I’ve never been a fan of making people stay late into the night. It’s abusive. It speaks poorly of the organization. And, it will eventually impact image and reputation.

That said, I’ve heard of more than one PR firm, especially those in the technology space, who suggest their employees leave the office at 6pm, gobble down a quick dinner and then return to complete their assignments. That’s brutal. I’ve heard of other firms that use the ‘West Coast’ excuse to keep East Coast employees working well past 8:30pm. That’s also bogus. And, then there are the corporate versions of Don Draper’s “keep ‘em late and make ‘em sweat” management style. In Jacked Up: The inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company, author Bill Lane says the entire corporate office staff was afraid to leave for the day before their chief had. This was problematic since Mr. Welch seldom departed before 7pm. He knew others feared him, wouldn’t dare leave before he did and, either didn’t care about inconveniencing them or enjoyed the rush that went along with controlling other people’s lives.

We once had a mini version of Jack Welch working at our firm. This guy’s office was conveniently located right by the elevators. So, he’d naturally spy anyone who was skulking out while he was still slaving away. After hearing about the issue, we sat down with the executive (and his reports). We found that he tended to while away his time during normal working hours and, for whatever reason, didn’t really roll up his sleeves until late afternoon. As a result, he’d set meetings that began at 5 or 5:30, mete out assignments and then expect his direct reports to stay and finish their work before leaving. Rather than suffer a palace revolt (I’ve always believed that people quit people. They don’t quit businesses.), we had our strategy consultant work with the executive to help him better organize his day. We ended up keeping our people, but losing the executive to a corporate gig (which was a win-win in my book).

Because of the nature of our business, we still have people who, because of a client crisis or over servicing on our part, stay later than they should. When they do, we try to either intercede or, at the very least provide transportation home and compensatory time off. But, we’re far from perfect.

There are many different ways to manage an organization. Draper’s approach may work in the short-term, but I’ve rarely seen it work over the long haul (unless an employee completely defines himself by his work and thrives on a steady diet of 24×7). I can’t speak for Welch’s management style since I never experienced it first-hand. But, I know we don’t want executives who, intentionally or unintentionally, make their employees stay late. Life’s way too short (which I hope Don Draper figures out sooner rather than later).

Jan 14

“I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

A bunch of us piled into front row seats in a large auditorium to witness the first speech of anDragonfire incoming CEO of a major corporation. Needless to say, there was real excitement in the air.

The organization had been struggling, to say the least. It had shuffled CEOs more often than Elizabeth Taylor has husbands. The stock had tanked. Hostile takeover threats were in the wind and morale was lower than that of a NJ Transit passenger facing an indefinite delay.

So, the hundreds in attendance and the thousands connected by video sat on the edge of their collective chairs as the new CEO began. Would we be witnessing a corporate version of FDR's “You Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” speech? An update of JFK's “Ask not…” clarion comments? We couldn't wait.

And, then the CEO lowered the boom and told the great, unwashed masses that a new, zero tolerance era had been ushered in. The organization would be lean and mean, with an emphasis on the latter. It would no longer be the media's favorite whipping boy. Nor would analysts be questioning each and every move. Most importantly, the CEO would put an end to “leaks” to the press, who had been gleefully reporting the organization's every misstep courtesy of myriad, in-house deep throats. The speech was a no nonsense, take no prisoners riff, more worthy of a Stalin than a Gandhi.

And then came the question-and-answer session. One timid guy in the back of the room tentatively raised his hand and asked: “A few of us engineers have direct relationships with reporters. Is it ok if we still speak with them?”

Oh baby. Duck and cover. First, the CEO screamed, “What a stupid question!” That was quickly followed by a very direct threat: “Speak to the press without permission and I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

The silence was deafening. (I love that phrase, BTW.)

There were a few, more half-hearted questions and choice responses. But, that was it. The die had been cast. The tone had been set. The new era had been ushered in.

We were dumbfounded to say the least. I honestly hadn't experienced this sort of direct management-by-fear, screaming and cursing session since the mid 1980s when I worked for a CEO who’d once played for the Chicago Bears.

Needless to say, the message had been received. The organization battened down its respective hatches and the purge began. Scores of senior executives vanished overnight. Messaging was tightly controlled and the fear was passed down the organizational food chain until it reached the lowest common denominator: the external agencies.

We walked on eggshells for the 15 months in which we served the company and were routinely beaten up, back stabbed and patronized.

We've moved on and, truth be told, the organization has recovered some of its external mojo. But, at what price? Is living one's life in fear worth a paycheck? Not for me, I'd rather do what's right and work in a culture that allows risk-taking, supports humor, open communication and camaraderie. If that means a one-way ticket to f***ing Mars, then please reserve an aisle seat for me.