I’ve been fortunate enough to have an energizing and rewarding career—-and it’s still going! It isn’t that I’m any more talented than anyone else, but my timing has been good; that is, when I graduated from college the economy was booming. If you wanted six job offers you took six interviews. And so it went for decades until we mismanaged ourselves into the mess we’ve earned today. I still have tremendous upside, which (sad to say) makes me an anomaly rather than the norm. |
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“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news,” said Barry in his Yorkshire accent as he took a seat across from me in my office. He looked me in the eye then his gaze faltered. “This is a tough day. I’ve been lumbered with an awful task. I feel positively ill.”
“Hey, amigo, I know why you’re here, and it’s not bad news. Believe me.”
“I’m not worried about you, but I’ve got to let Tom go. It will be quite traumatic for him. He’s never worked anywhere else.” Tom was the head of engineering, 47-years-old and a 29-year veteran with the company. Barry’s fears were realized weeks later when Tom’s wife found him curled in a fetal position in a dark closet. Two things finally brought Tom back: months of therapy, and being recalled to a lesser position after a 36-year-old manager suffered a fatal heart attack.
A week earlier Barry came into my office to ask me “what I wanted to do”. This, while he was in the process of reorganizing the division; which is a euphemism for downsizing; which is a euphemism for laying-off; which is a euphemism for firing.
“Anything but what I’m doing now.” I smiled at him. “I’m burned-out; ready to fall on my sword.” I knew I was sealing my fate. I had enjoyed the company, my coworkers, and the job, but constant international travel had worn thin, and I was looking for something else although I had not a clue of what it was. I tend to a bit capricious, y’see? I also knew that I had effectively resigned. “Rick can do my job,” I concluded. Rick was also fifteen years younger and would work for half my salary, of which Barry was well aware. I had just thrown Barry (and Rick) a bone; given both no-brainer options. Soon afterwards Rick appeared in my office looking worried. The rumor mill had his boss getting the ax, and his visit was one of self-preservation.
“Don’t sweat it, Rick; I’ve recommended you for my job.” Bastard didn’t even say thank you.
Barry and I shook hands when he left my office. I wrote ENOUGH! FINALLY ENOUGH! on the whiteboard, and I left too. It didn’t feel good, but after dodging round-after-round of layoffs in the up-and-down oil industry over the years, my window of opportunity for progressing in the organization had stalled. Plus I’d been passed over several times when I was the obvious choice, and the writing was on the wall. I was fifty, and my age, salary, and bonus were attractive targets for the accountants.
To fill time and pay bills while I wrote a book, I took a job at half my former salary with a hapless, spiritless, Midwestern firm whose products were me-too copies of its competitors; and possessing a clueless upper management that the industry (including customers) loathed. When that gig stalled (predictably) after a year, I joined a Japanese-owned firm in New England—-again for “half pay”. The product-line was mediocre at best and dying a slow death. The entire sales and marketing organization had imploded. Salesmen, manufacturer’s reps, and distributors all left. My job was to rebuild that group, which I did in 12 months. Even then, the viability of the business seemed iffy at best so I hired my replacement and left wondering what to do next. The theme here for both companies was that middle managers projected their poor performance toward each other rather than work as a team; and the upper managers denied anything was wrong—-after all what they were doing always worked before.
A word here to the workers who are so negatively affected by management’s inability to adjust to a changing world: While I sympathize with the fact that so many jobs are going off-shore, I disagree with you that they are “your” jobs. The jobs belong to the company.
You might wonder why I left three jobs when the market for executive managers was shrinking rapidly, and the economy had begun its downward spiral into an abyss from which there will be no recovery for decades (if at all). The first, an international oil tool corporation, was a case where I lost my enthusiasm for the job. Should I have stayed? If my only concern was money: yes! However, I’ve always believed that this life is too short to waste any of it. To me that means 1) pursuing joy, and 2) not putting up with rude people. Impractical? Maybe, but I yam what I yam, as Popeye would say. The last two jobs were ones where I was brought in to help turn the ship around, but the management projected blame elsewhere and denied their own culpability. Their message to me was: Fix this company, but don’t expect me to change anything I’m doing! No one (least of all me) can succeed in that situation, so I left to pursue joy and civility. Oh, and both companies ultimately failed.
But forget about me. Think of all the other managers, professional contributors, and workers that were displaced. Think of how the loss of these jobs trickledown into the economy. Suddenly restaurants, dry-cleaners, supermarkets and others are forced to close. A friend of mine had an accounting business in Houston. When the oil industry took a dive, he had a so-what attitude since he wasn’t in the oil business. Then clients began to disappear. He realized then everyone in Houston was in the oil business.
Without any other viable employment options, I joined American and Saudi Arabian partners in an entrepreneurial venture. I moved to Riyadh, KSA and led the effort to market (of all things!) oil to the Arabs (actually an oil additive). The project was quite doable, but involved lengthy field tests. This was bad news to my American partners who were looking for immediate results. One day I received a call from one of my partners stateside.
“Hey, we’re going to takeover the chemical company in Florida. We’ll bring you back to run the business,” he said. The attempt was hostile and it failed leaving me in the lurch in the Middle East without a product. I left the Riyadh office “as is”, packed my bags, and flew home out of a job again.
Sidebar Lesson: It’s amazing what one will do in this economy to chase work once one realizes the precarious position to which he has fallen. Take a look at Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and one should realize that after investing years of labor getting to the apex called, “self-actualization”, it takes no time at all to descend to the base at the bottom called, “survival”. The sooner one recognizes this unwelcome fact, the better. Unfortunately, many downsized executives waste months in a state of denial and/or self-pity. Some never recover.
I happened upon a new datacomm/telecomm manufacturer based in California some of whose managers read my aforementioned book. They were looking for general manager because their business was so good they had to expand from two factories to four. We hit it off. I can unequivocally say they were the nicest people I ever met in American industry, and I still think of my former peers that way. However, there was one small flaw—-one little dark side. While the CEO was a sweetheart of a guy, two insidious old-timers had his ear, and he believed anything and everything they told him. Well and good, except they operated like a self-appointed Gestapo (or KGB) always looking for some kind of “wrong-doing” to report. If they could not find something, they’d suggest it through sly innuendo.
But as one does in the world-of-work, I learned to deal with the two of them, and built a factory in the Midwest, which became the most profitable of the four. Then came Y2K and the nonsense that accompanied it. We enjoyed record month after record month that year, but much of it relied on a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality. One executive faction of the company believed in continued, unabated expansion while those of us in the other camp believed the industry would correct itself, and we should make our plants more productive without expanding. My group’s view was very unpopular; we were called nay-sayers, we didn’t support the CEO—-in fact (they said) we were trying to undermine him! The CFO suggested we were disrespectful. The CEO said he was very disappointed in us. These same people always claimed they wanted out-of-the-box thinking and proposals. Yeah, right!
The came the reality and tragedy of September 11, 2001. Our business contracted severely in the midst of the company spending millions to fund unwise expansions in the UK and Northern California. The effort in England stopped, and the new factory in Redding had to be sold before it ever opened. We also had one too many factories. I was not asked to participate in deciding which one should be closed, which was a message in itself. Guess which one? Hint: it was the one that put 16 percent on the bottom line in its last operating month.
See, I maintain that instead of firing 200 workers, those who control 85 percent of all decisions—-and in foregoing case 100 percent-—should have been fired, and that includes the board of directors. Management’s job is prediction! Were these guys asleep at the switch? They did a terrible job, and copped a typical plea. Instead of admitting responsibility the CEO projected blame elsewhere. He told the shutdown factory workers in a whining voice, “It was the market.”
Wrong! It was the management! And, by the way, that includes those of us who didn’t convince the others to change course. We should have tried harder and not backed-off to political pressure.
The motto, slogan, and rallying cry for the company that was championed and chanted by the CEO over-and-over was: We’re All in This Together!
Copyright 2011 by Gene Myers.
Author of Songs from Lattys Grove (2010) from PublishAmerica, Baltimore, MD.
Author of After Hours (2009) from Strategic Publishing, New York, NY. www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/AfterHours.html
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downsizing, laying-ff, firing, career, economy, projection, denial,