Saturday, August 28, 2010


Recently, a new executive showed up at my Argus. He first descended on me in the hallway as I was heading to lunch. He came at me in a sort of rush, introduced himself, vigorously pumped my hand, asked me where I worked and what my duties are, and then patted my shoulder and assured me we would be seeing a lot of each other. A couple days later, he sought me out in the market, where I was working, and asked me how I thought the market was looking after such a busy weekend and what I was planning to do next. He then complimented me enthusiastically on the appearance of the milk I had just put into the refrigerated cases.

Two days after that, he took his first shift as Executive In Charge, which means he was top dog in the store for an eight-hour stretch. As such, he led the “Morning Huddle,” a brief confab that occurs every day. Announcements are made, certain people are singled out for praise, new policies are explained, etc.

As the group assembled, Chuck worked his way around, chatting with this person and that, then when it was time to begin, he stepped into the center of the group and boomed, “Good morning, everyone!”

“Good morning, Chuck,” a few of us mumbled. It was 8:00 in the morning.

He paused. He looked around. He appeared disappointed. “OK,” he said, “let's try it again. GOOD MORNING, EVERYONE!!!”

At Argus, I have learned to be wary about individuals like this.

Every organization has to evaluate the people who work for that organization, and based upon the internal beliefs or culture of the group, each of them does it differently. Certain characteristics are rewarded at one company but are less important at others.

At Argus, for example, energy and enthusiasm are given considerable weight in personnel and promotion decisions. Now, no one would argue that energy and enthusiasm are bad qualities, but any character trait can be given more weight than it deserves, with the result that other desirable traits will be undervalued or even overlooked. Everyone at Argus has met co-workers and managers and executives who are extremely outgoing and energetic, but who are otherwise incompetent. That is because, in a place that overvalues enthusiasm, it is possible to rise in the ranks if you are extremely enthusiastic but have nothing else going for you.

I don't know whether Chuck is a dope. Only time will answer that question. But the new HR boss certainly is. Sal is cut from the same cloth as Chuck. He's always in motion, he's always asking how you are doing, he's young, he's full of beans, he's attractive and articulate. And he's useless. He doesn't know how to do any of the things he's supposed to do and he seems unable to focus his thoughts long enough to learn how. Sal has never fixed any of the problems I have brought to his attention. My annual raise, for example, was effective on April 24. Four months later, it has yet to show up in a paycheck. Sal assures me he will fix it, and I'll get back pay and everything will be beautiful....

As a result, if I can avoid Sal, I do so. I use his assistants, Hannah and Mia. They never slap your back or pretend to care how you feel. They never dart, ferretlike, around the store telling people what a wonderful job they are doing. Their oratorical skills are weak. However, if you give them an HR-related problem to solve, they will focus their attention on it until it is solved. This never takes very long because they are completely conversant in every piece of HR software and they know who to contact at the main office if they need authorization they do not possess.

Hannah and Mia represent a corollary to the rule that one should avoid those whose primary characteristics are overvalued by the organization. Since Hannah and Mia possess none of the verve and pizazz that Argus values, these are the people you go to when you need to get something done since it is a safe bet they know how to do their jobs. Otherwise, they would not survive. They will never be rewarded by the organization at a level commensurate with their skills, but other employees quickly learn how valuable they are.

When the overvaluing of a characteristic reaches a certain threshold, it is dangerous to the organization since the process becomes entrenched in the culture. As the upper ranks grow increasingly populated with a particular type of person, these folks will have both the power and the inclination to promote others like themselves, thus perpetuating the cultural imbalance.

Disaster often ensues because no one in a position of power can see how one-dimensional the leadership has become. In a boardroom full of back-slappers and cheerleaders, for example, no one will ever wonder whether there might be too many back-slappers and cheerleaders around. Those who have been rewarded for their behavior and personality and skills are always going to think their behavior and personality and skills are what gets people to the top. That which is rewarded gets repeated.

Gene Mauch managed to eke out a major league baseball career for himself as a good-field/no-hit kind of utility player who bunted well, didn't strike out much and could hit-and-run. He became a major-league manager in the early 1960s around the time the strike zone expanded and offense dropped like a stone across baseball. It was a one-run era, where the smallball skills Mauch had relied upon as a player became the only ones available.

For a brief period, his teams won more games than they had any right to, and Mauch was regarded as a genius. That era quickly ended in the late 1960s when the strike zone shrank, batting averages went up and homers again started flying out of ballparks.

What did Mauch do? He continued to sacrifice bunt in the first inning, and play for one run, That which gets rewarded gets repeated, even after the rewards stop coming. He was a one-trick pony who could not adjust and never made it to the World Series, though he managed for 24 years. Earl Weaver, whose managerial philosophy was “defense, pitching and three-run homers” came to regard Mauch as something of an idiot. “Gene never figured out that baseball is the only game where you can score more than once on the same play,” Weaver once said.

For another example, one need look no further than the “smartest guys in the room” phenomenon. At this point, we are all familiar with the nightmares that result when you turn things over to the smart guys. Steeped in theory, void of experience, buoyed with the hubris that only comes from the possession of advanced degrees, utterly lacking in the understanding there are risks no one can anticipate, the smartest guys in the room never see they are walking over a cliff because, according to their calculations, there is no cliff. Whether it's Enron, or Fannie and Freddie, or Obama's economic czars, the smart guys can never turn back from the abyss because, well, they're really smart, you see. They're smarter than the rest of us. It can never occur to them that smart isn't everything because smart is what got them where they are.

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At this point, you may be asking yourself, as Tina Turner once famously did, “What's von Clausewitz got to do, got to do with it?” Well, the answer is that I got a bit sidetracked here. Von Clausewitz had a lot to say about people like Chuck and Sal, and I originally intended to tell their story through that distant lens, but then my theory grew a bit and I had to include Gene Mauch and the “smartest guys in the room” and all the other stuff.

But Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th Century Prussian general, is what got me thinking about Chuck and Sal in the first place.

In “On War,” his major treatise, von Clausewitz goes off on a bit of a tangent at one point into a discussion of different personality types among military officers, and expresses his firmly-held views on which ones to promote and which ones to get rid of. Stupid and lazy officers, for example, though they need strict supervision and clear direction, can nevertheless be of use to a commander who understands their limitations. Intelligent, energetic officers were not his favorite either, though they too could get a job done for a general who was able to stifle any urge they might have to freelance.

Old Carl, however, spared no vitriol in his dissertation on the Chucks and Sals of the officer corps. The stupid, energetic officer, von Clausewitz informs us, is worse than useless. He is a danger to everyone around him. He makes bad decisions, he doesn't know what to do, he never understands the strategy, yet he can't sit still. Not only does he exhaust his troops needlessly, he will march them to their deaths in foolish assaults where he has little hope of winning. Soldiers assigned to an energetic but stupid officer quickly grow to hate him. Sometimes they kill him. It was these passages from von Clausewitz that popped into my head on the morning Chuck demanded we all shout “GOOD MORNING, CHUCK!” with the same demonic cheerfulness he himself had just exhibited. Since I am not a 19th Century German soldier and Chuck is not my commanding officer, he is not actually a threat to my life, and I don't have to frag him. I'm grateful for that, but the chance I will ever develop a fondness for Chuck is exceedingly small.

All of which brings us, finally, to von Clausewitz's ideal officer, a man who is intelligent but fundamentally lazy. Such a man, we are told, will quickly grasp the strategic goals of an operation and is capable of devising the tactics to achieve them. More importantly, since he has little interest in sheer activity for its own sake and no desire to exert himself unnecessarily, he will usually discover the quickest, most cost-effective and risk-averse method of accomplishing his assignments. The intelligent but lazy officer does not lack honor or courage, von Clausewitz assures us. He simply prefers to get the job done in the most efficient way possible so he can then put his feet up, open a bottle and get back to his card game.

Von Clausewitz's praise for the intelligent but lazy officer is also a description of my favorite person at Argus.

She might be forty years old, or she might be fifty, and she is what is called, in some neighborhoods, “a big girl.” She is always trying to lose weight and always trying to stop smoking. She is friendly and chatty, but somewhat shy. I have seen her in meetings with her superiors, where she goes in with much to say but gets tongue-tied and never says it. She was not a cheerleader and she was probably not the most popular girl in her high school, maybe because she read too many books. Her father has Alzheimer’s and she has to care for him because she's the responsible one among her brothers and sisters. Occasionally, she will have to take a day off because of this, and she will seem subdued or depressed for a while.

Her name is Georgette. She is my manager, and she runs the Market area at Argus. She has bosses of her own, of course, including the nameless and faceless people at headquarters who issue directives to all of us, but she is the day-to-day manager who runs the crew, makes sure there is yogurt on the shelves, and solves the problems that arise.

There are always problems. Someone calls in sick. The electronic scale for weighing and marking meat shuts down. Twenty gallons of milk topple off a pallet and explode. The bananas don't arrive. A pallet of Lean Cuisines is sitting on the floor of the backroom because there's more frozen food than the freezer can hold. A thousand dozen eggs has been delivered by mistake.

I have seen dozens of managers and executives at Argus deal with these and similar issues, and their behavior never varies. They will walk into a “situation” and start issuing orders to the assembled grunts who are attempting to deal with the problem. They will do this even if they know nothing about how that particular area of the store works. They will do it whether or not the problem is already being corrected in a reasonable and effective manner.

Georgette, by contrast, will arrive at the scene of the crime and do nothing, or appear to do nothing. She will look around, observe what everyone is doing, and assess the situation while appearing to be doing something else. She may engage somebody in trivial banter: “Hey, Manny, did you go to that party on Friday? Was Connie there?”

If she determines the issue is being resolved, she simply leaves, as quietly and calmly as she arrived. If she senses we are spinning our wheels, she will gently sort us out. “Do me a favor, Jerry,” she will say, “Take that flatbed with the juice out on the floor. And Lindsey, you should take your break now so when you get back, Jesus can go to lunch.” Only then does she wander off, often to the Starbucks in the front of the store, where she will gossip with a girlfriend.

Invariably, the clouds part and everything falls into place.

In management terms, Georgette is a minimalist. She expects her crew will get the job done, though if her help is needed, she will provide it. When mistakes are made, she will see them, and you can expect to hear from her about them (a process she calls “coaching”), but she will never upbraid you in public and you will never make that mistake again.

Her methods (or perhaps it is merely her personality) engender tremendous loyalty among the crew in the Market. The process is not describable in rational terms. None of us has any warmth or loyalty to the entity that is “Argus,” for example, and it would be absurd if we did. Everyone who works in the Market, however, has complete faith in Georgette and her judgment, and even a sort of childish desire to please her. Morale gets a boost when we see her drinking a latte and laughing with her buddy Mandy, or sneaking a smoke outside the employee entrance. There is no greater compliment to those of us on her crew than the sight of her paying no attention to us.

And what a motley crew it is. This is another important point. She doesn't get to choose her squad; they are handed to her by the HR people. There are 20ish single mothers, high-school dropouts, refugees from dysfunctional families in Scranton, women who have taken out restraining orders and are always looking over their shoulders, National Guard kids waiting for their deployment orders, would-be rap producers, supercool Hispanic guys whose every movement is a hosanna to grace and testosterone, and evangelical Christians. Then there's me, an aging and overeducated misfit. Georgette has to fire people occasionally, of course, and she is even capable of drilling somebody a new one. When this happens, though, she views it as a personal failure. There is a part of her that believes she can turn anyone into an effective member of her team, and for the most part, she does.

Those of us in the Market are all carbon-based life forms---beyond that, we have nothing in common. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that Georgette is the best manager any of us have ever had.

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POSTSCRIPT: The discussion in the backroom can be fascinating. Recently, I walked in on a colloquy on whether true love is possible in the modern world. Opinions differed. Then Jerry spoke up. Jerry works in the backroom and appears to be insane. Occasionally, he will get into a screaming fight with somebody over nothing, and he will carry the rage around with him for days. “What do you do,” he asked, “when you are going with a girl for ten years and you go to the same church, and she has a good job, and you think she loves you, and then you marry her and she immediately quits her job and starts smoking crack in your house all day? When that happens to you, THEN you can tell me about love.” No one had much to say on the topic after that.

Copyright2010Michael Kubacki