Hope for those trying to make a Difference in a Bureaucracy

My experience in business has been in bureaucracies of various stripes since I left college a couple of decades ago. If you have ever worked in a bureaucracy, you know how difficult it can be to get something accomplished, especially when everyone else seems to be heads-down and avoiding risk. In the simplest of terms, to accomplish anything, you need to continuously have cantankerous meetings, to push your agenda, and to take flak from everyone about what might go wrong with your approach. It seems so much easier just to “go with the flow” and take a low profile, just like everyone else.

On a parallel vein, there are many different ways to approach a career. One way is to bargain furiously for the highest position possible when you enter a job, and then to focus continually on getting promoted and working the organization politically for continued promotion. The individuals who push down this path are often focused upwards on presenting their efforts in the best light and in ensuring that the areas in which they work are the most promising in terms of opportunities for promotion (i.e. highly visible to executives). This can be a very effective strategy.

Another, opposite sort of approach is to work hard and take on some of the most difficult tasks that the organization faces, and try to do your best to make the firm better even if the choices are not politically popular. If you see a project that is in disarray and you step in to try to make it better, that can be a dangerous move politically (because if it fails, it could get pinned on you) but it could be the best move for the company, because it gives a project the chance to right itself. If you see a process that is inefficient but crosses a lot of organizational silos, meaning that it will be difficult to streamline and get everyone on the same page, this is also the type of effort that the heads-down hardworking type will apply themselves to.

In many instances it seems that the hardworking, change-agent type of person is kind of “playing the fool” by working so hard while the career-orientated politically minded person is looking at the overall picture and trying to pick the project that will give him or her the most visibility and opportunities for career gain.

The NY Times has an interview section where they ask relatively open-ended interview questions to high ranking executives. In this instance of “corner office” they met with Lawrence Kellner, the former CEO of Continental Airlines. Without meaning to do so, Mr. Kellner validates that second approach to career management.

Mr. Kellner was asked a question about hiring. From the article:

I don’t believe that any one hour or two hour interview can let me figure out “Yeah, that person is going to be really successful”. So step one is: “Have I worked with someone who could fill this job that is really good?” My success rate is dramatically higher going that route.

If not, the second step is to widen the net to people I trust, and look for people they’ve worked with. Our third net is, we try to find somebody we know and trust who knows the person we’re thinking of hiring. The best possible interview is minuscule in value compared to somebody who’s got even a couple of months of work experience with somebody.

Often when hiring an executive is trying to fix a problem, usually an intractable one. If you are someone who takes on difficult challenges and tries to do their best for the organization, your real “upside” is that this will be noticed by someone and they will put you up for an opportunity that comes their way. Instead of trying to bargain your way into a position you can let your past efforts speak for you which will make the hiring process immensely easier.

This is the strange thing about working in a bureaucracy; while it seems like everything is arrayed against change, the head people DO notice those few people banging their heads against the wall trying to make things better, and they remember. Later, when they have their own companies, or different opportunities, the executives may reach out to those that shook up the status quo and bring them along to take on new challenges.

In the simplest terms, when you try to be a change agent, “every day sucks” (this was also a term that applied to friends of mine that used to work for EDS), and it seems like you are losing. But your hope on the other side is that someone like Mr. Kellner notices you, and someday when he has an opening, he goes for the best and most dynamic employee, and you have an opportunity that the political, do-nothing guy never receives.

Cross posted at LITMG

12 thoughts on “Hope for those trying to make a Difference in a Bureaucracy”

  1. I’ve always figured that I should just be good at my job and then smart managers will notice this and promote me, while they will not be fooled by people who are merely trying to climb the ladder and don’t add as much.

    If the managers are too stupid or oblivious to promote on merits then I’d rather look for another job where I am appreciated…

    Unfortunately one can’t shop around for governments as easily as one can for jobs.

  2. Michael…”Once an Eagle” is a good example of someone trying to do the right thing in a very large organization. BTW, the TV series based on this book is now available on video.

    Arthur Koestler, traveling in the Soviet Union, observed that in every organization there were a few people who really cared, and that without them, the whole society would have come crumbling down. He was reminded of the Jewish legend of the 36 just men, on whom the world relies for its existence.

    In 2009, I reviewed this book, which offers a fascinating view from a guy who helped run a sawmill during the Stalin era.

  3. Nicholas…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a certain amount of tasteful self-promotion; indeed, it’s essential. Higher management will have a lot on their minds, and may have limited expertise in whatever a given employee is doing. Generally speaking, the self-promotion should not take the form of chest-thumping, but rather of advocacy for whatever project or product or change in policy the employee is driving, and of feedback on real accomplishments and issues. Very important to give credit to others, including both those who report to the employee in question and those who do not.

    There’s a big difference between *ambition* and *opportunism*..more thoughts here.

  4. Not only is the “Once an Eagle” DVD series finally now out but it stars a young Sam Elliot, my favorite actor. His first movie, “Lifeguard,” was a cult movie for doctors of my age when it came out in 1976. Everybody I knew had seen it, although usually not their wives. If you have seen it, you probably know why. It had a lot to do with self doubt after spending years in deferring gratification.

    Anyway, Elliot is in a small way an example of this topic. He did not like the sex object career the studio planned for him so he dropped out of some projects that might have made him a big star at the time. The result, however, has been a very long career in smaller roles that his fans follow and look for. He’s got a pretty good voice-over career in TV commercials, too, as his distinctive voice stands out.

    Another actor, with a bigger name right now, but with the ability to disappear into a role is Kevin Kline, another favorite. How many have seen “Princess Carabou?” Anyway, this is slightly OT but, in Elliot’s case, I don’t think so. He chose a route to a different image and actors rarely buck a developing trend if it looks good.

  5. Thought provoking post.

    MK, I’m about half way through the “Once and Eagle” DVD series and the book was formative when I was a young man. I “got” the Damon character, as he appealed to my instincts.

    Jack Welch got it right when he counseled to “hate bureaucracy.” Part of what my small company does is common sense strategies against more bureaucracy.

    Carl, your friend who says everyday suck is choosing to let everyday suck and may want to check the attitude (this becomes a martyr complex after too long). If the motives of the change agent are clear and vision of the change realistic, there is no reason for everyday to suck. Attitude is something we control—not the bureaucracy, and when it does control us, we’re not change agents…Also, playing to an audience or for attention is political by nature—the motive and strategy for change should be to cause said change, not get noticed—from a dialectic perspective, one has to stay on guard against grandstanding.

    As for the interview, I agree with the CEO—hire people you know. I have a colleague who owns a small engineering consultancy and he won’t hire someone unless he knows them, or the person is recommended by someone with whom he has had a long relationship. He cooks along with about 30 employees, with two admins and a steady stream of interns (no surprise; recommended by previous excellent interns), and they get more done that companies with twice the staff.

    Part of my company is staffing and in staffing it is more often than not “who you know” that makes the difference. Networking cannot be under-empahsized.

  6. they get more done that companies with twice the staff.

    I had a small surgical practice that began with two guys who had trained together and we had a lot of fun in the early days. In 1979, we started a trauma center even though we had by far the smallest hospital applying in Orange County. When the American College of Surgeons teams went through to evaluate the applicants, they were surprised at how well we scored. It’s a long story but basically we got everybody in the hospital who was interested involved. For example, the pharmacist became a major part of the trauma team. It turned out they loved being part of the intense emergency crew. That has become something of a trend in academic centers but this was 1979.

    Anyway, things were good in the early days although we worked hard and both of us wound up divorced. A lot was choosing a career over family but not all.

    As the years went by, my partner became much more status oriented. We had added young surgeons and he began to adopt the professor mode. Finally, at the age of 48, I left and started my own one man practice. I didn’t expect much but the laparoscopy revolution came along two years later and, as I was the early adopter in the group (The trauma center was my idea-long story why), I quickly got involved in laparoscopy gallbladder surgery. The interesting thing about that was that it was totally patient driven. The universities were very late in adopting it and most young surgeons coming out of training at the time (1988-89) had not been trained in the laparoscopic method. Soon, I had doctors’ relatives coming to me from all over the state to have their gallbladders out. Finally, I took in an associate because I had gotten too busy against all of my expectations. He came from one of the few places that was teaching laparoscopy.

    My former partner, with his now four associates, had 14 employees in his office. My office, with two of us but about 60% of the income of the larger group, had two full time employees with two who worked part time, usually when we were seeing patients in the office. I had the two highest paid employees in the medical community, a topic of some discussion. My office manager in 1992 had a salary over $60,000 plus a company owned car. She lived over an hour’s commute (Her husband was an engineer in San Diego) and she was going to move and quit until she saw what salaries were like in the San Diego area. I had been planning to take her and her husband to Vienna, while I presented a paper, as a reward for her help when I had left the group. She had set up my office and was a tremendous help. About a month before we were to go to Europe, she came to me and said “If you won’t take back the trip, I won’t quit.” So she got a car, instead.

    She was not a great “front office” person as she was a but abrupt but great on the business end. The other full time employee was great with patients and the phone. I used to call my own “front” number rather than a “back office” line so that I knew how the phone was being answered. I’ve previously written a little about some of the practice building techniques we used. She was also well paid and they both got bonuses for extra effort. At one point, we got behind on collections, not their fault but insurance companies slow payment the last three months of the year. I said, “Alright everybody has to come in on Saturday and stay until 7 PM until we get caught up.” When we got caught up, I sent all of them to Hawaii with husbands or boyfriends for a week (not all at the same time).

    Anyway, right up to the time I had to retire, we had a happy office with everybody working hard and getting well paid. The girls hated to see me go because they knew they would never be able to find a job with that income again. It’s amazing that others couldn’t see it. The young fellow who took over the practice was a good surgeon but a terrible businessman. He soon got rid of the manager and a couple of years later declared bankruptcy owing me $120,000.

  7. Excellent post, Carl.

    My experience has been very similar to yours. As I noted in Dan from Madison’s post on “Is Pride the Worst Thing You Can Have?”, I developed a reputation as a “fecal agitator” in the bureaucracies in which I worked. My career hardly suffered from it; indeed, my career flourished.

    Within the larger bureaucracies for which I worked, it almost always was as an independent consultant. I was always amazed at how quickly I was given leadership or management responsibilities, even though I was hired as a “hands on” individual software developer. Primarily, this was because there was no one internally who was willing to take on the responsibility or it involved a mess no one wanted to go near. The traffic on “the road less traveled” is always lighter.

    As an example, every software development project needs a complicated set of tools, standards and procedures for building the software. It is an utterly thankless task because, no matter how well constructed, it will never do everything wanted and it will always be the first to be blamed when something goes wrong. Usually, that task is fobbed off on some inexperienced junior engineer. But I eagerly sought out responsibility for the development environment. It gave me intimate knowledge of the tools I was using, the ability and access to create/integrate the tools I wanted and it gave me contact with all the other stakeholders in the development process. I quickly became indispensable. It cost me a lot of (often, unpaid) extra work, but it always paid off. I never regretted it.

    Your comments on networking are right on. Even though I was always considered “problematic” to deal with, I had enthusiastic supporters. I was continually hired or re-hired by people who I had worked with before. The recommendation usually went something like: “He’s an opinionated pain-in-the-a**, but no one works harder, no one is more willing to get his hands dirty and no one is more willing to help when the sh*t hits the fan.” That will get you a lot of job opportunities!

  8. Further comments:

    I certainly don’t mean to denigrate the head down, climb the ladder approach to a career. It can pay off very well and be quite rewarding.

    The “road less travelled” approach to your career is most emphatically not for everyone. It requires a suitable personality type. It is risky. You are often on a knife’s edge, balancing your job against your judgement. It requires supreme confidence in your own judgement and abilities. You can find yourself facing off against an entire organization. It can be very lonely and frustrating. But it can be enormously rewarding too.

  9. J Scott…”Jack Welch got it right when he counseled to “hate bureaucracy””…bureaucracy should be fought–a CEO friend of mine referred to “playing whack-a-mole” against incipient bureaucracy–but too often, especially in small companies, the fight against bureaucracy is transmuted into an avoidance of effective organization structure and de facto dictatorship and micromanagement by the man at the top. If the CEO assigns *tasks* rather than *ongoing responsibilities*, if he tends to use people as “arms and legs” or at best technical/functional specialists rather than as actual thinking businesspeople, then the growth of the company will stall out at some point. Poorly-thought-out “delayering” in large companies can have the same effect.

    Welch did a lot of good things at GE, but there are many current and former GE’ers who feel that his obsessive over-emphasis on the six-sigma methodology was as harmful as classical bureaucratic empire-building.

  10. One final comment:

    It is much harder to be noticed if you’re behaving the same way everyone else is in an organization. The unusual, the different will always stand out. If you want to be noticed by the Kellner’s of the world, it helps to be different. It helps even more to be different and good.

    Even as a very junior engineer in very large engineering organizations I was noticed. It certainly wasn’t always positive, but it paid off in the long run.

  11. David, I agree with your assessment of Welch, I used him as an example because he was the first big CEO to declare war on bureaucracy. Don’t get me started on six-sigma—in a service company, in particular. Lived this nightmare in my last big company job. There is a place for thoughtful placement of six-sigma—read: thoughtful. Most companies “throw” it at every problem expecting extraordinary results—that rarely happen. In my practice, I’ve found that to apply mainstream (read: popular methods) a reasonable case needs to be made. The first step is insuring the leadership truly has “insight” into “what” they are seeking to improve—a lot of up-front dialogue saves thousands (maybe tens of thousands) before the consultants/instructors and hangers-on show. In most cases, in my experience, widespread application of a popular solution is a waste of money and time and a serious blow to morale.

    I’ve found a method to peacefully deal with a bureaucracy and a few clients have implemented successfully—a few have not. At the end of the day, it is institutional desire to be more efficient and competitive that drives the train. That requires clarity in purpose and communication—and the willingness to do what needs to be done to achieve that vision.

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