I had been away for the better part of the week, kind of a personal retreat into the mountains, with wildflowers in full swing. My mind was pleasantly occupied, and my focus was rather inward. So, I will write briefly about a few ideas that came to me.
On 6/12, the front page of the New York Times contained this headline, “For the Executive With Everything, a $230,000 Dog to Protect It.” The dog in the picture was a German Shepherd. She wasn’t a “guard dog,” but an “executive protection dog!” Oh, please, as if the dog cares about the title! The dog cares in ways that can’t be bought with $230,000. As deeply as I could delve into this sickening social phenomenon, I will limit myself to these two comments: (1) What the wealthy miss is the fact that when you love an animal (especially one like the German Shepherd) and work with her, she will protect you. A pet and a friend is not status; if it is, you miss the point of pet companionship. (2) Embedded in this type of executive behavior is the notion that “I am too important to deal personally with X (whatever the task in question), so I’ll hire someone to do it for me…and pretend that I care about this whole issue.” I maybe cynical, but enough examples in our lives, inside and outside of organizations, have left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt cheapened by this extravagance.
But on 6/29, there was a different animal story, “Delays at J.F.K.? This Time, Blame Turtles.” Evidently, this is an annual event where diamondback terrapins would have to cross a particular runway to the sandy patch on the other side to lay their eggs. So, the authorities closed the runway for about an hour and caused some air traffic delays. Must have cost a handsome amount of money, possibly well over $230,000 per turtle, but heartwarming nonetheless.
Okay, I show my bias here. But I also think the multi-billion dollars spent annually, needlessly, on pets is obscene too. People who enrich Burberry to dress their small canines, offend me. People who voluntarily help train service dogs have my deep respect, for both human and dog. (I have to really restrain myself from touching those service dogs in training!)
Now onto an organization-related story, or two.
For a few years, my son loved going to our family farm to work in the summer, hay hauling and driving harvest truck were his major responsibilities along with whatever his uncle asked him to do, such as feeding the few cows we keep. The farm is pretty big, but the personnel who do the operation are rather few. There was one long-term hired hand, and he’s since retired. Succession is a big issue in a small family business, and the last summer my son overlapped with the new hired hand who may be groomed to take over the management someday. The new guy, Bob, is pleasant enough; though he had never worked on farms, he was more than eager to learn and seemed to really take to it. My son wasn’t twenty yet, but is the nephew of the owners, and Bob had some power issues of his own.
One day, Bob, needing to secure his “first line manager” status, told my son to go and clean up the shop since it was raining that day and most field operations stopped. My son has worked on the farm many summers by now, and knows how his uncle operates and thinks, and grasps his philosophies and principles. The shop is a big structure that can accommodate one enormous combine with room to spare. Shelves are lined up against two sides, with tools and parts strewn all over the counters and then some. But everyone who’s worked there knows where things lie and does not go about disturbing them without good cause, and would automatically put things back where they are found. There is madness to this method. So, my son resisted Bob’s instructions, and tried to explain why he wouldn’t go “cleaning up the shop.” The shop, as it was, was organized to everyone’s satisfaction, except the new member. But eventually it had to take his uncle to convince Bob that shop is fine as is.
In another incident, Bob, being still unfamiliar with running the farm’s big machines, turned over a tractor. He was unharmed, but probably utterly embarrassed. So, he took it out on my son for being “lazy and standing about doing nothing to help.” Later when the machine was put back to upright, my son explained to him that, “If I rushed in to ‘help,’ I might inadvertently get in the way of others who really know what they are doing. This wasn’t the time to take ‘initiative,’ I’d be more effective carrying out what I am told.” This was from a kid who usually doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do!
These farm incidents portrayed perfectly a classic dynamic of top-middle-bottom organizational structure. The middle rank managers, such as Bob, are often caught, literally in between, and feel powerless. They don’t quite grasp the whole picture that the top typically owns, and at the same time are too far away from the operations on the floor to have the first-hand knowledge of the operations. All it really takes to provide remedy for this awkward position is the humility to ask — the first step of learning. However, the top-middle-bottom isn’t limited to the structure presented by an organizational chart. The dynamics really depends on the issues in focus. Sometimes, the top can be at the bottom and other times, the bottom rank possesses more power. I will address this intricate dynamics in a much later post.
For now, just remember, when feeling threatened, take a deep breath, pause a moment, and ask, “what can I learn from this situation?” Chances are you’d come away a little wiser. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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