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The Manager’s New Clothes

My current supervisor summed it up best, albeit inadvertently, when he said in regard to career development “…and if you don’t want to go anywhere else, think about going into management.” We all read Dilbert, we all know that the pointy-haired boss is, frighteningly, not that much of an exaggeration of a typical manager in the tech industry. But why do these people accept the positions they hold? What were they promised, and do they ever get it?

I heard someone at work quote an article he read on retired managers. Most of them die within 5 years of retiring. Why is that? Because they never reached their goals? Was the carrot always just out of reach? Maybe. Or maybe the time to reflect on their lives did them in. Maybe they realized that they identified with a soul-less company for most of their adult lives, and all it came to in the end was a feeling of emptiness. The numbers looked good, the paper moved on time, the customers were adequately served, but nothing of value ever really happened.

It’s my opinion that companies are alive in the same way that fire and sharks are. They live only to consume and expand, mindless, blind, determined. The larger a company gets, the more it takes on these characteristics. The closer to the top people are, excepting only their brief public appearances to give assurances that things are not the way that they clearly are, the more like the company they become. The people closer to the mail room are more apt to retain their humanity, more able to see the revealed preferences of the company and it’s executives, more likely to be afraid of greed mongering. And then there are the people in the middle — the managers.

The managers are offered smoke, ambiguous assurances, motivational retreats, promotions that disappear after reorgs, and heavy and shifting responsibilities in the guise of personal achievement. They wear them like the emperor’s new clothes, proudly, unaware that they have been duped. That is, until they have some time to reflect on it.

That may seem a little harsh (although not unrealistic), but all isn’t lost. Most companies aren’t chock full of executives worshipping the devil with dreams of world dominance. Most companies have people in them who hold fast to their humanity, and who try to undo some of the damage their companies do. The trick to keeping a company manageable is for its executives do be just as tireless and determined to do good in the world as their company is to consume.

Personally, I have only the spirit of holding in the reins, not the ability to do it. You see, I’m much closer to the mail room than to being a member of the board. I’ve watched three companies in the last decade decay until they were barely recognizable distortions of what they were at the beginning. I managed at one for a couple years, and became disillusioned with the whole carrot-chasing routine. At the end it was clear that wearing the clothes of a company man, spouting the company motto on demand, was the same as wearing nothing but my ignorance and my shame.

So now I do my best to keep my fellows from falling into the same trap. I’m the guy in the meeting who asks people about their wedding plans or their children (sometimes both), who makes the occasional snide comment about the company (“I don’t like this month’s mission statement, when’s the next one come out?”), and who empathizes with the customers who are being screwed over and lied to. The managers hate me. Well, the used to just hate me. After reading this, I’m sure they’ll be coming after me with blunt objects. Did I mention my Kung-Fu is superior?

So what’s my point? Don’t be duped! People don’t always tell the truth, but they always say what they want people to believe. When people tell you that you’re going places or that you are the best person to come to with problem X, be skeptical. Be very skeptical. Let your useful skills be your gold mine, not your ability to network and brown-nose. Stay human. Fight the good fight. Have something to look back on as meaningful when you retire.

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