Monday, February 13, 2012

A fairy tale

It happens like this only in the movies.

We’ve been reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievementl by David Brooks over at The High Calling. Brooks uses the fictional characters of Harold and Erica to illustrate a wide array of sociological, psychological and biological studies all pointing to our “social-ness” as one of the most critical factors, if not the most critical factor, in what makes us human and how we develop and live. Last week, Erica was on the brink of leading an insurrection at her employer Intercom, which bore a resemblance to the now-defunct Enron.

The insurrection happens, but it’s a movie script, not what most of us have ever seen happen in the workplace.

For months, Erica works with a number of her co-workers who all believe the top executives are taking the company down the drain. (And there’s no question about this; that’s exactly what they’re doing.) They look for an opportunity to present their recommendations, and it comes when the company holds a live webcast for investors, analysts and the board of directors. Erica and one of her “co-conspirators,” Raymond, are able to speak for 15 minutes. Heads nod but nothing happens, or at least happens immediately.

Within a few months, however, the company’s downward spiral worsens, the board acts, names Raymond as CEO, and the turnaround begins. Several years later, Raymond retires, and another CEO continues the rebuilding. Eventually, Erica is named CEO, and becomes something of a minor business celebrity.

Where the story went awry for me was the live webcast. There is not a public company anywhere in the world that would allow that kind of webcast, especially one involving investors, analysts and the board. These kinds of events are heavily scripted, with a kind of standard liturgy. The only relatively unscripted part is the questions and answers – you never really know what an analyst might ask but you can usually make a pretty good guess. Employees would not be allowed to speak.

It might be different at an employee event, like an internal town hall. But the board would rarely have an opportunity to attend one.

If such a live meeting as Brooks describes would occur, a more likely outcome would be that Raymond would find himself packaged out via early retirement and Erica would be marginalized (or find herself eventually looking for another job, voluntarily or involuntarily).

When significant change comes for an organization, it usually comes in the form of an external crisis. Think BP’s change of leadership in the aftermath of the Gulf Oil spill, or the near-collapse of General Motors and Chrysler (and I’m not going to argue the merits or demerits of the government bailout). Employees question executive leadership all the time, and often rightfully so, but corporations and other entities (including a lot of charitable and non-governmental organizations) are not democracies. When leadership makes bad decisions, it usually takes time and the revolt of external constituencies to make change happen. Leadership often doesn’t realize that the decisions are bad ones, and there’s a certain defensiveness about having one’s authority questioned.

But it would make a fun movie script.

To read more posts about the three chapters in The Social Animal being discussed this week – The Insurgency, Getting Older, and Morality – please visit The High Calling, where Laura Boggess is leading our discussion.


Laura said...

It was fairly unrealistic, wasn't it? Even with my lack of business experience I found myself thinking, "now wait a minute...there is no way the big guys would give Raymond and Erica fee reign to say those things. ESPECIALLY with a live webcast."

But I have also been thinking how little Harold and Erica's life looks like the average person's. You are right though. Would make a good movie.

Louise Gallagher said...

I agree Glynn -- disclosure rules being what they are, no way could that happen -- suspension of our disbelief does not include the impossible when the outcome is based on illegal/unethical activities :)!

I so appreciate following along on your reading.

LOL -- and the word verification is: prpoll -- do you think that means pr politics?