Seventy years of corporate life: What we learned
|The friends, 1987|
I talked recently with a friend, S., about the years when we worked at some of the world's best-known corporations: Did we make a difference? What did we learn from thirty-some years each of us spent in that environment?
Between us, we racked up over ten thousand meetings and one toxic boss each, countless projects, re-orgs and teams. S. attended a staff retreat that ignited a forbidden romance (you were not permitted to fraternize with colleagues, even if both were single), a love that endures to this day.
A short list:
1. Virtue is not always its own reward, but hard work is.
Neither of us ducked when the scut work was assigned. If that sounds self-congratulatory, it is—and now we look back with satisfaction. Both of us came from Depression-era parents who instilled the value of "a day's work for a day's pay".
We also conceded that, for at least the first twenty-five years, we were spared the insistent buzz of an e-mail just when we'd settled down to sleep.
2. You want unflagging fairness? Work for yourself.
S. was fired for no reason anyone could specifically uncover, and over the protests of many executives, by an unstable woman who had falsified her own credentials, which S. discovered later.
I was accused of inappropriate conduct because I (single) offered my guestroom for an overnight stay to a visiting (married) male colleague after his credit card was declined at his hotel when he tried to extend his stay. Nothing happened to me, except the classic "note in the file", which I found when I ascended to my (female) boss's job.
These incidents were the exception, for which we feel lucky. The managers we appreciate to this day were those who challenged us to grow, celebrated our successes, and discussed our shortcomings candidly and privately.
Though we laughed at "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams' strips, we believe the heart comes to work with the brain, and if the heart is cynical, it's unlikely you can get much done.
Those who chafed at the structure and took shots at the leadership at every opportunity usually left before they were asked to lead. "It's one thing to 'drink the Kool-Aid' ", a VP told me when I was promoted to management, "but now you'll be expected to mix the stuff.'"
3. The larger the corporation, the more potential for bad behaviour
Large organizations try to instill a cohesive culture, but sometimes the noble "Mission and Values" statement was the opposite of actual conduct; as my pal Marshall said of his company, "If you turn around too fast, you'll get stabbed in the back."
At the same time, over forty years we saw marked positive change in equal opportunity employment, wage parity, and the handling of harassment and safety issues.
We both think age discrimination has grown even worse. If you can access the New York Times' archive, a chilling article by Patricia Cohen on current unemployment rates for US women over 50 validates our hunch. Reading the over 1200 comments put faces to those numbers, and made me weep.
4. Size diminishes human contact
We worked for Canadian subsidiaries of multinationals, and by the mid-1990s experienced ever-more-remote management. We noticed that when teams were dispersed across the world, we could no longer chat with an executive to learn her thinking behind a certain decision.
When she occasionally turned up on site, she was booked into back-to-back meetings, so the informal mentoring that built business acumen decreased.
Some meetings brought out crackling collaborative energy, but video conferences, which took over the corporate world one grinding, debate-repressing slide presentation at a time, were not those.
5. The suits with the silk bow blouses were a mistake!
We reminisced about how thirty years brought the relief of business casual, yet even with that freedom, we dreaded events where poolside socializing meant swimsuits.
"Mad Men"'s Joanie Holloway tartly observed, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." We amended that to, "Or like you're going to a bar." But at the same time, we tried to stake out tiny corners of individuality. Mine was the statement earring. S. walked into her boss's office sporting her fresh broomstick perm; he asked if she'd been electrocuted.
By the time we retired, we saw wider acceptance of diversity, not only in attire, but in all aspects of identity. S. said she knew times had changed when her entire office (over 600 persons) closed for the day to attend the memorial service for a colleague who had died from AIDS.
There is, however, far less job security today, ever more contract and part-time work, and continuing erosion of the boundary of personal time. My first corporate boss, who represented the best of 1970s paternalism, would stop by my office if I was there a half-hour past closing, to ask, "What's wrong?" "Go home!", he would say, and mean it.
In forty years, we moved from a corporate Medieval Period (secretaries, no computers, ashtrays at desks) to the Modern, a history with bumps between eras, and differences among the corporations. I'll never forget the day an actuary appeared in my office hauling the first Apple Macintosh (128k, wow!), and practically hurled it at me. "Take it!", he commanded, "The damn thing doesn't do numbers."
The corporation remains a particular world, one that many young adults enter without thinking about whether they're suited to it. Often the attraction is the same reason Willie Sutton supplied when asked why he robbed banks—"That's where the money is".
S. and I became friends in our mid-twenties, when we had social service jobs, and figured, we can count our pennies forever in this sector or move into corporate life (though she had a stint in government, too). Well, we didn't get rich—but we earned some solid satisfaction from our work. We remember many colleagues with respect and gratitude.
But neither of us is certain we would do it again.