| advance noise
for days of naze
|happy landing on a peppermint bay
||November 14, 1998
I Owe My Soul to the Company Store
It was not a graded test.
The professor, a bookish man with a nerdy face and a wry grin taught a pretty good class called organizational dynamics or somesuch. The quiz was a nice break from the lecture; it was supposed to tell you what kind of an employee you would be.
There were three categories I can recall. The first was jungle fighter. These are the sort of people that swing from vines with a big knives between their teeth. They're willing to take big risks, make big mistakes, and take no prisoners. You owe nobody anything and you look out for number one.
The second was gamesman (that would now be gamesperson, I believe). Here the approach is to play any given situation, biding your time, calling in your chips at the right time and making the moves. Kind of a political operator type deal. Not so reckless as the jungle fighter.
The third type is the one that my score told me I fit: the company man (person? no -- that doesn't really work). Committed to the cause, loyal to the organization -- you know, boring. I hate to say it, but thirteen years later I'd have to say that quiz nailed me pretty well.
Being a company man is not cool. In fact, I believe most people think it's pretty weird. I've worked at the same company now for twelve years. My god. That's the equivalent of an entire primary and secondary education.
Company men in the Fifties were de rigeur, but now we're a definite minority. The hack and slash of the Eighties and Nineties laid waste legions of managers and left many with no alternative but to rebuild their lives from the ruins.
You get a wide variety of reactions when you reveal your tenure. Some nod appreciatively, some betray themselves with a widening of the eyes (shock).
The other nuance I sense is the diss. Company men are not players. Mobility helps you leverage your market value (read $). With the much flatter organizations of today, the way to move up is to shop the market and take a sideways up. You are shiny and new when you first walk in the door. It is human nature for both sides to embrace the possibilities, to relish the honeymoon. And companies are willing to pay the premium for that romance, that potential.
Early in the relationship you hold the power. You leave early and they lose on their investment in you. Therefore in the perverse logic of the marketplace, the new guy is the hero. The longer you stay, the more likely you are to stay longer. And if you're going to stay anyway there isn't a great big incentive to throw more money at you.
Well, what makes you stay? I'm glad you asked. Basically, I like the business. We sell information. Bits that represent stuff that moves fast; it's old and moldy within two hours. The industry sector that buys it is very large and stable. Competition in our market niche has been pretty weak in spite of some firms backed by big dollars, but recently things are heating up.
My first day of work, I walked in the door and the electricity went out. The dark ominous clouds spat out a long fork of lightning that took the grid down for 20 minutes. The company was a sleepy 30 person operation; the pay -- ridiculously low. But the Winter of '86 was not a particularly good time to be looking for work. I needed a job and they wanted a sales guy. So I became one.
That year began a streak of annual double digit growth (interrupted only once in the recession of '90) that continues today. The best two things about the job were that they hired a manager who believed that if you actually rewarded results you would get results. He was right. The second thing was that companies really wanted our service.
So I did that for a while and got pretty good at it. Friends and family were not particularly impressed with my career "choice". I think they thought I was going to be some big business hotshot or doctor or something. I learned to get over that.
Seven years, a small promotion, and some half-hearted job scouting later, a spot opened up in marketing and I nabbed it. The first year was a difficult one. The department consisted of just a few people who operated completely independently. In this new job I was cut off from my former peer group (more by the promotion than by distance) which left me feeling isolated and lonely.
The other shock was the loss of autonomy. In sales I pretty much determined my daily tasks and as long as my numbers were good everything was fine. Now I was assigned ambitious projects and tasks that descended from above in a continuous stream.
There was a lot to learn. In 1993, that first year, almost all of the company performed their work through terminals connected to a mini-computer (for all you youngins' the scale used to be mainframes, minis, and micros, now known as PCs), which had a lot of advantages of a networked system well before there were such animals. The marketing department was the only one which had started buying PCs. My first PC was a screaming 486 DX2 50 Mhz with a massive 8 meg RAM, which was fun and offset some of the negatives of the new position.
It's been a series of highs and lows since then. Managing the company's cash cow certainly has it's benefits, but it's hard to tear people's attention away from whatever the next big thing is to get resources for development. So you look for marginal gains wherever you can find them. The company hired a number of new bodies mostly of my generation, which did wonders for my morale.
Turnover has become a major factor. I've reported to 4 different bosses in those 5 years and the department head is the 3rd in that same time period. Two of my compatriots have made the sideways up move to other firms in the last 5 months. It gives one pause.
I like to think I have a pretty realistic view of the world. And my philosophy has been "better the devil you know, than the devil you don't." Let's face it. There'd be no Dilbert unless there were a lot of screwed up places to work. Do you reconcile yourself to the endemic problems, the ones you've seen so many times that you've become desensitized to them or do you try something else?
At a luncheon where semi-annual company results are reported to groups of employees, a quiet, self-contained man from our support department stood up and blasted the random drug test policy. I was heartened by his courage. Back when the policy had been implemented, I wrote a letter of protest to the president. He even had a sit-down conversation with me on it. He listened but was ultimately unmoved by my arguments.
(You know, writing (on the record) about your current work place is the true Web taboo topic. Everything else is pretty much already out there.)
We want to believe that the commitment we make to an organization means something beyond the economic agreement that underlies it, and perhaps it does. It's really something each individual has to decide for themselves. But one of the critical truths of work in the last years of the 20th century in America really struck me as I read an employee newsletter. I'll never forget it.
A man who had invested 20+ years of his life at U.S. West had recently fallen victim to a long, drawn out series of layoffs. His letter to the editor ended thusly: "You know, you can love the company with all your heart, but the company will never love you back."
p.s. Psst! Wanna buy some seeds? High grade stuff. Tara's a top of the line grower. (No, these are not smokable tomatos.)
p.p.s. "Whatever you do, Naze, don't put me on the new days notification list."
p.p.p.s. Hello to my regular visitors at Portland State University, Princeton, and someone with excellent taste at the U.S. Treasury Department (your secret is safe with me!).
|previously on days of naze:
what have you done for
|May you never be more active
when you are doing nothing.
|in the feedbag:
film: The Siege - Annette Bening is hot and the premise is believable enough to be disturbing and engaging.
book: Nicholas & Alexandra by Robert Massie; Sunday, bloody Sunday.
non-stop in my brain: "In America" from West Side Story
|We few, we happy few...|