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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pet Peeves About American Business

     One of the best things about having your own blog is that you can indulge your pet peeves. One of mine is news articles that attempt to excuse bad behavior in the rich and powerful. Recently passed away Steve Jobs of Apple was a great visionary leader, but, based solely on the articles I’ve read, I’m glad I never worked for him. Call me picky, but I don’t like being yelled at or publicly humiliated. And I don’t like arrogant people – don’t even like being in the same room with them even if they are geniuses.
     The reason I bring this up is that there have been a few articles written lately about Steve Jobs’s ‘management style’, and I’m worried that too many managers in the tech world will get the wrong message and think that his somewhat abusive style was the key to his success. Trust me. It wasn’t. The reason I’m worried, though, is that I’ve seen a trend in the IT world over the past ten years away from the benevolent, consultative, respectful management practices of the late 20th century towards a more dictatorial, tops-down, and largely ineffective style. It seems that all the findings about human motivation and proper boss-employee relationships developed in the post World War Two era are being discarded at an even faster rate than American manufacturing jobs.
     So let me state this unequivocally: No matter how successful Steve Jobs or any other CEO was or is, leaders who listen to, trust their employees, and treat them with respect will have far greater success in the long run. Arrogance is a negative character trait. It turns people off and de-motivates employees. No one except a cringing sycophant works harder for an arrogant manager.
       But there is another particularly galling negative management trait besides arrogance – and that is incompetence. And in my experience the two are frequently found together. Along with the growing arrogance of many overpaid CEOs today, there is a growing trend towards incompetence – and the way the deck is stacked these days, it’s ultimately the workers who pay the price for that all too common coupling.
       Let me illustrate this with two stories. First story: I was in California last week and took the opportunity to walk across the now almost deserted campus of a once thriving electronics company. It was still a wonderful site with large impressive buildings and magnificent trees, a campus originally intended for the thousands of highly paid, highly motivated workers who built one of the world’s great businesses. But today it is all but deserted. So, I asked myself: Who were the giants? - the men who created and grew the business that needed this campus, or the current crop of managers who have efficiently and cost-effectively overseen its shrinkage and sent thousands of jobs overseas?    
           Here’s the second example: This story was reported in the press as part of a commentary on why so many manufacturing jobs have left America. The story goes that after a few weeks of carrying a prototype iPhone around in his pocket, Steve Jobs noticed the plastic screen was getting scratched and decided, just weeks before the product launch, to switch to a glass screen. To accomplish this, the Chinese manufacturing company where Apple had outsourced the assembly, roused employees at midnight from their slumber in the company dormitories, to immediately begin making the new phones as soon as the glass screens arrived. 
      According to the article, it was necessary for Jobs to move manufacturing jobs to China – because American workers weren’t flexible enough – they were too pampered to sleep in dorms or to come back to work at midnight after an all-day shift. The article also saw this situation as a positive commentary on Steve Jobs’s management style. He was decisive. Able to make the tough decisions. Would accept nothing less than perfect quality. A man who bent others to his will regardless of the consequences. And powerful. Say what?? Excuse me! A clear-eyed look at this story reveals an entirely different conclusion. And certainly nothing in the story should be taken as a justification for moving jobs overseas.
     As a 34 year veteran of the IT industry, let me say that the Jobs story was a perfect example of bad management and the waste of company resources to placate an oversized ego. With better planning, the issue with the plastic screen would have been detected long before the product ship-date, thereby saving Apple $millions in panic buying and overtime pay – not to mention the disruption to his employee’s work schedules and to the other projects they no doubt were working on. To me it was a great lesson in how poor planning leads to wasted money. But in the case of Apple, Jobs had the $millions to placate his ego and insulate himself from his lack of proper oversight of a critical project.
      Further, if this is the reason American companies have moved manufacturing jobs to China – to make up for bad planning on the part of their managers – then shame on them. Germany has managed to keep its manufacturing jobs, but only because German workers’ councils forced their country’s CEOs to put their thinking caps on to solve the problem rather than to take the easy way out and simply ship German jobs overseas.
    I haven’t decided what my next post will be on.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

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