Bureaucracy is a dangerous path.
Like any other, this one also has a trajectory: it “evolves” and as it does, it becomes more dangerous. A typical bureaucrat in the 19th century, for example, lacked ambition beyond just doing everything by the book, or found pleasure in maintaining order meticulously, keeping his own ambition in check. They typically worked in state owned companies or organizations, like railway, post, government offices.
Nowadays, many large companies have become more bureaucratic than state organizations used to be in the 19th Century. Besides the usual suspects, like finance and HR departments, born bureaucrats find their way to management roles in all possible domains, including those that are supposed to be creative. This should not be surprising, considering the trend of accelerated mechanization. But bureaucrats no longer keep their ambitions in check.
In Central Eastern Europe, for example, we have witnessed situations where the CMO of a reputable, international brand, hurled the most repulsive obscenities to the account director of their advertising agency at most of their interactions, as a regular course of business. A “lady” to a “lady”. The style of this same account director in the office was not any less vulgar when interacting with “her” account managers, or with her boss for that matter, the agency owner, who promoted her into the role specifically for her ambition to do things he didn’t want to deal with, and who was even willing to put up with her screaming obscenities at him in front of the whole office – as long as they were winning enough tenders for him to maintain his lifestyle.
Stories of vendors who deal with HR or IT managers at large organizations can fill volumes about the difficulties to “make things happen” and sabotaged projects even when commitments are already made, and vice versa: HR and IT managers can also fill volumes about stories of vendors who either disregard their priorities, or don’t listen to their concerns and suggestions, and are just pushing stuff at them, like robots, following blindly the book, so to speak.
Let’s face it: this is the rule, not the exception. Bureaucracy rules supreme and to fight it means going against the current; and going against the current means that you’re putting yourself into the uncomfortable position of not being considered credible. Even the biggest heroes of the motivational circuit – who make a living off of bureaucrats – give advice on how to create your own bureaucracy (for example, through their time management ideas).
Business should be done differently. Taleb’s advice holds: don’t deal with people who look the part. Let’s add: don’t try to look the part.
I list three exceptions (out of not much more) I observed over the years at very large multinationals. The common denominator of these examples is the will to see the person behind the role and the will to be who one is, rather than the role. This requires maturity. I’ve seen very good people also from smaller but not any less influential companies, but perhaps these three contrast the pervasive bureaucracies the best.
- An HR manager at a large telco who acted as an entrepreneur. He used his role of influence to actively seek out the misfits both within and without the organization, building long-term business and personal relationships.
- A humble CEO at a big pharma company who was simply role blind: he just saw people. Perhaps this helped him reading people better than almost anybody I’ve seen.
- A celeb CEO (in more than one countries) who focused on building friendships in a business setting, even in a rather advanced age with people from all walks of life, including inexperienced kids. Most people stop making new friends through business by the time they reach 40.
As a result of their maturity, not only did they go against the current, but their modus operandi made them appear for most people with ambition unfit for business – despite their indisputable achievements.
What’s the solution? I tend to think that new business associations should be created, with no celebrities in them, consisting of people who specifically stay away from the celebrity status. The current ones, while decidedly strong and dominating, don’t fit this mold.
Let us know what you think!