I was sitting at my sons’ football practice reading a book when coach and fellow dad Ron stopped by my table to have a chat.
“What’s going on Ron?”
“How are you, Anthony?”
After I commented on Ron’s fancy red work truck, he expressed exasperation over how many miles he’d put on it in the last few months.
“But that’s not even the biggest problem,” he said.
“Do tell,” I replied.
“Well, my boss has no background in the work I’m doing for the company, but he keeps telling me how to do my job, and he’s always WRONG,” he said.
“Wow. I mean it’s one thing to have a boss who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but it’s even worse to have a boss who doesn’t know he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If he’s going to be clueless, he could at least stay out of your way,” I said.
“Our conflict has gotten to the point where his boss, the CEO, has told him to just let me do my thing and not get involved in my jobs,” Ron said.
“And what happens to the other jobs that he gets involved in?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re a mess. He screws them up, and my jobs are running smoothly,” he said.
“Well, you still have to be careful. In my experience, I’ve found that you can never beat your direct manager by going above their head, no matter how valuable you think you are,” I said.
In fact, the book I was reading when Ron came over to chat was, “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron,” by Bethany McLean. For those of you who haven’t read it, I highly recommend the book. It provides a good illustration of how people at the top determine the culture, direction and values of a company. The dynamic is truly a pyramid structure where the leaders occupying the point at the top will either rain positivity or negativity down to the next level, and so on and so on. At any point in the chain, it’s very difficult to change the narrative (so to speak) from what’s been emanated from above.
This is why enlightened and present leadership from the top is so important. In the case of Enron, there was Ken Lay at the top, a man who had a big-picture vision and acted on some keen insights, but then largely disappeared from the running of the organization. Now, that’s all fine if he had the ability to pick a good CEO, but he did not, and thus the fatal domino effect began. Ken picked Jeffrey Skilling, who was also a big picture guy, but single-mindedly focused on the company’s stock rather than the company itself. To the non-financially savvy, the book provides a fascinating education on how those can be vastly different priorities. Skilling’s focus on the stock made him pick a CFO, Andy Fastow, who was single-mindedly focused on manipulating the accounting to keep earnings in line with analyst expectations, rather than providing insights into how the businesses were actually performing and working to improve them.
So on and on it went, essentially mortgaging the future until there was nothing left to mortgage, and it can all be tracked to Lay’s absentee leadership, combined with poor hiring.
Ron told me he didn’t mind having a boss who didn’t know anything — as long as the guy stayed out of his way — and I have heard this from others. Another friend, Joe, who worked for a large company and had many bosses over many years, said he didn’t mind if they didn’t really understand his department’s workings or if they didn’t provide him with much help. He was even ok if they didn’t show up much. Joe just didn’t want them to hassle him. The worst of the worst are those who do both — provide nothing of value but interfere with those who do.
If you’re working in an organization with toxic or absentee leadership that has let their poison pervade the organization, I suggest you do what Ron did — get to looking elsewhere for a better environment, before your place of work goes the way of Enron.