Corporate "Motivation"
[NOTE: if you are a corporate executive, jump directly to here]

"What kind of morons do they turn out in business schools, anyway?" I asked myself this question a few months ago when I wrote my article on outsourcing. Apparently, they turn out the moronic kind.

(1:14 6MB Mpeg: Steve Ballmer's infamous "monkey dance.")
Some marketing moron convinced Steve that acting like a complete dork would "motivate the troops." In this performance, Ballmer combines behavioral extremes of
aggression (), wimpiness (), and dorkiness ().
His body language is amazing because it's so self-contradictory within such a short time. This may, actually, be brilliant marketing - a deliberate attempt to create cognitive dissonance within the staff, etc. (i.e.: "who is this guy?" "wow, he's out of shape! " "if I were a billionaire, I wouldn't do that!")

Last week I was at a corporate training center for a conference, and we were sharing the space with a sales "kick off" meeting Snap-On Tools. We were a small security conference, mostly a bunch of serious people standing around talking about technical problems and how to solve them. One topic that kept coming up, over and over again, was how clueless senior management was, and how often we had to work around them because we couldn't rely on them to have a clue when we needed them to. Meanwhile, the Snap-On Tools people had their section of the hall covered with big banners that read stuff like, "RAH! RAH! SELL! SELL! WE ARE THE BEST!" with cartoon pictures of a happy Snap-On Tools truck with big bug-eyes and a huge smile. The difference in attitudes between the two conferences was striking: one group wandered around as individuals looking kind of embarrassed in their matching "RAH! RAH!" t-shirts, while the other stood in quiet groups deeply engaged in conversation about problems we were solving.

The irony, of course, is that the Snap-On guys were supposedly "being motivated" and "getting pumped up" - actually, they looked like they were hating life. More likely they were hating their marketing people, wondering if their executives were a bunch of dorks, and writing their resumes.

The security practitioners were dealing with hard, intractable problems - the kind that normally depress and demoralize - and having a great time getting to know eachother and learning about our shared problem-space and offering eachother support and solutions. We were "getting pumped up."

Increase Your Moron Density!

I had a similar experience when I was at NFR, after our "real professional management team" took over the company. I had been running the business for 3 years and grown it from zero to profitability and about 30 employees. The professional management team had a "kick off meeting" complete with T-shirts, balloons, and a "motivational video" about how good it was to win, and so on. So - imagine a room full of software engineers - sitting there staring at some stupid animated powerpoint about how great football players never give up. Most of the programmers sat there with their jaws hanging. You could see the thought-bubbles over everone's head, and they all read, "what is this bullshit?" After the meeting was over I know of at least 4 engineers who floated their resumes. They were all gone within a month because they were good programmers who didn't need to work for a company that was run by morons.

Thus, a company increases its density of morons, by losing non-morons and creating an environment where only morons will be happy to work.

Perhaps some day we will look back at all of this as a "late 20th century fad" and laugh, but there has been a huge amount of damage done to perfectly good organizations by what I call "management by fad." I've been through a few of them: "customer focus" "total quality management" "agents of change" "7 habits of highly effective companies" etc. Basically, these fads are advanced by consultants as a packaged recipe for success - easy success: just add water and stir. Every company I have ever worked for in which senior management was impressed by these fads, the company failed. Management fads implicitly require a change in corporate culture - which means that the company that is being managed by fad will be constantly getting jerked back and forth about its belief systems. The result is that cynicism sets in and nobody winds up believing in anything.

At NFR our "real professional management team" immediately held an all hands meeting and announced the 7 guiding principles and values of the company. I should have known we were toast right then and there. Think about this for a second:
If you need to be told what your values are the implication is that you don't hold them right now.
When you see that "Corporate Value #7" is "Build shareholder value" you have just been informed that you are a very small cog in a large, clueless machine, managed by out-of-touch morons who think you're such a dummy that you'll wholeheartedly adopt someone else's values without questioning them. If NFR's "real professional management team" had wanted to lead, and learn something interesting, they might have sat the whole company down and tried to come up with 7 values everyone could agree upon. But that would have been hard. That would have taken leadership.

If you hold your values strongly enough, you don't need to print them out and stick them on a wall. If everyone shares them, they don't need to read them off a wall, either.

Let's try that from a different perspective. If you write "Build Shareholder Value" on the wall as Corporate Value #7 and then you travel on the corporate credit card: eating prime rib for dinner, drinking good wine, renting a luxury car, and staying in a fine hotel - you've contradicted yourself right away. In fact, you've just told every employee in the company that you either a) think you're better than them or b) have authorized them to use their corporate credit cards to live a life of luxury, too. I've found that the "leaders" who write their values on the wall are really saying, "this is how I want you to act, but it does not apply to me." History abounds with stories of great leaders who kept it real, and achieved great things by living their lives as a statement of their values. I'm not talking about football players, or coaches, or golfers - I'm talking about people like Alexander of Macedon, Takeda Shingen, Napoleon Bonaparte, Martin Luther King, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. Churchill did not write his "7 values of England" on the wall of a subway station during the blitz: he didn't need to. When someone like Churchill says, "We will fight them on the beaches" you know that "we" means "we" not "you."

Keeping it Real

If you hold your values strongly enough, you don't need to print them out and stick them on a wall.

If you want to motivate your people, lead them don't hop up and down shrieking like an ape (or a Ballmer) and expect them to be impressed.

Successful businesses get that way because their employees share a common set of goals. Sharing common goals requires that the goals be:
a) achievable
b) desirable
c) explainable
You can't share goals unless you can understand and explain them. So, trying to reach a bunch of programmers by talking about a great football coach is not as likely to work as talking about a great programmer. Trying to instill a sense of purpose doesn't work - it happens automatically if the goal you're aligning toward is one that everyone can adopt and internalize. You can motivate employees by saying, "we're going to change the world" or "let's all make a ton of money together" - but not "Build shareholder value" unless that's a goal that everyone is really likely to share. In other words: Keep it real.

If you want your employees to love their company, don't hop up and down shrieking like an ape, build a company that is worth loving. There are important implications in that concept:
a) A company that employees will love is one that takes care of them in return
b) A company that employees will love is one where they can trust in its stability and the sanity and vision of its management
c) A company that employees will love is one that is doing something useful

If you've got to have "company values" written down on the wall, keep them real: ask the company and update them every year. In fact, that might be an interesting exercise. You might come out with a set of values that look like:
1) Earn our customer's money
2) Keep our customers happy
3) Drink lots of beer
4) Make lots of money ourselves
5) Do interesting work

None of this is rocket science and none of this needs to be reduced to fad-y soundbites or a silly plaque in the front lobby of your office space.

Hilton Hotel, Köln, Germany Jan 27, 2005