Thursday, July 29, 2004

CEO: (Ch)easiest job in America

I keep waiting for the reality show in which they pluck a homeless bum out of a puddle of his own piss, clean him up, slap a $3000 suit on him, and make him a corporate CEO.  Week after week, viewers would look at each other in amazement as they realize that the company runs just fine, despite him.  In fact, in some cases the company's productivity would increase, since some know-it-all wouldn't be trying to tinker with things he doesn't understand...

CEO's of large corporations have a few jobs, most of them easy:

  1. Wear expensive clothes;
  2. Tell funny, interesting stories relevant to the topic at hand; and,
  3. Hire knowledgeable, competent people to actually run the day-to-day operations of the company.
If you can do these three things, then you, too, could be a corporate CEO.

Sure, I'm oversimplifying somewhat.  But don't let any big-time CEO tell you he is sweating his balls off, working long hours to run the company.  He isn't.  He's playing golf, taking Mondays and Fridays off, and probably nailing his secretary (not that there's anything wrong with that, natch).

I always joke that CEO stands for "Cheesy Executive Overdresser".  Our CEO, Dan Johnson, typifies this.  He soaks himself in harsh European colognes, wears blindingly shiny suits, and is known throughout the industry as something of an "eccentric".

Dan loves gimmicks.  Back in the early 90's, when Ross Perot was running for president, Perot popularized "flip-chart" presentations.  No sooner did he do so, than Dan stole the idea.  Dan still uses those charts to this day.  He even, embarrassingly, jokes about how Perot "stole" his flip-chart idea.

When Dan is headed to an out-of-town meeting, he gets a list of names of attendees for his presentation.  Then, he brings folding cardboard name tags to place in front of everyone's seat.  He brags that this is for a "personal touch".  Yeah, great.  He comes off as warm and personable by referring to people by their first names, without having to remember any.

Dan insists on being called "Mr. Johnson".  "Part of my job is to be a teacher," he says.  "And when you were in school, did you call your teachers 'Mary', or 'Joe', or 'Bill'?  NO.  You called them 'Mr. Smith', or 'Mrs. Brown'.  So that's how I expect you to refer to me."

I think this is a great idea.  In fact, just to get the full effect of being a real teacher, Dan ought to accept the $40,000 annual salary that Mr. Smith and Mrs. Brown probably have to live on, instead of the 750 large HE makes each year.

Of course, none of us peons merit the same respect as "Mr. Johnson", so we're all referred to by first names.  Looking around the table at the name tags is always good for a chuckle:  "Phil", "Steve", "Ross", "Bonnie", and then, in huge, dark capital letters:  "MR. JOHNSON". 

I know I sound pretty critical of ol' Dan, but he's always been very good to me.  He's taken me golfing several times, and he compliments me for how well I am doing at work.  He always ends our talks by telling me that he appreciates all the hard work I do, and that he hopes I stay with the company for many years to come.  I just get a bad vibe from him:  A feeling that he is fake, as if you could cut his arm and find solid plastic, like a kid's toy.

Early this month, after my week-long business trip, Dan came out to see us, flip-chart and name tags in tow.  He sat all the principals down in the conference room (about 10 of us).

Mr. Johnson is at the head of the table, his acidic cologne burning our nasal passages, his flashy suit blinding us with its glare.

"We want to be the number one insurance company in the world," he is saying.  "Not number two, number ONE.  And not just in the US; in the WORLD!  One of the ways we are trying to do that is, we are growing by buying smaller insurance agencies.  We call this ACQ-UI-SI-TION."  He stretches the word out as if he were speaking to a group of five-year-olds.

"Last month, as you know, one of your coworkers was out on the road, investigating some of these possible ACQ-UI-SI-TIONS....."

Hey, Mr. Johnson, let's make a deal:  You stop "teaching" us words we already know, and we get to call you "Dan".  How does that grab you?

All eyes turn to me.  Everyone knows that I am the "coworker" who was out on the road last month.

"Now, Steve, why don't you tell us what you found out there on the road," he says.

Oh, you're involving me in your presentation now?  Thanks for the heads-up.  Dickhead.

"The offices were very poorly run," I say.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Dan says, interrupting me.  "Who can tell me what was wrong with that statement?"


"Negative," Dan says slowly.  "NEG-a-tive."

ANOTHER new word?  Dear Lord, Dan, we can only absorb so much knowledge in one sitting!

"Steve said the offices were 'POORLY run'.  That sounds pretty negative, doesn't it?  No one likes to hear negative statements, do they!  Does anybody in this room like to hear negative statements like that?"  He pauses, looking around the room.  Silence.

"So how about this," he continues.  " 'The offices had a lot of OPPORTUNITIES to REDUCE EXPENSES and INCREASE EFFICIENCY?'  Hah?"  He says, nodding enthusiastically.  Heads bob up and down around the table.

"OK, Steve, try it again," he says.

"So these offices were very poorly run..." I say.

Thunderous laughter.  Dan is laughing too.  This time.

"..and I spoke to them about our acquisition program, and reviewed all of our reports and procedures, which was the purpose of the trip.  And with the time that remained, I pointed out ways that they could process their work smarter and faster.  And cheaper."

"EXCELLENT, Steve!" Dan says.  "EX-CELLENT!!"  He is holding his thumb and forefinger together, as if complimenting a fine wine.

"And I want to point something out," Dan says.  "Every one of those offices called me to compliment Steve.  EVERY-SINGLE-ONE.  They all told me they are going to save big money, thanks to him."  He pauses, and smiles at me.  I nod in acknowledgement.

"People ask me why I spend so much time on the golf course," Dan says.

Why do I sense a corny joke in my future?

"My WIFE asks me why I spend so much time on the golf course.  And I tell her it's because it takes me six hours to play a nine-hole course."

Polite laughter.

"And it would take me longer, but I usually run out of balls around the fourth hole, and go home."

More laughs.

"You know, I don't think a score card should have exponents!"

Still more laughter.

Dan, get yourself an agent!  I smell a sitcom deal!!

"Actually," he says, "the reason I go out there is because that's where I get my best ideas.  Things usually come to me as I'm trudging my way through the woods, looking for my ball."

OK, we get it.  You're a shitty golfer.  Can we move on?

"And what occurred to me is that we need to have this kind of a review for every single agent in the country.  EVERYONE needs to review his or her procedures.  Us too!  Every-single -agent needs to be visited just like these few were visited last month.  Wouldn't that be great?  Wouldn't that make them more profitable, and less busy?  And with them more profitable, and less busy, won't they go out, and sell some more business?  And make us some more money, so I can buy some more golf balls?"

Chuckle, chuckle.  A bullet in the back of the head would feel really good right now.

"Let me make a suggestion," I say.  All heads turn to me in unison.  I am aware that Dan was in the middle of something, and that this is somewhat rude of me.

"We would be pretty silly if we were educating our agents on efficiency, and the training itself was inefficient," I say.  "That trip cost the company a thousand dollars, and I saw eight offices.  That's over a hundred dollars per office.  Multiply that by 1,000 offices, and it's over a hundred thousand dollars.  It would take an awful lot of new business to make that up."

"Are you saying this is a bad idea-" Dan begins.

"What if, instead of going to the offices, the offices came to US?" I say, talking over him.  Bad career move, stepping on the boss's toes, I know.  But I don't like the direction in which Dan is going.

"Not to US, exactly, but what if we got 50, or 100, or 250, agents to a convention hall and did a seminar once for all of them, instead of 250 times individually?"

Some heads nod.

Dan laughs.  "Steve, the reason you succeeded is because you observed their workplaces, and you SAW what their problems were, firsthand.  How will you do that at the Marriott Hotel convention room?"

"We don't NEED to see their problems.  We need to tell them the proper way to do their work.  It's their job to implement it, and to eliminate any procedures that don't work well."

He puckers his lips thoughtfully.  "Do you think Joe agent is going to be able to do that?  Come back and put these ideas into practice?"

"If we do our job right?  YES," I say.

"So we're asking them to shell out the money to fly to Timbuktu, and stay at a hotel?" Ross says. 

Thanks, buddy.

"We can do them regionally, so people don't have to fly anywhere.  We can also make it a one-day seminar so no one has to stay at a hotel if they don't want to .  Even if there are only 25 agents in a group, it's infinitely better than doing them one at a time."

"I don't know," says Ross.  "Speaking to 25 or 50 people at once, trying to teach them things?  It never works!"

Thanks AGAIN, pal!

Time to hit back.

"That sounded pretty negative, didn't it, Mr. Johnson?"

The room fills with laughter.  Dan nods his head up and down.  "What's he trying to say, Steve?"

"That there are challenges associated with training large groups of people on such highly detailed procedures."

"EXCELLENT, Steve, EX-CELLENT!!"  The thumb and forefinger again.  "And what is your solution, because I have a feeling you have one."

"When I was in college, I had a philosophy class with 250 people in it," I say.  "In that kind of atmosphere, people aren't comfortable asking questions.  So, one class every week was set aside for a "recitation," in which we broke up into groups of 30 or 40 students.  A teacher's assistant would lead the recitation class, and we could ask questions and have in-depth discussions."

"So you propose breaking up the agents into groups of 30 after they get to the convention hall?" Dan says.

"Groups of ten or twenty would be better," I say.  "We'd have to bring more people to conduct the seminars, but it would still be much cheaper than the alternative."

"I like it," Dan says, finally.

Take THAT, Ross.  Fucker.

9:00pm.  Dan, Ross, and I are at the most exclusive steak house in the area.  I ate half my prime rib and left the rest.  No way I am challenging my colon twice in seven days.

After dinner, we retire to the bar and drink some dessert wine.  "It's a crime you can't smoke cigars here anymore," Ross says.

"Ross, what would you say if I hired ol' Steve here away from you and brought him to corporate to handle M & A [mergers and acquisitions] for me?"

HFS (Holy fuckin' shit)!  That's a $200,000 job, easy.  Plus commissions!  I do ok now, not THAT great, but I'm not complaining.  This would be a huge bump.  I'd have to move, but so what? 

Ross looks down at the polished hardwood.  "Who would run my office?" he says.

Next time, Ross, use a little vaseline.

See you guys tomorrow...