"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bossy Women (And Men) Have Got To Go

One of the worst bosses I have ever had was a man. He got promoted up the ladder in the International Development Bank because of seniority.  He had rowed in the Bank’s trireme for long enough, said senior management, and it was time for him to flay a few backs of his own.  So, he was made Division Chief.  In those days the Bank was ruled by seniority and by international cliques and cabals.  The Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis had bureaucratic power far beyond their representation at the Bank, and were savvy enough to work it to their advantage.  They gave an added push to Messrs. Ahmed, Gupta, and Rahman as they made their way up out of the ranks to management.

Niels Dekker was as dumb as a stone which is saying something in an institution which prides itself on recruiting only la crème de la crème; and how he passed through even the first, low-grade sieve was a miracle.  The Dutch did not have a strong country lobby in the Bank, Dekker had only the recommendation of the Deputy Mayor of a small town in northern Holland as proof of competence, and his stock answers to interview questions should have fooled no one.

But there he was, Chief of the Rural Low-Cost Water and Sanitation Division, head of twenty professionals and five secretaries without a clue how to manage.  On the surface he had an attractive Dutch ingenuousness and amiability, but since the only world he knew was that of static heads, plinths, and PVC tubing, he was ill-placed to manage an eclectic group of water engineers, economists, and community organizers each of whom had a unique and difficult personality.  There was Dr. Roberts, a Ghanaian sanitary engineer whose only purpose in life was to promote a latrine of his design.  He talked convection currents, ambient temperatures, light differentials, feces, and fly behavior ad nauseam, explaining the genius of his unique product.

There was Haile Gebremedhin, an Ethiopian who had been through the latest round of civil and bureaucratic wars in his country – a particularly difficult and bloody period of purges, executions, and exile – and was happy to escape to Washington and the protective confines of the Bank.  He had learned many years ago that the way to survive in a bureaucracy was to keep your head down when the bullets started flying, never show your colors, keep your own counsel, and only look up when the dust had settled and everyone else was lying dead and wounded on the battlefield.

Haile had made it up through the many echelons of the Bank bureaucracy because of his battle training, and by the time he got to the Water Division, you couldn’t pry an opinion out of him no matter how hard you tried. Performance evaluations did not include a section on ‘Level of Informed Opinions’, so no one faulted him for his reticence and just let him be.  The Ethiopian Mafia, however, was very powerful in the Bank, so no one could touch him; and since he had chosen to become an international civil servant only because it offered him a sanctuary and a high salary, he did very little work.  He was affable, congenial, and a pleasant colleague, but a cipher.

Geoff Billings was an uppity South African who insisted on saying he was English although he was no more than a naturalized Briton; and only corrected his profile page when he was called out by a working class East Ender, a secretary in the division. “You’re not English”, she told him one day.  “You’re bloody South African, you Afrikaner bloody white cracker.”

Our crew couldn’t have been more fractious.  Ego was overlaid by nationality,colored by race, dictated by bureaucracy, and fueled by ambition – either to rocket ahead like Geoff, the South African; or to stay rooted in place like Haile the Ethiopian.  Poor Niels had no idea what to do with us.  So he gave orders, pushed people around, bullied, threatened, and dismissed. “Do it again”, he yelled at Dr. Roberts. “It’s no good.”.  Of course he had not read Roberts’ white paper on Aerial Patterns of the Musca Domestica nor anything else that the well-meaning academic had written on the subject of low-cost sanitation; but wanted simply to put him in his place.  Who cared if Dr. Roberts was ‘The Father of the Improved Aerated Latrine (IAL)’? His job was to follow orders.

Niels Dekker was a jerk.  Talk of mutiny rumbled in the back rooms, Country Directors (senior executives from every country represented at the Bank) were called to mobilize political will to remove the son-of-a-bitch.  Meanwhile he went on intimidating, muscling, and humiliating without any inkling of the growing clamor for his removal.

One Monday morning his office was empty.  Niels Dekker had been transferred to Human Resources and rather than face the jeers as he packed up his stuff, he came in on Sunday to clear out.

Bartlett Quimby was a bossy woman supervisor in a private firm in Chicago where my sister worked.  The only difference between her and Niels Dekker was that she was smart.  She could write proposals in a day, parse and redo sketchy budgets in an hour, prepare presentations on global disease patterns overnight, and woo the pants off the company’s major client, the United States Government.

She was moved up to Senior Vice President in the organization not because of her brains – those above her in the hierarchy were too slow-witted to appreciate her unique intelligence – but because of her bottom-line performance. She always came in on budget, never over- or under-, and was always tops on the revenue list.  She deserved a break, thought senior management, and it was time to crack the glass ceiling and show the bureaucrats in Washington that the company was committed to diversity.

She, like Niels Dekker, had no clue how to manage; and her idea of managing her department was to give orders, set deadlines, and cut off the heads of those who didn’t comply.  She used her intelligence as a weapon rather than a moderating tool for cooperative work.  She quickly found everyone’s weakness and thrust her rapier right where it hurt most.  The whole staff was scared shitless of her.  They were walking wounded, all bleeding or scarred thanks to her slices and flays.  No one had the courage to speak up or to go to higher authorities to complain. Bartlett could be as charming and disingenuous as Betty Crocker when the time came to meet with the Executive Vice President or CEO.  The minions worked twelve-hour days, and the Directors spent each and every weekend on office work, all unhappy and restive; but senior management thought Bartlett was a dream.

At some point, without any collusion or mutinous after-hours meetings, the whole office knew that they had had enough.  Over a period of two months and with some pro bono advice from a labor lawyer husband of one of the staff, Bartlett’s employees drew up a list of grievances, all well documented and all conforming to both federal and Illinois labor statutes. Her goose was cooked.  All it took was for the lawyer to lay the legal brief on the desk of the Executive Vice President, and Bartlett Quimby was history.

The best boss I ever had was a woman – an authoritative, impressive, strong, imperial woman who also happened to be all kinds of smart.  She was intellectually acute, socially aware, and had – contrary to Bartlett Quimby – an uncanny ability to see the particular strengths of everyone under her supervision.  She was the head of a summer program at St. Mark’s, a school-home for young boys referred by the Juvenile Court of Manhattan.  These children were from broken, dysfunctional homes, potentially delinquent, but too unsocialized to attend regular school.  Attendance at St. Mark’s was their only hope of righting their lives; and Mrs. Williams saw to it that they would graduate and do well.

She was firm and unbending in her insistence on respect and propriety from staff and students alike.  She stood up to tough, big 18-year old boys, never gave an inch, stared them down, and backed them off; but later reassured them.  She really cared for the boys in her charge, and knew that managing this odd lot of social misfits and wounded children would take attention, caring, and discipline.  She was brilliant.

The second best boss I ever had was a man – George Talbot, the Director of the India country office of a large multi-national voluntary organization. 

There were 22 of us, all young, ambitious, but uniquely individual young men.  We were dopers, alcoholics, dog-breeders, gigolos, gourmet cooks, and farm boys; but we all had unfailing and absolute allegiance to George. We would do whatever he wanted because he let us do what we wanted – if our projects showed promise, intelligence, and appropriateness.  If a wife got panicky and freaked out after another long, hot summer in Bihar, off she went for a long vacation in Paris paid for by George’s office.  If any one of us got into a tiff with some state government officer, George was on a plane and in the face of the offender.  He stood behind his boys absolutely and without question.  His loyalty inspired our loyalty.

As a result of his management, the India country office led the organization in innovation, efficiency, and client satisfaction.  There was never a five-year period like that of the George Talbot reign. He is still remembered with with respect and even reverence by all who worked for him. 

The moral of the story is that bossiness is not restricted to women.  Men, too, can be overbearing, insensitive supervisors.  What they both share is insecurity; and the reason women are called out for bossiness far more than men is that they are relatively new at the game of management.  Climbing corporate ladders was never even considered for women just a few decades ago. 

Once managers have learned their trade and can balance sharp intelligence with perceptiveness; discipline with encouragement; collegiality with authority, bossiness will disappear.  Few firms have management tracks on which lower-level but promising employees can learn their trade. Underlings are chosen for managerial positions because of skills or talents unrelated to management; and it is no wonder that there are Niels Dekkers and Bartlett Quimbys all over the place.

I don’t have much sympathy for these abusive bosses.  Management, after all, does not take intellectual brilliance or unique talent; and most intelligent people should be able to figure out quickly that it is a function of authority, cooperation, recognition, and discipline.

After she was fired, Bartlett Quimby tried to get another executive position, but the well had been poisoned.  All those intimidated minions who were afraid to talk when they worked for her, spoke openly about her excesses and gulag mentality.  Their pent-up rage was so great that half the stories around Chicago were invented, and Bartlett Quimby became this weird caricature of Simon Legree and Genghis Khan.  After a year of looking, she gave up and tried to start her own firm, but even from the remove of a subcontractor, she scared people; and they wanted no part of her, corporately or personally.

Both Bartlett and Niels meant well, I think; or didn’t know any better, so I always wished them well but suspected they would have a rough time of it.  I have tried to get back in touch with Mrs. Williams of St. Mark’s but can’t find her anywhere on Google or the social media, so I have to assume that she – like George Talbot – has passed away.  After fifty years negotiating bad bosses, bad managers, bossy women and men, and incompetent supervisors, I wanted to thank them for what I learned from them; and I wanted to tell them that they are my heroes.

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