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11/15/2002
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Secret CIO: Ideas Aren't Always Improved By Review

More harm than good will come of the old boss-knows-best trick.

Hornbecker in HR had an idea. This is notable because he hasn't had an original thought in all the years I've been with the company. Hornbecker is one of the drones reporting to Stephanie Stone, our VP of human resources. I think he's in charge of counting left-handed paper clips or maybe the number of forms the department generates. In any case, he goes to her with his idea, and to Stephanie's surprise, it's a good one--that is, before we began to improve upon it.

Stephanie, being a corporate creature, pitches Hornbecker's idea to the Executive Committee. Of course, by now, the idea is Stephanie's, or as she put it, "We in human resources have been concerned with interactions among our geographic divisions with respect to misunderstandings caused by cultural and geopolitical differences. As a result, we believe that a series of miniworkshops that explore these differences from an impact point of view would facilitate a higher level of cooperation among our working entities."

In other words, we might all get along better if we get people together to discuss the fact that our offshore brethren drive us up the wall with their smug comments about the superiority of their way of life and that we grate on their nerves with the constant flipping of our forks from one hand to the other during dinner.

It's a good idea. Too often, after an expensive and time-consuming international meeting, we (or they) return home to see agreements painfully hammered out unravel like the yarn in a cheap sweater. Even I, ever cynical about the ability of a company to do the intelligent thing, am impressed.

All goes well at first. Phil, our CEO, says it makes sense. Stephanie beams. Karen, VP of planning, chimes in that it's long overdue. Stephanie beams even more. Then, Ron Stagweg, executive VP of domestic operations, pipes up and things begin to go downhill. Ron is a decent fellow, but his wattage at times isn't sufficient to light a small closet. "This is a great opportunity," he says, "to hear from people about what changes we should make in our corporate culture. We could blend the best of each of our native cultures to make the moves that would really make us stand out from the competition." He finishes with a flourish, "We'd be a true international company, not just a multinational!"

Phil nods vigorously. "I like it! We can make some real progress in improving morale!" Now it's Ron's turn to beam.

Gornish, our CFO, and Kratmeyer, executive VP for foreign operations, sit quietly. Both know that when Phil gets in these raptures of enthusiasm, nothing can change his mind. Frequently at odds, they're united in the belief that nothing will come of any suggestion they don't like.

Knowing that I'm spitting into a hurricane, I open my mouth. "If we're worried about morale, we better make it clear up front that their recommendations might not be adopted. If we ask for input and then pull the old 'the boss-knows-best' trick, we'll do more harm than good."

Phil looks unhappy. He authorizes a set of management meetings to review cultures and customs. Each session will end with a workshop to develop actions to improve ourselves. Attendees will be told that the Executive Committee believes in the power of the ideas generated by our managers.

I just hope they don't take us too literally.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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