Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are Corporate Executives Clueless?

Pawel Brodzinski brings up some excellent points in his blog about why top management often seems disconnected from what's happening in their businesses.  While he might be right that they are disconnected, I don't believe they are as disconnected as some think and that there are good reasons they never seem to be available.

In my experience, executives have very time constrained schedules and rarely ever know more about the details of what is happening than the people working for them. This is not a cut on executives, it is reality. Let me explain why I say this.

When an someone comes into a company, they are brought in to do a particular thing. Maybe it's technical, maybe its not, but at some level, junior employees are brought in to lay bricks. Determining who's productive and who's not is as easy as counting the number of bricks they lay.

Our brick layer is productive and get's promoted. He's now managing 10 brick layers. It's still very easy to determine if he's productive. But now, let's promote him one more time. He's now managing 10 people who are in turn managing 10 other people. You can see it's a little more difficult to judge productivity, but his job is still focused around laying bricks. He is in middle management and is still responsible to know about brick laying. But let's promote him one more time.

Now our man is an executive. One of his departments lays bricks, but he's overseeing 5 other departments. One digs moats, another mines stones for the bricks, another ships the bricks, another handles the international taxes involved in importing bricks and exporting castles and then there's this other god awful depart that does something called IT.

Our executive might have experience in one area, brick laying, but he is responsible and really needs to focus his time and attention on the four other areas. And when people working for him come to him to make decision, they spend all their life in the details and give him a 5 minute summary from which he has to make decisions consequential to the business about an area where he's had 5 minutes of preparation. And there are 10 other things going on that he needs to prepare for.

Most executives would love nothing better than to be able to focus on things they know about and build deep relationships with people whose knowledge and dedication are crucial to the company. Unfortunately, that is not reality for executives in large companies that I've seen.


Josh said...

Thanks Andy. My take here.

Josh Nankivel

Pawel Brodzinski said...


I agree with the model. It would be impossible for the guy to know how to dig moats.

On the other hand he should know what's the atmosphere in moat-digging department and what drives people to work. As far as he boldly claims his company digs moats in an innovative way or they have passionate moat-diggers who love to dig moats or their moat diggers are the most agile in the local area he should be aware how the company supports innovation, attracts hotheads and helps to build flexibility. Especially he should know whether company culture supports these at all.

Sad reality is that quite often executives aren't aware even of these basic things. I've seen execs claiming how great is their company and how intelligent and wise people work for them while virtually every person who worked there was telling that is bureaucratic factory where for each day of coding you need a week of writing documentation and there's nothing great in maintenance of systems developed in early eighties.

I agree that's a different problem than lack of knowledge what actually people are doing in smaller organization, but I still consider that as a problem. Just a different kind of disconnection.