The phone rings just as I pour my cup. A chocolate-chip cookie smiles back at me.
It’s my friend Ruth, a bright, country marketing manager at a global gargantuan. In Ruth’s Fortune 500 world, "marketing" is defined as everything necessary to win business that the salespeople refuse to do. The greatest part of Ruth’s job is organizing the annual conference at which hundreds of clients are given a few days’ respite from doing any real work, plied with free food and expected to attend the jolly late-night contract-signing ceremonies.
Several unusual things have happened to Ruth and she’s called for my impartial advice.
"As you can imagine," she begins, "the conference venue represents my biggest expense. My marketing boss informs me that other countries in my region are struggling with budget. That’s no surprise as I know prices from our suppliers have risen this year more than we all expected. So my boss wants me to informally slash my spending by 15 percent. He says that I should do this to be a ‘good corporate citizen.’
"Well, it turns out that being a good corporate citizen is just what my behavioral coach put at the top of my development plan. She said my feedback suggests I can sometimes appear selfish and not project myself as a strong team player. Any behavior that proves I’m a good corporate citizen is exactly what I need to promote my personal reputation.
"So I get my people to do a little research. And guess what? We find this fantastic opportunity. A prestigious hotel chain is about to open a new conference center in our capital city in good time for our conference. They’ve made this great offer. We give them the kudos of being their first client, and they’ll let us have a 20 percent discount!
"If I cut this deal with the venue, I can go back to my boss with all the savings he’s asked for, and I’ll become a corporate angel. My coach says it’s a no-brainer. Everyone wins. What do you think?"
My brew has cooled. A mellow mocha aroma suffuses my office. The smile has disappeared.
"Just to check," I ask. "You’re good at your job and you’d like to continue doing it into the foreseeable future?"
"Of course," says Ruth. "This is the job I’ve always wanted to do. I want to give it my best. I’d like to keep doing it forever."
"Would you like to hear a textbook strategy for dealing with this situation?" I ask. Ruth says she would.
"If he won’t formally renegotiate your figures, send your boss the quotations that show how suppliers’ prices have risen. Attach a written request for a modest budget increase. That’s increase not decrease. Something small, like three percent, would sound good. Of course, he won’t agree, but that doesn’t matter. Your goal is to confirm his acceptance of your original figure within six weeks of starting this argument.
"Plan to spend your budget exactly. Neither over nor under. Your personal plan is to do exactly what you said you’d do at the start of the year.
"You’ll make certain you hit your budget on the nail by cutting a package deal with the venue. Include some performance bonus with a refundable deposit against next year. Of course you’ll drop a cryptic note to your local accounts people to let them know what you’ve done…."
I pause, as fire bursts from my handset.
"But you haven’t heard a word I’ve said," she protests. "That plan would make me the most selfish-looking person in the world! You obviously don’t understand the leadership side of this. My coach has told me it’s extremely important for me to be seen as a good corporate citizen. That has to be my number-one priority."
"Yes, of course," I respond calmly. "The plan I’ve outlined offers you the best chance of securing that.
"Also, I am sure you have a wonderful coach when it comes to interpersonal psychology," I add. "But this isn’t a family business. When you are convinced she fully understands the behavior of cost-center logic, please listen to her. Right now I suggest you listen to me."
"I’m sorry, Dr. Fink, what you say simply doesn’t make sense. I’m going with my common sense on this." Click.
Which I later find out she’d done. A year passes before Ruth calls again.
"I didn’t see it coming," she says. "It’s all so counter-intuitive. Things turned out the exact opposite to what I’d expected. We had a fantastic conference, in fact our best ever. I easily made all the savings. We came in 15 percent under our official target. My boss gave me a glass paperweight engraved with the words ‘Five Star Corporate Citizen Award.’ That was such a moving experience.
"I was doing fine until we got a new regional marketing manager. He takes one look at the figures and concludes that as I ended the year so wide off the mark, I must be useless at planning. As I’d overestimated by such a huge amount, he decides to cut my budget even further and transfer the saving to another country that really screwed up last year. My present funding is about two-thirds the previous figure. It’s hard to push back at this madness while my past performance looks so poor. There’s no way I can meet my numbers and deliver my program."
"You live in a crazy place where success gets penalized and failure rewarded," I muse. "You let your coach persuade you into pinning your career to a temporary market distortion. What will you do?" I ask.
"I have no choice but to quit," she says sadly. "I can’t commit to a program I know from the outset will fail."
As the perfect person in her ideal job, Ruth’s first duty as corporate citizen was her own survival. But now she’s gone. Ruthless are they who in the matrix live.
Copyright Laurence S. Lyons © 2009