Go with a smile!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Bad Bosses

Remind me to take this particular post down if I should find myself working for one or two of these guys ever again.

There was this guy, he came back from an overseas scholarship with mediocre grades. On the first day, he was scolded for his grades by a really senior boss, and then he was told that he would be working for somebody who had first class honours, and he had better learn something from that first class honours guy (let's call him Mr Head).

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to learn from the first class honours guy, except maybe how well he did for his studies. This guy's job (and also the job of the department he was heading) was broadly speaking to serve as a consultant for an engineering firm. Unfortunately, in spite of all his book smarts, he wasn't really able to do that job well.

The biggest problem for him was that he wasn't really much of an engineer. He came from a consulting background, and it could have been a better fit for him: he basically was not bad at producing glossy looking reports, speaking in language that was simple enough for big bosses to understand, and flattering them with his obsequiousness and his allowing the big bosses to think that they’re smart. In hindsight, the big bosses were not smart. They managed to grow the company to a very large one, but at the same time, they made a few fairly serious mistakes.

Anyway, this department head struggled to impose his authority on the department. Possibly this was due to there being a lot of other people in the place, who – well you would stop short of calling all of them Google level of smartness, but they understood the engineering much better than he did. There was this guy, call him Jesus, who lived a stone’s throw away from Mr Head. And even though he applied for the job directly to Mr Head, later on turned out to be one of Mr Head’s biggest detractors, and probably influenced people to rise up against him. But in truth a lot of people did not need to be persuaded. Rude comics of Mr Head were circulated around the department. Effigies of him were defaced. There was even one time when people started writing a blog about Mr Head, although that didn't last very long.

There were a few things that he tried to do to salvage the situation. One of those things was to go to Palm Tree university for a postgraduate degree, in the hope that he would become a better engineer. Unfortunately the degree that he applied for was one of those fluffy engineering management courses, and it did not benefit him very much. He could have gone for a more rigorous engineering course, but I doubt he would have passed that one.

There were many things he did that did not endear him very much to his people. One of them was always having to need things explained to him twice over before he got it. Another was not being able to raise the profile of the department in the eyes of other bosses. This was impossible because he needed so much help himself, that he was unable to give a good account of himself, or his department, to the other bosses.

Another thing that irritated people was his tendency to speak in platitudes to people. That might have helped him earlier to cover up his ignorance. But it made the more knowledgeable among his colleagues to despise him even more. Yet another thing that irritated people no end was his insistence on having a good looking final product, on style rather than substance. He wasn’t able to be a typical asshole, demanding too much from his workers that they cracked under the pressure. But he did have a bad habit of emailing people questions about work at around the time that they knocked off, thereby ensuring that they would have to stay back an hour or two.

Mr Head was not an unpleasant person to be with. He could be polite and considerate to people. But because of his incompetence, he did a lot more harm than good. By and large, there were people who could have been helped, or given more of a push to help them become better workers, and it was down to their fellow workers or the middle managers to help them if they wanted to. Mr Head did very little to help them. There were people who could have been better workers if they were pushed in the right direction, or if there was somebody clearing the way for them to do good work. You couldn’t count on that to happen. There was this general feeling that he didn’t really care about people who worked for him, whether those were his own guys or contractors. There was an incident when he was working on a joint project with an outside contractor, and he spent more time looking at the contract, tightening the terms and conditions and sealing off loopholes than paying attention to the actual substance of the work.

He did a lot of silly things like banning people from being seen in the canteen during tea breaks. It used to be a standard bonding session, now it was gone. In fact Mr Head did bring the department closer together because everybody got together to bitch about him.

People who left the job left the job for various reasons, but when you asked them, those who left the job a few years ago would invariably cite Mr Head as one of the reasons.

Getting promoted into the department head was the high watermark of his career. Over the years, he suffered such a galling series of indignities that you had to admire him for being brave enough for not walk away. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like telling his family that his current career was not working out. Or maybe his confidence was so shot that he didn’t think he could apply for work elsewhere.

They first split the department into two, making him head of a smaller department. Later on, they brought in another big boss who, in spite of his flaws, and in spite of being more of an engineering guy than a consulting guy, was much more capable than Mr Head. That was the beginning of the end. Eventually, his title was changed from being a “manager” to being a “principal consultant”.

But that department still needed to have a manager, and so they brought in another person from engineering to head that department. And from what I understood, it seemed like a better arrangement because he had lost the power to do harm to the department. Unfortunately, what transpired instead was a leadership vacuum. There was still had good people in that place, but they had gotten used to operating without a strong leader, which was good in the sense that everybody roughly knew his place and sought to carve out their own respective niches. But not so good in the sense that there wasn’t anybody to shape all these talents into something that has a larger coherence, or a larger entity which could make a bigger impact in the organization. The last person who left the department did so not because of Mr Head (not that he wasn’t dissatisfied with Mr Head) but because of deeper problems in the organization that would have existed with or without him.

The people who left the department because of Mr Head found it a little difficult to imagine what the place was like because of how much it had been transformed in the preceding years. But ultimately the problems with the place were more than just Mr Head.

There was this guy who was a successful scientist, and he ran a big lab in – there’s that place again – Palm Tree University. There was this grad student who was rotated into that lab, but he wasn’t going to be there for long, so he could be an observer while hopefully working on good stuff.

The lab was run by a scientist who had largely made a name for himself. He could be nice and affable, but he had a very bad habit, one that was killing all the people that he worked with. He didn’t like to publish.

He had already made a name for himself, and could afford to not publish, and could afford to wait until he came up with something truly remarkable and groundbreaking. There were certain scientists in that lab who were good people, and who had produced some great results. But those results were not published for a few years, which is an eternity when it comes to the cycle of biotech research.

What’s even worse, the lab head had this tremendously bad habit of blabbing about his experiments and unpublished results to other people he had met in other conferences. There was one grad student who produced a significant set of experiments that would probably have been accepted in most journals. However the lab head kept on dragging his feet on publishing the results. What’s even worse, because he told people from rival labs about the results, those other labs went back and replicated those experiments. In the end, the rival labs published the results of those experiments, which meant that the grad student in his lab who originally conceived and did those experiments was not able to claim credit for his discovery.

The lab head had also been rather shoddy on getting people to do the hands on work. There were no lab technicians in the laboratory, and so the grad students had to do all the work in setting up all the equipment themselves. The lab head originally had an assistant who got so fed up with his random temper tantrums that she confronted him one day and said, “look, if you’re going to keep on blowing up at me, you’re not going to get good quality work from me.” Apparently those words had the intended effect, because some people actually saw him in the middle of starting to blow up at her and suddenly change his mind about doing so.

Last I heard, there was a rebellion brewing in the lab. There were people who thought about leaving the laboratory en masse. There were people who had worked in his lab for years without being able to get a publication out. Those people would eventually run out of funding, except that they had no place to go, because without a publication, people were not going to accept them. There was one person who was on the verge of accepting an offer to work in Mexico, and the guys in Mexico were perfectly happy with her working there. Except – they could not explain to their bosses why they were making an offer to somebody who had no publications. So she could not move to Mexico.

Anyway, I don’t know how this rebellion will pan out, or whether it is even possible to do something about a lab head who doesn’t brutally overwork his people, or behave like an outright asshole, but is nevertheless strangling the careers of his underlings to death.


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