Toxic Corporate Behaviors

Death by PowerPoint

PowerPoint is a powerful and useful tool, but it is widely abused in corporations, especially internally. Most slide decks cannot contain all the details needed to truly evaluate an idea, technology, etc. – presentation slides are not intended for this use, but many people pretend that a deck can contain all you need to know to make a decision or understand a result. 

I have seen and worked at multiple organizations where many hours of staff time and even professional graphics help were applied to make a deck beautiful – for internal use. A shiny slide deck and a persuasive speaker could gain support for incomplete or even bad ideas, or persuade the higher-ups that something had been a huge success when it had actually been a failure.

Some organizations try to curb PowerPoint overload by imposing a limit on the number of slides that can be included in a presentation. At Ericsson, I was amused and appalled that some people worked around this by putting four slides onto one, resulting in text so tiny that you could not read it except by viewing the deck afterwards on your own screen. I asked why they did that. “Oh, we learned that from [bigname consulting firm, I forget which].” Great. We paid millions to learn bad habits.

When I joined Amazon in 2017, it was a document-based culture; PowerPoint was never used internally. If you had an idea for a product or service, you could write a document about it, maximum 6 pages plus supporting appendices which you were not guaranteed anyone would read. There was a specific structure for these docs, including a mock-up press release for the product launch, detailing what it was about and who would buy it, complete with made-up quotes from imagined or real customers. You had to supply supporting data about the expected market, why your new thing couldn’t be easily competed with, and more.

This document would be presented to CEO Andy Jassy and his team at one of Andy’s famous CHOP meetings. I attended only one of these during my 4+ years at AWS; it was interesting and useful, and I came away impressed with Charlie Bell for reasons that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. 

In the CHOP meeting, if Andy’s team agreed that your idea was a good one, you’d be given funding and support to go ahead with it. More often, you’d be sent back to think harder about it and add more details and data before they were ready to say yes. If they didn’t agree at all, they said no, and that was the end of it. But at least you had supplied all the elements needed to make a sensible decision. 

I don’t know whether Amazon still works this way. If they’ve started using PowerPoint internally, that would be an unfortunate erosion of an effective company culture.

Toxic Bosses I Have Known

Part 2: Egregiously Awful Executives

also see: Part 1: Malignant Managers

In larger companies, I never got far enough up the corporate ladder to have much direct contact with executives, but there was plenty to be observed from lower down the chain. 

Empire Building

Many, perhaps most, managers and execs are empire builders: their priority is to grow the organization they manage, presumably so that on their next job they can get paid even more and boss even more people. It’s a power trip that has nothing to do with productivity. They often don’t care whether their teams are even qualified for the jobs they are hired for, nor do they hold these teams accountable when they fail to do any work at all. Their main criteria is to hiring people who will support them in their own upward climb. They also want to see their people, whether or not in-person contact brings any value to the team’s work. Being able to gaze out over their peons is its own reward for empire builders  – hence the popularity among bosses of return-to-work mandates.

Corporate Snobs

Empire builders also tend to be corporate snobs. I’ve run into a VP who could barely give the time of day, let alone a polite hearing, to anyone outside his org who wasn’t also at least a VP. He probably also kissed the asses above him, though I did not have the opportunity to personally observe that behavior.

I have zero patience with hierarchical attitudes. I am willing to learn from the lowest people on the totem pole; they often see more. I have often been that person low in the hierarchy, but I’ve always been fearless about taking my observations to the top. This has not made me popular.

Hiring and Keeping Incompetent Friends

Some organizations remain filled with incompetent and inert people because execs refuse to fire their friends. Sun Microsystems was like this. Soon after I joined in 2008, I learned that an old schoolmate was also at Sun because the company he worked for, where he had been a top salesman, had been acquired by Sun. He ranted to me about how awful Sun’s internal systems were – Sun software engineers thought they could just whip up sales management etc. software: “Why should we pay anyone else for this? We’re engineers!” They were spectacularly wrong about their skills outside their own realms of expertise; their home-brewed tools made the sales teams’ (and others’)  jobs much harder. But those systems couldn’t be changed because various egos were so invested in their own brilliance.

My friend also ranted that how many of the Sun people he dealt with were simply not good at their jobs and should have been let go. But they were “friends of Scott [McNealy, the former CEO]” and Scott hated firing his buddies. 

No Bad News

A prevailing attitude in unhealthy companies is that no bad news shall be given to the bosses. This happens when employees have learned that their execs are inclined to shoot the messenger. Execs therefore fail to learn key negative information until a situation has turned into a disaster for the company.

Related to this is that everyone is always trying to look good to upper management. Presentations are concocted to make projects look like big successes that were actually quite the opposite – and execs fall for it, because they want to believe that everything the company touches turns out wonderfully. Empire-building bosses can’t admit failure lest they lose parts of their fiefdoms. Lather, rinse, repeat – the same mistakes happen year after year because no one will admit that changes needed to be made or people needed to be fired. [cough cough: the AWS re:Invent catalog, which changed every year without ever solving the problems attendees were actually complaining about.]

Harassment and Abuse

It’s clear that many executives condone and overlook various kinds of corporate abuse (when not themselves the direct perpetrators). In some cases this is part of the “I won’t fire my friends” syndrome. More often, it’s because they are willing to tolerate brilliant jerks (aka assholes) whom they believe to be important to the company. None of them seem to have figured out that assholes damage the company far in excess of any value they bring.

My Experience with University of Texas Police

As y’all may have noticed, students all over the US are protesting the Israeli genocide in Gaza. The protest has now arrived at my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. The University police and Texas state troopers arrived in force to arrest them.

I had my own encounter with the UT police back around 1983-84 when I was a student. I had been elected to the student council of the Liberal Arts department. One of our privileges was a few rooms that we could use as a lounge and offices, various of us would hang out there between classes. (Aside: That was where I got my hands on a Macintosh computer for the first time.)

Sometime during that period, I was summoned to the offices of the University police department. A young woman cop was investigating the theft of cash from the purse of one of my Liberal Arts Council colleagues in that shared area – the student had left her purse unattended in one of the offices, about $400 (that she needed to pay rent) disappeared from her wallet. Someone said they had seen me in that office.

I was very likely in the office, but I certainly hadn’t stolen and money and would never dream of doing so. I told the cop that. She probed and pushed and told me repeatedly that she wouldn’t come down on me too hard if I only confessed. I pushed right back and said I wasn’t about to confess to a crime I hadn’t committed. She reduced me to tears, but there was no way I was going to do that. Finally she dismissed me and said we would talk again.

She called me back a few days later, did the same performance all over again, and demanded that I take a polygraph (lie detector) test. I said I’d be fine with that. She kept pushing for a confession. 

I returned to her office a few days later expecting to be polygraphed. She said: “You’re too agitated, the result wouldn’t be reliable.” I don’t know if she ever seriously meant to do it. At some point during the conversation, she said something like: “I’m just as good as any other cop, you know.” Seems like she had a chip on her shoulder about not being a “real” police person. After that she finally gave up and as far as I know nothing ever went on my university record. I was left shaken and furious for a long time, and that memory still enrages me. I don’t think they ever did find out who took the money.

My conclusion from this is that university police are dangerous, precisely because they don’t think anyone takes them as seriously as other cops. Students beware.

The University of Texas tower

Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

Back in the 70s, there seems to have been a genre of songs, both pop and disco, which featured endlessly repeated inane lyrics. Somehow they were popular, perhaps because they were so easily learned by international audiences. One such, Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, was a big enough hit to get all the way to Thailand before we left there in 1971.

I didn’t have much exposure to what was current on any radio at the time, but I suppose it got airplay on Thai stations. Our housemaids, Wandee and Uthai, knew the song, and gleefully sang it to my infant brother (who was then too young to understand the lyrics). I found the song profoundly creepy. “Where’s your mama gone, little baby son?” “Far, far away.” Did they wish for or foresee my mother’s absence?

I was already jealous of their doting on my brother. I didn’t get much attention from my mother, so there wasn’t much to envy there. But I was frightened by the implication that one’s mother could simply disappear: “Woke up this morning and my mamma was gone.”

Not long after that, she was indeed gone from my life.

Deirdré Straughan on Italy, India, the Internet, the world, and now Australia