Sunday, September 28, 2003

Workplace Stories... Humorous, Disturbing or Just Odd

I've been in various industries and corporate cultures throughout my career. Primarily due to my dual interest in business and government... entrepreneurism and politics. So this has allowed me to encounter numerous types of professional personalities, habits, and situations. I actually pride myself in the ability to get along with and work with the whole spectrum of people, but as I get older there are just some types I strongly prefer not to work with. General descriptions would be: extremely selfish, very dishonest, aggressive yet stupid, strongly arrogant without substance. For example, if a person simply kicks ass but is an arrogant asshole, you sometimes just have to roll with the punches because he/she contributes so much to the company or team. With a person that's strongly arrogant without any reason to be and they have a misconception of their abilities, it simply demands a conversation or conflict on this matter. This can be a very frank discussion on their clouded vision or an action against them within the company.

I've learned to deal with these problem people in various ways depending upon the situation and my commitment to the company or a person. I just wanted to write about some of these experiences, which are mainly humorous to me.

I have no regrets in all the experiences I've been through and take each one as a blessing. I simply have this outlook on all aspects of my life and believe it has allowed me to be optimistic, happy, and easily amused at myself and people in general. I can laugh at most situations I face in life. Even when I'm angry, part of me can be laughing or in hindsight I just crack up at my actions, words, and the people involved.

In the spirit of disclosure, as I write about some of my workplace experiences, I am a person that is blunt to a fault and I will speak my mind. I will easily admit my faults and mistakes since I'm secure in who I am. I have a high tolerance for difficult personalities and problem people, but will hold in my thoughts and direct action for periods of time beyond what my friends tell me that they would do. When I reach that point, I will just let the floodgates open and deal with the situation in my blunt and sharp manner. If it isn't a serious situation, I will just tell the person at the moment or within a short time period. Sometimes softly or harshly, depending on the person and circumstances. But if it's dealing with a more serious or critical issue, I usually will wait until the right moment, which could be months later.

The Control Freak

When working in an investment bank, you get various personalities that are in the industry. One of them I would label as the "asshole director". Actually, before I joined this firm people warned me about the person I was going to work with directly. They said he was an asshole and that a fair amount of people that worked with him disliked or hated him. Since I prided myself in working with difficult personalities and was confident in my people skills, I foolishly wanted to test the waters. Within a month of working at the firm, I had my first encounter with my managing director's disturbing nature. Experience can sometimes the only teacher in life, especially to the foolishly confident.

Our office is an open space setting with no cubicles and the managing director's offices are clear glass walls. My desk was about a 15 second walk away from my MD's office. His secretary is positioned right infront of his office. So one day he phones and asks me to come over to his office.

"So, Bernard, my computer's screen saver isn't on."

"Umm... Yes, Lester."

"Do you know anything about this?"

"No." (puzzled at this point)

"Well, I left my office for a few minutes and came back and the screen saver didn't come on. If it was on, there would be a password prompt when I deactivate it. So someone must have been at my computer as I left my office."

"Umm... Well, Lester, my screen saver sometimes doesn't go on my laptop once in a while. There are glitches that my computer experiences."

"NO. That never happens. Someone MUST HAVE been on my computer. Did you see anyone come by my office?" Lester states in a harsh tone and asks his question with a fluctuation in his voice.

At this point, I really don't believe what's going on. He can't be accusing me of this. He was trying to fish whether I was actually on his computer or he actually believed I was on it and just trying to get a confession out of me. Could he really believe I timed it so that when he left his office for a few minutes, somehow I checked that his secretary was not at her desk (which around the corner and not visible from my desk), got on his computer for a minute or less for whatever reason, and walked back to my desk? What a FREAK.

"Ok. Lester, I didn't do it if that is what your asking. I was at my desk the whole time." I state with an annoyed and puzzled look.

"No, no. I wasn't accusing you. But some is strange here."

(weakass, just come out and say it if you're going to accuse me indirectly)

"Well, again, sometimes computers do strange things. And again if you are wondering, ask Rick who was sitting in front of me the whole time. I'll be back at my desk if you need me."

I walked away upset and in disbelief. What a "psycho" I thought to myself. This was only scratching the surface of his control freak nature and truly reflective of what the following year with Lester would be like. He was a control freak and believed he or others around him should be in control of the their environment. If something didn't go right due to a computer, email server, printer, airline reservation system, or whatever faliure, it wasn't acceptable to him. He needed to blame someone and take his frustration and anger out on a person. It was an odd reaction that could be classified as borderline neurosis, but humorous at times. Finally, when he would realize it was something out of his control he would pout and accept it, or just would ignore it completely.

He would also want situations or things to go along with his timetable. If it wasn't, he would get completely neurotic and get irrationally upset. My calm confidence didn't mix well with this aspect of his personality. Jimmy, my close friend from the two startsup I did, compares me to Will Smith's character in Bad Boys. I'm not a player like Mike Lowrey. Jimmy just thought I was like Lowrey since I don't get rattled in intense situations, and he's seen me in every type of situation. Board room blowups, fights with our investors, near bankruptcy of our second startup company, various aspects of my personal life, etc.

Anyway, so Lester would get rattled and angry if things weren't settling into place and I would be calm and laid back and tell him that things would work out. I wouldn't say it to simply diffuse the situation or calm him down, but only if I thought things would really settle and I thought he was overreacting. One time, he finally said, "I just don't think you are aggressive enough to be a banker. You have to push to get things done."

"Lester, just because I don't get angry, or tell everyone or you every action I take doesn't mean I'm not aggressive or pushing to get things done."

I found this to be a characteristic of some people in the banking industry that I don't like. Self-promoting to an untruthful degree, lack of patience, inability to clearly articulate what you want to achieve. Of course this leads to poor morale, bitter colleagues, poor management skills in overseeing projects, unhappy family life, shallow friendships, etc...

So some of Lester's methods would be to simply call constantly and shout to try to get things done and move a deal forward. Umm... like that is going to move the process forward especially when many situations depend on an outside party. The other qualities listed above would lead him to announce every action he does to "cover his back" or take credit when credit is not due. Of course there are office politics in any industry, but it seems to be overemphasized in this sector.

Most of my experiences with Lester were humorous. If I wrote them all down, it could become a source for Dilbert-like book with a twist. I'll end with these quotes:

"The reason I don't have many friends because I'm a type 'A' personality, which you are not. I've always been more focused on work than other things in life. I could have had more friends if I wanted to." Lester randomly stated after a client meeting. Really random because I still don't know what prompted this statement since we didn't have any prior conversations that day related to this general topic.

"Bernard, the only reason why you get deals and can do business development is because people like you and you have a lot of friends." Lester told me in a bitter tone, which I found very funny at the time that a 40+ year man would be saying something like this. It took me back to my grade school years on the playground.

Wives can be a Warning

One of the most important elements in starting a new company is the core team, their motivation, and team chemistry. The process can be short at times, so it's important to try to gather as much information as you can through various meetings and channels. This is a situation that occurred after the fact, but a lesson that I learned in hindsight.

When we were launching one of our startups, we set up a dinner gathering to kick off our operations. Families and some friends were present at this dinner. One of the executives, who I wrote about in my entry on friendship, brought along his wife. During the dinner, she brought up a statement that disturbed and caught my attention.

"Going from my husband's prior firm to this company... I don't know what we are going to do. We're going to live like paupers!..."

This statement struck some of my colleagues as warped and disgusting since she said it with such sincerity and seriousness. First, he was being paid six figures and less than a 40% cut from his prior position. Granted that he wouldn't be able to expense many things any more, but his wife was also working and bringing in a decent income. Second, to put it in a different perspective, the per capita GNI (gross national income) was US$10,013 for South Korea in 2002. The average person probably gets paid far less than this statistic shows since the distribution of wealth is highly unequal in South Korea. The U.S. has a per capita GNI of $34,870. Even in the U.S., I remember reading a statistic that showed less than 5% of the population are salaried with six figures and above. Of course this doesn't include self-employed people, business owners, and other categories, but you get the picture. They were far from becoming paupers and such a ridiculous statement was a warning flag for me.

Not all wives, and vice versa, are reflective of their husbands, but eventually it turned out to be the case here where her selfishness was revealed in her husband too during the course of our time together.

Watching Porn at a Client Site is a NO NO

On a project I was working on, we discovered that one of our team members surfed porn on a computer at the client site. The problem was that it was in an open room where many people walked through and he did it during the day. Additionally, the computer screen faced the hallway were people through in open view and the team member's back faced the hallway so he couldn't see if people were behind him.

"Dude, Sal! What are you thinking?!" I berated him.

"I don't know." Sal responded.

"I hope our client didn't see it, but what if others in the company identified you as part of our project team and not another employee?"

"How would they know?"

I glared at him because Sal was a 280 pound fat, Italian that looked like Homer Simpson with a beard and glasses. He wasn't difficult to identify.

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