Companies often have a hard time understanding why their junior or mid-level staff is frustrated with the direction of the company or with senior management. There is no shortage of “ivory tower” synonyms to describe the viewpoint that middle managers may have of senior staff or the feelings employees may have about the culture of the organization and the way they “do things around here.” To illustrate this frustration using real-life events, below are situations I have faced in the past while working for Fortune 100 companies.

False Urgency

“Everything is urgent here. We have much to do and must complete it now.”

Initially, I liked the pace. I felt productive and busy. When things came across my plate, I was thorough and worked hard. With a huge sense of urgency, I diligently and routinely put in long hours to get things done.

But after completing urgent deliverables and projects, I started to see that my team’s work often seemed to go into a black hole, collecting dust by the day. Refusing to let my spark of energy die, I denied the truth, explicitly saying things like “Trust the process.” More tasks and assignments came to me via email, with multiple bosses, multiple levels up, copying each other on an email chain until it stopped with me. Reviewing the chain, I saw emphasis on buzzwords like “deadline” and “urgent matter” or “time-sensitive issue.” I would say to myself, “This must be really important.” So I would call my wife and say, “I’ll be home in a few days.” She’d laugh, knowing I was joking – but only half-joking. She would put the kids to bed, and a few hours later I would arrive home to a cold dinner sitting alone on a clean dining table. I would repeat this process for the next several days or weeks, all under the guise of completing a high-priority project.

In reviewing the final deliverable, my managers were generally pleased. They would retreat for an internal manager-level debrief, and subsequently meet with me to let me know what changes were needed. I’d leave their corner office and return to my cube, feeling slightly proud of myself. But the pride would wear off in an hour when I didn’t see any follow-up meetings come across my calendar. Hours would turn into days. Wasn’t this extremely urgent?

After several weeks, I would have forgotten about the whole thing, as I was immersed in yet another “time-sensitive” project. Then, all of a sudden I would see a meeting notice come in. The red exclamation point and the subject line were all too familiar. I accepted this urgent debrief-of-the-debrief meeting invite, and go back to the corner office for the review.

It was like a Groundhog Day experience: same scenario with a slightly different variable. I thanked them for their time, offering a strangely Zen-like smile, and go back to my cube.

What was so urgent anyway? Why did I have to spend days coming home after dark and missing time with my kids when you guys took a month to review it? What made this so time-sensitive, other than the arbitrary deadline you set?

Just In Case You Didn’t See It The First Time…

Several weeks after getting tasked with a high-priority, detailed project to determine how the decline of the market was going to affect our company, I delivered my project with the vigor of a 22-year-old first-year junior analyst, excited about the value I had created. “Wait until they see this,” I naively thought.

Then, I saw it – the turn of the swivel chair and the quick drop of the report on the back desk, on top of other reports compiled by other people. I left the office, desperately hanging onto any optimism I could find. A few days later, I randomly came across a study completed two years ago by an analyst who had since left the company. The title page was graphically more appealing than mine, but the text was strangely familiar: “The decline of the market and its effect on our company.”

I’d completely wasted my time, repeating work that was completed years ago, with seemingly the same (lack of) impact. A manager acting in self-interest pushed around his staff to get a report done without thinking through the resources the company may have had on hand already.

Why can’t I be tasked to do work that actually helps the company, or our customers, or is valuable in some meaningful way? I’ve worked hard and received compensation for my time, yet I still feel like I’ve wasted it doing this. Why can’t we properly use the resources our company possesses?

Automating Non-Value-Added Work

While I was employed with a well-known financial services firm, we routinely created reports on market happenings of the day, week, month, and quarter to provide “value” to our clients. These reports were time-consuming and monotonous, usually requiring roughly two weeks of digging up market closing prices and manually entering them into a presentation deck, copying and pasting news releases into the “official company font” to make it seem like we created the work, and making charts out of several generic data points.

The process lent itself to becoming automated, potentially freeing up two weeks of 300 analysts’ time (roughly 30,000 hours per month). Managers pushed against this idea, expressing outrageous fears like, “What else would they do with themselves?” One manager astutely stated, “If we give clients a bunch of automated information, we lose the value that we create for them.”

It’s just numbers repositioned into colors and graphs – is that value? The last time I met with a client and introduced myself, he responded with, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy who keeps sending me those emails every night.” Two weeks of every month I am nothing more than a report-generating machine. Am I really creating value?

The thing senior leaders need to understand is that a culture that does not value people’s time is not a good culture. People cannot work in conditions where they feel their work is ineffective, undervalued, and maybe even ignored. We would like leaders to take the time to look at the uniqueness of their organization and mold a culture around that. What do their people believe in? When do they do their best work? And, most importantly, how does this culture support what we deliver as a business?

Maybe the time and effort being put into work on the front lines could be reallocated toward solutions and services that yield tremendous value for the customer. How can organizations bring that about, over and over again? Not with secret meetings and busy work. Everyone in your organization has something to contribute – or you would not have chosen to have them join your team. Figure out what those things are and bring them to light. That will bring you more value and ultimately make your people happier and more productive.

November 14, 2013


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