Friday, 11 February 2011

P45 anyone?

There is a mantra in my company that says "People are the Key".  Our charismatic Greek Chairman is forever banging it out at sales events, seminars and regular e-mails to All Staff Worldwide.  He means that our senior management should treasure and nurture all employees as without them, we'd be up Shit Creek without a paddle.  As well as being charismatic, he really truly believes this stuff, so I'm told by old timers who joined the company in its early days, when Mr.Chairman actually had some say in things.

Our CEO sends out a quarterly All Staffer as well, typically crowing about record sales, record revenues, more new signings and everything in the garden is lovely and will continue to be so as long as we work our bollocks off and remember that we are all part of the Family and "People are the Key".  Sometimes he may even mean it.....

Other senior managers come and go, on a fairly regular basis, and they all join in the mantra.

Judged by results over the 11 years or so I've been employed, the mantra is probably no more than the truth.  In that time we've grown from a couple of hundred employees mainly in London and Geneva, to a truly global concern employing several thousand people in getting on for 50 locations.  Our profits have indeed gone through the roof, and continue to do so year on year.  Every year we pick up a raft of awards from the banking and technology industries and assorted specialist magazines.  Every year since I joined the company we have been ranked the best system, or at worst second best, in the world based on sales.  We're now half way through a strategic development plan aimed at turning us into a real, major global player in the technology industry to compete on equal terms with the likes of SAP, Oracle, IBM......  It's good to have a target to aim at, I guess.......

We have spent millions upon millions of pounds in development of the system, on office space in prime locations worldwide, in hosting regular industry events, in hiring the best salespeople in the business (and they do a great job, whether you agree with their sometimes less than honest methods or not).  We have committed huge sums developing internal training trying (and usually failing) to keep support staff abreast of the relentless pace of system development and new features.  And we continue to do so now....more than ever.  We're in a highly competitive industry - possibly the most competitive industry, and if we didn't do that we wouldn't survive, never mind prosper.

Looked at from outside, we are without doubt a major success story.

But from the inside.......well, it's a different tale altogether..

The "Key" has been mislaid somewhere.

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Ever since I joined the company, despite protestations to the contrary from a succession of senior figures, there has been a "them and us" culture. 

Initially it was the Old Guard versus the New Pretenders - broadly, the employees who had been with the firm since its earliest days, wrote the code for the original releases and hawked it around a sceptical market place, trying to build market share.  I know a number of these guys, some better than others, and have the utmost respect for them.  But many of them have consistently been obstructive when it comes to passing on their knowledge (often deep and valuable) to us newcomers as we've joined the company.  Too often we've had to work at building our own internal contacts and relationships and call on them to gradually over time extract nuggets of valuable insight that should really be freely available to us all - or at least those of us working in a particular discipline.  And often when we get this information we find that it is several years out of date, and not relevant in terms of what the market place (whichever product we're involved in) needs now.  So we have to re-invent the wheel, often a better one, time and time again, while the Old Guard, safe in their longevity and close personal network with and as our Founding Fathers (if I can grace them with that title) refuse to accept the change is better.

Then there was a perception that to really succeed and get somewhere you needed to be of Greek ancestry and based in Geneva.  If those criteria were not part of your make up, then no matter how good you were, no matter how hard you worked, no matter how much you contributed to sales profitability, development expertise or implementation success, there was only so far you could go before hitting the ceiling.  Managers came and went, all trying to change the culture, with a greater or lesser degree of success, and most of them left fairly quickly.  Those that stayed, in the main, have been very political manipulators, and have thus managed to break through that ceiling to become part of the "establishment" - at which point all bets are off, all sincerely made promises are forgotten, and the welfare of Number One becomes their main priority.  This may seem harsh, but I am struggling to think of a single case where somebody has achieved this breakthrough and not changed significantly as a person and in outlook.  I find that sad.

Later, someone realized we could save a fortune by moving certain corporate functions, mainly technical, to India, where there is a vast well educated and very cheap labour force that could be tapped easily.  So we set up a development centre there, and over the last few years have moved virtually all our technical development work off-shore to Chennai.  In doing so we have released or transferred to other work some very good, very knowledgable developers who not only spoke English as a native language but also came largely from banking backgrounds and therefore understood the business - unlike their replacements, who are largely young recent graduates who can write code but have never worked anywhere before and hence have no knowledge of why they are being asked to write a particular development.  But they are indeed cheap, and thus our costs have been drastically reduced and profits enhanced - which was the idea, after all.
And now here is our third "Them and Us" example - added to the Greek/Geneva perception there is now, for our technical people at least, the other, more accurate, perception - to really get on you need to be of Indian ancestry and work in Chennai.

This last is the one that has really taken hold.  On every site I have worked on (getting on for 50 now, all over the world) there has been at least one Indian techie involved, and often many more.- one particular site supplied 18 out of a total project team of 22, and all the senior positions (project manager, lead business and lead technical consultant) all came from the 18, as did no less than four planners who seemed to be doing exactly the same job and producing the same management reports but each in a different format.  Another recent site had a ratio of 80% Indian to 20% other nationalities.  I have no violent objection to this - many of my Indian colleagues have been (and continue to be) lovely people,  friendly, knowledgeable and great to work with, but there is no doubt that the cultural differences can be very hard to manage and accept, and invariably there are visa issues so that the project itself suffers from a turnover as staff have to be regularly rotated back to Chennai for legal reasons.  No matter the protestations from our senior management, this does NOT make for an efficient and harmonious project.

What all this means is that while some employees through accidents of birth, heritage and/or location are fortunate to be the holders of the Golden Key to corporate success and advancement, the rest of us (many of whom are equally dilligent, hard working and knowledgeable - more so, even) are left scrabbling for the leftovers.

To us, our Chairman's insistence that "People are the Key" has a very hollow ring.

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It's undoubtedly common in a company that has any kind of growth and ambition that there will be changes of direction, new strategies, fluctuations in recruitment policies and so on.  My company is no different in that my time I can remember at least 4 such changes, none of which were handled particularly well.  I can remember similar instances elsewhere too.....way back in the early 80s I worked for an American investment bank (no longer with us, they died during the latest financial crisis) that had a habit of changing things around pretty much every year.  Although sitting at the same desk, doing more or less the same job with the same colleagues, over a period of less than 5 years I had about 6 managers and at least 4 different employers, according to my payslips.  So really to go through perhaps 4 reorganizations in 11 years here is probably not so bad.....

But the way these things were handled is totally different, and frankly we fall down very badly.  At my American bank, it was all done very quietly and very professionally.  There would be an official announcement and typically the following week we would be introduced to the new manager, perhaps have our duties changed a bit, maybe even get a promotion, and then carry on as before.  Either there was no grapevine or it was an incredibly inefficient one, because I cannot remember ever getting early wind of such changes, no rumours of impending doom.  It was all very civilized, straightforward and painless.  I can't remember anybody suffering redundancy through these times, either.

Contrast that with our way.  Usually there is an All Staff Worldwide e-mail from the CEO (never Mr.Chairman) announcing the new strategy, what it means to us as a company (it's always positive), and saying who is on the new management team (there always is one) and what they will be doing.  At this point, the rumour mill starts up, and you hear all kinds of fantasies and opinions.  While they are being discussed and digested, more mails come round from the various members of the management team, giving more detail about what their specific plans are, and of course this is all more grist to the mill.  Very rarely is any mention ever made about numbers.

The exception was a few years ago, when as part of one such reshuffle resulting from a market downturn and general recession (affecting everybody, not just us) we announced up front there would be job losses.  When they came they were widespread and accepted: by and large the people we let go (a lot!) were visibly deadwood, underemployed and not contributing much to revenues, projects or anything else.  There were no real surprises.  There was simultaneously a period of severe belt tightening - bonuses were abandoned, pay initially frozen then across the board reduced, hiring freezes - but after a year our CEO was moved to announce we had weathered the storm, turned the corner, returned to profitability and would have our salaries restored to earlier levels (and even get the cuts reimbursed as a "loyalty bonus").  Then he announced our brand new strategic plan, the one for world domination I referred to earlier in this piece, and everything in the garden was lovely.

Over the next year or so, the rumour mill, unusually, kept churning.  This is because part of the Grand Plan involved spreading the work load out, especially in the services area, by using partner organizations.  We hired, to great fanfare, a guy to mastermind all this, and of course we got regular e-mails from him telling us this or that was going on, announcing new partnership arrangements, new organizational areas, new training and (of course) new opportunities in this Brave New World.  Those of us who were relatively new were supportive of this, perhaps even excited - but there was also a lot of unease and disenchantment amongst the older members of the New Pretenders: people like myself.  This is because we seem to be pinning our entire plan on a certain set of criteria that are based on certain assumptions about the revised system and how we go about building it that are fundamentally flawed.  I won't go into detail here - it's neither the time nor the right forum to do so - but many of us, senior guys (and gals) who know what we're talking about because we have years of experience both in banking and in this company and its business, are able to recognise and point out issues that our senior management seem totally incapable or unprepared to take on board. 

For a start, none of them are bankers - they are accountants, salesmen grounded firmly in the IT sector, professional management consultants - so there is an immediate knowledge gap not being acknowledged.  Their knowledge of banking practices and the way markets work is grounded from text book learning or picked up from past experience in the IT sector rather than hands on, warts and all experience of doing the job. But worse, they seem unable to listen to their own employees who do have that kind of backgound, when we collectively say, "hang on a minute, that may not actually be a good idea....".

Anyway, it seemed to many of us that what was actually being done, and what we were told was being done were in fact two different things.   And so the grapevine continued its broadcasts....  There were two competing ideas.  The offical one, from in-house, was that we were being forced into these agreements to increase the number of resources available for projects as we didn't have enough on the payroll, and it was cheaper and easier to use partners to find the extra people than go through the pain of hiring loads of employees and then spending a year or so training them properly before they were any real use.  I can see the merit in that idea for sure - not only are we short of Consultants and decent Project Managers, but we are also short of good trainers and our training courses, by and large are crap.

The second rumour, again internal but endorsed by a number of reliable people elsewhere, was that rather than continue to spend money on services we were basically dumping the entire function, out-sourcing it to the partners, and concentrating on what we perceived to do best - that is develop and sell the system.  This too makes sense: our reputation in those areas is far far better than our reputation for implementation and post live support. (Again, this is neither the time nor place to go into that very complex and contentious subject.)   As an addendum to that, a very similar rumour about winding down services existed, in which we actually recruited good project managers and retained a core of very knowledgeable consultants to act as support to all our sites and be a first port of call for both internal and external consultants in each business area in the event of problems.

In either case, it looked certain that sooner or later there would be a major upheaval, and many of us would be away.  But we had no idea when this would happen, or how.

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Well, the shit has now hit the fan, so to speak. 

A couple of weeks ago, an All Staff mail came around announcing that the guy who had been recruited to mastermind the services part of our strategic initiative had "left to pursue other business opportunities".   This was a surprise as he had sent an All Staffer the previous day, announcing new training initiatives and enlisting our support and cooperation for them.

The following week, a wave of redundancies took place.  Exact numbers are not known, because this is only the first round and it's still going on.  Europe and the Middle East are done (for now), the Far East and US scheduled for the next couple of weeks.   It seems a good 500 people will be fired, of which most will be from services.

Some very good people have already gone, including some good and long term friends.  More will undoubtedly follow.  But the worst thing, for me at any rate, is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.  The criteria used to decide who goes and who stays (for now) is baffling. 

The deadwood had already gone.  Every victim of this round (at least the ones I know) had been employed for at least 5 years (in some cases 10, 12, even 13). Every one had been fully employed supporting at least one client site (one guy I know was supporting about 10 sites in various capacities across the Middle East and Africa). That is huge pool of knowledge and experience culled.  It really is irreplaceable.  Money does not seem to be a deciding factor - I know one guy fired, who was in a more senior position than me based in the same office (and hence payroll) who for sure earned less than me (he was recruited on a Latvian salary rather than my western European).  Neither does age: friends both older than me and younger have gone.  Experience? Nope.  I have 11 years here, of my friends just departed a couple had been here longer and some less.  It really does seem to have been a random cull.  I'm told the managers who came up with the lists of names were given less than a day to do so: perhaps personal feelings came into it?  It's impossible to judge.

It was done suddenly, with no warning.  A guy on my site had a mail on Wednesday last, inviting him to a meeting in London last Friday.  He flew back and was fired.  With immediate effect.  No, you're not going back to the client.  Our project manager knew nothing of this until Tuesday, when I passed over my mate's door pass (I had met him in the hotel bar the night before - he had flown to his sacking leaving many personal belongings in his hotel room and had come back to Geneva to collect them).  We are seven weeks from going live and have lost a very experienced consultant in a critical business area for the bank - and have no replacement to call on.  There are certainly many other sites suffering in a similar fashion.

I had a conversation with my boss on Monday, on my way to work.  He is in Malaysia right now.  I was seeking reassurance and he did his best to give it to me.  To his knowledge, I'm not on any hit list.  He has placed me on the list of key - that word again! - employees to be retained.  He has a number of things in the pipeline for me (he mentioned a couple of projects).  But he can make no guarnatees.

In short, it is madness.  Badly handled, third rate management..

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I have no clue how or when this will end, or how it will affect me.  Realistically, I expect I will cop it in the next wave.  Or the one after that. Or if I'm very lucky the one after that.

But the next time I see one of our Chairman's mails (or anyone else's!) stating that in this organisation "People are the Key" I will delete it immediately, because it is simply not true. It is just another lie.

We are a commodity to be sold with the software, to be used and re-used and re-used again, for as long as we are still earning revenue for the company and then discarded without a second thought.

No more and no less.