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What Took Him So Long

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Gary Cohn announced his intention to resign as the Director of the National Economic Council yesterday. His announcement is being generally attributed to his opposition to Trump’s plans to impose tarriffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The editorial board of The New York Times, predictably, found little to lament about his departure other than the fact that he was the devil they knew. You can read it here if you want to; I found their editorial generated more heat than light.

Writing in The Week, Scott Lemieux asked what took Cohn so long to quit:

Cohn was well aware of Trump’s penchant for economic nationalism, so it’s a little odd that this, of all things, was what pushed him to his breaking point. Personally, I would be more offended by, say, Trump firing the FBI director to obstruct the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference into the 2016 election, or his travel ban plainly targeted at Muslims, or his assertion that some of the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were “very fine people.”

This is worth exploring, even if it requires speculation.

Lemieux continued:

Of course, I never would have joined the administration of an unprecedentedly corrupt and dishonest president who began his ascension within the Republican Party by popularizing the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Africa, and started his nomination campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” It’s always been clear that nobody who goes to work for Trump is going to come out looking better.

OK, so we have established that Lemieux is going to have limited insight into the viewpoint of someone who would join the administration. I have been on the inside of some unwell organizations, and seen how people react under stress. So I am going to put the value positing on hiatus and try to examine this from Cohn’s perspective.

There is a school of thought that says that when the President calls you to serve, you go. For people holding this belief, working in the White House is more than an opportunistic run on a career ladder. This, I believe, is why Mitt Romney allowed himself to be jerked around when Trump dangled the job of Secretary of State in front of him (wait, the Russians quashed this?).

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt decomposes human activity into labor, work and action. Action is the creation of change in human affairs. People who want to engage in action want to have influence. Public service attracts many of them. Most of them are thick-skinned; they had better be.

Gary Cohn had a net worth of at least $250 million when he accepted his White House role, according to this article in Fortune. If he had wanted to make more money, there were other places for him to go. It is reasonable to believe that he preferred to go where he could, ideally, influence economic policy at the national level.

So he gets there; what does he find? He finds he has a boss who does not intend to be influenced when he gets an idea in his head. Now what?

We will probably never know the truth about when Cohn began to sour on his job. He may not even know. I have worked with people who were sold a bill of goods when they were hired. Then they find, once they are in the door, that they don’t have the influence they were led to believe they would have. It’s a difficult adjustment. There is a grief cycle one has to go through.

Do not discount the importance of cognitive dissonance. You took the job to have influence. You were promised influence. Yet, the behavioral facts indicate that you have no influence. You’re a pilot strapped to a guided missile. This is a bitter pill. It is hard to admit to yourself that you have been had. Know any project managers? How are they dealing with this?

So, maybe at the time of the Charlottesville clash, Cohn was still in the bargaining phase of his grief cycle (or possibly the denial phase, but let’s be charitable). Possibly, as Lemieux wrote, Cohn prioritized influencing economic policy over protesting the racist pronouncements of his boss.

You can argue with his prioritization, but sneering at it is not called for. People in positions of responsibility pick their battles. People who don’t pick their battles never make it to positions of responsibility and influence. Anybody can sit in the bushes and throw rocks at the person who is making himself visible by taking action. Arendt mentioned that, too.

There are a lot of miserable people in the White House these days. Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks like an abused puppy. Jeff Sessions appears to be hanging on out of spite; some kind of perverse endurance rally. And whatever happened to Kellyanne Conway?

I have worked with people who have been kicked around for much less of a job than a White House position. They tell themselves they can take it, they are not going to give in and quit. They start developing Stockholm syndrome, making excuses for the people being abusive to them. At one company, we used to debate whether it was really any better anywhere else. I am coming round to believe that, if you have to ask the question, the answer is yes.

Not everyone who leaves the White House wants to write a tell-all book describing how the management sucked. It is possible that Cohn was eyeing the exit for some time, and this issue gave him the pretext he needed to have “peace with honor.” He might prefer a narrative where he left over a visible policy difference to one where he left because working there was beyond unpleasant. Some people really don’t reveal everything — hard to believe these days, but there it is.

With the information available to us at this time, it looks like Gary Cohn has called in well. Boss, I’m too well to come to work and be made miserable. It’s been a slice.

How many of the people criticizing him are jealous?


Written by srojak

March 7, 2018 at 6:27 pm

So Microsoft Is Like General Motors

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An article was brought to my attention today discussing the Pontiac Aztek, the ugliest car to come out of Detroit since AMC went down for the third time. Y’know, come to think of it, …

Pontiac Aztek on the left, AMC Gremlin on the right.

Pontiac Aztek on the left, AMC Gremlin on the right.

What is worth considering from this disaster is how it came about.

These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.
— “How Bad Cars Happen: The Pontiac Aztek Debacle”, Road and Track,

People tend to read that sentence and think that the dictatorial individual drives the culture. Originally that is the seed, but at some point the culture becomes self-perpetuating. It seeks out dictatorial individuals and legitimizes their bullying behavior. The culture develops its own self-preservation, and will spit out anyone who doesn’t conform. Robert Ringer described the process back in the seventies:

I’m Crazy/You’re Sane Theory: If you attempt to carry on a relationship with an irrational person, given enough time they will make you feel like you’re the neurotic one.

Ordinary, apparently rational people who want to do the right thing are ingested by the culture and either beaten into conformity or spit out. Often, they are beaten into conformity, sucked dry and then spit out. I watched one company litter the Chicago metro area with its human casualties over four years.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
— attributed to Peter Drucker

Sometimes a board of directors will be motivated to bring in a completely different CEO to introduce change in the company. It never works, because they underestimate the strength of the culture — often, they are in denial about it, having spent more time reading their own press releases and glossyware than actually rubbing elbows with real people engaged in real business within the company. The CEO arrives with great fanfare, brave-new-world speeches and the best of intentions. It lasts about a year, and everyone knew it would. One person who had been in such a leadership position said in an interview, “They will wait you out and wear you out.”

Lest people think this only occurs in old companies that are relics from a bygone era, we have the example of Microsoft. The company has recently produced two highly visible and entirely avoidable product fiascos: Windows Phone and Windows 8.


The new, improved Windows 8 desktop.

The new, improved Windows 8 desktop.

When did I ask for an improved desktop? I was getting my work done just fine with the desktop I had.

Why do I want my desktop to look like a smartphone? I am not sitting in the car waiting for my kids to come out of sports practice — I am trying to get my work done. A phone is a content consumption device. My desktop computer is a content creation device. My job is to create content: documents, spreadsheets and the occasional presentation. There is an impedance mismatch between what I have to do and this interface that makes my productivity tool look like an amusement.

Can I come to your office, rearrange your desk to suit my artistic sensibilities and then tell you how stupid you are when you can’t find anything?

People within Microsoft tried to tell the people who were responsible for the decision to remake the Windows user experience that these changes would not go over. The people who were in charge of the product didn’t listen. So the Windows team took their show on the road and got what they got.

One objection to the internal advice not to remake the interface was that the people given the advice did not have data to back up their statements. Well, duh — it hadn’t been released yet. Now you’ve got all kinds of data from the failure of the product to be accepted. The people making the changes didn’t have data, either. They did it because they wanted to. That is a salient feature of Microsoft culture: I will do what I want to do because I am brilliant; if you want to argue with me, you have to have data.


A Windows Mobile 6 phone

A Windows Mobile 6 phone

Back in 2009, when the Windows Mobile 6 phone was still carrying the flag, there were a substantial number of Microsoft employees carrying competitor phones. To get a sense of the significance of this, consider that Microsoft does an employee satisfaction survey every year and gets response rates above 80%. The Microsoft employee population is generally enthusiastic about the Microsoft product line, usually likes the products and wants them to succeed. So if the employees themselves — who are also shareholders, by the way — are spending their own money on competitor phone products, is there not something to learn from them?

Nothing doing. It is disloyalty, pure and simple. You work for Microsoft, and you owe it to us to get behind our product, no matter what.

[Former CEO Steve Ballmer’s] passion can tip over into what a former executive calls “religious zealotry.” Challenge was betrayal. “His view was that anyone in the company who used the iPhone was a traitor,” says this person.
— “The Empire Reboots”, Vanity Fair,

Vanity Fair is all about people with high social wattage, and tends naturally to fix their focus on the top of the pyramid. And, to be sure, it is true that the fish rots from the head. Ballmer had a reputation within the company for stomping on employee’s iPhones in meetings. Ballmer helped shape the culture in his image. Bill Gates did so even more; without Gates, Ballmer would be some unheard-of middle manager retiring from P&G.

Nevertheless, the people who were in charge of the phone effort could have taken the responsibility to approach employees and say, “I see you have someone else’s phone. What did it offer that ours doesn’t?” In consumer products, real feedback is hard to get. The employees would have been happy to provide it in a constructive manner. There were no takers.

The cost of this arrogance? Microsoft lost time they can never get back.

Apps have a role in phone operating system (OS) acceptance. Thus a chicken-and-egg scenario develops when app developers look at charts like this to select the technologies in which they will invest. Without consumer acceptance, you don’t get apps. And without apps, you don’t get consumer acceptance. The rich get richer, and the poor get marginalized.

There is probably room for two smartphone OS products in the consumer market. Right now, it looks like those two will be Android and iOS.

When I read the article by Bob Lutz on GM culture, it reads all too familiar:

Early on, the Aztek obviously failed the market research. But in those days, GM went ahead with quite a few vehicles that failed product clinics. The Aztek didn’t just fail — it scored dead last. Rock bottom. Respondents said, “Can they possibly be serious with this thing? I wouldn’t take it as a gift.” And the GM machine was in such denial that it rejected the research and just said, “What do those a**holes know?”
— “How Bad Cars Happen: The Pontiac Aztek Debacle”

It’s not surprising that Microsoft didn’t bring in an outsider to replace Steve Ballmer. They don’t think they have a cultural problem. They think they just need some tweaks around the edges. They have $60 billion in topline revenue. Prior to joining Microsoft, I had never worked at a company with a $600 million topline.

And what would someone from the outside do? How would one bring cultural change to an organization that likes its culture just fine and has no objective imperative to change it?

So it is hardly surprising that the new CEO, Satya Nadella, put his foot in his mouth at a conference to promote careers for women in computing in October. This served as a launching pad for a wider discussion of women in the software business.

I had a woman at a technology company who, when she saw the science, just blurted out, “I thought there was something wrong with me! I hired a coach and for three years he’s been trying to help me fit into the team here, because I thought I needed fixing, and now I see that I’m just wired differently.” I asked the women in the audience, “How many of you can relate to that?” And every single hand went up.
— “Why the Tech Sector Struggles to Close the Gender Gap”,

Yes, the differences between genders are an element at work, but so are other differences. Culture is the main driver. When you don’t match the culture, the culture expects you to adapt to it. It is your problem and you have to fix it. I’m crazy; you’re sane.

Microsoft doesn’t have merely a male culture; Microsoft has an adolescent boy culture. I’m smarter than you; I pwn you.

Don’t believe me? Open up your solitaire game, make a few moves and then hit F2 to start a new game. You will be greeted with this dialog:

Microsoft Solitaire new game dialog. What do you mean, statistics?

Microsoft Solitaire new game dialog. What do you mean, statistics?

Look at the helpful advice: This counts as a loss in your statistics.

When I play solitaire with a deck of cards, I don’t have statistics. If I don’t like the way the game is going, I can just deal another one. Why do I need statistics?

But at Microsoft, it would be simply unthinkable not to keep statistics. How else can I compare my performance to that of others? I have a 90% record, while you only have an 80% record. You’ve been pwned.

And yes, I am smart enough to go into the registry, find where Solitaire keeps the statistics and change them. I have also lived long enough to have heard the expression, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

A lot of women look at this culture and think, “I’m capable of making it here, but yuck! Why bother?” Plenty of men do, also.

PS: I should point out that when I came back after publishing this article to make a correction, my system bluescreened. Evil Empire indeed.

Written by srojak

November 17, 2014 at 1:13 pm

On Hold with Customer Pacification

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Thank you for your patience. Your call is important to us. Please wait for the next available service representative.

If my call really were important to you, you would have staffed the call center with more service representatives.

Written by srojak

October 4, 2013 at 10:03 am

Posted in Fun with Orgs

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More Real Than She Expected

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In honor of Take Your Daughter/Son to Work Day, I am recalling this story from 1995.

An Ohio man was terminated with his daughter in the building on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. They were both separately escorted from the building and sent home before lunch.

A company spokesman said, “The timing of the dismissal of Mr. Means was regrettable.” You betcha.

The incident made Fineman Public Relations’ list of top PR blunders for the year, but didn’t make #1. That prize went to a public housing agency that announced a drug raid a day early, thereby telegraphing its punches to the suspects.

Written by srojak

April 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Posted in Fun with Orgs

Tagged with ,

The Aggressive Sorority Sister Resigns

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Here is the original story:

The PR heat got too intense, and she had to leave the kitchen:

My purpose here is not to pile on the author. Plenty of comments have already covered all the things wrong with her mail.

What specifically interests me is the sorority’s attempt to circle the wagons:

My name is [redacted] and I am the current president of Delta Gamma at the University of Maryland. It has been brought to my attention that you recently published an unsavory email that was sent out over my chapter’s list-serve. Is it possible for you to either remove the article or just remove the names “Delta Gamma” and “Sigma Nu” from your article? This email absolutely does not reflect our chapter’s values nor Sigma Nu’s and any assistance you can give us is greatly appreciated.

That didn’t work, so the author had to fall on her keyboard:

Delta Gamma has accepted the resignation of one of its members whose email relating to a social event has been widely distributed and publicized through social media and traditional media channels.

The tone and content of the email was highly inappropriate and unacceptable by any standard.

No matter who released it to the public or how it reached such a mass audience, the email content should not reflect on any sorority woman in general or any fraternal organization at large.

The author wasn’t just some random pledge; according to the Gawker article, she was a member of the executive board. The sorority’s announcement identifies her as a junior. So there she was, quitely biding her time for three years, working her way into positions of even greater responsibility, until one day she could suddenly and unexpectedly reveal her true colors?

No sale. The email completely exposes the chapter’s values for all to see. How embarassing.

This email should not be depicted in any way as standard or routine or tied to any official sorority voice. It is not an official voice or message and should not be construed as such.

I’m sure it was routine for that organization. She didn’t get in trouble for having been a crass, abusive bully. She got in trouble because her mail circulated, making the organization an object of ridicule for the whole country. I am confident that her tone was not completely inconsistent with the culture of the organization. She just had her mail blow up in her face.

For the young woman who wrote it, we can only express our regret and concerns for landing notoriety in this manner.

Whereas, what we really want to say is, “Thanks for landing us in notoriety in this manner.”

We now consider this matter closed.

You might consider the matter closed. Good luck getting others to agree.

Written by srojak

April 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm