Friday, May 22, 2009

Madrid Blog--La Señora que Sabe

Adventures in the Workplace and with El Servicio

This one is going to make me wildly unpopular... I will preface the entry by saying that I have limited experience in management. This experience has been "when it's great, it's great," but, in those cases where you may be managing the "lesser motivated" worker, management is highly over-rated.

In my brief professional career, I worked with an outside PR agency team that was very competent. In general, they knew more about what they were doing, than I did. They made me look good. In my house, in the US, I employed a nanny for my children (live-out, hourly wages). In the seven years she worked for me, I don't think she was sick once and I can count on less than ten fingers the number of times she was late to work.

Recently, though, in Spain, I have not had such good luck in the house-hold help category. I wonder if this is not due to different cultural/personal expectations about the workplace. This is exemplified by a conversation I had one day with my "interna" about the fact that the children were consistently late for the school bus. I approached this from a very American HR workplace bias:

"We have a problem. How can we work together (as a team!) to solve our problem?"

I was shocked by the interna's response, which (paraphrased) was:

"Well, Señora, you can do my job for me."

The American weakness: Need to be liked/loved.

Wonder if this comes from the joy that is the American high school experience, where popularity is generally valued above and beyond any sort of academic achievement?

In the JBoss years, it truly was inconceivable to some people that my French-raised husband lacked any concern for what people thought of him. "Not giving a damn" is a good quality to have if you are an entrepreneur. Why? Because if you are doing something truly novel and different (with no money and connections in your chosen industry) expect to be called crazy. "Crazy" is a good thing. Nobody fucks with crazy. When you are in tight situations, acting like a completely unpredictable motherfucker who would rather self-implode than let the other guy win, increases your chances of survival and coming out ahead. If you succeed, you can always console yourself with the Southern (US) dictum: "When you're poor, you're crazy; when you're rich, you're eccentric."

If you are on to something, you will spend the second half of your start-up's life fending off people trying to kill you. This includes insignificant pissants as well as the powerful Personnages/Corporations of this world. Why do they abuse their position? Because they can. Concentrate on out-witting them and extracting revenge, or acting more morally if you ever get near their industry position.

I see "needing to be liked" in the work world as a particular American weakness. Nothing is more ridiculous than the company that thinks they can under-compensate their employees because they they are such a "cool" place to work. Note: employers who think this way are probably so far from cool the light from cool would take a million years to reach them. This is on par with the housewife who thinks she can pay "Edwina" less because Edwina "loves" her children. If Edwina won the lottery, would she be working for you? It's a job, people are there because they need the money or expect a liquidity event.

As for what other people think of us, not just employees, but friends and family, we probably are better off not knowing :) In a work relationship, I see fair compensation and establishing a relationship of mutual respect as more important.

American optimism: You are responsible for the ultimate outcome of your career

OK, I just read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" like everybody else, and he makes some good points de-bunking the individual's responsibility for her own ultimate success. However, if you don't start from this basic assumption, you will not be able to benefit from whatever Gladwellian experiential, cultural, chance advantages that come your way.

Religious bias and Social Values

I am the product of a Protestant/Catholic marriage, and was raised in, and, am comfortable with, both traditions. This is not a discussion of religion or theology, but a thought about Protestantism and the American cultural bias regarding individual self-determination. My experience with Catholicism was very laced with the "look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field--the good Lord will provide" outlook. The Protestant outlook, on the other hand (which is nowhere to be found in the Bible): tended toward "God helps those who help themselves." The Calvinist predestination doctrine--where it is assumed that God rewards the "predestined" with material success and that material success reflects moral character--is even more pernicious...The two traditions also have different outlooks on the individual's ability/responsibility for interpreting his faith. My experience with Catholicism emphasized dependence on the clerical hierarchy to achieve an understanding of theological tenets; whereas the Protestant tradition (of course both traditions have their dogmatic sects) generally emphasized Biblical textual scholarship and the individual's responsibility to work out his own faith--an approach that has understandably led to endless dissent and schisms...

Them that has 'gits

All this is speculative divergence from what I see as two fundamentally different outlooks in the workplace. One approach is that "the world has always been divided into "jefes" and "empleados". As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, world without end, Amen. Fuck them, I am going to do the minimum I can get away with in my job. My misery/poverty is virtue in and of itself. I'll get my reward in Heaven.


The second approach is that "I can impact my ultimate outcome in life" and, by my hard work, I could become a "jefe". This involves taking responsibility for and pride in one's work. It especially comes into play in dealing with how people handle mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes. This does not distinguish the former or latter category of employees, but how they handle them does. Employee A will 1) acknowledge no responsibility for his role in the mistake 2) expend endless amounts of energy telling me why it's not his fault and how he could not have done anything differently. Employee B, on the other hand, will 1) acknowledge her role in the mistake 2) spend her energy telling me what she is going to do in the future so that this never happens again.


Warren said...

Natalie, I absolutely love this article.

It hit home in soo many ways..I recently wrote a data mining application that completely sidetracked me for 4 months...It's about 60,000 lines of code now....the original app was only a few thousand lines of code...I kind of lost myself in regular expressions stripping dynamic variables from social networks and blogs relating to users and there lifestyles.....and I kept telling my client at the time that I would literally run targeted sms and email marketing in the southeast if they just let me continue doing what I was doing instead of working on there fear of anyone stealing my idea, I was very secretive about everything I was doing, especially because it was in the entertainment industry....Also, In trying to make other deadlines for this client I was working 20 hour days sometimes and sleeping for a couple hours and heading in for meetings with nothing to show but my code(this went on for 5 months and I worked 7 days a week)......I looked like hell, I hadn't had a hair cut in 5 months, I was pasty white in the face, smelled like 2 packs of camel lights, had spent all the money they paid me for other work on temporary dedicated servers to mine data, and didn't give a flying f#$% about what anyone thought or said about me!!!.....people started calling me crazy just because I was soo sleep deprived from working so much I didn't really care about what anyone thought about my lifestyle...Additionally, I live at home because all I do is program....and have no business skills as a result.....But I was in the zone....a few months ago I was locked out of the server I built and collocated for this particular client because they thought I was full of sh!! about my data mining idea

Additionally they refused to pay me for other completed work I had done for them for a separate project, they literally left me with nothing.....ACCEPT 2.6 million emails with 84 searchable variables in relation to each users information I had mined, including latitude and longitude in some cases. Additionally I have about a million mobile phone numbers for specific users....all of my data resides in the southeast USA.......

To make a long story short, I relized I was "crazy" and that is why I am so f#$%ing good at what I do, I lose myself in my work, and not in the general population.....thats what why people are now making me "crazy" 6 figure offers for my data!!!

I told my previous client to go to hell, I have 6 new clients now and have a business manager, Mark Lane, that is helping me startup 2 new beta companies called and

Moral of the story, sometimes you just have to tell people to f#$% off and follow your true passions

johnw said...

id take american optimism over english cyncisim anyday