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A modern day parable
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Forsyth County News
A good friend of mine, "Sally," is extremely distraught. For a number of years she has successfully managed a small order-processing unit within a fair-sized division of a major U.S. corporation. Current economic conditions have resulted in a significant decline in incoming orders, and although the future looks somewhat brighter, an enormous amount of uncertainty still lies ahead.

Recently the division manager instructed her to fire one of her close-knit team. Several other units have been downsized. She feels that any day now she will be called into the division manager’s office and told that her unit will be reduced further. Since her salary is the highest, she believes that she will be next.

The uncertainty of her future has generated enormous stress as she fears about her ability to pay her mortgage, continue her health insurance and maintain her dignity. Her position within this prestigious organization is a key part of her identity in the community. She feels that she is losing control over her life and has no say in the decisions being made (arbitrarily, in her mind) by her division manager and the people at corporate level. But, being a resourceful person, this uncertainty has also motivated her to take action. More about that in a moment.

Coincidentally, "Sam," the general manager, is also a good friend. He has been with the corporation for a number of years and has been identified as one if its rising stars. Not surprisingly, though unbeknownst to Sally, he finds himself in a similar boat, waiting for the shoe to fall. Although he has had considerable involvement in discussions about potential actions, he too is wracked with uncertainty about the future and his personal career. In conversations with his bosses, he has provided ideas, but he has little information about the decisions they are likely to take. Also being a resourceful person, his uncertainty has also motivated him to take action of a different sort, one element of which has been a series of lay-offs within the division.

Both Sam and Sally are taking actions for self-preservation, but in different directions. Sally feels disenfranchised from the organization -- an organization which, at this point of time, desperately needs her ideas, her energy and her commitment. Instead, she is spending much of her time looking at an alternative: starting her own business. Clearly having control over her own destiny is a major factor.

Sam sees his future more closely tied to the corporation. He already has many years invested. Consequently, his mode is trying to figure out how to satisfy corporate financial goals. At corporate level, people are largely defined by numbers – how many, how much they cost, how much they produce.

Sam is closer in the sense that all the people he deals with have names and faces and strengths and weaknesses. But he is caught in the middle, trying to cut costs in order to satisfy the immediate desires of those on high while recognizing that he needs his people to build for the future and to assure his own success. Unfortunately, the demand for immediate results wins out. If one doesn’t survive the present, there is no future. But the process is painful, and it is easier (and less painful) just to issue edicts than to explain. So all of the Sallys in his organization live in fear, and Sam tries to maintain a confident façade as he strives to satisfy corporate short term objectives, yet still provide for the future which will be necessary to keep his career on track.

This country was built on entrepreneurial activity. Contrary to popular belief, it is the growth of small businesses that has been the major fuel for our economic growth for many years. But the visibility of large corporations and the enormous downside they have has masked the facts.

It’s ironic in ways. As small businesses grow, they often lose sight of what made them successful, like the close touch with employees and with customers and suppliers. Often many function in a “family mode.” As they get larger, communications become more impersonal. Size dictates the loss of familiarity. And unfortunately decisions at the top are often made primarily on the basis of numbers, often losing track of the nature of the business and the human factors involved.

Large organizations, be they private or government, tend to become impersonal. It takes a major effort to build true team spirit as companies become geographically dispersed, as they diversify into new businesses and as the decision-makers become more and more remote from day to day operations. And two very important human lessons seem to be lost, illustrated by the situations that both Sam and Sally find themselves in.

First, at the minimum, people need communication to know what is going on and to have some idea of what the future is likely to bring. Even knowing the worst is usually better than living in constant fear of the unknown. Organizations must learn to communicate better at all levels. They must become more humane.

Second, communication is the foundation for the true need, involvement. I can’t help but think how much better off we would all be if employees in organizations (again, both corporate and government) were aware of the challenges and actively working to address them. Sally has turned the other way. The good news is that if she is successful in her new pursuits, another seed for growth and prosperity will have been planted – for the economy, not for her former employer. Sam is in there trying, but with his hands tied behind his back. He has lost the Sallys in his organization (even though they still work for him) and, therefore, much of the capability to strengthen his operation.

The situation I have described is real. It is unfolding as I sit here writing. Why can’t we learn that one of the primary keys to success is getting the ideas and energies of all the people in an organization involved in the goals of that organization? That’s the true essence of management and the path to long-term achievement.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.