About My Job: The Businessman

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I work for one of the world's largest multinationals, in a position that makes my job description basically "business" - I work on issues touching finance, marketing, logistics, etc. I am also someone who spent most of their working life outside of the business world. So I would like to give some examples of things about business that I have found surprising.

1. Business is much more about being organized and managing people than it is about ideas. Past a certain scale, ideas don't seem to matter much (unless you are a once-in-a-lifetime Steve Jobs type visionary). You and your competitors all have a basic concept of what to do. The areas that seem to offer the most scope for creativity are actually the areas where not enough data exists to formulate good ideas, and random guesses are worth as much as multi-million-dollar consultant reports. Much of the time spent discussing "ideas" in a business context is actually time spent slowly maneuvering large groups of managers into a compatible mind-space so that they can work together effectively - the results of the discussion in terms of ideas is worth nothing, whereas the result in terms of bonding, organizing, and motivating can be very valuable.

2. There are two pay shockers in business: the pay of middle managers and the pay of CEOs. Everyone talks about CEOs so I'll talk about middle managers - people who often have graduate degrees, who have some staff, who are smart and capable but do not have the rare and usually unhealthy levels of motivation it takes to make a run at senior office in a large business. These people make a TON of money. For me, your level of compensation should be commensurate with how badly you have to warp your life to achieve said level. Senior execs are like the immigrant laborers cited in some arguments as "doing the jobs Americans won't do". Senior execs (and mid-level workers in high-compensation industries such as consulting (finance is another kettle of fish and not something I know enough about to comment on)) do things most people would never want to do - they often sacrifice family, a well-balanced intellectual life, and so on, on the altar of career. And I have no problem with their pay (below the stupid levels that CEO-level pay often reaches); although I would prefer higher taxes to balance the effects of that pay. To return to middle managers however, these are people who typically have the same life-style as, say, teachers. Same rough hours, same rough level of necessary effort at the average level of performance. But they make much, much more money (and you can't just look at salary - perks of various kinds - at least in my office - often at least double on-paper salary). I didn't realize how big the disparity was until I went into business, and it still surprises me.

3. Business is fascinating at the organizational and logistical level. I'm more interested in books and music than I am in business. But that is just my personal preference. People who act as if their interest in, say, indie rock is intrinsically more deep than an interest in org charts are simply misinformed. Referencing point 1, the world of abstract ideas in business is often arid, silly, and pretentious while at the same time overly cutesy. But the world of how things get done in business - the world of factory floors, imports/exports, incentives, distributors and retailers etc. is mind-blowing, and only becoming more so as more and more markets are knit together. If you go to Dubai you can see Nigerians selling generators made in China to a mix of Urdu and Persian speakers who captain wooden boats down the Dubai Creek to Al Ain. That is interesting, no matter what your leaning.