The Executives' Man: Success by Imitation

Just below the executives in today’s big business organization are the numerous juniors, struggling for promotion. Will their success depend on energy and originality, or should they settle for security by playing it safe? ALAN HARRINGTON used his writing fellowship from Ihe Fund for Ihe Republic to study the enrironment which management creates for its young recruits. The article that follows is the first of two excerpts from his book, LIFE IN THE CRYSTAL PALACE, which Knopf will publish in September. [the assistant manager] can clear out all those back projects in a week.” A more experienced hand smiled at this: “Of course, he could, but he’ll never do that. It would make the boss look bad.”


CORPORATE practices involve a fundamental inconsistency. Management wants simultaneously (a) performance from everyone and (b) protection for everyone. But the impulse to perform and the impulse to protect yourself cannot exist as equals. One must gain ascendancy over the other. To perform, move, swing, the self goes out and takes chances. The reflex of self-protection produces subservience to the group, a willingness to spread responsibility until it doesn’t exist, a binding horror of chance-taking, and obeisance to the system. How can these two drives exist together in equal strength?

The corporation is, therefore, schizophrenic. At the headquarters of a company i shall call the Crystal Palace, we think we are staffed with hundreds of red-blooded free-enterprisers. But in fact, if we look samples and tapped a few kneecaps, it would be found that a large percentage of us have the circulative apparatus ol bureaucrats. Instead of blood in our veins we have grapefruit juice. So far as our jobs are concerned, we would be perfectly at home in the most stifling government office in Washington.

Here is an example of our two-headed standard: One of our notoriously inefficient department heads went on a field trip, to be away for six weeks. This was a man who made a career out of indecision. Projects piled upon his desk in wobbly towers, and light-years went by before he took any action on them. In contrast, his next-in-command was an alert clean-desk executive who moved quickly on any assignment. A member of the department breathed hopefully: “Now maybe we’ll get some things done around here. Norris

A commonplace story, but when you examine it the whole pretense of our structure is revealed. Theory: we are all in there pitching for the company, doing the best we know how. Fact: the “method" requires that we not do our best, because it would make the boss look bad. In other words, the inefficient boss’s security is more important than getting the job done. Getting the job done is supposedly the law governing promotions. But the sad truth, as I have seen it work out in practice, is that in a crisis most of us are far more loyal to our pension programs than we are to doing a job in what we believe to be the best way. Sometimes for us the most rewarding decision is no decision — anything to avoid the lonely prominence of commitment.

The grand misconception here is that “organization is all.”This has led to all the propaganda on the virtues of team play. Following from the team-play concept is the corporate emphasis on experience. It will be said of some dunderhead that he has been seasoned for twenty years in his department. This is like a football coach with a rotten team last year looking forward with confidence to the fall campaign because he has “twenty lettermen returning.” That impresses me not at all. Preserve us from such lettermen. If they were no good last year, particularly in the upper age brackets, they will be worse this year. No, I think any organization must make room for stars; otherwise we will have to face up to the space age with a bunch of turnips on our payroll.

But in our way at the Palace we spend great sums of money to build a good team. We go about this via the Executive Development program. The typical “Executive Development Guide” begins with a set of unchallengeable assumptions:

The creation and perpetuation of a high-caliber management team cannot he left to chance. It calls for a well-planned, well-accepted, positive program of executive development. ... It calls for frequent realistic appraisal of each individual performance and potential. It calls for bold development action incorporating demanding, capacity-stretching assignments coupled with sound counseling, it calls for discerning use of rewards. . . .

Continued prosperity can only come through the efforts of a management team of highest caliber; through men with imaginative, shrewd, analytical minds; through men who act quickly, soundly and effectively; through men who are interested in hard work, profits, and keeping ahead of competition.

So far, so good. There is no question that the development of high-caliber management “calls for” these various qualities. But who is doing the calling and who is doing the answering? Management is calling and management is answering. In short, management is talking to itself.

The progress and the predicted development of each employee are appraised at regular intervals by his boss, his immediate supervisor, and perhaps “a third person on the level of the individual’s supervisor who is well acquainted with the individual’s performance.” At first glance this would appear to be a fair arrangement. It theoretically provides for three separate and independent reports on a man. If, say, his boss doesn’t think too much of him, his supervisor and the third party may redress the balance with favorable appraisals. But this can’t happen, because:

It is recommended that each member of the appraisal panel first prepare his appraisal by himself and then meet with the other panel members in formulating the joint appraisal.

Clearly the last provision negates all that has gone before. It serves also as a good example of the corporation’s extraordinary capacity for deceiving itself. To show how the system works out we need only imagine a scene with four characters: Allen, the department head; Barclay, one of the department supervisors; and Clifton, the third party, also a supervisor. They meet to draft a joint appraisal of Danforth, a junior executive.

Allen, the boss, either low-rates or overrates the young man. Barclay and Clifton, who observe his daily performance, disagree. Their private appraisals of Danforth vary markedly from the department head’s view. Now enters a new factor. Allen is also going to fill out appraisal forms on his two supervisors, and they know this. Can you imagine them disagreeing with the boss at length on the Danforth appraisal? With the appraisal of their own progress coming up? No, the chances are infinity-to-one that, with their training in corporation method acting, they will gracefully withdraw or modify their evaluations of Danforth (without seeming to do so). It is likely that the joint appraisal will turn out to be in accord with the boss’s judgment. Pursuing this, wc may wonder how he measures his subordinates.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the outstanding manager is his constant appraisal of employees. . . . Members of management arc judged by their superiors, in large part, by their ability to set high standards, to appraise others accurately against such standards, and to take constructive action to build a strong team.

We are judged according to our Intelligence, Motivation, Relationships, Administration, and Knowledge. There follows a graph showing that Intelligence is about 90 per cent innate and 10 per cent acquirable; Motivation 80-20; Relationships 65-35; Administration 35-65; and Knowledge 10-90. Bearing this in mind, the company must employ “only those applicants possessing superior intelligence, exhibiting extraordinary motivation, and indicating promise in the area of relationships.”

Now this is a fine graph, and the conclusion drawn from it appears unassailable. But the plain fact is, and the gentlemen on executive development committees must know it, that the corporation employs scores of individuals with mediocre intelligences, the motivations of squirrels, and the relating powers of amiable zombies. The Executive Development program does not visualize people as they really are. It assumes that people are neutral spirits and ignores the strongest motivating force in our private civil-service state, which is self-preservation.

For this reason we model ourselves in the image of our superiors, as we follow in their footsteps, and expect subordinates to model themselves on us. This much is human nature: an executive is going to file a good report on an underling who thinks and acts more or less in the way he does. And he will tend to give a lesser rating to someone who thinks and acts differently, [executive development planners, who are not stupid, have been aware of this, and we have seen how they try to counterbalance it by the system of triangulation. But, unfortunately, no sooner do they triangulate on a man than they abandon the principle, for the verdict must be unanimous.

. . . any large variation can only result from an inadequate understanding of the appraisal factors and system or the appraisee[!]. Variations can be minimized by developing among appraisers a uniform understanding |?j of the appraisal system and by omitting ratings for those factors concerning which the appraiser has insufficient knowledge of the appraisee.

Translated, the last sentence means: “You fellows get together on this. If you disagree, one or two of you can avoid an embarrassing situation by taking the ‘out’ provided here — namely that you don’t know enough about the young man to rate him in certain categories.”

Once upon a time free enterprise invoked the principle of the survival of the fittest. Today at the Crystal Palace we have the survival (or rather the promotion) of the most imitative. The question before the executive development committee when promotion lime comes is how snugly you will fill the shoes of the man above you.

In surveying his team, almost any executive is going to appraise it so that the men below who might challenge his method of doing things will be put in their proper places. His instinct, if not his conscious aim, will be to favor those below him who appear to be smaller replicas of himself.

Can a corporation man properly appraise a subordinate more intelligent than he is? If not, what can the subordinate do, particularly in the early stages of his career, to get around inadequate appraisals which affect not only his present status but also his future? He can do nothing. He is like a man on a slow escalator with someone in front of him who will not move.

In a smaller and livelier business the held-down subordinate has better possibilities of extricating himself. The free play of personality is greater; he has a chance, positively, to run with the ball and call attention to himself, and negatively, to cut, backbite, and take a chance on showing up his superior. But in big business the uses of power arc restricted to channels, much like in the army. There is one small difference. The army, recognizing this situation, has an Inspector General’s oflice. Officers from the 1G may visit installations and — since they are independent of the base command — listen to criticisms and complaints. True, they may seldom take action, but they do serve as something of a deterrent, at least theoretically, to inefficiency and injustice.

Perhaps corporations might do well to institute some sort of IG system, an outside audit not only of the books but also of administrative performance. What is needed. I think, is a means of periodically going outside the chain of command to evaluate efficiency up and down the line.

MISINFORMATION may be conveyed from middle to top management in many ways and for all sorts of reasons. I recall an able but vain and impatient executive who was involved in installing a company’s new filing system. The files were his pride and joy, and beautiful interlocking numbers floated through his dreams. The company was also starting a library, and hired an expensive and fiercely proud librarian. Executive and librarian, who worked under him, collided head on. The issue was whether company reference books should be classified in accordance with the newly installed filing system or whether they should be arranged in the time-honored decimal groupings used by libraries everywhere. After a protracted struggle, the librarian won but made an enemy. Thereafter, in commenting on the librarian’s work, the executive passed upward the general image of an uncooperative, neurotic, temperamental dragon. The truth as conveyed upward was influenced by thwarted ambition, and there was no way for the librarian to redraw the picture for the gods to see.

Feed questions into a neurotic Univac and you will receive neurotic answers. Our managers and appraisers are not even Univacs, but are nevertheless expected to function like unemotional calculators of what is best for the company. The Lord knows they try, and we all try to conduct our business with moderate and retractive personalities, with masked egos, and (most of us) with orderly ambitions. But behind our discreet performances you may be sure that we are always conscious of the stage manager. The reflexes of self-preservation will guide our movements, flatten our dialogue, and shape our opinions and reports, and it is foolish to think that they will not.

What the Crystal Palace could use right now would be a court jester, a wild card, to upset the order of our days. We could employ a camp joker, a friend-of-presidents type, even a fool, whose job would be to bring irreverence to our halls. He should be permitted to make fun of everybody, great and small; to mock every process (in an irresponsible way); to call a spade a spade; to dramatize errors; to stick his head in conference rooms, interrupt procedures with a wisecrack, and vanish again. You would never know when he was coming. You might not see him for weeks or a month in your department, but you would know that he was somewhere in the building. The corporation joker would be an irritant to our complacency. Cutting capers across our routine, he wouldn’t really disrupt the system. Yet he would shake it up a bit.

THE successful corporation man is the one who can prove through the years that he is a good administrator. Administration is the key. The man, and to a lesser extent the woman, who knows how to use it will unlock the doors, one by one, that lead to the top floor.

Along with the administrator goes the professional, who seldom rises as high. The relationship between these two groups is interesting. Administrator and professional apparently cannot exist without one another, and yet they are by nature mutually hostile. The administrators organize the work of professionals; whereas the professionals do all the work. The administrator, or official, is primarily interested in obtaining a smooth work flow in accordance with regulations. The professional’s main concern is with excellent performance of a particular job.

The official wants to maintain a department that seems efficient; the specialist aches to be efficient. A great many corporation executives begin as specialists and then, if they are rated outstanding, are promoted to an administrative position. Yet the specialist-turned-administrator may well prove to be less effective than one of those talentless desk men, the born officials, the defenders of bottlenecks, who have filled tables of organization squares since the dawn of time. That is because the specialist tends to overweigh the importance of his own profession in the larger picture — and an enterprise of any size involves an effort of combined professions. In contrast, the official in the classic mold is not hampered by a belief in anything but rules, procedures, and rank.

The successful administrator sits at an office crossroads, across lines of communication. He throws switches. He has a veto power over trains of thought and may keep them on a siding indefinitely or even derail them if he thinks they are going too fast.

This describes his position, but not what he docs. For years three questions have disturbed me. What is an administrator? What on earth is his talent? And why are people like me always working for people like him?

I am in my office at the Crystal Palace writing a speech for one of the directors. Not that he couldn’t work up a speech that would be satisfactory, but he hasn’t time for words. Outside, a maintenance worker is maneuvering his power mower across our superb front lawn. I hear a slapping sound — the window washer leaning back against his strap douses the glass before my eyes. The phone rings, and I am called into the administrator’s office for consultation.

What is this executive doing? He stands at his desk holding a piece of paper. He frowns. Several professionals gather around him. When we have all arrived, he advises us that a group of town officials wishes to tour our plant. We must greet them in a certain way. He calls for suggestions. Everybody puts in a word. He says, All right, Joe will do this, Jim will do that, and Bob will do the other by next Wednesday.

The meeting lasted for ten minutes, and during this period our superior, the official, didn’t propose anything; he only listened to our proposals. He isn’t going to do anything; we are carrying out the assignments. He simply heard us out and distributed the jobs. The man hanging on the strap was doing something; there arc no specks on our windows. The lawn mower made the grounds prettier. I will type something (less useful) that will give the town officials a better idea of the plant. But he, this one, who is always standing there or sitting there holding that eternal piece of paper, makes twice as much money as I do and four times as much as the washer and mower.

The official is incredibly more successful than the professionals who work under him, because he sees to it that we do our jobs. One can understand that. He is arranging, channeling, disposing, traveling, consulting. The only thing he does not do is produce.

One day I took a random look through the files of our administrative correspondence. The letters announced the availability of some booklets, asked the opinion of higher authority on possible contributions to a fund, advised that a film be shown to a certain group, replied to a schoolteacher’s request for booklets, informed higher authority of this request and listed the booklets sent to the teacher, sent background material on the company to an advertising agency, requested higher authority’s approval of an editorial to be run in the house organ, explained to lower authority the uses of a kit, and commented on the plans of a branch office.

This is administration, and it is fine. No companv could function without it. The question in my mind is not why corporate administrators exist (someone has to expedite things) but why they are so well paid. After watching scores of them in action, I could swear that their duties consist mainly of frowning over sheets of paper, consulting with others, and then passing on the job to be done to a specialist. The typical official can’t build a bridge, or construct a machine, or plant an original idea about anything. But he must know something. I believe the administrator possesses these important qualifications:

1. He has the talents of a cork. There are great advantages in being an intellectual lightweight. The professional man will sink or swim with his ideas. He takes chances. The official, having no ideas to burden him, can bob around like a buoy or marker in the roughest water while others are dashed against the rocks.

2. The absence of creative ability is a talent in itself. In a corporation it can be a positive asset. It gives the pure executive a broader view of any problem than the specialist will have. The designer of a bridge, for instance, visualizes a span that will be beautifully constructed, let it be with expensive materials, to last hundreds of years. The bridge is everything to him. He will probably, if given his way, spend too much money on it. But the bridge, as the official well knows, is not everything to the corporation. It may be one of many expensive undertakings, and there is just so much money available.

The administrator has only a passing interest in beauty. He is not limited by an aesthetic sense. He is immune to the specialist’s pain, the pain of earing. He cares only about the organization and orders from above. No matter how many times the decision is changed, the man without ideas remains unaffected, while the creative man’s standing fluctuates.

3. A good administrator has a remarkable talent for staying out of trouble. A prominent adviser to corporations tolls me that rule number one for the ambitious executive is never to identify himself emotionally with a project. If the venture should fail he becomes too easy a target. If it succeeds he becomes a marked man; in other words, a number of people will be hoping that he fails next time. Further, to take an emotional stand may involve antagonizing somebody. This is all right for a professionally talented person, but if your ability is purely administrative what is the good of getting anyone mad at you?

To avoid blame, the corporation bureaucrat always goes by the book. He memorizes handbooks. code books, and rule books. He worships proper procedure and mortally fears anyone who creates a situation not covered by the book. Originality produces disorder and change. Hence, it must be controlled by procedure. Only through procedure can slow imaginations throw a halter over minds that would otherwise bolt ahead of the group.

4. The pure executive is also adept, generally in a nice way, at credit-grabbing. Nor does he have to work very hard at it. The corporate apparatus is so rigged that the administrator who has merely distributed jobs can take a share of credit for their execution. For the specialists have been corralled into a “team,” of which he is the captain. All correspondence reads in effect: “ We have done such-and-such.”This implies participation of the official, when he may have done nothing.

5. Successful bureaucrats have a form of intelligence that specialists often lack: they keep their eyes on the balk This sounds easy, but most of us don’t do it. You will notice in an administrator on the way up a certain fixed, calculating expression. He is oriented wholly toward power. He will give you his courteous exterior, the friendly smile and offhand joke, but his eye remains fixed on that one spot — where the power is.

6. Finally, the pure official understands the relative value of things and the relative importance of people. This is sometimes called “judgment.” It is supposed to improve with experience, and probably does. But “the value of experience” is a concept frequently used by old men to keep young men down. For example, at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 it was pointed out with absolute authority by old hands that the Egyptian pilots and their recruited foreign colleagues lacked the experience to move ships through the canal’s tricky currents. This turned out to be nonsense.

I suspect that most jobs in a corporation and elsewhere can be mastered in a few months, or at any rate in a year or two. What cannot be learned that quickly is the corporation minuet — the respectful dance with the right partners. The watchful corporation man gradually finds out who is important and who is not, what is acceptable and what is not, what type of project will advance his fortunes and what is not worth bothering about. Experience for him mainly adds up to learning how to behave. The secrets of gauging and responding to the power of others — superimposed on a normal intelligence — will move him slowly upward.

The process involves no great wear and tear. In this way, if you wish, you may become one of those men whom Caesar liked to have around him — “sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights.” There are worse fates, by far.

(To be continued)