The “Ropes Paper”: Section One Summary and Implications for the Workplace
By: Stephen M. Urquhart
After introducing the reader to the book’s main characters, essentially archetypes for the typical executives, managers, co-workers and support staff one would encounter in the typical organization, the book sets the stage for the ensuing chapters. Two perspectives are presented on organizational behavior: first, the technical/rational: “what went wrong, how to do it right?” Second, the cultural/interpretive: “we are humans, not machines …” Each has its merits and flaws. In simplest terms, the yin-yang effect of these perspectives can be distilled to this: the technical perspective works in a world where machines, robots, computers and automatons carry out rote instructions and orders without variance, but is insufficient to deal with the unpredictable nature of humans. The cultural perspective takes into account the unique talents, quirks, strengths and weaknesses of the human element, but would seem to bristle at the rigidity of forced processes that are by definition limiting to the interactions of people in the workplace.
The first section of the book is entitled: “De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est,” the implication of which is that opinions about matters of taste are not objectively right or wrong, nor can disagreements about matters of taste cannot be objectively resolved. Another point of view is offered by the author: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
I have observed that, the larger the organization, the less likely that it is capable of seismic or in some cases even incremental change. The companies that are thriving in this economy are the ones that are agile, attuned to the conditions of the market, and structured in such a way that they can proactively address the needs of those who have money to spend. What is sad to watch is the “Sixth Sense” movie-like way that some companies continue to operate: “They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” (Shyamalan, 1999)
In the first chapter, “Hi, Call Me ____” the story is set at a company picnic, which is often a dreaded “mandatory fun” event at large organizations and “not for the purpose of having a pleasant day in the country … ” This picnic is a ceremonial rite, where the top executives leave the men’s hut and mingle among the people. The corporate office in New York is further established as The Company’s headquarters, and “it” wants things. One of the main characters of the book, Stanley, has made the mistake of dressing down another colleague on the horseshoe pitch, only to learn that it was Mr. Marsh, the chairman of The Company.
There are four main takeaways from this chapter. First, it is important to remember that when an employee is at a company event, they are “on the clock” in the sense of being accountable for their actions and statements. Second, alcohol and work events do not mix well, and in this case moderation would have helped Stanley maintain his bearing. Third, corporate offices seem to have a self-ascribed importance and become an entity unto themselves. And fourth, “If you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll never get anywhere …” is a remarkably true and prescient statement that Stanley boldly made to the chairman. Knowing what is going on is essential to survival and remaining relevant in the corporate environment.
When I worked for Siemens Corporation, I remember how often the world headquarters in Munich was identified as the source for all things, good or bad, that were impacting the company in all parts of the globe. Siemens, with over 400 thousand employees in 190 countries, masquerades as a global company but is truly a multinational conglomerate with its roots firmly planted in Germany. Munich became a mythical place not unlike Camelot, where the decisions were made and policies were handed down as if they had come from Moses on the mountain.
In state government I saw this play out once again with “The Governor’s Office” in Tallahassee, from which all demands emanated and which apparently had an insatiable appetite for reports, budgets, responses and statements. What I learned through observation was how certain operatives in Tallahassee would manipulate people into truly believing that they were in an all-out fire drill mode to respond to the governor himself, when in fact the governor had no knowledge or interest in the vast majority of the things that were being attributed to his whims and demands.
In the second chapter, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Stanley finds himself at odds with Ben Franklyn because he has used “Insuban” to insulate overhead pipes in a Company building, instead of The Company’s own product, “Expandrium.” Stanley makes the necessary adjustments to use the “right” product, and very soon thereafter finds himself extolling the virtues of the Expandrium product when the board of directors tours the facility.
As pointed out during our classroom discussion on this chapter, it is indeed important that employees are mindful of the places where they work and the need to “take care of those who take care of you.” I have heard this referred to as “eating your own dog food” (and sometimes, as “drinking the Kool-Aid”) and it essentially comes down to common sense. If the company a person works for offers a quality product and an employee makes a conscious decision not to use it, they are sending a message about their level of commitment and loyalty that could be career limiting.
It amazed me when I worked for Siemens that the U.S.-based employees were given Dell computers and Nokia mobile phones, across the board as a matter of practice, when Siemens was a world-renowned manufacturer of both computers and mobile phones. This hurt the company on a number of levels, among them the missed opportunity to have Siemens employees, who travel the world as de facto brand ambassadors, showcase their company’s products; lost revenue for the company as other corporations contracted for services; and ultimately the erosion of brand equity within Siemens as the company would not even use its own products. Today, Siemens is only tangentially involved in these two product lines, and one cannot help but wonder if having an additional 400 thousand “captive” customers could have made a difference.
In the third chapter, “Cleanliness is Next To …?” colleagues Stanley and Lesley meet for the first time, and Lesley is trying to learn about the Expandrium product from a troubleshooting perspective. When Stanley sullies Lesley’s manual with a coffee cup stain, he explains to her that she is trying so hard to keep things perfect that the management team assumes she’s not actually using the materials.
A key learning point in this chapter is the notion that management cannot possibly keep tabs on everything the work force is doing to contribute to the company mission, so certain indicators are used as proxies to determine whether work is being done. These include observing which employees are working late in the office; which ones spending more time on non-productive websites than others; and which buildings on a corporate campus have cars parked outside first thing in the morning. From these latent observations, managers make assumptions about productivity and dedication that may or may not be true.
From my time in the U.S. Army, I have first-hand experience of the clean manual and clean equipment situation. In some units, such as the 82nd Airborne Division which is continually on alert for deployments and consequently expected to be at a high state of readiness at all times, the equipment and uniform inspections were focused on accountability and usability of the equipment each paratrooper was issued, with the expectation that constant deployments resulted in significant wear and tear. These inspections were used to determine serviceability of the assigned equipment and to determine the need to order replacement gear. Conversely, in the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany, largely a ceremonial unit in the post-Cold War era, equipment was expected to look brand new at all times, requiring soldiers to purchase a complete and separate set of equipment just for these inspections. These behaviors in and of themselves were emblematic of the way each of these Army divisions saw its role and defined what was important.
In the 82nd Airborne, combat readiness and accountability were the keys to success, and if a paratrooper had equipment that looked brand new, it actually indicated that they had probably lost items that were assigned and had to buy replacement items. This was not viewed as a positive trait. In the 3rd Infantry, the contrary was true; a soldier in possession of worn items during an inspection was viewed as deficient. To me, it was clear which unit really had a mission and which one was just pretending, just by observing what management paid attention to and the criteria by which it was being evaluated.
The fourth chapter, “Look of a Winner,” provides varying points of view on how one dresses for the workplace and how that is a part of their personal brand. Stanley recounted an earlier experience when he dressed in warm, winter clothes instead of The Company uniform, and shocked his colleagues. His mentor, Dr. Faust, shared the perspective of what happened when another colleague dressed down to work on the manufacturing floor, and how it had endeared that executive to the workers and helped him get things done that “the suits” could not.
Norming is a process that we have all been through at just about every stage in life since kindergarten. Sometimes, in our incessant effort to fit in, we are at risk of losing touch with who we are. Within reason, dressing differently can preserve the “real you” and help people connect differently with others in your organization.
I adopted a style of dress based on what I had observed in my division vice president while working at Siemens in Germany. In a corporate culture that was largely stuffy and buttoned down, my boss, Stephan Feldhaus, shed his jacket in the office, often loosened his tie, and rolled up his sleeves as if to say, “I’m here to get things done, not lord over the people.” I appreciated this approach, and have been a “sleeves rolled up” type of manager ever since. It sends a message that we are all at work to get things done, to perform a job, and to roll up our sleeves literally and figuratively to do what it takes. While other senior managers viewed it as overly casual, those who worked for Stephan knew that he was there working as hard as we were to make things happen and to do whatever it takes to get the job done, a work ethic that I admired.
In the fifth chapter, “Just in Case,” Dr. Faust invites Stanley to observe as he (Faust) prepares to present an improvement project to top management. Faust has intentionally used a low tech method (flip chart and easel) to present his proposal, complete with “chicken scratch” and typographical errors and other built in “mistakes” to defuse the managers whom he knows will be sharpshooting the presentation.
With any presentation, it is vital to first know your audience and understand their expectations and information needs; Faust began from that point and structured his presentation accordingly. By building in elements that would address the “sharpshooters” as part of his planning, Faust gamed out his proposal to ensure that it is ultimately supported by management.
As obvious as this approach to presentations and speeches ought to be, I would say that the lion’s share of presentations are prepared with almost no regard or appreciation for the audience’s needs or expectations. A couple of years ago, I attended a National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) conference as a presented, alongside four others who were scheduled to take no more than 15 minutes to share developments in state job search technology tools and resources. One of the speakers droned on for over 45 minutes, reading from her slides and ignoring the subtle and not so subtle cues from the audience that she was not holding their attention or providing useful information. Even after more than half of the attendees in the conference hall had gotten up to leave, she kept going until the conference organizer finally cut her off. Unfortunately, this happens more often than it should and it reflects a patent disrespect of the audience by the presenter.
In chapter six, “The Sincerest Form of Flattery,” Stanley is trying to find his management style, and adopts that of one of his earlier supervisors, Kerry Drake, who is notoriously rough around the edges and could be quite coarse with subordinates. When Stanley tried to emulate this style, he lost credibility and effectiveness because he doesn’t have the experience or the seniority to back it up.
I believe the two key points from this chapter are as follows: first, there is something to be said for paying your dues in and organization, and if you have not earned the right to boss people around with bluster and bravado, you can expect to lose credibility and support quickly. Second, each manager needs to find their own style and be who they are, not try to be someone else. If the selected style of leadership is not genuine and not aligned to the person’s true character and nature, the style is likely to fail.
This is something that I have seen before in the Army, where a very junior, newly minted non-commissioned officer, usually a corporal, has overdone it in asserting their new leadership role and bossing their perceived subordinates around. It became clear to everyone in the workplace that this imitation had no substance backing it up, and it caused passive-aggressive behavior and willful disobedience as a challenge of authority and a test to see what the leader would do to back it up.
I have seen this in a number of corporate environments as well, particularly when a person is promoted from within a business unit or department and feels compelled to assert themselves in a new role and demand the respect of those who were peers just a week ago. Making the transition from individual contributor to manager is fraught with challenges and problems, but when a new manager takes on airs and is not authentic in their leadership style, they simply add to their list of problems and undermine their own ability to get things done through people.
The last chapter of the section, chapter seven, is entitled “Hi Sweetie …” and it exposes sexist prejudices in a “good old boy” corporate culture. Lesley was dismissed in her attempt to assert her capability as a technical expert in a meeting with Chuck Toole at Another Company, and because of her gender, Toole and others simply assumed that she could not know what she was talking about. Lesley had been paired with another sales person (a middle aged man) who was able to get immediate acceptance and respect because of his gender and age. Lesley found herself compelled to over-prepare in an effort to compensate for the perception that she could not possibly be a technical expert.
Scenarios like this one play out all the time, because in many organizations there is a well-established “good old boys” cadre that is comfortable with one another and often seems to be channeling Archie Bunker when it comes to women’s roles in the workplace.
When I began working at Siemens in late 2001, they had just completed the early stages of integration of the power generation unit of Westinghouse into the former “Kraft Werk Union” (power plant group) of Siemens. This was in many ways a merger of two male-dominated cultures in the power generation industry, one with the sensitivity of the modern American business practices and one clearly without. As a result, there were only two women in the entire company who had reached a level in the corporate organization chart that would be deemed as top leadership, and both of these women were U.S. managers from the Westinghouse organization. It took more than a decade for the German side of the business to give women a realistic shot at managing, and this is only now becoming a reality.
Working in the human resources group of Siemens gave me some interesting insights as to how women were regarded by German managers. Women still struggle to find their footing in the German workplace today, particularly in management, in a way similar to what women in the United States experienced 20 years ago. The World Economic Forum conducted a survey of 600 global companies in March 2010, and Germany ranked 14th out of 20 countries in terms of women employed. The study found that only 33% of employees at the German companies surveyed are women, compared with 52% at the American companies in the poll (Moore, 2010).
Overall, there were three critical points woven through this entire section: impression management, personal branding, and learning the ropes. The first two can be blended into a summary statement as follows: whether an employee has taken control of their personal brand or has left it to chance, everyone in the workplace has been branded and only those who actively manage their brand are likely to succeed. This first section set the stage for the necessary learning of the ropes that comes with decoding corporate culture, listening to what is not said, and constantly adapting as needed to navigate the traps and trials of the modern workplace.
Moore, T. (2010, March 22). In Germany, a Quota for Female Managers. Time. Retrieved June 20, 2010 from TIME.com online archive.
Ritti, R. & Levy, S. (2010). The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know. United States: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Shyamalan, M. (Director). (1999) The Sixth Sense [Motion picture]. USA: Buena Vista Pictures.