Fall Into the Gap (the other one)

Thanks to Hugh for extracting this bit from the WSJ and unintentionally illustrating how – and I never thought it could be done – GAP is like the DOD/IC:

When Gap Inc. and Paul Pressler parted ways yesterday, it wasn’t because the CEO hadn’t repaired the balance sheet or wasn’t a popular leader. It was partly because of scenes like the one following, described by a former executive at the retailer.

During top managers’ final reviews of the products for an upcoming season, Mr. Pressler — a former Walt Disney Co. executive who often acknowledged that understanding fashion was not his strength — simply asked questions about the merchandise, rather than making decisions. After he left the room, his charges huddled and, like Kremlinologists, tried to deconstruct his remarks and reinterpret them as orders. As a result, they frequently fussed over trivial issues such as how the woven shirts should be folded, or whether the legs of the khaki pants should hang off the table. A larger sense of direction never became clear.

There was a point in my career where another colleague and I were the go-to guys for certain threat issues. Hardly a week went by without a query from a deputy undersecretary or higher official about issue X or flail-of-the-day Y.

Of course they never actually talked to us; their taskers (or the odd snowflake) were always filtered down through various levels of functionaries. By the time we got the task it was like that game of whispering one phrase into the ear of the guy next to you and seeing how garbled the phrase got at the end of the circle: did he seriously ask that question or was he drunk? We always tried to seek out clarification, usually a request to go back and find out what in the world the guy actually wanted, but no one would ever do that. Instead they’d hem and haw and say “just do your best” (like that was ever in question). Never mind that despite our best effort we might be answering the wrong question(s).

The results were predictable: when we got it wrong we tended not to hear from that particular executive again (and later rumblings about how unresponsive we were); when we got it right we usually got a ‘thank you’ scribbled on the margin of a hardcopy of our response (and more taskers).

The parallels to the GAP story are disturbing:

  • Disinterest in learning the issues. Odds are the guy asking the question is doing so because he’s ignorant of the technology/capability/issue. He’s a manager not a practitioner, so fair enough. Except of course when you get essentially the same question over and over again, or questions that are apropos of nothing.
  • Complete unwillingness by subordinates and staff to actually support the boss. Real, true support means getting ‘The Man’ what he wants. Your interpretation of his potential requirements (repeated several times as things filter down the chain) combined with a compulsive desire to please (code: unwillingness to look “stupid”) virtually ensures he will be dissatisfied a great deal of the time.

There is no solution to the first problem save for an Executive that is willing to only appoint people who are more than empty suits who can effectively push paper. That’s not always the case of course, but it happens disturbingly often.

A solution for the second problem is easy: cut out the middle-men. I would venture to guess that I am at most two email addresses or phone numbers away from any VIP in Washington. Not that anyone would take my calls, but the distance between the top to the bottom is extraordinarily flat. In a much smaller and ostensibly more information-centric community I had to work through about five layers of bosses before I made it to the top.

The IC is ostensibly the information-centric community, yet it displays disturbingly little willingness to operate that way. Why exactly are we letting the court eunuchs run the empire?

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