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Why I Left a Comfortable Management Career

In what now seems like a past life, I had a cushy management career with a large financial data provider. I was doing well, advancing fast in the company. Yet I left it all behind and took a chance on something new and unknown. Knowing how it all turned out, I don’t regret it for a moment. Actually, even if things hadn’t worked out well for me afterwards, I don’t think I would have regretting leaving.

If you are in a management position in a large firm, much of this article may seem familiar to you. If you are not in such a position, and have never been in such a position, this may seem like exaggerations. I can assure you that it is all true. No matter how absurd it may seem, it is all real events and things that are common in most larger companies.

Let me tell you about my management career. Let’s start from the beginning.

It was in the late 90’s and I had been running a small IT firm in Sweden for some years. I started this while I was doing my master’s at Gothenburg School of Economics. It was just too easy not to do back then. If you knew anything about computers back then, people threw money at you. But that’s not today’s story. Today’s story is about how I decided to try the whole grown-up thing and get a real job instead. That experiment lasted for about 5 years. The only real job I ever had.

I landed a job as manager of a group of financial consultants spanning the Nordic countries. My team was building custom financial models for banks and other financial institutions, a task requiring knowledge of both finance and computers. Those were crazy days. I am still the firm’s reigning record holder of having done a quarter of a year with 84 hours average billed per week. I’ll get to soon how that’s even possible.

My first suspicion about the whole corporate world came during my first management training. As a young, up and coming manager I was sent for a two week training to London. I objected at first, since I had so much projects in the pipeline, so much actual work to be done. Two weeks away will have an adverse impact on the business.

But there I was. The first day of the London off site training, at some conference center in Croydon organized and lead by McKinsey consultants. It’s me and a group of about 20 young managers. The first day, before anyone had a real chance to get to know each other, they brought us out to a big patch of grass and blindfolded us. Yes, it’s time for the serious management training, it would appear.

After blindfolding us, the highly paid external consultants organizing the event tells us that there is an object by our feet. We are to identify that object. Then arrange that object to form an equal sided square. Then we are all to stand on it, at an equal distance from each other.

The object was of course a rope. And the purpose of this little game seemed immediately clear to me. So I acted in what I thought was the most rational manner. Hoping others would do the same. But of course not. My action turned out to be unique and highly controversial.

I took three steps back, put my hands behind my back and closed my mouth. Then I stood there for 45 minutes.

What happened? Everyone else fell into the trap. No one knows each other. Everyone is a junior manager, wanting to prove themselves for no good reason. So everyone competes in shouting the loudest. Everyone wants to be in charge. Which is the reason nothing happens.

My view was this. It’s a dead simple task, as long as one person, and only one, organizes it. With 20 people shouting and arguing, this could take forever. But anyone, absolutely anyone, could get it done. As long as the rest shut the fuck up. I was surprised that no one seemed to get that point, and instead were screaming for attention, pulling the rope and trying to play the big shot.

The two weeks proceeded in a similar manner. It was really two full weeks of these sort of games. And I consistently drove the external consultants nuts. They would explain the rules of the next little game, and I would respond by telling them that their rules are obviously missing a vital piece of information or is otherwise designed to fail on a predictable parameter, so that they can afterwards tell us what we did wrong. With a minimum of analytic ability, you can see what that parameter is in advance. But I was the only one who wasn’t really excited in playing these games.

Back to my job in Stockholm. How does one go about billing over 80 hours per week? Well, one gets creative. The first thing I realized looking how things were done, was that the same work was being done over and over. Client projects were bespoke, so every project started with a blank page. But looking closer, clients were usually asking for very similar things. So I started breaking it down into reusable components.

We started spending the downtime, the time when consultants don’t have a billable project, to construct a database of components often used. This was a novel concept. Doing actual work when no client is paying for it. But it paid off. We could spend 100 hours building these components. Then a client project comes in, which might normally take 200 hours to complete. But since we now have these components, we could do the actual work in 50 hours. Then we’d bill 100 hours. Client got a great deal, we save time, can bill a crazy amount of hours and get a very nice bonus. Yes, we got a cut on all revenues of course. If you think that this is unethical, you have obviously never worked in the consultancy field.

This accomplished a few things. We, the Nordic division, became the most profitable unit worldwide, by far. Clients were super happy and ordered larger projects as they got such low prices compared to the competition. We, the consultants, made very good money. And lastly, it greatly angered senior management. Why? Because we had figured out a way to make more money than we rightfully should, in their view. So they responded with capping bonuses at silly low levels and rolling out a very expensive database where we had to log every half hour of the day, typing in exactly what we did each half hour. That meant it was time to leave. I got out of there, took most of my team with me, and the consultancy division was shut down soon after as it no longer made money.

I moved inside the same company, but to a different division in a different country. I became head of a team of financial engineers in Geneva. That may seem like an odd place, but it was the European HQ of the firm and my new job put me in the middle of everything. In the middle of company politics and events.

It very quickly became clear to me that the rules in place, written and unwritten, were hindering real accomplishments. We had to wait for customers to request something new to be done, and no internal ideas were really allowed. Then these ideas from customers had to go through multiple levels of product managers, program managers, project managers and other bureaucrats who pretended to understand the products. Then the teleconferences and committee discussions start. Everyone wants the head counts needed to do the job, no one cares about what the job is, whether it’s needed or useful.

I ended up sitting in telcos for weeks, discussing approval for the most mundane things. It was usually unclear who could actually make a decision and as no one wanted to get blamed, no one wanted to make any.  Very few projects actually happened and most time ended up in large telcos talking for hours. I spent so much time in telcos that I spent much of that time on mute, building a little program that measures costs of telcos. Input number of people and average salary at start, and watch it tick up money on the screen while the call is on.

But I figured out how to get things done. ‘Do first, apologize later’. Just do it. I took a look at the products we had, found things that needed to be done, and I just went ahead and did it. Totally unauthorized. There were times when we had telcos every day with 20-30 people from around the world, discussion how many headcounts are needed and who will get them. And then I would just drop the bomb that I had just gone ahead and done it myself over a few weekends. It’s finished. Here it is. Do you want it or not?

That resulted in two things. One group of people wanted to fire me. Another wanted to promote me. I pulled this off a few times and ended up promoted each time. But of course, it was just a matter of time. I was increasingly becoming the rogue. The maverick. I felt the pressure of having to keep moving up, or get fired. Breaking the rules only work as long as it ends up delivering superior results. One miss, and you’re gone.

And that’s when it was time for the next management training. This time, it wasn’t a junior manager thing. This was the real deal. This was in New York. I was by far the youngest person to be going. All senior management would be there. Even the second in command of the company, who I believe is now CEO of eBay. The purpose with this particular management training session was to kick off something that had been discussed for years. The mythical Next Generation Product.

I show up at the training, a hip loft down in Chelsea somewhere. And I’m stunned. Half of the room are senior company managers. The other half, are local New York City teenagers. This was McKinsey’s idea of bringing external creativity into the mix.

What type of teenagers can spend a whole week, all day, in such an event? Obviously those who don’t go to school and don’t have a job. Half of them I would not want to meet in a dark alley.

The event starts. The COO of the company starts speaking at the front of the room. “You know, I really love New York…” he starts, but he doesn’t get any further. At those words, a group of guys at the back who looked like they’re straight out of a Spike Lee movie shout out. “Yo man, that’s RIGHT!” and the high fives and cheers break out. This, will be an interesting week.

On the second day, we are to brain storm about new names for the mythical Next Generation Product. The game rules are as follows. We each get a paper with ten rows on it. We are to write down ten potential names for a new product. Then run out in the hallway, hand that paper to a McKinsey consultant, get a new paper from him and run back. Whoever submits the most names wins. Yes, we’re still talking about a room where most are 40-60 years old, wearing expensive suits and many making seven figures.

As I struggle to take this farce seriously, I glance at the paper of the teenager kid next to me, one looking like a walking mug shot. I was impressed. This guy was in it to win it. He was writing as fast as he could. Row after row after row. Every single row was a synonym for drugs. He would run at full speed out in the hallway to switch to a new paper, run back and start writing even more slang terms for drugs. I hadn’t quite realized just how many words there are for drugs in the English language.

On the third day, things took a turn for the surreal. The McKinsey consultant explains the rules of the next game. We are provided with a large amount of tabloids, scissors, glue and large white paper sheets. We are to pair up two and two, one manager and one teenager. Then we are to create our own collage, cutting pieces of the tabloids and gluing them on the white paper, to best illustrate what the Next Generation Product should be all about. Communicate the emotions and such.

As I sit there, staring into nothing for a moment, contemplating how my life got to this point, someone steps up to me. It’s a teen girl with purple hair and piercings all over her face. She lets her shoulders fall, lowering her head, in a likely attempt to appear even smaller and younger, and looks up at me. “Do you want to be my grownup?” she asks in a mock childish voice. And I instantly realized that at least I’m not the only one in the room who sees the absurdity. I can get along with this one.

So we sit there on the floor, my and my teen goth, cutting out headlines from a gossip magazine, gluing nonsense on the paper. And I decide to ask. I couldn’t resist. I ask what she does for a living. Why she can be here and do this ridiculous stuff with us all week. To this day, I still don’t know if she was serious or just messing with me. “I’m an editor for an alternative sex website”. My brain races through all the possible followup questions. But none seem appropriate for this particular setting. “Oh. That’s nice.” And we keep cutting.

The following day involved clay modelling.

For those at home keeping score, the Next Generation Product never actually happened. About ten years later, they decided to rename the current product and change the color scheme to make it seem like a new product.

Instead I was sent to London to investigate an embarrassment we seem to have there. It appears as if a company salesman has been holding unauthorized negotiations for two years with an external firm about buying their heatmap visualization software. It makes no sense, since that’s not what a salesman does and we don’t need such software. So I’m sent in.

I meet everyone. I analyze the situation and the product. I write my report to senior management. 1. We have no functional need for this software. 2. They use a technology which cannot be integrated into our platform, at least not without substantial investments. 3. Their price of 5 million pounds is ridiculous. 4. We, my team, can build this in-house at a fraction of the cost, should we actually find a need for it. Which we likely don’t.

A month later, I see the announcement that we paid the 5 million quid for the software. I go to senior management and ask what happened. “Well, it was getting embarrassing. It was either this or to explain to the software firm that this London salesman had been conducting an unauthorized negotiation for two years. So let’s all just move on and make the best of it”. Yep, we dropped 5 mil just to avoid looking silly. And the software was of course never used.

After only five years, I have an endless supply of these kinds of stories. What really put me over the line was when I accidentally won a political fight and was allocated a whole bunch of new headcounts, which I didn’t actually need. So now people are moving from all over the world to join my Geneva team, and I have absolutely nothing for them to do. Their actual job is just to be a buffer headcount. So that they can be fired the next time I lose a head count fight.

No. No way. Not like this. This is not what I want to do for a living. I started out as an entrepreneur. I had built successful businesses in the past. I was sure I could do it again.

So I decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Can you really blame me?

 

 

5 comments

  1. I spent almost 5 years at the other big data vendor (from which you ripped off the “new” colour scheme…) and, while not in a management position of any sort myself, I wholeheartedly see the similarities in approach and “philosophy”. These organisations are irreconcilably drowning in outdated “leadership theory 101” and are a drain on any individual who might have an ounce of independent thought within them.

    • Our firm was obsessed with yours. Anything you did was by definition correct. So many times I got screenshots from your products with demands to replicate it. Once in a while, I would find an error in your stuff. But I was still asked to replicate the error. Because all clients compare to your data and assume it’s correct.

  2. Very impressive and like it very much! Do it and apologize later, but delivery superior results or get fired, so ironical so true.
    However, the more inefficient a large corporation is, the more opportunity for an entrepreneur; just like the more difficult for a swing system, the more opportunity for a trend system, and vice versa ^ ^

  3. Since I have been an independent contractor for my entire career, I only had a glimpse of the idiocy you are writing about. Whenever I was on contract with a company, I would sit in endless conferences about how the work was to be done. The answer was usually clear, but was rarely arrived at. I still wonder to this day how earnings are generated by the largest companies with thousands of employees engaged in the most useless tread water tasks. The company has to generate profits off each and every salary, but it is beyond me how they can do it. The other aspect you touch on here–the fear–is rampant. Employees are afraid to take any risk, and everyone is busy hiding behind each other.

  4. Andreas your article rings so true of the corporate world and the waste that occurs there.

    I’m 47 and now financially independent, indeed I trade and invest my own funds (against your advice 🙂 and manage my personal property portfolio. I too was in the late 90’s as an IT guy, a software developer to be precise. I then went on to work in the 00’s in various software houses in the financial arena in the City of London. Eventually working for a couple of investment banks. Through out it all I was amazed at the lack of ownership, the inability of people to make decisions in case it was the the wrong one. The waste of people saying it’s not my job and it’s not your responsibility to do it. In the end the final straw came when my boss focused more on people being at their desks, as opposed to people producing quality software!

    I left in late 2015 and started systematic trading and investment of my own funds using my own software. I loved your article and it shows how anyone with a bit of focus and drive can escape the madness of the rat race and achieve great things on their own.