Tag Archives: business management

Career Objective: Make It To Retirement With A Smile On My Face.

By: Chris Warren

I consider myself  to be among the lucky few who has a cool job that is engaging and interesting. A large majority of the time I like what I do, with occasional screw this! moments sprinkled in to remind me that it may be cool but it’s hardly paradise. I think I must have won some cosmic occupational lottery because for my whole life I’ve always seemed to land in nifty jobs as if by accident. Even through high school and college I managed to earn a buck without getting involved with the drudgery of fast food or retail.

51NKZtwI2FL._SY445_Now I’m in that strange zone where I’m certainly not a kid but also not nearly old enough to seriously consider retiring. I’m left wondering what’s next. Or if there even is a “next.”  I would not mind doing something else, but since I’m content where I am I see no point in changing just for the sake of change. I’ve asked the self-analyzing question: If I looked into a crystal ball and saw myself retiring from the job I’m doing now, would the vision be depressing or comforting? Am I ok with this for the rest of my career?

The short answer is yes, I’m ok with it. I still wonder though, is there anything better out there? Is this as good as it gets? I’ve decided not to beat the hell out of myself trying to resolve a question of circular logic. In theory, there is always something better, somewhere. It’s more worthwhile to focus on what’s right and positive about the job I already have.

It’s important to explain that being happy with where I am and being complacent and unmotivated to move forward are not the same thing. There was a period in my distant past where I was in a job that was respectable but well beneath my potential. I stayed there way too long, bullshitting myself that it was good enough. I managed to get out of that trap relatively unharmed and took a lesson with me: Be grateful for what you have but don’t ever assume it’s the end of the line.

Being surrounded by family and friends who are in jobs that are soulless and devoid of any feeling of a higher purpose, on top of paying barely enough to make it worth showing up every day, gives contrast to my own life and blunts the effects of my screw this! days. The workplace headaches I deal with are mild by comparison, and at least at the end of it all I receive a decent paycheck for my hassles. There may be something better, somewhere, but there is also something worse. Being far from the bottom is more important than being close to the top.

I used to have a coworker who was technically competent but by a very large margin had absolutely the worst attitude of anyone I’ve ever worked with. He could not go five minutes without prattling about how unfairly he was treated, had a lame excuse for everything, constantly argued with the boss, thought the whole company was plotting against him, blah, blah, blah. I spent a year trying to be his buddy: Reaching out, having man-to-man talks, pushing him towards a better path. It was a complete waste of my effort. He was officially fired for absenteeism, but the real deal was that management and pretty much everyone else, including me, was far beyond fed up with the pouting crybaby. Your approach to your job has more influence over your career path than everything else combined. Skills can be learned but attitude can only come from within.

No one should allow their career success to be defined solely by how many promotions and raises they can collect before they retire. It’s more meaningful and less stressful to show up every morning believing that every day is a good day, but some days will not be as good as others. I am, on the whole, a happy employee. I flatly refuse to let myself become the guy who bitches about everything. When I reach a point where I don’t feel I can go any further in the job I have, the time to move on will become self-evident.

Behold Costco, Warehouse of Wonder.


By: Chris Warren

If you’ve never shopped at a Costco, there’s a real good chance you know someone who has. The warehouse retail behemoth has over 76 million individual members (that’s roughly 25% of the entire population of the USA) and almost 7 million business members. The sheer volume of what Costco has in stock is a microcosm of the United States. Nothing is small there. The soap & detergent section alone is bigger than many entire retail stores. Pallets of produce, display freezers large enough to drive a truck into, and rows of electronics stacked so high, a fleet of forklifts are needed to keep them in order. Costco is one of the most profound business success stories of modern times and has a public image that is the envy of corporate world. It has a “This is America! Big! Big! Big!” vibe to it.

Not that long ago, Sears was the store everyone shopped at. Whether you needed a pair of shoes, a washing machine, or a power drill, Sears could meet every desire. It was the only place where you could get your teeth and your car and your watch fixed all under one roof, then pick up a new suit and a toaster on the way out. Their Christmas catalog was legendary. It would arrive around Thanksgiving, which seems quaint by today’s standards since Christmas sales now start on Labor Day. As a child I would eagerly pour over the pages checking out all the cool toys, trying to calculate how much I could get out of my parents.

Through a sad confluence of bad luck, a bad economy, and bad management, Sears is now a shell of its former self and barely squeaking by. Generations of American families filled their homes with Sears products. Now it’s hard to find someone who has even set foot in a Sears store lately.

Costco has become the new place for everything. Judging by the traffic outside, it seems everyone wants to go to there. All that is missing is a Statue Of Liberty in the parking lot calling all the huddled masses. As we enter, we must first stop at the Costco version of Ellis Island where the attendant checks membership cards and clears immigrants for entry. Formalities settled, we pass through a door and behold the amazing bounty opening before us.Costco-Logo

It’s hard to think of a warehouse store as “cool.” They are warehouses after all, set up for utility and efficiency. There is nothing elegant or plush about the place. From the bare cement floors to merchandise displayed in the same shipping boxes it arrived in, to harsh bright white overhead lights, they’ve purposely omitted the frills to give customers, excuse me, members, a good deal. Even the food court has a certain generic cafeteria-esque quality about it with bench seating and plain stenciled menu boards.

After going well out of its way to assure an austere shopping environment Costco perhaps unintentionally established itself as a cool place to buy stuff. There is a catch: You can’t shop there unless you’re a paid member. It’s hard to wrap my brain around the twisted logic of paying for the right to shop, but there must be something to it because through membership fees Costco pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year without selling a single item.  As a member myself for many years, I’ve been sucked into the vortex too.

Home Depot or Target would be laughed out of business within a week if they ever dared charge admission. It must really burn the nerves of other retailers that they struggle while Costco not only thrives, but consumers cheerfully fork over their cash just for the chance to walk through the door. There’s more to it than the simple concept of offering deals that offset the cost of membership; Costco has that certain unidentifiable something that makes shopping in a warehouse cool. Heck, they don’t even advertise or have a public relations crew. They don’t need it. Employees and customers absolutely love the place with a cult-ish devotion and it shows.

On a recent Costco run with a friend, our carts were piled high with canned vegetables, two pound bags of chips, bottled water, frozen stuff, everything. Oversized shopping carts and flatbeds are standard issue. There are no hand baskets. No one goes to Costco for just a few things. We never spend less than $100 each and need my pickup truck to haul it away. We don’t get to do this very often, so we load up while we can. Eighteen checkout lanes are open and every one of them has a long line behind it. Employees move everyone through with impressive efficiency. The crowds may be large but Costco has a way of making it less crazy than it appears. The system works and we are done quickly.

On the way out we hit the food court: $2.50 for a huge slice of pizza and a drink. Where else can two hungry guys chow on pizza good enough to make us forget it came from a food court, plus free drink refills, for five bucks? My buddy is not originally from the United States and thinks it’s the the most kickass experience ever. He loves this! If you ever want to impress a visitor from a foreign country, just bring them to a Costco.

Watching a famous symbol of Americana such as Sears slide into what is probably terminal decline is difficult. There’s no gratification when luminaries fade, especially when it involves a lot of paychecks. It’s certainly possible Sears will bounce back, and I hope it does, but the trajectory it’s on is not encouraging. There is something to be positive about: Fresh and new follows the old and flagging. It’s all just part of the cycle. The huge crowds of enthusiastic Costco shoppers provide the appropriate metaphor: There is always another big idea waiting in line to become the next business legend.

The Empowerment Tree Has No Fruit.

By: Chris Warren.

About 8:00 this morning a crew of five guys with two trucks and a wood chipper showed up at the building I work in and began cutting down several dead trees that had rotted to the point that they had become serious safety hazards. After a few near-misses with falling branches and over two years of nagging management to do something, I felt like I finally won a small but long-fought victory. My employer’s primary concern is the bottom line and since the only occupants of the building are myself and the 10,000 or so square feet of electronic communications equipment that I maintain, my repeated complaints were not taken seriously until the trees became a legal liability.

I want to think my situation was a one-off, a slip through the crack, a bureaucratic oversight…whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in the workforce long enough to know that not only was is it not a mistake, it’s not even unique to my industry. Consciously blowing off small stuff until it becomes big stuff is common practice at pretty much every big company.

I have a close friend who owns a successful small business. It’s not a franchise, it’s not an established operation that he took over, and he did not get started via some millionaire investor gushing over him with fat checks. He is an average everyday person of modest means who built the business from an empty storefront by himself with his own money. Nothing gets past this guy. He is there every single day and knows what happens within those walls down to the tiniest detail. If the building needs repair, or supplies are running low, or a customer has a complaint about their experience, he makes things happen. No problem goes unresolved for very long.

The difference between my friends’ situation and mine is the length of the chain between the executives and the average workers. My employer is an international behemoth with hundreds of departments and layers of management. They are far removed from me and my problems…problems they largely created. In a way I sort of understand where they are coming from. When you are near the top of a huge worldwide corporation, you can’t get personally involved with every dead tree or missing box of supplies. That stuff is usually delegated to empowered underlings, which would be fine if the underlings actually had the authority to take action.

“Empowerment” is a nauseating buzzword that should have been retired with the fax machine, yet this zombie just…won’t…die. What irritates me so much is that the word comes standard with a heavy dose of condescension and insincerity. The person using it always sounds like the love child of a campaigning politician and a greasy-haired TV evangelist. If everyone is empowered, then why can’t anyone get anything done unless someone else signs off on it? Why does someone who is “empowered” have to beg for two years to get a tree cut down? Most of the time my boss agrees with me and would let me have my way if people above her would allow it. Telling subordinates that they are independent thinkers and can autonomously solve their own problems is one of the biggest lines of crap ever spoken by any manager.

Dilbert ©Universal Uclick
Dilbert ©Universal Uclick

One of the reasons my friend’s business is so successful is because the buck really does stop with him. He is the top of the pyramid. Every screw-up is solely his burden and there aren’t any credible ways he can claim he didn’t know. The smaller the pyramid is, the fewer paths there are for management to insulate themselves from what happens below them. In a big corporation, high level managers can to a degree play the ignorance card and blame disasters on subordinates or let their legal team deal with it. In that regard, executives at large companies don’t want to know too much detail about daily operations. Maintaining an element of plausible deniability has its advantages even if it does cost money and create big hassles for others.

A favorite joke in my organization is that if the place were competently managed, half of us would not be needed there. It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” reality checks. Every cursed moment I have to take out of my day to fuss with a clumsy computer system, or hunt for tools & supplies that should have already been given to me, or deal with a dangerously rotten tree, is time I’m not dedicating to what I was hired for and genuinely enjoy doing: keeping the big-buck electronic communications equipment on line. At the same time, I know that as an hourly rate employee, all those cursed moments ultimately end up on my paycheck and extend out the deadline for legitimate tasks, thus perpetuating the need to keep me around.

Sloppy management helps create jobs where they might not otherwise exist, but there is a tipping point at which the cost of incompetence threatens the effectiveness of the entire organization. As much as we may not want to admit it, low level workers like me benefit from goofy business methods, with the caveat that the scheme works only if the stockholders don’t notice. It becomes a daily conflict where we resent the aggravation of working within a system of insanity while secretly hoping it never goes away.

To use another clichéd buzzword, the “takeaway” is that we best get used to it. There is not going to be any great enlightenment that causes management to admit the little people were right the whole time. There is not going to be any executives’ humble repentance followed by the sweeping changes we’ve all dreamed of. A sad reality of the modern workplace is that most big corporations make money by accident. The only thing I hate more than the hapless corporate decisions I have to put up with is admitting that without them, it’s very possible a lot fewer of us would be working there.