Management by anecdote

I've seen some terrific executives in my company derailed by an offhand comment in a conference room.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

This is the opening line to the poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It has always been one of my favorites. At the risk of causing Mr. Ginsberg to roll over in his grave, I’m going to paraphrase his powerful sentence to make a point about corporate life, as follows: I’ve seen some terrific executives in my company derailed by an offhand comment in a conference room.

I know it is not nearly as dramatic as his opening line, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I call it management by anecdote. And I’ve seen it happen in multiple companies.

I was in an operating committee meeting once where we reviewed proposed rotational assignments for regional vice presidents. There were 12 RVP roles available, and these were plum assignments. 

The jobs were highly compensated and were generally viewed as the stepping stone to a top role. Our head of HR laid out the recommended slate of candidates, reviewed their career histories, shared their performance review ratings, and then asked us to approve the slate.

At first, there was general agreement, lots of nodding, and even some commending of the HR department on the thoroughness of their review.

Then one SVP spoke up. "I don’t know," he said. "I had an encounter with Allan once that left some doubt in my mind. I’m not sure he has the gravitas for the role."

He then proceeded to relay an anecdote about an unsatisfying encounter with Allan. Another SVP chimed in, saying he had similar doubts. Heads nodded, the energy changed. There was a brief pushback from HR, but within 15 minutes, Allan was off the slate. I watched in disbelief as his name was erased and a new candidate was placed in the role.

A similar event happened at another company when I was part of an emergency conference call to cut costs during a terrible recession. The division’s general manager and his HR partner were hosting the call, and we were reviewing a list of the bottom performers from the past 12 months. Our assignment was to cut personnel costs by 10%.

"OK Ronald, who’s next?" questioned the division head.

"Next up is Anne," said Ronald. "She’s only booked $150,000 in the last 12 months and her performance ratings are mediocre." 

There was a brief discussion, and then a reluctant agreement that Anne would be let go.

"Wait a second," said a voice. "She just closed a $300,000 deal that will hit the books on the first of the month." Silence.

"All right," said the GM, "let’s keep Anne. Who’s next?"

I couldn’t believe it. It reminded me of a scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure where the Satan’s Helpers biker gang has Pee-wee pinned to a bar table and they initiate an impromptu debate on what to do with him.

"I say we kill him!" said the first biker.

"I say we hang him, then we kill him!" said the next.

"I say we stomp him!" said the third. Then Pee-wee disguises his voice and calls out: "I say we let him go!"

The good news is that most companies now have a thorough and rigorous review process that prevents capricious decisions with people’s careers paths. But I know that management by anecdote still goes on, and in fact it’s probably taking place right now, and in some conference room near you, an offhand comment is either making or breaking someone’s career. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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