Posted by: Kristen Ridley | February 15, 2011

The Emperor’s New Clothes . . . and other corporate fairy tales

One of the benefits of having worked in a number of different organizations over the past 15 years, is that I have a pretty decent basis for comparison about what is “average” or “normal” in a corporate environment . . . well as “average” or “normal” as anything in ANY company is these days, anyway.

Something that has struck me through the years, is how often I refer to fairy tales as comparison points about the things I’ve experienced in the various organizations I’ve worked for. I figure this either means I have a highly creative mind and look for unique ways to process the experiences I’ve had as a veteran corporate communicator . . . or, I just need serious therapy! [I choose to go with option #1 – long-term therapy isn’t covered by most employee benefits programs!]

Just for kicks, I decided I’d list out the situations I have noted and the fairy tales they remind me of and throw it open for others to offer any parallels they might have noticed. So here we go:

The Emperor’s New Clothes
You know the story – the Emperor gets bamboozled by a con artist, who pretends that he has made the Emperor the best set of fabulous clothes anyone has ever seen and, because of the authority and confident presentation this guy uses to sell his scam, everyone – including the Emperor, who walks through town practically naked! – is too embarrassed to admit they can’t see these supposedly gorgeous robes. Until a little boy in the crowd of the “average” people yells out: “Hey! The Emperor’s not wearing any clothes!!” [Ouch! embarrassing!!]

This happens in the corporate world too. Management pretends that everything is hunky-dory, when every blessed person in the company [except said management, and often, even THEY know if they’d be honest with themselves!] is miserable, and knows darned full and well that the joint is going to hell in a hand-basket for any one of a variety of reasons. Despite the big pink elephant with purple polka-dots standing in the corner waving his trunk at you, these senior people flatly refuse to even acknowledge the issues, let alone take steps to address them! Steps which could be as simple as saying to the employees: “Look, we know things are not great right now because of “x”, “y” and “z”. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do at the moment to change those factors, but we understand that this is making it difficult to do what you’re doing everyday and we appreciate your efforts and your loyalty in trying.” It has always amazed me how much impact acknowledgement + thank-you can have on employee morale, and guess what? That combo costs absolutely nothing to implement – think about it!!

Cinderella
In this fairy tale, an evil step-mother tries to foist off an ugly step sister instead of the beautiful Cinderella, on an unsuspecting prince by forcing a foot into a shoe that it has no earthly business, or a chance in hell, of squeezing into.

In the business world this manifests when someone in the organization who is incompetent, lazy, or lacking in any actual skills [and often all of the above] is inexplicably promoted to a great new job at a higher level above a number of more talented, clearly more qualified members of a team. This scenario happens a lot in the corporate world, and there are many possible factors contributing to it: sometimes the person promoted has been really good at the job he or she had, and it’s assumed that automatically means they can to another job well; sometimes the person is simply a favourite of a senior leader who has the ability to give promotions, and that leader chooses to give the promotion to someone they like; sometimes the promotee in question may be really good at taking credit for the work of others, or at twisting events to make it appear he or she is the one making success happen. Whatever the reason, it happens more than it should and it is virtually never good for the business long-term.

There’s not much to be done when one of these “business step-sisters” gets the promotion that should have gone to the better-qualified colleague, except to try to stay as far away from that person as possible, document everything you do six ways from Sunday so that person can’t take credit for your work, and hope that his or her lack of ability will either become apparent, or that that person will start believing their own press, and go to another company!

Note: in the original version of this fairy tale [not the prettified Disney re-work] the step-mother actually chops off the step-sisters toes to try to fit their feet in the glass slipper. If the corporate version of the step-sisters had to agree to having some body-part chopped off to get their undeserved promotions, I’d be a lot more accepting of the situation!

Rumpelstiltskin
In this fairy tale, a foolish father, trying to appear important in an audience with the King, lies and says his daughter can spin straw into gold, which gets not the father [naturally] but his poor innocent daughter in a pickle. She’s offered a way out when an odd little man appears in the chamber she’s left in with all the straw, and offers to produce the gold, if she promises him her first born when she becomes Queen unless she can guess his name. She ultimately triumphs by sending a messenger across the kingdom to hunt up names and he hears the man singing about his name.

In the corporate environment, this shows up when someone in your organization [let’s call him “dippy hoo-ha”] takes it upon themselves to agree in some high-level meeting where there are “prestige points” to be made, to the delivery of some initiative, corporate product, or strategy, without bothering to so much as ask a question of those dippy is promising on behalf of – because of course it’s NEVER dippy who’ll actually be DOING THE WORK! – about whether the project they’ve agreed to is possible AT ALL, let alone if it’s possible to complete in the time allowed, and with the [almost always teeny-tiny – if any!] budget allotted to the project. Of course those of us who have spent time in corporate environments already know the answers to those questions is: NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! DO NOT PROMISE THAT!!! but that never gets factored in where corporate egos are involved.

The best way to proceed when handed one of these no-win, impossible projects is to scope it out in detail with the precise list of tasks that will need to be done, how long they will all take, how many employees in various other departments would need to be involved [nothing squashes a B.S. project faster than the need for resources from IT!] and what other existing work would have to be put aside in order to do this new vanity project from dippy. If he still insists, fine, just make sure he’s signed off on your project plan, and send anyone who screams about the other stuff not getting done straight to dippy for explanations.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
In case you aren’t familiar with this story, it tells of Ali Baba, the poorer of two brothers, not only becomes rich and powerful, but also has his very life saved several times, as a result of the quick-thinking, courage and loyalty of his female slave, Morgiana.

Gender aside, the corporate equivalent here is simply to note that most corporate leaders have no idea AT ALL of how lucky they are to have the communicator, who usually is a combination of Mark Twain, Mother Teresa, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan all rolled into one, given the amount of work, dedication and creativity most communicators deliver to their organizations on a daily basis without even breaking a sweat! The literally impossible? Well, that just takes a little bit longer! 😉

In the fairy tale, Morgiana was rewarded by marriage to Ali Baba’s oldest son. While today’s communicator probably isn’t all that interested in marrying the CEO’s son or daughter [like we don’t already have enough to deal with?!] if you work for a good leader, they will recognize the contributions your efforts make to the company’s success, and they will reward you appropriately. If not, at the very least, you’ll have built a skill-base and a record of accomplishments that will make you marketable in other organizations, so dedication is worth the effort!

Jack and the beanstalk
I’m sure you remember this one – Jack is sent to market to sell his mother’s last cow in hopes of getting enough money to keep them from starving. On the way Jack meets a man who persuades him to sell the cow for magic beans, instead of money at the market. Jack’s mother is furious with him when he returns home, but when Jack plants the beans, and takes advantage of the unusual opportunities that come his way as a result, he ends up with a LOT more than the few bucks the cow would’ve fetched at market!

When talking about the corporate world, Jack’s story has a very important lesson, which is why I saved this fairy tale for last. Communicators often suggest approaches, or ways to support the business that are unique or different or untried. Because the business model most leaders are familiar with encourages the “that’s the way we’ve always done it here” approach, communicators trying to fight their way out of the proverbial box can face a lot of resistance and reasons to NOT try something new. We have to keep being creative, and keep finding ways to convince our leaders of the value in trying things differently if we want our organizations to thrive as well as survive. I like to think that the real value I offer my company as a communicator is my ability to look at the same thing everyone else has looked at, but envision it in technicolour instead of black-and-white. There will always be plenty of bean-counters and yes-people available to the business, but communicators have a chance to be a visionary if we’re brave enough, and as Jack discovered, taking that chance may be risky, but it may also lead to the goose that lays golden eggs. I’m willing to risk the giant’s wrath if it means I can help the business succeed.

So, those are my fairy-tale lessons applicable to corporate. Anybody else have a fairy tale that seems to epitomize their environment that they’d like to share??

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