It seems, within my middle-aged lifetime, that professional pursuits have gradually lost touch with reality. For example, I recall working in high-tech in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – and there was a presumption that people working in such companies were actually competent (you know, one could reasonably expect to work with other people having amassed sufficient education and expertise to be capable of doing their core jobs). Coworkers operated in a manner presumptive of competence, and the consequences were harsh for those who failed to deliver. Incompetent candidates were swiftly discovered and, euphemistically, invited to pursue other opportunities (usually the same day they first rendered an assignment FUBAR).
Then, I went to work in the energy business (OK, it was basically a utility, and a study in contrasts). There, I tried to apply the same level of business rigor, with the same expectations of my peers, and was promptly guided to the conclusion that “that’s not how we do things here”. I noticed there were a curious number of expatriates from the foreign parent company placed in key positions, whose strategic priorities seemed to consist not of achieving objectives; but, rather, keeping up the appearance of achieving objectives. Monumental effort went into messaging and spin, so nobody would be at risk of getting “sacked”. When noting that being good isn’t appreciably harder than looking good, I was met with blank stares (apparently, being good at one’s job was too much to demand).
Subsequently, I joined a struggling wannabe tech company, with delusions of actually making a difference, and things were even worse. Officers and board members were invariably “friends of friends”, and the quarterly earnings release(s) might as well have been a recording – the company was still blowing goats, but management was eternally hopeful that their vague strategy would bear fruit in some future quarter. A narrowing loss was quite the cause for celebration; layoffs via rightsizing meant another quarter without anyone “important” getting fired. Meaningful contributions were seen as a threat to the collective reputation of well-compensated incumbents clinging to executive suites. After six months, I simply couldn’t take it anymore, and I’ve been self-employed ever since.
If I might digress for a moment, referencing the agricultural revolution to put this commentary in stark terms: In the olden days, if a farmer sucked at their job, they starved. Nowadays, they can simply talk a good game, shake some hands, kiss some ass, and end up running an agricultural conglomerate; no food output required. Metaphorically speaking, I must ask, where have all the good farmers gone?
When did appearances become more important than substance? When did we slide into this sad state of affairs, sniveling about first-world problems and pushing platitudes in a grotesquely self-indulgent corporate workplace?
Maybe this is why I’m intensely drawn to early-stage companies; particularly those backed by equally intense professional investors. There is no hiding in an early-stage venture. There are only results, or a glaring lack thereof. Critical metrics like cash flow aren’t kind to slick politicians, bumbling bureaucrats, or bulls*** artists – and, in my humble opinion, that’s how the whole world should work.