Corporate bodies are not monoliths, single organisations with common purpose, views, policies and attributes that define them both for their members and their external audiences. The monolith is however a necessary myth.
Consider Apple. Any customer, actual or prospective, will have a view of the company that may focus on the design of their products, their capabilities and operating systems, their US origins, their perceived corporate ethos or other critical factors. If quizzed, many people could summarise their view of the company in a few sentences. Such views will guide their purchase decisions. Given the multitude of choices we all face every day, dependence on these snap impressions for decision-making is inescapable.
Those who work for the company, will be encouraged to be loyal to the organisation, its products and its ‘values’ or culture, and to work to reinforce the creation of those external perceptions and emotions that attach to Apple, which perceptions marketing people define as a brand.
Occasionally, harsh realities intrude. In common with many large corporates, Apple has a complex international network of overseas suppliers, one of which Foxconn, has a factory in Shenzen, China that makes iPhones and iPads. Foxconn has been accused, not least by the Chinese Government, of forced overtime working or underpayment of its employees.
Apple has also been accused of operating tax avoidance strategies that have led to demands by the European Union (EU) for payment of €13 billion for alleged breaking of EU state aid laws.
Those who work in large corporations will be familiar with the frequently conflicting demands inherent in such enterprises: the calls for efficiency, cost-saving and the pressure to gain a competitive edge in chosen markets, alongside focus on customers, quality of product or services, and ethics, however this last quality is defined.
The organisation will be structured to enhance, but also, paradoxically, resolve these tensions through internal checks and balances, procedures and reviews.
Specialist divisions within the enterprise will supposedly have a common goal, the delivery of a strategy determined by its leaders – later posts will look at ‘leadership’ and ‘strategy’ – but each division will have a particular set of priorities.
For example, the marketing team will have a different view of investment priorities from the IT department, who in turn may be perturbed by the board’s enthusiasm for acquiring companies with incompatible IT systems, while the legal or compliance team will be universally unpopular for saying ‘no’ to many bright ideas, internal audit will be feared, and finance will tend to regard everyone else as extravagant wastrels. All are just responding to their job descriptions and specific corporate targets.
How the boundaries are drawn between these competing constituencies will be conditioned by corporate culture, the unwritten beliefs and behaviours that dictate how everyone in the organisation works together and interacts with outsiders.
Sometime these boundaries fail, are too weak, or ignored by a small group of people, resulting in a disaster or scandal. It is still not entirely clear which of these led to the gaming of diesel engine emissions by Volkswagen or the failure by Apple to recognise and deal with the problems with Foxconn.
For all staff these conflicting corporate messages and demands will be channelled through relationships, be they with bosses, subordinates, or a wide spread of influencers. While organisation charts present a vision of clarity, the reality is closer to ‘A Game of Thrones’.
For those unfamiliar with either the books or the television series, imagine a medieval court, with a monarch, barons fiercely protective of their fiefdoms, and courtiers all jostling for influence, advancement, resources and differing policy decisions. The personalities at play can range from the meekly submissive, who prioritise a quiet life, to the outright sociopathic and narcissistic.
Resolving personal clashes over the creation and implementation of policies absorbs in any organisation a huge amount of time spent in discussions, meetings, conferences, email and document exchanges. Often, this process is highly effective. Sometimes it is not. Consider the current United States administration: does it consider NATO obsolete or does it support NATO 100 per cent? Does it regard China as a currency manipulator, yes or no? Will the administration move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Chaotic.
To work effectively in reconciling competing pressures while serving corporate goals and achieving personal advancement, staff need to forge wide circles of acquaintance. These relationships need not be personally warm. They can be entirely transactional, built around favours traded or alliances formed but they are essential to the efficient delivery of policies and strategy. In their absence conflict and confusion are destructive of internal morale, operational efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Such relationships will vary widely in importance. Self-evidently, immediate bosses and subordinates are vital, as are influencers such as HR (or even the CEO’s PA), rivals for power and resources, other department’s staff with whom you routinely work on projects, or internal customers for support departments such as legal or finance. However, they will differ in their relative significance.
Managing these relationships while focusing on one’s own job description and targets is often stressful. Here is a simple tool to help.
- Assess the relationships that are key to your effective performance. List.
- Decide the size of the group you believe you can track and effectively manage. This is a purely personal decision but 10 may be a useful initial guide.
- Lay out on a simple grid.
- Allocate to each a score for significance. For example, your boss is likely to be a 10. An associate with whom you occasionally work on projects would be lower.
- Then score each for the quality of the relationship. It is okay? Is improvement needed? This is entirely subjective but nobody else can do this for you.
- Assess scores, decide where improvements are required, prioritise, decide actions and review monthly.
How you build relationships is entirely personal but generally a sound working relationship is built on mutual respect. Where mutual antipathy – it does happen – makes this difficult then settle for professional civility, albeit punctuated by occasional frank exchanges of view.
If you successfully create a network of effective working relationships not only will life be less stressful, you may have contributed to avoidance of a future disaster or scandal.