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December 20, 2004

Steps To Risk

Subtitle: Professional To Executive To Principal, like Parents

I'm just about fed up with being a professional. I need to get kicked upstairs and I'm about to. Some of this is an echo of The Vector. But it also is a bit of a cockeyed attempt to show some continuity and parallels between these roles and that of parent and child. It's all about exposure to risk.

When I reflect back on my work in 2000 and 2001, I was really upset that there were no bosses of mine at the time who were much more than 3 or 5 years older than me. I had finally done some international work, I was a go-to guy. I recognize now that I was at the top of the professional game and needed to be booted upstairs into management. But as the division got canned, I fell victim to the decision of the principles not to fund the operation. So while I had some fairly substantial gripes about the management of our operation, they could never really come to fruition because we didn't live long enough for significant problems to materialize.

Why am I not a manager of a bigger org? Why don't people think strategically? Where's our funding? Where's our marketing? Such were my gripes as a professional. I was running at full throttle, all capability and motivation. My biggest concern was that there were shenanigans going on behind the scenes and dumb politics playing with our funding. That one group of professionals, us, would be subsumed under red tape and relatively lethargic pace of company bureaucrats. All that happened and worse, and when the hammer came down it was none of our fault. We hadn't failed because we hadn't been given an adequate time to succeed. This is the nightmare scenario for the professional. I could have done it, but they wouldn't let me.

In the wake of nine-eleven, we were all reminded that anything is possible. Aldrige Ames reminded us that CIA veterans could be working for the enemy. If that could happen, we need to readjust our understanding of human capacity for duplicity and betrayal. People have to check themselves when they preface comments with "I'd like to believe that...". Yes you would, we all would but some of us don't have the luxury of such assumptions. This is the difference between professionals and executives.

Executives get their direction from the desires around money, and the patience of principals. As my new fearless leader has told me, it's damn near impossible to get 50,000 cash. That's living money. That's gangster money. That is too fungible and too theivable a sum. But 10 million? That's easy. 10 million is nobody's money, it works in abstract terms and it mostly sits. But 50k is anybody's money. It flies. 10M can be risked, it connotes a professional operation in the hands of exectives. 50k cannot be risked, it connotes a precise action under strict control. When a 10M venture fails, there are a thousand reasons and plenty of blame to spread around. When a 50k venture fails there can only be a few reasons and suspects; an ass-kicking is just around the corner.

So in retrospect I realize that my fears as a professional of having to deal with shenanigans and nasty politics was precisely the thing that should indeed have kept me as a professional and not a manager. I didn't want the job of kicking ass and taking names. My own children were still babies, I hadn't yet learned to speak openly of bullshit and what somebody had better do if they wanted to keep the number of holes in their ass to one. In middle management you can do this on the force of personality, but ultimately authority devolves from the top - from the people with budget authority - the people who presumeably know how much it costs to get things done.

How expensive is money? It all depends upon how willing people are to expose it to risk, in other words what excuses they will accept when it's gone. What recourse is allowable to the funder? What does the investor need to see to make him happy? These are the reigns on executives. They need to know, or so it seems to me, how much they can get away with and for how long a period of time. How many professionals they can corral for what price and duration in order to create that fungible something for the principals. Execs put up with the petty brain spew of professionals and the petty politics of managers. The exec has to keep the ball rolling despite all of its flaws because in the end, the exec works for even harsher taskmasters; the people he talked out of their money.

Like parents among our children, we would like them to handle about as much as they can handle, but not too much. We've seen it, whatever it is, and we hope that they can deal with harsh reality at least as well as we did. The difference is of course, there is love. As parents we assume the risks - we are always sensitive to the fact that anything could happen and yet we establish to the best of our abilities the stability and illusion of control necessary for our children's growth.

I see the parallel.

Posted by mbowen at December 20, 2004 10:00 AM

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