Brandt On Leadership -- The Job's Not Over Till The Paperwork Is Buried

March 9, 2007
Strategic management of "busy work" is one of the keys to your success.

Many junior managers say to me, "John, I've just gotten a big new job, but there seems to be a lot of paperwork involved. How will I manage all of it? What are the keys to success?"

Their problem, of course, is that youth and innocence lead them to believe that a memo is just a memo, and that every report requested by their seniors is vital -- nay critical -- to the very survival of the company. A few years of experience will teach them the truth, however: That paperwork is just another weapon in the art of corporate warfare, and that while a memo might be simply a memo (though unlikely), it may also be an assault, a deception, a land mine or a strategic retreat. A few pointers for survival:

Managing Your Inbox: Like everything else in management, this has become both easier and more difficult with the advent of e-mail and electronic communication. In the old days, you could take the advice of a peer of mine, who, after the pile of memos, reports, spreadsheets and catalogs from the home office grew too tall, would position a large wastebasket at the end of his desk and proceed to unceremoniously sweep the entire mess into the trash. His view: "If it's really important, they'll send it again."

Unfortunately for those of us still working, e-mail has neutered this particular trick; nowadays some dweeb at the home office always has a record of what e-mails he sent you, and when, and he may even know whether you read them or not. This doesn't mean that you can't still ignore Mr. Dweeb and all the other home-office doofuses making your life a living hell, but it does mean that you'll have to be cleverer about it.

If, for example, Mr. Dweeb sends a broadcast e-mail to you and every other manager asking for 23 "clarifications" about every customer record, simply click "Reply All" and then type, "Not clear about Item 3b. Does anyone else see issues with this?" The resulting flurry of e-mails -- all sent

"Reply All" because you did -- won't bother your peers, who know to ignore most of what gets sent their way, but will absolutely paralyze Mr. Dweeb, who will feel compelled to answer each one. Eventually he'll give up and find another project with a different set of e-mail victims.

Tracking Financial Results: In the dark ages before information technology, corporations wasted thousands of hours and millions of dollars by paying departments full of bookkeepers to consolidate financial reports into large binders known as "Green Books." These were dumped monthly onto the desks of managers who, being busy with real jobs, studiously ignored the Green Books until the next editions thumped atop them.

Today, of course, things are much improved: Corporations now waste thousands of hours and millions of dollars by paying you and me to consolidate 10 times as many financial reports into large spreadsheets known as "Busy Work." Fortunately, most of the metrics and ratios that we track were first requested in 1963 by executives who are now dead, so it's unlikely that anyone will notice that we just keep changing the file names on the same spreadsheets over and over.

Filing: There is no activity more useless to the corporation yet more important to your career than filing. While most of us were raised on fairy tales to believe that talent, brains and character would win in the end, it turns out that the victor is usually the guy who can prove that the Decatur office had full knowledge of gear problems on the B3672 as early as 2003.

Every player knows that a good filing system is like a nuclear weapons arsenal -- they're invaluable as deterrents, but fatal to everyone if actually used. That's why so many boardrooms are filled with suits who can't stand each other but still smile, joke and drink together like war buddies; everyone knows that while they're slapping each other on the backs with one hand, they're all fingering the keys to their lateral files with the other.

Or, as we say on executive row, they're clutching the keys to success.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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