Sunday, 13 June 2010

Where I used to work...

I once worked for an organisation where the CEO was very focused on power*. It wasn't a very large organisation, but the role had a certain amount of profile and access to powerful people.

My boss was a very large person. He was extremely clever and could also be very funny, especially when he told stories about himself. Once he told us about how he travelled on a airline and they asked him to move from the seat beside the emergency exit because he was too fat and might obstruct the other passengers. He told us, to uncontrollable laughter, how he had told them they needn't worry, in an emergency he wouldn't be in anyone's way because he'd be out so quick no-one would have time to be obstructed. Despite the self-deprecation, he never flew with that airline again.

He had an office beside the front door, and positioned his desk so that he could look up at anyone coming or going from the building. He always made sure his chair was set higher than any others in the room, so that even though he wasn't very tall he looked down on anyone else sitting there with him. He also vetted the mail. Any letters coming in to the organisation had to go to him first, even those addressed to other staff by name. If there was something in a piece of correspondence about the organisation that he didn't like (for instance, a reference in a set of minutes) the staff member would be called in and ordered to correct the matter ASAP.

Yet he never felt secure in his control, and now and then he would do something to remind you of his power. Once I was trying to complete a submission with a very tight time-frame, which required board approval. In the hour or two before the board meeting I was completing the paper, correcting it, making copies for the board members and laying them on the table with their board papers while he watched from behind his desk. Then, as the issue was discussed by the board, he let them know, in a hurt tone of voice, that he hadn't seen it yet. They passed it, but as I was leaving the chairperson told me I must never do that again. I swallowed my hurt pride and apologised.

A year or so before I started work there, staff discontent had led to an independent review of how the organisation was managed. Over a year later, their conclusions still rankled. He told me bitterly, "They said 'the CEO rules by fear and intimidation'. I'm not sure that I rule, anyway, but fear? I have never noticed that the staff fear me!"

I wonder if he knew that I was too scared to contradict him?

*Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.

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