Monday, June 20, 2011

Risk takers that make mistakes

Every Sunday the NYT has a page 2 column in the business section titled "Corner Office" and it features a Q and A with a CEO. Inevitably the CEO being questioned cites their encouragment of risk taking by employees, often with the phrase that "the best learning comes from mistakes".

This cliche was borne in the '90's tech boom and then morphed into the popular culture of corporate America speak. Opinion here is that it is a popular myth among the powerful, a self-promoting style of narcissism and the effort to become "legends in their own minds".

Sure, a few companies like Google famously allow for lone wolf experimentation but that's not the rule. Corporate America remains rigidly heirarchical and deviating from one's expected role is not a normal or desired behavior.

There are exceptions, and these allow the theorizing CEO's a sense of truthfulness. Within most corporates not run by outright tyrants, there are the knighted ones among the broad base of employees. They range from: eccentrics that are tolerated due to their brilliance; top college lacrosse players from good schools; the especially charming, attractive, or handsome; the most talented of the obsequious; the star examples of diversity; the brash barrel chested never satiated friend of all; and of course the well-connected by family connections, wealth, old college ties or a propitious marriage. Please don't feel excluded if other knight categories have not been mentioned. And of course there are a few non-knighted risk takers that slip through the cracks because the risks they take actually work.

But the real knighted ones mentioned can take risks and can make mistakes, and more often than not they are mistakes. They do learn from them, and what they learn is that they are more suited for "management" than actual work. In a corporation of, for example, 5000 people there may be as many as 200 or so of these knighted souls and the other 4,800 employees better just stick to their dictated tasks, hoping to safely move up the ladder to what in a different era was called job security.

So this was a cynical post, but week after week of these CEO's, male, female, minority, all, crowing about their encouragement of risk taking and the value of mistakes just grated on me to the point of writing these caustic words.


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