Ignore Principles… Lose Character and More

She had raised three children and put them through college on her own after her husband died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. What with the kids and her job, she had never taken the time to socialize much, or she might have remarried. About the time she should’ve been able to take time for herself, her employer eliminated her job as they closed something like two hundred offices across the country!

Unaware of our approach, Ann was quite animated in her conversation with a man who appeared to be about her age. They were drinking coffee and carrying on about something unintelligible from my vantage point. Whatever it was about, it seemed to have them excited. As we approached for introductions, they turned our way, Ann’s expression turning to a most pleasant, warm and disarming smile as she greeted us. The preliminaries out of the way, the couple soon told us they had just recently moved on with their working lives. Ann was now settled in at a local software company, handling a host of administrative functions, including inventory and accounts receivable. She seemed pleased with herself as she described her duties and the simplicity of the small company where she now works.

Addressing us with a question that sounded like she really didn’t expect an answer, Ann said, “You know what’s really sad about what’s been going on? Ours was a company that, long before I came aboard, had built itself into a leader by closely following some basic principles focused on delivering first quality products and services. Fair treatment of its customers and employees were given the highest priorities. From the first day I came to work as a very young, very green clerk, my manager made it clear that everyone was expected to get along and treat each other with respect at all times. It goes without saying we were required to demonstrate those same philosophies when dealing with our customers.”

Ann smiled at us, pleased with her recitation. Since we were well acquainted with the saga of her former employer, we understood what she was saying. Indeed, even the casual observer of the business world knew how that company, once thought to be solid as a rock, found itself in jeopardy of coming apart as the decade of the 1980s came to a close. In a move that caught most by surprise, the firm’s board brought in an accomplished executive from outside the company, as well as outside its industry, to turn things around. Indeed, after some drastic changes that sent shock waves throughout the organization, the company’s financial performance improved dramatically. Stockholders were first relieved, and then ecstatic. Surviving executives and employees were first relieved and then encouraged. Competitors were first disappointed that the demise didn’t continue, and then pressured to take similarly drastic measures to preserve themselves.

While financial analysts and the stock markets generally showed collective investor approval of the actions taken by those computer firms, very little attention was given to the severity of alterations to the longstanding character of those proud corporations. After all, if the quarterly earnings rose to new levels and continued strong, who would have reason to question further? Largely ignored and dismissed were those who attempted to draw attention to the potentially harmful effects of such departures from the long-standing principles that had so effectively guided their company for decades. Likewise, nothing was said regarding the loss of know how as each of their seasoned veterans left the systems engineering and software development divisions of the company. Once again, short run financial gains were allowed to overshadow balanced considerations of the potential for long run problems.

Dick Leighton was Ann’s companion. As soon as he said he had earlier spent almost twenty years in local banking, I could have predicted why he attended these meetings. It turned out he had been a senior vice-president when his bank merged with what was then a new regional holding company. It had since been caught up in two other consolidations as the reach and strength of major bank holding companies swept throughout the banking industry, coast-to-coast.

“Ann’s doing well and we’re all proud for her,” he announced. Remarkably, Dick told us he was happy now in the fast-food business as manager of a pizza parlor, working for his brother-in-law. “Like so many others I’ve encountered, once I got over the fear of being unemployed and the blow to my pride, I found renewed confidence in myself. I remember so well getting that first paycheck and counting my blessings for it. And you know what else? I discovered what I’d heard others say before — there really is life after a career at the bank after all!” Others nodded agreement.

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