Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Learning the Ropes

I am reading a life-changing book. “The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know”. I have been amazed at how eye opening this book has been. I have also been a bit disappointed as it has confirmed some deeply held suspicions I have had for a long time. I think I can literally feel my brain learning a whole new paradigm from this book.

Having said that, is it only fascinating to me because it confirms some of my preconceived notions? People do tend to find facts that meet their perspectives, regardless of what the “truth” is. Oddly enough, this very subject is what this book discusses.

“The Ropes…” is a simple book. It is a series of stories about a handful of characters at various stages in their corporate careers. A hapless newcomer named Stanley learns the ropes through his introduction to the corporate culture.

The book make its clear that a corporation is a culture. A highly ritualized and symbolic culture just like a church, a motorcycle gang or a cult. The uniforms are different, the rituals are different and the taboos are different, but they are just as real and just as symbolic so we ignore them at our own (career’s) peril.

An example, a rain dance is a ritual. It doesn’t make it rain, but it gives people the comforting feeling that they are doing something to ward off drought. It lets them move forward with the important work of preparing for harvest. The rain maker dresses and acts a certain way.

In my last company, I had a nemesis. He was my nemesis because he constantly talked about how few hours I worked. It is true that I was “at work” less hours than he was, but I worked far more hours. I would be in the office 8 hours. I worked hard and got a ton of results. I could demonstrate my results through objective metrics. My nemesis was at work 11-12 hours a day. He drank coffee, talked to people and surfed the web. He was much more successful than me in achieving promotions, praise and raises.

Why was this so? I had the results? Results should be all that matters. It is true that results should be the only thing that mattered, but they are not. My nemesis understood that in my last company’s culture, the ritual that got you moved up to higher ranks in the tribe was long hours, not lots of results. The tribe didn’t recognize metrics. They recognized long hours. In addition, this guy was an engineer. He dressed like an engineer. I am a biologist and I dress like one. I think engineers dress a little on the geeky side. At my last job, the uniform of success was the engineer’s dress, not the biologists. From a tribal sense, I didn’t wear the right ornamentation and I ignored the tribal rituals.

These are the things I am learning from this book. Things that should not matter actually do. Perception matters and it is not always about knowing the most, doing the most or getting the most results. I understand how certain people have gotten promoted and demoted now. Like I said, it’s always been a suspicion, it’s only now being confirmed. I wish I had read the book ten years ago. I have always played a bit of an outsider and wondered why my success has not been as great as I would have liked.

Time to be an insider. The question is…which tribe?

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