What I learned being fired twice

This is a slightly tricky essay to write.  Not for the obvious reason that it brings up potentially embarrassing episodes from my past, but actually for the opposite reason: that these days it’s hard to write about “being fired” without it sounding like you’re bragging.

It’s a weird thing, but as we have discussed before, in this perma-revolutionary age any form of mildly “disruptive” individualism is seen as sexy and desirable, even when it’s pretty stupid.  True divergence is still frowned upon of course (in many ways we are the most conformist society of all time), but stylistic divergence, without any real substance to it?  Well that’s the dream isn’t it.  And getting fired from a couple of corporate behemoths, the way I did, is a good example of that.

So yeah, it would be easy to write this with a flavour of “I was just too smart and edgy for those mindless drones”.  And indeed, for a couple of years after the events, that’s pretty much what I thought.

But I don’t think that now.

Today, with the benefit of 15 years’ distance, I see it a little differently.  I can see that my run-in with the global corporate world doesn’t reflect positively or negatively on either of us.  Instead it simply reveals an important dividing line in the dynamics between employee and employer – one that has indirectly informed a lot of my thinking, and that I want to share here.

So, first of all, what happened?

I’m sorry to say it was nothing terribly scandalous.  My first two jobs were with EY, one of the “Big 4” accountancy firms, and then L’Oréal – in both cases as part of their “fast track” graduate trainee schemes.  The two experiences were pretty much a carbon copy of each other: overall I felt I was doing a decent job (at least in terms of the actual work produced), and yet wherever I went I couldn’t help leaving silent ripples of disapproval in my wake.  These spread through the management teams largely without me knowing, making me a “dead man walking” long before the axe fell.

There were no dramatic moments worth recounting – other than perhaps when I made a joke about a speech by EY’s head of audit in my first week on the job, which went down about as well as you’d imagine.  No, really the issue was just one of consistent irritating “prodding” by me – questioning processes, pointing out contradictions, talking out of turn, and generally not performing my function as a low level cog in the machine, which was simply to keep turning smoothly.

There was no grand “firing”.  Unless you do something terrible these organisations don’t work like that.  Instead they just sort of process you out, like a body’s immune system rejecting a virus.  One day you’re there, the next you’re peripheral, and the next you’re gone – all with impressively little fuss.

It’s at this point where it would be easy to construct a case in my defence – about how these sorts of companies can’t handle challenge, independent thinking, creativity, etc etc.  About how they are slow to move, and incapable of innovation or change.

But that’s not the right lesson.

Even if we accept that I was correct in all the challenges I gave them while I was there (and that’s a pretty big “if”), the fact remains that this is simply not the way a mature, global, organisation actually works.

Giant brands quite simply don’t need change.  They don’t need disruption.  They sure as hell don’t need it from a know-nothing 23 year old!  What they need instead is continuing, reliable, operational excellence – something which is pretty much the opposite to the value I was providing.

True to form, this is probably a pretty contrarian view.  Certainly the organisations themselves would disagree.  They and everyone else seem to think that big corporates need “change” and “fresh thinking” now more than ever.  That if they don’t embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things that their hegemony will be short lived, and that they’ll soon crumble in the face of an insurgent “disruptor”.  Just look at Kodak, Blockbuster, and all the other well publicised Goliaths who have been taken down by a trendy young David!

But come on, if we’re honest, this isn’t really true.  It’s just another example of the change fetish that permeates the rest of our culture.

In reality the imperative for these kinds of brands is not to change – or perhaps more accurately, not to change quickly, or proactively.  Why?  Because the defining character of most markets is not progress or evolution, but rather inertia.  For every one category that has been turned on its head, there are a hundred others that have remained pretty much static for 50 years.  You don’t hear about them of course, just like you don’t hear about all the people who aren’t murdered every day, or all the countries that don’t go to war.  They’re pretty much invisible, but they’re out there all the same.

This inertia stems directly from human nature.  Contrary to the myth we’re fed about people constantly looking for “newer and better solutions”, the reality is that what people really want is to have a certain purchasing decision decided for them – and then to never have to think about it ever again.

Let’s say you use Colgate toothpaste (or one of the other two or three big legacy brands in that space).  Chances are you will continue to do so until the day you die.  This issue is now sorted in your life.  It’s done.  You’ve got better things to think about.  Even if a “better” toothpaste comes along, so what?  You’ll probably never even become aware of it, let alone wrench yourself our of a lifelong purchasing habit.

When a solution becomes “adequate” like this, then its market becomes “mature”, and thus “inert” – at which point it takes a truly extraordinary chain of events to change things.

EY and L’Oréal exist in just such inert spaces.  The odds are massively in their favour that they’ll both still be market leaders in 50 years time, with minimal creativity required on their part.  Will things change?  Sure they will.  But probably in an incremental fashion which such companies can absorb without too much difficultly.  Does it matter if a new trend in skincare comes along and catches L’Oréal flat footed?  Not really.  Most punters will continue buying the old stuff regardless, and after 2 or 3 years they’ll have come up with their own version of it anyway.  It’s no big deal.

The only real external market threat they face is a change occurring that is so seismic that it demands a whole new business model (Kodak / Blockbuster style) – but outside of the initial chaos that came when the world adapted to the internet, this basically never happens.  And even then it happened way less than you think.

Consequently such businesses are right to recognise that the true threat to their position is in fact internal.  It comes not from a lack of new ideas, but rather from new ideas themselves.  For a mature business in an inert market, every new idea is a risk.  Every innovation, every clever strategy is more likely to damage the business than to help it.

Often the catalyst for such corporate self-harm is the overemphasis on a perceived external threat.  When Target started eating into Walmart’s market share, the business panicked, and went on an innovation spree which – surprise surprise – did far more harm than Target ever did.  When Walmart saw the error of their ways, and reverted to their old model, things recovered.

Every EY, every L’Oréal, is vulnerable to “doing a Walmart”.  And all it takes is allowing a little too much “disruptive thinking” into their bloodstream.  A little too much questioning of the status quo which is frankly just fine the way it is.

So all in all, I think they were right in their assessment of my value to their organisations.  It probably worked out better for both of us.

By contrast my next move – and every move since – was into the world of “immature” businesses, who, by definition, have the reverse risk relationship with change.  When I say “immature” here I don’t necessarily mean young or small; I simply mean those which aren’t among the few hundred immovable global titans who profit disproportionally from inertia.

Although there are exceptions, businesses such as these exist in highly changeable states.  It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that they could 10x in size or completely fail in the space of a couple of years – two scenarios which are basically impossible for an inert giant.

Consequently these businesses require two types of input: operational excellence (just like the giants) and a bit of friction.  Without the former they’ll just be incompetent, and without the latter they risk being swallowed up by the churn around them.

That’s my home, and I guess it’s probably your home too.

(Annoying questioners do exist in big corporates, no doubt, but they have to operate with a huge amount of grace and diplomacy – big respect to those who pull it off!)

What I want to leave you with here then is the point that change isn’t necessarily good.  It isn’t necessarily useful.

Sometimes – perhaps more often than we care to admit – the greater virtue is to just keep the wheel turning.  To actually dig deep into process, craft, and steadiness.

It’s easy to attack corporate myopia (I know I have), and yes, a lot of the bureaucratic wrangling that takes place within their walls is truly silly.  But ultimately, it serves a larger strategic purpose.

I didn’t see that then, but I see it now.

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