Saturday 22 October 2022

Dire diary

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

Outsiders labour under a basic misapprehension about corporate hierarchies.  Their image is of poor drudges at the bottom engaged in the mindless repetition of boring, meaningless tasks, with no scope for initiative or independent action.  Top executives, so this wisdom goes, are epitomes of free-booting free will, deciding on a whim the fate of thousands as they lounge around in boardrooms of dark leather and darker mahogany, or glide silently and effortlessly in their chauffeur-driven tinted-window limousines.  Nothing could be further from reality.

It is true that the ordinary office worker has a circumscribed range of functions - but also a concomitant freedom of when and how to carry them out.  An essentially undifferentiated role has no natural time-scales, no unique, imperative pattern: jobs can be moved around, substituted, lost even, with little overall effect.  However pressurised the situation, repose can easily be found - and kept: for into the vacuums and interstices which are created between tasks, there is nothing to flow.

Middle managers enjoy no such luxury.  Theirs is a constant battle between running the business and organising others.  The latter involves meetings, time's weeds which sprout in every available diary gap.  Arranged by a secretary or personal assistant, they are huge milestones mapping out the manager's week, obstacles dumped on the road to real work.  Where office staff paddle docilely in a business's routine backwaters, middle managers must swim hard against buffeting waves of problems simply to remain where they are.  Meetings soon pass from milestones to millstones, threatening to drag them under.  But through them, managers have the first inkling of a truth that will blaze all the more brightly the higher they ascend: that it is the diary which rules them, not the other way round.

Top executives live and breathe this axiom.  All of the week is meetings, meetings involving so many other people, and so complex to set up, that the most senior managers find themselves totally impotent in the face of their day's hijacking.  Now, they can only flow with the overmastering tide, and join the corporate flotsam.  Because top bosses are meta-managers - they run a business not by managing it directly, but by managing those who do - they find themselves in thrall not only to the clashing diaries of their immediate juniors, but through the corporation's pyramidal structure to those of their underlings' underlings too.  

The enmeshing diary becomes a prescriptive book of their entire lives.  Such are the demands on their limited time that business appointments spill over into evenings and weekends - the company functions, the client outings, the overseas travel.  Far from being mighty corporate warriors cutting a swathe through the financial thickets, they are huge pin-striped puppets without a puppet-master, slaves of the system which they sustain and which sustains them.  Trapped as they are by the very power that they wield, many a senior executive must have snatched a precious moment during yet another meeting in those boring boardrooms of dark leather and darker mahogany to envy the simple, untrammelled life of the worker; just as kings and queens have ever envied the uncomplicated, idealised bucolic existence of shepherds and shepherdesses; and just as forlornly.


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