It's not going to sound like it from this post, but I love cars and am fascinated by the auto industry. I've read almost every book written about the men who built the industry and they read like a real-life soap opera. I love the drama that is Detroit.
I have never worked for a major corporation, but have worked with many companies in different industries as a supplier. There are some aspects that appear to be common to all major corporations, and others that are unique to the automotive industry. Auto companies are well-known for being insular (no one from any other industry could possibly apply successful processes to the making and selling of cars - Alan Mulally is in the process of debunking this one) and bureaucratic (there is a definite hierarchy that dictates who may or may not talk directly to whom). In larger corporations, people spend a great deal of time guessing what it is that their boss wants - for reasons unknown to me, it's not acceptable to ask. Better to go all the way down a particular road and then find out you need to start over in another direction. (This is especially fun if you're a supplier that is not being paid for the time it takes to go on this road rally...)
One of my contacts, we'll call her Kathy, was new to the auto company. Budget approval for a project was needed 3 levels up (from Mr. Important). Kathy went over to Mr. Important's office, saw that his door was open, walked in and handed him the form for signature. He looked at her kind of funny but signed the form. When Kathy put the form back on her bosses desk, he said, "How did you get this approved so quickly?" She explained what she had done. Her boss freaked - "no, no, no - here's the process: You put the form in Admin #1's in-box, and she gives it to her boss. Admin #1 puts it in Admin #2's in-box for her boss to look at, then Admin #2 gives it to Admin #3, who puts it in Mr. Important's in-box to sign, usually once a week. The process can take 2-4 weeks, based on travel schedules." (Seriously, you can't make this stuff up). Kathy was never that efficient again.
Another marketing contact, we'll call him Sam, tells me that they are told not to make eye contact with his immediate boss (I thought he was kidding. How on earth do you get anything done when you can't look at your boss?) Sam tells a story of being in a meeting where several levels of bosses were making a presentation to the CEO (these are high-stress situations and the only times I saw men wear a jacket and tie). There were probably 20 people (including support people like Sam) in the meeting. The CEO asked a question about how they had come up with a particular statistic. Sam knew the answer but didn't dare say anything. I asked why he wouldn't speak up if he was confident about the figure. Sam said that if he were to answer a question that his boss couldn't answer - in front of the CEO - that would be the end of his career at the company.
What? Wouldn't that look like the boss had good people in his/her department? Surely the CEO doesn't think each of these bosses did all of the support work on the presentation - why else are the other 19 people in the room? Wouldn't it be better to answer the question than have the boss say s/he doesn't know and have to get back to the CEO? No. Sam said that would be the kiss of death. That boss would shut him out of everything and make his life miserable until he left or was transferred - if he could even find another position in the company.
Aren't corporate politics fun?! They don't tell you this stuff in all those business books that talk about efficiency and empowerment.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we'll talk about customer appreciation!