Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Upward Mobility at What Cost?

Even since I joined the workforce, the phrase "work-life balance" has been thrown around like a football. Recruiters and human resource leaders would throw out statistics, figures and new programs all in the attempt to convince business-types like myself that they, more so than other companies, really grasped the concept that they understood that the longer-term benefit of reducing turnover and driving sustainable value by creating a workplace atmosphere where employees whose work fit nicely as a component and enabler of a richer and broader life with family, friends, with cultural, social and spiritual fulfillment. Throughout my career, I've seen some hits but mostly misses, and a couple of recent experiences caused me to pause and consider this topic in my own life.

I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have done well in my career, and my latest venture has placed me in a business unit which is under a lot of pressure to perform in an industry sector which has large growth potential. The net result is that everyone on our leadership team is under a great deal of stress. A few weeks ago, I joined a number of fellow senior leaders in a conference room to discuss an update of our go-to-market strategy, and after three hours of going back and forth, one of my peers stopped and and stated, "I'm sorry, but I have to say that I'm not feeling well right now."

Initially, I (and others) misunderstood her comment to mean that she felt that our conversation had either turned overly negative or she was perturbed at what she perceived as a tone of criticism towards her or her team's performance. The truth of the matters that she was physically ill. After trying to mitigate the situation by offering her sugary drinks, things became even more disconcerting as she developed chest pains. With all of us - especially my colleague - frightened, we wheeled her from the boardroom to the lobby as we waited for the ambulance and helped her gulp down aspirin. The paramedics brought her to a nearby health center and thankfully, all was fine. But understandably, it left us all a little shaken and wondering, "Is this all related to the stress we're under here at work?" and "Am I next?"

Here's the thing about work-life balance which the human resource talking heads always make clear: at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with you (the employee). And they're right. When push comes to shove, nobody forces anybody to take on a more responsibility than one can bear, and nobody can compel someone to to burn the candle at both ends at one's physical and psychological detriment. Bosses and corporate forces can create expectations which are unreasonable and burdensome, but ultimately the decision lies with the individual in terms of how much of that burden is taken upon his or her shoulders.

In a rational world, a person can take a step back and say defiantly, "This is ridiculous. What are they going to do, fire me?" and "If they want to find someone else better, they can be my guest, because all I can do is my best." But rationality tends to fly out of the window when it comes to hyper-competitive and hard-charging types who have a more-pathetic-and-than-admirable trait which causes them to refuse to "fail" (whatever that means). So what happens? They obsess and stress over their work with little regard for the collateral damage done to themselves and the people around them. Brilliant.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with an individual who has been deliberating the pros and cons of pursuing partnership in a Big 4 consultancy versus taking a senior-level position on the client side, which would reduce his upside salary but would still be very lucrative. He confided in me that while he'd come to the conclusion that he'd be willing to take the pay cut to eliminate the 90% travel that was currently keeping him away from his wife and 18-month old daughter. But he also maintained that most of his peers thought him crazy to make this trade-off.

That baffles me. I quote Bud Fox's exchange with Gordon Gekko in the original Wall Street film:
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough, huh? 
Gekko: It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a Zero Sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred – from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here? I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest. 
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? 
Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it. You've got that killer instinct. Stick around, pal, I've still got a lot to teach you.

First of all, Gekko never really answers Bud's question. Apologists will argue that it's because Bud's asking a wrong and irrelevant question, but I'd say it's because Gekko doesn't have a good answer. And bringing that back into the context of my conversation with this consultant, if your personal and family stress level increases two-fold, does it really matter that you're making $300,000 instead of $200,000 a year? Is the stress to the point of physical sickness worth the fact that you can buy a Lexus LS instead of a Lexus ES? Isn't there a law of diminishing returns, where at some point that somebody's life is "comfortable and luxurious enough" that it's simply not worth the personal cost of that next rung of the career ladder? 

That answer is 'yes'. Unfortunately, the people who need to heed that the most are generally those with the worst self-awareness in terms of this issue. 

How do I cope with this? In my better days, I just remind myself that I'm playing with house money in my Father's casino, per a previous post. Let's just say I need to a better job at keeping that front of mind.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Quagmire of Syria

From Trayvon Martin to Obamacare to the tragedy in Sandy Hook, there exist topics which generate a great deal of emotion and perspective from different sides. What's common with these aforementioned topics, you can largely (admittedly not completely) bifurcate opinions politically. Conservatives stand on one side and progressives stand on another. What's interesting is how the prospect of military intervention on Syria has created strange bedfellows across political lines, with Republican leaders in the House and Senate standing with President Obama opposed by Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress standing together with staunchly anti-war Democrats. This is a pretty good sign that this is a chaotic and convoluted mess with no easy answers.

To catch everyone up, there's a helpful summary on which summarizes the Syrian conflict as well as a Syria Conflict 101 cheatsheet, but in a nutshell, there's a conflict between the established, authoritarian government led by Bashar al-Assad and a rebellion comprised of a number of different factions, including ex-government soldiers, political opponents of Assad and Islamist groups. Reports of hundreds killed in chemical weapon attacks in mid-August further raised the stakes. President Obama had previous referred to the use of chemical weapons as "a red line" and with that being crossed, a debate rages on in terms of the appropriate American response.

I personally struggle with taking a clear position regarding our response because on some level, I recognize that I'm not privy to certain intelligence which President Obama and government leaders might have. But given what I do know, I tend to lean against a military response at this time. My reasons are similar to what many other people and pundits have already shared:
  • The Devil You Know. Assad is no friend to the United States, but any military response which tips the scales in the rebellion's favor brings us one step closer to an uncertain regime. There's little confidence that a unified provisional government is going to be well-prepared to take the reins upon a power vacuum. If Assad falls, who takes his place? A secular democracy? A Islamist theocracy? A Balkanized collection of loosely governed territories run by local warlords? Are we more comfortable with mass weapons of destruction being in the hands of one thug as opposed to twenty thugs? How about Al Qaeda-aligned militias? The fact of the matter is that not only are the rebels not unified, but there are a lot of "bad guys" on the rebels.
  • Going It Alone. For a universal horror such as a chemical weapon attack, you'd think that the United States would be able to rustle some sort of a international alliance to provide global credibility, which would both mitigate military and diplomatic risk. Instead, not only has the UN Security Council stalled in any type of anti-Assad resolution (granted, Russia and China have obstructed any progress here due to their own interests) we've seen our closest ally in Great Britain vote against military intervention. Does the United States really want to stand alone?
  • What Red Line? Another article from CNN hashes this out nicely, so I won't repeat it here, but a fair question is being asked on two levels. First, why doesn't any sort of action against civilians represent a red line? Is it any less horrific for a government to massacre an opposing faction with flamethrowers or bullets? Then on the opposite side, are there any red lines in the context of war? The United States, after all is a country that didn't think twice about killing 250,000 of its own people who opposed the government in a civil war. It's also the same country that to this day used atomic weapons of mass destruction against an opponent, and did it twice. Cynics argue convincingly that the main reason why the United States abhors weapons of mass destruction is that these are the great equalizer. In a conventional armed conflict, the United States will always hold an advantage. This disappears when weapons of mass destruction are introduced.   
  • No Clear and Present Danger. There's a clear and present danger component to our military intervention which is absent here. Traditionally, there's been a compelling narrative around how American citizens are in imminent harm's way. That argument was found to be spurious in the latest Iraq War, and the case to intervene in Syria is even a worse stretch. Assad has never sought to attack the United States or United States citizens. This leads to bigger question around whether such a conflict is in the United States' best interests at all. There is a nuance between an endeavor which is honorable and one which is worthwhile. Or put another way, there are plenty of things that the United States can do that are "good", but with limited resources, what are the endeavors which are most highly prioritized?
  • The "Remember the Maine" Syndrome. Right before the turn of the century, Cuba was seeking an independence from Spain which was conveniently aligned with United States' foreign policy and business interests. The battleship USS Maine was sent to Cuba and while in Havana Harbor on February 15th, 1898, an explosion ripped through the ship, killing 266 sailors. The event - at the time attributed to a Spanish mine - became a rallying cry for Americans with pro-war rallies screaming "Remember the Maine!", eventually leading to the Spanish-American War and subsequently American control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the the Philippines. While more fringe theories include Cuban or American sabotage in an attempt to draw the United States into war, most believe that an internal coal fire was the culprit. Going back to Syria, I haven't yet seen conclusive evidence that Assad is responsible for these chemical weapons-related casualties. Some (admittedly non-mainstream) news sources have gone so far as to report that the resulting casualties resulted from rebel mishandling of smuggled weapons. Or if I put it this way, few doubt that chemical weapons were used. The question remains: who was responsible?
So we all pray and hope for peace. And we hope and pray that men and women who know more and sit in positions of influence act justly and wisely with such high stakes.