DRILL SERGEANT MOTHER HENS

Without a doubt, those four words describe her perfectly. More on her later.

* * * * *

Most of the truly important lessons I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned the hard way. Unquestionably, my most significant growth occurred after I was fired . . . twice. Everyone ought to get fired at least once in life, just for the learning that follows.

It was at a book-signing that she came up to me, introducing herself with these trenchant words: “You don’t know me, but you ought to: Years ago, at ______, you fired me before you took over as Vice President. That was a big mistake, because I could have made you a success, so you wouldn’t have lost your job.” Turns out, she was right: upon the advice of my predecessor, I had fired the one person who could have saved me. In those days, I was incredibly naive about the real world outside cloistered academia. My relevant epiphany had not yet taken place.

That was the slow slogging result of years of door-to-door book sales and fund-raising. Can’t remember the breakthrough moment, only that my life has never been the same since. That’s one thing that really amazes me about life: the greatest truths are known and internalized by so few.

Here it is:     Every organization has two chains of command: de facto and de jure. The truly successful people know which is which, and act accordingly.

One of them, the de jure, everybody knows about instinctively–the logical one. The one on letterheads and power-flow charts. The person on top (usually a man) is the boss. The next one down is next in importance, and so on, each one proportionally less important, until you get to the bottom. These are the ones most everyone goes to when they need something. But is it valid? Ostensibly, yes. If you ask the person at the bottom for something, you go through your entire spiel, and chances are the answer will be, “Terribly sorry, but you’ll have to talk to _______ [the next person up]; and so it is that you keep getting bumped up to the top. Almost to the top, because the boss is always too busy to talk to you. Same with phone queries.

The other one, the de-facto, almost nobody knows about, because it’s not on letterhead or power flow charts. The only ones who know about it are insiders, and they won’t talk about it. Why? Because it’s too precious, coming under the abstract heading: “Knowledge is power.”

It works this way: in each department, there is a go-to person (usually a woman). There has to be, or the entire organization will collapse, for somebody has to be in charge, know how to negotiate the system. Combined in that one person are two oxymoronic qualities: being both a drill-sergeant and a mother hen. Externally no nonsense and hard as nails; deep down, loving, kind, caring, appreciative, tender, empathetic, and supportive.

What is really intriguing is that these de facto go-to people each report to another, higher up, just like them. Up and up and up till you get to the very top. That’s why, when I want to get or learn something, I by-pass the letterhead people and start with the top. Not the CEO, of course, but most likely his personal secretary (usually a woman); I call on her because she runs the entire organization. It would disintegrate without her.

Even her supposed boss trembles in her presence because he is powerless without her. Alienate her at your own risk because if she loses faith in you, you are history. All she has to do is cash in enough of the thousands of chips (“I owe you’s”) she has in her arsenal, and you walk. Since she alone has in her mental lock box all the corporate memory (also all the skeletons, and she knows in which closets they can be found), she cannot possibly be defeated. Not only is she a king-maker, she is also a king-unmaker.

I’m guessing the reason it’s usually a woman is that women (down through history generally being considered of less value than men) have learned to rule by networking among themselves and through empathetic men. They laugh at letterheads and power flow charts. They let those on them strut and preen their feathers as they grandstand on talk shows and to talking-heads. They laugh because they know where the real power is, how to use it, how to get things done—and how to stop everything in its tracks.

* * * * *

Now back to Sacramento two and a half weeks ago. On Friday evening, when we entered the restaurant meeting room, no one greeted us. We had to introduce ourselves to each one. Clearly, no one was in charge. All we had were middle-aged alumni who’d been told to show up; well, they had, but without a shepherd they were as clueless as milling sheep. Then suddenly, there was a shout: “She’s here!” “Debbie’s here!” It was almost spontaneous combustion in the room. Debbie Bighaus had finally arrived from the northwest. The one person, the Facebook Wagonmaster, who was single-handedly responsible for our all being there, had arrived—our de facto drill sergeant-mother hen.

Let the party begin!

Advertisements