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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Disturbing trends: About the worshipping of fake entrepreneurs and the dehumanization of workers

“Get the funk out, Superman”; “Move over, Wolverine”; “Hush, Spidey”: the latest superhero in The Netherlands is “Captain Entrepreneur”.

Since the end of the eighties, the Dutch society went through a long period of liberalization, privatising and ‘marketization’, in which the country changed unrecognizably.

Many former state companies, like utilities companies, national transport companies, telecom companies, housing cooperatives and organizations for public services and public health became privatized and suddenly had to stand on their own two feet from a commercial and financial point-of-view. At the same time the market was opened for domestic and foreign competitors, who had to battle for the customer with the former state monopolists.

In some exceptional cases, this strategy indeed became a massive success, with lower prices and better service for the customers. The best example over the years has been the former Dutch national telecom company aka KPN Telecom.

However, in most cases the success was questionable at best and in the worst cases, it had been a blatant failure, where the service level collapsed and/or prices exploded, because companies started to behave commercially, instead of in the interest of their customers and stakeholders: health care and home care are examples of this category.

What happened since the eighties, is that many formerly down-to-earth directors of midsized and large companies and former public officials suddenly felt themselves like CEO’s, ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.

They started to hand out commercial and ‘marked to market’ salaries to themselves: not for the risk they were bearing in their job (i.e. as there was virtually no risk in most cases), but just because American CEO’s and managers in the same industry earned the multi million bucks salaries that they wanted to earn too. Chairmen of school-boards, pension funds, healthcare insurance companies and hospitals all felt entitled to a salary of almost half a million euro’s or more, while the directors of some commercial companies felt they should earn even multi-million euro salaries. The looting of companies and semi-public organizations had started.

All those Dutch “civil-servants-and-managers-feeling-entrepreneurs” forgot their valuable and hard-learned lessons from the past and started to look for the holy grail of “leadership, efficiency and effectivity”. It was the upcoming era of the management book, in which American heroes like Tom Peters, Stephen Covey and Deepak Chopra wrote their “books of the new testament”. As the number of management books with their different solutions and opinions soared, the confusion among our Dutch ‘leaders’ came to a peak.

At the same time they lost connection with their personnel at an alarming speed and instead adopted the Anglo-Saxon business babble, in which concepts like FTE (i.e. full time equivalent) as synonym for a worker, MI (management information), dashboards (Excel control screens based on graphs and charts) and KPI’s ( Key Performance Indicator) for managers ruled.

Self-steering, self-aware and cooperatively thinking personnel became out of fashion (i.e. Theory Y-personnel).

Instead, the managers and their ‘robotized’ personnel had to follow the ‘brilliant’ thoughts and wild, thoughtless ideas of their leaders and ‘entrepreneurs’ to the last syllable. Almost every new management technique brought new reorganizations to sometimes already shell-shocked companies. Since then it has become the time of Theory X with its explicit notions that people are lazy and dishonest in nature and have to be forced to work.

Loyal and motivated workers lost the implicit trust from their superiors and had to be bound up in KPI’s, evaluations and assessments, while being subdued through seminars, workshops, management courses and personal effectivity trainings etc. Instinct was out of fashion, while personal effectivity training was in. People that wanted to have personal freedom, became either executive in a company, independent entrepreneur or sometimes even unemployed.

Since those days Captain Entrepreneur (the fake, no-risk-involved, entrepreneur) has been starting his reign in The Netherlands, being worshipped by his fellow would-be entrepreneurs, conservatives and political leaders in our country. At the same time the worker has been sinking deeper and deeper in the quicksand of management techniques, conditioning and constraints, while being more and more dehumanized.

On the (business) talk-radio stations Captain Entrepreneur is ruling. Almost every third radio commercial is aimed at the entrepreneur and offers him various services, in order to ‘give him enough time to do what he does best: doing business!’

Lifestyle magazines, dedicated to Captain Entrepreneur, offer expensive travel, clothes, restaurants, art, watches and cars and boring stories to feed his hedonistic behavior and skin-deep lifestyle. For real interesting stories about real, interesting people you might better read an eighties Playboy than a current lifestyle magazine; I am really not kidding.

Don’t think that I’m against entrepreneurs. To the contrary. You could remark that the core of entrepreneurship is running risks: risk of failing, defaulting and losing your life savings and business after years and years of hard work. Therefore it takes brave, fearless and energetic people to start their own business; especially in times of economic hardship. After they stumble and fall, the real entrepreneurs stand up again and give it another try. The less successful or daring ones find a regular job or life in poverty, while paying their dues.

In this matter, the real entrepreneur should be considered a (small) hero, as his efforts and ‘battles for glory and personal wealth’ can offer innovation, opportunities, employment and prosperity to many people. Many fail, but also many succeed and offer numerous jobs to millions of workers all over the country.

However, many CEO’s and executives of midsize, large and multinational companies, which have already existed for many years and offer virtually no risk for their CEO’s, feel also like entrepreneurs. And the former civil servants and public officials of privatized, ex- government services feel also like entrepreneurs, although they never ran a risk and never had to battle against poverty and hardship.

The result of these developments have been:
  • Successful real entrepreneurs, but also many, many ‘fake’ entrepreneurs – the CEO’s (!) and executive managers, the traders and dealers and former government officials – are the superheroes in The Netherlands: Captain Entrepreneur;
  • Many other real entrepreneurs – the small business-owners, the small shopowners and the freelancers  who run the real risks in the business- have been hit very hard by the economic crisis, as they feel the ubiquitous loss of unemployment and consumer confidence the most. Especially many freelancers and small business owners should have or would have never started a business, when they would have had a real choice in the past;
  • And last, but not least, the worker, who was mostly happy and satisfied with his job and his salary and who had never further ambitions for becoming an entrepreneur, has become the pathetic loser in the eyes of the leading political and economic caste. 
    • He can be called and seen as an FTE by his bosses, who treat him with disdain and pseudo-compassion;
    • The worker is tolerated as long as he follows the instructions and techniques of his management and increases his efficiency and output per day, even through a neverending flow of reorganizations and efficiency-increasing programs;
    • Many workers – especially in large companies – have no direct interest anymore in helping their company-as-a-whole to become more effective and successful; Instead, they are busy with helping their superior line manager to earn him his KPI’s, so he receives his bonus. This behavior leads to companies, operating like ‘islands in the stream’:
      • It is often more appreciated and even tolerated to help your manager solve a €50,000 problem than to help somebody from another department to solve a €5 million problem that hits the whole company.
    • In large companies, many personnel members have never seen their executive management in real life, even after years and years of working at the same company. Except for images on the intranet and on television, these people are total strangers, who come and go in blinded limousines and only enter restricted parts of the offices, where normal personnel doesn’t have access;
    • During these days, many companies announce mass-lay offs with the comment that ‘they have to diminish their production capacity with 1500 FTE’s in order to stay competitive in their line of business’. With such a message 1500 people or more (in case of part-time workers) lose their job: man as the perfect dehumanized means of production. 

Of course, this bleak picture is not true at every company. There are still lots of compassionate directors, who still call themselves ‘director’ and who know every personnel member by name.

Or executive managers and entrepreneurs in large and growing companies, who visit every department on a regular basis and still look at every detail with the love for the job that they felt in the beginning of their careers.

People, who don’t feel more important than their personnel and only want the best for them and their families, sometimes even at their own expense.

However, unfortunately the number of fake entrepreneurs and leaders is growing: people, who think only about themselves, their careers and their own wealth and never about their personnel. One of the worst examples of this species might be Jan Bennink of DE Masterblenders.

At the same time, the dehumanization of personnel is increasing:
  • Loyal workers, who are replaced by people that don’t do a better job, but just earn less income. Just because the competition also does the same;
  • Workers that work in increasingly risky circumstances, as freelancers, as their bosses don’t want to have personnel with a fixed contract anymore and don't bother to pay for a safe working environment and protective clothing. 

  • And personnel that are almost on a 24x7 working duty, as the flow of telephone calls, emails and direct messages never stops during their spare time and an immediate response is always expected. 

The worst example of this dehumanization was perhaps last week’s case at Merrill Lynch in the London City. 

A young, German student and would-be banker – Moritz Erhardt - collapsed and died, reputedly after a working period of a fortnight with no less than eight sleepless nights and – at the moment of his death -, reputedly three sleepless nights in a row upon his sleeve. The Daily Mail wrote upon this story:

Mr Erhardt was nearing the end of a seven-week internship with Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s investment division. It has been claimed he had worked through the night eight times in two weeks at the firm’s London office to impress his bosses.

Reports suggested that Mr Erhardt, who was found collapsed in the shower in his Bethnal Green flat and was said to suffer from epilepsy, could have had a seizure.

A fellow intern at the bank said Mr Erhardt was ‘the superstar’. He added: ‘We typically work 15 hours a day or more and you would not find a harder worker than him. He was very popular with everyone. He was tipped for greatness.

Unsurprisingly, those who make it through and become interns are desperate to prove their worth. They know that if they land themselves a full-time position it could potentially earn them a six or even seven-figure pay packet in the future.

According to one senior figure who has worked at a number of major investment banks, the idea is to throw them in at the deep end and see who sinks and who swims.

‘It is like a baptism of fire really,’ she says. ‘What people have to get their heads around with banking is that it is different from other industries.

‘Your competitor isn’t necessarily the trader in another bank, your competitor is the man or woman sitting next to you. Because if you don’t hit the profit targets — for an intern it would be a performance target — and the person sitting next to you does, then he is going to get the job. You’re competing all the time.'

Of course this is an outlier. At least I hope so! Still, this must be the epithomy of dehumanization of work and workers.

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