{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Value investing

What do you do?” challenged the Chief Executive Officer. His tailor-made three-piece pinstripe suit and garish diamond cufflinks befitted a rapper, pimp, drug dealer, or executive who had just led his enterprise to record profits.

The exec’s appearance was jarringly incongruous with his recent stern-faced town hall proclamation that the industry was experiencing its toughest trading conditions in a generation, with difficult times ahead. His speech had concluded with a stern warning that permanent staff not be too disheartened by the size of their yet to be announced annual bonuses. They were lucky to still have jobs at all!

Across the table from the exec sat a young man. Confident. Lean. Fit. Sharply dressed. Sporting a beard worthy of a barista. An employee who had worked at the firm for several years. An underling with whom the exec had met and interacted on numerous occasions.

I’m an agile coach” he proudly responded with a broad smile.

I don’t care what your self-aggrandising job title is, I asked what do you do! What do you sell? What do you build? What would fall over or stop working if you weren’t here? What value do bring?

The hirsute hipster paused for a second, not understanding the question.

I help organisations and teams adopt more agile mindsets and working practices.

The CEO gave a withering glare, thoroughly unimpressed.

Do you deliver the projects?

No, but…

Do you work on the projects?

Well, no …

So you talk about the work done by others. Encouraging them to abandon planning and strategy in favour of trial and error. Advising them to keep iterating in the hope that they will magically stumble across a viable outcome before the stakeholder’s patience or money runs out?

I woudn’t put it quite like that…” stammered the agile coach, confidence utterly shattered.

The CEO wasn’t listening, the peon written off as a valueless non-entity. Unworthy of his time.

His gaze had shifted to the next person at the conference table. A stern-faced lady with an unruly mop of red hair, coke bottle glasses, and absolutely no sense of humour. Serious. Terse. A brilliant mind.

I am the head of the data integration.

So you take data we already have from one commercial system we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and move it to another commercial system we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for? That makes you a plumber. Do you build the pipes? Unclog them? Maintain them?

No.” she responded, matter of factly. Already seeing the direction the conversation was heading.

What do you mean, ‘no’?

Sometimes we move data we already have into in-house developed systems that we continue to pay millions of dollars for. Sometimes we bend, twist, polish, or enhance it along the way because we use those hundred thousand dollar systems incorrectly or because they solve a different problem to the one we actually have.

But you don’t build anything, personally?

Not any more. I was easily the best engineer in the team, so I was promoted away from the tools into a middle management role for which I had no prior experience and received no relevant training. Now I attend meetings and participate in the shell game hustle of ‘doing more with less’.

The CEO stared at her for a moment. Unsure whether he was hearing scathing sarcasm or unvarnished truth. Possibly both.

Next in line was a smug thirty-something wearing expensive trainers and a vintage superhero t-shirt. Perfect hair. Carefully groomed eyebrows. Designer stubble.

I’m a thought leader, influencer, and serial entrepreneur. Ex-Google. Ex-Facebook.

Silence descended upon the room as everyone parsed that description for any form of substance. Finding none, their collective attention shifted to the CEO, like a crowd watching a tennis match.

Is that really the best you can do? Define yourself based upon things you were, but are no longer?

Google obviously didn’t want you, they let you go.

Facebook neither.

If you had been successful at entrepreneurship you would have name-dropped the ventures you founded, or the successful exits you had achieved. But you didn’t. Because you haven’t.

Instead, you are a cliché. Wearing Allbirds and a ridiculous gilet. Parroting facile soundbites you have stolen, but don’t understand, from others in your social media bubble. Perhaps you have carved out a reputation as the smart guy in the cycling club or the visionary technologist amongst the Dads at your child’s school. People who don’t know any better. Thought leadership indeed!

The smugness has fallen from the handsome face. Now he looked like he was about to cry.

The C-suite occupant’s brutal attention focused on the final person at the table. A self-important greying white guy with a receding hairline and middle-aged spread.

I’m an Enterprise…

STOP!” bellowed the CEO. His hand slammed down on the table, making everyone jump and the target of his ire flinch. “I don’t want to hear your 30,000-foot ivory tower view of how businesses should operate if they had no legacy baggage. We live in the real world, not some rose-tinted utopia that only exists in your imagination.

The older guy rocked back in his chair as though he had been slapped. His mouth opened and closed a few times as he struggled to find the words to object or justify his continued existence, without appearing to be rude or contradict the CEO’s strongly held beliefs.

The CEO stood and sighed. His body language radiating disappointment.

You have all let yourselves down today.

None of you were able to describe what you bring to this organisation.

To articulate how your efforts align with the value chain.

How they are linked to the attracting, retaining, or servicing of our customers?

How they contribute to the bottom line or serve the interests of our shareholders?

Why your retention is in the best interests of the company?

Whether anyone would even notice if you were gone?

Nobody cares more about those answers than you do. You have a vested interest in that retention decision. Your livelihood. Your pension. Your health insurance. Your professional reputation. To pay your bills. To provide for your family.

After spending half an hour in this room with you, I’m still none the wiser as to what it is you do all day? What contribution you make to earn your salaries? Merely turning up is not a job. Filling your calendar with meetings and video conferences is not a job.

If you struggle to describe what you do that is worthwhile, when invited to do so by an attentive audience, then you are probably not doing anything worthwhile at all.

So I ask you again: What. Do. You. DO?

The CEO paused for dramatic effect, then strode from the room. The other attendees glanced at one another. They had nothing.

A former colleague had recounted their retention interview over coffee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they now had considerably more free time on their hands, while they sought alternative employment. The job market remained buoyant, though no longer so frothy that hiring bonuses and eye-watering salaries bordering on the ridiculous were readily on offer.

We had caught up with another colleague, who was about to return to the workplace after a year of maternity leave. After having attended a couple of Keeping In Touch days at the office, she was seriously questioning whether she wanted to return to work at all, let alone return to the same industry, firm, team, and role.

In days gone by, she had been the workaholic rising superstar. Always available. Always hustling. Always saying yes. Parachuted into a succession of sought-after assignments, for which she had little relevant experience, sink or swim style. Each time she had frantically struggled initially, before ultimately conquering the challenge with commendable poise and finesse.

Her change in family circumstances had led to a re-evaluation of priorities and time investment decisions. Every hour spent working was now an hour spent away from her child. Every weekend squandered working was a foregone family outing or missed opportunity to make memories.

We spoke about the challenges of acclimatising young children to the new nursery attendance routine. Some kids thrive on the additional stimulation and opportunity to play with other children. Others struggle, unable to comprehend why their parents abandoned them to the care of strangers in unfamiliar surroundings, preferring to spend time “at work” rather than with them.

She recounted being taken aback by some of the artwork decorating the nursery walls. A recent classroom exercise where the teachers dictated each child’s response to questions asked about their families.

Question: “What job does Mum do?

Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Goes to the office”. “Shouts at people on the phone”. “Looks sad and fights with her boss”.

Question: “What does Mum do when she is at home?”

Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Sleeps”. “Cries”. “Chores”.

Question: “What makes Mum happy?”

Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Hiding from Daddy”. “Tequila”. “Hugs

Her response had been instant and visceral. Thinking what horrible home environments these must be, with monstrous parents indelibly scarring their impressionable offspring through their choices and deeds.

Then she thought about it for a second or two. Realising what was described were unfiltered everyday vignettes from real life, when viewed through the eyes of a young child who lacked the understanding to put them in context. It was confronting. Easy to imagine her own daughter describing her home life in similar terms in just a few weeks’ time.

She wasn’t sure that was the life she wanted to return to. For herself or her family.

Where was the value in that? Who were the real stakeholders, whose interests needed looking after?

She had a vested interest in that outcome, just as our former colleague had in his troubling retention interview.

But she also had bills to pay. An unsatisfying equation. Recognition that sometimes the only available choices are bad ones.

The problem was she had now seen through the game.

Recognised that work was an enabler, not an end goal the way it had previously appeared. Her career was no longer a choice she would consciously choose to make, were it not for the money and lifestyle it provided.

She no longer wanted to rule the world. Just to have enough.

Enough time.

Enough energy.

Enough money, with which to enjoy the world with her daughter.

Investing her time in pursuits that had real value. Not squandering it placating insecure bosses. Nor wasting it working on projects that were ill-conceived or doomed to failure. Nor playing silly games of office politics.

Feeling like she was standing on the edge of an abyss, her heartfelt plea to us both had been: “what do I do?

I wish I had a good answer. I’m fifteen years further down the same road, but alas I am no closer to discovering the answer.

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  1. Chris 5 February 2023

    A shame no one returned the question to the CEO!

    However, examples like this remind me why I’m happy in a non qualified (but qualified on paper) lawyer role focussing only on the files, none of bringing in business rubbish being mandated and having dropped to a permanent 4 day week a few years ago in my early-mis 30s.

    Work is overrated in my view, I’m with the likes of Keynes and Russell that one should be able to do the bare minimum to have the basics in life and anything more on top of that something to aim for or gloss over.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 5 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks Chris.

      The CEO certainly sounded like an unpleasant individual, but from what I understand they had also been at the helm of the firm when it had achieved record profits.

      Does that excuse their behaviour towards their staff? No.

      Does it demonstrate value delivered to customers or shareholders? Possibly.

      Does it suggest the company is being positioned for future long term success? Probably not.

      That said, there are worse ways of reducing unnecessary overhead than attempting to cull the passengers and dead wood. I’ve worked places where cutbacks were far more arbitrary. Selected based on team, location, longevity, letters of the alphabet, or odd/even desk allocations. It is never nice for those on the receiving end, nor for those who remain behind suddenly finding themselves trying to get a demoralised team to produce the same output with even fewer bodies.

  2. John Smith 6 February 2023

    Nice, classical selling our brain and time for money, ruled by primitive capitalist A.I. (named CEO). So it about our finite time on this planet versus infinite fiat money printed, to afford arbitrarily [“market free”] priced basic things for a decent life.

    A.I. could decide that the man-work is too expensive: illness, pension, training, strikes, office space,coffee wasted time, etc.
    What will do the stableman (handling the cattle) when his role is useless? Lets ask ChatGTP …

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks John Smith.

      What do the people who are left behind do when the world moves on without them? Just look at disadvantaged populations, for example the former mining, manufacturing, or rural ghost towns. It isn’t pretty. Complain, get angry, and endorse the views of for whichever populist politician or right wing newspaper tells them the lies that they want hear. Boris. Truss. Trump. Bolsonaro. Le Pen. Orban. Take your pick.

  3. The Investor 6 February 2023

    I’ve done work with these sorts of CEOs. Invariably they have a sales background / culture.

    That’s not to knock it (sales is the hardest thing) but few great companies are built these days without integrating data or cultivating excellent culture and teamwork.

    What he was looking for is “I enable colleagues to work together more efficiently to increase revenue per employee” or “By enabling the integration of third-party data, we’re able to sell our platform in over the heads of legacy installations and win customers from the competition.”

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 February 2023 — Post author

      Go to the head of the class, TI, you get full marks!

      Truth is, we are all in sales. Selling our skills, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Those of us who earn a living by enriching others need to be able to link our relevance to whatever they happen to measure success by. For some that is sales, others customer satisfaction, yet others prefer productivity.

  4. weenie 7 February 2023

    The company I work for has now grown to a size where I have no idea what some of the new people do from their job titles. HR in particular seem to have ballooned in size with people who don’t have ‘HR’ in their titles.

    I think if asked the question of what I ‘do’, I’m quite confident that I’d be able to answer easily because I find myself explaining on a regular basis to folks who seem to think I do ‘everything’!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      Job titles often leave me wondering. These days everyone seems to be a “Head of” something or a CxO, where the x runs the length of the alphabet rather than just the traditional CEO, CFO, and COO roles that had seats on the board.

      One place I worked had a CTO, a CIO, and a CDO. Nobody could figure out who to shout at when their reports didn’t tell the story they wanted! My all time favourite remains the Chief Awesomizer, a role that was brief but gloriously vague and opaque.

  5. David Andrews 10 February 2023

    Urgh “do more with less”, agile methodologies, daily stand-ups and retrospectives to justify your existence.

    Agile in my organisation seems to involve breaking everything, everywhere all at once. Attempting to instil caution via thorough testing, and phased production releases hasn’t been embraced.

    That new client / project which had a support team of 11, well it’s 2 now and you’re one of them – “do more with less”. I think I’ll soon be doing more ( fun activities ) with less (employment earnings).

  6. ermine 11 February 2023

    Advising them to keep iterating in the hope that they will magically stumble across a viable outcome before the stakeholder’s patience or money runs out?”

    Best definition of Agile I’ve heard for a long time. It was garbage when I first came across it 15 years ago and it’s still bull now, and the reason why software doesn’t work properly nowadays, and you have endless updateitis (though processing network-source data and security go some way to excuse some of that).

    I still use Quicken 2004 and indeed MS word 2010 because these are still serviceable programs just from before Agile ate the world and gave people the excuse to develop software by trial and error, with the emphasis on the latter. Churning out minimum viable products etc are great for the business and suck for the hapless customers.

    I’ve glad to be shot of that sort of crap for more than a decade now. When I started work we used to at least try and make things work properly rather than Agile – a.k.a. Bodgit and Scarper 😉

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks ermine.

      Serious question: did the old waterfall way work any better, if we’re honest?

      I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m not convinced it did. It just failed in a different way.

      Most of what is done in the name of agile is speculative and in hindsight proves to have been waste of time regretwork. The systems still don’t really work, and still don’t really meet the needs of users. The architecture becomes an endless series of tactical patches and bandaids, until growing pains and cumulative compromise becomes so unwieldy it eventually collapses under its own weight. Usually however, the political winds have changed long before that point, with the latest shiny seizing the imagination (and the lion’s share of the budget) before that becomes the main issue.

      But back in the olden days the business case was the same: speculative, containing a bunch of made up numbers and dates, on the premise that what was thought to be the problem actually was the problem.

      The difference was back then you had to do a bunch of upfront analysis to be reasonably sure, as the political cost/effort of making a pitch was huge and you only tended to get one swing at it. Miss, and it became someone else’s problem.

      Whereas today you just get started on the premise that eventually you’ll recognise the actual problem when you see it. Instead of delivering the wrong product with great fanfare in a big bang two years hence, we deliver tentatively deliver the wrong product with a quiet whimper next week. It is still wrong, just wrong faster!

      For every ancient behemoth like SAP or credit risk or telecoms routing that have stood the test of time, there are a million abandoned solutions that quietly curled up in a dark corner someplace and died. We don’t talk about them, or even remember them.

      Most of these arise come from poorly understood requirements, understanding what the real question that needs answering before starting to build the answer. Get that wrong, and it really doesn’t matter which implementation methodology is flavour of the week!

  7. JBL 11 February 2023

    Titles sound good till you see through them, which many don’t. Ive seen ‘Head of’ and other such titles being introduced as part of a restructure. Newly promoted very likely being paid less (to do more) than those who did the job before but made redundant, but hey they had a sought after title, good for next job hunt when the time came. It can in some circumstances be a way of selling a new role for less pay.

  8. BeardyBillionaireBloke 11 February 2023

    I remember a new boss introducing himself by saying he would get rid of 1/3 of us if he could. Which showed that he couldn’t. I still have no idea what he thought was gained by that little speech.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks BeardyBillionaireBloke.

      Lol, that made me chuckle. The gormless lackwit thought he was flexing, putting you all on notice that you were on borrowed time. Instead he revealed himself to be an impotent blowhard. At least you all knew what to expect, either waiting him out (it doesn’t sound like it would take long) or take control and commence the job hunt for a gig where the manager wasn’t quite so pointyheaded.

  9. Impersonal Finances 12 February 2023

    Hey! I like Allbirds…

    The example of the best engineer being promoted to something outside of their scope resonates. Hey, since you’re great at this one thing, let’s try you at this other thing for which you have no experience or qualifications. The corporate world is a weird, weird place. The more I learn the less I wish I knew.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 February 2023 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances. My philosophy is if it makes you happy, and doesn’t hurt anyone else, then go for it. Allbirds included.

      The corporate world is a weird, weird place. The more I learn the less I wish I knew.

      I know what you mean. This client I once worked with was a bit like the band in the Blues Bros. They’d all worked together at one place, it got taken over and they scattered, then a couple of years later the founders got bored and lined up to do it all again with a new firm. They put the band back together, bringing back their old colleagues and sticking them into whatever roles happened to be available. Which meant there were loads of really smart folks with reputations as people who could, but doing exactly the wrong jobs where they had little/no experience and were generally ineffective at best (or failing miserably at worst). Not really a recipe for success when executed at scale, but highlights the folly of trying to put square pegs in round holes and expecting miracles.

What say you?

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