Corporate America Teaches Life

For years I have been railing against my (mostly conservative) friends who would sing the praises of big business while decrying the notion of big government. When I would point out that the two walk lock-step with one another, their favorite go-to line was “Well, if I have to choose, I’d rather choose big business.”


That’s the point; there is no choice, because there is no difference, and no light between them; a fact that has played out right before our very eyes over the past 10 months; big business has thrived during the pandemic and seen profits explode while more than 100,000 small businesses have closed forever, with tens of thousands more about to.


Meanwhile, the few large corporations that were financially impacted received extraordinary bailout funds (disguised as “loans” which will be completely forgiven) while the paltry PPP program for small business was a pittance akin to feeding the peasants gruel while the elites dined on Lobster Newberg.


And yet, I would assert that in a perfect world, every American would work for Corporate America for at least one year.


I was recalling my time working for a broadcasting company recently and realized all of the life lessons the experience gave me. Not merely related to success, finance and business; but also, to interpersonal relationships, the art of communication and manipulation, the burden of knowledge, and most importantly, the unfairness of life. Not the unfairness of the big-bad American Capitalist System; the unfairness of life in all its’ forms.


In my mid 20’s I was a middle manager in a mega-million-dollar corporation with one direct boss in the building that I worked that I reported to. He reported to his three bosses, scattered around the country, who all reported to the big boss. And so, begin the lessons.


As the Operations Manager for our five Reno radio stations, I oversaw around 35 employees and everything that related to the stations being on the air: engineering, air talent, contests & events, and the production and execution of all music and commercials that aired. In the industry, I oversaw what radio calls the “programming department,” and with that, came the oversight of the “programming” budget, which, if you are an ambitious soul, sounds a lot more exciting than it is.


“Oversight” didn’t mean control. It meant containment; and if I wanted one dollar more than what had been allocated to me, I had to crawl into my boss’s office and beg for it. If he agreed, he had to do the same to his boss, and so on up the chain, all the way to the big guy. And more times than not, no matter how well I was doing my job or my stations were performing, the answer was “no,” in my boss’s office, and the discussion was over. Thus, I slunk back to my (smaller) office and started getting creative; adapting and finding another way to achieve the goal I had set because I had to. After all, if I knew my idea would improve ratings, and was refused funds to execute it, that didn’t make my idea wrong! Additionally, if I didn’t execute my idea in whatever way I could make it happen, and my department’s performance suffered, I’d be the one to pay for it. Self-preservation can be a hell of a motivator.


As overlord of the programming budget, every October I was given a dollar figure which I was to distribute over my departments and employees for the next 12 months beginning in January. I had no say over the dollar figure, and maddeningly, it wasn’t tied at all to my departments’ performances. In fact, one year, after extraordinary ratings on all of our stations and flawless execution…my budget was cut. You see, while the stations had performed beyond impressively, the sales staff at the time had failed to convert those ratings into revenue. And since revenue is a fancy word for “money,” there was less to go around. And since it’s the sales staff that actually brings in the revenue, that department’s budget couldn’t be cut because they needed to attract better salespeople, and it takes money to attract talented people. In fact, their budget increased.


So, my team and I had out-performed on every level and now I had to make cuts in our departments; meanwhile, the side of the building that massively underperformed was being handed more money to spend. There is nothing fair about that.


Making it worse, was the burden on my shoulders now. If you haven’t surmised, it was now solely my decision who would keep their jobs and who would lose their jobs…on a team that as a collective was achieving all of its stated goals and more.


Oh sure, I could just cut everyone’s salaries across the board and give the “we’re all in this together,” speech, but where’s the equity and motivation in that? What truly talented employee would stand for that? I wouldn’t. Had I been the employee rather than the boss in that scenario, I’d immediately begin looking elsewhere. As for those who were less talented and driven? They’re the ones who would stay and feel like they would always be safe and they would have no motivation to even bother to continue to perform at their current levels, let alone higher ones. Plus, as Jack Welch, the brilliant former CEO of General Electric always believed: no matter how large or talented any staff is, there’s always a bottom 10%; the 1 out of ten that isn’t performing at the level of the other 9. No, there would be no Socialism-style approach to solving this problem.



Once I decided how many positions I had to cut, and whose heads would be chopped off, I then had to figure out how to get the work that they were doing still done, without hiring people to replace them. And then there was the issue of existing employees that I knew would be staying who were also due for, and deserving of, salary increases. Was I to sit down with them and give them the “life isn’t fair speech,” (not exactly a very motivating message to send) or do I terminate a few additional employees to open up the budget and allow for better compensation for the more talented people who would be spared?


In case you’re wondering why I went right to firing people, there’s a very simple answer to that; labor costs businesses more than anything else, a cold fact that has led the advanced rush towards more and more automation. Additionally, in radio, cuts in engineering or contesting are crumbs compared to the costs of not only paying salaries, but also the insurance and benefits for each person you employ.


And so-began the awesome responsibility of deciding the livelihoods of people I worked with every single day, and in some cases partied with every single weekend. For the next week, I had the burden of knowing that at least one, if not three, of the people I was having drinks and laughing uproariously with, was going to lose their job (and I was going to be the one who told them so). And that whole sitcom idea of being the “cool boss” who tells his team “hey guys, let’s tone it down tonight because there might be some changes coming soon,” is beyond unrealistic and is dreadfully unintelligent. Why instill anxiety and panic in everyone, when only a many few are even being considered for the chopping block? Why ruin everyone’s good times? No, this was my burden, and I asked for it when I accepted the position.


One more fun part of the burden of knowledge; I had a week to make the decisions. Then, I had to submit my budget and wait for corporate to approve it. And then once it was approved, I had to wait weeks before implementing it. So, I spent many holiday seasons knowing which 2, 7, or 15 people wouldn’t have a job by February. Good times.


As for the actual decision-making process of who stayed and who went, that, believe it or not, was the easiest part. Maybe it’s because I grew up playing sports, which teaches you early on that star players get star treatment. The best performers weren’t just safe from termination, they were immediately guaranteed not only raises, but every form of accolade and perk I could throw upon them. A happy star is a star that wants to win for you. If he wins, you win; it’s that simple.


The final step would be execution. Believe it or not, there’s an art to workplace employment massacres and good managers do it this way, in my experience: You start with the weakest person on staff, the one everyone knows is the weakest, and terminate them first (privately and with compassion, of course, but you still get the job done). In terms of the intricacies of how you fire people, that’s for another soapbox.


From there, you work your way up, one by one, all in the same day. The reason for this is that word quickly spreads that not just the weakest link has been let go (which could have happened at any point and the whole team knows it) but so has Jim, Nancy, and Bill. Uh-oh…could I be next? What’s going on? What will I do if it’s me?


The final firing is the one that will be perceived as the most shocking. And then it’s over. Since terminations aren’t a 5-minute idea, this process usually chews up an entire day. It’s not the worst thing in the world that the rest of your team has to go home and stew on the events of the day. One evening of anxiety on a work night is manageable and far from cruel. As for that inevitable employee who walks into your office at the end of the day and asks about what’s going on and whether or not they’re next, a simple “you know I can’t talk about that. If I tell you, then I have to keep telling everyone who asks,” should suffice. Although occasionally I would add in “if I were you, I’d spend some time evaluating why you think you’re vulnerable to being fired.”


The final piece of the puzzle is the dust settling. The next day, there are no more terminations. In fact, there are meetings in which people are told that they’re receiving raises and that they’re truly valued. The affect this has, if done correctly, is powerful beyond words. They see with their own eyes that they matter. They also have all of their anxiety lifted, which sends endorphins rushing, adding to the euphoria they feel when they realize they’ll be making more money. All of that makes it very easy for them to absorb the news that they’ll be taking on more responsibilities to compensate for those no longer working with us.


Job done. Sound cold, brutal, and harsh? It is. It’s one of the fewest and closest ways humans experience what it’s like to live in nature. One of the best ways to teach people about life is watch the National Geographic channel with them and ask simple questions like…so which would you rather be? The lion or the zebra?


All of this was to re-enforce exactly that; this stint in Corporate America, an experience difficult to replicate almost anywhere else (other than perhaps the military and professional athletics), taught me how to thrive across all parts of my life, well beyond professionally. In a scenario such as the one I laid out, you learn about empathy, communication, compassion, human cruelty and kindness. You also realize, if you allow yourself to do so, that the situation I was in is the one you’ll experience throughout your life over and over again. When a wife tells her husband she’s unexpectedly pregnant, that’s akin to lighting the match of my story when I was told my revenue had been cut. It sets into motion a series of burdensome decisions that must be made, financial and otherwise, that will have rippling and impactful consequences. The fact that too many people haven’t learned what I learned early in life is the reason so many of them crumble as humans and curl up into the fetal position at the first sign of adversity.


If you hate the tale I have told here, there’s a lesson there too, if you experienced it as I did. Get out and start your own company. The burdens still exist, as do the harsh decisions and human devastation, but at least you’re 100% in control of all of it, and no one is telling you anything or holding you back.


By the way, there is a happy ending to this story. While the scenario I laid out played out more than once in my career, it didn’t in the year that my revenue had been cut. Upon submitting my budget, ending the employment of 5 people, I also submitted a written appeal. I never argued that it “wasn’t fair,” rather, I pointed out all of the accomplishments of my team in the previous year and their extraordinary results. I acknowledged that radio is a business, and while revenues were down, there was quite literally nothing more that my departments could have done to alter that. I argued that perhaps the very people in the building who were excelling shouldn’t be punished for doing so.


They approved my budget as submitted and then they approved my appeal. The revenue had been re-instated to use at my discretion.


Which sent into motion a story for another time…do I keep the 5 employees I was going to fire, or do I let them go and use the revenue to more handsomely reward and incentivize those who were performing at the highest levels?

That’s the biggest lesson learned. Just like living, other than death, “life” never ends. There is no “it will all be better when,” moment in life. Solving one problem often creates others. Victories often lead to challenges or defeats, and defeats and failures can lead to the most extraordinary moments of your life, if you learn from them and never give up.


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