Stanley Bing

Ask Bing: Time to face the board

Speak to them as if they were very bright 10-year-olds. Be truthful, but not stupid-truthful.

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By Stanley Bing

If the economy does move toward full inflation, as some economists are predicting, is the safest haven in bonds or stocks?

Yes, for sure. Unless it isn't. What's important is that if we're in a recession, you plan accordingly, unless we're in an inflationary bubble, which is also possible. On the other hand, I read this week that the recession will begin over the summer. Unless it already started and is almost over. Mostly, I think the one incontrovertible truth is that nobody has any idea. I like municipal bonds, because they look safer than stocks right now, but then there's the whole insurance thing that's disquieting. There's also the box-under-the-bed strategy, or land, or gold, or the mattress in the attic, or something else, depending. Or you could just buy a lot of very good steak and excellent wine and keep them in a cool, dark place. At least you'll eat well until this is all over. Beyond that, please ignore anything I say, or anything anybody else says. I hope this has been helpful.

I work for a fast-growing industrial distributor in a developing country for a business with two owners; very different companies from different countries. When we formed the joint venture three years ago I was the only manager from the U.S. partner. I had an active role in shaping the venture. Two years ago I was put in charge of a new strategic direction, a division that is quite a bit different from the core business. By most measures my group has been successful and profitability is much higher than that of the rest of the business, but the sales cycle and risk profile are very different so we are kind of a troublesome step-child.

Since being given this key task I have slowly lost influence in the overall business. This is bad enough, but now I have two other big problems; three of my local staff were getting kickbacks from customers and suppliers. We fired them as soon as we found out, and my engineers have made costing mistakes in two very complex projects, bringing profit down to almost nothing for them.

I need to face the Board soon. I'm taking measures to put better controls in place, and more people. I've asked for more people in the past and been refused, so I'm not completely alone. You seem to have seen just about everything. What else should I do besides put controls in place, try to prevent more problems, and continue to grow the business?

I'd pack a bag and prepare to get out of town. No, but seriously. That fact that you're actually looking forward to what you can do in the future speaks well for your ability to maintain a bright and sunny outlook in the face of really discouraging news. That's an asset in any business.

First, I would lay it all out for the Board. Speak to them as if they were very bright 10-year-olds. You need to help them understand why your business is different, and what the potential upside is. Then you need to lay out where investment to achieve that upside makes sense. You will then need to have them understand, in very broad strokes, where some things have gone wrong. And indicate that those who have screwed up have been decruited with extreme prejudice.

In describing the "challenges" that you have faced, however, be truthful but not stupid-truthful. Remember that you can fire half the world, but in the end, as you're standing up there before them, you are the executive on whose watch all this stuff happened. So it's a short jump to having them wonder what the hell you're still doing around.

Tell them why things are going to be great if you get the resources you need. Lay out where things have gone wrong in the past and where you moved to fix them, by the (Sarbanes-Oxley) book. Then head for the border and go for the order. Hell, it's a sales job like anything else.

My boss used to be a sales person just like the rest of us. Now that he was promoted he still has his best friends amongst the sales staff and they are the only ones who are told anything going on. In addition he treats them differently from the others. The rest of us do not trust him with any confidential or personal work information as we all know that he will tell his buddies right away. This makes it very hard to work with him as a manager when I do not trust him to keep a confidence. It has affected the work atmosphere at our firm. Any thoughts as to how to tell him that what is he doing is wrong and inappropriate in a corporate environment?

Nope. You have a bad boss. I've known a lot of guys like him. There was one fellow who moved from job to job over a period of 20 years, dragging the same goons with him wherever he went. He would go to a place, fire all the good people there and replace them with his minions because, he said, he "didn't want to leave one Marine behind." He'd bring all his Marines in, screw up the business, and then leave for another place to jerk around with, once again taking his sorry-assed bunch of losers with him. While they were in charge at any place, however, they ran things, and unless you were part of the Platoon you were pretty much SOL.

In times like these, it is often the quiet, dogged, highly professional members of the permanent government who prevail over the long haul. Like, imagine you were somebody who cared about the environment working in the Bush administration's EPA, which is pretty much dedicated to representing whatever lobbying or commercial interests have an agenda with the government. Or a person concerned about the quality of children's toothpaste, and you work in China. You may have to simply keep your head down, find like-minded people to work close to and drink with after hours... and wait until somebody who can adequately represent what you believe is a proper strategy comes into power. Just because you're not part of the ruling cadre doesn't mean you can't survive. It's just tougher is all.

And don't forget to act your part. You can't fool all of the bosses all of the time. But some of the time is often enough. To top of page

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