Monday, April 19, 2004

Career Opportunities (The Ones That Never Knock)

What's the point of career progression? Recently I applied for an advertised job within the company and I wasn't successful. Many assumed I would get this job, indeed my direct line manager had told me that he thought I was a "cert" for it, however it turns out that I did a bad interview for the job. Basically I came across as being too blunt and strong willed to my interviewers - one of whom knows me to work with, two of whom would have had little or no dealings with me in the past. The structure here is important before I get on to my main point. I work for a major multi-national pharmaceutical corporation in a Production facility - I would be considered Production Management, but I would be at the bottom of the management ladder. Within each department there are sub-departments with technical staff (me), Team Leaders and a Manager. There are then Department Directors, a Site Leader, then Regional Directors and finally Global Leaders. That's a LOT of levels. At my site, across the departments, there are maybe 50 young technical staff, 16 Team Leaders, 10 managers, 4 Department Directors and 1 Site Leader. There are 8 sites in the region and a few regions in the Global setup. In other words the classical large company pyramidal structure with a very wide base of ambitious, young professionals and an ever narrowing tip of promotional opportunities.

There's a theory I subscribe to that companies can be likened to the definition of momentum. Momentum is equal to the mass of an object multiplied by its velocity. In other words a behemoth moving at a slow pace can have the same momentum as a light object travelling at a higher speed. You can see where I'm going with this. There's also another theory going that you are promoted as far as incompetence - that when you're successful in a role you'll be promoted, and promoted again, until you are in a position that you are no longer successful or, to put it another way, you're doing a job you're not able for, or, to put it another way again, you become incompetent. Now obviously that's a bit of a lazy generalisation but there is truth there. I believe that for the vast majority of professional workers progression is the religion and ambition is the food. For the vast majority of non-professional workers it's just about the cash.

Anyway what's concerning me is whether or not I want to progress up this food chain. From what I can see the management positions immediately above where I am are quite unappealing (the job I applied for was more of a sideways move that entailed shift-work and more cash, rather than a promotion). I've realised over the course of my short (six-year) career that my most effective modus operandi (hope that's right!) is as a solo worker. I like being told what needs to be done and with a reasonable degree of specificity so that I don't end up feeling around in the dark, never quite sure how exactly I'm supposed to be going about things. I also like being trusted to get on with things and proving myself with the results achieved rather than just bluffing my way through meetings. Most importantly I need to know I can have a direct influence on proceedings, when its needed, rather than having to trust others all of the time. Of course this is management heresy. Delegation, Leadership, Teamwork and Empowerment are the mantras. Well, I'm sorry, but that's just corpo-guff. Delegation means shifting responsibility onto subordinates, forever hoping that they have the same standards as you (and its up to you to "empower" them if they don't). Leadership is a fine principle, but in effect is often just being seen to say the right thing at the right time (and usually vaguely) in a manner that doesn't lead anyone anywhere. Teamwork is the most bastardised concept of all. An effective team, IMHO, is a number of operating units co-ordinating and carrying out individual responsibilities in order to achieve a collective goal. It is NOT throwing people at problems. Teamwork is used by the lazy and disinterested to hide in the group, never taking responsibility for failures and always looking to take collective credit for successes.

As you can tell, middle management does not appeal to me at all. So, therefore, I'm not ambitious, at least not in a corporate sense. The problem is that, while I feel this way now, I may not if I'm doing the exact same thing and having the exact same frustrations in 3 or 4 years time. Another potential problem is that I've never had to answer to anyone younger than me before. It may sound petty, but if I don't get promoted some of my colleagues possibly will and the thought of answering to some of those is mildly unappealing! At the end of the day do I live to work or work to live? Of course I want to work to live, I want to be proud of what I do and I want to facilitate being able to enjoy the rest of my life. As things stand I should be able to do that without becoming mired in the corporate rat race.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Hate and War

This opinion piece by Andrew Sullivan (Sunday Times columnist and well-known blogger) is perhaps the article that finally convinced me that if I disagreed with a newspaper columnist's opinion then I had to articulate my point of view somehow. I don't write letters to newspapers because, well, most of those who do seem to be either people who think they're awfully clever or people who are just plain zealots seeing everything in black and white, right and wrong. So, therefore, I have my blog to vent my rebuttal!

Sullivan's piece is long and touches many points - the result of the Spanish election; European "defeatism"; why the war in Iraq is integral to the "War on Terror" plus an analogy between the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930's and "Islamo-fascists" today. Now I make sure I read Andrew Sullivan fairly regularly and I suggest that anyone who takes the cosy anti-US line does the same and a lot of what he's saying here is bang on as well, but when you read this particular piece you can't help being struck by a feeling that, as he's full square behind Bush's War on Terror, he is compelled to defend any and all actions taken by the current administration no matter how many knots he ties himself up in over the months. The following is my open letter to Mr. Sullivan (which he'll probably never see!) as a form of mild rebuttal of his thesis...

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

It seems to be increasingly clear that your journalism has become engaged in defending the actions of the current US administration regardless of the nature and effect of those actions. As the administration twists and spins around the setbacks in Iraq, forever trying to convince an overwhelmingly sceptical world that an invasion of Iraq (a nation that had committed no act of war against the United States) was the next logical step in the War on Terror, you appear to almost need to wait for the next pronouncement from the White House before articulating another defense of the conduct of the war.

Your article Europe's Second Munich? was an insult to the people of Spain. You claim that they gave in to the terrorists who perpetrated the Madrid bombings by voting for Zapatero's Socialists - that they reacted to terrorism. So had Aznar's Popular Party been re-elected would the Spaniards have been praised for reacting to terrorism? Praised for reacting in a manner that suits the US coalition? Does this mean, therefore, that in one fell swoop Spain's General Election ceased to be about which political party was going to govern a country and became solely about that country's immediate reaction to a terrorist attack? Does this mean that Spain had no choice but to re-elect Aznar as anything else would be a sign of weakness in the face of terrorism? That sounds like democracy worth defending to me!

It is, of course, probable, that the swing to the left was as a result of the attacks (although I personally believe, from correspondence with Spanish friends, that the mis-handling of the atrocity by Aznar's government was the true deciding factor in the election, rather than the actual bombs themselves) but does that mean Spain gave in to terrorism? You state that "Instead of rising up in anger against the mass murderers of the new fascist movement in the Islamic world, as the United States did, Spain did the reverse...". Is that really true? Are they comparable situations? It is a well known fact that the vast majority of the Spanish people were against the war in Iraq and, by extension, Spain's involvement. The Madrid bombing wasn't a random attack against a Western democracy but was specifically aimed at a country that had been seen to take a leading support role in military action in the Middle East. Would it be reasonable to hypothesise that, for example, when the majority of American citizens had turned against the Vietnam War, an attack by the North Vietnamese on the US mainland may have accelerated the US withdrawl? Or, more recently, wasn't it the reaction of the American public to the slaughter of US troops in Mogadishu that hastened the removal of the US force from Somalia? The difference with the attacks on September 11th is that the vast majority of the American public perceived that day (correctly in my opinion, actually) to be an unprovoked atrocity against their country. There is no widespread belief in the US that American foreign policy and self-interest sowed the seeds of Islamic terrorism, a theory that so many people in Europe subscribe to, making the War on Terror so much more palatable to the American public.

What this all boils down to, time and again, is whether the war with Iraq was a justified next phase in the War on Terror. The military operations in Afghanistan 2 and a half years ago were totally justified and were the logical first strikes against Islamic terrorism. Yet, as you say yourself, "The possibility of a capture of a major al Qaeda figure in Pakistan..." referring to the recent battles on the Pakistani/Afghan border. Yet why are large numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters still able to congregate in those hills? Why weren't they smashed two years ago? Is it because Iraq was the be-all-and-end-all for Bush and the American military presence in Afghanistan is nowhere near strong enough? At the end of the day you don't need to be a political scientist to see the problem with the following hypothesis (which gained such ridiculous credence throughout 2002): Islamic fundamentalist terrorists based in Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime, have attacked the United States. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has been exported from, and supported by elements within, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Somalia and Algeria. Therefore, in order to defeat terrorism, having dealt so completely with Afghanistan, we must invade... Iraq. Iraq must be liberated from Saddam as Iraq has a secular regime, no history of supporting any facet of Islamic fundamentalism, is economically on its knees and not in control of large swathes of its own territory and is, therefore, the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East.

Obviously you know this yourself because you have pre-empted such thoughts within your own article in a, frankly, quite excellent couple of paragraphs where you claim that "Nothing threatens al Qaeda or the Islamo-fascist terror network more than the possibility of a constitutional democracy in Iraq. If Iraq succeeds, the entire dysfunction in the Middle East on which al Qaeda relies for its recruitment and growth would be in danger of unraveling..." But this is the very paragraph that prompted me to write. The master plan is to install a free and democratic society in the heart of the Middle East to make the "al Qaeda model of theocratic fascism will lose whatever appeal it now has in that part of the world". I had wondered why there was no mention of Saudi Arabia anywhere in the entire article. You do remember Saudi Arabia? The country whose citizens bankroll so much of the Islamic terrorism we see and the country where most of those actually responsible for the attacks on September 11th (which, of course, precipitated the War on Terror) were from (remember how a high-level Pentagon discussion paper was leaked that accused Saudi Arabia of being "the kernel of evil"?). Yet, amazingly, its nowhere on the radar. Is it at all possible, Mr. Sullivan, that Iraq was attacked, not because it was a threat to the US and the West, but for precisely the opposite reason - because it was the softest touch in the region. Is it possible that the reason al Qaeda and the Jihadists are so keen to force Western governments to withdraw is because they now see a land of opportunity post Saddam, where previously there was only brutal, secular Ba'athism.

Yes, Mr. Sullivan, we are at war with terror and rather than fight in the street we have chosen to go to another house, unlock the door and wait for the enemy to come inside to fight, when, previously, it was the one house he could not get into.
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