Barrier Busting: No Stuffed Shirts!

Barrier Busting: No Stuffed Shirts!


In my previous post, I talked about organizational barriers. Here is a personal experience that illustrates how one Senior Manager quickly erected them.

I was hired to bring the accounting functions of two large healthcare organizations together.  “Merger babies” was the unofficial title for new employees hired during this time. My assignment was clear: merge departments, implement new information systems and bring together the best of both organizations’ processes. “How fun!”, I thought. This is the type of work that gets me juiced up. My immediate boss understood the effort involved, and I knew she would support me in making any necessary changes. Perfect job for me, I thought.

Six months later the management structure was reorganized. Looking at the Departmental Management that included two Vice Presidents, six Directors and numerous Managers and Supervisors, I broadly categorized them. “Change Agents” are driven by the need to be candid and to make difficult decisions. They are willing to put their jobs on the line in order to sleep at night. Patience is someone else’s virtue, not theirs. “Stuffed Shirts” are the opposite of “Change Agents”. They are driven by the fear of losing their jobs. They are politically savvy and will make decisions that benefit their status, regardless of the impact on their organization. It soon became clear that I would be the lone “Change Agent” in the new structure. Maybe this wouldn’t be so much fun after all.

Now I had a new boss. I couldn’t stand him. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t be in the same room with him. He was insecure. He had to control everything. I reacted by fighting his control efforts with every ounce of energy that I had. (Not a smart approach by me, and that will be a subject of a separate blog!) Needless to say, my job just became exponentially more difficult and frustrating. The barriers from this “Stuffed Shirt” immediately became apparent.

Barrier: Cliques in Management:

One morning, Mr. Stuffed Shirt summons me to his office. “I understand that Ann called you yesterday and you didn’t return her call.”, he said.

 “Yes”, I said, “She called at 4:00 and I was in meetings until 5:00.  It is now 8:30 and I will return all my calls as soon as this meeting is over.” Then came the first of my many reprimands.

 “You don’t understand how it works around here. Ann is one of those people whom you call back immediately.”, said Mr. Stuffed Shirt (“SS”).

 “Oh, I didn’t know. Would you give me a list of those people?” I asked, stunned.  Remarkably, he never gave me the list. I guess I was supposed to know.

I watched reactions and quickly surmised who was on the list. The people on it, merely had to ask, and they immediately received preferential treatment.  It never did become clear to me how these people were white-listed.  Mr. SS did make clear, though, that I was not one of them.  This job is no longer any fun.

Next, I wanted to do bigger things, clean up the chart of accounts.  That wasn’t going to be easy.  Mr. SS wanted to approve every single change.  A new form was created, and I had to wait days to make even a title change.

During another summons to Mr. SS’s office, he said, “I hear you talked to Dr. Stuffed Shirt yesterday and that you said………..”

“Yes, I did talk to him.   I don’t remember my exact words.  You have the gist of our conversation.”  I learned that somehow he knew that whenever I spoke to anyone on the white list, he knew about the conversation.  Now, I understand that those on the white list watch each other’s backs.

 Barrier:  Fear of Rocking the Boat

Next, I wanted to do something daring: clean up the books! This required meetings with Mr. SS and his SS boss, Mr. Sr. VP, to persuade the upper echelons that a change was needed.  In the end, I was told not to make the changes and to leave the old accounting, even if it wasn’t consistent with accounting regulations. The current methodology allowed the white list to spend educational funds beyond their budgeted amount, and the Sr. VP was not willing to confront the top management.

Soon after my failed attempted of changing accounting practices, the merged organization started a system wide initiative to consolidate processes and hired a big name, mega-bucks consulting firm to help.  One of its first steps was the first of many management consolidations. Mr. SS’s position was eliminated. Could this be Karma? Things are looking up.

I was one of 30 Change Agents(from the entire organization), selected to lead a re-engineering team. After a year of development, the plans from the various teams were implemented or “operationalized.”   Since our departments were able to operate without us while we redesigning systems, 90% of the team leaders, including me, were let go!!

Needless to say, the culture of the organization was affected for years.  The widespread elimination of Change Agents reinforced the power of the management cliques (most of whom survived and prospered in the consolidation) and sent a strong message that change was not really welcome, even if the top executives said so.

If you suffer under a Stuffed Shirt, I see two choices.  First, the obvious one: find another job.  Or, choose to wait it out and make sure you have a way to manage your frustration and stress.

If you lead an organization or department, don’t hire Stuffed Shirts. Learn how to interview using behavioral questions so that they show their true colors as early as possible.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Jim Collins states:

“Level 5” refers to the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities that we identified during our research. Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy can produce high degrees of success but not enough to elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence.  And while Level 5 leadership is not the only requirement for transforming a good company into a great one—other factors include getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and creating a culture of discipline—our research shows it to be essential. Good-to-great transformations don’t happen without Level 5 leaders at the helm. They just don’t.

My preliminary hypothesis is that there are two categories of people: those who don’t have the Level 5 seed within them and those who do. The first category consists of people who could never in a million years bring themselves to subjugate their own needs to the greater ambition of something larger and more lasting than themselves. For those people, work will always be first and foremost about what they get—the fame, fortune, power, adulation, and so on. Work will never be about what they build, create, and contribute.

Stuffed Shirts destroy companies. Don’t let them destroy yours!

Learn more about Level 5 leaders from Jim Collins book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’tBarrier Busting: No Stuffed Shirts!

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5 thoughts on “Barrier Busting: No Stuffed Shirts!”

  1. Sue Morgan says:

    Change Agents ARISE!! Great Blog Cheryl!! I couldn’t agree more!


  2. Bob Fritz says:

    I think that this “Stuffed Shirt” behavior is fairly common in merger situations where the people are afraid of losing their jobs and afraid of changes in general. Here is Mr. Stuffed Shirt quitely pushing commas with a pencil when, viola, 30 “merger babies” who “just don’t understand how we do things” are suddenly upsetting everything and

  3. Bob Fritz says:

    For some reason it posted a partial comment while I was typing it. Again…

    I think that this “Stuffed Shirt” behavior is fairly common in merger situations where the people are afraid of losing their jobs and afraid of changes in general. Here is Mr. Stuffed Shirt quietly pushing commas with a pencil when, viola, 30 “merger babies” who “just don’t understand how we do things” are suddenly upsetting everything and THREATENING MY JOB. It’s pretty obvious that top management needed to anticipate this–and didn’t.

    But you don’t have to be a stuffed shirt to fear change. Herewith I bequeath to you the story of Julio, a guy in my old company.

    Julio was a semi-skilled hourly employee whose job it was to wind coils. This involved feeding heavy wire onto a square bobbin. So the wire would lay flat, Julio turned the bobbin a quarter turn and gave it a whack with a fiberglass hammer, then turned it anogther quarter turn, etc. Boring, tedious, and tiring. But Julio never missed a day in his life, was never tardy, and was a stickler for perfection. An ideal employee and very loyal.

    One time the coil winding workload temporarily increased. So the management assigned Tony, a dropout black from the ghetto who had all kinds of absentee problems, to “help” Julio. After about 15 minutes of training (by the foreman), Tony was outproducing Julio 2:1, at least during those days when Tony came to work. But this soon stopped. Tony’s production slowed down, and he became more and more absent. Soon he self-terminated. The workload had decreased anyway.

    After awhile, management bought a coil winding machine with tension control. This would automatically stretch the wire so it laid flat on the bobbin. Julio was trained to operate this machine. But he wouldn’t operate it efficiently. He still insisted on banging the wire with his hammer ever quarter turn. Coils were not a bottleneck and we were shipping products OK (the coils were a component of larger products).

    One day he was late for work! At 8:15 Mrs. Julio called up to say Julio would not be in “that day.” Why, asked the receptionist. Because Julio had died in the night, said Mrs. Julio. He wouldn’t be in tomorrow either.

    A kid was assigned to run the coil winding machine and do other work in his spare time. A few years later, the engineers figured out we could buy finished coils cheaper than we could make them. So we stopped making them.

    So what do you do if you have a Julio? Waiting for him to die is probably not the best solution.

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