Sunday, January 10, 2010

Losing Corporate

Imagine a close family member, perhaps an uncle or cousin, accused of rape. He's been kind to you, maybe gave you your start in life. You want to believe his innocence, the consensualness of the act, the ways that the victim created the circumstances. You want to rationalize. Perhaps this is an upstanding citizen, a contributor to the community, being accused by someone with a less than stellar reputation.

But something nags inside you – a feeling you’ve had in the pit of your stomach around him, an off-hand comment betraying callousness, a tendency towards the controlling, a flash of cold temper. Things you’ve explained away individually, but taken together in this context, breed doubt.

Over the following weeks, you find yourself investigating. Paying more attention to his behaviour. Talking with people who know him, and people who know the girl. Piecing together a story you never suspected. You become increasingly convinced that he is guilty, of more than just this crime. But you don’t have hard evidence, just a growing pile of complaints and innuendo that are starting to add up in your mind.

Generally, among your friends, family and community, he is still held in esteem. People dismiss the issue as “too bad for him” and “that little problem.” They dismiss his accuser as “that tramp” with “an axe to grind.” They point to his willingness to pay her a small settlement to close the issue, despite his innocence, as a sign of his benevolence. They call her unwillingness to accept it “stubbornness” and “troublemaking.” The few who acknowledge the truth do so with a forgiving wink and the certainty that now he will smarten up.

What do you do in this situation? How do you behave?

This is how I feel about losing the corporate world.

The world of strategic business took hold of me not long after University, a whole new subject of hands-on study and especially fascinating through the lens of “human resources,” which I thought of more as “people systems.” From the start, my role was removed from the actual people, in a head office, where I learned the basics of administration before an unreasonably fast promotion to management. I learned about policy making, organizational risk management, compensation and performance systems, how to manage people’s work and expectations. I learned to walk and talk corporate, and how to think corporate, and I was proud of my prowess. I participated in mergers, complete policy overhauls, adapting performance systems to get more performance, determining the worth of jobs within the structure of strategy. I learned to see the politics of a situation, and to identify how to help others stay alive, which evolved into coaching. I used my power for good within the company to reduce the damage of difficult decisions and cushion the fall for those we fired. I helped identify who was on board and who was beyond redemption, and make sure company resources were spent effectively.

For a long time, meeting goals and feeling like I helped people make great decisions within a company was satisfying. But over time, it started to matter to me what the company did, and the wider-scale worth of my work to the world. And that’s when it all started to unravel.

Since joining the non-profit world, I hear the assumptions in things that I myself would have said 9 months ago. I see the callous self-interest in even the most well-meaning corporate participants. I recognize the closed-off listening of people who have already decided what I'm saying doesn't fit their world-view. And I don’t want to. These are my friends and I love them. They aren’t on the same path as I am, and I shouldn’t expect them to see the way I do. I don’t want to see what’s distasteful to me and also WAS me, in them.

But bigger than that – I want to believe that the corporate world is the real world again. I want to believe that a good business plan can solve everything and that people deserve exactly what they get because we all make our choices. I want to believe that the pursuit of profit is a worthy goal that can help everyone by maintaining the economy. That giving to the food bank at Thanksgiving and paying my taxes meets my full responsibility to society . It fit. It made sense while justifying my own position.

The corporate world took me in when I needed acceptance, gave me systems to learn and ladders to climb when I needed esteem, and rewarded me with promotions, training, conferences, insider-treatment, influence and high salaries. Several wonderful people mentored me on my path to fitting in. I feel like I am betraying my family. And I miss being part of the elite, especially the level of influence that comes with that.

I’m in mourning.

And I’m angry, because I also feel betrayed. Corporations don’t have to be what they are. They just don’t. But I am powerless to affect the basic assumptions and beliefs that permeate the way things are. There is nothing I can say that will penetrate - I know this because nothing anyone said could have penetrated my logic either. So my work now feels as futile as ever despite being so much more important.

I have no good ending for this stream of consciousness.