Your career is often at the mercy of other people’s decisions. No matter how hard you work, you can feel like you’re fighting a losing battle when you’re tasked with implementing ideas, you know are doomed to fail. While it’s true, you can’t control the stupid people who force you to make these decisions. You can execute their bad ideas without ruining your career.
Donald Meador is our next guest and the author of Surrounded by Insanity. He’s seen a lot of bad ideas destroy promising careers during his time working in corporate America, and he chats with us about the simple steps you can take to avoid a similar fate.
Donald Meador: This was really an outpouring of the frustration that I felt as a middle manager in corporate America. Because the truth is you are 100% at the mercy of others people’s decisions in other people’s visions. Most of the time you’re actually working on projects that you really don’t care about or you actually may think are a bad idea. And yet you’re the one who has to find a way to implement those. If they fail, you’re going to be the one on the hook, even if you don’t think they’re a good idea.
I saw this in a lot of the experiences that I had in corporate America. I remember sitting in a conference room with, oh, probably 30 to 40 executives and you know, one of those executive gets up and he stands at the front of the room and he says, “This new $10 million project is going to save us $50 million in network optimization.”
Now he spoke with complete confidence, but the problem was that statement was completely false.
As an engineer, I couldn’t really let this stand. I kind of raised my hand and said, “Yeah, you know, I don’t think that’s accurate.” And of course he stared me down and said, “Yes, it is.” Well, the first thing I had to do was I had to get up and go to a whiteboard. I started to kind of diagram and explain mathematically why he was actually wrong. I actually showed him why what he was saying wasn’t true.
And when I finished, I kind of looked around the room and the executive just looked at me and said, “No, you’re wrong.”
So I went and sat down and I just, I couldn’t believe it. I just looked around for confirmation. Surely someone else saw that this was a bad idea. This project was not going to work, and they didn’t. And for some reason we still had to do it.
We still had to find a way to do what he was asking us to do, even though it didn’t make sense. And that’s when I really figured out, it’s like, I’ve just got to find a way to survive some of these bad decisions or it’s going to end up actually impacting me and my career.
Rae Williams: What is it that you took as your first step, not just in writing the book, but in, in realizing that you are in the midst of insanity and you had to break out of it?
Donald Meador: I think the first thing you have to realize is you’re probably fighting the wrong battle. I think the first thing when you see some craziness like that, either a project or a process that just doesn’t make sense, you just want to start screaming. You look around, it’s like surely other people realize this is dumb, right?
And so you want to fight back, you want to try to fight for the good.
And the thing is, it’s already over. You’ve probably already lost. Those decisions have already been made.
And so, so many people spend their time and energy trying to fight back against something that’s already over. It’s already done.
That’s the first thing you have to realize is most of those decisions had been made at such a high level that the ship has sailed. You can’t waste your energy trying to fight that. What you’ve got to figure out a way is to implement it without it negatively impacting you.
Manage Your Boss
Rae Williams: The second chapter is ‘Manage Your Boss,’ which actually sounds terrifying. So tell us a little bit about that.
Donald Meador: Yeah, I mean, I think if we want to be honest with ourselves, our success runs through our boss. If you don’t like them, they don’t like you. That’s your path to success. You have to find a way to understand exactly what they need. And you’ve got to find a way to make your boss successful or you’re not going to be successful and your boss is actually a really simple person.
The one thing they really care about is themselves, just like everybody else.
If they’ve got to choose between themselves and you, guess what? They’re gonna choose themselves. And so what you’ve got to do is tap into that a little bit and find out what it is they need to be successful.
If you can focus on making them successful and making their life easier, I promise, in turn it’s gonna make your life easier.
Rae Williams: How do we begin to do that without losing our sanity though?
Donald Meador: That’s a really difficult question because the truth is you’re going to have to hang on to it by a thread sometimes, but what you’re going to see is that there is some logic behind some of these decisions and the way things are made. I think we get the evil boss thing, but the truth is a lot of times there is some information you don’t know. Sometimes our bosses are having bad days and you definitely want to understand that, but again, the biggest thing is to understand what are the priorities that your boss has and how can you help them achieve that?
Because even the biggest jerks I’ve ever worked for, if you are helping them, it’s funny, their attitude changes a little bit. They start to see you as more of an asset instead of an impediment. And so there’s certainly some exceptions, but most of the time, even the worst bosses in the world, if you’re focusing on that relationship and focusing on trying to make their life better, then it always ends up that you’re going to have a better relationship and you’re going to be more successful in the future.
Especially if you’re in corporate America for any amount of time, even a bad boss, he’s not going to be your boss very long. Because there’s rotations and reorgs and things like that. All you’ve got to really do is wait it out a little bit, keep your sanity, and focus on making them successful. And in turn, you’re going to be successful as well.
Rae Williams: One chapter is ‘Reality is Irrelevant‘ and of course I have to ask you about that. What are we talking about there? Which reality is relevant?
Donald Meador: The thing is, the results of your work don’t matter. What matters is the perception of your results. That’s actually what influences your career. I actually learned this pretty early on in my tenure. I felt like I was doing a great job, working hard, putting in extra hours, doing all the things that you’re supposed to do to be successful.
But twice a week I would take a long lunch. I would take a lunch for about an hour and a half, I’d go play racquetball. And now I cleared this with my boss beforehand. He was fine with it. He knew that I was still getting my work done, no problems.
We get into my end of year review, great review. He says, “Man, you can’t do anything better.” Well, hey, I’m young and ambitious. I want to impress, you know, “What can I do boss? What can I do to improve?”
And he thought for a minute and he said, “Well, those long lunches, the perception is you are not working hard enough.”
I’ll be honest, I was blown away when he said that, because I was still putting in 50, 60 hours a week. But the problem was not everybody saw that. My peers didn’t see the extra hours. All they saw was this guy was taking an extra long lunch two days a week.
And so they resented it and said, “Man, that guy’s not a hard worker.”
It doesn’t matter how many hours you work or what you are actually doing. All that matters is the perception that people see and what they do. And so if you don’t control that, then you’re going to lose no matter what. And that’s the truth of it.
You have to understand that what is actually more important than your results is how people think of your results.
Preparing for Reality
Rae Williams: What are some of the things that you see happen to people when they aren’t doing these things?
Donald Meador: I think the biggest derailment is almost internal because a little piece of you dies a little bit, when you don’t get the appreciation that you think you deserve and if things don’t go well. The truth is that school and the things that we do in the training and leading up to this don’t prepare us for the reality of the corporate world.
If you’re in school, there’s a direct correlation between how hard you work and your results. If you study really hard, good chance you’re going to get a good rate.
When you get into corporate reality, you may be passed over for promotion for someone who’s working 20 hours when you’re working 50 because they’re playing the perception game. What happens when you see those things that you feel are just this inherent unfairness? Because there is some inherent unfairness because it’s being judged by people. You start to get bitter, you start to start not working as hard, you get unsatisfied, you start job hopping, and you really see this huge decline, not only in your workout, but personally, your attitude.
We’ve all been around those people in the environment that get negative and cynical, and that’s what happens. They feel they’ve been treated unfairly. But the truth is they just didn’t understand the actual environment that they were in.
Sanity and Success
Rae Williams: So tell me a little bit about some of the people who you’ve worked with that have gotten the most out of these ideas.
Donald Meador: I think about one time when I was just given this brand new project. I’m sitting on a new conference call with our clients, and my boss and my boss’s boss is on that call, my executive director, my boss’s boss. And so we’re on this call and we just get this new project and he comes on to say, “Don’t you worry, we’re going to have this delivered by August.”
Well, I start to panic because there’s absolutely no chance we can get it done by then. It just, it just can’t happen.
And my boss starts texting me and freaking out like, “What did you tell him? What have you done?”
I said, “No, no, no. I had nothing to do with this. He is making up dates that I have no idea what’s happening.”
And so that’s what happens, right? You get these made up dates. These made up deadlines that you have to figure out some way, somehow.
How is this going to happen?
But the truth is when you start looking into it a little bit deeper, there actually are ways that you can control this conversation and control the perception of your results and get ready because most deadlines are made up anyway. So when they pass, not as many bad things happen as you think they will. Then most people probably aren’t even going to remember what it was when you start looking five years in the future.
But you just have to prepare yourself for that craziness when it happens. When you do that, when you follow some of the things that I’ve talked about in the book, when you try to protect yourself when things go bad, how you over communicate, how you understand that perception battle. So much of what people remember is emotion based. Almost everything is emotional, right?
That’s why most people remember where they were when a traumatic event happened, right? Because there’s some emotional anchor there that ties it. If you can learn to actually control people’s emotions, not only of you, but kind of what the circumstances, then you’re going to have a huge advantage for folks that are just trying to do the normal, you know, keep their head down, get their work done type of thing. And you’re going to have those opportunities to be successful in the future.
How to Survive Corporate Culture
Rae Williams: If you could pick three things we can do to make sure that we survive, what would those three things be?
Donald Meador: The first one, probably the hardest one, is I want everyone just to just to stop and just take a deep breath. You can do it, alright. Okay. Alright. Everyone feel a little bit better? I hope so.
Take a deep breath and realize, yes, you are right. You are not the only one that sees the insanity that is happening around us. It’s everywhere. You’re not alone. And here’s the great news: You can do something about it.
You can actually be successful despite the bad decisions that are around. Really the next thing you’ve got to do is when you start at the first chapter, stop fighting decisions that have already been made. All you’re going to end up doing is to get yourself labeled as somebody high maintenance or a troublemaker or something like that.
You don’t want any part of that. So just stop fighting those decisions.
And the third thing is, realize what a huge opportunity these bad decisions are for you. Because a true bad decision actually is going to create more problems than it solves. And so if you can be the one to understand how to solve those new problems this bad idea created, you’re going to be around a long time.
So what you gotta do is get a notebook and a pencil, pen, whatever, and it’s gotta be paper. It does. Don’t do Notes and things like that—actually put it on paper. It makes a difference, I promise. And for the next two weeks, I want you to write down every single problem that you come across in your company, no matter how big, how small.
At the end of those two weeks, what you need to do is write down a potential solution for every one of those.
It doesn’t have to be realistic. It can be something completely crazy and off the wall. This is just an exercise to start looking at some potential solutions for these problems. Now at the end of those two weeks, you’re going to pick one. Pick one problem that you feel like you can influence and you potentially can change.
Now this is going to do two things. One, hopefully give you a little bit of that control back. Maybe you can feel a little bit better about having something you can influence, but two, people that solve problems get to stay employed, and people that solve problems they weren’t asked to solve, get promoted.
So if you can focus on those things and focus on solving the ancillary problems that some of these bad decisions generate, you’re going to be so much better off and have an opportunity to really excel in the future.
How to Self-Manage
Rae Williams: How do we begin to manage ourselves? And clearly we’re imagining ourselves within the scope of still having a boss or a manager, but delve into that a little bit for us.
Donald Meador: This kind of goes back to some of the challenges we’ve already talked about—how do you hang onto your own sanity, right? When you’re, when surrounded by things that just don’t make sense and you’re frustrated and you can’t handle this, what are you going to do? Well, one of the first things you have to do is just expect it to be insane.
Don’t expect common sense and logic and silly things like that because it’s probably not going to work out so well. But the biggest thing is you want to make sure that you’re managing your time effectively because so much of what happens with these bad decisions is you get, it’s a time suck. You end up having to do stupid PowerPoints or stupid meetings or things like that. That’s what kills you mentally.
It’s just a waste of time. I remember pretty clearly when my boss called me on a Monday and his caller id showed up. I said, “Man, this must be important because this guy, he never calls me.”
He said, “Hey, I need a PowerPoint deck, as fast as you can make it, that lists all your projects and everything that you’re working on. I need it immediately.”
And you could tell by his tone like this, this was a serious thing. So naturally I dropped everything I was doing. I worked on it for like the next two to three hours. I got it ready, worked with my peers, man, I’ve got this thing polished. It looked great. And then I sent it to him and within 30 minutes he sent it back and said, “Hey, I need all these revisions. Get all this information. Hurry, hurry, hurry.”
And so finally I did it, spent another couple hours and finally at about six o’clock at this point. And so I sent it to him. He said, “This looks great.” The next day came the meeting he needed the PowerPoint for, I didn’t hear anything. The next day he came, we’re sitting here on Wednesday. And so now I’m really curious, you know what the reception was for everything that I’ve put together.
And you know, so I called him up, said, “Hey, is there any more information you need? Is there anything I can do to help you with?”
He said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. We didn’t make it to that PowerPoint anyway. We ended up going long on some other topics.”
And you just sit there and you’re like, “Are you serious? Like you took a whole day and I just did a bunch of work that was completely useless?” That’s the stuff that drives you nuts. And you and you just can’t handle it.
And so that’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re managing your time and your sanity first. A couple of things that I go through there to talk about how to do that is when anything comes across your desk whatsoever—email tasks, somebody calls you—the first question I want you to ask is, “What would happen if I just didn’t do this?”
If I literally did not do this task, would anything happen at all?
And you’re going to be surprised. A lot of times the answer is nothing. Nothing happens. I know that we had a weekly status update we were supposed to fill out for our executive director and it took me about an hour a week to compile and put together, and I had this sneaking suspicion that nobody read it and nobody cared.
So I just stopped sending it. Nothing happened.
Nobody emailed me and said, “Hey, is where your status update?” Literally nothing happened. So I didn’t do it for over a year. I just saved myself hundreds of hours of work because he couldn’t even get past the first question because it wasn’t even worth doing.
You’re going to be surprised how many times you can’t and get past the first question. And the second question is, is this something you can automate? That’s the buzzword today. And there’s a lot of truth to that.
Is there some sort of task or thing is just going to be repeatable that you can figure out a way to do faster? And then of course, the third thing is can you delegate it? Right? If you’re a manager, you have a team, is there someone that can actually do a better job than you at this task?
Now, it’s not about dumping work on somebody, but it’s about finding someone that actually could do the job faster or even better. And if you look at these three questions, protecting your time is so huge. Wasting my time on things that I thought were stupid is probably one of the hardest things to deal with when you’re in that type of environment.
A lot of these are the results of bad decisions. So if you can manage that time effectively, you’re already halfway there to being able to keep at least a little piece of your sanity.
A Challenge for Listeners
Rae Williams: If you had to give people one overall challenge, what would that be?
Donald Meador: It’s almost against some of our own corporate nature, but be willing to help other people. Because the truth is you’re managing and working with people, not projects. And this is tough when you’re in a really difficult competitive corporate culture where folks are trying to get ahead or folks are trying to win that stack rank game as best they can so they don’t get laid off.
But middle management, you get no support, right? There’s no help. There’s no training, there’s no one to go to with questions. The only help you’re going to get is from other middle managers. So make sure you are that person. Reach out and focus on helping other people through these difficult situations, and focus on actually helping one another when these challenges arise.
You should be doing this naturally just by being a good person.
But the truth is you’re actually gonna get this back, because people are going to be more willing to help you. As I talked about earlier, creating that emotional attachment, those emotional memories people have of you within their perception, you’re going to be someone that they want to work with and someone that they want to recommend and help in the future.
So that’s the biggest challenge is—being willing to do something that may be contrary to what you feel is in your best interest.
But the truth is you can do nothing better for your career or even for your own sanity, than reaching out and actually helping another middle manager or even helping your own boss in times that are not quite as fun as you’d like them to be.
Rae Williams: How can people contact you if they want to learn more or even share some of their crazy corporate stories?
Donald Meador: You can actually find me, I have my own podcast as a complement to the book called The Corporate Middle. You can find that wherever you listen to podcasts.
You can also find me on donaldmeador.com. I love to hear people reaching out to just share some of the insanity and have that little cathartic experience that we all have together having to work in this ridiculousness that we call company culture.