The telephone went off at midnight.
“Not sleeping, are ye? Can you talk? Our guys in N need heavy equipment. Write down the spec…” – the client didn’t even say hello. The problem was clearly serious.
“What have we got to do with that?” – I was a broad spectrum contractor, but did not venture into civil engineering. N was a thousand miles away.
“Aren’t you running some? Just help us buy it. We need it tomorrow, Sunday, at the site: three Terex trucks, two bulldozers, two diggers…”
People who work with heavy equipment know that moving it to a building site is not an easy task: wide loads normally need a motorway escort. They also know that a purchase deal would run into millions of pounds, and the dotted line would certainly not get signed in the space of one weekend. The equipment might simply not be available in a provincial town in the middle of the building season (the events took place before the crisis). It was plainly an impossible proposition. But the client was ridiculously rich, and rich people have their quirks. Ah, what the hell – let’s try.
At 8 AM on Sunday we got every dealer in town out of bed. Every one of those who could offer brand new gear – the client had a policy of never buying used equipment. On Monday, everything was working on the site, even though the contract wasn’t yet signed and no payments were made.
The client kinda screwed us over with the payment in the end. The local dealers were cheated out of their commission – the contract ended up being signed directly with the HQ to save costs. We didn’t make all that much either. When we raised the matter of the bonus for a spot of mission-impossible firefighting, all we got was a long lecture on the peculiarities of procurement in provinces compared to the capital. We were also told off for trying to profiteer on a small favour… how cheeky – getting paid all that money, and still trying to kick a decent bloke when he’s down!
It should be noted that I was a privileged contractor at the company. I got publicly commended a few times for doing a damn fine job on a couple of quests. We were probably the only ones granted the honour that year, the reason being that the other contractors and managers were being raced through whack-a-mole problems, and then branded dunderheads for no fault of their own. A proud-looking gaffer would turn up at chief’s and report:
“We’ve built this shit in eight months, three times faster than the competition…”
“Are you actually proud of that? The fucking Germans are building that in three.”
“We got an industry award in the US…”
“The Yanks are stupid” (in a meeting just a fortnight prior, said Yanks were declared gods that must be learned from).
A friend of mine was a top manager at a multinational lemonade stand. Not in construction, but in what appeared to be a more civilised line of business. He ended up leaving and starting his own company. I phoned him up.
“You know what” – I said – “during my first year in business I was afraid of just one thing – of becoming an employee again. That was my worst nightmare – well, second worst after mathematics A-levels. I was dreaming about being interviewed, and waking up in cold sweat.”
“Ah, you are just a noob – no experience doing time in corporations. I could fit a bollard through my ass in the end, so it wouldn’t hurt that much returning there.”
It’s funny that some gaffers, fresh out of the corporate hell, are dreaming about doing it right. About not being an asshole like their former boss. They are young and naive. The older and the more experienced ones are doing the opposite – they are embracing the best techniques for plundering and subjugating their employees and contractors. For the point of any business enterprise is maximally efficient extraction of energy from its personnel and environment. That energy is what drives the business forward, even if that seems to contradict the basic axioms of management. That, and not what you had thought, is the true meaning of efficiency. Otherwise we get the classical tragedy of “we were doing what was best, but it didn’t work out for reasons that were beyond our control”. Well, the evil blood-sucking sharks are doing fine for some reason – getting richer and not giving a shit.
Trouble is, not everyone can be a shark. That’s because the tricks of a good shark are not immediately apparent. Want some hints? The secrets of directing the energy will be covered separately in due course. Today we shall talk about ways of extracting it.
1. Baiting with praise
That’s one of the most important stages. During their first day at the job, or on the first day you meet them, you should admire something about them, and it should be something they see as important. For instance, it was important for me to feel smart. Very important. But it’s not very often stated explicitly in professional circles. Would any client really think of just saying it like that, even if they really do think it?
Inexperienced sharks skip straight to the buggery, and so lose their subordinates, who start avoiding them because they see no reason to be near.
So be smart – if you want to catch the fish, you would need to throw some bread crumbs in the water first. Energize them, admire sincerely something that is important to them, something that they are invested into. Since you are recruiting people at a level below yourself, you can give out the kind of energy charge they had never experienced.
Then, of course, you should listen to their professional opinion on some problem of yours that nobody else, naturally, could handle. Pick some reasonably doable tasks and play a wise man who knows his limitations and needs somebody to talk to. Your new victim is perfect, of course. You would need to spend a significant amount of time – a couple of hours per person, just to make sure they are properly in awe of your deep and sincere interest.
Put in some fatherly care towards the end: give them a company car or assist with some personal difficulty of theirs. The result is a geezer who walks out of your door with the incredulous grin of a boy who just got his first blowjob behind the bike shed.
I had come across some pretty dodgy characters. Professional con men, prostitutes, pimps and people who did very bad things for money. You know what – even the scum of the earth have something they are proud of. Even the most egregious racketeer longs for a pat on the shoulder. And if he’d got some from you, he would come back for more. That’s why the first stage is so important. Once you played it well, you can proceed to the next stage – to being unpredictable.
Now your subordinate (or a contractor, it doesn’t really matter) is to be kept wondering about what they should be doing to get their next crack high. Your part in that game is to make them think, make them try, but never let them understand what gets the carrot and what gets the stick around here. That’s why it’s so important to apply the stick at exactly the moment when the man thinks he’s done something heroic and he’s in for a castle, a princess and a chest of gold.
An important disclaimer – we are not advocating petty bullying or tyranny. Not for ethical reasons, simply because it doesn’t work. If you only have sticks in store, people get used to that. Our task is to make people wonder what to expect from you. In a deniable way, of course. Then they are going to work their fingers to the bone. That’s good for business and that’s good for morale. Employees and contractors would show miracles of creative thinking without any training courses. They would be queuing to give you their energy.
You would master that in time, but hold on to the principle now. When the victim expects a carrot, stick is what they get. If they start sucking up to you, that’s a stick too. When they stumble around in bewilderment because nothing appears to satisfy you – hand out a carrot. Let the hope develop, then apply the stick again.
You should be creative about where to strike. Let me give you a few unobvious examples of pressure points:
– Your victim’s subordinates. That’s a particularly efficient strategy because the victim ends up between a rock and a hard place. Say, you claim first that the victim is excessively authoritarian because they don’t listen to their staff. And then you claim that the victim lacks leadership because they do listen to their staff too much. If the victim has the authority to pick and reward their crew, cast doubt on those decisions. The best phrase I’ve ever heard: “Those are your decisions to make of course, but I’ve never recruited such dunderheads even as a teen”. Don’t ever let them dismiss “the dunderheads” though. The chief dunderhead tag is to be reserved for the staff member the victim considers their best.
– Keeping them idle and reproaching them for doing nothing, or overloading them with work and complaining about them not living up to your expectations. Alternately, in a loop. As an act of special trust, bestow upon them the tasks they are clearly ill equipped to do, or lack proper authority to perform. In the unlikely event of a success, dismiss it as a “piece of cake for you, of course”.
– Appoint an “assistant” that your victim can’t stand for some reason, or just someone incompetent and overly active. Dismiss their complaints as latent sexism, racism, snobbery, and even recommend counselling as a way of removing those “psychological problems”.
– Every now and then, as a special favour to a trusted friend, lecture your victim on the theoretical foundations of business practice. Keep switching your theories between opposites. Say, client-centeredness is all the rage today, but tomorrow it’s badly out of date. Any attempts by the victim to point out that “you’ve been saying…” should be met with a sincere go at convincing the victim that they had imagined, or at the very least misunderstood, the previous conversation.
– Promotion and demotion: unexpected promotion followed by unexpected reduction in rank. The surprise factor is to be achieved by timing the decisions – say, a raise followed by a demotion a fortnight later. If the contract does not permit that, you can always make the chief dunderhead their boss to devalue the promotion they’ve just received.
– Awarding extra pay, or giving other accolades, to obviously undeserving people – in your victim’s plain sight. A real-life example: at the Christmas round of bonuses, nobody from the top management was getting any. However, the secretary was awarded half her annual salary (even though everybody knew the could not possibly have been having sex with the boss or anything but stuffing in her head to begin with), and a single junior manager got the same. Both were, characteristically, fired after the vacations were over. People who had been around for years were left guessing.
4. Pink slips
Everyone burns out in the end, having given all their energy to your business. The typical lifetime of any gaffer or specialist under heavy use is three to six months. Exceptions are rare. How do we know when it’s time to give the victim the sack? When they stop reacting to positive stimuli – to unexpected promotions, rewards or praise. When you throw the crumbs in the water and the fish are not reacting, chances are they’d be going belly up soon. That’s the sacking time. But if they are still showing signs of enthusiasm – then they still have hope, and hope may be exploited… The Dark Side withes you a pleasant meal.