Monday, July 9, 2018

Is your organisation playing corporate snakes and ladders?



Do you remember Snakes and Ladders? Back in the day when board games were pretty much the only indoor games we had, this one was a favourite. You tried to progress up a board by throwing dice; in your path lay ladders (that helped you jump up several levels); and some nasty snakes (that brought you tumbling down again).

Recently I came across a version for the modern era (courtesy of This is called “Corporate Snakes & Ladders” and it outlines the hilarious journey from trainee to CEO in a typical large corporation.

So what “ladders” does our eager young trainee encounter — the things that vault you into higher grades without needing to wait for years? It was quite a priceless list.

You can get promoted quickly if the following apply to you: you are willing to work on Sundays; the CEO is your papa’s friend; you join some task force that is valued by the upper echelons; or you ask a good (and presumably safe) question in a town-hall meeting that gets you noticed by the CEO.

Those things might leapfrog you into middle management. From there, a whole new set of ladders are available. You go even higher if: you suck up to bosses like a star; you get job offers from the competition that you can leverage to get promotions; and you know how to win at office politics.

Now let’s look at the snakes — the career-limiting pitfalls that await you. Earlier in your career, these would be: lies on your CV get found out; HR gets complaints about you; you forget to “CYA” (ahem); or you get drunk at an off-site session and abuse your boss.

If you survive those and make it to senior management, a different set of perils may be lying in wait: the CEO just doesn’t like you; the economy is down and the board needs a scapegoat; you commit a regulatory violation and go to jail; you lose a boardroom power struggle; or the best one of all — you tumble for no reason at all…

Rings true, huh? But are you laughing or crying?

Amid the hilarity, it’s worth stopping to reflect. Why do we build institutions like these? Because make no mistake, most of those things are true. I have seen pretty much all of them happen, across organisations and across continents.

Part of the problem is simple, and can be summed up in two words: human beings. We are mostly flawed and mostly petty creatures. We are mistrustful and self-seeking; we play favourites and suffer from ingrained preconceptions; we are the victims of a multitude of cognitive biases. It should come as no surprise that our institutions are usually hotbeds of politics and prejudices. The real surprise is that we can run anything at all.

And yet we pretend: we pretend to construct meritocracies; we pretend to pay for performance; we pretend to believe in equity of reward; we pretend to have corporate values. Behind those smokescreens, the usual pettinesses are in play.

The real play in organisations is a bigger play: one that at least attempts, sincerely and meaningfully, to create a workplace that lends meaning to the lives of those who are present in it. It is actually possible; but it is hard work.

A bigger deal in the workplace is one that is centred on a genuine cause, one that improves lives, one that actually believes humans can be better and do better. It is not one centred on personal bonuses and promotions. The few leaders who can enrol others in a mission to do something profound are the ones who create standout organisations that transcend generations. The rest? Well, they play corporate snakes and ladders.

What kind of organisation do you work for? Is it one that rewards the kissing of behinds, one in which politicking and power plays can take you far? Or one that is genuinely interested in the personal development of the many, not just the few? Whichever it is, it’s a reflection of its leaders. Leaders have the power to set standards, to demonstrate genuine values, to control bad behaviour, to reward virtue.

Few do this, however.

Most run organisations that are like childish games, where your words matter more than your deeds; where you must make powerful allies in order to ever be noticed; where spin gets you promoted faster than substance does.

To be in those organisations for too long is to waste a life.