Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Tale of Two Bosses

The School of Hard Knocks

In college they taught me about management science, production flow, systems analysis and labor unions. But they never really taught any of us about the psychology of management and how to deal with management failure. I suppose it was assumed that if you worked for an idiot, you would simply seek to change jobs. Sometimes, that is easier said than done, and the end result is that we all end up stuck with some real losers for a long, long time.

My realization and recollection of what makes a good manager has changed over the years. Way back in my teens, it was usually a happy go lucky peer that was my equal, fun to hang around and we all did pretty simple tasks which we were all competent at. That all changed when I entered the real job market and realized that there wasn't a system to weed out the folks that snuck their way into positions of authority when no one was looking.

Back in 1985, I had a job at an insurance company called "Statewide Insurance". They specialized in non-standard auto policies, which is a politically correct way of saying 'high risk drivers'. The claims manager at this company was named "Jim". Jim was probably in a his 60s, wore an awful looking toupee and ran the claims department with an iron fist. He expected good job performance, and if you slipped up or made a mistake, there was hell to pay. More than once, every claims adjuster was reprimanded in his glass office where all the other employees could hear and see the verbal beating. You didn't mess with Jim and you sure as hell didn't screw things up on the job. While I respected Jim, I never much cared for him as a person. It was sort of like walking on pins and needles when you were around him.

I eventually left Statewide Insurance to go to work for J.C. Penny Insurance which was bought out by Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance about 3 months after I started. This was a great lesson in corporate culture. When one insurance company purchases another insurance company, they don't want the company infrastructure, they want the 'book of business'. They want the income generating aspect, but they don't want the buildings, salaries and pensions of the previous company. The manager of the claims office at J.C. Penny knew this and jumped ship as soon as the sale was complete.

This opened the door for "Alice", the assistant manager to move up into the number once spot. Now, Metropolitan wasn't really interested in how this office ran. So they did not care if Alice was qualified and were not interested in interviewing for a new manager. They just let Alice take over the reins. Alice was always a nice and friendly person, very jovial and caring. But when she became Manger, she disappeared. Literally. Once she got the top job, she would come into work around on the phone for about an hour (to her family back east), go to lunch at 11:30am, return around 1:00pm and leave for the day around 2:30pm.

While she was in the office she refused to read any of her mail, e-mail or authorize any settlements to claimants. This went on for almost three months, with plaintiff attorneys threatening to sue because we would not make counter-offers or settle any claims. After three months under the 'Met Umbrella' the word came down from Metropolitan that they were closing our office and moving the book of business to their regional office in Sacramento.

Since insurance companies don't want to move more paper than they have to, much less assign new claims adjusters to read the files and become familiar with them, we were instructed to close every file we could, by 'any means' we could (which meant pay the claimants anything within reason to close the file). This type of situation is a windfall for claimants and their attorneys, but not in our case. Because Alice still wouldn't authorize any settlements over our $2,000 individual settlement authority.

It appears that Alice had a phobia about making bad decisions so she didn't make any decisions at all. She had the mindset that she couldn't be held responsible for decisions she had not made.

This got to the critical phase when the office was slated to close within a month and we still had a boatload of cases with demand packages from attorneys to settle, but no Alice. So I called up Sacramento and asked what I should do. The regional claims managers told me to forget about Alice's authority, just close the damn cases up to the policy limits which was $40,000. Which I started doing, but without Alice's approval.

After the office closed and we all went our separate ways, I heard through the grape vine that Alice had sued Metropolitan for workers comp and misrepresentation of some sort. Didn't really surprise me. Alice had no real interest in working, she just wanted a gravy train to ride.

So here I sit 25 years later and as I think back to those times, I have a much different recollection of Jim. He wasn't so bad after all. At least he got things done and you always knew where you stood with him. I learned from Alice that the worst managers are the ones that never show up and the one that never make any decisions.

I sort of wish I was still working for Jim. It turns out that there are a lot more Alices in the world than I realized.