|Juvenile Snook cruises the tank at Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center - Hutchinson Island|
I’m still trying to figure out what kind of lesson, if any, to take away from this discomfiting series of contacts with Volkswagen. I know I’m not alone in this. We all like takeaways. Usually, though, the lessons we want are what we could do differently to get a better outcome. In this case I don’t know. I did my best in the circumstances and that wasn’t good enough. Perhaps I already got the best outcome possible—that is to escape having to work for Volkswagen in general and in Chatanooga in particular. The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude that this is the case.
I was prepared to like VW as an employer. It certainly would have been the biggest company I ever worked for, and, if there is anything to economies of scale in terms of job satisfaction and career potential, would certainly be capable of providing excellent opportunities over time.
I have always admired VW. It is an innovative and progressive company. It makes good products that are well thought out in terms of the way they work and that suit the market. I have owned 4 of their cars in my lifetime—two new and two used. I could easily own more.
Volkswagen has an immodest vision for itself. Its goal is to become the biggest car manufacturer in the world. I think they have a legitimate shot at it. They are dogged in the pursuit of their aims. They have both the corporate chops and the historical
DNA to make it happen. They were conceived in the midst of a quest for global domination and emerged from the ashes of its failure. To make matters easier, and GM are currently squirming in sticky pits of their own devising. The time is right for VW. It would seem, however, that whatever they do they are going to do it without me. Toyota
I never should have been brought to Chatanooga. It was a waste of time and money, mine as well as theirs. The board members I interviewed didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t know why I was there. I don’t know who did. The accounting manager seemed to have an agenda, but he did a lousy job of communicating what that was—at least to me, and apparently to the board guys as well.
Maybe he didn’t have time. Maybe he was stretched too thin. I don’t know. All I do know for certain is that, at the end of a long and arduous day of travel and discomfort, I didn’t feel any better about having interviewed the Germans than I would have about interviewing Ivan or Henry or any one of a handful of bozos from Albatross. I came away from the experience with the uneasy feeling that I had had a narrow escape, but from what I cannot say with any certainty.
Here is what I think I learned: Even though VW is at the top of its game, it is not much better when it comes to managing its affairs than anyone else I have ever worked for. Poor communication and the bone-headed decisions to which it leads are not the exclusive franchise of small companies and small-time managers. The differences between top-flight companies and also-rans are measured in inches and hundredths of seconds, not yards and minutes. The best of companies suffer from the same dysfunctions, faulty precepts, hidden agendas, second guessing, and grandstanding power-plays that cripple their less successful competitors. That their results are better is often a matter of pure dumb luck and the fact that they are so big that their course is not easily diverted by petty deficiencies. This may be the true advantage of economies of scale.
Volkswagen would have been a departure for me from my usual employment environment. I’ve always thrived in a smaller company. I’ve always been a big fish in a little pond. At VW I would have been a little fish in a big pond. I was going to try to be okay with that, but that may have been a big mistake on my part. I don’t want to do in desperation what I would never do in more serene circumstances.
I’m 62. I don’t need to thrive. I just need to survive until retirement. A big fish has to perform, and in a small pond the ways to do so are limited by the size of the pond itself. A small fish may need to perform too, but it also needs to devote a certain amount of its focus on not being eaten. Survival occupies a relatively larger amount of his energy. A big fish doesn’t compete with the other fish in its own pond. A big fish competes with other ponds. A small fish has to compete with all the fish in his own body of water. This means a small fish spends a lot of time looking back over its gills. In addition to knowing its job a small fish has to be adept at pond politics.
I’m not an aggressive predator. I like to work in concert with people. I don’t think it should be necessary for the rails of my career to be laid over the carcasses of my fellow workers. In fact I think that kind of success runs counter to the best interests of the organization I work for. Ultimately it is teams that succeed best, and teams are not generally made up of cut-throats and back-stabbers. Fierce competition within an organization weakens the organization.
Last week I was thinking of myself as a grasshopper. This week I’m a fish. I’m not a barracuda or a shark, though. I’m more like a snook. I like to hold behind structure where the current is slowest, conserving energy, waiting for opportunity to come floating by. This is probably not the best way to get ahead, but it is a style that suits me.
Snook do okay by it. They are prized game fish. Some of them grow quite large. The Florida record, near as I can tell, is 48 inches long and just short of 44 pounds—no great white, but a respectable fish and, perhaps more important to me, a fish that does not inspire fear and loathing as the big sharks do. Snook are admired, prized even, for their fighting ability, their speed, and their native cleverness. They are hard to catch. Snook occupy the middle ranges of the food chain. They manage this while still being essentially ‘lazy’ predators. I think that’s a worthy enough aspiration for an old guy like me. I’m content with it. Of course I’d never say that I was lazy in a job interview. Oh, wait…I kind’a did.