This is Part Two of the Norman Conquest.
A while back, I told you all about Norm, in this reflection: The Norman Conquest, Part One. In Part One, I suggested that Norm represented a kind of common man — certainly me, if not you.
It’s time to look at the other guy.
This is Norman, never Norm, in the same way that King James isn’t, well, King Jim. You just don’t do that. (1)
Every organization has a Norman. He’s the larger-than-life individual, whose curriculum vitae transcends the mortal; he’s more persona than person, idol than individual. (I realize “he” can be “she” of course, but my Norman was a male one — see (2).)
There are typically very few Normans per division in an organization (3), and to those of us younger, less experienced, certainly less brilliant and obviously less confidently forceful — that is to say, the 99.9% — Norman didn’t appear to us to have risen through the organization by any ordinary means. Norman was just there.
Norman ran things. Norman had scads of people reporting to him. These were people who commanded respect and fear among their own organizations, but whose bones gelatinized when briefing Norman.
Think of Norman as a Komodo dragon. (4) To the extent that Komodos can be friendly, Norman could be friendly, generally to peers (in other words, other Komodos). He could even be supportive of some Komodo wannabee’s. For others, he might be tolerant, dismissive, or outright hostile.
People referred to Norman as Norman. You didn’t go to a meeting and present to Norman. No. You “went before” Norman. You might think genuflection would help. Or kissing a ring. It didn’t.
Going before Norman was therefore both a opportunity and, to understate, a challenge.
It was my turn. One up-to-that-point fine day, my boss (”Jim Too,” whom you’ll meet in an upcoming story - be patient) placed his pudgy hand on my shoulder and said, “We should go before Norman with this.” “We” meant “me,” of course — one of the great perks that come with management is the ability to send in chum to test an idea. (5)
I don’t even remember the subject matter. It had something to do with the Systems Development Life Cycle, one of those windy mouthfuls that describes WAW - or Work About Work. (6) Here I was, anxious member of management, still wondering in my Norm way (see NQ Part One) whether I had what it takes, still trying to work out what we were supposed to be implementing, methodology-wise, across the IT board.
I’d assembled the usual presentation, pretty pictures, bullets, concepts, big talk, death by PowerPoint. I had tried to put a bow on this nebulous theory of what we in IT were supposed to be doing. Ultimately, a proper SDLC would reduce costs, infuse discipline into the organization, and guarantee quality results. Where these three things have converged anywhere in the business world has yet to be seen.
I fiddled with my presentation deck (7). In walked Norman and took his seat at the head of the table in the room, about a million feet away.
I began. “Well”
That’s all I remember. Norman proceeded to run over me, stomp on me, and take whatever ideas I thought I had, shred them, and spit them out the window. By the time he was done — probably three minutes, but it felt like days — I was in a jellied heap at the other end of the room.
Still, courage. (8)
I wobbled my way back upright, something like a cooked spaghetti trying to get back into the box, and uttered my second word. “But”
When Norman finished running me over again, my time mercifully was up. I could now bask in the afterburn, sitting in the meeting, eyes and body frozen, some kind of expression on my face, while everyone else in the room attended to anything but looking at the poor sap of whom they could say, “Sucks to be him!”
My tail wasn’t merely between my legs. It had crawled all the way up my insides and was brushing my tonsils on the way out.
I had been “Normaned.”
Later that day, Jim Too gave me the six words of advice that would represent all the coaching, feedback and support I was ever going to get out of that incident: “You don’t say No to Norman.”
I wasn’t aware I had. In retrospect, I suppose that “Well” and “But” were some sort of Assertion and Defense. Didn’t seem like it at the time. However, I later learned that just prior to this meeting, Norman had been told that, instead of being Director of a Major Component of the IT World, he had been told he would now be Director of Planning of a Major Component of the IT World.
In other words, another Komodo dragon had taken the Norman Komodo dragon down a big peg.
Needless to say, Norman wasn’t happy. In fact, he was so unhappy that, like an even-more-irritable-and-starving-than-usual Komodo dragon, he was going to eat the first junior manager who came his way.
That junior manager was me.
I told myself at the time that it wasn’t what I’d said; it was that I’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. True or not, that helped me feel better.
Fast-forward several years. Now I was an IT strategy manager. My role was to develop the agenda for the periodic strategy meetings, attended by the CIO, senior leaders, and by-invitation mid-level managers presenting various topics. This provided two opportunities. One, I occasionally presented to these leaders en-masse. Think of this as presenting to a whole room full of Normans. That can get a bit intimidating. Two, I could watch and learn from other managers as they presented.
The most privileged role that had been offered me was to be present in what I came to call “The Room,” where the Normans discussed tough, tough things. I was told that it might take time before they trusted me. And so it did. But I also learned a heck of a lot about leadership, simply by observing.
One thing I’d learned was that sometimes it wasn’t the quality of what you presented that created the reaction; rather, it was the mismatch between your anticipation of what the Normans wanted and what they expected you to provide. This wasn’t all that unusual.
I remember one incident in which a manager had previously solicited the Normans’ opinions. She then prepared a presentation summarizing what they’d said. She then presented their opinions back to them. Whereupon they roundly disagreed with her findings. That had to be a stunning moment.
I found myself in the position of consoling her afterward, saying, in so many words, “That’s what they do.” I’m not sure how much it helped her. I recalled one such mismatch between what I was presenting versus what they wanted. After I was thoroughly ripped apart, a well-intentioned bystander attempted to soothe me: “They were trying to get a cat to bark.” That didn’t help me much, either.
The hard lessons from this are, in retrospect, simple to frame.
Lesson One - Content over form. We work hard to get the imagery just right, to build that compelling visual that will summarize it all in one aesthetically-pleasing swoop. Great if we can get there. But you can’t get so caught up in the pictures that the substance is lost. Please remember that you don’t serve PowerPoint; PowerPoint serves you.
Normans get hit with all kinds of things all day, every day. Get to the simple point, emphasize it, and get off stage. Easy to say, hard to do.
Normans will be much happier with a slide that tells them what they need to know, as simple and direct as you can get it. We non-Normans are managers, not logo designers. I had to learn this the hard way, too: after I delivered one over-polished piece of art, a Norman remarked, “A lot of pretty slides, but what does it tell us?”
Lesson Two - Being shredded is not always bad. (Yes, really.) I remember one such session, where an ambitious, hard-working and brilliant manager (and future director, though he didn’t know it), delivered what I thought was an outstanding presentation — on point, just enough graphics, clear content, the whole bit.
Of course they shredded it, picking things apart on every single slide.
But then an interesting thing happened. As they watched this manager leave with tail over tonsils, you could tell they knew this wasn’t how it should end — that a manager whom they knew had the stuff to take a seat in The Room needed more at that point than to walk away thinking he had failed.
The discussion this manager did not hear, but that I hoped he heard afterward, was that it’s far better to have your presentation picked apart, held up, worried over — indeed, in some ways, shredded. Because this meant that the Normans were engaged, that there was material here worth getting right, that the topic was so challenging, all their voices were needed to pummel it into shape.
That idea was worth it. And kudos to that manager for presenting something they all could sink their teeth into. Far better this, than a room of vacant stares, or a simple, “Thanks very much, that will be all.”
This is the success of engagement versus the failure of disengagement. You want them leaning forward, not back. But it’s tough to know you’re doing well, when it seems to you that all they’re doing is tearing you down.
With the Normans, it was never you. It was what you had brought to the table. They knew the topic was tough — that’s why you’d received the assignment in the first place.
That’s what the Normans discussed, after this manager had left The Room. How to convey that this kind of reaction was a good thing. How to reassure the manager that he'd really been successful.
Two lessons about ideas, about content that matters and form that matters much less.
I learned these lessons the hard way, by getting knocked down a few times. I won’t say it’s easy, because it’s not. Getting criticized by one Norman is tough enough. Taking it from a whole roomful can test not only your endurance but sometimes your sense of self-worth. There were times when I felt as though I was simply enduring, that in some ways I would never live up to what some of these folks evidently wanted. We tend to remember the tough times and forget the others, and I remembered plenty of those tough times.
Still, I loved The Room. Even as I worked constantly to get the role right, I loved being in that room full of Normans. I absorbed what they had to say as they grappled with problems most folks in IT don’t get much chance to contemplate, caught up as they are in the ambitious mid-level desire to be useful. I learned and learned, as the Normans discussed workforce composition, reward systems, demographics, international trade issues, affordable cost structures, change management, reskilling, operating models, architectures, latest technologies, supply chain management, information risk and security, leadership development, integration with corporate strategy — on and on and on.
I learned that these Normans, who had likely made their way into the room through individual combinations of skills and savvy, dynamics and delivery, now needed to face their biggest challenge: slow down just enough to get it right; speed up just enough to get it done right.
One of these Normans once said that, as long as the wheels are just barely staying on the wagon, we’ve got the velocity down. While another, joking with a brand-new Norman, said, “Don’t worry. We’ll slow you down. You’ll see.”
They were a great, if sometimes contentious group, headed by CIOs whose role was to take advantage of each Norman’s strength while managing this team of strong and sometimes wild horses. To ensure that the team powered forward, pulling the organization through successive sets of headwinds and into a future impossible fully to anticipate. The road ahead has stripes on it that disappear as it bends, one Norman said.
While the scars I received along the way ran deep, the learnings ran deeper. Both have stayed with me. Both inform me, even now. Could I have learned without the scrapes and bruises? Maybe, but I doubt it. Others might have been far more effective at this. But others weren’t me. I lasted years on the job, longer than many others; and, knowing the Normans’ tendencies toward impatience, I doubt I would have been tolerated that long if I hadn’t earned my humble perch every time I went in The Room.
One other thing. That original Norman criticism. I like to think it was because he’d had a bad experience immediately prior to my shredding event. Maybe it’s true. But it’s much more likely that my thinking was shoddy, or that I’d taken a stand that ran counter to what he, from his perspective, knew the organization needed. He’d shredded the idea; the person simply stood in the way. Far better that he’d done that, than simply not pay attention at all, rendering the idea not worth considering. A bad idea serves its purpose, if only to refine and reinforce a good one.
So to those Normans — and to the original Norman, too — I’m thankful. Thankful to learn how they worked through the challenges. Thankful to understand how messy the work can be (even as it seems so simple to those in the trenches). Thankful for the opportunity, the challenges, even the bumps and bruises.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was an unfair trade, really: I took far more from them than they ever got from me.
Incidentally, I met the original Norman some years later. He had retired by then. After I gave my name he smiled and acknowledged that he remembered me. Vaguely. Or perhaps not; but he was too polite by then to say otherwise.
That’s the thing about Normans in your life. To them, you may come and go, possibly be remembered. But you will always remember them.
(1) Can you imagine? The “King Jim Bible?”
(2) Yes, Normans can be female, in which case they’re (likely) not called Norman. You can conjure up names of your own. What really bugs me (and I know I’m out on a gender limb, here), is when women are referred to by their first names in a derogatory or condescending or even mocking manner. We’ve had way too much of that lately (I’m not so sure it hasn’t been around for a long while); but it gets damned annoying when a woman’s name is weaponized against her, while a man’s name reinforces his status. Come to think of it, I’m pretty damned annoyed at the word “weaponized,” too.
(3) Oh, I was really tempted to use SBU - that wonderful important-sounding descriptor — Strategic Business Unit. Let’s deconstruct this one. If your business strategy is well-constructed and, as a result, generally ruthless, where, pray tell, are your non-strategic business units? Every limb and fiber of your organization is, or should be, contributing to your strategy. So every part of your organization is, in that sense, strategic. The Strategic Business Unit had damn well better be the individual. And while we may complain that that’s wildly unrealistic, that says far more about our unwillingness to develop — and sustain — a strategy that can be (a) written on the back of the calling card (Oh boy, a footnote within a footnote — see //https://loveexpands.com/quotes/david-belasco-1080905/) and (b) communicated in such a way that everyone gets it and lives it. Far easier said than done, well-nigh impossible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.
(4) OK, if you don’t know — Komodos are basically one of the largest lizards on the planet. They’re like most other reptiles, which is to say, basically not very happy. They don’t know they’re not happy, it’s just that the concept of happiness is not really developed in them. So they’re these roughly 220 pound, 10 foot long packages of, well, death — or, more gently described by Wikipedia as “apex predators, [that] dominate the ecosystems in which they live.” Which is to say, they’re the Normans of their world. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komodo_dragon
(5) Do I have to explain this? “Chum” is shark bait.
(6) Work About Work is one of the most pervasive, self-justifying, and spontaneously regenerative areas in any organization. It’s where cost lurks, experts abound, and a certain measure of job security prevails. Years ago, the Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC) was one of those things. (You’ll bump into this again in the Jim stories). It tried to answer the question, “What’s the most effective and efficient way to develop a new computer system?” It caused even IT people’s eyes to glaze over, and when confronted with it, people in the business generally either threw up, threw their hands up, or just walked away. People developing the SDLC were known as Methodologists (sounds vaguely Protestant); their role was best described by this joke, told to me by a Methodologist: “Q: What’s the difference between a Methodologist and a terrorist? A: You can negotiate with a terrorist.”
By the way, if you want to cut costs, don’t just cut across the board — which some call “giving a haircut.” Stupid term. Usually, “giving a haircut” results in a corporate lobotomy. Better to cut out whole swathes of Work About Work and get these people doing something else, like helping make the product or service you’re trying to sell.
(7) Why the hell is it called a “deck,” anyway? Deck of cards? Can you shuffle it? Come to think of it, some of the presentations were more like Tarot cards than anything else.
(8) When Pope John XXIII woke every morning, he reportedly said, “Coraggio,” Italian for “Courage.” I don’t think he had this in mind. He did say one thing, though, we should keep in mind when determining workforce size and composition. When asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he famously replied, “About half.”