Lords almighty

Robert Herbold has been around. He spent twenty-six years at Procter & Gamble, at the end as senior vice-president of marketing. He was executive vice-president and chief operating officer at Microsoft for eight years, and he now runs his own business consultancy.

Who could be better

to talk about the nasty, not-so-secret issue that he has dubbed the Fiefdom Syndrome?

In medieval times, a fiefdom was the exclusive domain of a feudal lord. He ruled it with an iron fist, and woe betide the interloper to tried to make inroads. According to Herbold, the fiefdom is alive and well in the corporate world, but it may be ruled by a finance clerk as readily as by a senior executive.

In The Fiefdom Syndrome: The Turf Battles That Undermine Careers and Companies- and How to Overcome Them, he describes what can happen if cliques and empire builders — whether they’re working for their own benefit or what they perceive as the company’s — are allowed to go their own way.

In brief, it ends up in a mess.

He even suggests that a fiefdom in the finance department at Enron is what brought the company down.

Three basic human behaviours seem to encourage the development of fiefdoms, Herbold says:

  1. We have an innate need to control the data or information that reflects on our work.
  2. We have a natural desire to be independent and in control of our destiny.
  3. We have a natural tendency to exaggerate the quality of our work and its importance to our organization.

Driven by these factors, fiefdoms can grow in departments, divisions, or even if one person jealously controls specific information or a specific function.

For example, Herbold describes a university whose fundraising function was in chaos because individual colleges had seized control of it, guarding their alumni databases and refusing to share information with the university’s central office. Costs skyrocketed because so many functions were duplicated, and the colleges actually managed to sabotage a major university fundraising drive by trying to pre-empt it for themselves.

Independence among departments can even destroy a corporation. Herbold argues that it took the strong possibility of bankruptcy to break up fiefdoms within airline employees (pilots, mechanics and flight attendants). Each group’s demands for its members kept escalating, with no regard to the industry’s economic conditions or the airline’s financial health, until, in mid-2003, management finally told them bluntly that the company could not continue to operate without major concessions. At which point, says Herbold, “the fiefdoms woke up, realizing they were all part of a common company called American Airlines, and if they wanted that company to continue, they had to change their ways.”

He goes on, “the sad part about these fiefdoms is that they lose any sense of belonging to the overall organization in which they reside. It’s up to top management to make sure the right checks and balances are in place to fight off that kind of situation.”

In another example, Herbold tells of a company whose manual order-fulfillment system was ruled by a man who refused to consider change, since he believed that his group was so efficient and reliable that no new-fangled automated system could equal it. A legend in his own mind, he successfully guarded his turf until his boss’s son, an IT professional, told his father about a fulfillment system he’d installed, just like the one that the employee had recently pooh-poohed. The boss took a look, realized the potential benefits, and confronted his recalcitrant employee, who went ballistic. The result: the boss went to his boss and to the CEO, and they agreed that it was time to retire the fiefdom and its lord. In less than a year, a 360-person department was pared down to 20, yielding huge savings. Sadly for the bulk of that 360, their boss’s limpet-like attachment to the old ways meant that their skills had not grown to the point where they could be placed elsewhere in the company, so they lost their jobs.

Once Herbold shows us what a fiefdom looks like, he discusses seven key ways to defeat the problem. We don’t just get lots of good examples, though – Herbold has plenty of bad ones as well. Many of each come from the companies he’s worked with; in some cases names have been changed, in others, the company name is front and centre. He’s not afraid to show his own failures, either, or to admit to the wooly thinking that led to them.

Finally, Herbold reveals what he sees as a critical tool in eliminating fiefdoms: communication. He again shows us examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and explains why they did and didn’t work. Then the book winds up with a chapter on the benefits of a fiefdom-free organization for companies, governments, non-profits, educational institutions and individuals.

Most of us have seen the Fiefdom Syndrome in action: the turf wars, the flurries of CYA memos, the backbiting, the resistance to change. Herbold talks about things that companies and individuals have known about and sighed over for years, but often haven’t been able to address. His analysis and suggestions shed a new light on the problems, and offer ways to eliminate them. And through his storytelling, he also helps us recognize our own self-destructive behaviour and how to correct it before we, too, end up as casualties of the fiefdom syndrome.

The Fiefdom Syndrome: The Turf Battles That Undermine Careers and Companies- and How to Overcome Them, by Robert J. Herbold. A Currency Book Published by Doubleday, 2004. $37.95.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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