The Corporate Scapegoat

I've seen a disturbing trend in the corporate world.

Talented people start at the bottom and build their corporate careers from there. Some rise to management or executive levels and take responsibility for elements of a business. If the corporation is large enough, many of these managers or executives will still remain below several more layers of hierarchy. Those above them, obviously, have ultimately increasing levels of responsibility and oversight.

Many of these leaders at the top got there because they have charisma and know to keep their bosses happy. I'm not characterizing this as good or bad, it's simply a fact. As knowledge and intelligence are sometimes lacking, these executives surround themselves with smart people who elevate them to the top. These senior executives ultimately make the big decisions and build the framework within which everyone else works.

However, because they are frequently inept, they usually create an organizational structure that makes it near-impossible to get anything of significant value done. The thick layers of bureaucracy create a stifling environment in which it's difficult (and usually unnecessary if the ultimate goal is career preservation) to take calculated risks because every action is diluted by group think. For fear of taking accountability, bold corporate decisions are watered down and approved by committee and made comfortable by precedent.

Ultimately, because of the grinding gears of corporate bureaucracy most employees within the organization fail to get anything done.

While the leaders at the top ultimately should take the blame for material failures within their organization - after all, they built the organization, hired the personnel and set the strategy - they usually have the political clout to shift blame to a corporate scapegoat.

Enter the mid-level executive. Senior enough to have significant responsibility, but not senior enough to actually drive the future of the organization. More-or-less, the mid-level executive is following orders and making the most of the shitty hand he's holding. The mid-level executive sounds like he's in charge, but he's really a helpful pawn trying to do the right thing for the business and its customers.

Don't get me wrong, these can be fantastic, hard working, smart people. They just haven't cracked the ceiling to reach the top 1% of the an org chart, in which the real decisions - and real money - are made. As a consequence, they are disposable.

So when things go tits up in an organization, what happens? Mid-level executives get fired. They become corporate scapegoats. I've seen this happen over and over again. It's an unfortunate reality they don't teach you about in business school.

Unlike other lifetime careers - like teachers, doctors or electricians - the corporate career can hit a brick wall at any time. And often, those mid-level executives who hit a brick wall in their 50s can never find another job. They've just been forcibly shifted from a 20+ year career time horizon to instant retirement, perhaps with occasional bullshit consulting gigs. In fact, over my career I've seen more older executives get fired than I've seen retire.

People starting a career in a corporation need to understand that these organizations are politically motivated and that career lifespans are often only 20-30 years long.

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