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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER | THE MANAGEMENT PERSPECTIVE

When Two Worlds Collide

Corporate leaders grapple with their own kind of job stresses, which have only been intensified by mergers and downsizing.

November 02, 1998|LIZ PULLIAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it survivor's guilt--or survivor's rage.

Today's top executives have lived through mergers, reorganizations and waves of layoffs. They watched layers of middle management disappear and found themselves responsible for more people, more projects and more money as companies got lean.

What didn't increase was the amount of time in a day. So as responsibilities increased, executives lost the ability to spend time on projects and on the people they are supposed to be managing.

"You think about the years when you were coming up and you were given help," said Brenda Eddy, a Pasadena-based outplacement counselor and executive career coach who remembers casual mentoring sessions with her bosses over drinks after work. "Now you can't give it to anyone else. Nobody can concentrate on anything, and there's a lot of anger about that loss."

Of all those affected by the changing corporate world, executives get the least public sympathy. Lampooned in Dilbert and Blondie cartoons, targeted by "bad boss" competitions, top managers aren't seen as suffering as much as their often-fired, often-overworked subordinates.

But recruitment firms, outplacement services and the managers themselves agree that executives often find it as difficult to cope with the heavier demands of modern companies as do their subordinates.

The result, often, is anger--at their workloads, at foot-dragging subordinates and at higher-ups who fail to make their expectations clear.

Even executives who say they thrive on change may have trouble dealing with some of its realities.

Gene Galloway of Sanwa Bank is one. Galloway is a merger survivor--he was an executive with Crocker Bank when it was taken over by Wells Fargo, which itself is in the process of merging with Norwest Corp. Galloway, now an executive vice president for retail and community banking at Sanwa, says he likes change because instability makes everyone work harder, himself included.

But even Galloway has his pet peeves, notably what he calls "chain e-mail," in which one memo gets copied to so many people that 30 executives are involved in decisions that should take only two or three.

"E-mail is a great tool, and it has the ability to be absolutely misutilized," Galloway said.

In fact, today's emphasis on consensus building and teamwork often irks managers who say they have more responsibility than ever without having commensurate authority.

"The days when you had clear authority, clear responsibility and you could just make it happen are long gone," Eddy said. "Now it's all about negotiating with 65 people who all have a piece of the action."

At the same time, executives express frustration when their subordinates take too little responsibility. Workers who dodge blame, refuse to be accountable or simply work on autopilot are among executives' top complaints.

"Probably the greatest irritation is people who come to them with problems and complaints without offering any solutions," said Caroline W. Nahas, managing director with recruitment giant Korn Ferry International in Century City. "There are a lot of people who want to tell you what's wrong but don't want to present any alternatives."

Even bosses have bosses, and one of the biggest causes of executive distress is unclear expectations, said Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, president of the Berkhemer/ Clayton Inc. executive placement firm in Los Angeles.

Many companies rush to fill vacancies without clearly defining what they want from the position. The newly hired manager tries to deliver what she thinks her bosses want, a trial-and-error approach that sometimes has disastrous results.

In their worst moments, some managers darkly suspect that the confusion is intentional, making them a convenient scapegoat if things go awry.

The recent spate of firings and demotions among financial-services firms hit with losses overseas and in their hedge fund investments are a case in point. Few believe the firms' top executives and boards were unaware of the strategies, yet less senior heads rolled.

Even those at or near the top aren't immune. David Coulter lost his job as No. 2 man at the merged BankAmerica after the company disclosed losses from a hedge fund investment. The fact that BofA disclosed the investment to merger partner NationsBank well before the deal closed did not save Coulter's job.

Coulter has little in common, however, with the 5,000 to 8,000 workers who will lose their jobs because of the merger. His deal included a golden parachute that could be worth $29 million.

And many would argue that higher pay, generous stock options and other benefits make the plight of executives far less sympathetic than that of workers.

Still, the lack of backup from above, along with isolation from those below, make the job of today's executive less enviable, Eddy said.

"You've heard it's lonesome at the top?" she said. "It's gotten a hell of a lot lonesomer."

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