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Save the Hamsters!

A recent trip to the pet food store brought an unexpected surprise.

A recent trip to the pet food store brought an unexpected surprise. I spotted a black Chrysler Crossfire across the lot, and went to look at it. Suddenly, a top Chrysler executive was standing behind me. It was his car. He had been inside buying food for his son’s hamster. What I hadn’t noticed at first was that he had stopped briefly to look at my Mini Cooper, spotted me checking out his ride, then quickly deduced who owned the little British box. We exchanged pleasantries and a few comments about each other’s vehicle, then went our separate ways.

It was while buying canned food for my cat that I realized this executive never studied finance at Oxford, Harvard, or some Ivy League school. Despite his many years in the industry and no-nonsense approach, that little encounter proved he didn’t have what it takes to run a major automaker these days. Why? A true power broker would have given me the hamster to feed the cat and later explained to his son that tough decisions had to be made. And he would have gloated he had reduced the number of “platforms” that needed support in half, and saved money by eliminating the need for hamster food.

In the very short run it might have worked. The cat would have been extremely happy with his tasty new toy, and anyone running the numbers would have seen that this gambit had definite positives. All the money earmarked for the hamster could be redeployed for future product development, capital improvements, or an increase in dividends. The cost of feeding and cleaning up after the hamster would be eliminated, and the cost associated with doing the same for the cat could be cut even further by switching food suppliers. Of course, the latter probably would entail learning how to ask for “Cat Chow” in Chinese.

Once the exec was on the fast track, this strategy would be applied everywhere, and soon the corporation’s goals would be bent to serving the desire for personal success. The truculent son, still angry after watching his hamster sacrificed to “make the numbers,” would be shipped off to a distant division (a.k.a., military school) for “seasoning.” Debate would be silenced through pointed recitations of the success of the pilot program and veiled threats. Those hoping to move forward on the executive’s coattails would begin taking rearguard actions, while telling him how important his work is and what it will mean to the company. Soon, their very existence will depend more on promoting his agenda than on doing what is right for the corporation.

Sadly, a case can be made that these people are trying to do what’s best for the company. In a society where the word “is” doesn’t always mean what you think it does, narrowly defining or interpreting a task opens the door to short-term gain and long-term pain. After all, it’s easy to finesse the system in such a way that the most immediate concern (i.e., cost control) is also the most important, and dealing with it in a way that quickly eliminates the problem is the best answer. So every division gets a car in every price range, or one of the divisions is amputated, or platform sharing trumps brand loyalty and awareness. In each case, greater self-control and a long-term view would have prevented these problems in the first place.

Following this path would save a few hamsters along the way, but I doubt it will ever be adopted. That would mean setting aside personal agendas and refocusing the corporate culture on common goals. My cat has a better chance of talking.

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