Friday, July 27, 2018

Exiled from the Top

I work for a big corporation.  Like most businesses, ours has an employee feedback process.  Every year, all employees are ranked.  Each employee's ranking outcome influences pay increases, promotions and stock options.

The top 10% are the elite of the elite.  That group is highly competitive and according to my theory, in order to get into that group, it all comes down to who you know more than what you know or do.

The next group is the 80-89 percenters.  These are your top performers, your leaders - the people who move the needle.  Everyone strives to get into this group.  The rewards are great: healthy pay increases, frequent pay increases, stock options, the cream of the assignments.  To be in this group is a big deal for a lot of people.

Once you fall below 80, you enter the large "center mass" or the large center of a bell curve.  An employee in the 70-79 range falls in the thankless place of doing all the work, having high expectations placed on them, but no rewards, other than the hope of breaking into the 80s.

Below 70 are your good to average workers.

Once you get into the 30 and below range, you are on the edge; you are always at risk of being placed on the proverbial chopping block.  And if you fall in the bottom 10%, then it's only a matter of time before you are laid off.

For my part, I hovered in the upper 60s and 70s for several years.  Then I finally broke into the upper echelon and stayed there for several more years.

Then came the mandate from upper management that the rank group was too top-heavy.  They needed to knock a few people down.  I have seen it happen several times before - a great performer is essentially knocked down the list for no other reason than management said so.  It is a highly demotivating experience to work and work and work, only to be kicked in the gut.

This year, the pressure was exceptional.  And I wondered if this would be the year it happened to me.  Back in April, I wrote about what "exile" would look like in corporate America.  Instead of being fired from your job, you are sent to the dregs of the organization.  I referenced what happened to Steve Jobs at one point in his career and how this is a form of modern-day exile.  Then I thought about what exile would be like in my specific situation.  For me, it would be exile from the top 20%.

That happened this week.

The actual decision to kick me out of the top quin-tile was done "in committee."  In other words, my direct manager gave me a positive ranking when they submitted the results.  As ranking was rolled up into the larger organization, the group was not hitting its mandated target of a lower average rank group and so some manager or group of managers had to decide who would be knocked down.

Having sat in some ranking discussion meetings, I know it is a game of inches.  The slightest mis-step or the smallest missed opportunity will determine if you're a 79 or an 80.  And although management would never say it, a person's rank outcome could be boiled down to how they dressed, or to one bad day at the office or to a factors outside a person's control.  It all comes down to a gut feel or worse - because one manager likes one employee more than another.

Thank Zeus for Stoicism.

It was not that big of a deal for me when I received the news.  My new manager delivered the news to me and they were surprised at the result.  In my situation, I started a new assignment right around ranking time, so my old manager who actually ranked me, did not deliver the news to me.  Which brings up another explanation: sometimes groups will "scalp" rank points from people leaving the group.  It appears some of my rank points were "scalped" so they could keep another employee, who remained in the group, from going down in rank.

Like I said, not a big deal for me - I had been preparing for this day.  The initial news did cause me to feel sour for about 10 minutes - it took a bit of time for the news to sink in.  But I quickly gathered my wits and mentally began to execute my "plan B."

Monetarily speaking, I will take a hit.  This may set me back a year or two from retirement, but it is not the end of the world for me.  Thankfully my current manager recognizes and appreciates my situation and they are very supportive of helping me "get back to the top."

My wife took the news way harder than I did.  She has been used to the "good news", which I had been able to deliver to her for almost 10 consecutive years.  And now that I think about it a bit more, this is my first time I've actually gone down in ranking in my entire career.  About 10 years ago, I just held my rank, but didn't actually go down.  So, this is the first time I've ever had to deal with the news of having my rank tank so far.

It's appropriate, now, to be reminded of the archer analogy.  John Sellars does a great job explaining this concept in his article entitled Stoicism and the Art of Archery.  In his article, he sites Cicero, who said, "Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”

My goal is to be constant; to not be bummed out about "unfortunate" events and to not be giddy about "fortunate" events.  Rather, I want to be constant in my pursuit of virtue and minimization of vice.  I don't know that I wholly succeeded at it with this week's news.  But as strange as it sounds, I was grateful for being exiled from the top as it gave me an opportunity to really practice Stoicism.  Now, and always, I must focus on what is in my control and keep a steady attitude.

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