When I first set out to work overseas in 1967 as a Peace Corps Volunteer on his way to the Philippines, I had no idea, not the faintest idea, that I would spend nearly all my adult life in international work as an employee, a project manager, an advisor, and a so-called “expert consultant” (bureaucratic puffery) working in a few dozen nations on several continents and in a variety of disciplines, but basically in support of economic development of what was once called the “Third World”, a term that is way out-of-date today. Nor did I imagine that I would eventually live full-time in another nation as I do today in Panama.
Over these four and a half decades, I have watched the working relationship between people from the “developed economies” and those from the “developing economies” go through a slow, steady change, one that has greatly accelerated in the last decade or so. That change reflects a greater change, a global shift that has great consequences for everyone. The future cannot be predicted, so we are left with much conjecture as to what the results will be, but I am not concerned with that today.
What has been especially painful for me is to be unable to describe what I have seen underway in words that are accessible by people generally. My past attempts have discussed statistics and specific events that just don’t get across the point effectively unless the reader has a background similar to my own. It has been very frustrating because I think it is important to help people get a more realistic grip on the reality outside their particular piece of the planet, regardless of where they live. When you read what I have written, don’t make the mistake of automatically assuming what nation represents the gentleman’s “division”. There are many candidates.
Finally, this Thursday morning, it just came together. I woke up, sat down, and wrote the following essay. It does the job in a way that charts, graphs, and timelines cannot. So here it is.
A Parable for Today
All of your life, you have worked for the company. It is a huge company with many divisions. You are proud of your division. It is the one of the biggest and the most successful. This has been true all of your life and for a long time before you were first hired. Your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents and more have all worked for this company, so you feel very comfortable. You have a big office, a great view, and even a personal secretary, although you really could get along without one. You know you have a great future ahead of you and you feel confident.
There are a lot of divisions in the company that are not doing anywhere near as well as yours. Many of them lose money, at least part of the time. They are small and their personnel are not well-trained, but they are not bad people, just not particularly competent and certainly not anywhere near as successful as you and your division. The company has a “mentoring” program for the more successful divisions to lend a hand to these others and you decide to be a mentor and help.
You meet your “mentee”. She is a young lady, not very well-educated, not very well-dressed, not very experienced in the company’s business, and part of a division that has a very poor earnings record. Her office is tiny, has no view, and she must share it with half a dozen others in her division, not a very nice work environment.
But she is friendly and really eager to learn, so you do your best. You talk to her about entrepreneurism, about the strengths of the free enterprise system that seem to elude her division, about the potential if she and her co-workers would only take a careful look at your division and its record, and do likewise. She is impressed and listens, but she is just too young and never seems to quite get the hang of it.
You enjoy your time with her, but you really wonder if she and her division really have much hope. Maybe someday, but not for awhile, perhaps a long while. You are a busy executive. You do your best, but you cannot spend too much time with her. She has so much to learn and you only have so much time to give.
The years pass by and you stay in touch. You have lunch with her from time to time. You read reports on her division’s work occasionally. Things seem to be looking up for her and her division and you are proud of all she has accomplished and, privately, you feel good about the support you have provided in the past. Your two divisions are doing more and more work together, so you get a chance to see each other more frequently. You compliment her on her growing success and appreciate her thanks for your help.
A few more years pass by and your division is having problems, real problems. Its share of the firm’s profits is smaller now and falling. Her division is really growing rapidly, maybe too rapidly, you think. In any case, she does not need your advice as often and when you offer it, sometimes you feel as if she is not really listening that carefully. You feel more and more uncomfortable. It seems you have to congratulate her and her division too often and accept her and her division’s sympathies too often.
Another few years pass. You lost your big office and its great view. Your personal secretary left a long time ago to take a job with your mentee’s division. Your division still represents a large share of the company’s business, although much less than before, but it posts losses frequently. Your former mentee and her division are doing better than ever. Although you still question their strategy, you know they question yours too and maybe with more justification, but you do not want to go there.
You and she still meet frequently, but her attitude has changed. She is pleasant enough most of the time, but more and more, she raises criticisms of your division and tries harder to work with other divisions, especially those like hers that have grown rapidly. She is much better dressed now and when you visited her new office, you were a little shocked at its size and its view.
Deep inside, you are a little embarrassed and a lot envious. Sometimes you get angry. It just is not right! After all you and your division have done so well for such a long time, it is her division and others like it that get the attention and the respect now. Your division’s record is really bad. Your leadership is mediocre. Not bad really, but not good, just mediocre. The same seems to be true of the other divisions who once were profit leaders for the company, many including old friends of yours who you met regularly at company meetings where you would compete during the day for attention, then get drunk together at the bar later that night.
When you meet her now, she can be quite insulting. Sometimes she and her division seem to ignore you and your division. Your past record is not of much interest to her. Your past advice is still appreciated, but it has little to do with what she is working on right now.
In fact, she seems to think you are the one who needs mentoring and she is bold enough to say so, sometimes in private, but now more and more publicly. That angers you and you get more and more public in your complaints too. You think her division may be doing well now, but they are also neglecting some important factors (or so you hope) and eventually your division will be on top again. Sometimes she smiles when you say that. Sometimes she grimaces. But too often, she just pays you less and less attention, doing it only when it is really necessary. Your division is still one of the most important, despite the losses it is running up, so she cannot ignore you, but she does not have to respect you.
That seriously angers you and you spend more and more of your time pointing out her errors, while trying to keep yours in-house, but you constantly fail. Some people start talking about that old story of the Emperor without clothes. You hate that, but it is getting difficult to argue with it, so you just have to focus on criticizing her and praying that things will turn around for your division soon, although you have trouble explaining exactly how that will happen realistically.
In the privacy of your own mind, you are getting fearful of the future. You see it as full of danger. You fear the company itself is in big trouble. Maybe, just maybe, you hope that it is. A disaster that involves everyone will at least not humiliate your division alone. There is some peace in that, but not much.
What must be going through her mind? Perhaps something like this.
I like the guy, or at least I like what he used to be. I really appreciated the help he gave, but I am sick and tired of having to thank him again and again. His division is obviously in big trouble, everyone knows that. When I try to give him advice, he just looks at me like I have no business giving him anything but praise. I am sick and tired of that too. My division is not responsible for his division’s problems and I am not responsible for his problems. What am I supposed to do? I have no magic wand and, if I did, I would use it for my division, not his. He did exactly the same when he was my mentor. Yes, I feel sorry for him, but I cannot focus on that. I have a great future ahead of me and so does my division. We have our problems, but we have the right stuff. Sometimes, I wish I had a video of one of his best mentoring sessions so he could see and hear it from the other side of the table. If he ever learns to take the advice he once gave me, maybe he will have an office with a view again, but that is not my problem. I have to run now. I have business to take care of. The future looks great and I want to be part of it.
End of story? Of course not. There are countless chapters to be written, but looking back to past chapters may help as we write today’s chapter and tomorrow’s and….