The Best in the Business

I imagine there are myriad ways to learn about the self-defeating antics of corporate bureaucracies. Depending on your perspective (mine is decidedly jaundiced) the lessons learned therein can be equal parts instructive and amusing. The experiences I’m about to describe — all of which were acquired with two of the world’s leading insurance and financial-services companies — are three of the lessons I learned:

First, at an early point in my ersatz career, the company in which I toiled decided to adopt as its promotional slogan, “Work with the best in the business.” Since there were no objective criteria by which that slogan could be justified or verified, the company’s friendly neighborhood SEC rep came by and said, “How’d you like to get your shorts sued off for making such a baseless claim?” The company said, “Just kidding,” and came up with a number of alternatives. Those alternatives were, in descending order:

  • We’re pretty good.
  • We’re not that bad.
  • We don’t suck.
  • You could do worse.

Finally, it decided on a slogan that failed miserably in its attempts to be clever, to be plausible, and to rhyme. I’d reveal it here, but — appearances notwithstanding — I’m still too young and too handsome (well, too young) to spend the rest of my life in a cage and wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Lesson Number One: Dysfunction in bureaucracies increases in direct proportion to their growth.

Second, at a later point at which I was still wasting my time utterly, I worked for a company that sold health insurance. It organized itself into three divisions. It called the business unit that sold insurance to groups of 1,000 lives and more National Customer Accounts or NCA. So far, so good. It called the business unit that sold insurance to groups of 50 to 999 lives Regional Customer Accounts or RCA. By the grace of God, and through no foresightful acuity on the part of the company, no one from the former electronics giant came calling. Bullet dodged.

The company called the business unit that sold health insurance to groups of one to 49 lives Small Business Accounts or SBA and deemed itself to be clever as all get-out. Unmoved by RCA‘s lack of intervening interest, the US Small Business Administration took exception to the usurpation of its abbreviation and sent its own friendly neighborhood rep to suggest the entire company could be out of business faster than it could say, “See you in federal court,” if it didn’t see fit to find an abbreviation other than SBA. It didn’t much matter anyway, since the company ultimately vanished in a takeover it didn’t recognize as hostile or inevitable. It was both.

Lesson Number Two: Bureaucracies don’t learn from anyone or anything, including each other.

Third, after a particular point — after it reaches a particular size — every bureaucracy exists for the same three reasons: (1) To grow. (2) To sustain its existence. (3) To wield power and control over everyone and everything it can. Dysfunction and collateral damage are inevitable elements of the evolution of every bureaucracy. Resources, including people (though we can’t call them human resources anymore), will be chewed up and spit out by the monolithic monster’s machinations. And whether the bureaucracy be corporate or governmental, the rationalization for the carnage will always be the same: “Well, that’s the cost of doing business.”

Lesson Number Three: If any bureaucracy says it’s the best at anything that’s not ultimately destructive, it’s wrong.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Spot on, Mark.

    Language in corporations functions as a fog machine. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, btw. “If I don’t get caught, it didn’t happen” may be the underlying theme.

    There was an episode of Taxi once where the cab company had to shut down. They all had to get real jobs. Elaine got a job as a secretary (pardon me, administrative assistant) for a VP at a big corporation. She entered the office to find a guy in a suit and tie sitting in the office reading a magazine; he told her the VP wasn’t in, but that he’d left work for her. After this went on for a while, he confessed that he was the VP. He’d prospered in the company for decades because nobody knew who he was.
    As they talked, she realized he was really smart and had all kinds of great ideas to help the organization; she convinced him to do a presentation. He did. He was fired immediately.

    There’s a reason we’re self-employed.


    • Wow, Mac. I’ve seen that happen.

      As a wet-behind-the-ears, late-blooming college grad, I walked into my first corporate job at age 32. One of the first things my boss told me was, “The quality of your work won’t get you anywhere around here. It’s all about who you know.” I was instantly demoralized. Politics, one-upmanship, treachery, and fear never motivated me.

      There’s a reason we’re self-employed, indeed.

  2. I have long had a “frenemy” feud with marketing folks, because they come up with great “tag lines” that have to be accompanied by leadership and employee behavior that supports the claim. If not, the claim becomes a laughing stock. As an HR executive, I would find out about the claim after it was all nicely packaged and presented as a fait accompli, and I became the naysayer who had to point out that we didn’t have the pieces in place (or worse, we had different behavioral messages) to make the claim happen. Everything in an organization, bad and good, boils down to the behaviors of those representing the organization.

    • Carol, in all of the three large bureaucracies in which I worked, I was in a “marketing” area. I didn’t learn till I got out of them that I knew nothing about marketing. In most of the meetings I ever attended, we talked about things that had already been decided above our heads, frequently by outside agencies that did what we (ostensibly) were being paid to do. It gave me great respect for the notion that you can’t be a prophet in your hometown.

    • I was fortunate (??) to operate at the decision making level in HR over my career. That insight has been…scary…enlightening…depressing…pick one or all.

      HR also has employed “consultants” to do what my team was supposed to do, and other departments also hired “consultants” to do what my team was supposed to do – frequently in executive compensation. It was only the “consultants” that figured out what the execs wanted and gave it to them. And so here we are today with the largesse of corporate America.

      But it still all goes back to shaping behavior that will create the environment that a customer wants to engage with. That isn’t easy and it can’t be faked.

    • Thank you, Ken. The dysfunction of bureaucracies made them insufferable to me, as did the invisibility, the anonymity, and the ineffectuality. There were times at which I actually wondered what those bureaucracies thought they were paying me to do. Whatever I was doing made no difference to anything.