Consultancy: Who was that masked manager?: Mystery columnist flicks his lash at the gurus and their theory of the month club

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The Independent Online
'A LOT of people are going to need to be clouted,' according to Michael Hammer, author of Re-engineering the Corporation, the best-selling book behind the hottest trend in corporate management. 'To succeed at re-engineering,' he told Fortune magazine this month, 'you have to be a visionary, a motivator, a leg-breaker.'

But to readers of Stanley Bing's monthly column in America's Esquire magazine (undoubtedly many of the middle managers whose legs stand to be broken) Mr Hammer's corporate re-engineering is only the latest in a long line of management fads that must be survived. To those who must cope day to day with the often perverse effects of such theories on real businesses, Mr Bing's 'Executive Summary' column is a breath of fresh air - an antidote to whatever 'business-school idea-of-the- month' is making their life a misery at present.

In place of re-engineering, benchmarking, broad-banding and empowerment, 'Mr Bing' - who is a senior executive at an unidentified American corporation - offers advice on breaking in a new boss, fiddling expense accounts, 'ass-covering,' the many uses of the telephone 'hold' button, etiquette for the executive washroom, 'the infinitely-postponable luncheon,' and wheedling a ridiculously expensive,high- backed, deep-mahogany leather chair for one's desk.

Work, argues Mr Bing, is a tremendously important part of people's lives and their identities. 'We invest our jobs with a well of emotion. It's impossible, for example, to understate the role in one's life of a manager who is a jerk.

'The column is about things that happen to people in the workplace that affect them very deeply, things that seem trivial but are a means of dealing with the job,' says Mr Bing.

'The only way to deal with the situation is to expose it to ridicule, to make fun of it. I see my job as demystifying the business process.'

Indeed, Stanley Bing succeeds precisely because he reduces high-sounding management theories to basic human urges. Takeovers occur because of greed, he says. And a balance of fear and laziness drives most business careers.

Consultants, on the other hand, 'know nothing,' says Mr Bing, who has consented to be interviewed in cognito over lunch at a bustling, popular, mildly overpriced restaurant a few steps from the midtown Manhattan office that houses his company's headquarters. 'Management books are unreadable. If fact they're not meant to be read, but to be thumbed and shelved - and then their authors hired to come in and give slide shows at dollars 20,000 a pop.'

Management is about people, not 'excellences', he argues, and 'destructive' ideas like 'creative chaos' are in many ways to blame for 'botched modernisation of US industry in the 1980s. He adds: 'In the 1990s, we are living with the legacy of a decade of consultant excess, and of the securities analysts on Wall Street who preyed on our businesses.' He notes that many corporations, from IBM to General Motors to Kodak, are today 'down-sizing' (he calls it 'dumb-sizing'), but the theorists and consultants who led them astray in the first place are not the ones who are still around to pay the price for their bad advice.

No, it's paid by people like Ferber, he writes in one column. He spotted Ferber one hot Friday afternoon when he decided not to bother returning to the office after lunch: 'Outside the theatre, gazing at the poster as if it were a menu and he a starving mendicant, was Ferber, our former vice- president of new-product development . . . Last I heard, Ferber was starting his own marketing-consulting business. In other words, he's about as unemployed as a man can be.'

After a series of similar nightmarish encounters, Mr Bing, like a born-again Scrooge, rushes back to his building to find hundreds of out-of-work middle managers thronging about the lifts, demanding his job. When he reaches his desk, there is a phone message from his boss. 'I seized upon that 'While You Were Out' message as if it were a juicy steak . . . It was work, that's why. Middling work, perhaps - but mine.'

In another column - headed 'Only the Dead Need CVs' - he writes about an ex-colleague from a 'non-synergistic' department: 'No one wants to know a person who has been fired. A fired person cannot do anything for you. The most you can do with such a person is have lunch.'

In another, Mr Bing day- dreams at his desk about quitting the rat race, leaving his job to 'do the other thing' he always dreamed of - until he realises how much his lifestyle depends on showing up for work every day. He imagines himself on a park bench, asking: 'Buddy, can you spare a hundred thousand a year?'

Unemployment is a relatively recent obsession of Mr Bing's; most of his advice focuses on keeping one's job, and indeed prospering in the often absurd hierarchies of the modern corporation - particularly in the frugal 1990s. In one column, 'How to Manage in the New Operating Environment,' he suggests that executives think small. 'Tomes have been purveyed about the importance of long-range strategy - but, hey, if there is no long- term, why develop a strategy.'

Other columns deal with water-cooler protocol, weight- watching on a three-martini diet, and getting up to go to work. But Mr Bing is at his most helpful when offering advice on what he calls 'managing up' - for example: 'An improperly trained boss can turn on you. For his sake, as well as yours, you've got to make his professional life - and, in a deeper sense, his entire person - wholly dependent on you.'

The identities of Mr Bing and of his real-life boss, known variously as Chet, Skip or Walt, remain secrets, at least from his greater audience in Corporate America and on Wall Street. Mr Bing managed to write his column for years without being discovered. ('It helps that most business people don't read,' he says.)

He decided last year to own up to his double identity at the office so that he could do a publicity tour for his book, Crazy Bosses. He duly delivered a copy to his chief executive, nervously noting a reference to him, and was told that the paragraph was 'the finest piece of sucking up I've seen in my life'.

(Photograph omitted)