By Tim Dempsey
(Self-published, 229 pages, $25.25)
When Tim Dempsey applied in 1984 to become a technical librarian in North Carolina for a subsidiary of Nortel Networks, it took 31/2 months to hear back. Then came the urgent request that he be available for an interview in two days – and start working, if selected, within two weeks. When he indicated that he needed to give a month's notice to his existing employer, his new boss was outraged. Mr. Dempsey observes in his memoir, No Fear: "No activity for three months, then near panic because he was late. I didn't know how prevalent this behaviour would be."
A few months later, he told his wife it would be a great ride, but wouldn't last, since the company didn't value money – endlessly wasting it. But it turned out to be a longer ride than he expected, as he shifted into human resources and then into being a change agent, chosen by various top officials, including CEO John Roth, to shift the corporate culture. It gave him a ringside seat on the rise and demise of the company, which he shares in his unique, from-the-trenches, stories.
He found the politics of the company shaped by a palpable lack of trust, with decisions taken out of concern for power bases. "Insecurity was pandemic. A common characteristic I had found among many leaders was self-doubt," he writes.
As telecommunications became deregulated, Nortel moved away from serving the old, mammoth telephone companies, which used their technology for a long time and decided on their purchases in a slow, deliberate manner. Now telecommunications was shifting quickly, decisions made hastily, and Nortel had to reinvent itself continually to be effective.
As it grew spectacularly, Nortel was throwing rookies with little training into new jobs, often brilliant engineers who were mediocre managers. And they sensed it, worried somebody would find out about their inadequacy for the role and the times. "The Peter Principle was being lived out on a daily basis," he wrote.
One defence was to blame others, notably the officials in head office. The problem was "them." At the top, the lack of accountability was similar, with blame placed on those below.
At one point, working with Mr. Roth to help improve general managers, he asked the boss the intent of the effort. Mr. Roth talked about accountability, responsibility, and control. What Mr. Dempsey heard, instead, was: "Who do I blame when things go wrong?"
Mr. Roth talked about empowerment, and the general managers wanted more control of their operations. At one point, however, he recalls Mr. Roth telling him: "Are they crazy? Do they think I can let go? I'm just going to risk the whole company and hold my breath?" The initiative didn't get very far.
Cisco, a major competitor, was known for its great skill at acquisitions, picking companies with treasured new technology to capture and then integrating the employees into the larger firm to take advantage of their skills. Mr. Dempsey suggests Nortel was the opposite, botching acquisitions, even as their pace accelerated, excelling only at developing packages for staff to leave. One executive studied the acquisitions and discovered not one had met the business case developed to justify the takeover.
Mr. Dempsey was asked to coach Dave House, the CEO of Bay Networks, which Mr. Roth bought to show his firm how an effective data company operated. To keep Bay's ethos, it would be handy to hold on to the CEO, who initially seemed interested, but later told Mr. Dempsey he had encountered a massive culture of deception and protection at Nortel. "I have never seen a bigger group of liars in my life. I am astounded that you don't tell each other the truth. … There's a culture here to lie to each other to protect your turf, to protect your ego, to protect your business," Mr. Dempsey recalls him saying.
In time, after too many efforts to change the culture that didn't achieve much, Mr. Dempsey decided to end his roller-coaster ride by arranging for his own package. Reflecting back, he says, "On and off for 17 years, I, too, complained about the culture, even as I smugly vowed to change it and worked every day to influence it. Each leader must stand up and declare that he or she will not practise these immature behaviours and will not tolerate them in their organization."
Memoirs are usually written by top executives, so this is unusual fare, from someone within the ranks, although Mr. Dempsey did rise to be a vice-president.
His memory, of course, may be faulty and self-protective – we are all, after all, heroes of our own story – although at times he tells of his own glaring flaws. But he contributes a different take on Nortel's flop from the usual analysis of pivotal decisions and competitive failings.
I suspect, as well, many of the issues he cites about Nortel's culture and management will ring true with readers about their own organizations, which might make helpful, or at least consoling, reading.
Peter Drucker's Five Most Important Questions (Wiley, 122 pages, $24) is a short, handy distillation of important themes from the late management guru's writing, compiled by one of his best-known exemplars, Frances Hesselbein, and consultant Joan Snyder Kuhl.
Mark Miller, vice-president of leadership development at Chick-fil-A, argues that leadership is Chess Not Checkers (Berrett-Koehler, 130 pages, $31.94) in a fable built around a new CEO troubled by morale and performance at his company.
Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of Kind Healthy Snacks, urges you to think boundlessly, work purposefully, and live passionately in Do The Kind Thing (Ballantine, 293 pages, $31).
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter