Friday, June 24, 2011

My biggest screw-up in Egyptian Corporate Life

This is about my biggest screw-up as an employee of an Egyptian Corporation in Cairo, I invite you to comment.

Disclaimer: everything you read in this blogpost is based on what I was told and explained by one of my Egyptian colleagues with whom I have had many discussion with mutual respect about Egyptian culture, traditions. Islam and religious influences on everyday life. I value his views and thoughts and though not always agreeing with them, I respect them. I have learned a lot from him about Egypt, Egyptians and Islam, I have no reason to doubt what he is saying and explaining. And I know that to him it is of great importance that I trust him in what he tells me on his word.

This week I'll be living and working in Cairo, Egypt for 18 months, quite a milestone to be reached, considering that I see my wife and two sons only once every 2 weeks for a weekend. And of course the occasional vacation.

As you might know I'm working at a bank here in Egypt within the IT organization. I'm Dutch and all but one (as far as I know) of my colleagues are not. They're from all over the world, but the vast majority (99%?) is Egyptian. Safe to say that the corporate culture is very much like Egyptian culture.
I pride myself for being able to fit in various cultures, work with people with different beliefs, traditions and values while maintaining my own beliefs, values and traditions. And pretty much everywhere I've worked (Netherlands, Pakistan, Denmark, USA, UK, Germany, France, Canada, Singapore and now Egypt) and in different industries within different corporate cultures I never felt that my views on things related to work and my role in the corporate are conflicting with the local views. They're not always completely aligned, obviously, but never conflicting. Until a week ago. This is when I screwed up BIG TIME because of how I feel how people should work together and how the local (corporate) culture sees (maybe dictates?) it. Worst of all, it took all of last week to get me to realize this. Only last night, after a heart-to-heart with one of my colleagues that I work with on a daily basis explained this to me.

Is the suspense building? Are you curious as to what I did that qualifies as a major screw up? Well I'm getting there.

My job
Let me first give you a short (hopefully for you, but it's okay to skip this paragraph to get to the juicy details) explanation of what it is that I do for a living. I'm the Chief Architect within an IT department of a bank, I'm stationed at head quarters. You still don't have a clue as to what I do for a living, now do you? To be honest, I have no clue as to what this title means in terms of a job description. I wrote the job description for this role based on what I do, not on what I think I should be doing.
Anyhow. Basically it is my responsibility to safeguard all of the banks IT systems in terms of consistency, integretity and continuity, which still means nothing. Let me get more concrete; The bank's enterprise strategy consists of a business strategy and a set of other strategies that are (should be) alligned with the business strategy.
The strategy actually defines how to realize the bank's vision of how it will do its business in let's say 5 years. The other strategies are supporting the business strategy in realizing this vision and all are by themselves also realizing a vision (which of course is aligned with the business vision). I am responsible for the IT vision and IT strategy. I therefore need to understand the business vision and strategy, define an IT vision and strategy that supports the business and I am supposed to define a roadmap to realize the vision according to the strategy (btw, you should read the Sun Tsu on strategy, it applies!). This roadmap consists of strategic projects that are either initiated by the IT department or specific business initiated projects that are identified by me as strategic from an IT perspective. The projects, this roadmap are there to safeguard the consistency, integrity and continuity of our IT landscape.
But that's not all. I am also chairing a team of senior IT directors that advices the CIO on priorities etc of projects and assures that IT activities are considered from all angles, this to be able to run projects more smoothly, on time, within budget with high quality. The IT Council is also an escalation level within the IT department. The council has no mandate but solely an advisory role, but due to the seniority of the members it has authority.
Ah yes, before I forget, within my role and responsibilities, I am also explicitly involved in audit missions (both internal and external) and have to ensure that audit remarks and advisories are an integral part of our projects and activities.
So what is it that I do? No clue, but when I realize the day has started it is already over without noticing it. Sometimes I am being asked to tie a knot, sometimes I am being used as an escalation level, as a tool to get things done. I like to think that this is because my colleagues as well as our business and the vendors value my opinion, like my approach to challenges and consider me knowledgeable. Still I am by no means an authority in any area. I surely don't know enough about security, networks, infrastructures, data management etc. But that is not required for my role, I need to know how these architectures fit together and how they support the business. This I believe I am pretty good at.
Anyhow, I can go on and on about my job, but I stop here, contact me if you want to know more.

Setting the scene...
We've been working within the IT department for the last year or so on a major project that is highly strategic, I can't disclose more. The project was initiated by one of the IT directors and carried forward by the same director. The concept behind the project is one of the pillars of our IT strategy and the project itself is one of those on our strategic roadmap.
Typically, strategic projects are massive and require a lot of analysis and design before the first useful results are achieved.
Sometime a more iterative or agile approach is doable, but not so for this project. Consequently, after the initial press this project received a year ago, it had been long until the first results could be presented. My role in the project is primarily being informed about the status, the concepts and how it would fit into the grand scheme of our project portfolio. In all fairness I had no active role in the project until a few weeks ago, but my role now is irrelevant to my screw-up I like to think. I won't elaborate in this post.
About a month or two ago we reached our first major milestone, which went by almost unnoticed until questions were raised. Btw, this is something I notice a lot, achievements are hardly made public. An almost Calvinistic approach to ones work. Whereas mishaps find their way to the press easily. Good press is pulled, bad press is pushed. You want to shine in the spotlights? Screw up. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A week ago, just a day before my 15 minutes of corporate fame (although it seemed more as being infamous), we hit another major milestone in the project, one that many had been waiting for. Since we did not publicize our first milestone I informed the team of which I was a more active member since the previous 2 weeks, that we needed as a project make this achievement known, especially since pretty much everything exposed by the project was negative in nature. People not delivering on time, plans not adhered to, pre-requisites not timely mentioned etc.
My view on things; you work on something big, you keep people, especially those that do not belong to the incrowd, informed. You focus on the good, the benefits, the steps forward. By doing so, you keep momentum, eagerness to become part of the big picture but most of all understanding and leniency when things are not working out as planned. People accept steps backwards when there are also (more) steps forward and when you're realistic about them without accusing anybody. You only point fingers to those that did good. "Successes are because of the team, failures because of the team leader." A statement a manager of mine once made and I like to live buy.
So I'd told the team that we had to make the date at all costs, because that date was communicated and realistic. I wanted us to reach the milestone badly because I wanted to make this a "Hurray" moment for the project, for all the good reasons and intents. Everybody agreed on the value of this and the team worked hard. In all fairness, I had nothing to do with reaching the milestone, maybe other than keeping everybody focussed on making the date. Which was actually an easy job, because everybody was aware of the significance of it all. I've got to say that I am working with very skilled colleagues that take their profession very serious and don't shy away for going that extra mile.

Still with me? Thanks for your effort and patience. Know that typing this up takes longer than reading it.

We made it, and after getting all confirmations and a detailed and unambiguous description of what was achieved and what this meant to projects, management and the team itself, I wrote a short email on that Thursday night. Addressed to the whole team, all of our peers in the IT department, the project managers as they would benefit of it the most, our CIO and 2 relevant managers.
I chose not to share the meaning of reaching this milestone for our IT strategy with our vendor and send a 2nd email with a one-pager on this to the same recipients but the vendor.

In short succession of my emails I received first an email with a reply-all from the IT director who initiated the project and now is the proclaimed project sponsor, This email one, I know I did, might consider a comical take on my email and right after receiving a congratz-to-all-email I received also as a "reply-all" another "reply-all" from the project sponsor in which he pretty much accused me of taking all the credit for this achievement, although I'd been only actively involved for 2 weeks. (This email I read significantly later than the 1st email).
To me it came as a shock since I nowhere in either mail or my one-pager claimed to have had anything to do with reaching this achievement. I make it a point not to mention any names in any email, blogpost, Favebook status update or Tweet, instead those that are concerned know who I'm referring to, to the rest they remain anonymous. I respect people's privacy as I care about mine and more about theirs. So neither email contained any reference to a particular member of the team.
I dismissed the whole issue and chose to consider it to be water under the bridge. Not that I savored the idea that somebody consciously discredited me with my peers and managers, but its not like your wife is accusing you to commit adultry with her best friend. Then again, I assumed that my peers had learned to know me as a colleague that actually never takes any credit for anything and that I am somebody who values transparency and sharing thoughts, views and ideas. So I didn't see it coming that I actually screwed up in the perception of my peers.

The screw-up
Okay, so what was the screw-up? Couldn't be the fact that I'd told all who I deemed relevant that the project had done a great job and achieved a very important milestone that would be of great benefit to the bank. Now could it? I at least thought so, and I decided to let the discrediting emails for what they were, everybody would see right through it. Wouldn't they? Oh brother was I WRONG!!!

Because of another topic I decided this week to get back to my previous decision and not to let it be. Still the discrediting didn't bother me, it was the perceived animosity almost hostility I experienced at work. I felt that I had to tread very carefully as booby-traps might be lurking around every corner.
Yesterday I finally got the chance to have a heart-to-heart with my disgruntled colleague and address the other for this post irrelevant topic. And the discussion moved on to the emails he'd send. Apparantly he'd understood previously that I wouldn't send the "milestone achieved" and would instead remind him to do so. But that was besides the point of the screw up, although I can see that my email caught him by surprise when he read it. He didn't tell me this though.

According to him, the whole point was that I was and will never be in the position to send any of those emails regarding this project as I am not the project sponsor nor his manager nor the project manager. As he explained to me, in Egyptian (corporate) culture it is not done that anybody but the person achieving something or his manager makes this known to (part of) the world. And because it was me that had send out the email, I explicitly claimed the credits for the achievement, claimed the victory.

I was stunned! It is pretty hard, I've been told, to shut me up, but dare I say, he achieved this for a second or two. Just for your reference; I wasd raised Christian with (albeit moderate) Calvinistic values. Meaning that I was raised with the adago "act normal, that's crazy enough" and that flaunting is considered a mortal sin one would think.
So now I was told that 1) I am according to Egyptian (corporate) culture not allowed to formally highlight the achievements of my peers or managers as this is just not done. 2) By still doing so, I am explicitly claiming the credits to the achievement I am praising my peer for.
While thinking this over, I was also told that my colleague was called and emailed by several of our colleagues who received my mail asking him what was going on and what had come over me to pretend as if I was the grand Puba (paraphrasing) of the project.

According to what I was told last night, pretty much all Egyptians on the recipient list of the mail I'd send now consider me to be somebody likely to take credit for their accomplishments. Hard to fathom.

Sweet revenge
Although I was stunned for a moment, I took revenge a little later.
As I could tell, because I was told, my colleague was completely of his mark when I told him that I consider it the greatest compliment in the world when anyone of my peers formally or informally tells others by any means possible that he (or she for that matter) thinks I've done good something worth mentioning.

I explained that in the morning I go to work a happy camper because I love my job. At the end of the day I go home still a happy camper because I know for myself that I've made a difference, however small. Believe in chaos-theory and there is no such things as an insignificant action. I really don't (try to) achieve things for my boss or his bosses. In the end I don't work for them, I work for the company and my role is to do my job so any of my coworkers (bosses, peers and everybody else) can do their job, preferably better than before I did my job. This should be mine and everybody elses job description. I don't expect any praise for doing my job, but I sure like it when somebody thinks I've done a good job that helps him do is job better. It seemed to me that to my colleague it was a huge revelation that somebody could think that way.

The real screw-up
So the real screw-up here is not that I send out that email that I was not supposed to send or even allowed to send. No, the big screw-up as I see it, is that I didn't realize that the formal and hierarchycal personality of Egyptian (corporate) culture goes as far as defining with strict but unwritten rules about who can express their praise about who to who.
Although I am aware of the hierarchycal way of relations and interactions within the corporate, I pretty much completely failed to accurately estimate the extend of this.

Lesson learned
Well this is simple, don't say within a group, formal or informal, unless you're the group's manager that you think something good was achieved by anybody but yourself unless you have the explicit consent of the person(s) you're going to give credit.
This will take a lot of effort for me, because I am of the believe that people are motivated because they feel that they (can) make a difference. Not because when they don't do, they'll be punished. It is my experience that motivation by praise leads to excellence where motivation by punishment leads to mediocrity.
Well next time I think somebody did a good job, I'll let them know to publicize and take the credit or I'll ask him permission to tell others that he did a good job. Although I still believe that giving credit is worth far more, but that would mean a cultutal shift on an vast scale and one should have to ask permission to do so.

There is still one thing that utterly baffles me; why, when I've done something wrong in the perception of my peers of this gravity, nobody took the time or effort to tell me so, so I would know not to do it again?
There is no reason as to why one wouldn't do so. Maybe everybody is of the opinion that I am perfectly capable of being the villain I've proven to be? Maybe everybody is intimidated by me and doesn't dare to tell me I've done something wrong? Maybe culture doesn't allow this and my manager should do this? Maybe everybody thought that one of our colleagues already did this and they don't want to rub it in? I really have no clue. I do know that just as much as I like to be told that I am right also like to know that I am wrong so I can correct it.

So this is the story about my biggest screw-up in Egyptian Corporate Life so far.

Let me know your thought on this and be so kind to mention where you're from so I can see how things work around the globe.