Background Frank Mason and Abbott Business Supplies (ABS) are both at pivotal moments in their respective histories. ABS is a San Francisco-based regional manufacturer and supplier of stationery products and related business supplies with annual sales on the order of $10 million. Previously family-owned, it was acquired 18 months ago by military avionics producer Houston Electronics (HE), whose annual turnover is likely 2 orders of magnitude more than that of ABS.
ABS acquisition was not a popular decision among the top managers at HE, and the sole supporter, a high performer named Ed Nolan, was tasked by HE management to be president of ABS and improve the company’s performance. After the first year, it was reported by a consultant with ties to ABS that the company was in serious trouble and desperately in need of someone to turn it around. Enter Frank Mason, a 35 year-old Harvard MBA who is a rising star in his own right. After college, 4 years in the Navy and his time at Harvard, Frank rose quickly making a name for himself in the marketing division of Great Pacific Paper Company (GPPC).
After his first 5 years there, Frank began to feel a sense of personal stagnation and a feeling that there were no new challenges offered for him there. Frank yearned for a challenge along with autonomy that he could use to test his limits and evolve into the next phase of his career. Frank soon got that opportunity at a sporting goods retailer (Gleason Pro Shops), but corporate financial problems forced them to let him go after only 18 months. After leaving Gleason he was offered the Sales and Marketing VP position with ABS through an agency.
He was initially uninterested, even though the job offered a much higher salary. After interviewing with Ed Nolan, however, he learned that there was an opportunity at rapid advancement in that he could be president within 2 years, that he would have full autonomy in his position, and that Ed was a likeable charming and charismatic guy. So Frank accepted the job and started working at ABS. During the first six months at his new job, things quickly turned bad. Ed Nolan became not so charming anymore. In fact he was a harsh authoritarian with tendencies bordering on neurotic.
His personal relationship with Nolan deteriorated rapidly and with that so did his autonomy. As ABS continued to show poor numbers, Nolan was often physically absent, spending time also managing a division of HE in Houston. When he was present at the office, he would make petty demands simply to assert his authority and severely limit Frank’s ability to effectively do his job. Nolan was unresponsive to Frank’s efforts to repair the relationship and discuss the company’s situation with him and things were quickly reaching a head.
The president of HE was coming to ABS for a visit and it was Frank’s last chance to affect change. Problem Definition The ABS Company suffers from a leadership vacuum due to a physically absent president who expresses Machiavellian tendencies bordering on neurotic when he is in residence. Frank Mason appears to have the personal drive and capacity to fill that power vacuum but is hamstrung by the environment the authoritarian management style has created. Relevant Theories and Models The problems at ABS seem to typify failures to accommodate varied personalities to the organization.
The bulk of the problems seem to trace back to Ed Nolan and his unpredictable and often neurotic behavior. Examples of this are clear in his often unreasonable directives such as insisting that an employee he personally disliked be sent to the Los Angeles warehouse every Monday “even if all he does is sit there”. Another example of this behavior was his insistence over the objections of nearly all others that the warehouse manager abandon computer-managed inventory systems and organize the warehouse like a supermarket solely so that Nolan could walk in and see what was there.
The problems nevertheless extend deep into the organizational culture as well. While it is not explicitly stated, the company in general never fully assimilated itself with its new owners and their (Nolan’s) style of management. Coming from the much larger and likely highly regimented Houston Electronics, Nolan’s organizationalist accommodation to work was right at home. But coming into a less formal family owned business was surely a shock for both Nolan and the existing “old-timers” as they are referred to in the summary.
It can be fairly assumed that upon acquisition of ABS, not only did Nolan not take the opportunity to learn the various personalities of the existing employees and determine how best to accommodate them, but he installed his own organizationalist lieutenants who ignored the varied personalities as well. It is entirely possible that this has resulted in the current environment wherein the dominant coalition is so far out of touch with the workforce that no amount of cost controlling or re-pricing can turn the organization around.
While Frank was brought on board in hopes of turning the company around, he struggled with his own organizational socialization from the beginning. Specifically, Frank had some significant problems with the person-organization fit phase of his socialization process at ABS. The expectations that he initially brought with him to the new job of a high degree of autonomy and opportunities for advancement proved incompatible with the environment that Nolan’s management style created. Frank may not have struggled as much if certain key elements were not also present.
First, it is noted that all of the career decisions documented herein were motivated by self interest and a desire for self-improvement and personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Note that when Frank originally left GPCC, he did so primarily because the company held no further personal challenge for him. His desire to be challenged and his yearning for greater responsibility and autonomy are indicative of a professional focus in his organizational commitment and may offer clues to his early socialization experiences.
Frank was clearly looking out for personal glory–not to be a company man–and this quest may have clouded his perception of the organizational environment. Second, Frank is in the establishment phase of his career. He is keenly aware of the impact his perceived “job-hopping” would have on his career. He is actually surprised as he watches this seemingly unsavory aspect of his career unveiled before him. This is perhaps the first realization that his career path would not be linear but more approximate that of an expert. Frank was looking for a homerun in accepting the position.
Nonetheless, the uncertainty of the direction his career was heading combined with his need to pursue high personal performance standards were ultimately what motivated him to take the job at ABS. One thing that stood out was that Frank also began to show some organizationalist tendencies as he realizes that he cannot achieve his personal goals without the structure of the organization (a leader, a functional management and a sound business plan) to support him. Alternatives Because the problem has many roots, any possible solution must also be mutli-faceted.
An effective solution will require modifications to the environment and to the personalities involved. First, it seems obvious that Frank is in a frustrating organizational situation. His options are either to change the environment, change his behavior or resign. If he chooses to resign, it could reflect negatively on his resume and will not serve the best interests of ABS and its people. He could try to emulate the yes-man personality that will gain traction with Ed Nolan, but this would not likely bring personal satisfaction.
Similarly, ABS best interests will also not be served and he will actually be contributing to the dysfunctional environment that the current management style has created. Given Frank’s personality as established in the case, a behavioral change alone would not be feasible. The only remaining feasible option is to stay at ABS and work to change the environment. First, a leader needs to be installed and whoever that may be needs to be present full-time. The need for leadership is ever present and the organization cannot survive on a part-time president.
The advantages of having someone always present in an organization to provide direction as required are self evident as are the consequences of not having one. One option for leader would be for Ed Nolan to remain president and be forced to stay at ABS full time until he can turn things around. This in and of itself would not change the environment and may even make it worse given Nolan’s history of neurotic behavior and unpredictable actions. Another option would be for Frank to take over the job, which would require convincing Nolan and management in Houston of the wisdom of such a move.
It would also require Frank to adopt a more organizationalist focus in order to be successful. Finally, Houston management could replace Nolan with someone else from the parent company, but this would make little sense as someone with in ABS would be clearly better suited to run things. Solution I think the best solution would be for Frank to stay at ABS and assume the position of president. In order to do this, he will need to convince both HE executives and Ed Nolan that he is their best hope. This should be approached first by getting Ed Nolan to buy in.
Because of Nolan’s authoritarian personality and management style, Frank’s only hope to win him over is to assert his own authority with him. Frank should also craft his approach such that Nolan thinks1) it is his own idea, 2) that it is in Nolan’s best interests and 3) that Frank alone will be on the hook for the near term performance of ABS. Frank should remind Nolan that he hired him as his own exit strategy and that the sooner he turns things over to him, the sooner he can get back to Houston and focus on his division there. He should recommend that Cunningham and Metcalf remain at ABS to ‘help’ Frank run things.
This will bring Nolan comfort in that he will have two of his yes-men close by to keep an eye on Frank. It will also be beneficial to Frank because he can then utilize their organizationalist tendencies and their inherent respect for authority figures to help him manage the organization. Once Nolan buys in, it should not be difficult for Nolan to paint a rosy enough picture of Frank and his capacity to take over to Daryl Eismann. Frank will then succeed or fail on his own merit and on his ability to be an effective leader. The advantages of this approach are clear.
Assuming Nolan buys in, and Frank has what it takes and is adaptable, it will be a chance at autonomy and personal achievement like no other. Frank’s success would then be intrinsically tied to the success of ABS. Everyone wins. On the other hand, if Nolan doesn’t buy in, he may see Frank’s effort as a coup attempt and fire him on the spot. If Nolan does buy in and Frank gets the top job, but he cannot assimilate the organizational focus into his accommodation to work, it could all fall apart as well. In either case, Frank’s failure will also likely be tied to that of ABS.