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Bonus Plans of Mice and Men

Our best-laid plans often go awry. We see it all the time at a personal levelaccidents (both good and bad), deaths (both of loved ones and rich uncles), births, and lotteries all conspire to reshuffle our priorities and render our plans null and void. In fact, there is nothing like a solid misfortune to get us to put things in perspective. This opportunity may be the proverbial silver lining we are constantly advised to see. What is true at a personal level holds true also at a larger scale. The industry-wide financial meltdown has imparted a philosophical clarity to our professiona clarity that we might have been too busy to notice, but for the dire straits we are in right now.

This philosophical clarity inspires analyses (and columns, of course) that are at times self-serving and at times soul-searching. We now worry about the moral rectitude behind the insane bonus expectations of yesteryears, for instance. The case in point is Jake DeSantis, the AIG executive vice president who resigned rather publicly on the New York Times, and donated his relatively modest bonus of a million dollars to charity. The reasons behind the resignation are interesting, and fodder to this series of posts.

Before I go any further, let me state it outright. I am going to try to shred his arguments the best I can. I am sure I would have sung a totally different tune if they had given me a million dollar bonus. Or if anybody had the temerity to suggest that I part with my own bonus, paltry as it may seem in comparison. I will keep that possibility beyond the scope of this column, ignoring the moral inconsistency others might maliciously perceive therein. I will talk only about other people’s bonuses. After all, we are best in dealing with other people’s money. And it is always easier to risk and sacrifice something that doesn’t belong to us.


How Much is Your Time Worth?

I recently got a crazy idea. Suppose I tell you, “I will give you a ten-million-dollar job for a month. But I will have to kill you in two months.” Of course, you will have to know that I am serious. Let’s say I am an eccentric billionaire. Will you take the ten million dollars?

I am certain that most people will not take this job offer. In fact, there is a movie with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando (IMDb tells me that it is The Brave) where Depp’s character actually takes up such an offer. Twenty-five thousand, I believe, was the price that he agreed upon for the rest of his life. For some of us, the price may be higher, but it is possible that there is a price that we will agree upon.

To me, my price is infiniteI wouldn’t trade the rest of my life for any amount of money. What does it help me to have all the money in the world if I don’t have the time to spend it? But, this stance of mine is neither consistent with what I do, nor fully devoid of hypocrisy. Hardly anything in real life is. If we say we won’t trade time for money, then how come we happily sell our time to our employers? Is it just that we don’t appreciate what we are doing? Or that our time is limited?

I guess the trade off between time and money is not straight forward. It is not a linear scale. If we have no money, then our time is worth nothing. We are willing to sell it for almost nothing. The reason is clearit takes money to keep body and soul together. Without a bare minimum of money, there indeed is no time left to sell. As we make a bit of money, a bit more than the bare minimum, we begin to value time more. But as we make more money, we realize that we can make even more by selling more time, because the time is worth more now! This implicit vicious circle may be what is driving this crazy rat race that we see all around us.

Selling time is an interesting concept. We clearly do sell our time to those who pay us. Employees sell time to their employers. Entrepreneurs sell their time to the customers, and in deploying their businesses. But there is a fundamental difference between these two modes of selling. While employees sell their time once, businessmen sell their time multiple times. So do authors and actors. They spend a certain amount of time doing whatever they do, but the products they create (book, business, movies, Windows XP, songs etc.) are sold over and over again. That is why they can make their millions and billions while those who work for somebody else find it is very difficult to get really rich.

Stinker Emails — A Primer

Email has revolutionized corporate communication in the last decade. Most of its impact has been positive. An email from the big boss to all@yourcompany, for instance, is a fair substitute for a general communication meeting. In smaller teams, email often saves meetings and increases productivity.

When compared to other modes of communication (telephone, voice mail etc.), email has a number of characteristics that make it particularly suited for corporate communication. It gives the sender the right amount of distance from the recipient to feel safe behind the keyboard. The sender gets enough time to polish the language and presentation. He has the option of sending the email multiple recipients at once. The net effect of these characteristics is that a normally timid soul may become a formidable email persona.

A normally aggressive soul, on the other hand, may become an obnoxious sender of what are known as stinkers. Stinkers are emails that are meant to inflict humiliation.

Given the importance of email communication these days, you may find yourself seduced by the dark allure of stinkers. If you do, here are the first steps in mastering the art of crafting a stinker. The trick is to develop a holier-than-thou attitude and assume a moral high ground. For instance, suppose you are upset with a team for their shoddy work, and want to highlight the fact to them (and to a few key persons in the organization, of course). A novice may be tempted to write something like, “You and your team don’t know squat.Resist that temptation, and hold that rookie email. Far more satisfying is to compose it as, “I will be happy to sit down with you and your team and share our expertise.This craftier composition also subtly shows off your superior knowledge.

Emails can be even more subtle. For instance, you can sweetly counsel your boss regarding some issue as, “No point in rushing in where angels fear to tread,” and have the secret pleasure that you managed to call him a fool to his face!

Counter stinkers are doubly sweet. While engaging in an email duel, your best hope is to discover a factual inaccuracy in the stinker. Although you are honor-bound to respond to a stinker, silence also can be an effective response. It sends a signal that you either found the stinker too unimportant to respond to, or, worse, you accidentally deleted it without reading it.

Beware of stinker traps. You may get an email inviting you to work on a problem with a generous offer to help. Say you take the bait and request help. The next email (copied to practically everybody on earth) may read something like, “If you bothered to read the previous message,” (referring to an email sent ten days ago to 17 others and two email groups) “you would know that…” Note how easy it is to imply that you don’t know what you are supposed to, and that you are in the habit of ignoring important messages.

We have no sure defense against stinker traps other than knowing the sender. If a sender is known for his stinker-happy disposition, treat all his sweet overtures with suspicion. It is unlikely that he has had a change of heart and decided to treat you civilly. Much more likely is that he is setting you up for something that he will enjoy rather more than you!

At the end of the day, don’t worry too much about stinkers if you do find yourself at the receiving end. Keep a smile on your face and recognize the stinkers for what they areego trips.

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