A Short Trek Into the Kingdom of “The Experts”

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In one respect, the 21st Century has begun in like manner to its predecessor, the 20th. The 20th Century began with a self-satisfied ruling class complacently going about their business, totally out of touch with the world they ruled. The cataclysm of WWI brought down their house of cards, but the tragedy of it was, those they ruled paid the price of their folly.

The 21st Century in like fashion has our own ruling class, the Adorables, totally out of touch with the world they rule. The signs are everywhere, so obvious as to remain unnoticed; the Financial Crisis, endless wars, the futility of the Obama years, Donald Trump’s election, out of control government spending, BLM, the Capital Riot and subsequent military occupation of Washington. One could go on, but so far we have been spared the horror of the trenches.

Instead we have a pandemic. Perhaps never before have our “experts”, the armored might of the Adorable Imperium, been shown so feckless, so maladroit, so prone to blunder. They are the chateau Generals of the 21st Century. Instead of the cavalry charges into machine guns, our own Adorables order mass assaults of their obedient chattel into financial bondage, unemployment, bankruptcy, mass inoculation of untested vaccines, the lonely deaths of the suicidal and aged. No matter their prescriptions are repeatedly shown as folly, they confidently double down on “the science”.

How have we come to such a pass? Those who command us are the best and the brightest, possessed of elite educations and glittering resumes, standing triumphant atop Darwinian career ladders. Why are we still going over the top into the slaughter of one systemic crisis after another? Why do those in the trenches suffer financial ruin, unemployment, addiction, despair and disillusionment, while their cossetted generals ride waves of prosperity, advancement and preferment?

Back in the day, it was my luck or God’s blessing that I briefly walked the corridors of the Adorable chateaus, rubbing shoulders with the beribboned generals. One of America’s giant engineering firms, a denizen of the Fortune 500, sought to enter the oil & gas market. While oil & gas has been well known by the better sort to be a disreputable collection of knaves and pillagers for my entire lifetime, this was before oil & gas fell into the Dismal Swamp of Vituperation, joining Confederate generals, tobacco companies and asbestos products.

An engineering company by its very nature is an assemblage of “experts”, built upon the real world application of “the science”. The CEO of this giant assemblage of experts had been reading newspaper articles about “unconventional gas”, now known by its more descriptive invective – “Fracking”. This CEO had grown his company by aggressive acquisition. Growth being a treadmill difficult to exit, he was now in need of new growth opportunities. He saw oil & gas as a growing market in desperate need of a more professional service provider. By making a strategic acquisition, a small door allowing him an entry point through which to exert his financial strength and national reach, he would continue to grow, keeping his stock valuation high.

At that time we were having our own issues with the treadmill of growth having plateaued in our Rocky Mountain market. Finding expansion into national markets beyond our resources, we had been flirting in the singles bar of investment banking to keep growing. And drawn by our mutual lusts, we caught the eye of this engineering Lothario. While we called ourselves a “Midstream” engineering firm rather than a “Unconventional Gas” firm, we made a deal – pot-a-to, po-tah-o. It was our pipeline engineering expertise, allied with our acquirer’s nationwide environmental strength, that made this marriage look promising.

Once corralled into the respectable society of a large engineering firm, a professional engineering firm rather than the collection of scalawags, miscreants and rascals that we were, my employees and myself set out to learn the manners and customs of the better sort. As the acquiring firm already had a CEO, I joined the ranks of Vice-Presidents, a fairly large fraternity as it turned out. My title, Vice President of Special Projects, was that cubby hole in the fraternity’s attic for the odd and mismatched, carefully separated from the herd and kept around in the hope that its idiosyncratic collection of misanthropes might be of use.

From the outset it was clear that the fashion image projected by my business was seriously deficient, a realization of unimaginable embarrassment. My wardrobe disdained by engineers, how low can one fall? During those years of entrepreneurial endeavor, I had unaccountably let my suits and ties become stylishly deficient, not to mention ill-fitting as the result of all those business lunches. My collection of well worn sneakers and penny loafers was put out to pasture as well.

Newly outfitted, I went boldly into my new life as a Corporate Executive, my new dress shoes asqueak, eagerly seeking new opportunities for the faithful men and women it had been my honor to lead. I thought melding their experience and “can-do attitude” with the weight and heft of this large organization would lead to great things. A brave new world awaited.

Of course the provincial rube newly arrived in the big city must expect to learn new ways. The conference call made its early appearance. No longer did just a few key folks meet, discuss and decide. “Experts” and management types from the four corners of the Kingdom arranged their days around conference calls to plan, strategize and organize.

As familiarity grew, one came to learn that the “experts” tended toward the office bound rather than the “cutting edge”. In addition, joining the “experts” were representatives of Legal, Human Resources and the mysteriously named EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) These folks tended to be Debbie Downers, omnipresent and loquacious contributors to the stream of conference conversation. Invariably they could be counted on to point out the problems, real and imagined, of any proposed action, ever counseling a “wait and see” plan of action.

I must admit a certain amount of amusement at the protocols for meetings in my new organization. To show our corporate commitment to “Safety”, an important commitment to be sure though the often haphazard connection of safety to “Safety” is often missed, all meetings began with a “Safety Moment”. One could not help but smile, internally of course, as some well meaning but essentially clueless office bound team leader of the office bound would give a lecture, complete with Power Point, on the dangers posed by the coffee pot in our break room.

Two experiences stand out in my memory, two incidents that speak volumes about the culture of “experts” in today’s America. The first occurred shortly after our acquisition. Once properly outfitted from Nordstrom’s, I joined a small select group of pipelining “experts” that would tour the world of pipeline owners, a dog and pony show showcasing our company’s “expertise” at building pipelines.

An experienced hand at business development, I had always seen these endeavors as beauty contests, imagining myself a model sashaying down the runway in a skimpy bikini enticing potential customers to award me the tiara of Miss Pipeline. Along with the tiara would come the project work necessary to keep my people employed. And so this small select band set out on a tour of the great and near great in the world of pipelines.

In this platter of cheesecake, I was the “pipeline” guy, the man who talked schedules, cost, routing, etc.; the mud spattered hand smelling of weld smoke. Another gentleman was the Gandalf of environmental prestidigitation, a master of the arcane magisterium of pipeline permitting. There were a couple of representatives of “Management”, chaperones to ensure that the “girls” didn’t get too frisky. You know, “Look but don’t touch!”  In each stop, a couple of senior engineers from the local offices would join us to show that we were really just a group of local boys.

But the star of the tour was someone else entirely, a consultant engaged just for the tour, a symbol of the Company’s influential position in the industry; the recently retired FERC Chairman. Also known as God in pipeline circles, FERC is the acronym for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and is a Quintity rather than a Trinity, but its chairman is the undoubted senior deity. Imagine Scarlett Johansson at the same cocktail party with a bunch of county fair beauty contestants from rural South Dakota. I am told that this former FERC Chairman is now a very busy and well paid “expert”  in the pipeline industry.

But since Ms. Johansson’s attention could only stretch so far, the client’s people needed to pass time with the wall flowers as well. So I was afforded the opportunity to chat with many pipeline executives. Surprisingly enough, I had no more success in small talk with these titans of the industry than with members of the opposite sex back in high school.

Given my background as an engineer, these condescending client engineering executives would naturally inquire as to my thoughts on 49 CFR DOT 192, the Bible of natural gas interstate pipelining. CFR is an acronym for the Code of Federal Regulations and DOT is the acronym for Dept. of Transportation. By the admittedly esoteric standards of the Code of Federal Regulations, DOT 192 is short, logical and devoid of legalese.

When the captain of the football team comes over to speak with the chubby girl at the Homecoming Dance, the chubby girl understands she needs to talk about what the team captain is interested in. “Maybe my personality can compete with the cheerleaders’ plethora of pulchritude!”  However, my interaction with these brothers of the steel pipe quickly grew strained and uncomfortable.

While DOT 192 is straightforward and easily understood, its interpretation has grown into a repository of encyclopedic minutia. Imagine the priest of a rural parish engaging in a discussion of the Ten Commandments with a lawyer from the Vatican. On the other hand, I was the only person in the room who had been on a pipeline construction site in some decades and just as an aside, let it be known that it is my understanding chubby girls would appreciate being called “zaftig”.

There was another of those times, a final experience that took my heart out of the whole enterprise. After that one might say I retired in place, an eventually noticed condition providing the opportunity for my entrance into the world of blogs. Synergy is the word that seduces both the acquirer and the acquiree. We convince ourselves that we can combine two bundles of talent and rise to the stars. Even though we are engineers, we want to believe that two plus two can equal five, or fifty or five hundred!!!

The synergy of our acquisition was our pipeline project experience wedded to the environmental competence and nationwide reach of the acquiring firm. Our people would bring their engineering and project experience to a client and project mix we had been too small and regional to exploit. Hope springs eternal, even among those who know better, the jaundiced and the cynical – i.e. engineers.

The chastening experience of the aforementioned national dog and pony show aside, I and my associates soldiered on doing business development – the art of selling the indefinable to the indecisive. Then one day we got the phone call that engineering companies dream of. One of North America’s premier pipeline clients, a Canadian giant, called. One of this Canadian company’s old pipelines in the Midwest had been damaged and as a result leaked crude oil into a nearby stream. Shutdown systems had operated properly, but a leak of a few thousand gallons had occurred.

The voice on the phone asked, “Could we put together teams of people to help?” Our immediate answer, at the risk of straining a metaphor, “Is the Pope Catholic? Of course!” This is our opportunity to put synergy to work with a new client, a new client that can provide enormous new business opportunities on their nationwide network of pipelines.

We sprang into action, assembling talent and resources. And then, another telephone call. This was from our own Division headquarters, one of those lawyers participating in the interminable round of conference calls that crowded calendars. “No way, no how. Don’t even think about it. The liability is too high for us to even talk about it. Are you people crazy?”

This is what we did. At the risk of making this personal, this is why I donned that too tight bikini and pranced down the runway. This is what we knew how to do. For this day we had busted our hump to get a chance like this. The opportunity you dream of. And then this stark refusal from one of the many consiglieres advising our Adorable masters. Another phone call, an embarrassed chastened apology, was made to Canada, “I’m sorry, but we can’t come out and play. Our Mommy said no.”

I must admit that a scene from Peter Jackson’s film “The Two Towers” in his “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” often came to mind back then. I would see Grima Wormtongue whispering into the ear of King Theoden. Unfortunately there was no Gandalf to save the day. And from my experience of that time, I fear that there are few King Theodens in Mahogany Row’s peopled primarily by avatars of Saruman the White.

To continue the metaphor, King Theoden’s loyal Riders of Rohan, my former employees, did not ride to glorious victory. Instead they were left to simmer in a bed of despair, leaving in ones and twos for a better place. There were many other telephone calls from our Adorable masters, “You need to get more business, you are losing too much money. Cut back. Reduce costs.” Finally none of the Riders of Rohan were left, and what had once been an enterprise of energy and opportunity became a silent floor of empty cubicles.

In my brief experience among the “experts” teeming in the rooms of the chateaus, serving at the beck and call of our Adorable generals, I found them to be smart, accomplished, proficient and talented. But their hands have never been dirty, that is the dirt of the field.

They are masters of the inside game, of the politics of the career ladder, and it is there that they might dirty their hands. As they rise through the ranks to the rarified air of consigliere to Mahogany Row, experience teaches that the bold move is more prone to failure than success. Their mantra is – “Take no chances, take no risks. Speak without saying anything. And above all else, drink the Kool-Aid!!!!”

They are smart, accomplished, proficient and talented, but even more, they are ambitious. Even those a bit slow off the mark soon come to realize that working in the company’s actual business is a dead end for the ambitious. Making things, building things, taking care of customers, treating patients – That is not the career path for the ambitious.

Instinctively, the ambitious understand the truth of Absolom Bracer’s First Law.

“Engineering is physically located as far from executive management as it is possible to be

Bracer’s 1st Law is true for engineers as well as any other group that actually deals with the reality of what the organization actually exists to do, teachers, doctors, lawyers, whatever. The people doing the work, “the cutting edge”, deal with facts as the hard rocks of an unyielding reality. Others, the ambitious, ensconced secure in their offices far away from the “cutting edge”, see facts as threads to be woven, stories to be spun, game pieces to be played. These last are the “experts” who interpret “the science” for us.

And so we look out over the landscape at these “experts”, those interpreting “the science” for our Adorable masters. They are indeed the best and the brightest, with degrees from elite institutions and glittering resumes. But they are doctors who have never treated a patient, educators who have never been in a classroom, scientists who have never been in a lab, engineers who have never been on a construction site or factory floor, lawyers who have never been in court or had a client.

These last are masters of the Code of Federal Regulations, of the politics of the career ladder, astute sycophantic aides seeking to please their generals. In the chapter and verse world of organizational minutia and regulation, they are supreme in the world of predictable routine. When the field tested project manager enters their realm, this hapless rube is the object of scorn and derision, easy meat for the masters of the career ladder, red in tooth and claw.

But when reality rears its ugly head, a financial crisis strikes, a pandemic appears, the constipation of regulation and crusading activism plug our economy to the point of a standstill, mastery of the Code of Federal Regulations is not a useful skill, nor is it an effective training ground. When sudden crisis erupts and the world screams for direction, the mantra of “Take no chances, take no risks. Speak without saying anything.” is found wanting.

 

 

6 Responses to “A Short Trek Into the Kingdom of “The Experts””

  1. Don Myers says:

    Amazing!! It would be unique to truly get the cost of climbing the wrong ladder and at the end of the day becoming worthless….off with their heads!

  2. Judy Hoxworth says:

    There really are no words to describe what we are watching today but your comparison pretty much sums it up! Listening to conversations today finds many on the edge of frustration bordering on rage! It worries me greatly because I feel like they are deliberately lighting a powder keg for reasons known only to them! The they,I speak about, are strictly the powers that be! I find myself sitting in complete silence, unable to listen to opinions that do nothing more than send me into an inner rage if nothing else. I’m very selective about who I listen to these days!

  3. Jeffrey Esbenshade says:

    The BLM was moved west under Trump with top 25 managers in Grand Junction Colo
    BLM must know the public lands are in the west so manage them from west.
    The Dept of AG was suppose to open a office in Kansas City there was a revolt
    only 25 personnel moved KC The farms are in the midwest I am sure most of the employees of AG Dept were never farmers, they could not give up good life in DC.
    To many chiefs and not enough Native Americans to be politcial correct.
    Take no risk, no new idea’s work 30 years, get a nice retirement never get
    dirty,but tell the taxpayer how hard you work for our farmers and manage public lands!

  4. Kenneth Kelly says:

    I felt compelled to respond to the statement: “Take no chances, take no risks. Speak without saying anything.” I am in agreement with John Maxwell when he says that “we try, we fail, we learn, we improve and we re-enter…try again!” To really succeed most of us have to truly failed. I am a fan of people who risk and even when they fail would do it again. I really enjoyed the podcast with Caroline Leaf with John Maxwell. Read the podcast blog and transcript here: https://drleaf.com/blogs/news/interview-with-john-maxwell-on-the-neuroscience-of-leadership-tips-on-how-to-lead-during-a-crisis-and-why-we-need-to-fail-more.

  5. Rex Rinne says:

    Bill, your thoughts are way too perceptive; I would feel more “comfortable” if you would have your opines checked by the experts before you go to print. I loved it and I cried because you speak the truth among those who deny it.

  6. John Carveth says:

    Bill: I happened to run into a speech that was astounding from several directions. It was by Adam Andzejewski who provided many examples of government overreach to an audience of Hillsdale College. (they say they are the only U.S.college not supported by a government). The speaker has a web site called the “OpenTheBooks.com” The name of his speech was “The Depth of the Swamp” and it was on Youtube. It’s about a 45 minute speech– worth every minute of it. I think there is also a transciption. See you later. John

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