The Politics of Having a Professional Career

When we start in our professional careers, we begin by focusing on being “professional” more than having a “career.”  This means doing our best in carrying out the tasks given to us without regard to our personal preferences or views. After all, that is what being “professional” is about. Yet, as one gets older, many of us realize that the concept of being “professional” becomes blurred and hazy in order to move up the corporate ladder of our chosen career. Terms like being a “badass,” or having to “kiss ass” pop-up like a jack-in-the-box in our careers, forcing many of us to sacrifice the “professional” part, in order to advance the “career” part.

Being a “professional” is indeed how I started out my days as an analyst at the Private Development Corporation of the Philippines (PDCP) up to my days as Managing Director of the Northern Mindanao Development Bank (NMDB). After a while though, one gets to be introduced to the politics of the corporate jungle and the nasty complexities that go with it. I always say I grew old when I was young — I learned the bitter truth that things are not always what they seem to be very early on.  Such a realization can lead to discouragement, of course. For me, however, I took them as lessons upon which, I could build a strategy for my own professional and more importantly, my personal development.

As a PDCP analyst, I would work on the 16-column yellow pads for days and endure sleepless nights just to complete my financial projections on time. This was the time we had to prepare everything on our own, and the most difficult part was doing the financial projections “spreadsheet.”

At that time, a “spreadsheet” meant the 16-inch yellow columnar pad where we used a Mongol pencil to do the multi-year projections. For us, financial analysts, doing the spreadsheet meant doing the calculations manually– using the calculator to calculate the numbers one would place in every cell; adding the column numbers and proceeding to the next column.  And this was just for the profit-and-loss (P&L) projections.  We then had to simultaneously do the cash flow and balance sheet projections. Nothing was more frustrating than finding out at the end of the calculations that the total assets would not square with the total liabilities and equity.

“spreadsheet”. A 16-column yellow pad that kept me awake for most nights back then.
Photo taken from Amazon

That kept me busy most evenings, which almost ruined my social life as I was always up in the evenings working when my contemporaries would be spending their time in folk houses (the trend in Davao City then.) Added to this task, was the travel to Dadiangas (now “Gen. Santos City”), Kidapawan, Mati, and other Mindanao towns and municipalities for project evaluations and mortgage evaluations and registration. These travels were made at the height of the MNLF and NPA activities in Mindanao. Finally, after all, these, we had to write a “Project Evaluation Report” (PER) and present to the “Staff Investment Committee” (SIC) in Manila.

What I have just said cannot be more “professional” in the strictest sense of the word. In spite of the dangers, I went to municipalities to evaluate projects and many times to foreclose on a mortgage in the middle of Sultan Kudarat.  I went through NPA checkpoints, MNLF checkpoints, and other police “cashpoints” so called because they did not accept checks, but only cash. Without any regard for my personal safety, I did my job for the company.  I was, in my opinion, a professional. And I was good in my job — very high collection rates on my loan accounts, successful foreclosures, and expanding the portfolio.

But that early, in retrospect, I was aware that to succeed, I needed to do more than just “a good professional job.” Among the difficult things, I had to do then was to foreclose on mortgages of clients in the rural areas. My heart was always heavy when I had to bring a sheriff to auction off chattel and real assets. This was the livelihood of clients that I was auctioning off, and not just a car or some hardware.

It’s not enough to have the documents in order to do a foreclosure successfully– you also need the sheriff on your side. And to have the sheriff “on your side,” you had to be on his good side, as well.  You had to know his likes and dislikes and you had to essentially “lick his ass.” This part, certainly goes beyond being a “professional” in the books of many people.

And the argument is simple: why do I need to cozy up to the sheriff?  He is a government employee and he is paid to do his job.  As such, he should perform his job as professionally as I do with mine!

If you hold on to this argument, then truly you are a professional in my book. You, of course, will be an ineffective professional, but you will not be alone. Many “professionals” will take this view.

I, of course, am of the opposite view. To be able to do my job professionally well, I needed to have the sheriff on my side. I needed him to walk the extra mile for me, and to be able to do that, I had to call on my ability to have EMPATHY. I put that in capital letters because I realized very early on in life, that many of us do not have this ability.  According to Wikipedia: Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference; like the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.

Drawing from empathy, I could see why the sheriff will hesitate to walk an extra mile for anyone.  Given his salary, he will have to face angry people who may resort to violence in the process of a foreclosure. The sheriff may have to take a bullet in enforcing a judicial order, as I had personally experienced in more than one occasion.  From this perspective, therefore, it will not be easy for a “professional” banker to impose on the sheriff to do his job.

How then do we manage our professional career in this situation? How do we draw on our sacred moral code and professional ethical standards in this situation? This is an example where one has to look into the politics of having a professional career.

Take a bullet for your company?

Take a bullet for your company?

This question does not usually crop up during an average person’s professional career.  Of course, our brothers and sisters in the police and military all answer: “It is our job to take a bullet for our country.” For the rest of us, though, this question may be a rhetorical one leading to issues of politics in the office, or mixing “professional” work with politics. If you went up to your boss and tell him or her, “I will take a bullet for you boss,” your boss will either kick you out for being too much of an ass-licker, or your boss will kick you out for being stupid.  Either way, politics and professional management will come into play one way or the other.

That question was for real for me when I was working for the Private Development Corporation of the Philippines (PDCP) in Davao City in the late 70s.

Davao’s Agdao district was called then “Nicaragdao”, depicting a similarity to the war torn situation in Nicaragua back then. Most people carried guns — licensed or unlicensed — and definitely the VIPs had bevies of bodyguards. The Korokan Bar (it no longer exists) was the scene of many gunfights and bomb explosions.  Vigilante groups summarily executed criminals and the NPAs and the MNLF were also very active in the city.

People from Davao are still asking for an end to summary executions. Photo courtesy of Rappler.com

People from Davao are still asking for an end to summary executions. Photo courtesy of Rappler.com

Our location back then–the corner of Anda and Bonifacio streets in Davao City– was the scene of a couple of gun battles and even grenade explosions.  It was so dangerous that my company, PDCP,decided to change the glass windows to a stronger concrete wall. Our secretary during that time, Luz Cedeño, just barely missed the shrapnel.  She had retreated to the toilet when a grenade exploded and she felt hot metal shrapnel on her body just as she dropped for cover on the floor.

It was no wonder back then that there were very few volunteers from PDCP’s Head Office to work for the branch in Davao City. I joined PDCP in 1979 and was immediately sent to Davao City.  I had several immediate bosses like the late Tom Alcantara, among others.  The expansion of PDCP was so fast at that time that my bosses like FerminChio only stayed briefly in Davao and were assigned to more progressive branches like Cebu. The Davao branch was composed of only 3 people: the branch manager, the analyst (that was me) and Luz Cedeño, the secretary.

One day a gunfight erupted right in front of the office and we all saw a man in the throes of death. A few days later, a phone call came in after we sent a telex to our branches head, Exequiel “Jun” P. Villacorta, Jr. to report the incident. “Guido, are you willing to be acting head of the Davao branch with no increase in pay?”was what EPV (what we called Jun Villacorta) asked. Apparently, no one from Head Office wanted the assignment in the Davao branch. And as I was just a fresh graduate with no performance track record, I could not be promoted to any senior permanent management position.  And even if I accepted the job, my salary was just a third of what Luz then was making.

Because I thought — and I still do — of myself as a professional, I felt I had no option but to say “yes.” Having graduated the Advance ROTC course and a member of the UP Vanguard, I was trained to follow my commander. And this situation was no different. I knew the branch was in trouble and I knew no one wanted to come and solve the problems. And more importantly, I felt that I could solve a number of our problems. So, as a “professional”, I had to say yes. In a way, it was like saying, “yes, I will take a bullet for the company.”

Yes, I was young and reckless.

Looking back with more jaded eyes as I have today, I could have been a bit more “political” then by negotiating a few “goodies” from EPV. For example, a higher salary would have come in handy as I was sharing in the household expenses of my parents.  Or maybe a higher housing allowance as I was staying in a room with three other young professionals who were all like me–at the bottom of the corporate totem pole. Or, if I had been married with children, I would have hesitated and imposed a condition that a transfer be made after a year.

But no, I did not do any of that.  One could say it was naiveté, but in my book, it was not something that a good “professional” would do.  I was taught to follow orders, period. This was my pure, unadulterated and personal view of what a professional should be.  To me then, to be a professional is to do your job to the best of your ability; have faith that your superiors will appreciate your work and in their wisdom will ultimately reward you with a pay increase or eventually a promotion.

And at the risk of still sounding naïve or having my friends fall from their chairs with tears in their eyeswhile laughing, I still believe that today. That view, however, is now tempered with prudence and pragmatism.  In his book “Lead with Humility,” a book on Pope Francis’ leadership, Jeffrey A. Krames describes the Pope as humble, but pragmatic enough to be a “political animal.” In short, we have no choice but to engage in office politics; but to get involved in office politics does not mean to succumb to it, according to Krames.

I agree with that view.

Krames points out that Poe Francis actually “urges people to engage in office politics.” He warns that those who would rather stay out of politics will realize that they will be left behind in their organization. Instead of avoiding office politics, Pope Francis encourages us to use the “dramas” that come out of office politics as opportunities for us to use our leadership skills in getting the protagonists and antagonists together to build a more effective team. I believe we can use all the tools used in office politics also for the good. You hear people say that politics is not bad at all– it is the politicians who make politics look bad!

LEAD WITH HUMILITY: A book on Pope Francis' leadership. Photo taken from NYPost.com

LEAD WITH HUMILITY: A book on Pope Francis’ leadership. Photo taken from NYPost.com

I was still in high school when I read a book entitled “Surviving in the Corporate Jungle”. I do not see that in print anymore (at least not in Amazon although there is a similar book with the same title and slant). I used that book for a book review assignment in my fourth year high school English class. That book gave me an insight on what to expect in the world of business working with “professional” men and women. Remember I was reading this book in the early 1970s!

To use office politics in a professional company by a professional person almost seems like heresy. I guess in religion, it is like a Christian saying Jesus was not God! I am sure I will have many detractors here.  However, if Pope Francis believes in having to be a “political animal,” there must be some logic in it. The Bible tells us in Matthew 10:16:  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Matthew must have been talking about the apostles and disciples going out to the world and preaching the Word of God.  But these men and women did a wonderful job. Although almost all of them came from the poor and were most likely illiterate, they, more than anyone else in the history of the world, managed to bring, eventually, billions into the Christian faith. This was clearly a marketing success!  Although I must admit, there may have been supernatural grace that nudged them every now and then, clearly the logic of being shrewd as a serpent worked.

And certainly, a good number of them took more than just a bullet defending Christianity!

From the time I was an “acting temporary Officer-in-Charge” of the Davao branch and until today, I have had , essentially  only one, direct boss, EPV. The rest of my career was as a head of an organization where I reported to a Board of Directors. So my professional life was spent mostly as a CEO. It is from this vantage point that I want to share my views about politics and professional management, two concepts that do not seem to mix.

As the CEO of the largest development bank outside of Luzon then, and eventually as the CEO of one the largest companies in the country, I have learned many things. As the CEO of my own companies now, I am thankful for having “grown old” when I was young. Even as a CEO you realize that to get things done, you need to get the interests of all your shareholders, members of the Board, and the other stakeholders all in “synced.” In today’s ever growing and transparent world, we actually do not have any choice.

To the professionals who are out there, you need to accept that politics and professional management have to mix. Sometimes, you need to stand up and say, “I will take a bullet for the company.”

Then pray hard that you will never literally have to!