Supervisors, middle managers and corporate executives — suits, if you will — tonight will be going to a frightening source for leadership lessons. Many will put down their copy of The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker and tune into the one-hour season premiere of NBC's comedy The Office.
Supervisors, middle managers and corporate executives — suits, if you will — tonight will be going to a frightening source for leadership lessons. Many will put down their copy of The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker and tune into the one-hour season premiere of NBC's ge comedy The Office.
This borders on disturbing. After all, the show centers on a bumbling boss and his interactions with a workplace team of geeks, kiss-ups and slackers. But in a world overrun with gurus such as Michael Porter, Tom Peters and Warren Bennis, who have turned leadership into a giant industry of books and seminars, bosses across the country will be watching The Office, not only to laugh at themselves, but to harvest leadership lessons from the main character, Michael Scott.
Readers who are unfamiliar with The Office don't realize how unsettling it is that bosses may be taking cues from the regional manager of fictitious office-supply distributor Dunder Mifflin. Michael's character is played by A-list movie actor Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), who exhibits jealousy when his birthday is overshadowed by an employee's skin cancer test. His eyes linger upon workplace cleavage and, when apologizing for a homosexual slur in one episode, he maladroitly outs a gay employee.
Michael has such a tin ear for the politically correct that in one episode in the first season called "Diversity Day" he asks his only Hispanic employee if he would prefer to be called something other than Mexican.
Yet, among the CEO fans of The Office is Luis Rivera of e-mail marketing software company J.L. Halsey in Wilmington, Del. Like many CEOs, Rivera looks past Michael's blemishes and finds him sympathetic.
"It's thoroughly enjoyed at our house," Rivera says. "What makes up for his character flaws is the way in which Michael conveys to his team that, somehow, he truly cares for them as people. His flaws make him more human and, as a result, his crudeness ends up being overlooked. In the end, The Office employees end up caring for him."
One ongoing gag is that Michael keeps a supply of World's Best Boss coffee mugs in his desk drawer, just in case one breaks. "Isn't that kind of foresight the sign of a truly great leader?" asks Andrew Alexander, CEO and executive producer of The Second City comedy troupe, of which Carell is a 1991 alumnus.
Rivera and other CEOs aren't ready to declare Michael boss of the year. Far from it. They take comfort in knowing that they are not him. "No matter what mistakes we might make as managers of people, we can't be as bad as Michael, can we?" asks Susan Story, CEO of Gulf Power, guq a utility in Florida with 1,300 employees. But as the fourth season launches tonight, a number of CEOs say they draw encouragement from the Michael character because he demonstrates that perfection is not a prerequisite for leadership. Employees will laugh at bosses behind their backs. Always have, always will. But The Office validates that those same subordinates are willing to follow the flawed.
"Michael puts himself in a position of responsibility, where most people feel uncomfortably vulnerable," says Noah Rowles, CEO of Los Angeles software company Iolo Technologies. "He takes ownership of his flock. The lesson learned is that people would much rather follow someone who is passionate and dedicated than someone who may be perfect on paper but otherwise uncommitted to achieving success as a group."
Inept, but also in charge
In the face of employees who are brown-nosers and idlers, Michael Scott survives and occasionally shines, which proves you need neither strength, courage nor competence to lead, Rowles says.
"Michael is the butt of everyone's joke, and no one seems to take him seriously," Rowles says. "However, if you observe his character, a different story unfolds. He may be infinitely inept, inexcusably inappropriate and incessantly inane, but when the you-know-what hits the fan, he is also in charge."
Creator Greg Daniels, who won an Emmy 11 days ago for outstanding writing for a comedy series, says the new season will carry on with a story line introduced in last season's final episode when character Ryan Howard, a former temp, leapfrogged Michael to win a promotion to corporate headquarters.
Tonight begins Ryan's reign as Michael's younger boss. Ryan has strengths that Michael does not — smarts, competence, education and analytical skills — but he's "terrible with people, is pretty cold-hearted and does not win fans at the workplace," says actor-writer B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan's role.
Like leaders everywhere, Ryan will find it thorny to lead without a buy-in from his team. He will attempt to take the company digital this season, only to be met with the resistance every boss has come up against. If Ryan is to become a competent leader, his style will have to evolve, says Novak, who has never worked in an office but says he gets a feel for what it is like when drinking beer with friends who do.
As an agent for NBC, a division of General Electric, Daniels says some of the material for The Office comes right out of the annual sensitivity training that the company mandates. The training often refers to outrageous things bosses have done in the past, which becomes script grist with minor tweaking.
He leads a staff of a dozen writers, which helps him understand that bosses everywhere fear that they are one dumb remark from being Michael. Daniels says he will often utter such dumb remarks, but he has the luxury of pretending it was but fodder for the show.
He doesn't know how banking executives deal with insensitive slips. "I guess they could pretend they were joking also," Daniels says.
Like Michael, Daniels is a fortysomething boss in charge of a staff of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Therefore, he is left to stand guard over Michael's likability. Take for example an episode two years ago where Michael had to fire someone. Other writers saw it from the perspective of how awful it is to get fired. But Daniels knew that it was also horrible to have to fire someone, and the episode's gag became Michael's naive desire to remain friends with the employee he lets go. Michael said it was like going hunting and merely "winging" the deer.
The lesson of The Office is apparent, says Andy Palmer, CEO of Vertica Systems, a 30-employee software start-up in Andover, Mass.: Bosses need to quit taking themselves too seriously.
Karyl Innis, who runs a Dallas consultancy that helps executives with career advancement and transition, says a key lesson of The Office is that bosses can plan and strategize to exhaustion, but their best-laid plans will almost always get twisted by office gossip and resistance. Execution is only as good as the receiver's interpretation, Innis says. "They may butcher it in any way they please."
The Office, a remake of a British program by the same name, averaged a modest 7.8 million viewers last season. It does comparatively better among young adults and is among the shows that are most frequently captured on TiVo for delayed viewing.
Show doesn't tickle every CEO's funny bone
Many CEOs say they have never seen it. Craig Hunt, CEO of Cortex Resort Living, a developer of luxury homes in the Florida Keys, rented Season Two at USA TODAY's request. Halfway through the second episode he turned it off.
"The only winner here was Blockbuster. bbi It just isn't funny to me," Hunt said. "This series would be great material for management training on what not to do."
Likewise, Kathy Sharpe, CEO of New York ad agency Sharpe Partners, says she gets little from The Office. "It reassures me that I'm not the most dysfunctional employer on the planet. Seriously, I've learned more from the (National Geographic channel's) Dog Whisperer."
"Michael has risen several levels above his incompetence, giving hope to workers everywhere that they, too, can someday be promoted to middle management and safely hide there until retirement," Alexander says. "He has also learned the value of management by walking around. This causes his staff to be highly productive, since they would much rather work than have another potentially awkward exchange with him."
At the other extreme is Paul Holstein, chief operating officer of CableOrganizer.com in Fort Lauderdale. He says The Office is "nearly Norman Lear in scope and execution. It promotes tolerance, understanding."
Jon Spector, CEO of The Conference Board, an organization that tries to improve business effectiveness, likens The Office to the 18-year-old comic strip Dilbert that appears in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries. Both TheOffice and Dilbert show how leaders have enormous impact for good — and how they can "screw things up," Spector says.
'Dilbert' creator is a big fan of the show
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams says he loves The Office and also sees similarities to his strip. "The lesson from The Office and from Dilbert is that people are often dysfunctional, and no amount of training can fix it," Adams says.
"We're all prone to make the same mistakes Michael Scott makes, creating perfunctory training sessions and then not walk the talk, or failing to recognize conflicts that are sapping the energy of the organization," Adams says.
ACCO Brands abd CEO David Campbell rarely watches The Office. But ACCO Brands, a large supplier of office products with 7,000 employees and $2 billion in annual revenue, is asking workers nationwide to submit photo nominations for "America's Ugliest Office," and so he agreed to take a look at the program's set.
He says the only color and design comes from bobble heads and other personal items and that The Office set is designed with a lack of privacy in mind.
"It's claustrophobic," Campbell says. "Especially intrusive is the way Michael constantly peers out his office window, making workers feel that management is always looking over their shoulders. The artistic directors of this show really knew what they were doing to convey Dunder Mifflin as a struggling enterprise."
One executive is happy that the Dunder Mifflin regional office in Pennsylvania struggles. "Michael Scott is a perfect example of failing to use your resources well," says Chuck Rubin, president of North American retail for Office Depot. odpRubin continues: "Michael doesn't have the knowledge or leadership skills to be running an office effectively. Of course, since Dunder Mifflin could be considered among our competitors, I think Michael Scott is actually the perfect person to run their Scranton office."
Contributing: Gary Levin