Attention, Vision Leaders: Your hip office isn’t really hip

Image: Angela Keoghan
The day started like any other: Weetbix, the morning commute and an interview with a certain bright young thing at an Auckland startup’s office.

As the online guy for Idealog, I do a lot of interviews, most by phone, some in person. The face-to-face ones are always the best and the easiest to write: you get a better feel for a person when you’re there, face-to-face. You also get to check out the staff and the office digs too, which is great for adding a little colour to stories than can easily become bogged-down in the intangibilities of digi-tech.

So there I was, strutting in the door, getting pointed in the direction of my interviewee – some 25 year old go-getter who buys and sells people like me before breakfast – and thrusting out my hand, most professionally. He and I both smiled beatifically, power shook for a few seconds and introduced ourselves.

I gave my name, then described myself as a writer. He did the same, then described himself as a ‘visioneer’.

Well that’s a bit naff, I thought. Why call yourself a visioneer when you could call yourself the CEO? But I’m not one to judge. One can call oneself whatever one wants. I’m all for the right to invent and reinvent oneself just as often as you like (as long as your shareholders still have your contact details at the end of the day).

But as we walked through the office and the introductions continued, it became apparent that something was very rotten in New Lynn.

“These are our rockstars,” our visioneer enthused, motioning towards some beaten-down looking salespeople. They didn’t look like my idea of rockstars, although maybe one of them had a touch of Roy Orbison about her.  

“Our ninjas,” our euphemistically-inclined CEO continued, gesturing toward some ashen-skinned and slack-shouldered developers. One of them shuddered visibly and couldn’t help but cringe in solidarity.  

This creative naming of job titles seems to be gaining popularity in recent times, and I, for one, hope it passes me by. I’ve worked hard to become a writer and I want to be referred to as one – not as an ink slinger or head scribbler or wordnik. Please, don’t invent a cutesy title for me and I’ll pay you the same courtesy.

So why is this a thing? Why are otherwise astute businesspeople buying into this mess? Anyone can see that calling a software developer a ‘ninja’, has a lowering effect on both ninjas and developers. If you’re the boss, by all means, call yourself whatever you want, but foisting these titles on your employees doesn’t make you a cool boss. Quite the opposite.

And when it comes to who you’re going to do business with, who you’re going to trust, surely we want to deal with people who call a spade a spade. Not a hole-cultivator, not a cavity-generator, not an orifice fabricator, but a spade.  Like a grown man using the lavatorial euphemism ‘doodie’, such things are beneath adult conversation.

And I think it’s symptomatic of a greater problem at play these days: the expectation on CEOs to not only run a profitable, sustainable businesses that looks after its staff and the environment, but also to be seen as a ‘cool boss’.

That, my friends, is a big ask.

I’ve got nothing against CEOs, but legitimate coolness and CEO-readiness are about as mutually exclusive states as you can get.

Chet Baker is ‘cool’. Mark Zuckerburg isn’t.

Let’s call it the ‘Richard Branson effect’. It’s the idea that these days, as CEO, not only do you have to do your job, but you also have to cultivate your own brand of wind-swept adventurer, or hip ‘not-by-the-bookness’, while you do it.

And the stain of these patronising titles and affected zaniness is affecting the workplace too. We’re creating a culture where the office must be presented as a playground, in appearance, but not in fact, and you can see it everywhere. It’s the pinball machine gathering dust. It’s the ball pit full off mouse droppings. It’s the ‘chill-pod’ no-one uses and the bullshit Zen quote on the wall. It’s the hot-desking, the walking-and-talking, the ‘do-your-own-performance-reviews’ and the double-think nonsense that says we can’t talk about it like it’s a business, we have to talk about it like it’s a social experiment.

But it’s not. It’s a business. And making grown adults pretend that they work in a kindergarten doesn’t make you a visionary – it makes you passive aggressive and maybe just a little bit delusional too.