Prologue: I ain’t even mad, just disappointed–because I got paid. Sad to say TD Ameritrade treats separated associates better than the ones left behind! But now my severance has ended, my non-disparagement agreement is done. Wanna hear a story?
FU Ameritrade. TD Amerifuct. DilberTrade. Toward the end, KafkaTrade. Follow along as a billion-dollar company became ten times as big but at the cost of its soul.
“I, for one welcome our new New York overlords!”
2007: The Ricketts wanted to retire and buy a baseball team. Joe Moglia wanted to retire and coach a football team. Couldn’t blame them, they had done good work. We as a company were hitting on all cylinders and therefore were a target for other players in the industry, chief among them E*Trade. No one wanted them to take us over–up until this time, we were the ones eating other companies. (Five years later, after the subprime fuster-cluck, E*Trade was begging us to buy them!) But one way to avoid getting bought is to buy someone else, and that’s how TD Bank climbed into bed with us. Ameritrade took over Waterhouse while TD bought Ameritrade. Ricketts got a few billion, so did Joe Moglia, and we gained a new owner.
Immediate culture shock: At Ameritrade, our procedures were screwed down tight and everyone knew it. Worked well, obviously. Over at Waterhouse, investment counselors ran things and weren’t used to being told no. To them, rules were just suggestions when they were considered at all, and or course we were the ones who had to explain to their clients that they had been over-promised. Timelines and standards and quality all went down the toilet as we spent more time putting out fires that were so unnecessary.
Not only did Ricketts and Moglia leave, half the stars who executed Ameritrade’s operational strategy saw the signs and decided to ‘explore other opportunities’–while the others were pushed.
Replaced by TD and Waterhouse hacks who were familiar to, and submissive to, the owners in Toronto and New York. Fred Tomczyk, a long-time company man was actually the most competent of the imports, and that was damning with faint praise. Phreddy wanted to be a Buffett so bad–Davos, Jackson Hole, all the business TV shows, JetLinx, stretch limo. He had absolutely no speaking skills and stage presence but he thought he was Johnny Carson. He had a hard time speaking off-the-cuff, with a script he was passable but relied on catchphrases that served as fodder for drinking games amongst our Band Of Cynics. One of his favorites was his term for Hurricane Sandy–‘SuperStormSandy’. He never referred to it as anything else and it was like fingers on a chalkboard. I’m sure he thought it was cute–or he didn’t think of it at all.
Our HR executioner was another TD Bank torpedo, sounded like Yeardley Smith and went about five-one and 105. Methuselah’s prom date. I called her Gollum and no one was confused as to who I meant. When she was speaking, she carried herself like she was doing us a favor, pausing often as if to wait for applause.
We were saddled with one CIO who almost crashed the company by insisting on adopting a buggy ‘enhanced’ software platform to handle our document administration and warehousing–one that worked wonderfully as long as it was off-the-shelf IBM but was damn near useless once our ADD-addled administrators got done writing the specs for an overlay. He doubled down by outsourcing the day-to-day document handling aspects of the platform to a disinterested contractor who placed no emphasis on doing the job as well as we did and operated with no incentive to do so. Desperate pleas to stop the implementation from the poor end-users and beta-testers were met with curt dismissals. There was a deadline to be met, and performance bonuses to be paid (to the CIO). (The name for the project, and later the platform itself was and is–ISIS. Yeah. They made no effort to change that even after the events of 2013.) Amongst the end-users, we had other names for the platform–crISIS, ISN’T, and those were the repeatable ones. This CIO ran a town hall meeting one quarter, totally ignoring his in-person Omaha (client-facing) audience while name-checking and goombah-ing his ivory-tower buds back in The City via satellite. Scant mention was made of our concerns when an e-mail from Omaha pointed out the chronic problems with ISIS, the message was dismissed as ‘static’. Yeah, I’m serious.
The reality was, none of the New York peeps liked Omaha at all, and only slightly more fond of Fort Worth. They couldn’t help themselves when they let it slip about the culture they were missing back home. Omaha staff was to be dictated to, not collaborated with–when we weren’t being ignored. Fort Worth got a slight pass because the staff was newer, less entrenched in the Omaha philosophy–y’know, the philosophy that built the damn company and made it attractive to a buyer–that philosophy!
Fort Worth rode Omaha’s coattails until they got more autonomy. That resulted in differing opinions about all manner of operational issues, with the poor client in the middle. I had flown down to Fort Worth for a week to train associates how to do my job, it was a great time–collaborative, instructional, friendly. Productive. A repeatable process based on servant leadership. I was no sooner on the plane back home before Fort Worth’s management decided to reorganize–move the associates I just got done training to other departments, and even worse, to positions of authority over my process! You’d think that the procedure would be fresh in their minds, but they were tasked with making sure all the Is were dotted and Ts crossed while ignoring common-sense–forgetting that I had told them that when you’re dealing with humans, there is no such thing as Standard Work or Best Practices and that ambiguity should be embraced.
What really fried me was when one of the FW people let slip during an IM that ‘we’re just supposed to pat Damon on the head’ when I questioned their ham-handed work and their refusal to process the wires I was entering. You know, me, the Subject Matter Expert who just got done training them how to do the job! I got a grudging apology–after I screamed at my manager–but the whole of Fort Worth was on a power trip that was encouraged by the Stepford Managers, and it snowballed to the point that they were rejecting wires that had worked perfectly and had delighted long-time, high-dollar clients in the past, and pretty soon we had fewer long-time, high-dollar clients…
If it ain’t broke, fix it ’til it’s broken
When you have to walk a quarter-mile, past the seventy-five spots blocked off for VIPs that never arrive (Joe Moglia knew we were the VIPs…), past the score of spaces set aside for gas-sipping ‘green’ cars, you notice a few things. Every day, at least twenty late-model cars with out-of-state plates and barcodes in the side windows–rentals. This means two things: Auditors, and consultants/vendors. When Ameritrade was the darling of the industry–printing money, associates running in the door to help clients that much quicker, we didn’t need consultants. Truth be told, management could call on fifteen hundred consultants already on the payroll. TD came in, and suddenly the associates had no idea what they were doing! One could draw inferences from the relationship between decision-makers and consultants, and the relationship between politicians and lobbyists…I don’t want to say that similar shenanigans occur, oh hell no.
Excuse me while I try not to laugh.
But once our mid-level executives justified their salary by ‘identifying’ an issue and some think tank spent six months building/billing a solution, either the answer was more convoluted and less agile than the previous process, or else it had a striking resemblance to what we had been screaming for! Someone’s old friend from The Street got paid and our profit-sharing shrank.
Long story short, we weren’t bringing enough money in to satisfy Toronto and New York. They listened to another consultant and we got LEAN.
The Oxymoron Known As LEAN
TQMS was a quality control concept that was a forerunner of LEAN, Six Sigma, Kaizen, ISO 9000, etc. I had been aware of such initiative schemes for some time, and was fully aware of the riff recited by our management schmucks as LEAN was initiated: “Quality Control™ was what Toyota used to eat Detroit’s lunch”, yadda yadda. These schemes have their place in production settings, but they tend to stifle creativity–to stifle humanity. Look up the Japanese societal construct known as the Salaryman to understand the end product, the goal of such initiatives. How poisonous it is to western societies, to the creative side of human beings. Creativity, seat-of-the-pants, thinking on the fly was what got Ameritrade where it was. But now, it was decided, was the time to treat the associates–and clients–like robots putting grilles on Camrys. TQMS failed in most places it was tried, even if everyone bought in. It was born to lose in an organization with the attention span of a gnat such as TDA. One of the early adopters was McDonnell Douglas, the aerospace company based in St. Louis. TQMS worked so well there that after a time TQMS meant Time to Quit and Move to Seattle (Boeing). So I knew what was coming. I was reminded of the phrase ‘socialism works, it’s just that the wrong people have been in charge’, and the hubris of our management cadres was sickening to see. Interesting to note that one of the first moves the ivory-tower gang made was hire several LEAN proctors…in other words, in order to bring order to a bloated org structure, first we had to bloat it further!
Please do the needful: Kill the company in order to ‘save’ it
The high-priced executives tasked the mid-level peeps to squeeze every turnip in their domains to find every penny possible. Wouldn’t want our C-suiters to suffer with two-year-old Mercedes convertibles, right?
Our division’s VP bit the bullet and implemented a massive outsourcing. Most of the data entry would be farmed out to a firm with centers in India, and most of the department would be ‘rationalized’ with generous severance packages. You don’t have to be a genius to see what was up–studs in Chennai and Bangalore work for about a quarter of what we were being paid, and work one-quarter as fast, and with the same drop in quality. But those metrics weren’t as sexy as the payroll reductions. A raft of managers and senior reps jumped on 747s to train these ‘independent contractors’. My process was defined without my input, training materials unseen by me until the training was over, the person responsible for the curriculum didn’t know my job! I didn’t think the process could have gotten any worse than when Fort Worth was sabotaging it, but it cratered with India doing the data-entry. Sure, I was still the guy to put out the fires, clean up the NIGOs–trouble was, those guys in India, with their half-assed training, didn’t know what they didn’t know! I don’t blame them, humans want to solve problems, want to help people, and TDA let them down–set them up to lose–because it was easy for the vendor to fire them and insert another poor sod with a few hours of training. I took more than one escalated call from a US-based rep wondering why I hadn’t gone over to India to do the training! I wondered the same thing…
So, India took over the processing, and the Massacre of 2010 took place. Echoes throughout the office, tumbleweeds in the parking lot–and survivor’s guilt. Sure, the meat of the company was gone and that hurt on any number of levels, but concerning those left behind–this wasn’t the Ameritrade we knew, loved, respected. Loyalty died, and it was agonizing. We weren’t kicking ass any more, and we missed it.
Then, one year later, the Pogrom of 2011 took place the Monday after Thanksgiving and those left after that ‘right-sizing’ weren’t rushing in the door to start the day any more. Shuffling, thousand-yard stares, no questions at town halls anymore; no one gave a rat’s.
Eighteen months later, another look at the P&L told the bean counters that India wasn’t cost effective anymore, and the work came back to the US. That’s right–the work moved to India because they could they could do it cheaper, and it came back because we could do it cheaper! You didn’t have to know quadratic equations to understand what happened to the service level and what had happened to the payroll, and who benefited from it. So the work was back on our desks, but well over half the associates integral to the process were no longer there to do it!
I’m HAL 9000, your new department manager
Our department manager was caught up in the 2011 amputation, replaced by a revolving door of upwardly mobile managers just in our department for a cup of coffee and to pad their resumes. On the team level, some of my managers moved on, some moved up, but one fact remained the same–I had to teach every manager about what I did, where my challenges were, where there were process shortfalls, et cetera. To a man, none of them had the interest or time to actually understand my job, let alone advocate for me. Which on one level was fine–get out of my way and I’ll kill the queue–but I had no sounding board, no backstop, no one to take my side. Indeed, I was sold out any number of times by both my managers and by other departments that decided to insert themselves uninvited into my processes. So I had my credibility undermined in no small measure, but the credibility of the entire company likewise suffered because of the top-heavy, convoluted org chart. Organizational gurus talk of ‘silos’, but ours looked like redwoods…those caught in a forest fire…no branches, just dead trunks pointing nowhere. Of no use. One department manager with an office in Omaha oversaw their teams–which were in Fort Worth, while another manager in FW, you guessed it, was responsible for my team and others in Omaha! American Airlines and the Fort Worth Marriott loved our incompetence. And I’m serious about the tree trunk analogy–they made the mistake of showing us the latest org chart–a lot of managers with only one direct report!
The last department manager who deigned to teach us her leadership skills–no LinkedIn profile but selfies on Twitter–was running a meeting, fielding a softball about TD’s latest focus on data-mining (to the detriment of old-school customer service, it seemed.) Most meetings with our betters consisted of drinking-game cut-n-paste catchphrases intended to help us reach the same millennial audience that our smarmy, too-cute-by-half commercials were geared toward. Too bad, and inconvenient that my audience was mostly middle-aged achievers who talked like adults and could smell a linguistic feedlot a mile away.
I have to give these managerettes credit–they learned one thing while getting their B.A.s in BS at various discount colleges–when confronted with an actual question from an associate desperate for a show of acumen and leadership, it only took ten words of transitional phrases before they were back to the script.
Then she let loose with a bombshell that dislocated the jaws of those of the Achiever Class that remained: She said “I ♥ Data!” That’s right. She Alt-3 ‘d data. This was a leader of men, a leader of adults, a leader of professionals? Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber might “♥ data”, but an actual adult human doesn’t. The Band Of Cynics shook their heads.
It’s not just TDA, but corporate America is becoming top-heavy with ‘leaders’ who don’t really lead, managers who can’t manage, who have titles/offices/business cards/nameplates and amorphous job descriptions but no accountability. And no shame. (Much like Washington, D.C.) And it’s a safe bet that they ‘♥ data’, and use nouns as verbs, etc. The joke was that we had so many managers afraid to make decisions, if the fire alarm went off, it’d take two weeks to decide on what font the global email should contain…
The World’s Largest Bar Of Irish Spring Soap, and White Elephant or Green Sloth? The LEED cabal exacts their toll.
Another self-congratulatory press event, this time to announce the new headquarters. The skyscraper part was revealed to be thirteen stories clad in opaque green glass with randomly-spaced windows, the pattern exhibiting neither rhyme nor reason. I liked the color, but What’s With The Windows?
The explanation, per scripted response from the Corporate Communications blondies, was that the architecture “harkened back to the days of ticker tape…” which hadn’t existed for at least twenty years, the tape wasn’t green even while it existed! Was there ticker tape in “Wall Street”? “Trading Places”? Once again, no one asked the old hands who were around when it did exist what we thought, so our reaction was unfiltered ambivalence and How Much Did This Cost?
There was a rumor, unsubstantiated, that Pfast Phreddy wanted a heliport but the FAA told him to twist off. But if someone was spreading disinformation, they knew their audience and it wasn’t far-fetched. TomczHack only blew into town about two times a year anyhow, preferring to hang out in The City and gracing us with his apparition from time to time via the miracle of satellite, resembling the Wizard of Oz and his curtain.
Adjoining the skyscraper was what I called “The Doorstop”, a two-story, long building that was an aesthetic disaster when viewed in comparison to the skyscraper next door. No synergies with the other building except those retconned afterward–you had to change elevators to get to the basement from the highrise, teams doing similar work were scattered in both buildings (as well as the older ones across the street).
One morning after widespread severe thunderstorms, I went on my break to the ‘rooftop terrace’ only to find two 72-inch all-weather televisions broadcasting CNBC to the heavens (a power surge overnight had turned them on). Ostensibly intended to schmooze political VIPs, industry peers, etc. (but not associates) the terrace boasted about two-thousand square feet of tiled flooring, gardens planted to russian thistle and dandelions, and the two televisions which were never used. (I priced them and found they ran north of 20K USD apiece.) Indeed, I was the most frequent visitor up there, occasionally I’d be met by facilities maintenance professionals looking for leaks caused by the weight of the gardens. In a building less than three years old.
LEED is a racket, straight up. Supposedly a way to get tax breaks–being grateful you’re getting some of your own money back–it’s a way to make new construction extremely convoluted, being both energy saving and uneconomical, with the added benefit of ruining creature comforts and workplace look-and-feel. Using rainwater to flush the toilets? Double the plumbing, and the restrooms smell like fish buckets. Saving money using a wider thermostatic range? You either froze or sweated, and fans and space heaters were banned. The LEED progressives will love you, but the humidity isn’t controlled and the building will rust from the inside out. The demand-driven, ‘smart’ computerized elevator system stranded associates for hours at a time.
Walking into work one day, I was confronted by a new sign affixed to several close-in parking spaces: “Low-Emitting Vehicle Parking”. I like to think that I follow the automotive industry closely, but I hadn’t heard of this descriptor previous. Turns out it was the LEED gang making shit up. Technically, Harleys were low-emitting vehicles. Hybrid Yukons were, too. Certain 40MPG hot rods weren’t. Needless to say, these spaces were empty most of the time or the signs were ignored. There were, I think, twelve parking spaces equipped to charge battery-powered cars and aside from a couple Chevy Volts, those were unused as well.
The Band Of Cynics discussed the building from time to time, and in light of most of the high-priced executives being old Waterhouse hands, we wondered when the whole shebang was going to move back ‘home’–New York. (Most of the technology is in Newark, with contributions from Ann Arbor, Dallas and a host of third-world coding gulags.) The reason why the HQ didn’t move was two-fold–first, the C-suite bozos were gone already. Phreddy, the HR troll, and the CIO would grab a JetLinx and Lincoln limo when some press event in Omaha needed their canned comments. Second–even if they wanted to dump the joint, Old Mill didn’t have the cachet it did ten years previous, the traffic was a sick joke, and the building was designed to be a headquarters, data entry, and telemarketing facility–and middling at all of them. No other company with ties to Omaha wanted such a combination. So TDA were stuck. They made scripted lip service to ‘the majority of the workforce / the spiritual home / the best associates in the country’ being in Omaha but then turned around and treated that workforce like they did temps, and made blatant and bald-faced efforts to increase Fort Worth’s headcount. Sigh.
The whole HOTC (Headquarters, Operations, & Technology Center, another previously-undefined acronym sold to TDA by a consultant trying not to giggle) was a testament to style over substance, and a microcosm of the entire company.
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche
In addition to the Fort Worth against Omaha fistfight, and the New York v. Omaha cage match, another civil war broke out: Retail against Institutional. I was grimly observing yet another town hall where one of the golden boys from Institutional was crowing about how much money they brought to the table (forgetting to mention the brushfires they lit when they dumped their problems on the back office). They had a presentation: You’ve seen company banquets or parties–entertainment, bands, presentations, awards, bonuses. I dimly remembered when Retail had them–Joe Moglia’s Holiday Parties, celebrating a year of hard work, ballroom downtown, everyone getting dressed up and great food and drink. Man, we loved Joe–we loved each other, we kicked ass and we were rewarded. Phreddy cancelled the parties when he seized power and the economy crashed. (When the skyscraper was built, they resumed after a fashion–two hours after work on a Thursday night, in a hallway, gift cards and iPods. Yippee.)
In watching the Institutional video of their Holiday party in San Diego, it appeared that one division hadn’t gotten the memo about the economy going south–imported-from-Vegas singing and dancing, Condi Rice and Carly Fiorina keynoting, photo lines of San Diego associates all dressed up. The sheer balls it took, showing this to the Omaha back-office people! This was another tone-deaf executive not knowing his audience–or not giving a fuck in the first place. I’d have preferred to not know about it, even allowing for the half-million or so it cost our bonus pool.
Omaha in general, and the back office in specific, had become TDA’s Mushroom Department. I saw TDA termed on Glassdoor as being a ‘White-Collar Sweatshop’. Again, this was something they apparently took sick pride in–it was reflected in one of our commercials: Coding gulag, indeed!
Shooting The Messenger
LEAN and the quality of department-level management had diluted the ‘product’, as it were, to the point where there were no longer any meaningful discussions about process improvement–and no encouragement from our bosses to speak up on the off-chance that someone in a position of responsibility took a wrong turn and wound up in our department by mistake. LEAN mandated that we spend twenty minutes each day on a ‘morning huddle’, where instead of banging out work, we’d be forced to spend time updating progress on initiatives that went to other departments to die (again, the systemic risk-aversion), pointing out the contradictions in ‘imperial edicts’ promulgated by multiple departments that affected us, and wondering how much of a train wreck it would take to get someone to admit they couldn’t manage processes to save their asses.
A impassioned discussion on a broken process–complete with solutions–would be interrupted for team -building ‘trivia contests’. Yep. Back when adults accomplished things, the best way to build a team was to be engaged in getting work done and solving problems, but that wasn’t TDA’s “Better Way” (another catchphrase pulled out of some consultant’s ass which cost us a pretty penny…)
No help from my last team manager, a boopsie with the attitude and mindless enthusiasm of a cheerleader, but apparently knew how to remember-and-recite well enough to pass her way out of college with some soft-science degree from one of the local McUniversities. No LinkedIn profile for her, either. I’ve had managers younger than I who respected the hell out of, who were willing to listen, deduce, extra-and inter-polate–and who took an interest in my job and wanted to do it. Y’know, old school. But it wasn’t the “Mo’ Betterer Way™”.
I had been looking for meaningful work for about five years–not only frustrated by TDA’s goalpost-moving but also wanting to do something else. I was purportedly a Process Improvement Technician but it wasn’t anyone’s job to listen to me!
We old hands had a cloud over our heads: Quitting, even to a better job with better compensation meant giving up three weeks severance per every year of employment owed to you if you managed to be caught up in a salary dump. This translated to a years’ salary for me and a lot of others. So it was a test of wills, so to speak, having to withstand the soul-sucking ‘career’ you were in while the incompetent HR Pakleds, teenybopper managers and clueless LEAN proctors worked at cross-purposes (with clients and associates in the middle.)
I would have been content to keep my head down, play out the string and one day look up and find it was time to retire. Except for one thing: I wasn’t allowed to do my job. I wasn’t able to serve my clients with the same quality I had in years past. Indeed, TDA took a perverse pride in crowing how they weren’t going to serve clients in the same manner–a cynical catchphrase known as ‘Service Level’. Distilled, Service Level is a metric to measure how much you can lie to your clients, blow them off, mismanage their expectations while still keeping their money in house. Hard as it is to believe, at one time voicing those exact concepts would have gotten you fired. But in the alternate universe known as The Better Way, standing up for your client meant getting talked to, written up or otherwise branded as a troublemaker by the Management Class (and pitied by coworkers who remembered how it used to be.)
Late April-ish, early May 2015. Phreddy mentioned during a town hall that ‘earnings were coming in a little light’. To anyone who had been around during the ‘transformations’ in 2010 and 2011, this was code for Get Your Resume Updated. The muscle of the company had been excised in 2010, the heart in 2011. Next thing was the brain, and the back office wasn’t going to recover from that. So…how were the HR State Security Service goons going to make up the shortfall so Phreddy could get his bonus? Funny you should ask.
Imagine in a department of one-hundred associates, split into ten or so teams, each member with a number of responsibilities. If you’re going to decimate (in the literal definition) a department, should be easy, right? Pick either the poor sod with the worst ‘quality’ score, or the one getting paid the most.
Dig, if you will, the picture: Your faithful scribe, responsible for 75% of the wire processing, and all of the Not In Good Order ones. Compare and contrast to the nine others, seven of which were in Fort Worth punting the difficult cases, cherry-picking the easy ones (with no Fort Worth managerial repercussions). Taking that to the logical extrapolation, who was taking the most organizational shortcuts, and running afoul of quality measurements that had no basis in reality? Well, the guy who was busting out that 75%. Who was meeting the arbitrary, disconnected-from-logic quality measurements? The people doing the cherry-picking. Keep in mind that any errors I made were administrative, Is and Ts, not material ones. But since I was making the most money…
Their rationalization was clear, if they were brave enough to admit it: The job could be done at half the price. Half as well, but that wouldn’t be reported if it was convenient to ignore that metric. The budget–and the bonuses for the C-Suite squatters–was the important thing. Screw the clients, screw the associates.
Little Miss “I ♥ Data”, the one I accused of talking in catchphrases and consultant-speak, came and got me one Wednesday morning as I was hip-deep in work. Since my manager was using all her Wharton skills (snort) in struggling mightily to decide on the colors for our nameplates on the LEAN huddle scoreboard, she couldn’t be arsed to join the meeting. I knew what was up. I rushed out of the room, fist-pumping and beating her to the meeting room. We were met by some poor HR drone, no doubt confused by the grin on my face. As soon as I saw the fifty-one weeks of severance, I said “Where do I sign?”
That’s a ‘win’, sweetheart. Scoreboard: Damon 51, TDA well…probably a negative number, since my old queue immediately went to hell. But I was now being paid not to give a rat’s anymore. Official reason was ‘corporate restructuring’–not my calling out their naked-emperor routine, not their ginning-up of the quality measurements to snag a client-centric associate. Corporate restructuring. They didn’t learn a thing.
I high-fived the security guard as I skipped out to my car. “♫…Once and for all, I’m far away…I hardly believe, finally the shades…are raised…♪”
My only regret was that they didn’t can me in mid-April, so I could have gotten paid to chase tornadoes. Nine months off, one new granddaughter, five months babysitting later, I got my meaningful job when I was ready to work again. My relentlessness rewarded, the promise of advancement, a ten-minute commute…
I am blessed. Not only in the continuance of my career, but in having worked with the best co-workers in the business. I learned from them up until the minute I left. We fought tirelessly against an opponent that should have been a collaborator, and we overcame that betrayal and became assets–for other companies!