Monday, January 17, 2005

The Devil Wore Prada -- the Devil Responds

A fun and breezy read, The Devil Wore Prada, a novel by Lauren Weisberger, topped the best seller lists for months. What's it about? In three words: the fashion industry. This book delivers an inside look at the fashion industry and the chokehold that a prominent fashion magazine can put on fashion designers and retailers. There's also a storyline about Andrea, a recent college graduate who randomly finds a job as the assistant to the president of the fashion magazine. The pay is lousy and the president is incredibly abusive, but the prestige of the job is supposed to compensate for the low pay and abuse.

Most everyone has endured a horrible boss, so the popularity of the book with readers has a lot to do with their empathy for the heroine, Andrea. However, the book fails to illuminate the real truth of the story, that Andrea is an incompetent administrator.

We read about all the terrible demands and verbal abuse Andrea suffers while working for her devil boss. The only problem with the novel, and, this is a big problem, is that the real devil is Andrea.

The devil boss has an important job -- to create the vision and direction for the magazine. She has more challenges every day than she can possibly confront and meet. She is overworked, middle aged, and surrounded by incompetent staff. Like many women managers in their 40's and 50's, the devil boss also has to run a household with a husband and two children. She also must exercise hard to maintain her dress size of zero. The devil boss tries to delegate. She hires assistants to do things like get her coffee, get her lunch, take care of her dry cleaning, and so on.

One would expect that her assistants would recognize their role in supporting the goals and vision of the executive of the magazine, but they do not. In fact, Andrea is a pretty awful assistant. Andrea fails to:

* See the big picture goals of the organization and support those goals.
* Establish a communication and follow up process with her boss.
* Create checkoff lists to properly track details.

All of these are standard activities that one expects of an administrator. So why did Andrea have so much trouble performing them? What did Andrea think she was supposed to be doing at the magazine? Part of the responsibility lies with the magazine management; the human resources department failed to set expectations properly with Andrea. There was no job description, no training, no books to read. The assumption that the previous assistant would "train" Andrea on how to do "the job" was incorrect; the previous assistant had merely developed some adaptation strategies to survive in a culture that was largely based on fear. The fear comes from the devil boss who is in a perpetually irritable mood caused in part from the lack of proper administrative support.

Andrea never speaks up or defends herself when the boss is abusive. She never requests an appointment to discuss the matter and she never reports it to the human resources department. It is possible that nothing could be done and the board of directors sanctions the behavior of the devil boss in order to get results. However, Andrea will never know unless she tries to speak up for herself.

Andrea fails to realize that the president does not have the option or opportunity to separate her personal life from her professional life. Presidents must live the culture of their company. If you run a fashion magazine, you have to wear designer clothes. This will require a lot of coming and going to the dry cleaners. It makes sense to have an assistant oversee the operation. Andrea looks upon this task as demeaning and something that should be done by a housekeeper. So why doesn't she do something about it? Why doesn't she look for options and alternatives? Why doesn't she talk to the housekeeper about it? Perhaps find a dry cleaner that does pick up and delivery. Andrea failed to do any research and create a proposal with a cost-benefit analysis advocating this change to her boss. Instead she just becomes resentful -- which does not benefit anyone concerned.

Andrea is also angry and resentful when the devil boss demands that Andrea attend a social function to serve as a greeter for the all guests. The devil boss had been planning the social function for months. Andrea had many opportunities to create a list of all the requirements for the social function to help manage the party for the devil boss, but she did not. So, the over-worked boss finds at the last moment that she has forgotten this detail and presses Andrea into service. It should have been Andrea that identified this requirement for the party months in advance so that the devil boss would not have had to worry about it.

Andrea had a great opportunity to study the business operations of a successful magazine. Yes she did have to order lunch, pick it up, wait in line at Starbuck's, etc. All jobs have their good points and bad points. Andrea chose to focus on the bad and indulge in a lot of self-pity without taking any constructive action to ameliorate her situation. Worst of all she failed to seize the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the operation of a successful magazine -- an extremely valuable source of knowledge available from the devil boss.