The funky life of corporate cliches

The funky life of corporate cliches

The funky life of corporate cliches

Kraków has held the No. 1 spot as Europe's top outsourcing destination for 3 years in a row. Over the past decade, the industry (aka business & technology services), has tripled in size, and, along with it, so did the city's brand new office infrastructure, scattered all over one of Poland's most iconic destinations. Since 1950s, no other branch of business has had even a comparable influence on the 'life of the city' through transformative change. Ironically enough, compared to physical space, mindsets and attitudes often take much longer to adjust and acknowledge the bare facts of 'here and now', let alone anticipate or prepare grounds for what's to come next.
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Tectonic change 

From the perspective of public authorities (whether local, regional or national), it is one thing to witness and recognize transformative change to the entire business landscape of a city, and quite another to act upon the plentiful opportunities attached to dynamic growth, even if it doesn't exactly come from your wishful-thinking basket. For today's increasingly competitive cities (both at national and international level), having a clarity of vision and a strategy to match is something that helps but is not easily found in real life, despite appearances.

Today, youthful, career-hungry employees of corporate centres, easily recognized by a clear preference for dynamic, international work ecosystems, increasingly see Kraków as their destination of choice. They now migrate not only from across Poland but all over the world, turning this ancient, conservative city into a forward-thinking metropolitan centre of bustling activity, whether in culture, business or entertainment. However, Kraków is yet to embrace its uniquely powerful, untapped opportunities of connectivity, integration, long-term strategic thinking and, last but not least, marketing communication. As this tediously lengthy article will attempt to prove, for this to happen, sound knowledge and smart, prioritized efforts need to replace the ugly comfort zones of complacency, stereotypes and oversimplifications.

50 000 new jobs later, Kraków's public administration is increasingly aware of the above, even though it didn't take the easiest nor the shortest of ways to reach the point where the so-called soft factors become a true test of efficiency on the ever more competitive city-investor courtship arena. With Europe's many internationally-recognized metropolitan centres becoming increasingly creative at attracting new investments, there is simply no place for complacency or lack of imagination if you really want to be a serious player in the global smart-city game.

Birds of a feather...

In less than a decade, Kraków's leading business sector has grown from next to nothing to the level where it represents ca. 7% of the city's total population - an economic miracle in its own right, given the short timeframe and the fact that it started as an 'unplanned', almost 'bottom-up' process, enhanced by the city's 'naturally grown' business networks. Till recently, it was not uncommon for the city's chief administrators (and politicians alike) to understate the comparative importance of the industry's growth. Surely, they may have been hoping instead to score better on what they see as the more prestigious branches of global business activity, such as hi-tech manufacturing, R&D centres and, last but not least, Silicon-Valley-type of start-up entrepreneurship. In the latter category, Kraków already enjoys the status of the global hub for beacon technology, with kontakt.ioComarchEstimote and Nordic Semiconductor becoming ever more successful international endeavours. The global success of these companies, however, has so far had little to do with Kraków's international clout or any pro-active efforts from 'high above'. What appears to be largely overlooked by public administration is the simple fact that in order to attract a specific type of business to the city (let alone create a strong association) its elected leadership should first consider a serious attempt at trying to (better) understand a given branch of business 'on the inside', i.e. how it prioritizes, operates and communicates, what it needs, etc. In other words, the various why's and why not's of its decision making. Only then, a meaningful approach to strategy (and communication-interface building) can be embarked on. Otherwise, your glossy, colourful strategy document is likely to be little more than abstract puff.

At a more advanced level of the smart-city game, these days, to become uniquely attractive to a given category of investors/entrepreneurs, answers to the most intuitive questions (on the part of investors, such as: Why would I care/want/believe you?) should not only be really convincing but also creatively stimulating. In other words, for a city to be attractive to e.g. top-class, contemporary start-up culture, its own administrative culture should be able to develop a communication/support interface that is at least comparable in its responsiveness, positive energy and operational dynamics to the forces of nature it's trying to tame.

Given enough positive, cold-fact determinants (incl. costs, profile of graduates, logistics, infrastructure, market conditions, i.e. the usual ingredients of a due diligence process) and a modicum of pure luck, an industry's growth in a city can also take place as if 'on its own', occasionally set in motion (or accelerated) by a single, charismatic business leader. Even though, in real life, things are rarely that simple, the emergence of the business-and-technology-services sector in Kraków, may just be one such story of luck meeting circumstance at just the right moment.

www.aspire.org.pl

Fear walks hand in hand with ignorance

Over the years of the industry's muscular growth in Kraków, fear of the unknown has claimed the usual toll of stereotypes and cliches around:

  1. what it's actually like to work in a corporate environment on a day to day basis and how it affects you,
  2. the emergence of 'słoik' and 'leming' as new member-categories in society
  3. the imminent prospect of the entire industry one day deciding to head east

Item 3 has been especially popular with the 'glass-half-empty-always-expect-the-worst' species, systemically nurtured into existence by Poland's pre-1989 political establishment. It is perhaps a little less surprising, therefore, that despite the unprecedented success of the industry (as the business & technology services in Kraków are hereinafter collectively referred to) and its mostly positive impact on the city's social and economic landscape, all kinds of stereotypes continue to flourish around 'corporate Mordors' (as corporate centres are fondly referred to by the outside world). These would cover nearly all areas of human activity, including dress code, language, a variety of behavioural patterns and consumer habits, i.e. the ways people working in corporations interact with the cities they work/live in (and their unique "lifestyle offer"), whether we talk about culture, entertainment, commuting, sports or shopping. In other words, the sum total of reasons why, at the end of the day, people, and corporations alike, choose to settle in one city rather than another.

The Young, Cosmopolitan Face of an Old, Conservative City

As is so often the case with stereotypes, many are propagated by people who have never been on the inside of any of the multi-national companies (not even for a brief moment) but consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject nevertheless. Sounds like a perfect definition of a politician, doesn't it? 

It's been a long-standing, popular sentiment among 'those in the know' (as defined above) that, with this rate of growth, Kraków is likely to exhaust its available 'pool of graduates' any minute now. Well, it's really been a while since Kraków's business centres gave up any considerations of 'reliance on Kraków graduates only', and understandably so. The city has long been in the habit of recruiting from all over Poland and internationally, depending on reguirement and business priority, of course.

'ASPIRE DASHBOARD' (courtesy of: www.aspire.org.pl)

Attracting 'the unbvious'

In February 2016, my consultancy firm was made in charge of introducing a new investor in Kraków - one very well-known internationally and almost completely unknown in Poland (yes, a rare case indeed, by definition). The assignment involved launching the brand locally, managing the accompanying media relations, press conferences/interviews - all part of a creative communication strategy proposed ahead of the assignment. According to international rankings, the company in question, Cathay Pacific (based in Hong Kong), has for years been among the top 5 best airlines in the world. Interestingly enough, the brand remains in the 'uncharted brand territory' in Poland, for a variety of reasons. The airlines have no connections to Polish airports (or CEE airports, for that matter), to mention but one.

Come August 2016 (only 5 months since the official Global Contact Centre opening in April 2016), and Cathay Pacific Kraków, one of Kraków's youngest international investors, already employs a wonderfully diverse and infectiously positive group of young professionals, recruited from across Poland and abroad. It will have reached nearly a hundred by September 2016. Even on what has long been believed to be a 'saturated market' by many (and is in fact nowhere near this status), bringing together ca. 100-strong team of young professionals, speaking multiple languages, in a matter of a few weeks, looks perfectly doable.

The language

It is said that people who join multinational corporations quickly become infected with corporate jargon, which gradually, yet aggressively, eats into what they used to describe as their communication style. The 'sickness' is apparently progressive in nature and, over time, almost every third word they use (in both professional and private life!) is an example of a language caricature in its own right. Soon enough, the afflicted loose touch with reality to such an extent that they no longer recognize the difference between the language of ordinary mortals and the linguistic coctail that comes out of their mouth (and emails) in day-to-day communication. Words like sforłarduj, mam dedlajn, zbrifować kogoś, ważny miting, jest na kolu, ASAP, targetować, czardżować, benczmark, dawać fidbak, and literally thousands of other instances of company-specific lexical abuse, become their staple bread. As a matter of consolation, the phenomenon appears to be much worse at start-ups. Trust me on that one.

The measures 

Corporate peoples have a sense of urgency about the way they approach time. They are systemically groomed to constantly want to measure, schedule, plan and evaluate. One of the interesting ironies of their working world is that they are among the most time-sensitive creatures on the planet, while at the same time feeling constantly victimized by an ancient adage: 'time flies'. Time does indeed fly in a corporate environment. Weeks pass as if they were days, and years pass as if they were months, with a little help of daily adrenaline, a busy schedule and a multitude of other, 'corporate' catalysts.

The looks 

Dress code is part of every company's culture. Just like young aspiring start-up entrepreneurs pitching in front of VC investors or speaking at conferences are likely to be wearing colourful, hip T-shirts and bright, skinny jeans, people working at different corporations dress in a manner that reflects their companies' broader philosophy. Very formal contexts aside, companies increasingly favour the informal (or less formal, at least). This is largely the result of not only global changes in job market trends, but, more importantly perhaps, dress-code culture becoming yet another competitive territory. In a world where, for most people, corporations (no matter what their story, interest, cultural or geographic plumage) are a little more than a cluster of cliches and oversimplifications, finding a way which makes you look fresh and stand out in a positive way is priceless. As simple as that.

An apple a day...

Many of the early business presentations delivered by Steve Jobs showed him wearing a perfectly ugly version of a double-breasted suit, typical of the era. To reflect the identity of his company, and in a broader sense, the philosophy and the underlying values he wanted it to reflect, he eventually switched to a rather innovative stage-dress-code approach (a pair of blue jeans, a black turtleneck and  trainers) which, over the years, became such an iconic symbol for the company that even his successors had no choice but to continue the tradition, albeit in a slightly modified form. The very same phenomenon was clearly visible in the (kind of) language spoken on stage - the fact that made Tim Cook initially look (and feel?) rather unnatural while walking about stage repeating the same excessive mantra of positive (product-and-experience describing) adjectives, like awesome, amazing, wonderful, beautiful, gorgeous, the best...and dozens more. These would come to be repeated in every Apple presentation since, with higher frequency than the word 'change' in a 2008 Barack Obama speech.

Back to Kraków: the bright side of the spectrum

Several facts about Kraków's key industry are well worth re-emphasizing:

Fact No.1: Kraków stands at No.1 in Europe. Correct me if I'm wrong but it's not easy to think of any other discipline or business activity that boasts even comparably flattering position, let alone growth trajectory.   

Fact No. 2: It is highly unlikely that, assuming there was no IT/SSC/BPO industry in Kraków, any other industry would have replaced it on a comparable scale, let alone with more success, offering as many as 55 000 (without taking into account the multiplier effect) well-paid jobs to young people, often straight from university.

Fact No.3: As current trends demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt, with this industry present, Kraków is much better-equipped for future growth and new business development opportunities. Not only is the city now much more visible on the international business map (as one of the leading global work destinations), but, more importantly perhaps, it has now become a true, international job market in a serious sense of the word - a fact that could hardly be overrated.

Fact No. 4: Despite its huge influence on the local economy, the general level of knowledge about the industry (particularly among public decision-makers, city/region authorities, last but not least, politicians) definitely leaves some space for improvement. There aren't that many companies in Kraków who remember ever hosting any of the city's top 3 decision-makers on their premises, often after many years of existence. Not that it has ever mattered for the actual growth of the industry but a lot more could have been achieved if this ingredient had not been missing. It is only now (that the industry has grown far too big to pretend it's not there), that authorities are waking up to the potential opportunities attached to being part of the growth story. 
If the city is, indeed, serious about its hi-tech manufacturing, R&D centres and Silicon-Valley amtitions, it should first prove truly capable (preferably innovative/impressive beyond expectations) at communicating with the city's investors (first already-existing, then prospective). In international business circles, word of mouth works magic. In other words (to indulge a little, much-justified repetition) for a city to be attractive to a specific type/group of investors, its own administrative culture should be able to develop a communication interface that is at least comparable in its responsiveness, positive energy and operational dynamics to the forces of nature it's trying to tame. For now, the two not only continue to speak two different languages but represent entirely different planetary systems, and there are sound reasons for that.

As things stand, the (IT/SSC/BPO) industry in Kraków has been so successful, that if one considers the so-called multiplier effect, its 55 000 employee figure in reality quite likely exceeds 80 000, taking into account all sorts of  smaller businesses that rely on the existence of the larger organism.

What's Up, in town

To give but one example of how far this phenomenon stretches, last year a very young NGO set up a hip monthly called What's Up Magazine, dedicated exclusively to the corporate and outsourcing sector in Kraków.

What's Up Magazine (COVERS)

It's been an unequivocal success since, both among readers and advertisers. My involvement with the project, even though going back to the days before its first release, has been strictly advisory (more like occasional advice shared with friends rather than formal team membership or any form of project co-ownership). I also write monthly editorials for each edition, and that's about it. Even though available only in Polish (except for the aforementioned editorial), the magazine regularly explores a great diversity of jobs, challenges, perks and benefits this single industry offers, as well as general topics of interest to its diverse workforce. Its success relies entirely on the existence of this branch of business in Kraków.

Talking about corporate...

To talk (let alone be judgmental) about work in corporate centres, it's only fair that one should have at least some first-hand experience of the subject-matter in question. A few years before I moved on to set up my own business and became public affairs and communications director at ASPIRE (Kraków's biggest association of business-and-technology-services companies), I experienced my own high-velocity, multi-national corporate stint. As is so often the case, I started straight from university, back in 2004, as assistant to a company's COO & board member.
Six years later, in late 2010, I left the company as its (probably) youngest director, following three earlier promotions. The general pattern of my corporate experience very much resembled that of graduate-turned-corporate-yuppie/rat (depending on the reader's level of  inner-felt bitterness). Back in early 2004, I was in the middle of post-graduate studies at Jagiellonian University, with two extremely comfortable and fulfilling part-time jobs - one in a language college and another in a small English school specializing in business clients. I was also a partner in a family-run business selling sports equipment in a middle-size town in Silesia. 
While still at university, I didn't exactly have much time left at the end of the day, working parallel at multiple places. One of the many benefits of the time was not having the usual financial pressures of a 'fresh graduate'. Keeping busy did not prevent me, however, from indulging one of those moments of spontaneous madness, when one suddenly decides to do something (potentially transformative for a large chunk of one's professional future!), out of an impulse, perhaps to prove something to oneself (God only knows what!). 
Anyway, one fine afternoon I put together (my first ever) impromptu CV and sent it to an e-mail address quoted in a company job advert I got hold of by accident. Even though I was deeply convinced that I would most likely never get the job in question, without any prior experience or in-depth knowledge of the manufacturing process, I decided to give it a try nevertheless. By the time I received the first call with an invitation, nearly two months later, I almost forgot about the whole thing. After nearly a month of further procedural nitty-gritty, I turned up for the final interview. Probably because I didn't care as much as the other candidates (having a comfortable, more relaxed and far better-paid job in Kraków at the time), I was rather straightforward, if not humorously blunt, during the interview - a fact that may have proved decisive in securing me the job.
If there is one thing I knew about what to expect then, it was the fact that whatever was to come next would be infinitely more challenging than all my past jobs. Another thing that was clear to me at the time was that 'now, rather than later, is the time to try something new, take the bull by the horns' so to say. I felt I could always come back to teaching or conference interpreting. Besides, I only planned to stay in the corporate sector for one year. Six years, three promotions and countless international business trips later, I was finally ready to leave the corporate chapter behind and move forward, work at a higher-education school for a while to give myself enough time for post-corporate detox and planning my own business.

How is this story relevant, you might (still) ask? To understand corporations and cliches attached to each and every one of them, it really takes a special tool-set, combining both instinct and (acquired) observation skills. This usually entails broad and intimate knowledge of the (corporate) 'inside', with a fair share of 'outsider's' perspective. It's probably one of the many reasons why, in my current role, I love teaching people 'public speaking' skills. A single day of training usually reveals to them a wild variety of things they were unaware of about themselves (often puzzlingly obvious), starting with body language, all the way to language patterns and ability to cast one's thoughts into a structured, prioritized narrative.  
Even though one of the things I do profesionally these days is work at one of Kraków's biggest business associations, despite the best of efforts, my knowledge of the business-and-technology-services sector is still far from sufficient to pass any collective judgments or submit to easy stereotypes. However, the six years dedicated to the corporate sector, working with four CEOs of a major, multi-cultural company, have opened my eyes to many things, as well as inspired a true love for modesty, character and humility.

Outsourcing one's dreams

Time for a little cautionary tale, hopefully an unpretentious one ;) 

The Clock (Kraków, Market Square)

Time flies. Much faster in fact than most of us are ever prepared to acknowledge. As we grow older and get used to the always-busy professional routine, we sometimes forget what used to matter to us once, like really! Identity loss and self-denial, enhanced by work-environment standardization, are never too far behind. Beyond a certain point in one's career, it takes a rare kind of courage and introspection to change the river course you had once plunged into, whether by accident or choice, especially if, following this early 'decision', you've spent years building yourself a luxury yacht for the journey, with comfort and predictability as your top priorities. The further you go (up or down the river), the more difficult it is to realize that your true love may in fact have been mountain climbing.

It is neither unnatural nor scientifically unjustified that people let the wave of everyday habit and risk-avoidance swallow the last traces of what were once their most treasured of aspirations. Success should perhaps be measured much less by status or career benchmarks and much more by a sense of balance and ability to live a life that is true to your values and convictions. These get very easily burried underneath the rubble of habit and 'easier choices'.
Now, why should this matter, in the context of this article? If for no other reason, there is a huge difference between someone whose working environment is compatible with their character, passions and hobbies, and 'all the rest', i.e. the likely majority of people who may have got trapped somewhere in time and circumstances, whose dreams were replaced by self-deafening routine, somewhere on the way. 

Yes, changing a job usually takes some risk and a fair share of courage, but once this process is set in motion, it opens your eyes to a world of new ideas and opportunities, the best of which, perhaps, is getting to know other people who believe that having an open mind and living a life which is true to your heart is perhaps infinitely more important than spending it in a narrow, ideologically-confined setting. An ancient philosopher once said: The world is a book and if you haven't travelled, you've only read a page. At Cathay Pacific, one of Kraków's youngest companies, they call it a 'life well-trevelled'.
Now, with the Kraków market moving in the direction it is moving now, up the ladder of diversity and technological sophistication, chances are it will be much easier for you to muster up enough courage to bring about positive change. With experience gained in multi-cultural work ecosystems, you're infinitely more likely to pursue your dreams in a feasible, sustainable way, sooner or later. All I can say is: fingers crossed!


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