In A.D. 2101 war was beginning.
Sure, but about one hundred years prior to that, there was an internet meme that went viral at a time where we didn’t know what the term “internet meme” even meant. This was before YouTube and Facebook. Videos were made from Flash or GIFs, and shared via email. All Your Base Are Belong to Us was the preeminent internet meme of the early 2000’s. Why was it huge? Geek kitsch and nostalgia. About 15 years earlier, all the best video games were made in Japan. Sometimes translations to English were a bit off. This odd quirk is funny and memorable. If it’s been a while since you rocked-out to the full video, check it out here.
Geek nostalgia made a poorly translated Zero Wing cutscene popular 15 years after its release. I’m writing this blog article trusting that the quirky All Your Base Are Belong to Us internet meme is still fun to think about 15 years after it peaked in popularity.
I’ll use the rest of this article to analyze a situation that was going on in my professional world while All Your Base Are Belong to Us was circulating the globe consuming internet bandwidth and email server capacity everywhere. I worked at a company, GMAC-RFC, that was prominent in the sub-prime mortgage securitization business. I really enjoyed working there. Company performance was strong, the leadership culture was empowering, and I grew as a technologist and a leader through my time there.
Somebody set up us the bomb.
Things were great, until they weren’t. A lot of bad things happened in quick succession. Before the mortgage industry collapsed, it softened. For the first time since I had worked there, we hit hard times. The good leadership I experienced in good times changed.
We get signal. What! Main screen turn on.
We got the signal alright: a lot of leadership and structural changes. Our parent company, GMAC, merged us with our sister company, GMAC Residential. Later on, GMAC started taking over direct control of what had once been hands-off management. After that, GM sold their controlling stake in our unit to a private equity firm, which installed their own management.
How are you gentlemen!! All your base are belong to us.
Each of these developments were negative. The empowerment culture went out the window and the new management was all about command and control. All our base are belong to someone else. Those of us that were committed to preserving the company culture that we loved were consumed by frustration.
You are on the way to destruction.
We didn’t know it at the time, but our company (and industry) was on its way to destruction. If you want an entertaining overview of what happened to the subprime mortgage securitization business, watch the movie, The Big Short. Unlike the bold investors portrayed in that film, I didn’t see it coming. Our management was on a turnaround mission to help us work through the “down cycle” and bring us back to profitability. That day never came.
What you say!!
In hindsight, it’s clear as day. When I was going through this, it was total confusion and inner-conflict. Even though I didn’t like the style of the new management, they liked me. I was one of the base that now belong to them. I was promoted, respected, and rewarded. They wanted my influence. I wanted to believe that the company I loved would recover. I wanted to believe that I had some influence over the outcome.
You have no chance to survive make your time.
There was a remnant of leadership within the company that put people first. They also began to anticipate that this wasn’t going to end well. Rather than bail themselves, they did two things: first, they protected the teams the best they could, and second, they helped the best team members find opportunities outside the company. That’s a bold move, and something that takes balance and discretion.
To some of my readers this probably seems unthinkable or downright disloyal. It’s not. When you put people first, you help them with their careers. As long as career and company interests align, it’s easy. When they diverge, you have a choice to make. I have no problem helping a team member leave my organization if it’s the right move for their career. Ultimately, I try very hard to build an organization that continuously creates internal opportunities for growth, but that’s not always possible.
Take off every ‘ZIG’!!
I watched my co-workers leave the company at a blinding rate. Eventually, when the right opportunity came along, I also left. As bad as it was, this was still incredibly difficult. I spent eight formative years at this company. They treated me well and gave me so many opportunities to grow and lead the right way. I was intensely loyal. Of course, once I left, I knew it was the right thing to do. The company I loved went bankrupt. The state of the art data center that I helped migrate into and run eventually went vacant.
For great justice.
I’m nostalgic about All Your Base Are Belong to Us. I’m nostalgic about the good years I spent at GMAC-RFC and the memories made. While that legal entity is long gone, the people aren’t. I have the privilege of working with some of those colleagues today at CHS. I’ve worked with other former GMAC-RFC colleagues at other companies that marked my journey. That culture wasn’t conquered, it was multiplied. The destruction of GMAC-RFC created a diaspora of talented technologists and leaders that moved onto other companies. Those companies all got better cultures as a result. For great justice, indeed.