Ponderings of a Corporate Refugee

Life Aboard Corporation X

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

After 13 years of employment at Corporation X, I found that I was still asking questions about the status of company’s culture. Why is the atmosphere so different in this company than others in which I have worked? Why do people expect things to happen without much personal effort or accountability? Why are people reticent and reluctant to offer ideas, take actions? For years, I heard people saying, “Corporation X doesn’t do it that way.” And slowly but surely, I started to realize that this perhaps this wasn’t just the case at Corporation X—there are many companies that share its resistance to change.

At some companies, this is called “the hairball.” In my division—Division Y—we called it “The Borg.” On Star Trek, the Borg are a group of alien drones linked by a hive mind. Incapable of independent thought, they are also aggressive, and they force other individuals to transform into drones. You’ve probably heard the phrase “resistance is futile”: this is the mantra of the drones, of the Borg. After a decade at an organization that never seems to change, it’s easy to feel like you’ve become part of The Borg. What would it take for Corporation X to truly encourage independent thinking and change? How could we escape the transformation of middle management into the Borg?

Corporation X states its Corporate Vision: Aspiring to be the most admired defense and aerospace systems supplier through world-class people and technology. An 88-year-old company, Corporation X specializes in defense, homeland security, and other government markets. In 2016, the company had 63,000 employees and $24 billion in sales. There are six business segments, and withover 15,000 employees, Division Y is Company X’s leading Global Capabilities Integrator. Division Y has made its reputation by delivering high quality technology defense products meeting the needs of its DoD, International and Civil customers. Division Y is headquartered in Small Town, Massachusetts and has a backlog of ~$10B.

I began my career at Corporation X in Division Y and had a chance to observe the way it does business—and the effect that had on employees. Division Y has acted as a subcontractor on multi-billion-dollar contracts led by a major prime. In some cases, the company has contracted directly with the government; however, another company often integrates the products. This “major sub to a major prime” strategy has allowed the company to avoid most risks while reaping most benefits throughout the years, creating a risk avoidance cultural environment.

After many years tending these lucrative contracts, there is little risk of failure, and the sense of “staying hungry” and being competitive has become quite eroded. The sole source program environment encourages a comfortable “job for life” mentality, leading to a strong sense of entitlement. People begin to believe they are “owed” promotions, raises, etc., rather than feeling like they have to earn them. “It’s my turn!,” employees seem to think—and even say—after a few years at the company.

Favoritism is another outgrowth of the entitlement culture, with “like” often outweighing capability as the most important criteria in making employee decisions. However, in a changed Department of Defense (DoD) post-Cold-War era, companies with an entitlement culture cannot continue to succeed. In my time at Corporation X, I have seen the business lose multiple competitive contracts—even those in which we were the incumbent!

Why was this the culture of our company? Why were people so resistant to progress and change? For years, the problem mystified me. I couldn’t put a name to it, until I started hearing rumblings about the many “change” efforts being undertaken, and for the first time, I heard the term “Entitlement Culture.” This is a workplace culture in which employees believe they are owed something; they settle for what is rather than stretching for the top. Employees wait for a handout rather than working to be the best. More, many employees bordered on burn-out.

Since way back in, 1999, various change movements came and went, and I was personally involved in more than one. In fact, many employees were recruited from competitors in order to infuse a new attitude; from “you owe me” to a results-oriented culture. In tandem with outside hiring, I witnessed other efforts to make change: Six Sigma, Game Changers, the Strategic Development Program, Spartans. The business’ senior leadership team was coached, advised, mentored, counseled, and guided in change leadership behaviors and techniques.

While we instituted some short-term wins—beautified grounds, a company gym, values awards, etc.—the desired intrinsic behavior changes never seemed to materialize. It seemed most employees’ hearts and minds were not moved to change. We were all part of the Borg.

As I worked at Corporation X, I began to see the ways in which this culture affected individuals, as well as the potential for larger-scale change.

Power and Influence within the modern workplace are complex. Those who wield power aren’t necessarily those who are most well-equipped to use it. If I wanted to get something done, who should I go to for help? How should I conduct myself as a woman in the workplace? What would it take for me to acquire some power of my own?

Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, PCC, SHRM-SCP

147 Francis Horn Drive, Kingston, RI, 02881


Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach (ICF-PCC), Society of Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary is also an ICF certified Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, and a Certified EQi-2.0 and EQ360 Practitioner.

Mary O’Sullivan has over 30-years’ experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area. Today, Mary dedicates herself to helping good leaders get even better through positive behavior change.