Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

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The ‘Reverse’ Job Description: A Company’s Responsibility to Employees*

reversejob description tabhuman resource

There’s a “war for talent” out there. It’s an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees, and companies talk the talk about how they are focusing on acquiring the best of the best. They call their HR people “Talent Directors”. Job description after job description describes their searches for “rock stars”, “gurus” and “ninjas”. And each job spec is chock full of the myriad incredible feats and accomplishments that each talented new hire has to achieve to be successful.

But so many new hires don’t stick – the data shows that almost half are gone within 18 months. And it’s not about skills – only 11% fail due to lack of skill, with the other 89% due to “attitudinal reasons”. With the high investment in time and money in recruiting, wouldn’t it makes sense for companies to make more of an effort to enhance stickiness and raise long-term success? The way I see it, every open role should have not just a job description, clearly iterating what is expected of the new employee, but would also have a “Reverse Job description”. That is, what are the required tasks of the company to ensure the success of the new employee.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Success is a collaborative thing, especially in today’s interconnected, matrixed, ‘new normal’ organizations. So I say that every critical role to be filled should have an equally important role for the organization and the leaders. Here’s what it would be made up of:

Build an on-ramp. Coming into a new organization is always hard – but nowadays, you’re expected to get moving at light-speed, stat. So it’s important to provide the tools, resources, and support to enable the new hire to merge into the fast lane as smoothly as possible. How can you provide support during the early days? Who and what are the right resources for each type of problem and opportunity? Where can he or she find the tools they might need? Anything that keeps a new employee feeling new and un-integrated keep him or her puttering along on the shoulder of the road.

Provide a pit crew. The most seasoned and successful race car drivers know they have a pit crew awaiting them whenever they need re-fueling, or if the dashboard is filling with warning lights. Well so should the greatest rock-star employee. A company should make sure there will be regular get-togethers to review the road behind and the road ahead. And expecting there will be some blow-outs and oil leaks is a pretty good idea, as well, since there will be.

Plan for some speed bumps. As I mentioned above, every journey has bumps in the road. Especially at work. In the best of circumstance, with as many knowns as possible, there are surprises that wreak momentary havoc on existing teams. But for the new employee, everything’s new and unknown – new partners, new clients, new dynamics, new culture. Do them a favor and set the expectations for some bumpy moments. Expecting perfection is never a good idea; but in these situations, it’s an absolute mistake.

Implement an instant network. I don’t care what level the candidate is, they’ll need some advisors and mentors. Sounding boards for problems and opportunities. Folks to look to when building their thinking. Or when the going gets tough. New employees don’t have instant credibility, respect or trust – so it’s important to provide a few internal contacts where they won’t have to immediately earn it. Each reverse job description should allocate several of these partners and comrades.

Provide a core of complementors. Generally, when hiring someone for your team, you are looking for one or two key skills. The skills and experience that are critical for the success the company is looking for. However, when placing this person into the organization and onto a team, there are likely some complementary skills that are required – skills that might not be immediately native to the new hire. So ensure you have embedded the complementary partners needed to help get past the initial growing pains.

Give some early cheers. No matter how talented and experienced the new employee is, the new situation will feel a bit alien. And without a sense of belonging, the new hire may find the honeymoon wearing off quickly. A little recognition can go a long way towards making new employees feel at home and part of an organization. Which leads to more success and longer tenure.

What do you think? Does this seem like too much to ask from a company? Should an employee’s success be all up to them?

*Originally published in TalentZoo 9/2/15

You Can’t Polish a Turd – so just stop trying.

turd polishnew & improvedit's still a turd

As a student of human nature, I’m always amazed at the obsessive way we, the human race, go out of our way to fake ourselves, and our brethren, out. To avoid the hard realities and make the false, true. We rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, make molehills out of mountains, we call a heart a spade. Which is why I have always loved the idiomatic phrase, “you can’t polish a turd”. Because it points directly at our desire to try to tidy up disaster, to keep up a good face, and to avoid reality, telling ourselves everything is fine. However, let’s be honest. Everyone poops, as the children’s book tells us – and it seems that everyone then tries to turn it into something else.

And no other arena has made turd-polishing more of an art form than marketing. From “new and improved”, to “nothing works better, to “delicious AND nutritious”, marketing and advertising has consistently polished turds in order to make the lame sound good, make the weak feel strong, and make the lazy feel dynamic. Hurrah!

Well, it’s high time we stopped deluding ourselves, trumping ourselves up in the eyes of others, and taking shortcuts in order to keep us from doing the real work.

Stop deluding ourselves to make ourselves feel better
When confronted with a marketing situation that is less than positive, turd-polishing and spin doctoring begins to take place at a high level. Years ago, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, the marketing department decided to reduce the amount of cleaning enzymes in the product as a way to reduce costs. That’s right, they decided to make the product perform worse. But they convinced themselves they were giving the consumer the right level of cleaning – instead of that “over-formulated” product they’d produced for all these years.

Similarly, I worked on AT&T many years ago, and they were looking for ways to increase the revenue they made from long-distance calling (as I said, it was many years ago). They knew that most residential calling was happening after 8PM, when the rates went down – so they decided to raise the night-time calling rate. They also lowered the day rate, in order to create a single rate for the entire day. Because most calling happened at night, it was effectively a price hike for nearly everyone. But AT&T spun it as a “simpler” and more consumer-friendly plan. There, that turd is polished!

So what can you do? Ask yourself – is this really what the consumer wants? Is this based on a true human insight? Would I want this? What makes this a good thing? Consumers, more than ever, demand honesty and transparency. Anything less will be exposed, ignored and ridiculed. New and improved, my arse.

Stop trumping ourselves up with veneer and shallowness
One thing the industry has no shortage of is buzz. As in buzzwords, the “latest big thing” and the new. But so often people use this buzz to cover up a lack of substance, knowledge or honesty. How many times have you heard someone rattle on and on, using the latest terminology –  DMPs, RTB, “brand as publisher” and “native advertising”, anyone? – and, afterwards, you aren’t really sure they said anything at all? The turd that’s being polished here could be ignorance and insecurity, or, worse, a lack of ideas being masked with shiny words. So, instead of buzzwords and generalities, speak in plain English. That’s the only way to see if you’re really saying anything.

Stop taking shortcuts
When it comes to the real work we do, so many people seem to prefer to do as little as possible – and cover up the lack of effort and quality with a shiny wrapper and a nice bow on top. They’ll take below-average work and cover it with gilt – production values, technology, fancy talk. I’m here to tell you that no “content amplification system” can make crappy content successful. No amount of algorithmic optimization will make a bad campaign more successful. Calling your product “new and improved” doesn’t make it so. No fancy talk, over-jacked production quality or celebrities can make a dumb idea or poor product successful. If you’ve got a turd on your hands, the likely best thing to do is flush it down and start the work of producing something good. No amount of polish will change it.

Despite what I’ve said, people really do seem to think they can polish a turd. In fact, I’ve found that even the phrase this article is based on has been made “new and improved”. I found the edited phrase to be “You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter”. Well, I guess that is kinda polished…

The Inevitable Extinction of the A-hole

There was something I learned in college  in Psychology 101 that stuck with me. I read about a study that showed that, as a kid, having any nickname was better than having none. I found it hard to believe. Really? Being known as “Fatty” or “Doofus” was better than being known as Steve?

Well for years in the advertising industry, it had always seemed that being known as an “asshole” was also better for a person. No one seemed to be penalized for it. Not only was it acceptable, but also it seemed to earn a person more respect. There were the prima donna creatives, who threw things and cursed at people for expecting them to do their job. There were the know-it-all strategists, who treated everyone like idiots and as if they were doing you a favor working on your project. There were micro-managing leaders, who could never be satisfied and always assumed the worst of you. And the over-bearing, patronizing executives, who treated everyone like children. All these a-holes somehow got promoted, took on more important jobs and got paid more money. And no one thought anything of it.

And I’m not talking about demanding, tough, high-expectation types – everybody should be demanding and have high expectations. I’m talking about real assholes. And, I’m here to say that their days are numbered. Here’s why these assholes can’t succeed in the “new normal”.

1. There’s too much collaboration
The new way we work is way too collaborative and integrated to allow for the success of the a-hole. The digital revolution has us working in real time, across channels, with internal and external partners. Command and control is dead and “soloist” leaders can’t succeed – it’s now an ensemble performance that requires a talented maestro to bring the best out of lots of different people and different temperaments.

And those folks who stab others in the back, talk behind peoples’ backs, make fun of others? Those guys won’t get by in this new world either. It’s impossible to keep secrets – so ill intentions and sub rosa communications will always get aired.

2. Everyone needs to grab a shovel
Gone are the days where a senior leader doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Flat organizations, decreasing fees and tight margins have made teams smaller and less hierarchic. And the “always on” nature of the business demands that everyone be ready, willing and able to do anybody’s job, at any time.

3. Creative is no longer a department
Creativity has never been more important, but it no longer resides in the hands of a few special people wearing black and 3-day stubble. Creativity now is just as likely to come out of an analytics insight or a media idea as a print concept. So this drastically reduces the tolerance for bad creative department behavior. Plus, it’s also just as likely that the writer or art director will be working on designing an email template or writing search copy as a Super Bowl TV spot or a high impact print assignment shot in Tahiti. Try doing that with a chip on your shoulder.

4. Strategy is nothing more than a hypothesis
Strategy is obviously important – it’s the foundation for everything. However, it’s not the bailiwick of a person or a department. In fact, since everything is activated integratedly, strategy needs to be developed and approved jointly by those who will deliver the integrated program.

But more importantly, as the theory of stratecution stipulates, a strategy is just a hypothesis. And it’s just a starting point. It’s nothing without the combined strategic and creative execution and activation that will bring it to life.

5. Digital demands iteration
In the old way of working, a creative idea for TV or print was the execution. There was some evolution, naturally, but the work of execution was simply bringing it to reality. And that gave creative directors incredible power – because only they knew what the idea “really” was, and how to bring it to life.

But the new way of working in the digital world is all about iteration. Everyone learns as you go. A creative idea for a website or a display ad is a beginning – the team will iterate what it will do, how it will work, what to have the viewer do to interact with it, etc. It’s now an ensemble activity, with evolution, and sometimes revolution, a core part of the process. This gives the power to a much broader team – which can include technologists, user-experience specialists, media planners, in addition to the writer and art director.

6. You will be measured
In the old days, anyone could get away with saying the work was great. If it didn’t move product, drive leads, increase consideration, it wasn’t their fault. People could be self-proclaimed successes. But not anymore. We’re all only as good as our results.

So everyone needs to relish the opportunity to focus on measurement. To ensure all programs have mechanisms to track and to read results. And to be watching and attending to those results regularly, eager to adapt and optimize programs to improve their performance. This is hard for the old-school a-hole to accept.

Of course, this doesn’t mean failure isn’t accepted. But what you do with that failure, i.e. what learning you take to the remainder of the program and future efforts, is another form of measurement.

7. Talent needs empowerment
The A-hole executive was able to treat people poorly. Get as much work out of them as possible by controlling them with fear and politics. People were viewed as underlings who were replaceable – and small in comparison to the greatness of the executive.

The new focus of organizations has to be on empowering people – enabling them to accomplish more and be more successful. The move towards calling employees “talent” is a big step towards recognizing the respect and empowerment necessary. Treating people poorly doesn’t accomplish this.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to these dinosaurs becoming extinct. How about you? Have any stories you can share?

All You Need Is Hate

I normally write about things I love, care about or believe in. Today, I write about things I’m equally passionate about: things I hate. These are people and behaviors that drive me crazy – and kill teamwork, collaboration, productivity and success. And I believe hatred is ok – as long as you are also passionate about what you love and care about. See if you recognize some people in the list below!

I’ve talked about these folks in a prior post.  These are the “we’ve tried that before”, the “it’ll never work”, the “the client won’t buy it” people. The wind-out-of-the-sails people. The ones who never add to ideas, but instead sap energy, enthusiasm and forward progress out of them. Keep these folks off your teams or they will always underperform.

I honestly don’t know how these people do it. They look you in the face and tell you something they know is wrong. Lying comes in lots of flavors – sometimes people lie to avoid taking responsibility for something that went wrong, sometimes to discredit someone else, sometimes it’s to take credit for something they didn’t do. But every flavor is bad.

And the problem with liars is that, once you know they’re capable of lying to your face, you never know if you can believe them again. And in our business, with collaboration a must and teamwork and team communication demanding, working with liars breaks down team trust and effective communication.

There are no doubt times when everyone would prefer to do nothing instead of something, especially something difficult. But let’s face it – that’s not an option in business today. So when you come across people who actually DO choose to do nothing, it’s almost remarkable. You can’t even believe it. Does this person actually think this behavior is acceptable?

And laziness isn’t just doing nothing, it also can be manifest in the way someone does something. For example, just pushing paper, not adding value, not digging deeper into things. Working with those not eager, willing and able to pull their weight is a killer.

Very similar to the above are the “Easy-Way-Out-ers”. These are folks who do the least possible to get by – the “phoning it in” types. They hand you work that demands follow up, they provide information full of holes and without context, they don’t do any homework to add value to their work. And they don’t ask questions – e.g., are these the right objectives, does this fulfill our brief, could this be stronger? They simply pass-along the work, like hands in an assembly line. They want to be done with something fast, no muss, no fuss. But this doesn’t help anyone, least of all them.

Smugness isn’t just an ugly personality trait. It’s a symptom of some of the worst behaviors of leaders. First, it’s a symbol of the opposite of humility. This over-confidence and being overly pleased with oneself turns off partners and direct reports. Who wants to work with that?

Smugness is also a demonstration of the need for taking credit, for trumpeting one’s achievements, for a focus on “me” over “us”. This behavior will never lead to productive, effective teams. And, in the end, will result in failure for the smug one.

People who constantly talk about past efforts and successes
We all know them – in group meetings or brainstorm sessions, they always talk about what they did in the past on X campaign and with Y client in some loosely analogous situation. Of course analogous situations can be helpful springboards for new thinking. But when those analogous situations are used EVERY time, it becomes ridiculous – how could this same prior experience be helpful for every situation? In addition, as I’ve stated in the past, past experience actually can be a hindrance to creativity and innovation. First of all, it can put a mental box around thinking what’s possible, vs. a true exploration of “what if?”. But in addition, the “analogous” experience can be so different from the current that it could lead you astray to some irrelevant thinking.

The Vanilla
These are the people who give a good ice cream flavor a bad name. These people are the passion-less folks who “strike things off the to-do list” and “make things go-away”, instead of passionately doing their best with the ambition of doing great work. And this doesn’t mean always aiming for untouched territory and never-been-done before ideas. It means not taking pride in their work, no matter the context. Believe it or not, you can develop a passionate competitive report, a “flavorful” contact report, a great analytics recap. People need to have ambition and passion in all they do. Period. Or they should try doing something else.

People who don’t use their turn signals
Anyone who knows me even a little knows this is one of my giant pet peeves. But c’mon! There are lots of things that you are “supposed” to do, tasks that are required in order for society to function. Some of them are a pain in the ass – paying your taxes, shoveling the front walk, taking showers. But using your turn signal? This is not difficult. It takes zero effort. In fact, if you think about it, it’s kinda’ fun – one click, a blinking light, and then magically the light goes off by itself when you’ve completed your turn. But I find that more and more people are not using them. I view it as a sign of the downfall of humanity.

Similarly, there are team members and business partners who don’t communicate their intentions, don’t let you know what they plan on doing, don’t hold up their small responsibilities to the group. These seemingly small mis-communications and failures of conveying or living up to intentions can lead to big time sucks and screw-ups.

“Because it’s cool”
Don’t get me wrong, I like “cool” as much as the next guy. But never do anything because it’s cool. It should be cool because it’s right for the objective, it’s smart and creative, and will deliver the right solution to the problem. If ever you do something just to say you’ve done it, you’ll be wasting precious time and resources that you could be using to develop successful work.

So these are some of my hates and pet-peeves. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. What are your hates?

Be a Yes-Person

Everyone hates a Yes-man. A flunkie, a stooge, a sycophant.  But there’s another type of “yes-person” that’s good. In fact, I believe there are two types of people – Yes-people and No-people. And, especially in business, you want to surround yourself with the “yeses” and avoid the “nos”.

A No-person isn’t just someone who doesn’t say yes. They’re afraid of new ideas and find ways to ridicule them and undermine them. They come up with reason after reason for not doing things – “we tried that already”, “it will never work”, “the client won’t buy it”. They’re threatened by the success and confidence of others. So they sap energy and undermine other peoples’ efforts.

On the other hand, Yes-people are full of energy and excitement – and enthusiastically open to new ideas. They are supportive and help build on them. And they listen, collaborate and help succeed. Teams full of Yes-people win – good luck if you’ve got a team full of No-people. Speaking about team success, a member of the British Royal Marines said, “It’s not about skills. It’s about attitude and the effect on the team. One wrong team player can sap all the energy from the group.”

So how do you be a Yes-person?

Do stuff. Say yes to doing things, trying things, helping with things. Read about new ideas and stay current. Keep up to date on culture, entertainment, science, politics. And get out there and be present – physically and mentally. This keeps your yes-muscle exercised.

Exchange “no, but…” with “yes, and…” Be open to ideas you haven’t had before or wouldn’t normally agree with – and phrase your comments and builds in a way that is additive and overcomes potential issues, vs. tossing out roadblocks and hand-grenades. Don’t let negative thoughts kill the seedlings of ideas before they’re allowed to germinate a bit. And if you have prior experience or knowledge that identifies watch-outs, use it as a way to avoid mistakes and difficulties.

Be the dumbest person in the room. One potential issue leading to “no-ism” is some people’s need to be the smartest. Instead, you should happily surround yourself with smarter people, and feel confident in your role as helping to facilitate other people’s greatness and success. And never worry about ownership or proprietariness of ideas – a Yes-person just wants good things to happen, regardless of credit.

Be solution-focused. Don’t spend much energy or time focused on what is WRONG. Instead, get people directed on what needs to happen to make it right. Too much time, especially in groups, is spent on grousing and carping about the problem and the blame. Energize and infuse your teams with optimism about what is possible.

Be a “first responder” for those needing help. Another exercise for your “yes-muscle” is helping others. Have an open door to people looking for help or advice, regardless of whether they are directly on your team. Join groups, cross-functional teams, and skunk-works projects that are developing innovations or providing organizational recommendations. Be viewed as someone who is involved and wants to participate.

Be a “Radiator”. Another simple segmentation of people is there are “Radiators” and “Drains”. You can imagine what a Drain does. So always be a Radiator – radiate energy, enthusiasm, and possibility. And smile, dammit!

Avoid the seduction of the No. It’s easy to fall into the “no” trap. To build on the carping and the pessimism. But don’t take the bait. Steer clear of the negativity, brush off the comments, and stay focused on building yeses.

So the next time you’re on a team project, focus on being a Yes-person – and do your best to contain the No-people. Better yet, avoid them altogether, if you can.

Love to hear stories about your No-people!

Up With People!

No matter what your business is, from making ads to making widgets, there’s one aspect in driving excellence that’s more important than anything else.  It’s not your technology or systems, not the quality of your product, not specific expertise you have. And it’s not having audacious goals, having a bold mission-statement, or a brilliant vision. It’s your focus on developing your internal talent that makes the biggest difference.

The number one role of leaders should be growing and developing new leaders. Period.  As Tom Peters says, it’s “people first, second, third, fourth”. Do you provide inspiration, education, opportunity and support for your employees? Which is why, in a recent Mercer What’s Working global survey of nearly 30,000 people in 17 countries, “being treated with respect” ranked as more important to employees than even salary or benefits.

Jim Collins says that good leadership is empowering employees to do what they’re good at in the service of something bigger than themselves. Do your employees feel they are a part of something? And do they see a role for themselves, beyond the specific output they are creating. Collins also says “the best leaders don’t worry about motivating people, they are careful to not de-motivate them.”  So how do you not de-motivate your most important resource?

Say the following mantra: “my job is making others better”
This means that a leader should worry not at all about getting credit for doing specific things; that he or she succeeds or fails on those on the team getting credit for doing them. This can be tricky for a confident and experienced leader with a healthy ego. Why? Because they have gotten to where they are by getting credit for things.  But a leader needs to let go of ownership and proprietariness and the need for having their name attached to accomplishments. It’s enough to know they led the team and individuals to success.

Engage with your team
Your team needs to know your are connected, in the loop, and not above-it-all. This is why listening is as important as speaking (maybe more important) – they need to feel heard, understood and respected. An approach I endorse comes from early Hewlett-Packard philosophy, but I got from Tom Peters, is the idea of MBWA – “management by wandering around”. Get out of your office and walk the halls amongst your team. It helps you, and it helps them.

Respect and empower
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what you want to do and let them surprise you with their results,” General Patton

Lots of leaders still lead via an out-dated command and control style that de-motivates and disrespects their employees. Your team doesn’t need you to do their work or tell them how to do it. And they want to know that you care about their thoughts and ideas. Thus, the most important thing you can demonstrate is that you don’t know everything – and want to know what they think.  In fact, “what do you think?” may be the most empowering and motivating thing you can say to your team. With the second most being “how can I help?”

Show appreciation
“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated”, William James

This may be obvious, but it’s the most often forgotten part of the equation. People are the most important part of any business – “lead people, not projects” is the best bit of management advice I’ve ever gotten. However, since it all comes down to delivering projects, accomplishing tasks, getting work done, we tend to forget that it’s our people who do it all. Take the time to acknowledge that, and it won’t be forgotten. According to Herb Kelleher, treating his employees like customers is the #1 secret to his success.

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