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The Middle Manager's Double-Bind

McKenzie's snake reef knot

One of the subtle but standout moments in the movie "Margin Call" occurs when a certain middle manager gets fired.

The manager had been working in-scope, "keeping the train running on time."And above and beyond, sounding an alarm about the equivalent of a bomb on the train tracks ahead.
 Middle management doesn't divert trains. The alert was ignored.

It was only when a relatively new recruit saw the bomb and sounded the alarm that leadership sat up and paid attention.

This is the double-bind of the middle manager - that they should not lead, ever:

* Logically, based on their decades of experience implementing initiative after initiative, they should be responsible for alerting the organization that a plan will likely fail.
 * Yet paradoxically, their job is to "magically" make staff execute on those impossible plans.

Every leader has the fantasy that they are Captain Piccard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and it is so fun for them when they can lift their hand and point their finger at the manager and utter those famous words: "Make it so."

A related double-bind has to do with staff - that they should keep people "under control":
 * Logically, if a manager's job is to obtain the most productivity out of a diverse staff that includes new recruits and more seasoned employees, they should be able to encourage employees to do things in unique, innovative ways that save time and money

* Yet paradoxically, the middle manager's job is to "magically" make these diverse people conform to rules that at times make no sense, which leads employees to disengage and lose morale, which in turn forces managers to put in place measures that detract from productivity (such as monitoring)
 Oddly, the very thing they are supposed to discourage (their staff coloring outside the established lines) sometimes ends up praised and rewarded when senior leaders become aware of it, as occurred in "Margin Call."

Also quite upsettingly, when a new-ish employee does think innovatively, he or she is lauded while the manager would have been chided for not sticking to the game plan.

All of this is terrible stuff, from a branding perspective.

It is the job of a brand to deliver the perception of premium value to a customer who passionately prefers it above all other choices.

The only way to do this is through insanely motivated employees. Not robots!

Insanely motivated employees cannot exist if we continue to cast the middle manager's role as though we were still living in factory times.

So for the sake of all our brands, it is time to get rid of three incorrect assumptions right now:
* The assumption that "real work" has to do with apportioning budgets, setting schedules, and that relationship work is "natural" and therefore "not real"
 * The assumption that managers inherently have a negative relationship with employees who don't naturally want to work, but must somehow be "incentivized," not to mention "monitored," "rewarded," and even "contained" (and who of course want the manager's job)
 * The assumption that the manager does not bring any inherent strategic value to the table, but must rather be like Silly Putty, reflecting blandly whatever priorities the current leader articulates

 Let's replace them with the following axioms:

* Relationship work is THE MOST IMPORTANT work there is, it is valuable, and it requires training and skill.

* The job of a manager is to correctly identify, bring forth, and harmonize the talents of every individual on the team, and to encourage them to do things more innovatively.

* The manager holds a vast repository of institutional knowledge in his or her brain that should be tapped at every opportunity by senior leadership, who more often than not are change agents that tend to change jobs and so have a superficial understanding of the culture in which they operate.

We are moving toward times when producing economic value and actually having values - as human beings, as people - are going to converge. Corporate social responsibility is rapidly becoming wedded to buying choices and therefore brand value.

How companies treat their employees is part of the way they make money. (For years now in marketing circles there has been talk about the "fifth P" - adding "people" to "product, price, promotion, and place.") What we must do now is engage in a conversation about the critical role of the middle manager, who brings their energies together.

While it is valid to examine corporate expectations of this role in the "new workplace," we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, let's take apart the double-bind and put it back together more logically. Leverage their vast experience to inform strategy. And more importantly, pay them for having that innate sixth sense about how best to draw out people's talent at work, and form individuals into teams that can effectively work together.

A true manager is not the one who keeps the trains running on time. Rather he or she is the one who brings flowers to the hospital bed of the train employee who broke their leg the other day. Trying to avoid hitting that bomb on the tracks by slamming the brakes down really hard.

Have a good day, and a good weekend everyone - and good luck!


Photo by Vivian Evans via Flickr.

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Why Brands Rely On The Placebo Effect

My mother was the nurse at a sleep-away camp in the Catskills.

So I went for free, which was great.

But I lived with kids who were totally rich. Their parents paid a ton of money for the fees. And so that part was not.

Do you want to know how I learned about branding?

One time a kid in my bunk got a "care" package from home. Like Veruka in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" she ripped it open.

She held up a pink sweatshirt with a weird overlapping squiggle on it and the word "Benetton" written on the front.

"Benetton?" I said, pronouncing it with the emphasis on the second syllable, "E."

"What's that?"

"It's BEN-etton," she gasped, laughing. Of course everyone else did too.

Hands stuffed into my pockets, humiliated, I skulked out to challenge myself to yet another game of tetherball.

What is it about brands that makes us feel safe, insulated, protected?

Over the weekend we went to Jamesway (like Wal-Mart) to pick up some stuff.

I said, "Ma, I need a sweatshirt."

She said "You can have any color as long as it's $5."

A sweatshirt is just a layer of warm cloth. But if you put the right logo on it you get to charge more because of the placebo effect.

That is, we think of the brand like real medicine to cure our troubles, but as often as not it's a sugar pill.

Have you ever heard the saying. "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM?"

I have a feeling that is true.

Purchasers tend to feel more comfortable dealing with names they know and trust.

In fact sometimes we buy things that we could get for free, like water, just because they are branded.

The job of a marketer is to use the brand to provide additional value, whether psychological or material.

At the same time, we should be honest enough to admit that a fair amount of the perception of value has to do with the way we leverage the placebo effect.

To be ethical, we should be more upfront about that, distinguishing between a real value-add and the promotion of magical thinking.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Time to Cut The (You Know)

Remember that show "Melrose Place?"

With little babies running around at the time, I didn't get what valuable workforce training Heather Locklear's character provided (hope she gets better soon - if you're following celebrity news and such.)

Whoever tossed flimsy excuses Heather's way was quickly reduced to shreds as she nailed through all the B.S. and got to the heart of the problem.

My maternal grandmother and grandfather (may they rest in peace) were like that. They used to pick up the phone simultaneously in separate rooms and then stay on. And listen intently. If you fed them a line they would say in unison, "Come on!"

My nuclear family and friends are like that too. Yesterday my daughter looked at my new scarf and started laughing: "You look like a stewardess."

I think of this today as I reflect on the subject of meetings and why they often bore the participants so badly.

It's because a lot of phony talk is flying around and nobody gets up to challenge it.

Growing up in the culturally very direct New York metropolitan area, coming from a family of straight shooters, educated by people with a Talmudic rational approach to seemingly everything, and personally just a blunt and direct person who dislikes wasting time and money intensely, I find myself playing the role of B.S.-cutter a fair amount.

It was harder to do that when budgets were more free-flowing. Now the approach is increasingly welcome.

Challenging economic times can definitely get you down. But if you look at them as an opportunity they can be inspiring.

Cut the mental bloat that clouds thinking like a cataract. You will see better and be happier too.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

For Every Brand a Freak ("Milton's Red Stapler")

Collectors edition red swingline stapler on clearance at officemax
"Collector's Edition Red Swingline Stapler" photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr

My sister prides herself on being professional and reserved.

But if you put her anywhere near a Staples or an Office Depot, better stand back. As soon as she sees those two-toned binders with the endless organizer flap pockets - she loses all sensibility.

Do you make the mistake of thinking that your product is boring?

If you do, why are you selling it?

You have to be completely excited about whatever widget you're plying, even if it means nothing to me.

Here is where office supply companies really miss the opportunity: We need a Target type approach to staplers, tape dispensers and folders. And everything related to it.

We need it for the office supply junkies like my sister, and me too - I remember leafing through the Quill catalogue VERY slowly as a kid - the same type of people who can spend hours chasing organization at The Container Store.

I also remember when it took me four months to get a new stapler at work (don't ask). Can't tell you how many times I thought about "Milton's" red stapler from "Office Space" - just had to have one. Had to!

Drucker said that companies exist to create customers. Marketers exist to bring them joy. And yes, possibly product addiction. Can't have one without the other.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!


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Adding Value vs. Looking Busy

New York City
Image by kaysha via Flickr
When I graduated high school I moved to New York City to go to college.

I bid my parents a fond farewell as they dropped me off at the dorm. Dad idled the car as Mom turned around and handed me a $20 and said, "Good luck."

Looking at this it sounds harsh. But those were different times; in my family it was the tradition to make your own way in the world. Including the girls.

So it was with some pride that I took that $20 to the bank, then set off to find work with which to add money to it. After landing a few menial jobs I realized that office work paid about three times as much AND I didn't have to stand on my feet all day long.

Fast forward to the temporary jobs I held in those early college years. None of them were difficult, except that the computers seemed to keep changing - I went from the early Mac, to WordPerfect and its function keys, then Microsoft Word. That was fine; I could learn.

The boredom factor was simple too. There was no Internet but I could read, talk on the phone, do a crossword puzzle, or what have you to prevent my brains from frying.

What was more challenging for me was giving the impression of being busy when I was bored. Because inevitably the boss would stride by every now and again, and if you didn't look incredibly freaking busy all the time they would give you a glare.

It is hard to believe that it is nearly 25 years since I graduated from high school. But things haven't changed very much since then. We make the same mistake, confusing busy-ness for productivity. And they are not at all the same.

We probably have the technology right now to automate most of the jobs people do. And we also know that in a knowledge and/or relationship economy people have "spurts" of energy, and in between they require downtime so as to recharge and be more effective.

Just like exercise works best when you do interval training, alternating fast and slow, so does work. It's not only OK but probably more productive to work this way.

The question is how do we change our organizational structures to accommodate reality? The reality of how people work, and the reality of what the economy demands - because the days when we all had to stand behind machines for 12 hours a day, or farm from dawn till nighttime, are long since gone.

Mostly I think it is fear - that we will be seen as irrelevant if we are not killing ourselves every second. But if we can overcome that fear I think we will be a happier society. Spend more time together watching TV, or taking a walk outside, or just hanging out doing nothing. And the rest of the time achieving something financially meaningful.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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How To Turn A Brand Negative To Your Advantage (Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's)

English: Woman looking at Bach Flower remedies...
Image via Wikipedia
My mother's cellphone rang about ten times before she finally picked it up.

"What is it?" she spoke all dreamy-like into the phone. "I'm in Whole Foods."

I got it immediately. Whole Foods has that effect on me as well: Nobody is allowed to interrupt the trance.

Normally we're a lively set of Chatty Cathys. us two. But since she was in the equivalent of food synagogue I let her go fast.

"It's alright Ma," I said, laughing. "I'll call you later."

What is your favorite part of Whole Foods? For me there are almost too many to list:

* The delicious natural food bar and hot soups

* The good-smelling natural soaps they have stacked up by the deli

* The "core values" sign near the front of the store

* The fact that I know whatever I buy is going to taste good

* The way they manage to make plain old fruits and vegetables so appealing

But one of the things I love the most is not even inside the store: the "Whole Deal Value Guide."

Never have I seen a weekly sales flyer used so effectively as this little booklet printed on newsprint. Even Trader Joe's "Fearless Flyer" - which is pretty good - doesn't come close.

Here's the similarity: Both use the flier for brand reinforcement -

* Trader Joe's version shows us that they sell fun, unusual, interesting and delicious food, that's affordable. Nice!

* Whole Foods' version conveys that its food is not only healthy but, among other things, sustainable and ethically produced.

Here's where Whole Foods goes above and beyond:

In my opinion the #1 brand negative for this company is the perception of overpricing.

Especially in a bad economy people don't want to pay more than they have to for anything. And they are angry when they feel they are being cheated - could get the same product for a similar price.

Whole Foods could ignore this perception and simply say, in effect, "Too bad on you - our kind of customer is willing to pay more."

Instead, they actively attack the possible negative perception and use their flyer to:

* Show you how to save money when shopping at the store - pointing out sales and coupons.

* Teach you how to live a healthier lifestyle - providing healthy recipes so you can cook easily and well for yourself and your family.

The end result is the perception that Whole Foods is on a mission to change the way all Americans eat - not just the elite.

In effect, they use the flier to open up the brand community - and in the process win goodwill from those who don't necessarily want to spend $6 for a little-looking pouch of gluten-free granola.

The next time you recognize that someone has bad feedback for your brand, think strategically about whether you ignore it or leverage it into a positive branding/marketing tool - one that can amplify your reach without watering down your distinctive brand message.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!


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Why Govies Sometimes Act Like Zombies

Zombie activist

Thanks to Redbox we were enjoying family movie night and the show was a third of the way through.

In this scene the main characters have to go to the local government office and get some help.

Right away the first word out of the clerk's mouth is "No."

They peer over at her workstation. "Why not?" says one.

"Because it's not in the computer."

"But that makes no sense," says the other.

"I'm sorry, it's not in the computer."

The first one has to restrain the second one from lunging over the desk.

Later in the movie they have to go back to the same government office.

"Come back in three days," another clerk sitting in a basement office says.

"Why three days?"


Basically it's going to take three days.

I cannot count the number of movies I have seen where government workers are portrayed as mind-numbingly rule-driven brain-dead zombies.

The reaction of the normal person, played by the main character, is always the same: Utter frustration.

They had a special on CNBC the other night called "Customer Dis-Service" that talked about the phenomenon of - well, you guessed it - customer dissatisfaction with the state of customer service these days.

Someone in the show made the point that ironically, people have less money to spend than ever and yet when they go out they expect customer service to be almost perfect.

Reminds me of when we were in Florida and someone was ordering a deli sandwich at Publix. He was haranguing the woman putting the sandwich together (this is a cold cut hero for goodness' sake) to this kind of a tune:

"That's right, put the lettuce on just like that. Now the tomato. Add the cheese....I want it just the way I want it. You know I think you were born to do this job!"

I kid you not, this customer was completely serious. It was his moment to get that sub and by golly he was going to make the absolute most out of it.

Back to the government. Why do people think we govies are stupid? I have worked with a lot of government people over the course of my career - in fact I've spent most of it in public service - and I can tell you that my colleagues are no slouches.

Yet the stereotype persists.

Having completed many projects, involving lots of task forces and cross-office meetings in a variety of agencies over the years, I think I have a hypothesis as to why:

The expectation of the customer is that we will meet their individual needs, while government is set up to meet the needs of many and varying stakeholder groups simultaneously.

This creates an inherent conflict for the government employee.

Think about it: Government bureaucracy is a set of rules meant to be applied impartially to serve a vast, vast audience.

When we do things we are not like the handcrafted jewelry makers at

We are more like the hamburger makers at McDonald's.

When we make a decision we have to think about how it will play out over hundreds, thousands, even millions of subsequent reactions and interactions.

So what seems like a simple thing to the customer (the end user) can be a tremendously complicated thing to us.

And if the government employee takes matters into their own hands to provide superior customer service, what is the return on that investment for the public?

Certainly for the individual being served the return is a closer and more trusting relationship with the government, more willing compliance, and positive word-of-mouth.

But for others who may be shortchanged as a result of that interaction - because special customer service was not extended to them in particular - the actions of that individual could result in later cause for complaint.

Or, perhaps the employee who was motivated to "think different" tried to help the citizen, but along the way misstated a fact or forgot about a rule and that action was later cited as precedent for uneven compliance.

I was impressed by someone in a meeting the other day who responded to a suggestion that sounded innovative.

The person said, "I like that idea, but just keep in mind the consequences if that were to play out." And went on to list the various possibilities.

What is missing from the conversation about why govies sometimes act rigid, or like they don't care, is a broader contextual picture of the unique demands of the environment in which we find ourselves.

Actually most people do give a damn. The issue is, how do you equip them to effectively handle situations where the cut-and-dried approach just isn't going to cut it?

It's something to think about, but I liked the approach of that one employee. Who said, in effect, I'm not closing innovation down, but let's think about the risks ahead and navigate them effectively.

Hope you're enjoying the holiday weekend everyone; have a good one; and good luck!

Photo by Paradigm via Flickr
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