When a White House policy is broad enough to affect both computer programmers and NBA players, it’s a remarkable decision. Yet that’s the impact of the executive order (EO), nicknamed the "Muslim Ban," that bars citizens from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States. The order’s Constitutional legality will be decided by the courts, but what won’t be decided, in the short term at least, is the impact that the EO has on how and whom American businesses hire.
As reported in Sports Illustrated, two Sudanese NBA players have been advised to remain in the country, and similar advice is being given to foreign nationals who hold any type of employment visa. Even those with dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen and a Western country have cause to worry. That’s because the EO is imprecise enough in its directives to give customs and border officials broad discretion – on a case-by-case basis – in determining what to do.
Businesses have all faced a similar situation: should they pursue profit exclusively or should they risk reducing it by spending money to minimize or eliminate their products’ and services’ harmful effects?
It’s a scenario that has played out for decades. Union Carbide’s gas leak, which was blamed on lax maintenance, killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Love Canal affected the health of hundreds of families decades after Hooker Chemical stopped using it as a dumping site. And, in this century, ten thousand homes were affected by airborne lead related to battery recycling at an Exide plant in Los Angeles.
Ignorance is Not BlissIt could be argued, of course, that industry managers at Bhopal and Love Canal weren’t aware of the consequences (or the remedies to prevent them). But the same can’t be said about the far more recent events in Los Angeles. The film Erin Brockovichmade sure of that.
Yet even in the 1940s (Love Canal) and certainly by the 1960s (Bhopal), industrial scientists and engineers understood the potential for harm, and their corporate bosses were surely informed. Yet the costs of mitigation would have eaten into profits, and the executives were so far away from the affected areas that the situation was – probably – out of sight, out of mind.
Propaganda is a despot’s favorite tool. Yet dictators no longer dictate what’s said. It’s guys like Paris Wade and Ben Goldmanwhose stories are designed to lure the partisan and gullible…and earn them tens of thousands of dollars a month in fees for the ads that appear on their site.
One could admire their entrepreneurship, but that would be like applauding Josef Goebbels for attracting large crowds. The results of their work could spell disaster – for politics, business, and society.
Altered StatesThe 2016 election was a clear demonstration of how news, both factual and fictive, could alter the opinion of the public. How truth could be obliterated. How lies could form the basis of crucial decisions.
For businesses, the spread of innuendo and rumor, which can happen in seconds and extend around the globe, can decimate a brand’s reputation, alter sales and, by extension, harm the livelihoods of thousands of employees.
When you click on a link and get dumped into 404 limbo, that’s not good. But when a link’s completely dead, that’s even worse.
Calling a number on a company’s website and reaching a retiree in Boise is unfortunate. Hearing “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service,” and your prospect or customer may suddenly be classified as “former.”
MINOR TO MAJOR
These are – relatively – little things. Mis-formulating metals in I-beams could render a structure unstable. Adding the wrong ingredient to fertilizer can kill off crops and decimate beehives. The wrong pharmaceutical dosage can lead to a coma or death. In isolation, even these are all little things.
Today, though, little things don’t have to combine to create something bigger. Single instances of error, even those that result in no damage, can become global news in an instant. And for brands and reputations, that’s a horrifying prospect.
I am a domino. It’s likely that you are, too. But whether you’re propped at the front of the line, in the middle, or way at the back will depend upon your current employment.
It is, as the pundits like to say, the price of progress: as technology advances, work changes and, often, that work goes away. It’s happened in manufacturing as robots replaced human workers (though offshoring didn’t help), and it’s moving on to white collar jobs where artificial intelligence is assuming chores that once were considered “safe for human assumption.”
FROM THIS TO THAT
Yet no change occurs in a vacuum. When factories close or make the switch to robotics, everyone else who relies on workers’ spending is affected – from bankers to bakers, from government to groceries. And the companies that sell and deliver goods to those businesses also feel the impact as each domino falls.
The videophone. The bar code. The computer mouse. The digital audio player. The personal digital assistant. Each was innovative. Each was ahead of its time. Each solved a problem that nobody had. So, if nobody could or even wanted to use those inventions, were they really innovative?
The videophone first appeared in the mid 1930s -- before there were even TVs – yet no one seemed to need it (and, besides, it was enormous). When the technology re-appeared at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, people viewed it as a Jetsons-like device of a rocketship future (and the cost was astronomical, as well). The technology was an improvement on audio-only telephony, but no one considered it vital.
When bar codes first turned up in the ’40s, the concept was accepted as useful… in theory. Yet without accompanying scanning capabilities and interpretative software, which wouldn’t come along for almost 25 years, the problem that bar codes might have solved proved insoluble.
In 1984, Apple put the mouse to use in a practical way, but it had been hiding in labs for a decade at least, trying to navigate a maze of different systems. Of course, by now, everyone assumes that Apple and Steve Jobs held a monopoly on innovative “stuff,” but the Newton personal digital assistant was a bust.
He drives a Tesla. She drives a Leaf. His is leased, hers was bought outright. He wanted to drive in the carpool lane (without the extra passenger). She wanted to contribute to cleaner air. He got the top-speed model to go zero to 60 in under three seconds. Hers can barely make it in ten.
Yet, she dry cleans her jeans, colors her hair with peroxide-based dye, and orders take-out food three times a week. He loves to cook every night with organic ingredients, drops his clothes off at a fluff-and-fold that uses earth-friendly detergent, and charges his car with a solar-panel system.
How would you sell to them? What would you add to the cars to make them more appealing to the buyers’ other sides? Or how would you integrate their driving tastes into their other activities?
This usually falls into the realm of personas – those invented personalities that marketers believe can help them pull in more customers. Yet, despite decades in marketing, I’ve never liked them very much. They’re like averaging averages, which is statistically unsound.
When did “how to win friends and influence people” mutate into “how to exclude people and persuade others to join you”? Was it when SCOTUS struck down the Defense of Marriage Act? Or was it on September 11th when people from sixty-two foreign nationswere among those who died. Maybe it was earlier when Joseph McCarthy raised the fear of communists among us; or when Gentleman’s Agreement highlighted anti-Semitism; or when Father Coughlin railed against Jews; or when earlier generations warned against the evils of Catholic Italian and Irish immigrants? It doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that the world has changed inexorably. Global trade, high-speed travel, and online communications that eliminate the barriers of distance and time have all brought countless benefits to business. Prices have been lowered, personal interactions increased, and transactions completed much faster than the blink of an eye.
A Different World
Countries that were once considered backward now produce goods for the world. They engage in financial deals that had been the sole domain of either Wall Street or London. And they enrich the English language with words of their own like algebra (from Arabic), khaki (from Hindi), bagel (from Yiddish), and tycoon (from Japanese).
Office politics is an unfortunate workplace reality. It’s a phenomenon that leads us to behave in ways that might not qualify as totally ethical, and it encourages certain co-workers to indulge their inner Faust.
I’m guilty of it to some degree. I calculate people’s likely responses to business proposals in advance, line up allies, and prepare responses and rebuttals for those who are sure to disagree. It’s self-preservational. But it’s directly related to accomplishing what I think is right for the company, regardless of whether it’s right for a particular colleague.
When I landed at a company whose foundational document began with “No politics,” I couldn’t help but be skeptical. Two years into my four-year tenure, the assertion was proven to be meaningless. The CEO himself began enlisting spies to check up on what managers were thinking. Any time someone from outside my group would just drop in to chat, my guard went up.
As difficult as these interpersonal dynamics can be, there’s a more insidious variety that does not involve the workings of the business. It’s the attempt to discover your political leanings outside the company.
Walmart may not have been the first company whose pricing policies forced suppliers to send jobs overseas, but it was, for years, the one with the highest public profile. Yet, like so many things involving marketplace dynamics, the issues that attracted the most attention had to do with the wages and benefits that Walmart offered employees. It’s a subject that makes good press but, ultimately, bad economics. By contrast, with the impact of offshoring, though, it’s almost insignificant.
By insisting, year after year, that American manufacturers meet ever-lower price targets, Walmart effected some worthwhile improvements. Domestic producers were forced to improve their processes in ways that increased efficiency, reduced overhead, and allowed them to turn out goods for less. Yet, after implementing every ISO 9000 protocol available to streamline operations, lower the cost of production, and still make a profit at the price Walmart was willing to pay, there came a point at which suppliers had no more ways to trim costs…except by sending jobs overseas.
Domestic factories then laid off their workers who, without jobs, went to Walmart and complained that, because they had no income, the prices were too high. Walmart then went to the next manufacturer, ultimately driving that company to offshore and sending more unemployed workers to Walmart in a self-perpetuating loop.
I suspended a sign from the ceiling in the main hallway of an agency I ran that announced, “The better directions you give us, the faster we get where you want us to go.” It was mutually inclusive – both clients and agency staff learned to be better at expressing themselves with absolute clarity.
The digital age has tossed that concept out the window.
While contemporary jargon is a sure sign that a language is alive and evolving, some things deserve early extinction. Or, at the very least, a limited range. Pronouncements such as “Gentlemen must wear jackets” or “No shirt, no shoes, no service” need a brand-related, linguistic equivalent, even when it’s inside the company.
Lots of actions can make a firm look stupid. Harassment litigation, wage discrimination, environmental damage, and other headline-worthy malfeasance. Yet, on a day-to-day basis, it’s what you say that defines who you are. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not.
From my earliest days in business, I had three role models: George Abbott, Edward Bernays and, despite having a rock ’n’ roll DJ for a father, Mozart. Abbott was in the midst of planning a revival of his Broadway show Pajama Game when he passed away in his sleep…at age 107. Bernays, the father of public relations, was still going to the office until death blocked the door…at age 103. Mozart, of course, died young but created, arguably, more timeless music before he turned 39 than his equally famous compeers.
I was early in my 20s then, working as a film editor and, when I was inducted into the editors’ union, I was the youngest full editor to be sworn in. That did not sit well with two groups – the people with years’ more experience in the cutting room and the producers who were reluctant to hire someone so young.
The Old Way – Mentoring
Yet some veterans had faith in me, took me under their proverbial wing and guided me along until I started designing graphics and animation, writing, producing, and directing, as well (ultimately leaving editing behind). In response, I emulated my mentors as the years went by and eagerly encouraged younger colleagues who had a special spark.
As years became decades, I moved from too-young-to-know-anything to no-longer-young-enough-to-know-everything. And the people I’d worked beside started mentioning they couldn’t get hired. A TV writer with fabulous credits in sitcoms couldn’t get sitcom gigs…despite having kids in the shows’ key demographic. An IT pro was shunned because, though he’d been programming for ages, his background was considered too old school (though he knew the latest programming languages). And a tech marketer reached the point where she couldn’t get full time positions, just consulting assignments.
Nothing prepared me for managing people more than parenthood. It surprised me…probably as much as it may surprise you. But if you’re not a parent…it doesn’t matter. The concepts are simple, and they’re easy to use – whether you’re dealing with stubborn co-workers, troublesome staff members or bosses who make despots seem docile.
Working from the top down, there are numerous volumes that tackle the problem of working for jerks (and there are probably more titles that deal with subordinates). Plus, there are guides that help you deal with the !#*@¡¶? idiots in the office or in the cubicle next to yours. All of them have something you’ll find useful, I’m sure (assuming you’re a reasonable person yourself). But there are some situations where you’ll just have to punt.
The Listening Lesson
For example, as a manager with a small and very heterogeneous staff, including
Early in my first career (in television), I worked with someone who excelled at telling me (and probably many others) that my work was “not right.” Yet, when I asked what was wrong, the person couldn’t tell me.
“What’s wrong with it,” I asked.
“It’s not what I expected.”
“But it’s exactly what was outlined in the brief and the storyboard.”
“But it’s not right.”
“In what way?”
“It came out different.”
“Not the same as I wanted.”
“What did you want?”
“Well, then, what would you change to make it what you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how will I know what to do to make it what you want?”
“That’s your job to figure out.”
[sigh] So I took a guess, which was wrong, and went through the same conversation again.
It was only when I resigned from the project that the work – in its original version – was accepted. The people who managed the budget were unwilling to start over, knowing they were likely to live through a replay of the same interaction.
Great leaders don’t know everything…but they can find those who do.
People ask me for advice – regularly – about a ridiculous number of things. I wonder if they realize they’re asking me because I readily admit that I couldn’t possibly know about so many subjects. That doesn’t stop me from answering, however. I just don’t answer with solutions. Coming up with the solution is their job.
The same is true in management. Anyone who’s ever led a group of dissimilar colleagues (and I’ve never come across a totally heterogeneous one) has to accept that they all have specific strengths and capabilities. What one person does really well may be something that the person at the next desk hates doing – even when they’re in, basically, the same job. So giving a solution to either of those people could rip their confidence out from under them, make them feel dependent (or resentful), and lower their motivation from high to low or from low to sub-atomic.
There is, at this point, an Alexandrian library’s worth of literature about how to lead, how to manage, how to motivate, handle conflict, leap obstacles and every other topic you can think of involving the workplace. Any workplace. If there’s a common thread, it’s that employees who feel valued and respected will consider their boss, manager, senior manager or CEO to be a good leader. People who are made to feel like interchangeable parts will describe their superiors using words that often refer to anatomical parts.
When Nixon opened China to American business, U.S. manufacturing was still a viable source of employment for a large swath of the middle class. When robots began replacing workers on assembly lines, it was an early sign of myopia. When corporations (which, as late as the 1990s, offered mentoring programs for high school and college students and often provided internships as a first step toward employment) stopped nurturing a domestic workforce, U.S. industry made it clear that profitability was number one. There was no consistent number two.
Now the problem is severe. The American middle class is the subject of countless political speeches by candidates and elected officials. Yet nothing’s ever done that offers real hope of restoring domestic employment. Meanwhile, in parallel, there is the rise of smart machines, the export of white collar jobs, and the elimination of job training/retraining programs for lack of funding (and the easy availability of Asian workers who can be brought into the States on H-1B visas, be hired as students, or be employed in situ in their home countries). This is, in a very real sense, a tax issue, as I’ll explain.
Smarter than a Rocket Scientist
Taken to a logical end, artificial intelligence has the potential to replace millions of workers in the U.S. and around the world, whether A.I. is employed to solve problems, run machinery, or create new machines that can program themselves. For all the good that IBM’s Watson can do in fields like medical research (to find effective treatments and cures for disease), national security (to detect threat patterns), and fraud detection (in financial services industries), it also implies that humans aren’t fast enough or objective enough to do that work. And a November 2015 story in the Harvard Business Review, while crowing about a new generation of robots that are safe enough to interact with people, points out with no sense of irony that the robots can learn from their human co-workers. That is not a source of comfort to the labor force.
There was a discussion on LinkedIn in June 2015 that asked about the use of Big Data in retailing. The comments focused on detecting real time trends, analyzing purchasing behavior, and using historical activity to gauge the viability of upcoming strategies. It was short-sighted. Big Data was being used to ensure consistent or incremental revenue and profitability, but it wasn’t being used to detect breakthrough opportunities that could radically improve a company’s fortunes.
Commenters ignored a critical Big Data capability that can reveal the unknowns reflected in a diagram called the Johari Window. The window, named for two psychologists named Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, was originally designed to define relationships between oneself and others, but it’s extremely appropriate for marketers, as well.
THE PROMISE OF THE UNKNOWN
The Johari Window has four quadrants –
In a hardware environment, everyone knows there’s a market for hammers and nails, but consumers may not recognize the hidden advantages of a hammer with a larger head that reduces the number of missed blows and bruised fingers. Likewise, a retailer may be blind to the fact that customers are using pliers to hold nails in place, missing the opportunity to stock, promote, and sell a device that’s designed for that task.
For marketers and the product developers who lean on marketing research, however, the last, i.e. Unknown, quadrant holds the greatest potential, and Big Data can exploit it.
Averages are horrible things. They smooth out both the highs and lows, make everything look like the middle, and tend to make it all seem homogeneous. That’s never the case. And it’s especially not the case when doing marketing.
Who’s Really Who
Today, one among many hot things is personas – biographies of people who don’t really exist.
The other latest-best-shiniest-thing is Big Data which, for reasons unknown, is always capitalized. But searching through an infinite number of variables to find patterns one wants to find is very (very) different than applying fuzzy logic to discover relationships you never considered. Yet whether that’s useful in marketing, rather than in fraud detection or medical research or cybersecurity, is uncertain.
Reality is relative. It changes with each individual. What appeals to you may leave another person cold. And what makes sense to the seller may make none to the buyer. Here's a real world example.
I took a business class flight in April 2015 from Los Angeles to Berlin, and the accommodations were pretty darn cushy (the airline only offered coach and business classes, so business was equivalent to first). Yet the home screen of the video monitor in front of each seat was a series of rotating beauty shots of the plane's exterior. That may have caused the airline's executives to burst with pride; yet, as a passenger, there was nothing more pointless, especially when I remembered that the airline's website (which is plastered all over the planes) makes a three-toed sloth look as fast as a Ferrari.
For me, it would have been far more interesting to know what amenities were available onboard or what the various seating options were (in case I might be flying in coach the next time). Since business class passengers turned left when boarding, I had no idea what coach seating looked like to the right or, on an international flight, what was included and what was optional.
Considering that the airline anticipated that an overnight flight would probably involve sleeping, it was ideal that the seat reclined completely to function as a bed. Yet they seemed to ignore that business class passengers might actually want to do business...and provided no WiFi...not even for a fee, which would probably have seemed inexcusable to many business class flyers. (On the German and Italian trains I took in first class, Internet access was both available and free.)
Remember Detroit. When the Motor City’s auto executives were called before Congress to testify about their companies’ sorry financial condition and their need for a federal bailout, two arrived by chartered jet. The CEO of Ford drove to the hearings...in a Ford Escape Hybrid.
The fliers were excoriated for their excess (though as part of an industry considered “too big to fail,” they were rescued). Ford didn’t ask for a dime. They were solvent throughout the worst downturn in decades.
Make Sure the Subtleties Are Obvious
Americans don’t often respond to subtlety, but they understood the implications of that situation. If the CEO put his personal trust in the products he made and the company was succeeding, it was a brand that consumers could rely on.
On the flip side are the companies who, metaphorically, make shoes that aren’t worn by their employees. For example, there’s the firm I worked with that developed monitoring software for mainframe computers. Their application could detect emerging problems and automatically trigger actions to correct them. Yet when, after the third system interruption in a single day, I called the head of the data center, he – sheepishly – admitted that, despite making the top-ranked monitoring tool in the industry, they didn’t use it themselves.
We don't make things irresistible in a vacuum. We follow the same advice that we give to our clients.