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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Incentive Program

When I joined my partner Karen in business in the late 1980's, there were few women principals in manufacturers rep firms like ours.  We were building our brand (although it wasn't necessarily called that then), and while this was the era of women wearing business suits with socks and gym shoes, that wasn't us.  Always a professional dress or suit, with heels - even at trade shows.  In fact, while our Office Manager, Linda, was soaking her feet at the end of a day having worn flat shoes around the trade show, she said she could always count on me to shove my bloody stumps back into my pumps to walk the trade show the next day.  (Nice mental picture.)  I can't wear them 14 hours a day anymore, but I still love heels.

Anyway.  We were the new kids on the block, we were working hard to acquire prime lines and were getting business with new accounts. In those days, the only possible explanation for women taking business from male competitors was that we were sleeping with our customers.  (I know, very Mad Men.)  I'm not sure how they thought we did it when the buyer was also a woman....

So over post-trade show drinks one night at the bar after we had won an industry award, a competitor/friend kind-of-jokingly said, "well, we all know how you two are getting all that business".  I'll admit that I had had a few cocktails and decided to address this issue head-on.  I said, "well, it's not random you know - we ARE in the incentive industry.  We have our customers on an incentive program".  I proceeded to outline a structure whereby Karen and I would trade various sexual favors in various locations based on the amount of business we were awarded.  IT WAS A JOKE, the guys I was talking to also knew that I was joking and had some very creative suggestions as to how we could improve the program.

Karen was at a different party the night before, and was not with me at the bar.  In the cab on the way to the show the next morning, I told Karen the story.  She looked to see if I was serious and then said, "You told them WHAT?!"  She was not amused.  I reminded her of our mantra, F___ 'em if they can't take a joke, and convinced her that this would be okay.  Karen eventually had some fun with that story over the years herself.

Of course, the comment was intended to acknowledge our accomplishments while minimizing them (I know, a little militant).  Rather than get defensive or embarrassed or insulted, this response completely diffused the situation and they moved on.  Business Girls can't have thin skins.

That was about 20 years ago and we don't see much of this old-school attitude anymore, and why should we? When is the last time you heard about a woman business leader or politician involved in a sex scandal?  As more men have mothers/daughters/wives/sisters in the workforce as co-workers and as bosses, we can all look forward to the end of even a hint of this old hold-over.