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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mildly Militant

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has recently written a book entitled, Lean In, which is generating some discussion.  Sheryl suggests that women may be holding themselves back from career advancement and I don't disagree. She is also hoping to reboot the women's movement with this book and the Lean In Foundation.  (Great info here on navigating corporate politics, finding a mentor and other tips for young women entering the workforce).

Sometimes, women are too polite - we don't want to offend, we don't want to interrupt, we're happy to take our turn and above all, we go to extremes to avoid being called the dreaded B-word.

I wear the Bitch label as a badge of honor because I know what it means:  you have strong ideas and opinions, you're decisive and results-oriented.  (There's a difference between being a bitch and being bitchy - for the record, I'm guilty of both.)  Even if you don't interrupt, you make your point known and have the audacity to expect and insist that the people around you to do what they say they'll do.

Sheryl gives some great insights on negotiating corporate politics, which dovetails nicely with a another movement to increase the percentage of women on corporate boards.  This only makes sense since women represent 51% of the population, and women make 90% of the buying decisions for most households, so why wouldn't you want that point of view represented on your board?  We've come a long way but like many "good girls", we haven't gone all the way.

Women make great leaders - we can manage all kinds of personalities, we are more concerned about results than taking credit (sometimes to our detriment) and we're good at building consensus.  Imagine what we could accomplish if more women were in government!  Here in Michigan, our first female Secretary of State streamlined processes, initiated on-line renewals and registrations and significantly improved service. Regardless of your politics or personal feelings about Hillary - put her in the White House and that bitch will get some shit done!

I'm concerned that young women who have never experienced discrimination on the basis of gender do not fully appreciate the history.  Let's not even go back as far as the Vote or Title IX  - you could just watch an episode of Mad Men to get the idea.  The year that I graduated from high school, if a woman wanted to buy a car, she needed her husband or her father to co-sign, regardless of her employment situation or income.  I'm trying to imagine the incredulous look on my niece's face today if a creditor were to suggest that her father co-sign for her.  Young women today think that "feminism" is an antiquated term and they give no thought at all to inequalities based on gender - thankfully, they haven't experienced any and just aren't aware of what was true less than a generation ago.

The reality is that we have made very little progress.  The number of women in government and corporate C-level positions has not grown in the last 10 years.  Is this because we're taking the short-cut by starting our own companies, we're not interested in making the sacrifices required to reach the C-Suite or we're not confident enough to put our own hat in the ring?

On the other hand, this could be the normal rebellious backlash that comes with every generation.  Our mothers were frustrated stay-at-home Moms; we didn't like the look of that so we went into the workforce with a vengeance.  Our daughters may not like the look of THAT and so many daughters of baby boomers are college educated, but choose to stay home and raise a family.  (And by the way, that's exactly what the women's movement was about:  choices.)

If you get a chance, look up this documentary:  MissRepresentation (.org)  It's a surprisingly shocking look at how women of power and influence are still portrayed in the media. I hope that Sheryl Sandberg and many like her are successful in the quest to reignite attention to this issue - we cannot afford any more backsliding.

Girls today really can grow up to do anything they want; let's encourage them to be all that they aspire to be without censoring themselves.

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Wrong with this Picture? Part 2

This post may sound like I'm hating on automotive employees and truly, that is not the case.  (I am hating a little bit on auto executives....)  With only a few exceptions, the people I've worked with just want to do a good job and feel like they make a difference - to the company and to their customers.  Somehow, the corporate machine gets in the way and they get managed to death until they can't think outside of that culture anymore.  This is an example.

When we last left off, we saw automotive employees concentrating more on self-preservation than getting the job done efficiently.  In this post, we see them so intent on pleasing and impressing their superiors that they completely lose sight of the customer.

Pop Quiz on two real scenarios:

1) An auto parts manufacturer and their Distributors are hosting a customer appreciation event for the Installers who buy their parts. Who would you expect to see inside of the roped-off VIP area at this event?
a) the Installers
b) the Distributor principals who were hosting the event
c) head honchos from the parts manufacturer flown into town for the event

2) An auto company is taking a group of their top customers on an incentive trip.  Who would you expect to see in the first class section on the plane?
a) the customers who won the trip
b) executives from the company hosting the trip
c) executives from supplier companies exhibiting at the event

In my small business world, the correct answer to both is A) the customer.  In the automotive world, the answers to both were B and C.  I did not see any interaction at all between the "VIPs" and the customers.  Exactly how appreciated were those customers supposed to feel?

When I mentioned this to some of the people hosting the event, they looked at me sadly as if to say, "Poor misguided Barb, there you go again applying logic and real-world rules to the auto industry."  They would never hear the end of it if their boss didn't have a first class seat or wasn't met by a chauffeur, or wasn't otherwise treated like a VIP.

And by the way, if two auto execs are arriving within 20 minutes of each other at the airport, we cannot ask one of them to wait 20 minutes for the other - two cars and two drivers must be sent to meet these executives and take them to the same hotel.  Are the auto execs really that entitled and just don't get it, or could it be that no employee has ever dared to ask them to wait 20 minutes in the name of efficiency?

This is exactly the thought that crossed my mind when the 3 auto CEO's were sitting in front of Congress taking a beating for flying there separately in private jets while asking for loans.  Set aside the rationale that their time is valuable and better spent working on the plane than cooling their heels at DTW waiting for a commercial flight blah blah blah.  I'm guessing that someone on their staff knew this was a bad idea and didn't have the balls to suggest that the CEO think about the message that flying separately on corporate jets to this particular meeting would send.

A culture where your staff can't tell truth to power:  that is what's wrong with this picture.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What's Wrong with this Picture? Part 1

It's not going to sound like it from this post, but I love cars and am fascinated by the auto industry.  I've read almost every book written about the men who built the industry and they read like a real-life soap opera.  I love the drama that is Detroit.

I have never worked for a major corporation, but have worked with many companies in different industries as a supplier. There are some aspects that appear to be common to all major corporations, and others that are unique to the automotive industry.  Auto companies are well-known for being insular (no one from any other industry could possibly apply successful processes to the making and selling of cars - Alan Mulally is in the process of debunking this one) and bureaucratic (there is a definite hierarchy that dictates who may or may not talk directly to whom).  In larger corporations, people spend a great deal of time guessing what it is that their boss wants - for reasons unknown to me, it's not acceptable to ask. Better to go all the way down a particular road and then find out you need to start over in another direction.  (This is especially fun if you're a supplier that is not being paid for the time it takes to go on this road rally...)

One of my contacts, we'll call her Kathy, was new to the auto company.  Budget approval for a project was needed 3 levels up (from Mr. Important).  Kathy went over to Mr. Important's office, saw that his door was open, walked in and handed him the form for signature.  He looked at her kind of funny but signed the form.  When Kathy put the form back on her bosses desk, he said, "How did you get this approved so quickly?" She explained what she had done.  Her boss freaked - "no, no, no - here's the process:  You put the form in Admin #1's in-box, and she gives it to her boss.  Admin #1 puts it in Admin #2's in-box for her boss to look at, then Admin #2 gives it to Admin #3, who puts it in Mr. Important's in-box to sign, usually once a week.  The process can take 2-4 weeks, based on travel schedules."  (Seriously, you can't make this stuff up).  Kathy was never that efficient again.

Another marketing contact, we'll call him Sam, tells me that they are told not to make eye contact with his immediate boss (I thought he was kidding.  How on earth do you get anything done when you can't look at your boss?)  Sam tells a story of being in a meeting where several levels of bosses were making a presentation to the CEO (these are high-stress situations and the only times I saw men wear a jacket and tie).  There were probably 20 people (including support people like Sam) in the meeting.  The CEO asked a question about how they had come up with a particular statistic.  Sam knew the answer but didn't dare say anything.  I asked why he wouldn't speak up if he was confident about the figure.  Sam said that if he were to answer a question that his boss couldn't answer - in front of the CEO - that would be the end of his career at the company.

What?  Wouldn't that look like the boss had good people in his/her department?  Surely the CEO doesn't think each of these bosses did all of the support work on the presentation - why else are the other 19 people in the room?  Wouldn't it be better to answer the question than have the boss say s/he doesn't know and have to get back to the CEO?  No.  Sam said that would be the kiss of death.  That boss would shut him out of everything and make his life miserable until he left or was transferred - if he could even find another position in the company.

Aren't corporate politics fun?!  They don't tell you this stuff in all those business books that talk about efficiency and empowerment.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we'll talk about customer appreciation!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Politically Incorrect

As I've mentioned, there wasn't much emphasis on political correctness in the 80's - sexual harassment was a new term and people were still discovering boundaries.  Many companies didn't even have policies in place yet.

One of my customers was an automotive aftermarket manufacturer; the sales force that I called on were all male, some former professional athletes - it was the quintessential boys club.

This was a perfect account for my company and I was trying everything I knew to get in the door.  The guy who was in charge of the promotional merchandise catalog (we'll call him Harry) was not interested in seeing me, but I had managed some small projects for one of his co-workers and he put in a good word for me.  Harry absolutely hated the merchandise suggestions I made.  He would go through page by page saying, "hate it, done it, boring, stupid, no, no, no, hate it" get the idea.  He finally threw down my whole presentation binder and said, "find me the one thing that will make automotive mechanics say, "I've got to sell more of these parts so that I can get me one of those" - then I'll think about working with your company."

A challenge!

So I wracked my brain and thought about what on earth would make any guy sell a particular brand of auto parts to earn it.

I called Harry, told him I had found the item and set the appointment.  I walked into his office with a blow-up doll with their company logo drawn on the doll's posterior region.

Harry burst out laughing, said that anyone that had the balls to bring that into his office was fit to be one of their vendors.  He never used the inflatable doll in their catalog of course, but I hear that she was quite popular in the office (to the point where HR paid a visit to Marketing to confiscate it - all the guys escaped without consequences).

At the time, most of the marketing guys at this company were within 10 years of my age (over and under), and although it doesn't sound like it from this story, I was always professional, respected their time and always understood that if I did my job well, their sales would increase.  Never did one of those guys ever make a pass or an inappropriate remark - and it was great fun to work with them. Harry became a great client for many years because I was willing to push the boundaries and (thankfully), accurately read that prospect's personality.  That move with the wrong guy or in today's politically correct climate could have been disastrous.  (Let's consider this what-not-to-do in this decade.)

Sometimes taking a calculated risk when there's nothing to lose just works.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Business Lunch

In the early 80's I called on a major automotive company (which shall be nameless) that was headquartered in Highland Park, Michigan.  I was in promotional marketing, calling on automotive brand managers.  One in particular (we'll call him Mr. Man) was a good ol' Texan that would only set a meeting at 11:30.  I would arrive at his office and he would invariably be on the phone.  He would motion for me to sit down, and I patiently waited while he finished his conversation.  One in particular sticks in my mind and gives you a peek into his personality:  he was on the phone with his wife, who had brought home yet another stray animal - this time a dog who needed an operation of some sort.  Mr. Man asked how much was the operation and when she responded he said, "well, Darlin', let me ask you this - how much is a gun?".  (Oops, she hung up.  But I digress....)

Once off the phone he would say, "I'm starving, Doll.  Let's go to lunch and talk".  (I don't think men are encouraged to call women Doll today, but I'm quite sure he considered it a compliment).  He would then gather 8-9 of his best buddies on our way out the door, and off we would go to Joe Muer's restaurant in Detroit.  (This is what the boys like to call "paying your dues"....)  By magic, Mr. Man's glass of wine would be on the table when we arrived.  For all I know that table was perpetually set for 9 people and the poor unfortunate vendor who was going to pay the bill that day....

Mr. Man had a favorite waiter who took excellent care of him.  Appetizers and plates of food were brought, often without ordering - bottles of wine, etc. (people were still drinking at lunch in those days), and the bill was always presented to me.  Now, if you've ever used a credit card, you know that the name of the person paying the bill is ON the credit card.

I never got out of that restaurant for under $300 and always left at least a 20% tip.  Here's where that old-school older-male waiter screwed up:  He always thanked Mr. Man but never once said "thank you" to me or called me by name. (Guess he knew where his bread was buttered).   By writing off the 20-something girl paying the bill as inconsequential, he missed an opportunity to make ME feel like a "regular" and perhaps bring other customers in as well.  Instead, I NEVER would choose to go there without Mr. Man.

Karma took hold when the company relocated North and Joe Muer's closed after 50-some years as a Detroit institution, and this Doll was happy to see them go.  

(They've since re-opened in the RenCen downtown under new ownership).