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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not Marriage Advice (a non-business-related post)

Our first-born son gets married next week (12-13-14).  While I don't think anyone is qualified to give marriage advice, there are some observations that those married for many years have made that can be helpful.  (And there's no danger that my son will regard this as unsolicited advice since he never reads my blog....).  Readers, please feel free to add your own observations through the comments!

Why make your own mistakes if you can learn from other's cautionary tales?  These tips are offered by those who have been married over 25 years and still appear to like each other!:
  • Go ahead and go to bed angry.  Most do not subscribe to the never-go-to-bed-angry theory. Arguing late into the night when you're both tired and annoyed does not provide a good outcome.  Sleep on it, hit it fresh the next day when you've both had time to calm down. Better yet, schedule a time to discuss the subject when you are free from distractions.
  • Be as nice to each other as you are to your friends.  When our kids were little, we noticed that they often saved their worst behavior for us.  Babysitters and Grandparents would report that they were polite and played well together; it was like someone switched children in the car on the way home.  Before you neglect to say "please" and "thank you" to a spouse, think about how you would speak to one of your friends.  It's okay to be on your best behavior at home.
  • Honesty is overrated.  Your spouse doesn't need to know every thought in your head.  Before you over-share or give an honest response to a no-win question, think about whether it will help or hurt the relationship.  (Example, "does this dress make my butt look big?"....)
  • Learn to fight constructively.  Many studies have found that couples who fight well have happier marriages. There are healthy alternatives to screaming, guilt and the Silent Treatment.
  • Think before you speak.  Take a breath before you say something you can't take back.  You can't un-hear things.
  • Being/staying in love is a decision.  The heart wants what the heart wants; we can't control who we love:  many call bullshit on this.  Studies have shown that there are scientific reasons why we love who we love.  While there are no definitive answers as to whether being in love is a decision rather than a compulsion, we can certainly choose to behave lovingly toward our spouse.  Choose to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
  • You can't change anyone.  The same things that piss you off while you're dating will piss you off 30 years later.  Make sure these things are not deal breakers.
Marriage is not for amateurs.  People often debate whether marriage is work, whether marriage shouldn't feel like work and what makes a marriage work or not work.  There does not appear to be a magic bullet. Every year will not be a great year - the secret seems to be in knowing how to course-correct or how long to wait for things get better. One of my favorite quotes about perseverance is, "Winners never quit and quitters never win...but those who never win AND never quit are idiots".  Even those who are amicably divorced describe it as the worst thing they ever experienced.  How do you decide whether you should stick with it?  The truth is that there are some couples that really shouldn't stay married. Above all, it's abundantly clear that no one can know what's going on in anyone else's there's no way to judge, even if you're so inclined.

I believe that our son and his fiancĂ© are well-suited to each other and wish them a lifetime of happiness - even while knowing that every moment will not be bliss.  In that case, I wish them a version of serenity:  patience to accept the things that they'll find out they cannot change about each other, courage to change what they can change in their own behavior or situation and wisdom to always give each other the benefit of the doubt - and to know that their families love them very much and are here to support them (emotionally, not financially.  Let's not get crazy.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

More Advantages to being in your 50's

I'm just kidding, there's absolutely NO advantage to being in your 50's (well, I guess if you count being happy that you're not yet in your 60's....maybe).

The reality is that I AM in my 50's, as are many of my friends.  I am noticing a trend and some of us are actually having more fun than ever:

  • The Manufacturing Company Owner who sold the company, sort-of still works on commission, but on her own schedule and is basically retired.  She doesn't want to "do" anything - is happy to keep the house, visit with friends and pursue hobbies.

  • The Charter School owner who has also sold the company, kept some real estate interests but is avidly involved in Spiritual pursuits, writing a book with her husband and a lot of other stuff I don't really understand - but she's enjoying life!

  • The Banker who spent 30+ years in Commercial Lending who can now work part-time as a VP for a much smaller bank, and has time to spend on non-profit boards to share some of what she's learned, take care of aging parents (not so much fun), and spend time with grandchildren (FUN!).

  • The ex-Automotive Company Employee who jumped out of the cubicle and into the massage/health/wellness business, trying a lot of different things until she decides on a clear direction.

  • And then there's me:  sold the promotional marketing company so I'm no longer calling on major corporations.  Now I can finally spent time writing (blog posts, social media posts, website copy, eNewsletters for myself and others, etc.).  I'm in a position to help small-medium-size businesses, take projects that I like, work with people that I like, and still get my "business challenge" fix serving on non-profit boards.

The common denominator is not just that we're old, that our kids are off the payroll or that we've got a lot of room in our homes for offices:  the key is MONEY.  You need to save your money while you're making it (or sell your company for a lot more than I did...or send your kids to Community College instead of expensive private schools...but I digress).  Only when you've got money in the bank or are willing to drastically simplify your lifestyle (or had the forethought to earn passive income from other investments) can you afford to do something that you love that may not pay as well.  If you are lucky enough to do something you love in your next career that DOES make a ton of money - bravo for you!

There's another phenomenon among 50-something women:  higher divorce rates.  As kids are grown and living elsewhere, women are re-examining their lives and in increasing numbers, shedding those guys that won't get off the couch (you know who you are!)  The divorce rate is also rising as the economy improves and people can afford divorce again (one more reason to save your money, perhaps in a secret bank account somewhere....)

I'm tired of the Reinvention word, but that's exactly what it is.  This is a time where we can look at our lives, evaluate what we have (or haven't) accomplished and set new goals while we still have productive years left.

Finally:  eat better and reduce stress where ever you can so that you don't have to spend all that money you saved on health care or nursing homes.  Have more fun!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Do you Speak "Corporate"?

True or False?:  Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.

SO False!  Words can hurt feelings, start wars, motivate and inspire - words can actually heal.  And, in the corporate world, words can either win or lose you business.

In many writing and communication classes in the academic world, we're told to write the way we would speak – to use simple words to clearly convey our message.  In the real business world, if we don’t use the expected jargon and buzz phrases, we may not win the bid or be awarded the project.  Words matter here on a financial level.

Here’s another one: If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance…baffle ‘em with bullshit.  This one is true.  Welcome to Bullshit 101.

Over 25 years as a supplier to major corporations has shown me that corporate clients insist on being baffled, and also spend a fair amount of energy baffling each other. The cynical side of me believes that if they can immediately decipher your message, they may feel that you don't grasp the scope of the project, or may not have the level of experience they require. 

For instance, the key to global growth is to efficiently operationalize client-centric solutions and monetize our assets.  Our brand trajectory is based on proven methodology holistically developed with a strong commitment to quality and world-class customer service.  When we're aligned with our core values we are positioned for exponential gains which will advance our market share and grow our business infrastructure.  By visualizing experiential opportunities for our customer base, we create initiatives that achieve synergy with the next generation of cross-platform innovations.  When management philosophy addresses mission-critical deliverables, we're able to diversify and capitalize our reputation.  The metrics will show that we can gain traction by incentivizing our sales organization to achieve viability and realize the seamless integration that will make our day-to-day operations robust and scalable.  Networking, crafting a clear brand identity and bringing a strong corporate culture to the table will take us to the next level, incorporating the necessary paradigm shift.  The bottom line is that, at the end of the day, we need to leverage our core competencies to think outside the box and reimagine our value proposition.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt (or help) me? I call bullshit. 

Words matter:  use yours responsibly!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

There Oughta be a Law

If you are a business owner and have not yet been sued, you may not be able to dodge that bullet forever.  A recent luncheon with other business owners quickly degenerated into lawsuit horror stories.  In that situation, it doesn't matter if you are in the still have to defend your position, and that means attorney fees.  Here are some things we have learned along the way:

  • start keeping good notes now, before you need them.  That means names/dates/situations in every employee file, documentation of all vendor contracts and partnership agreements.  Even when things are loose and you only have an email or hand-written note confirming the arrangement, keep a copy in a file somewhere you'll be able to find it later. Everything looks rosy in the beginning of an employee relationship or a business partnership - things can turn ugly quickly and you want to be the one with the documentation.
  • anyone can request almost any type of information, even if it has nothing to do with the dispute at hand. Keeping good records ensures that you'll be able to provide most anything without too much trouble.
  • just because you have a well-written contract doesn't ensure that the other party will uphold their end of the agreement. When they don't, you may have to sue to enforce the agreement.
  • never ever, ever never agree to use the American Arbitration Association in case of a dispute in a contract. Using AAA is expensive, time-consuming and at the end of it all you may hear the disturbing term "splitting the baby", which means you basically agree to split the amount owed.  (Like you need an arbitrator for that! Chances are you'll be the one in the right - better to sue and tell your story to the judge).
  • anyone can sue you for almost anything, even if it doesn't make any sense at all.  If they can find an attorney to take the case, you will have to hire one to defend your position.
  • all attorneys are not created equal. Get recommendations from people who have been in similar situations, and make sure the attorney is experienced in your particular matter.
  • once you have an attorney, talk with them about ways to minimize your bill.  For example, you may be able to write out your story and provide it to them rather than taking 3 hours of meeting time to tell them the story. If you include complete documentation, they may be able to convert this into legalese, saving future deposition prep time.  The more detail you can provide, with dates, the better.
  • don't overspend on something that you can't win.  (and pretty much the only winners ARE the attorneys).  Get the best attorney you can afford, and then know that there may be a point where settling makes more financial sense than seeing a lawsuit through to it's conclusion.  It help if you can do this in conjunction with the last point:
Last, but most importantly:
  • don't let your emotions get the best of you. You will be ANGRY.  Have your temporary pity party (why are they doing this to me...they're lying...they're requesting materials that have no bearing on this issue...etc.), indulge your fantasies about various ways to kill the source of your anger - and then take emotion out of the equation, start getting your notes together and listen to your attorney.
This hasn't been a very amusing post...why? Because lawsuits aren't funny! If you find yourself in this position, don't be tempted to learn these (and other) lessons the hard way. Talk to as many people as you can to get advice on how to survive a lawsuit with your sanity intact.  Good luck!

Monday, August 4, 2014

It's Hard out there for a PIMP

My most favorite memories from the incentive world are from when it was new and fresh...and I worked for someone else. I was internal customer service at the time and at trade shows, had no responsibility for customers or suppliers.  The Incentive trade shows were huge in the 80's and so it was easy to get lost.

I joined Watrous Associates in March of 1979 and went to my first Incentive show in New York City in May of 1979.  We were staying at The Plaza - just a little intimidating.  An Egg McMuffin (okay, Eggs Benedict) at the Palm Court was $12 - in 1979!   It was my first trip to NY, my first time traveling for business and the first time meeting customers in person that I had only spoken with over the phone.

The woman who hired me was a master of first impressions.  (I was a Behavioral Psych major, recently graduated, and felt fairly confident that I could read people.  Not so much.)  We'll call her Crazy Nancy.  She's unfortunately deceased now, so no need to disguise her identity.  Crazy Nancy was very blonde, very attractive and had an interesting wardrobe for trade shows. (She is another whole blog post of her own.) She literally had a Kimono-style wrap bathrobe cut off and hemmed to make it into a dress.  She greeted every male supplier with a big hug and a kiss, necessitating a bend that unwrapped the upper half of the "dress". (She was Leaning In when Sheryl Sandberg was in elementary school.)  I was in my conservative brown suit and quickly discerned that I would never be remembered at all if I walked the show with Nancy.  Off on my own I went.

My boss was older and quite conservative, most often described as a "gentleman".  His idea of a good time was walking back to The Plaza (times were great back then!) from the Coliseum along Central Park and stopping for ice cream at Rumplemeyer's.  We were back at the hotel by 6:00 p.m.  Mercifully, there was a party that I attended and met some customers.  Many were young guys, just a year or two older than me but to me, they seemed outrageously wild.  I was imagining drugs and orgies and God-knows-what in the Big City.  So when they invited me out to another club with them after the party, I declined and was back in the hotel by 10.

The second day I ran into these guys again, and again they told me where they would all be at around 10:00 that evening.  My other best invitation was to have a drink and watch TV with the 60+ year old sales woman co-worker (I don't think so).  So I imagined that it wouldn't be SO bad to meet those guys if I took a cab there and if it was awful, would jump in a cab to come home.  As it turns out, one of my better decisions.

These guys were huge drinkers, made multiple trips to the bathroom (I thought only girls went to the bathroom in groups), were never interested in food, and were mad fun.  By the second trade show, I had the system down.  As the lightweight drinker, I was the one most lucid during the evening and was therefore appointed Treasurer. I collected $20 from everyone; I paid the bar bill and when the money was gone, collected $20 more.  In the interest of full disclosure, I threw my $20's in as well - rarely drank more than 2 drinks in an evening, but I always had cab fare home!  There were usually only one or two other women around back then and we eventually learned to steer the group toward bars that at least had some popcorn or peanuts so we got something to eat.  (Skip ahead 30+ years later when few of us are still in the industry:  some have quit drinking, some have not but almost all are huge foodies now.  Life isn't always fair.)

They eventually decided on a name for the group:  PIMP  (Premium Incentive Marketing Professionals) - I think we had hats!  This group shared quite a lot of experiences over almost 20 years including many parties at famous NY and Chicago hotels, bars and landmarks, a sailboat trip around San Francisco Bay, carriage rides, celebrity sightings, foot races in the streets of NY and more than one incident involving "dropped trou". 

So guys, if you're reading this, know that I am forever grateful for the invitation at that first show and my memories as Treasurer of PIMP are some of my best.  Thank you!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Employees with Quirks

One of the hardest thing about running a small business is deciding when to hire, and then finding the right person.  I don't care how many personality inventories or other hiring tools you use, you just can't tell (well...I can't tell) how someone will work out until it's too late.  I'm leaving out the obvious, like employees who steal supplies or embezzle funds, who misrepresent their qualifications or experience or who take files to competitors with them when they leave.  These are tales of regular run-of-the-mill employees who are lurking everywhere.

The majority of our employees over the years have been outstanding (you know who you are and all of our customers know who you are!): qualified, professional, offered great ideas, were over-and-above reliable and took great care of our customers .  Then there were some others....

Am happy to say these are not all MY previous employees, but they are all true stories from business-owner friends:

-the female employee who was surfing porn at her desk - and then was surprised when she was let go. (This prompted the employer to add "No surfing porn" to the employee manual going forward...)

-the bookkeeper who should have tipped someone off when she used, um, unconventional bookkeeping terms. Employees were encouraged to take educational seminars once a year at the expense of the company.  In her 4th year of employment, the bookkeeper asked to take "Accounting for Non-bookkeepers".  (She was replaced shortly thereafter.)

-the employee who called in sick - and then posted photos of a trip to the amusement park that day on Facebook (Cliché but true, and apparently quite common!)

-the female warehouse employee who, when "flicked" with a towel by a male employee, threatened to sue for sexual harassment. The HR manager investigated, tried to work it out with both employees but the female insisted on going forward with a claim.  When the male employee was fired, the girl was crying and said she didn't mean for anything bad to happen to him.  (People aren't playing with sexual harassment today.)

-the employee who ran the mail through the postage meter and put the envelopes in a pile to mail. When it was pointed out that some of the envelopes did not have addresses on them, she acknowledged that she had noticed. When asked what she thought would happen when the letters were mailed with no address on them and that perhaps she might have told someone about this since obviously a mistake had been made, she just shrugged and said that it was not her job to address the envelopes, it was her job to affix the postage.  (Definition of a disengaged employee long before employee engagement was a thing.)

-the administrative assistant who gave her notice when she was expecting her first child. In the process of training her replacement, was nice Sybil while the boss was in the office and crazy Sybil when the boss was out. The final straw was when she had a screaming fit at her replacement in the middle of the office. When she was asked to leave earlier than the 4 weeks notice provided, called the boss, with her husband yelling in the background, who finally grabbed the phone to threaten the boss and then called the boss various assorted names.  Later, the employee asked for a letter of recommendation.  (You can't make this stuff up).

-the older salesperson who provided excellent references.  Once hired, didn't want to drive too far to visit clients, didn't want to set any appointments that required driving in rush hour and didn't want to do much work of any kind. (Note to potential employers: when you're calling business or employment references, it might be important to ask if they are related to the candidate.)

-the litigious employee who was planning to and secretly tape recorded conversations with the boss. When the lawsuit was filed, the employee provided edited tape recordings that left out all of the crazy ranting by the employee.  (Attorneys and Judges didn't fall for this either).

-the employee who was hired by a small firm after being with a major corporation for many years, only to find that there were no "people who do that" - HE was the person who would do _____ (insert any sort of actual work here). (Culture shock for a guy who thought executives at small companies just played golf with clients for a living).

If you are a business owner or manager, chances are good you have some fun employee stories.  Please share!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The No Good, Very Bad Spa Day

Because for almost 30 years we were in the incentive and motivational marketplace, we tried to practice that internally. When we secured big programs or achieved benchmarks, we celebrated as a team.  Some of these activities included:

-loading employees and their families onto a bus in St. Joseph for a "surprise" destination:  ESPN Zone in Chicago (just an hour and a half away from St. Joe). The bus trip, filled with coolers of beer and snacks, might have been a little more fun than the time spent at ESPN Zone - even for the kids!

-an annual "picnic" that ranged from beach parties to bowling tournaments to golf outings (as I recall, one rain-out day included playing Twister in the warehouse and setting up the food on the packing tables)

-sample sales, mini-trade shows and "Girl's Nights" where we invited female customers to join us for an evening of wine, cheese, chocolate and new incentive products

-Holiday parties involving Secret Santa and White Elephant gifts (there is a gaudy sunburst clock somewhere that is still probably making the rounds...)

In the very early years, all of our Design Incentives employees were women and we celebrated accordingly:  hot tub parties, shoe-shopping and the ever-present Spa Day. I'll admit that I'm in the minority:  I'm not a fan of the Spa Day and would never go there on my own. I do not enjoy strangers touching me.  Once I tell you my Massage story, you'll understand why.

Here we are in Chicago, celebrating a large contract. We are getting "pampered" and then heading to dinner. Some of us are getting manicure/pedicures, some are getting facials and a couple of us are getting massages.  I drew that short straw.  First:  I do not find laying on a table undressed except for a towel, about to be massaged by a large gentleman named Chuck to be relaxing.  Chuck then turns on what he perceives to be a relaxing soundtrack: the Rainforest. Not for me. When I hear rain gently cascading through the trees, I'm just thinking, "bad hair day".

So I'm on my stomach on the table trying desperately to un-clench all of my muscles. Chuck eventually turns me over on my back and works up from my ankles. When he gets to my, ah, chestal region, he asks, "may I move the towel?"  Thinking that he needs to adjust it in some manner, I say, "whatever". Chuck proceeds to fold the towel down to about my waist and continues massaging.  At this point, I'm wondering whether he's paying me for this...or I'm still expected to pay him.  Really not comfortable with all of this and DEFINITELY not relaxed, I tell Chuck I'm done already - "I'm good" - and my "treatment" is over.

While we're at dinner, we're all talking about our experience.  Everyone else is happy and relaxed - new nail polish, fresh faces with make-up applied, and me - reporting that they are on their own for the next spa day, count me out. They're all pressing to find out why I hate it so much.  I describe my experience and there is total silence - followed by clarifying questions:  "Um...where did he move the towel?   Then he massaged you where?" - followed by howling laughter.  Apparently mine was not the typical massage experience.  (Did you ever see the Friends episode where Joey is getting a suit altered and the tailor is "checking his package" while he measures the inseam...also not a typical experience. That's the story that Design Girls tell on the heels of my Massage story...)

A word to my friends who feel the necessity to "bond" at Spa Days:  I'll probably be busy that day...or I'll be opting for the mani/pedi.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hanging with the Big Boys

Once upon a time, my former company provided merchandise to various major corporations for promotional use.  This often included custom apparel and other merchandise branded with the company logos, and we sometimes had the opportunity to attend events and sell the merchandise on site.  This means "entertainment" time with our customers.  Whether you are male or female, you had better be able to keep up.

Las Vegas is a big meeting/conference destination so I've spent many more evenings in Vegas than I care to remember, with several different customer groups.  It sucks to work in Vegas because it's almost impossible to get from one place to another, very difficult to meet up with people because there's no real lobby or one bar where everyone hangs out - you have to make specific plans to meet.  This can require meeting at Clubs, including expensive bottle service and limos, paid for by the supplier.  Almost without exception, customers are way more fun with a few drinks in them than they are behind their desk - and they probably feel the same about suppliers.  Seasoned professionals like myself can usually manage the situation better than the younger employees that we bring with us to work trade-show booths or sell the merchandise.  More than one employee has held another's hair while she threw up, and then both showed up in sunglasses the next morning.  This usually impresses customers.  (Digression about Vegas:  I'm not a gambler, so instead, I go directly to a store in the Venetian called Shoooz, buy a pair of shoes and then pretend that's the money I lost gambling. Also best to share this type of information with your husband so that when you get home, he doesn't see the mail and wonder why you're getting thank-you notes from shoe stores in Las Vegas.... To be fair, Dave doesn't question thank-you notes from shoe stores at all anymore).

I have applied temporary tattoos to visitors at the Woodward Dream Cruise, sold shirts at drag races, demonstrated blenders at trade shows, packed lunches into coolers under the bleachers at the Brickyard 500, labeled trophies in hotel conference rooms, hung out in countless hotel bars, ate pizza and cleaned out mini-bars with customers in the wee hours - not very glamorous, but for the most part, almost always fun.

One memorable trip was to the Suburban Reunion in Austin, TX.  I was there with a a couple of guys from the brand team and a couple of other suppliers. These were big drinkers and the reality is that I'm a lightweight.  I can't drink that much and I find that it's a good practice to keep my wits about me, especially with customers, so here's how it worked:  As soon as we were situated at the bar (another supplier was getting this tab), I pulled the server aside, handed her $20, told her I'd be ordering vodka/cranberry and to please bring me vodka the first time, then cranberry juice and water on the rocks after that.  Hope my Chevy contact isn't reading this because I never told him what I did - he still thinks I matched them drink-for-drink.  The other supplier was passed out on the bouncer's stool at the end of the night - we had to carry him to the car.  The Chevy contact was barely able to walk under his own power (good thing I was the designated driver) and I got serious street cred for being able to "hang", get everyone back to the hotel safely AND show up bright-eyed and functional the next morning.

Business girls have to be resourceful.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sh*t happens...if you're lucky.

You've heard me mention my Posse before in these posts - a group of 9 women business owners (of which I just learned that I am the Sheriff!  Apparently the Sheriff's main responsibility is to run the Doodle Poll to plan the lunches...).  We've known each other since we first belonged to the Women President's Organization about 8 years ago, a small group of non-competing business owners that pay dues to the parent organization and follow a specific meeting format, serving as an informal Board of Directors or Advisory Council for each other.  A few years ago the 9 of us seceded from the group to form The Posse, and now meet for lunch every other month.  We still do 5-minute check-ins where we talk about what we're up to, but boy, how that conversation has changed!

When we first met, several of us were in our 40's, at peak performance in our companies and oh so serious about business.  What to do about HR issues, attorney referrals and lawsuit advice, how are we handling  insurance, advice for buying or selling a company.  Once we formed The Posse, we still shared business advice but also discussed issues with kids and divorce, Botox and injectables, vacation homes and trips.

Today, the oldest of us are in the back half of our 50's and many of us have sold our companies and are on to our next adventures.  For a couple of us, it's a new company and non-profit boards, for others, following a new direction in art or science, for another, a career break with lots of special interests.  No one is sitting still, but we're all intentionally simplifying our lives.  We're still interested in injectables and youth serums, but are now acutely aware of our health.  Exciting discussions of beach vacations and referrals for cosmetic surgery procedures quickly degenerated into discussions of the benefits of liver cleanses and colonics!

As we get older I'm struck by how we just become more of who we are.  The lovable whack-a-doodles (you know who you are) become even more whacky, the spiritual become even more spiritual - you get the idea (the bitchy are more experienced bitches, by the way; I'm okay with it).  Whether it's because of planetary shifts or phases of the moon or just the wisdom that comes with age, we're all a little more mellow.  Reluctant to judge, slower to anger, less likely to hold a grudge, quicker to laugh - certainly more tolerant.  One Posse Sister explained how dealing with a difficult business partner was a gift: the partner provided her with a "growth opportunity".  I've not evolved that far yet, but from now on, anytime someone pisses me off, I will pause to think of her and embrace my growth opportunity (or maybe just bitch about it because I'm THAT one).

We're all very different and that's what makes it great.  We don't need to understand everything to enjoy each other. And we don't need Red Hats to feel connected and a sense of belonging to a group.  I love my Posse and hope we're still meeting years from now to talk about the cliques in the retirement home or gossip about the gaudy casket that one of our relatives selected.  One of us has already decided to be the oldest living white woman:  she'll bury all of us.  Please make sure the wakes are tasteful but fun!  (Note from the Sheriff:  Don't bury me. I want a fun party with photos of when I was 30; cremate me and sprinkle my ashes over the nearest kids are also aware of this).

As a result of our lunchtime conversation today:  wishing you all clean livers, low metal counts and healthy enzymes in your blood and regular bowel movements!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Right Stuff

Today I digress back into the merchandise world.  Although most of my career was spent providing brand-name merchandise for incentive and promotional marketing campaigns, I did spend a fair amount of time selling promotional products.  That industry is particularly sensitive about their cost-effective advertising specialty or promotional products being referred to as "trinkets and trash" or "tchotchkes".  I'm reminded of this as I read a piece forwarded on Twitter.

A female conference attendee shared a photo on Instagram of the "swag" that was provided by Goldman-Sachs to this group of women engineers at a WE Code event held at Harvard.  She questioned whether the nail file and mirror provided to the engineer attendees signified "sexy feminism" or "gender stereotyping".

I'm not going to go all Feminista over this; it's probably neither one. When I was in this world, I sat in many meetings where high-level male corporate types brainstormed ideas about what audiences (of which they were not a member) might appreciate.  In fact, Buyers inserting their own preferences into the reward selection process was the #1 mistake that was most often repeated.  It's not limited to women:  50/60-year olds would presume what 20-something college interns would appreciate; 30-something managers would be selecting retirement gifts for employees, etc.

Here's my educated guess as to how it went down:  Someone at Goldman-Sachs said, "Hey, we're sponsoring this meeting of women engineer coders over at Harvard and they need something for the swag bag.  What should we do?"  Boss/co-worker/subordinate said, "The audience is women - they (or we?) use nail files & mirrors, order some of those with our logo on them".

I sincerely hope that a Promotional Products Distributor was not involved in this thought process - I trust that the industry has progressed beyond that.  An effective promotional product would have a purpose:  reinforce the services or product, tie in the conference messaging or at the very least, be appropriate to the venue (Something about Harvard, the geography, etc.).  A nail file and mirror does not relate to either the services of Goldman-Sachs or the purpose of the event - it ONLY relates to the gender of the attendee.  (Not saying that men don't use nail files or mirrors - just that you probably won't find Goldman-Sachs handing those out to male engineers at a coding conference).

It is very disconcerting that there are still articles on "marketing to women".  Yes, as a market sector, we have different concerns than men, but that doesn't mean they're all frivolous.  Painting a product pink does not magically make it appeal to women.  And that reminds me....

A few years ago I received a sample copy of a magazine that was geared toward working women.  It would contain articles that concern managing home and work, provide advice about office politics, some entrepreneurial advice, etc.  The title of the magazine was, "Pink".  I couldn't write the editor fast enough.  Yes, I would read the magazine and Yes, I was the perfect target customer for the magazine, but why on earth would you call it "Pink" - let's just take about a 50-year step backward.  They published my letter in the next issue with a carefully crafted response as to why they chose that name for the magazine: almost tongue-in-cheek about the stereotype.  That magazine is no longer in existence, by the way.

Even though I no longer sell merchandise and have no horse in this race, PLEASE, if you are a buyer of such items, give it a little thought.  Maybe ask someone that is in the age/gender/economic group you're targeting and take an official or informal poll.

It's very likely that many of the women attending the conference will use the nail file and mirror. The point is that Goldman-Sachs missed an opportunity to demonstrate that they understood more about this audience than their gender.

To companies large and small:  EVERYTHING you do is representative of your brand.  As Goldman-Sachs is finding as this photo makes its way through the blogosphere, even something as insignificant as a "trinket" can have a big impact.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Learning the Hard Way

When you do something for 25 years or so, you think you know some stuff.  Some lessons just have to be learned the hard way.

Some time ago I was asked to name the highest and lowest points of my time in the incentive world.  I had a great career in incentive marketing so it's tough for me to name a single event, but the high point has to be the friends I've made over the years:  employees, competitors, counterparts and customers.  I remain in touch with people I haven't worked with in 20 years, and still feel very connected (could be a Facebook or LinkedIn delusion, but I digress...).

Of course, I can also name a few low points, but the lowest of the low is this particular experience that resulted in an 18-month almost-litigation and some very bad feelings all around.  What had happened was....

Customer "X" decided to combine two programs that shared no elements:  different logos (for imprinted merchandise), separate sales channels, separate customer audiences, separate internal teams.  I could not understand why they expected to reduce program costs under these circumstances.  (Note for future:  if your customer has unrealistic expectations and you can't figure out why, consider that your competitors are promising results that have no chance of occurring.)

We had successfully managed the smaller program for over 7 years.  My first critical error was imagining that a proven track record would count for anything in a bid situation.  My second error was in proposing what I believed the customer needed vs. what they asked for, and honestly described the results they could expect.  The third error was in underestimating the value of outright bullshit and a full-blown fake dog-and-pony show in a corporate bid situation (this is the bitter part...).   The fourth critical error was not fully grasping the politics in play and the strong high-level Sugar Daddy that was supporting the other incumbent.

Long story short, we did not get the program (totally my responsibility - that's not the worst part) and made the really bad decision to partner with the incumbent of the other half of the business that was being combined.  Lots of stuff that I can't talk about here, but suffice to say that combining the processes and cultures of our two organizations proved to be very challenging (big understatement).  Word of caution:  even if you have a fair agreement that has been drafted and reviewed by both side's attorneys...nothing can guarantee that both parties will actually fulfill their end of the agreement. Oops. Work stopped, customer disappointed, partnership over, jobs lost, attorney fees all around.

Three expensive lessons were learned:  First:  I made a decision out of fear instead of according to a business plan, so rather than suck it up right then and lay off people, close an office and move on, I grasped at straws.  My intention to keep people employed just put them through a year of hell before they lost their jobs anyway.  I'm so sorry for that.

The second lesson is true of life as well as "just business":  you can't do a good deal with bad people.  I had a gut feeling that I ignored.  A very wise employee put it this way, "lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas".

Third:  Never, ever, ever (don't ever) agree to arbitration as a remedy in a contract - especially through the American Arbitration Association (AAA).  It's expensive, it takes forever and I understand that "splitting the baby" (charming phrase), or splitting the amount owed is a favorite practice.  (Why on Earth would you want to drag this stuff out for many months only to split the difference?  You need an arbitrator to come up with that solution?!)  Thankfully, we didn't get that far. In hindsight, I would have preferred to just sue and tell my story to a judge.

One more thing:  people are fond of saying, "it's not personal, it's just business".  That is a load. I'm not suggesting that companies never change suppliers or that sometimes it's not the right fit or that sometimes you're going to disappoint people or that sometimes you have to lay off good people.  I'm just saying, be a little human about it. Business is based on relationships, and relationships are personal.  It's all personal.  You don't have to be a jerk about it.

It sounds like I'm still fired up by this but in fact, I let this go years ago - it's not one of my proudest moments but am sharing this as a cautionary tale.  (At the time, my Posse Sisters suggested meditation; I find that I can go into a very relaxing trance walking through the aisles at DSW, thank you very much.)  I can't say I'm exactly grateful for the lessons, but these are mistakes I will never repeat.