We Are All Connected

October 15th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

Overused phrase #535,285: “Our best asset is our people.”

We’ve all heard and/or used this phrase forever, but… do we actually behave as if it were true?

Lately, I’ve noticed an “us” vs. “them” tone creeping into some of my own professional reading from people who ought to know better – and it worries me. Two examples:

From the 9-27-10 issue of Fortune: “Secrets of an Undercover Boss” is an article in which the four CEOs that participated in CBS’ television show, “Undercover Boss,” share their observations after concealing their identities and spending some time doing non-managerial jobs inside their companies. The firms are all large professional concerns in the food and media/entertainment industries, and these are all educated, experienced executives.

To a person, all of them said that what surprised them was how hard their employees work: how hard their jobs are. This just knocked me out. In the context of business leadership, this has got to be one of the most fundamentally abhorrent things I’ve heard in some time.

“I thought it would be simple to do,” said one of the execs after driving a forklift around a warehouse. “What I learned is that it’s very hard to do. It was taking me forever… and I broke my pallet. My supervisor took me off the forklift.” You can read for yourself how well he did at a job that required him to experience actual weather.

And speaking of weather, one of the other CEOs remarked that, “When I was out… in 98° heat, I was struck by how hard these employees work.” Or a third, who thought she “knew the jobs and would be really good at them” before having ever actually done them. “They were a lot harder than I thought,” she says. “The amount of personal attention we give our [customers] blew me away.” So she is, to some extent, as disconnected from her customers’ experience as she is from the employees who create it?

And last but not least, the fourth: “I didn’t have an appreciation for how hard these guys work.”

I think one of them, though, put his finger on a critical factor underlying all of their stories: “the employees I met had incredibly different life experiences than I’ve had, and yet with every person I found amazing connections.”

In other words, the employees doing real work were “different than” which – in this context and by implication – I believe is code for “less than.” Less educated, less intelligent, less sophisticated… and therefore capable of performing tasks so simple that anyone could do them well (why, it’s SO easy, even a CEO can do it!)?  There is no logical connection between an individual’s economic circumstances and how hard he works or how much pride he takes in doing a good job.

I mean, the idea that an executive for some reason thought that she’d “be good at” any field job before she’d ever tried it shows not only a lack of awareness but a lack of respect for her workforce. Then again, this is also the individual who says, “It’s amazing how much more you can learn when you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

Amen, sister.

A 2009 professional profile tells us that this CEO “takes the occasional water thrill ride herself just to demonstrate to potential investors and VIPs how much fun it really is.” I might suggest that she spend some time cleaning and maintaining such a ride so that she gets a full sense of the experience.

From the 9-30-10 issue of the Wall Street Journal: I stopped to read a column because of a large photograph of a woman I thought I recognized. I did know her – the photo was of the woman who shines shoes at my neighborhood shoe repair shop.

What I did not know about her is that she came to the U.S. from Ecuador eight years ago to earn money to support her family. She earns $20/day plus tips. She rents a room in Queens and works six days a week. She talks to her family, but has no money to travel and has not seen her husband or two daughters since leaving Ecuador.

Here’s how this WSJ column began [hang with me here]: “If salary were the arbiter of excellence, the most excellent people on earth would be hedge-fund managers, CEOs and, perhaps movie and TV stars. While experience has proved that not universally to be the case, most of us buy into the notion, myself included. So it sometimes comes as a surprise when we run across an individual barely scratching out a living whose drive and discipline and sense of excellence rivals that of those our culture celebrates with fat bonuses and fetes at charity galas.”

I am not certain who “most of us” would include but, again, we have the opinion (“myself included“) that compensation somehow equates to performing exceptionally well on the job. More money = a better job done.

This to me is hugely destructive, offensive and a whole lot of other things that a lady does not say in public. And as for fat bonuses and charity galas, does the Madoff and Kozlowski families’ ability to get and give away money equate to “excellence?” If any of us were going to resort to stupid stereotypes, in fact, wouldn’t it be the other way around? That the “regular joe” works harder than the ivory tower-encased senior executive? I guess the answer would be no… if the question was being asked of some senior executives.

We decry the fall of the American worker, and yet these are the true underlying opinions some business leaders and opinion-makers have? That “real people” are not as good, not as capable, not as useful, not as… worthy? Even when these leaders are talking about their own employees?

Go back to what we were all taught about true leadership and respect from Tom Peters and others. Be conscious of your thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, by the way, just think about what’s truly in your best interest. Most of us will get to the same place.

I am a contributor to the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENG Blend. A version of this post was originally published HERE on the MENG site.

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

dov-charney-stephanie-fierman1.jpgI’ve written at least one post on corporate blogging before, but I gave them a little more thought this week.

This was because I ran a break-out group at this week’s CMO Club summit on PR 2.0, which I would loosely define as the new practices, policies and opportunities available to individuals and companies based on the digital innovations we all fondly call Web 2.0.

So I created a hand-out, which included such items such as how to track blogs, monitor Twitter tweets, figure out when to social(ly) network and so on.

One of the more active conversations focused on the topic of corporate blogs – notably, when should a company consider creating one? My top rules are that a corporation might consider a corporate blog when:

1. Two-way, honest conversations between senior management and both employees as well as consumers are already part of the company culture (think Sun and Stonyfield Farm)

2. Roles and responsibilities for the blog are clear and there is genuine commitment to (a) constant maintenance and (b) responding immediately (or at least promptly) to a problem

3. The company is prepared – both short-term and long-term – for what Kathy Sierra calls “the physics of passion.”

[NOTE: The famous corporate blogger Robert Scoble delivers the corporate blog manifesto here]

I guess I neglected what should be Rule #4: Your CEO isn’t a looney tune or, at minimum, far to colorful for public consumption.

Case in point: Dov Charney, Founder and CEO of American Apparel. Today’s WSJ includes an article on how American Apparel’s CFO has resigned after Charney called him “a complete loser” while sitting for a WSJ interview in March. Now that’s a bad performance appraisal!

In the past, Charney has gotten into hot water for engaging in completely inappropriate behavior during magazine interviews, having inappropriate (there’s that word again) encounters with company employee, hiring models from local strip bars, having scantily-clad employees serve him meals (at home), running around the office in his underwear and referring to women in ways that even he says he wouldn’t use with his mother.  His claim to fame (that, in my opinion, unfortunately outshines his philanthropy and US manufacturing-centric ethos) is that he’s been sued for sexual harassment more times than Joe Francis.

The photo is from an American Apparel “Apres Ski” advertisement. That’s Dov on the left.

It remains to be seen how he does once several quarters as a public company sinks in. In the meantime: no corporate blogs, please!

Without Snow Globe Innovations, Christmas Décor Will Be Flat

Adweek Not A Weekly Anymore

A New Ad Agency – Eager For Press – Blunders Fundamentally
There is a new agency in New York called Womankind that is promoting itself as a new idea: advertising created by women, for women. It’s not new, of course (paging Mary Lou Quinlan), but it’s getting its 15 minutes. And what does it do, to show that it is serious about “harness[ing] the power of female ad and marketing executives” to make difference? It chooses a man to be interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

This made me want to slap my own forehead. Hard. There is nothing in the universe that would have kept me from putting a woman up for that interview. If all the female ad executives in the world were wiped out by some advertising plague, I’d have media-trained a homeless woman. Or used a female sock puppet. Or put a dress on a rock.

I would have to think twice about giving business to a shop who, in my opinion, just displayed such colossally poor (and easy to correct) judgment right out of the box! Not kidding.

Clinton Library To Get More Green

Sak’s Wealthy Clients Help It Buck The Trend
“The higher-end luxury price points have not seen a slowdown and we feel quite good about that consumer’s buying power at this point,” Saks Chief Executive Stephen Sadove said on Tuesday.

This is one of several interesting articles spawned by Saks’ prediction of increased sales in the 3Q and a prediction of better sales in 4Q06 vs. 4Q05. The key observation overall appears to be that the haves are getting more and the have-nots are slipping down, while the middle is getting squeezed.

High-end luxury retailers, targeting the truly affluent client (net worth of $1M-$10M) are still performing, as these are the customers immune to credit problems, housing woes and $3/gallon gas prices. But those in the middle who have been reaching up to “low end luxury” brands such as Coach for the last 5 years or so (consumers with annual incomes of $100,000 to $300,000) must now pull back and will shop at Wal-Mart instead – shopping closer to their needs than their wants.


Town Considers Criminalizing Online Harrassment After 13 Year Old Commits Suicide
A terrible, sad story about “Internet shaming” and the death of a 13 year old girl. Where are we going re. regulation on the Web? What responsibility, if any, do we believe that ISPs, social networks and other involved parties must take?

Bob Garfield’s Campaign Against Comcast Continues
“For people with anger issues, the internet is a cathartic godsend and/or lethal weapon.” “… all he needs to have, basically, is fingers and rage.”

Garfield’s ongoing campaign is funny to read, ha ha, and we all feel good about it when we agree with the attacker’s point of view. Then it happens to you personally, or your brand. What do we do?



Caption: Sharing a love for upscale accessories, mega-mom Angelina Jolie and daughter Zahara, 2, step out in matching mommy-and-me Valentino “Histoire” handbags during a trip to a New York City park. [PEOPLE MAGAZINE]

Naturally, because my first post on my first blog was about Neil Howe’s and William Strauss’ predictions of kids in the future returning to a more wholesome, positive-values, altruistic place in the world, I’ve found nothing but amusing individual cases to the contrary ever since.

And while I suppose that no one would expect celebrity kids to fit into this trend necessarily, starting with those who are literally pre-verbal is over the top. For most.