Thursday, October 17, 2013

2 Secrets of Superior Leadership

Be Careful What You Wish For

It's just human nature. We think we know what we want - until we get it.

There's an old gag that newly wed husbands who don't want to get stuck doing dishes throughout their wedded lives do such a bad job the first few times that their wives never ask again. Why? Because, while the Missus may want the dishes done, she only wants them done a certain way.

So what about you and me and our stuff? We want it done, but HOW?

I was once hired to work in a place and the CEO was positively bursting at the seams with excitement, telling me how much the company needed new blood. "We need you like a drunk needs a bottle of wine," he said. 

He went on to say that they desperately needed to change the look of all their forthcoming products. I picked up on his enthusiasm and eagerly jumped into my first assignment - designing a cover for a new publication.

I felt pretty confident when I handed in my design. It was fresh, modern, new. 

Boy was I in for a surprise. It was utterly and completely rejected. I don't think there was one element in that cover that was not ripped to shreds.

"How could you come up with something like this?" the boss lambasted me.

"What do you mean?" I replied. "You said you wanted a completely new, modern look. I changed everything from the way you did it before - the color scheme, the typeface - "

"But we didn't want you to change THAT!" he shot back.

"If I change those things back, then it will look just like all your other stuff!" I replied.

The boss looked thoughtful for few moments.
"Well then maybe we have a distinctive look and we should stick with that."

Big gushing sound, as the air rushed out of my lungs.

"But…but…you said you wanted me to…" I stammered.

"Yeah, I know what I said, but THIS is what I want!"

And that, as they say, was that. The remainder of my time at that company was spent churning out duplicate after replica after copy of what had come before. And it wasn't my fault.

The boss thought he knew what he wanted. He thought he wanted to be new, exciting and different. But once he saw it on paper, it was just too radical a departure from what he'd done before. He couldn't bring himself to make the change that he'd said he wanted (and which might have actually been the right thing for his business).

It's something we're all guilty of at one time or another, and the damage can be considerable - ranging from a bruised ego to a crippled career. Open communication is crucial through all stages of a project, and between all levels of management. 

So Secret Number One is: Expectations ought to be clearly defined and managed. And make sure that you really know what you want before you ask for it.

Survival of the Loudest

Maybe you've seen this scenario as well. The Meeting from You Know Where. 

Production vs. Sales vs. Marketing vs. Creative vs. Accounting vs … I dunno - Maintenance? All giving their ideas and urgent input on the upcoming product launch.

"We need a unified 'message'" whines the new advertising intern.

"The new packaging doesn't pop enough," shout the marketing folks at the creative guy.

"This thing has to hit store shelves by Q2 or our budget forecasts will be in deep trouble," intones the CPA ominously.

"We need a final decision on that component design by Thursday or the factory won't ship product on time!" warns the production gal.

What's a boss to do? 

Sadly, it very often comes down to what I call Survival of the Loudest. The boss can't possibly keep track of all the piddling details of actually running the business. That's what underlings are for.

But how is a boss supposed to know which underling is most important; most valuable; most profitable; most competent? Those are tough, painful questions. And finding answers to them is hard work. It's much easier to just..LET THEM FIGHT IT OUT!

That's right! Welcome to the Hunger Games School of Management. Throw your staff in a room and let them duke it out. It's Evolution 101 - survival of the fittest. Whichever one is most aggressive is obviously the one who's most valuable to the company, and therefore the one who should be listened to!

The problem with this method (for those who need it pointed out) is that arrogance and sheer volume are not, after all, substitutes for experience, good sense and basic competence. 

And this brings us to Secret Number Two: It behooves those in positions of authority to remember that sometimes it's the quiet people - those who make the company work - who ought to be given serious input and credence when heavy decisions have to be made, and not the "me first" blowhards that hijack every meeting and every planning session. 

In fact the only time when they're not there taking center stage is when their latest brainstorm goes up in flames, and the boss bellows for the rest of us - the quiet ones - to come clean up the mess.

Danny Kay is a (very quiet) marketing and advertising consultant, designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. His work has appeared in chains like Costco, PC Richards, Target, Toys R Us, BJs, Sams Club and A&P. He has consulted for businesses and organizations of all sizes up to Fortune 500.  He can be reached through his website,, or at - If you're sure you know what you want - ;-)

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