- 16th April 2018
- Posted by: Manolis
A lot context changes occur between middle school and adult work. For most of us, especially the entrepreneur, work is not a compressed environment. Our presence in any given place, and our collaboration with various people, is largely voluntary. But there are bits that come back to test us, like flashbacks or ghosts, reminding us of the social system and hierarchy of secondary school.
I was bullied, right up until high school. That’s a hard thing to say. I spent some years being ashamed of it, even after I figured out what I needed to do and put a stop to it. I spent many more years reacting to it, drawing boundaries that were excessive, and questioning my internal resources for just about any job. Now I use it to help me understand business and the market. I don’t mean to imply that bullies were doing me a favor. But all of us discover, fairly quickly in either a corporate job or the open market, that there are grown-up bullies. Leaving school and leaving home doesn’t change that.
In fact, business leaders must acquire the internal resources and essential systems for dealing with a wider range of bullying at an adult level of sophistication and practice. If I had to go back and advise the kid who would one day become the owner, leader, and adviser to businesses and nonprofits, I would do it with a view of where we end up. Alternating between the kid context and the business one, this is what I would say:
Kid, Study Karate. It’s a cliche and, yes, it seems the most obvious thing. But it’s not about building confidence, or even fighting. It’s a matter of acquiring a set of skills that YOU have chosen that enable an effective response to intolerable or inequitable situations. Karate comes from the little island of Okinawa, and was specifically developed to resist the Japanese invasion. Peasants turned their only assets into tools–a piece of a mill became a tonfa (still used by some police forces today), and karate itself was literally the “empty hand”. We keep doing that in our work life later–developing tools to establish and protect a brand, a share of the market, and ourselves as leaders. Knowing that preserving your identity IS a skill, that it can be learned and even mastered, is important. Even more so is knowing that you will then know what to do in those situations–you will be prepared without having to think too much about it.
Premium fashion brands have declined about as fast as brick and mortar bookstores did a few years ago and as JC Penney has more recently. The exclusivity of brands like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger seems all but irrecoverable. If you rewind to when Manolo Blahnik was saying “no” to everyone, there’s a clue there. His shoes were one of the most exclusive women’s footwear commodities, yet he crustily refused to branch out into other couture products, like perfume, refused retail outlets who wanted to stock his wares, and rejected buyout offers. He did a pretty good job of keeping his brand sacred–inviolable. New York departments stores like Barneys, Saks, and Neiman Marcus carry some Manolo, and they fly off the shelves despite what Elle magazine calls the “decline of the stiletto” and rise of “athleisure”. Even digital retailers like Nordstrom (online) still have them in the $600-1000 price range, while you can get 3 models just barely below that price on Amazon. By contrast, Elizabeth Segren points out that discount retailers like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls and more common departments stores like Macy’s and JC Penney are piled high with Hilfiger, Calvin, and other once eminent fashion brands and, especially with shameless sales and coupon deals, the goods are cheaper than ever. At some point, once powerful industry leaders courted customers that weren’t a match for a viable brand future , and now that future is all but a foregone conclusion.
The Business Version: At work, a crescent kick or scissor punch won’t help us. The format of bullying in business is different, even if the nature of it is the same. But there are katas that are just as powerful to ingrain, for when a prospect, client, vendor, investor, or colleague tries to bully us. Having clear parameters for engagement, a walk away position, and objective means of evaluating contributions, are all essential entrepreneur training. Most importantly, we need to know what is essential to us–who we are as leaders and brands. That leads to the next tip for that kid:
Be Even More of Yourself. That’s hard when you’re young, because you don’t yet KNOW who you are. Self-knowledge and understanding will be a lifelong journey, though we establish some basics later in life. Fundamentally, we have to embrace an authentic self by disavowing superficial solutions, like thinking if we just wear the right clothes, smoke or drink to fit in, or cut our hair like everyone else, we have the ingredients for happiness or even relief. Bullies know a fundamental truth about you and I: We ARE different. Self-acceptance, and indeed embracing our fundamental weirdnesses gives us part of the equipment to keep our identities unviolated, even if we are deeply in touch with them yet.
Simon Fuller didn’t “fit in” in the music business. His overtly flamboyant, commercial approach to turning musicians into thriving businesses violated the sensibilities and control mechanisms wielded by old school tastemakers. But the record industry was crashing, and musicians were widely out of work. Fuller brought out the inner ‘something’ that differentiated artist after artist, resulting in consistent breakout mega-stars. According to Emily Ross and Angus Holland, when Fuller took over management of The Spice Girls, they were an obscure lot with no singing or dancing experience. When they sacked him at the high point of their success, it went full circle, and that was more or less the end of their careers. It was Fuller who bought rights to “Holiday” which became Madonna’s break out hit. It was a songwriter in Fuller’s management company that gave Britney Spears the words to “Toxic”, and Fuller managed the Grammy-winning The Eurythmics, which became the most visible synth new-wave band of the 80s. But we know him best by an entire process he created to replicate an opportunity to stand out on the strength of one’s own talent and identity–American Idol, which the New York Times called “Starsearch meets Gladiator”. In other words, it was an arena where the differentiated had the highest opportunity for success .
In Business: Clones don’t prosper. There are exceptions: Napster and Uber clones depend on the other guy making some huge mistake. Starbucks and Whole Foods clones live in their wake, feeding mostly on the overflow. And Ebay, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble clones drop like flies, because mirroring success is not the same thing as having it. The very definition of an entrepreneur is not just creating an entity (S-Corp or C-Corp) and running a business; it’s bringing something valuable and differentiated to the market. If we extend that from the business itself to the business leader, a leader is never a clone. A leader feels free to experiment, find what makes him or her happy, and do it with his own style and flair. If a leader is the only one of something, that’s an asset, not an embarrassment. Fitting in be damned.
This is why the emphasis on “fit” in so much of corporate recruiting is misguided. Prioritizing fit means we’re not hiring self-sustaining leaders in the making, who will step up as they get clearer on who they are and their own motivations. The difference between a leader and a non-leader is that, on an albeit infinite sliding scale, leaders trend more toward individualist than sycophant. If we don’t hear the words “you’re weird” at least occasionally, we’re doing something wrong. That means we can spread out:
Spread Out. When you hold your arms in quite close, shoulders rounded, being careful how much space you use up, you’re sending a signal to the bullies of the world–fresh bait. Take up more room than the minimum required. Let your arms go wide and rest on the back of the bench, stretched out. Take up more than half the bench in the gym. Hold the rail on both sides of the subway, if you can reach. Treat the air around you like it’s yours to breathe–as much as you want of it. Bullies lack confidence, which is why they take shots at people who demonstrate even less of it. You’ll still have people test you–it’s the way of apes. Watch silverback gorillas–eventually, even the king is challenged. But you’ll invite less of it from upstarts.
Amazon is the quintessential case study in proliferation. Even Google can’t touch the degree to which Jeff Bezos’ baby has penetrated lives with its ecosystem of devices, apps, stores, and media. In my bedroom is an Amazon device that woke me this morning with a light scolding by Alec Baldwin (a la Glengarry Glen Ross). As I dressed for breakfast, another Amazon device told me the outside temperature. It then entertained a pet with classical music in my absence, while I read from a Stephen King novel on yet another Amazon device. Behind me in the office is, yes, another one that cued up my haircut appointment earlier and just finished providing an executive news briefing. Recently, I told it to send me 250 brown paper food trays and bring a car to my door. All this ‘spreading out’ attracts criticism and almost mock concern: “Is it taking over our lives?”; “Do they have too much power?”; “How safe are my preferences for hair pomade?” But the company just keeps treating the world as free, open, public space. You and I can enter the marketplace, too. But what Amazon won’t do, as evidenced by the deployment of drones for delivery, acquisition of Whole Foods, and opening of automated food markets, is be deterred by the guarantee (not even the possibility, but the absolute assurance) of some fearful reaction, jealousy, or even invective. There’s an open spot, and Amazon sits down. There’s open space, and Amazon fills it, exploring and experimenting as if the world was its very own.
The Business Version: Staying demure attracts the least valuable, most unreasonably demanding clients. In my experience, they actively hunt vendors, consultants, and companies that look like they lack confidence. If we produce a compelling narrative around our brands, tout our accomplishments, broadcast our ongoing news stream, and show that we stand for something–authentically and unabashedly–we’re essentially “unmessable”, to borrow a term from Josselyne Herman. Likewise, seeing all that open market out there, and staying parked on our safe square on the game board, doesn’t just leave openings for competitors, or deprive us of opportunities that come from trying things out. That excess of caution stunts even what identity we have, because we stay the same while the world around us is growing. We will have skeptics, detractors, and naysayers, just as Amazon does. For kids, I say this:
Take the Teasing. Instead of cringing, laugh and admit your weaknesses. Develop a self-deprecating but never self-denigrating sense of humor. Vulnerability is something you’ll need to preserve to have a good business life later. Sure, bullies will miss that beat and, instead, use it to pile on more. They’re afraid of being seen as vulnerable, so they go after you when you do it. There’s a line between playful criticism and verbal harassment that you’ll want to study, and you’ll need to develop some barbs of your own by drawing on bullies’ own insecurities. Study THEM too; decide what they’re insecure about, and store it up. You’ll have some that further escalate conflict because of it, but your goal is to make it consistently painful to belittle or abuse you. Just don’t let it color your ability to take a harmless jibe in good humor.
Sumo is a site that allows app developers to gain more users quickly by offering deep discounts. Currently, there’s a particular app suited for marketing agencies with three very common tiers: try it free, buy lifetime access for under $40 (for marginal or micro-use), or subscribe monthly with all the features turned on. Some regular ‘Sumolings’ blasted the developers for not offering white labeling at that middle tier. “Clearly it’s for full-service agencies who need white labelling so customers aren’t aware that we’re using a 3rd party app and judge us accordingly.” You hear the fear and it’s combined with blame and criticism. It got worse. The heat was intense, the language became vitriolic, and the logic fell short of gratitude for such a generously low fee in exchange for lifetime access. The conversation went several rounds, until someone finally pointed out that a full service agency a) isn’t scrounging for a $40 app coupon in the bargain bin (much less taking time to write utterly embarrassing paragraphs of rage), and b) isn’t going to be judged on what software it uses, but rather on the results it produces for its customers. I bought a license, if for no other reason, than I admired the company for taking that heat and not losing its cool. They stayed in until other customers began pointing out the obvious bullying and disparity. Of course, the developers aren’t breaking even with the $40 user who isn’t their qualified demographic; instead, they get two things: some statistical data and additional testing from those users, and a much clearer bead on the actual audience they need to go after. In other words, they get the tools to pursue “full service agencies”.
The Business Version. Healthy criticism is an opportunity to gain more precise clarity on the essential opportunities that produce revenue. Defensiveness in our businesses leaves us out of tune with the market, and blinds us to possibilities for long-term relationships (or at least profitable ones) with existing clients and future prospects. In contrast, toxic criticism (blame, accusation, and personal attacks) leaves us much freer to mark the prospect or customer unqualified. Differentiating between types of user input and market judgment becomes a way of ‘scoring’ leads, and a means of making more effective decisions. When we know what criticism to pay attention to, we can spend 80% of our attention on the 20% of leads and customers that are most in line with our aspirations. Finally, when it feels like you’re surrounded by criticism:
Embrace the Temporary. Mark down the context you don’t like, every time, as an interim reality. Do NOT let it determine how you respond to things 5, 10, 20 years later. You are building the mental context to never accept a toxic work environment or a cage for your persona, once the gate is open and you can choose. There are too many life-affirming opportunities, with horizontal hierarchies, where toxicity is rejected rather than rewarded. This, no matter what we call “this”, will not last.
We recently wrote a proposal for a roughly $50 million company that included an incremental approach to building and leading their marketing department, with milestones related to revenue and reach. Both parties, of course, wanted a long-term relationship. But, because they were not a direct referral, which is most of our business, they indicated a desire to build trust at key check-in points. The proposal underscored (more than usual) the opportunity to re-evaluate at key moments of achievement, and determine whether to stay on course or pull out of the engagement. We were asked “Why are you referring to it as a project, if it’s essentially a permanent, ongoing engagement?” Our answer was (and remains) that all relationships are essentially dependent on a continuous exchange of value. So we put objective measures in place on both sides to determine what that value looks like, and both parties can know it’s happening according to a shared definition. We didn’t close that deal, for unrelated reasons (that’s another story). But the ability for both of the Sales leaders involved to articulate our position clearly in a fast-moving prospect interaction came from a) careful adherence to the principles of agile project management and b) an ethical commitment to what any relationship really is.
In Business: Projects are temporary, and all of work is more effective when viewed as project-based, even if it’s long term. We get more of what we want by putting defined milestones in place–definitions of done within the larger, far-off or even infinite “DONE”, because we need objective measures of progress toward something. Projects have goals, and goals have projects. Milestones on the way to goals are the natural and ideal opportunities to reevaluate, disengage or reengage, and redress any inequities that exist in scope, responsibility, and cost. An effective business cultivates a continual sense of the temporary.
Saying “I was bullied when I was young” used to be hard. But I don’t experience either gasps of surprise or protestations of pity, when I do say it. First, it’s common among bright, creative people. Second, people look at me now, and think “No one can do that to him anymore.” More important, however, than the absence of a negative, is the presence of all of these positive outcomes and outlooks that inform my entrepreneurial decision-making and afford some highly useful insights into how to get what we want out of our work. That’s a treasure, because our work is sacred. Work is our answer to a life we don’t want in the form of nearly limitless capacity to create one we do.
If you know a kid like I was before I started hacking this at age 16, I hope you’ll share what I’ve written. If you know a business or business leader that looks a little harried around the edges, with some post-apocalyptic scars from scrapping with the market, tell them they have all the tools–this piece is hopefully just a reminder.