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Saturday, January 12, 2013

That Clog Called Management

There was a show in prime time around 1970 called Arnie.  Herschel Bernardi (probably more famous as the voice of Charlie the Tuna than for his dramatic work) starred as a loading dock worker who had suddenly been promoted to “corporate.”  A real worker becomes management.
It was an interesting albeit short-lived concept that might be worth review today.
Geez, Len, where are you going with this?
Herschel Bernardi
Keeping Arnie Nuvo in mind, step back and look at today’s management.  Clogged with lawyers, DBA;s and MBA’s – all trained to manage but few with knowledge of the business they’re in.  Now, with due respect to the JD and other degrees, let me say that the whole method of organization is wrong.
In the media world, the last thing we need is a manager who doesn’t know the specific business.  Or one who wants to put everything into discreet “silos” which are convenient for PowerPoints but, frankly, don’t work in the real world.
If you read any of the corporate “self-help” books, you find that the involvement of line folks in management is the exception rather than the rule.  Yet when you look at successful companies, you find that the ones that do have open relationships among everyone are the ones making it.  Go figure. 
When you’re making flanges as was Herschel Bernardi, you have a pretty controlled input-to-operation-to-output.  That’s just not the case in the media world.  It’s too broad, it changes too quickly, and it rests on that fickle thing called an audience.
So bringing in management folks who haven’t had contact with your particular business is usually a big mistake.  I’ve seen it too many times.  Decisions made by the Harvard- or Kellogg-book but which don’t work in the real world.  Best example:  broadcast station expansion.  That was fun watching the MBA’s and DBA’s running the numbers.  “Hey, it’s simple.  We take over 3 stations in a market.  We central-cast, cut a truckload of people, raise the ad rates, and make wheelbarrows (I already used 'truckload') of money."
Now in case you don’t see the flaws, raising ad rates isn’t that easy.  If you don’t have the numbers, you don’t get the orders.  In an agency world where you can’t even get to a buyer – and where most of them are paid to say no – you can’t just raise rates.  In fact, major advertisers are gutsy enough to say, “Here’s what I want, here’s what I’m going to pay.  Take it or leave it.”  Ouch.  That’s a little different from the world of flanges.  And cutting people?  Cool idea.  Then, looking at the payroll, they toss out folks who know the history…the ones who’ve already made the mistakes.  Ah, but a younger person – if they think they need a person at all – will come at half the price.  That is until you factor in a repeat of the mistakes the old lady you let go learned from.
And central-casting.  Think about it.  With more and still more modes of information or entertainment delivery, is producing your [for example] Louisville news out of Dallas a good idea?  If local is the real USP for a station, do you want the lead of a story left on the cutting room floor because that guy in Dallas doesn’t know the background?  So, sure, go ahead and put the folks who may be able to contribute most to the company’s success in an isolated location where the only interaction is the nightly critique coming out of programming, or the consultant telling the female anchor not to smile so much.
A lot of the problems come out of the chasm between “management” and “labor.”  Both have a lot to learn from the other.  If you’ve run across Cluetrain Manifesto, you’ll recall that Levine et. al. talk about the flattening of the corporate pyramid.  People at the bottom (I hate that term) know a lot of what people at the top (that one too) are doing.  Observation, filtration, email, and intranet let them find out.  But, sadly, management seems to think that they can orchestrate a one-way communication path.  And what’s worse?  They don’t think they necessarily have to tell the truth!
So they say that all’s well, that they’re not changing the news format, not letting anyone go, etc. then, out of nowhere, an anchor gets replaced.  Whatever morale or corporate equity they built up just vaporized.  And, if you trace it back, you find that those lettered management folks didn’t see the difference between a people business and a widget business.  A silo was a silo. 
So, the solution?  Bring some “little folks” (oh wow, that’s so much better than “people at the bottom”) along.  No, not a monthly lunch.  Put them on specific developmental or analytical projects.  They’ll ask questions you didn’t know needed to be asked.
I’ll give you an example:  A few years ago, we were having a discussion about offering vanity email addresses.  You can imagine it – you sign up and you get, where somegreatsuffix = a really neat address.  Maybe co-opting a celebrity’s name, or a professional sport.  A couple of folks had run the numbers and they turned out to be really big.  A 20-year-old ops guy asked a simple question, “How you gonna convince people to give up the email address they have?  I mean, when all their friends…”  After a little research the numbers fell like a rock.  Today, that’s a little different but, at the time, we were able to keep from stepping in it.
More importantly, work to collapse the pyramid.  Open the company up.  If the average coder doesn’t feel comfortable dropping a suggestion to you, if you don’t feel you can stop by a designer’s office and ask how they’d do something, you haven’t accomplished it.
You don’t have to put Arnie in the corporate suites, but you can have lots of Arnies out there, all with suggestions that may just save your backside.