Corporate Dinosaurs and Broken Windows

March 12, 2015 by Olivier Blanchard - 3 Comments

“That’s the thing about the kind of failure that’s driven almost entirely by incompetence,” he said. “Forget its inability to cope with change. That isn’t even the worst part. What’s really scary about it is that it is incapable of understanding the most basic flaw in its own nature. It’s just too dumb, or too blind, or maybe some measure of both.” His eyes were a little bit glassy when he said that, but when they found mine, the spark came back and he smiled. I think he might even have chuckled, but it was a sad kind of chuckle. The kind you give when you know you’ve lost something but you just can’t keep yourself from laughing about it anyway. “Dinosaurs. That’s all they are: bumbling corporate dinosaurs either in complete denial of what is happening outside of their bubble or too bloody dumb to understand it.”

We were sitting  in a pub in London, commiserating about his company’s management culture. I can’t tell you his name or the name of the company. Let’s just say his name is Joe. Back then, Joe worked for a PR firm that serves Fortune 500 companies. Joe is one of the most positive, talented Marketing Communications guys I know but he was not in a good mood. His boss and many of his bosses’ peers were making very bad decisions, ignoring his advice, and pretty much undermining him at every turn. They were still stuck in a traditional PR mentality and turned their noses up at social channels and digital content. They were hiring candidates for PR roles as if it were still 1995, not 2010, and pushing digitally literate staff out the door to make room for them.

I had already experienced something similar while interviewing for a major PR firm a few years earlier. That was the only interview in my career that I had actually cut short and walked out of (albeit politely and gracefully). No sense pretending it was going anywhere. The hiring manager had evidently waited until five minutes before our meeting to finally Google me. Naturally, she had found my blog. She disagreed with one of my blog posts, in which I argued that that social media channels would change PR. She scoffed at the idea that news outlets would eventually start picking up and amplifying PR crises that had started their media lifecycles on social channels. She also rejected the notion that consumers would ever have a true voice. “We control the message,” she said, “That’s never going to change.” She was angry. I was too green to realize why she was so angry about it then, but I now know why: she knew I was right. She didn’t want me to be right. What I knew about the future of her industry terrified her, and the only thing she knew to do in that moment was take it out on me. In front of her staff. During a job interview.

Super professional.

After fifteen minutes of that insanity, I grinned, finally called a timeout, and politely asked her why she had flown me half way across the country if she never had any intention of building the kind of digital program that I could actually help her with. She didn’t have an answer. I concluded that the interview was obviously a waste of time, thanked everyone for their awesome hospitality, and left. I crossed the street and had lunch before heading back to the airport. That blue cheese bison cheeseburger (which I naturally billed to the PR firm) was delicious!

Time proved me right and proved her wrong, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t get the job. She kept hers. Nothing changed. If I am honest with myself, I knew from the moment the snooty receptionist looked at me like I didn’t belong in the building that I wouldn’t get it. The really bad part in all of this is that the people at that firm who saw the way the media world was changing were forced to operate in a bubble of incompetence of denial, just like Joe. The leadership they answered to wanted things to be a certain way. Any dissent had to be crushed. Differing opinions, even backed by facts, by numbers, by a growing sea of evidence, were not welcome and never would be.

I wish I remembered her name. I would send her my book along with a genuine thank you. 1) Scoring that job would have completely ruined me. 2) #smROI would have never been written.

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Years later, there I was, half a world away reminding Joe that wherever he went, he would run into the same thing. Those dinosaurs, they were everywhere. It didn’t matter what the industry was, what the firm was, what the city was. London, Chicago, Brussels, New York, Paris, St. Louis, Toronto or Boston… the old guard was everywhere, and whether out of ignorance or denial, they were going to protect their turf no matter what. “Change is risk,” I told him. “That’s all they see when they see it at all. They’re just afraid, man.”

“But change is always going to be coming, whether they like it or not.”

“They don’t see it that way.”

“Cowards shouldn’t lead,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “Tough shit though.”

We both come from elite military backgrounds, so we both have a more hands-on understanding of the difference between leadership and rank, of the difference between authority on paper and authority born out of competence and action, than the average person. Perhaps that was what made it so frustrating for us to have to work for people who probably didn’t deserve to be in senior leadership jobs anymore, but you know what? This is the real world. Deserve doesn’t have a thing to do with who gets promoted and who gets to make shitty decisions for everybody.

I was reminded of Joe this week, and of that conversation we had all those years ago over a few pints. It didn’t occur to me at first, but I get it now. I know why it all came back to me. I recently had a run-in with another dinosaur. Another clueless corporate PR professional who operates 20 years behind the times. Global Director of Communications and a dozen other titles at a Fortune 500 company. Another hiring manager. Another interview, almost a decade after the one I mentioned earlier. This time, I wasn’t assaulted. I didn’t cut it short. I played along and gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. I was so nice and forgiving, you would have been proud.

I had a hunch that the hiring process was a donkey show from the start though. Something about the way the req was written, I got the sense that the candidate they wanted had already been picked internally, right down to the office building, but you know how these things go: you still have to post the job search. You still have to pretend to interview outsiders. If you work in HR, you know how the game works. Nevertheless, I was interested for a number of reasons: cool opportunity – at least on paper – and the proximity to home base was too good to pass up. I threw my name in that hat on the off chance that my hunch was wrong. It’s hard not to be cynical about stuff like this after all these years, but cynicism isn’t exactly a quality I want to actively develop. So anyway, I applied, a competent HR guy liked my CV, an interview was scheduled, and so I went to it. The HR guy managing my side of it was awesome. He gave me a quick rundown of the company, of the benefits, and so on. He might have actually been even more psyched about the interview than I was. He was even a little annoyed that the meeting was being held in a crappy part of their HQ instead of the usual ‘best foot forward’ side of the building, but in hindsight, it made perfect sense given what happened next.

When he took me up to “the room” to meet Mr. Global Director, I guess I kind of expected someone impressive. I mean… to rise to a position like that in such a competitive environment as the one I would expect in a company of that size, you expect a ton of charisma, of competence, of professionalism. This is PR and corporate communications, not engineering. (No offense to engineers, but you know what I am saying. You expect a certain degree of polish and media training in high level PR folks.) What I got instead was a guy who looked like he had slept in his car… and that was just the start of my disappointment.

Yes, first impressions do matter after all, so let’s take a quick tangent to go over that. (Forgive the scathing critique I am about to subject you to, but as it is part of the overall problem, I need to bring it up.)

A few basic behavioral tips for interviewing managers, especially in media-related roles:

1. Suit: When you buy a suit, spend a few bills to get it properly tailored. It doesn’t matter if you are built like a Calvin Klein model or like a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Good tailoring will make you look professional and competent no matter how dumpy you look in shorts and a T-shirt.

No tailoring just makes you look like you’re a) wearing second-hand clothes and b) aren’t mature or sophisticated enough to realize it. Your clothes don’t fit. It’s cute when you’re five years old but not when you’re fifty.

Quick tip: read a GQ or Esquire article from time to time. Talk to a tailor. If that’s too hard, crawl out of your corporate cave every few months and just look at how professional people dress this side of 1995. (Media training 101: don’t look like schmuck.) Here are some handy resources for you to click on:

The Baum List

Your basic suit fit cheat sheet #1

Your basic suit fit cheat sheet #2

It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, by the way. It just has to look like you’ve learned how to dress for a job. It’s a basic life skill, like knowing how to make a sandwich or tie your shoelaces.

2. Tie: Unless you can flawlessly pull off looking comfortable hanging out at a cocktail party in Cannes with a suit but no tie, wear a tie. Especially with that Daniel Cremieux knockoff you scored in a 2-for-1 deal twenty years ago. If you are going to try it, invest in a two-piece from Smalto, Brooks Brothers or even Indochino, and don’t wear a baggy white shirt. You’re in a business meeting, not in the basement of Vitto’s Fondue and Garlic Emporium, losing your kids’ college fund to a couple of greasy card sharks in a shady poker game.

3. Shoes: shine them once in a while. Also, leather soles, not rubber soles. You’re a senior exec at a Fortune 500 company, not an assistant night shift manager at Taco Bell. (No offense to the latter. Different dress code is all.) Here: learn this.

4. Socks: Invest in a $7 pair of decent dress socks. You can even buy them at Target. Faded, stretched out gray-black mid-calf crews with a suit? This isn’t gym class. No. (Tip: your ghost-white hairy shins aren’t great conversation starters. Trust me on this.)

5. Shirt: Giant royal blue monograms on oversized and poorly ironed dress shirt cuffs already weren’t cool in 1995, so imagine how tacky they look in 2015. It’s basically the sartorial equivalent of waving around at fake Rolex at a red light while at the wheel of a bondo-colored Ford Pinto. (Properly placed monograms on a shirt shouldn’t be visible while you are wearing a suit jacket.) Toss that nonsense and check out Imperial Black for that long overdue upgrade.

6. Personality: Make eye contact once in a while. Smile, even. It helps with that whole “communications” thing you are global director of.

7. Attitude: Don’t dismissively refer to the only digitally-savvy member of your communications team as “my web girl.” Also refrain from saying things like “she’s young, she knows how all that internet stuff is supposed to work.” It isn’t endearing. It’s at best condescending and at worst, it’s just scary given your job description.

8. Professionalism: For crying outloud, Google your candidates before meeting with them, even if you have no intention of hiring them. That way, you won’t start things off with egregiously stupid questions about their professional experience, like… “do you have experience developing digital communications programs for large companies?” (Dude. Are you really that lazy?)

I could go on, but look, the point here is this: if you can’t even pretend to be professional or interested for just 45 minutes on a Friday morning, just cancel the meeting and go play a solo round of golf if that’s what you would really rather be doing. I don’t mind. I have better things to do than put on my best threads, drive all the way to a half-empty building, and then sit in a messy conference room (in a hilariously broken chair, by the way) with someone who clearly doesn’t give a shit.

One last point: the person you are interviewing is also interviewing you. If that individual wouldn’t even hire you to be on his or her communications team, why the f*ck should they want to come join yours?

What’s sad about all of this is that if he had been a nice guy, or honest about what he was doing, I wouldn’t have even cared how he was dressed. Clothes are just clothes… until clothes are just a symptom of a bigger underlying problem. And here, they were.

If you run a Fortune 500 company, you can’t afford not to fix your broken windows, especially if they are your most visible ones:

I walked into that interview expecting to be impressed, even intimidated. I was actually nervous, which is pretty rare given how often I meet with senior executives. Instead, I found myself stuck in a room with one of the worst examples of what Joe was talking about that day in London. For an hour, I sat across a conference table from a guy making all of the hiring and strategic communications and PR decisions for a major company, and his universe was still squarely set in the pre-internet world, in the pre-digital world. He was as obsolete as a fax machine and as interesting to talk to as a blank VHS tape. To make matters worse, he was frightfully ignorant of modern communications channels and how to integrate them properly into a global communications program, and that is far, far worse than being sartorially gauche and socially unpleasant.

He had at least heard of Twitter, so he wasn’t the worst specimen I have run across in recent years, but I doubt that he took Twitter all that seriously. I can’t be sure. I didn’t have the heart to dig too deep into that one. My poker face is pretty solid but even I have my limits. A willingness to learn would have been great, but the condescending vibe coming out of that bad suit was definitely in the way. I won’t even get into the org chart I asked him to draw for me. It’s too depressing. I played along though. I was super nice and tried to focus on all of the good I could do there instead of how frighteningly obsolete this guy was.

But look… keeping dinosaurs in senior communications roles is not how you avoid the kinds of massive PR mistakes made by companies like BP, Nestle, Toyota and GM in recent years. It sure as hell isn’t how you attract the world’s best talent either. (Hold that thought.) It’s a best practice in mediocrity management. It’s how obsolescence gets baked into corporate cultures. It’s how corporate bubbles become coffins for brands. “We’re so big that we can blow this off and still be #1!” Oh really? Check this out, courtesy of Brian Solis. Sobering, right? And it isn’t limited to PR. It’s true of every aspect of a business culture, from product design to customer service. Recruiting is part of that wheel, and it is always turning in one of two directions: improvement or erosion.

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Dinosaurs like the guy I just interviewed with are walking, breathing broken windows. If you aren’t familiar with the term and how it applies to corporate cultures, read this. They are also symptomatic of a greater problem within that company: an absence of accountability and oversight, for starters. Also an absence of competence at high decision-making levels that borders of professional negligence. Case in point: there he is, operating in plain sight, but no one inside the bubble appears to have noticed just how dangerously out of his depth he seems to be.

It should go without saying that a global head of communications for a Fortune 500 company should understand the crucial roles that Twitter and blogger communities play in crisis planning and management, for example. Someone whose job it is to live and breathe communications should have at least heard of Vine and Meerkat. Someone tasked with building and managing vital communications programs for companies worth gazillions of dollars should at least be literate – if not fluent – in communication channels and practices that are relevant today. And yet, here we are.

This should all be common sense but since it isn’t, let me state the obvious: digital illiteracy is not compatible with competence in a corporate PR job in 2015, let alone a management role, senior or otherwise. The fact that no one seems to have noticed the massive fluency gap in this instance isn’t just a broken window. It’s a smashed-in front door with glass and debris scattered all over the lobby.

One more tiny little hiring tip:

Something came up somewhere along this string of bizarre encounters with angry dinosaurs that I need to bring up:

If you think that hiring communications and PR managers whose resumés include some of the worst PR blunders in recent history (say… the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon PR fiasco, the cringe-worthy Hurricane Katrina response, the embarrassing response to the Greenpeace-launched ‘Kit-Kat kills orangutans’ campaign, or any such nuclear PR meltdown), maybe it’s probably time to go on an extended vacation. Hiring people who failed so spectacularly is the PR equivalent of a hospital hiring surgeons based on how many botched surgeries they have on their record because “experience.”

Here is a little bit of fan art that illustrates the degree to which the BP PR crisis was not super well managed on those pesky interwebs:

I know that from across a dusty, poorly lit desk, those PR crises might look like impressive bullet points on a CV, (and think of all those millions of impressions!) but they aren’t exactly gold stars, know what I mean? Engage your brain for thirty seconds: incompetence of that magnitude is not the kind of experience you are looking for, unless your goal is to make sure that your company takes a turn at the PR disaster wheel. (If you keep hiring people who have a habit of screwing up major PR crisis management operations, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess whose company will probably become a trending topic someday very soon.) Especially when those super awesome PR pros have somehow managed to accumulate, on average, less than 50 followers on Twitter these past few years. (My chihuahua has more twitter followers and he doesn’t even have real fingers.)

But hey, if you’re into perpetuating cultures of incompetence, that’s none of my business.

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So what happened with London Joe and last week’s interview anyway?

A few months after our chat in London, Joe left his job. His next one wasn’t any better. His next three weren’t any better, for that matter. He bounced around from city to city and firm to firm for a few years, hoping that the next team he would join would be different. They weren’t. Ultimately, senior decision-makers just didn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it. Some of the bubbles were prettier than others, and some certainly were a little newer than others, but a bubble is always a bubble. He eventually joined the NGO world and is now deliriously happy saving the planet. He is doing great work and he is very happy where he is, and it’s about damn time.

As for my unfortunate interview with Global Director so-and-so the other week, I was never going to get that job. It was already unofficially assigned to someone before the req was even drafted. A form email eventually notified me that I would not advance to the second round of interviews. (Oh no! Me no make it past the first inter-vee-ew? Realleeee?) Naturally, I contacted him to see if he would actually tell me why someone with my background had been discarded so quickly. He actually answered, though with the kind of word economy that one might come to expect from his engaging personality. (Someone please tell him that emails don’t charge by the word, like the telegraph.) Plus or minus a few words: I don’t have enough digital communications experience.

Yes, I am serious.

Pretty brilliant when you think about it: the guy who doesn’t know how to use Google, Twitter (or email, apparently) telling one of the people who teaches social business program management to executives like him (and wrote the book on it) that he isn’t sufficiently qualified for a digital communications job. You honestly couldn’t make this shit up if you tried.

(Tip: More press releases, kid. That’s the ticket.)

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So in closing, let’s all raise a pint (or a cup of coffee) to Joe, who said it best in that noisy London pub all those years ago:

“That’s the thing about the kind of failure that’s driven almost entirely by incompetence. Forget its inability to cope with change. That isn’t even the worst part. What’s really scary about it is that it is incapable of understanding the most basic flaw in its own nature. It’s just too dumb, or too blind, or maybe some measure of both. Dinosaurs. That’s all they are: bumbling corporate dinosaurs either in complete denial of what is happening outside of their bubble or too bloody dumb to understand it.”

Welcome to 2015, kids. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Special thanks to Tom Fishburne, whose spot-on cartoons always me chuckle.

Cheers,

Olivier

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