September 12, 2007

Ten Blunders

The blogosphere provides a wonderful platform to share thoughts about about all the mistakes other people make ... "If I were Steve Jobs, here is how I would have handled the iPhone price discount catastrophe of September 2007. First, I would respect my loyal customers ...".

Tonight, I'll focus on ten blunders made during my career. If you have the patience, I'm willing to share several thousand blunders. For now, let's focus on ten.

Number 10 = You Can't Go On Strike When You Aren't In A Union: When you are 42 years old, you know how to deal with bad managers. When I was 22 years old, I was under the impression that all managers were like Lee Iacocca. I worked for a leader who, when looking back, was clearly not the worst leader I've worked for. As a 22 year old, I wanted this person OUT! I wasted countless hours thinking about how lousy this person was. I should have spent countless hours learning how to work with a difficult manager. Heck, I remember recommending to a co-worker that we should go "on strike", to protest lousy working conditions. Geez.

Number 9 = Screwing Up The First Ninety Days: Some of my most spectacular failures as a Director/Vice President occurred in the first ninety days of a new role. I've set expectations that were too high, causing qualified people to quit. I've set expectations too low, causing a complacency that is much harder to change downstream. The first ninety days in a new role mean EVERYTHING. Surprisingly, your team will be watching your every move during the first ninety days of your tenure.

Number 8 = Facts Schmacts: One of my favorite quotes is from Homer Simpson ... "You can use 'facts' to prove that anything is even vaguely true. Facts schmacts." I spent the first seven years of my career trying to convince everybody that I was 'right', by using facts pulled right out of the customer database. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the world wasn't run by facts. My failure was to try to prove to everybody that I was 'right'. It seldom matters that you are right. What matters is doing something that benefits somebody else, while accomplishing an objective that is 'right'.

Number 7 = Stop Talking: "Back in the day", I didn't spend a lot of time "listening" to my leaders. I should have spent more time listening to what leaders where really saying with the words they used, and then surprised them with answers that met their needs, not answers that met my needs.

Number 6 = Arrogance Doesn't Pay: One of my bosses told me I was brilliant, but I needed to wipe that smug look off of my face. I'm trying hard to be humble these days, though I'm certainly not the arrogant person I was in 1994. And guess what? It took a lot of practice to not be arrogant. I had to change companies to help rebuild my reputation.

Number 5 = Gossip Is Poison: Back in 1995, I spread some gossip about a co-worker. Somebody told the co-worker what I said ... the co-worker stopped by my desk, and told me he would never talk to me again about anything unless he had to, because I couldn't be trusted. I'm 6'3" tall, but I felt like I was 6.3 millimeters tall. It might be hard to stay out of the gossip circles. Please try!

Number Four = Profit Isn't Everything: My first four years at Nordstrom were a great learning laboratory. I was part of two different management teams. The first management team told everybody what they had to do, and told them exactly how they had to do it ... a "my way or the highway" approach. Our financial results were great. People really didn't like working with us. The second management team had a philosophy on how to do things, but treated people with respect. Our financial results were great. Our 'people' results were so much better. "Paint by numbers" approaches to running a direct-to-consumer business must be balanced with humanity. I spent too much time siding with folks who tore people to shreds, and the stink from those first two years stuck to my reputation for years.

Number Three = Audit Results: I already told many of you about the time in 1995 when I had to select the best 1,000,000 customers for a womens catalog. My job was to also pick 300,000 customers to place into a contingency file. I pulled the best 1,300,000 customers, sorted them in ascending order of likelihood to purchase (instead of descending order), and incorrectly selected customers 300,001 to 1,300,000. Within three days of the in-home date of the catalog, I learned that I was the reason the catalog was missing plan by forty percent. The lesson I learned ... AUDIT EVERYTHING YOU DO, OVER AND OVER AND OVER!!

Number Two = Audit Results: This sounds a lot like the last lesson. If you are a Director/VP, you must have ways of knowing that your team executed things correctly. Make sure you put policies and procedures in place to prove that your team did their job correctly. Make sure your team follows those policies and procedures. You don't ever want to be in another Exec's office and have the Exec tell you "I want blood", after learning that your team made a big mistake that cost the company money. I've been in that room, I've heard that comment uttered from an Exec.

Number One = Technology Isn't The Answer: It took becoming a Vice President to truly understand that nothing happens without people. I used to be a technology person. I thought all the problems at Eddie Bauer could be solved if we simply implemented cannibalization models for catalogs, gravity models for real estate selection, regression models for selecting customers for catalogs, you name it. I was wrong. And then, you experience those brief moments in time, times when the right combination of people create magic. I experienced magic working with the right combination of people (in NASCAR, they call this 'chemistry') in 1993-1994 at Lands' End, in 1999 at Eddie Bauer, in 2004 at Nordstrom Direct, and my 2005 Database Marketing team at Nordstrom, the best group of Database Marketing individuals I've ever worked with. You get the right leadership team working with a willing supporting cast, and you can overcome anything. Brilliant people OVERCOME bad technology. Brilliant technology can't overcome a mediocre team.


  1. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Interesting Kevin.

    How about the 10 best things you did to drive your career?

  2. I could probably encapsulate everything into one statement ... if you lead others, you job is to take care of your people.

    When you do that, they do AMAZING things for you.


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