April 14, 2024

Who Is In Control?

At every company, there are the people who appear to be in control (Owner, Board of Directors, CEO, Executive Team). Then there are the people who are actually in control. The old-timer who "knows where the bodies are buried" and says "no" to things and nobody understands how she's able to get away with saying "no", for instance. Every company has one of those.

Merchants have disproportionate control, and rightly so.

Creative folks have minimal control within a company but are the face of the brand to the customer. As such, they control far more than they realize.

It's always dangerous to outsource control. I'll give you an example. When we shut down the catalog division at Nordstrom in 2005, we replaced it with a brand-centric monthly mailer where third parties (i.e. Coach) could pay us $29,000 a page to advertise their products. They lined up to do so. We'd have no problem stitching together 160 pages of products from all sorts of third parties. Of course, when you are paying $29,000 a page, you demand control over what that page looks like. You pay $116,000 for two spreads (four pages), and you demand who comes before/after your pages too. The resulting hodge-podge was an abomination, and it performed abysmally from a sales standpoint. Of course, with no ad cost, every one of those abominations was profitable. We didn't have control, but we had money.

It's one thing to have the old-timer who knows where the bodies are buried ... that person has control, but that person operates in the best interest of the brand in the vast majority of cases. Your merchants care deeply about your company. So does the IT Director. It's quite another thing to trade control for money. Maybe you are a sports team who takes gambling money ... you give up control of a whole bunch of issues in exchange for cash. Maybe you are a cataloger who lets somebody from your printing vendor be "in residence" at your brand ... why does that person get to sit in on strategy meetings?

I remember a haunting meeting I had in 2001 with a Circulation Director at a competing brand. My predecessor apparently didn't understand how business worked ... he exchanged control of our own customers for cash. He rented the Nordstrom customer list to anybody who bothered to ask (yes, I'm exaggerating for effect). In the case of the Circulation Director, my predecessor leveraged what was called an "exchange" ... instead of each party sending each other $0.13 for every name, each party exchanged names, paying a tiny fee to our third party list partners to facilitate the transaction. Well, the Circulation Director at the other company took about 3,000,000 Nordstrom customers. My predecessor took maybe 300,000 names in exchange. He literally ceded control of Nordstrom customers to a competing brand, with nothing gained whatsoever (because we were exchanging names). When I put a stop to this practice, the Circulation Director for the competing brand pleaded with me to rethink my logic. She argued that I would put her inventory team in a difficult situation (as she'd planned to take another 3,000,000 names from us the next year and the inventory team bought product assuming they were mailing 3,000,000 Nordstrom customers ... fun business if you can get it) and they'd have to liquidate product and have a much less profitable year. Unfortunately, that wasn't my problem. I had to take control back from a competitor. I recall our list vendors saying I was behaving in an unfair manner, pleading with me to ease the relationship back slowly and gracefully. That would have taken five years. Come on! The list vendor allowed the relationship to get out of line, the competitor took complete advantage of us ... it was time for me to take control for the best interests of Nordstrom.

Who is in control where you work?

One of the lower moments in my career came at Nordstrom when my database marketing team needed to execute a strategy and needed a table built in a database. I worked with an IT Director to get these things done. He ticked me off. When I asked him to perform this task for my team he said, and I quote, "We need to pass your idea past our stakeholders and if they approve we'll consider it."



The mistake I made was telling the IT Director that real humans don't say words like "stakeholders". I demeaned the person, and I still feel bad about it 20 years later.

However ...

... I needed to take back control. I didn't need somebody in Finance or the Credit Division or Corporate IT to approve or disapprove of something that I could pay for out of my budget.

We got the table we needed.

Who is in control where you work?

Are the right people in control?

If the wrong people are in control, how do you work around these individuals to get things done?

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