How About A Bowl Of Sugar?

Foodie Friday, and this week I’m revved up about a food issue which also raises an issue with every business. You are probably aware that there is an epidemic of diabetes in this country. According to the Centers For Disease Control, 1 in 3 adults in this country has pre-diabetes (elevated blood sugar) and over 9% actually have the disease. This incidence is much higher here in the South with some states having well over 11% of the population affected. Having spent a few years here I can tell you that there is a lot of sweet tea and other sugar-added foods sold everywhere.

What’s got me off on this rant today is what I would call yet another nail in the coffin of those who will contract the disease. Apparently, some genius at Post Cereals felt it would be a good idea to make a cereal named after Sour Patch Kids, a candy. I guess we can commend them for dropping all pretense for most breakfast cereals being anything other than candy and just calling it what it is. You think I’m hyperbolizing? You can literally pour a bowl of some breakfast cereals and half of what you pour is pure sugar. Golden Crips cereal (called Sugar Crisp when I was a kid) is almost 52% sugar. Honey Smacks (formerly Sugar Smacks) is over 55%. You would be better off feeding your kid a Snickers bar – it’s only 45% sugar.

There is a greater question here for anyone in business. Post isn’t the only company doing this. General Mills sells cereal with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the front. I refuse to believe that the folks at Post or General Mills don’t have an understanding that what they’re selling is fostering an epidemic. It’s easy for them to shrug their shoulders and say “well, responsible parents will let their kids eat this only in moderation.” So why change the names of the aforementioned cereals to delete “sugar? Why isn’t the nutritional information for Reese’s Puffs on the General Mills website? These are dangerous products, folks, and they raise the greater business question. Should we make products that we know are doing great harm? Just because we can do something, should we? Isn’t it possible to sell the healthier alternatives you already make to kids and stop pushing something that you know puts these kids on the road to diabetes?

It doesn’t have to be that way. When scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer and attributed it to the use of CFC’s, many companies that used CFC’s as the propellant in their spray products changed to something else. The products are less dangerous and the hole is healing. Having a conscience to go along with having a bottom line isn’t inconsistent nor bad business. It’s quite the opposite. Selling kids bowls of sugar under the guise of “making your day better” really is a sad way to make a buck, don’t you think?

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Girls And Boys Just Want To Have Fun

One thing I learned after I began managing people many decades ago is that even though it’s called “work,” it doesn’t have to seem that way all the time. Since I was still pretty young (24) when I got my first managerial responsibility, I still placed a good deal of emphasis on having fun as well as getting the work done. In fact, most of the time when problems arose it was because I had failed to act in a way that would be how I would want my boss to act or that I’d forgotten that for most people, work is what they do and not who they are. Let me explain why remembering to have fun is just as important as remembering to get things done.

I felt I was running a benevolent dictatorship. What I mean is that most decisions were mine because I bore the responsibility for them to the powers that be whether I had made them or not. However, I rarely took those decisions in a vacuum. I got input from my team and always encouraged them to voice their opinions. They knew that I might not decide to do things the way that they wanted but that I’d listened and considered their thinking on the matter.

That’s part of having fun. It’s letting every member of the team feel valued. It’s taking what we were doing together seriously but not taking ourselves so seriously. I read somewhere that great leaders are ambassadors of happy. I like that, especially since I’ve worked for a few bosses to whom “happy” and “staff” were never words that intersected.

People have fun when they know what to expect from their leader. When leaders make a conscious effort to have fun, whether via silly signs or self-deprecating humor or through the constant appreciation of the good work of each person on the team. That’s when “work” becomes a place that’s a lot more than a job or a paycheck. Ask yourself, “are we having fun yet?” Ask your team too. Are you? Are they?

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Thank You For Your Service

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. I don’t typically post on Sundays but I did want to honor all of those who served by putting out something, even if a day late. This is my post from 2009 (yes, I’ve been at this for quite a while) and I like it as much now as I did then. Thank you for your service if you served and please remember to thank a vet, even if it’s a day late.

Today is Veteran’s Day, a holiday which was created to commemorate the end of “The War To End All Wars.” While that part didn’t work out so well, it’s a worthy celebration of our men and women who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces. My Dad is one of those vets. He fought – as Archie Bunker used to say – in The Big One – WW2. And while he’s taught me a lot over the years, he and his fellow vets teach us another really valuable business lesson to go along with all the others.

Veterans Day 2007 poster from the United State...
My father got out of high school and went into the service like most of the young men (and many young women) of his generation.  They put their country ahead of themselves realizing that the answer to “what’s in it for me” lay in the preservation of the principles on which this country was founded and which made everything else in their lives possible.

The really inelegant analogy I want to make has to do with how we approach business.  While the stakes in business aren’t nearly what they were and are for the vets, there are still people making that same decision today both in and out of business.  That decision is to put something else – your customers in the case of business, your country in the case of vets – ahead of yourself.  I’ve written a lot about everything from lousy customer service to marketing messages that shout “me me me” and not “you you you.”  That’s so 1999, isn’t it?

Converse, don’t spew.  Listen, don’t talk.  If I can’t get you to engage in a conversation and put others first because it’s smart, how about to salute the vets?

Any takers?

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The $2 Difference

This Foodie Friday sees us trying to answer the all-important question about whether to tip on the pre- or post-tax amount of the check. I suppose in some ways this falls into the category of “is a hot dog a sandwich?” but it has practical implications for the people on the receiving end of those tips, your waitstaff.

The thought for this was put in my head by an ongoing column on The Takeout, called Ask The Salty Waitress. Rather than getting caught up in the philosophical arguments for and against tipping off the taxed amount, she does something that I have often urged people in business to do: look at the practical and not at the hypothetical. She takes us through the math of the financial implications of tipping each way. In the end, it amount s to a $2 difference in a high tax area on a $100 check. Her feeling – and mine – is that the $2 probably means a lot more to the tippee that to the person eating out in a nice place.

This happens in business all the time. I’ve seen dozens of times when a meeting devolves into a heated argument over something in a contract. Everyone is standing on their principles but neglecting the real world. Often, when you can get the meeting to focus on the actual differences of conceding a point and getting something done vs. standing on principle and prolonging the discussion, the actual differences are actually pretty insubstantial, like the $2 tip.

Call me a pragmatist or call me someone who prefers to spend his time on things that warrant it, but my first instinct is always to figure out what the real outcomes are. If the result of taking either path is to have you end up in pretty much the same place then I’m taking the path of least resistance. You?

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Carrying Yourself Like A Pro

I went to see my parents last week and my Dad and I got to talking about business as we often do. In the course of the conversation, we got into how things are different today from when I broke into the business world and not all for the better. No, today isn’t another chapter in “Keith Is A Cranky Old Man”, but please bear with me if I sound like one along the way. Like the proverbial pile of pony crap, there’s a pony in here someplace.

When I got into business and for the first 20 years I was there, things weren’t all that different from when my Dad was in the same business. The business model was the same and the processes for conducting business was pretty much the same. He was more of the “Mad Men” era than I was although I caught the very end of it in many ways. Things started to change two decades in – they got faster, more complicated and far less personal than when he was a TV guy.

One thing that didn’t change was you had to learn how to carry yourself like a pro. You had to learn how to interact with clients. You had to learn how to dress and to drink (yes, three-martini lunches were real). The older sales types would rib us younger guys mercilessly but they were training us, much as professional athletes will mess with rookies even as they’re teaching them how to dress and behave. I feel as if that’s gone today in many ways and I’m not a fan.

What’s changed now, another two decades in, is that there is so much unprofessional behavior that I’m beyond angry – I’m kind of sad. People who I barely know will ask me to make an introduction to someone they know I know. It seems as if many younger people operate in a transactional way – what can you do for me – rather than on an interpersonal way. Carrying themselves with character and decency seems a foreign notion. Showing up on time and dressed for business (not in a tie, not in a suit, but not in jeans and a T-shirt either) when you have a meeting are foreign notions.

The people who don’t need loans are the ones to whom banks want to give them. I always tried to look like I didn’t need a loan when I went in to ask for one. I carried the same thinking into my business life. Look successful. Carry yourself as if you are and understand the metrics that identify you as successful in your job. Be a pro. Don’t whine. Pitch in. Care about others and the team as much as you do yourself. Is all of that short for grow up?

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Learning To Make What You Can’t Eat

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic this week is allergies, specifically food allergies.  Milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States. Think for a minute about how many people are employed making food in the restaurant business. As with any large population, there is a percentage of those people with food allergies. Now, look at the previous list of the top things that cause those allergies. It’s pretty clear that if you have a food allergy and want to cook professionally that you’re going have to have a plan for dealing with it since the thing that causes it is probably going to be nearby quite a bit.

There is an article on Eater that discusses this topic. Called How Chefs With Food Allergies Make It Work, it’s an interesting look at how gluten intolerance affects a pasta chef and how other chefs deal with an inability to taste – or in some cases even to touch – an ingredient that sets off a bad reaction. I’d go beyond allergies, actually. Say you’re a vegetarian and you’re assigned to the meat station. How do you taste? What about a vegan who is assigned to make a stew or chili, where seasoning is paramount and tasting required? If you can’t touch fish, how can you tell when it’s properly cooked?

There’s a lesson in there for any of us in business. I used to supervise technical people and I’m not a highly technical person myself. I couldn’t see if lines of code were messed up nor could I grasp the intricacies of a network beyond a certain point. I was like a chef with an allergy – I couldn’t personally taste and instead I had to rely on others. What I could do – and what you can do when you find yourself in a similar situation – is to learn to ask the right questions. A chef that can’t taste a dish can ask if there is a balance between salt and acid. He can ask what flavors are dominant and if the ingredient that’s being highlighted is predominant enough. You may not be able to “taste” your accounting but you can ask the right questions about how things are being done. You’re not a lawyer (no allergic jokes please) so you can’t “taste” the various indemnifications and liabilities, but you can ask the lawyer the right questions about specific concerns you might have.

Learning to ask the right questions and learning how to listen carefully to answers is part of being a great businessperson. You may be unable to taste or touch a particular area of the business but you can always use others to fill in your understanding just as a chef with allergies uses others to help them. In fact, that “liability” is actually an asset in a time when more customers suffer from the same issues. As one chef is quoted, “Someone with allergies is going to be a lot more cognizant and proactive in the kitchen space.” I take that to mean someone who has learned to work with others toward a common goal that’s customer-focused. Isn’t that why we’re all in business?

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Going Negative

It’s a bit less than a week before Election Day and I, for one, can’t wait for the elections to be over. That will mean that the political ads will end too, and that can’t happen soon enough.

Putting aside politics, the vast bulk of these ads are horrible marketing. One thing that marketers learned long ago doesn’t work is badmouthing your competition; yet damn near every ad I see across the multitude of channels I watch and stream is 30 seconds of negativity. These folks spend their allotted time distorting positions, taking things out of context, and flat-out lying in many cases. The candidate-produced ads are bad and the PAC-produced ads are even worse. You’d think they’d stop. In 2007, the Journal Of Politics did a study of negative ads. They found:

…that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.

While campaign consultants seem to think that these ads work, science proves otherwise. Of course, there are many folks out there who don’t believe in science but that’s another screed…

It’s bad marketing. Going negative makes you look petty and unprofessional. Playing up your strengths always works better than bashing a competitor’s weaknesses. Good marketers explain how they are going to solve your problems. I think good politicians should do that too. I don’t want “small” people representing me. If you can’t run on your positions and your solutions, then how am I to trust that you can outperform the one running against you?

This applies to your business as well, obviously. Do you see a lot of non-political negative ads? No, you don’t. There are many good reasons for that. Do you see a lot of false claims in non-political ads? You sure don’t – there are laws against it. The FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium. That is, advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers. A claim can be misleading if relevant information is left out or if the claim implies something that’s not true. It seems to me that many political ads do just that, unfortunately.

Politicians may be brands, but they sure don’t advertise as if they were. Going negative isn’t particularly helpful in non-political marketing and it’s just as bad in politics. That’s one man’s opinion. What’s yours?

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