Friday, October 29, 2010

This probably disqualifies me for a job on NPR, but like Juan Williams, I’m sometimes guilty of making snap judgments about people based on their clothing. Take Yankees fans. Please.

Sometimes it’s hard not to jump to conclusions about a franchise’s supporters. Of course, not all pinstripe-wearing Yankees fans are obnoxious. Probably.

But fans of extremely successful sports teams – like the Yankees – seem to have this in common: If their team beats your team they rub it in; if your team beats their team they say it doesn’t matter because they have 1,500 championship rings.

When I first became interested in baseball, back in the early 1960s, the Senators had just moved to Minnesota and become the Twins. Like most of the kids in my hometown, I was immediately hooked on baseball and the new franchise. Root, root, rooting for the home team wasn’t just a matter of loyalty, in my opinion, it was a sacrament.

Then I met Bud Sterling. Bud was a Yankees fan. A traitor to the hometown boys and those nice Cuban players Calvin Griffith signed. Bud wasn’t a transplant from the East Coast or anything like that, he just liked the Yankees because they had a lineup of powerhouse stars and a whole bunch of pennants and World Series rings.

I liked some of the Yankees’ players well enough. I went to grade school with Roger Maris’ niece, which was a pretty close brush with fame for that time and place. I admired Mickey Mantle’s skills and well-remember the time I saw him hit two towering home runs during a July 4 doubleheader at the old Metropolitan Stadium. I remember it so well, in fact, that I wonder if it actually happened.

I like some of the Yankees players today, too. It’s hard not to like Derek Jeter and I respect the skills of Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano and several of the other guys on the team. I’d like them better if they played for the Twins or Diamondbacks, of course. After all, as Jerry Seinfeld observed, being an American sports fan actually means you’re rooting for that team’s clothes.

I sometimes make exceptions for the Yankees, the Lakers and a couple of the Vikings’ football rivals, but in general I prefer to root for my teams rather than against someone else’s. Sometimes, though, the distinction isn’t that clear. At a Diamondbacks-Yankees game a couple of years ago my son and I sat a few rows in front of woman who obviously had consumed a few frosty beverages. Every time the Yankees captain came to the plate, made a play or had the audacity to appear on the field she loudly yelled, “Jeter sucks ass!” at the top of her lungs. This went on for a number of innings before she finally yelled out, “Hey … why am I the only one cheering for the Diamondbacks?”

Yup … sometimes it’s a pretty fine line.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When bosses go undercover

I normally avoid reality shows like the Jersey Shore kids shun li-baries. But I admit to being hooked on “Undercover Boss,” which airs Sunday evenings on CBS.

You probably know the formula, which hasn’t varied a bit in the four episodes I’ve watched.

· The CEOs go undercover for a few days, posing as new employees of their company. The producers choose consumer-oriented companies (hotel, restaurant, retail store) with multiple locations and lots of lower-wage employees who interact with customers.

· The bosses assume the wardrobe and the role of regular employees working regular shifts, facing tasks as varied as frying donuts and cleaning up feces. “Never mind the cameras,” coworkers are told. We’re shooting a documentary on people changing careers.”

· The bosses invariable find most of their employees to be true working-class heroes, but note shortcomings in company policies, procedures and the operations themselves.

· They return to the boardroom with a list of action items for their staffs.

· Finally they reveal their true identities and change everyone’s lives.

The concept is sappy and contrived for sure. After all my years in corporate communications, I can imagine the jockeying that goes on behind the scenes to make sure the right locations, programs and employees are featured – “right” being defined as those that will make an interesting story while painting the company in a very positive light.

I chuckle each week when, without exception, one of the frontline employees does or says something that causes the producers to cut away to the image of a disgusted and disguised CEO who can’t believe what he or she just heard. Somebody on the boss’ staff is also going to hear about this. And it just might be the communications guy.

For example, on a recent episode the likeable president and CEO of Choice Hotels was working with a friendly and capable front desk clerk at one of the chain’s properties. She mentioned that she loved the hospitality industry and wanted to eventually become a hotel manager.

“Does Choice offer any training?” the undercover boss asked, knowing the answer. “Nope,” the woman replied. Cut away to horrified CEO. “I’m putting millions of dollars into Choice University,” he railed seconds later in an aside to the camera, “and her leaders haven’t told her a thing about it!”

I wonder if that’s true, but it doesn’t really matter. It's enough that the boss believes it to be true, because he heard it with his own ears. I also wonder how long it was before the communicator issued a reminder on the wonders of Choice University to all employees.

It’s a fact that even the smartest of bosses often react or perhaps overreact to the most recent input they receive, no matter how isolated, opinionated or invalid that input may be. It’s human nature and a fact of life for communicators who often find that – for some bosses – well-thought-out communications strategies, feedback mechanisms and measurement tools are not nearly as credible as chance encounters in the hall.