Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter” at Work?

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The Fighter (2010) is an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), a professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for him. Stymied by his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) badly mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of embarrassing defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on with his family members in The Fighter, too often executives and senior managers fail to lead effectively and treat workers with respect and civility.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place.

Starbucks is one example of post-founder management that missed the mark badly. After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued a nearly ruinous ‘management by the numbers’ strategy along with massive over-expansion that made the company less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

There are many far worse examples out there, from so-called “professional” turnaround management teams to the likes of James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, who simply abdicated his responsibility to cultivate innovation to grow the top line and revitalize the company. Instead, Kilts simply declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead fixated on shareholders as the only company stakeholders, overseeing massive layoffs and cost-cutting. With a compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold Gillette in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, became just another division of Proctor & Gamble.

In an organization with a management team that has merely inherited the fruits of innovation from previous leaders, innovation becomes devalued and “leaders” take short-sighted actions, often based on their “knowledge” of the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

~ Anthony F. Smith, consultant and author

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that burns out workers and punishes them for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward (or even recognize) successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded or recognized in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion debunks the book’s own premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it. I’m sure that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few nickels less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on such “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this issue in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

Once again Mr. James Kilts comes to mind. After selling off Gillette, he authored a book, paradoxically entitled Doing What Mattersin which he proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Successfully mandating a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count. Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! This is not leadership; it’s an example of executive tinkering over administrative “problem solving.”

Source: New York Times (click for source page)

In The Fighter, Micky Ward’s fortunes begin to change when he begins to surround himself with professionals who set the right environment and agenda to start setting him up for success.

Similarly, in the world of work, I hope your company’s leaders and managers are also setting the right environment, agenda and vision to innovate – thereby setting up the company, your co-workers, and you for success.