Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Eight

Want Loyalty? Buy A Cocker Spaniel

Maybe it began with the go-go 80s, that memorable time when we had an actor as president, back when Madonna was called "The Material Girl", and not the Biblical and reinvented Ester. A popular movie was "Wall Street", and it was about greed. No one really got the point. The main character, played by Michael Douglas, was called Gekko. Gordon Gekko's mantra about greed being good and right went down like a cola-flavored slurpy. Otherwise, would we have had Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi, and a host of other corporate bad boys?

I really don't know when professional employees started having more loyalty to their dentists and their hairdressers than to the folks who give them a paycheck. However, I'm the guy whose dentist has blowtorch breath and I go to a $5 barber. You know, barber, one of those people with the girlie calendars on the wall and a linoleum floor that looks like the world's largest cat coughed up a fur-ball.

Which brings me to the question of the day. When did loyalty die? This is not a complaint, merely an unscientific observation. All I know is that Dagwood Bumstead in the comic strip Blondie worked for his boss, Mr. J.C. Dithers, from 1933 until the last time you opened the Sunday papers. Now that was loyalty.

However, today the perception of job security has done a complete somersault. Manchester Partners International, an outplacement company, in 2004 conducted a major study of college graduates. A majority said they expected to be laid off at least once during their careers. Some were really pessimistic, with six per cent saying they expected to be laid-off four or more times. We're not talking blue-collar working stiffs here. What is it with these kids? If I am out of work for 45 minutes, I start thinking about filing for bankruptcy. I have managed to stay continuously employed at something from age 12.

However, today even CEOs have an on-the-job lifespan of one of those crazy suicide bombers. Can you imagine becoming a supreme leader of a Fortune 500 company that has its stock stuck in reverse? What are you going to do? To begin with, you fire 20,000 people. That's the surest way to show action and short-term results, a purge. Quick, throw the old men over first. Then the ugly women. See anyone with a limp?

Business Week and the Financial Times will write stories about Machete Marvin at the publicly traded Appaloosa Saddle Corp., and you will become a legend in the annals of business macho men. If you can play a guitar in a band on the side and you ride a Harley Davidson, you'll get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. The company's stock, sensing action, will move upward. The Board will vote you a pay raise, and give you an unlimited amount of money to buy Wassily Kandinsky's finest paintings for the lobby, even if no one understands them.

You have it made-until the next quarterly report is due. There is no loyalty to the CEO. No loyalty to upper and middle management. And definitely no loyalty to the army of guys and gals pushing paper and selling gizmos. And they have no loyalty to the company. Say it ain't so, Joe. Didn't we have good attendance at the company picnic?

Angst, My Own

I write this knowing an employee walked out the door recently, and with him took a client who conveniently decided not to pay us. This is Eastern Europe. The client was an oligarch of the semi-gangster variety, which is to say he didn't make his money the old fashioned way. We don't often take on such clients, but distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the merely ugly can sometimes be a challenge. This client had a monopoly on bad manners, only meeting with my guys at two in the morning as if he was Howard Hughes or Dracula. We should have run, not walked away from him day one. The Silverback was napping.

However, eventually we cut our losses and moved on. We nursed a few scratches, but nothing fatal. The Wild East sometimes lives up to its reputation, though most often not. However, I remain curious about the socio-phenomenon of loyalty taking a powder. Perhaps such a bond of loyalty never really existed and is simply a figment of my imagination.

However, in 12 years working in Kyiv and in Moscow, this is the first instance of an employee walking out the door and tossing a hand grenade over his shoulder. This is as phenomenal as it is unusual. We have staff of nearly 100 now, but we started with an original 25. Of that group, 15 are still holding down positions - most senior positions - after a dozen years.

Why do they remain loyal?

I would like to think this is because of my sterling personality, but I kid myself. I am neither Elvis nor Bill Clinton. I'm the short, fat guy who sits in the biggish office, said office having been dubbed by employees as "the yellow submarine" because of its color, shape and oddly placed windows. Our entire office is rather eclectic, befitting an advertising agency. However, I have long since come to know that the trappings of the office have about as much to do with morale as silly motivational plaques hung all around.

In a previous company, I installed a popcorn machine, a pool table, a giant TV, and a basketball hoop, and even turned the creative area into an art deco-styled diner atmosphere. This was during a period when dot.coms were the rage, and the management style of the times was Kindergarten Realism. There is a marginal argument to make that it aided the creative process. However, the fact is, morale is based on a more human equation and such trappings are merely butterscotch on top of vanilla.

I came to Eastern Europe years ago as the strange American. I am still American and, while not as strange today, probably "oddly peculiar" as my grandmother and Charlie Dickens would say. I have had the unique opportunity of building businesses on two continents, and plying my trade on two others. Among employees, I have found very few differences. There are the leaders and the followers; there are the doers and laggards, but all react in one form or another to that human equation of morale building. It primarily has to do with making a connection and with feelings of worth.

In the West-regardless of professional career-there is the constant revolving door, the moving up in the market. This is good. Why would anyone want to play Bridgeport when they can play Broadway? Taking the opportunity to better one's self is certainly the American Way. My own career path has led from newspapers to wire service to politics, to political consulting, to owning a business, to being a hired hand, and back to owning a business. The above sentence contained three distinct career evolutions; and, if there appeared to be a reversal of fortune here and there, it was by choice.

I never hesitated to say good-bye when opportunity gently rapped. However, I also never left in a mean-spirited way, or gloated that all my colleagues would see of me would be the bottom of my heels as I sprinted away. I not only left a bridge by which to return, I tried to paint the bridge before I left. My resignation letters could be set to music, for they were heartfelt and appreciative. Leaving someone in a lurch or walking away with a client would have been as alien to me as pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs or pulling wings off butterflies. While circumstances were such that I never needed to return to a position, I knew I would always be welcomed back. In fact, to this day, Sen. Robert Byrd has a framed copy of my resignation letter on his reception wall. When I returned to visit him after many years, he treated me as the prodigal son. He wore a corduroy suit, which he said was in my honor, for the first day I walked into his office, the eclectic variety of such was what I wore.

In 1983, I went to work for John D. Rockefeller. No, I am not that ancient. My employer was John D. Rockefeller IV, not the founder of the Standard Oil dynasty. Previous to me, his communications director had been the knowledgeable and influential head of the West Virginia Press Association. There was a big difference, however, between the two of us. To me, it was a job that I accepted in exchange for money. In addition, having been offered that job, I owed the then-governor my loyalty and allegiance. On the other hand, my predecessor wanted to be adopted, sort of become a little Rockefeller. He obviously had not read the line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Rich Boy, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." I wanted nothing, other than to help Rockefeller get to the U.S. Senate.

When Rockefeller's wife, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, asked one day if I would be joining them in Washington, D.C. when her husband was elevated to the Senate, I politely answered that it would not be possible. Though I thoroughly enjoyed working for the governor, I considered it bad form to go from one senator to another senator from the same state, and I had worked for Robert C. Byrd, the Senate's Democratic Leader from West Virginia, for the previous eight years. I did set up an advertising and public relations business with the help of Rockefeller, for I had a two-year salary agreement to work only for the initial year, and to give informal advice in the second.

In exchange for this courtesy of working for bosses I liked and who rewarded me, I never failed to serve in the capacity of agent or advocate for my previous superiors. Even today, 25-years later, I still telephone my old boss, Sen. Byrd on his birthday. Though United Press International is now owned by the Unification Church and is only a shadow of its former self, I still keep in contact with old colleagues from UPI days. While I worked with Sen. Rockefeller only one year, helping elevate him from governor to senator, he remains an object of my admiration and warm remarks. In nearly 40-years of full time, paid work, I cannot recall ever leaving a job due to unhappiness, or because I had a truly intolerable boss. I would not accept that.

In Soviet times, one did not change jobs often. In fact, it was a sign of instability to go from one position to another, a characteristic frowned upon. The employment book that was the permanent record of each Soviet citizen's work history might remain at the same place of employment for his or her entire life. Today, some people switch jobs more often than Madonna changes clothes, particularly in white-collar service industries.

However, the Willard Group's professional workforce has been exceedingly stable. I would like to think that this is because I am considered a fair boss. However, I feel constrained to note that these are my words, and not unsolicited testimonials from employees who might have used the same data to reach a contrary conclusion. What is fair? That, my friends, is the famous "to be or not to be" question, which I will discuss most ably as the great silverback proceeds. First, I believe it begins with communication.

Willard Notes

Want to know how much we made last month and how much our expenses are? I'm not going to tell you, but I am going to share it with my employees who might want to know, especially those vital to the growth of the company.

Want to know my hopes, my highlights, my fascinations, and my disappointments - all as they relate to our business?

All you have to do is get on the list for my Willard Notes, a morning memo I send out by 6:30 a.m. every morning to every employee. Why do I send it out before sunrise? Because leadership means you get up first, you run harder through the day, and you still have sufficient kick by Miller Time to lead the pack. I want everyone to know that the boss is thinking about the business before they've had their first cup of coffee. This is not to shame them, but to lead them, and that is done by example. I am told that all can determine my mood of the moment by reading Willard Notes, whether or not it is a good day to ask for a raise; or, in some cases, a bad day to ask for a paper clip.

I am a proverbial blabbermouth, holding very little back. I proceed on the premise that the last great secrets had to do with the D-Day invasion and Colonel Sander's 11 herbs and spices in his original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everybody will know everything eventually, so why not give professional employees a first peek.

Did I wake up imagining the possibility of opening a new office in Washington? Tell 'em about it. Did someone do a spectacular job the day before? Share it with the whole office. Did the Great Silverback really screw up on an assignment? Confess it to the whole office before they start whispering about it. Are we heading for a rough patch? Console and exhort them at the same time.

There are practical purposes as well; I share my daily schedule in which I try to have all employee meetings in the morning, starting at 8:15 and ending about 11. This leaves the afternoon free for client meetings, writing assignments, and that 45- minute afternoon walk that I call Park Therapy. Though it is a little corny, I start off each morning note with a quote, and actually take the time to try and make someone else's pithy remarks apply to our business situation. From time to time, a group of strangers will appear on the page, usually with such names as Harvey Strange, Rigor Motlow and Pug Sage, three of my more common alter egos. Nearly 2,000 of those notes have fluttered through cyberspace in the last dozen years. I find that good communications gives you a chance to be fair day-in and day-out.

willard notes, Friday, Feb. 1

good morning pirates

"Creative ideas flourish best in a shop which preserves some spirit of fun. Nobody is in business for fun, but that does not mean there cannot be fun in business," Leo Burnett.

MW sked:
7:00 Russian Lesson
8:15 Robert
8:30 Scott and Rostick
10:00 Olga G.
10:30 Oksana
12:30 lunch with Danone MD
Evening: Segodnya party
Saturday club as usual

The above quote by Mr. Burnett is close to my heart. The older I get, the more I put business into perspective. It is not about being bigger. It is about being better. It is not about making money--that's not too hard--it's about enjoying making money.

--This has led me to certain thoughts about our agency that are crystallizing. I note it here because I tend to share thoughts leading up to decisions--sort of a safety valve. Roman Diukarev (in Moscow office) has experienced this often.

--This is not to be mysterious--only to refer back to Mr. Burnett's wise quote. In other words, while honoring all clients, I never fear--to the point of anxiety-- losing any client, regardless of size. I want us to be good at what we do, and to enjoy what we do.

--This is where I feel I am most often misread--on my fear quotient. The last thing I am afraid of is change. I embrace it. I live for productive change. It keeps us sharp, and makes life more interesting.

We could, of course, make more money if we followed the crowd. As most everyone knows by now, I cherish our honesty in the market over loads of business coming in. Otherwise, we would do like many agencies do, offer and receive kickbacks.

--Kickbacks have become--perhaps always were-- so common they have become custom. It is a custom to which we will never become accustomed. While on this Friday soapbox, I continue....

In my heart, I know that the only way we can lose in Eastern Europe is to hold the past in a death grip. We need to recognize this fact: We can't offer the same product as a hundred other agencies. This makes being better in a subjective field problematic at best.

-For example, the 30-second spot, as it applies to traditional TV, will pass from the scene. The press release, as we know it today, will be a relic in the near future. Have we been thinking about what's next? This is the central question for all of us.

Though Scott will be away, public relations meeting as usual at 9:30 Monday morning.

We presented to Fly, the mobile phone folks, yesterday. The team was Olga Deviatka, Maxim R. and Nikita. We are in the process of making a decision on whether to pursue it.

On occasion, I am asked my thoughts about the studio and a promised reshuffling. That day is near. The goal will be to maximize time and budgets. A second goal is to do this within our current resources. I am happy to discuss preliminary thoughts with anyone.

We have been retained by Ruslan International Limited to aid in helping Antonov workers obtain visas to Great Britain. Robert brought it in. It is worth about $8,000 over two months. Additionally, Robert has brought a major conference at least to our door-one sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. We still have to win it.

Finally, one of my paintings went to Billy Schmitt, publisher of Segodya, for his birthday. The auction house of Strange, Sage and Motlow valued it at $7,000, which, I believe, is a record for an original Willard. It was the framed red poppy picture in my office. Have a good weekend.


Reality Bites
Reality Bite 1.) Studies show there is no loyalty to the organization in business these days. This is not the fault of the employee, but the fault of the organization and its Neanderthal leadership, which these days often has web feet and scales and talks in tongues.

Reality Bite 2.) The company Christmas party does not make up for a 364 days of total neglect. Don't tell them you love them, show them. Let me count the ways: Better communication, creative rewards, meaningful and sincere praise -- and a new Lexus. I might have gone too far with the last suggestion.

Reality Bite 3.) If the employee leaves singing that old Kingston Trio song: "Got along without you before I met you, going to get along without you now. Met someone that's twice as cute because I didn't love you anyhow," you've have probably flunked loyalty building. If he or she writes you a metaphoric love letter, then you get four stars with oak leaf clusters.

Reality Bite 4.) Know when to let go. It is not your job as a manager to make the employee happy. It is the employee's job. It is your job to provide a good working atmosphere, and proper stimulus for growth. I once suggested to an employee I liked and who was extremely talented that it was time for him to leave. He had outgrown the company, and I couldn't offer another growth opportunity. I knew if he stayed he would end up hating the organization - and me.

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