100 Ways to Succeed #72:

Beware the Sound of Laughter!

In his autobiography, General Norman Schwarzkopf takes us through his career. At one point he explains that he simply cannot tell a joke effectively. Forgets stuff. Timing off. Screws up the punchline. Etc. But then a funny thing happens. He becomes a general. And the minute he pins a star on his collar he apparently becomes hilarious—associates start laughing uproariously at his jokes.

The message is obvious, and has to do with all who manage, not just General Officers. And that message: Beware underlings who laugh at your jokes. Writ large, as is my habit: Once you become a boss you’ll never hear the unadulterated truth again. And that’s almost as true for a 20-year-old shift boss in a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet as for a senior middle manager or business owner.

You are a power figure. Moreover, others’ success at work is tied to your whims and fancies—as well as straightforward proof of performance.

The “remedy” is clear, too. For example, MBWA (Managing By Wandering Around) allows you to get far more direct “on the ground” information—Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is surrounded by very smart assistants and executives, yet he religiously visits at least 25 stores a week. A second strategy is making end runs around your own hierarchy. As President of PepsiCo, Andy Pearson would visit an operation such as Frito-Lay, and after an obligatory nod to the CEO, he would head directly to the bullpen where the junior sub-brand managers lived. He’d pick one at random, sit down with her for an hour and discuss what was going on in her neck of the woods. Not only would he be judging Frito’s bench strength, but also zeroing in on un-masticated data. A third strategy, if you’re well up the hierarchy, is to have a trusted “good cop” nearby. Call this spying if you must, but the idea is someone at hand who is friendly whom you ask to sniff around and give you some direct feedback on how things smell where the rubber meets the road.

So I remind all bosses, courtesy General Norm: Beware the sound of laughter!

(As always in the real world, there are a host of caveats. To cite one example, when “MBWA” becomes a State Visit, not only will nothing be gained, but quite a bit may be lost. Etc. Etc.)