Brandt On Leadership -- Breakouts, Booze And Bad Shirts

It's time for the boondoggle boogie.

It's almost February, also known as Corporate Boondoggle Season. You know what a Boondoggle is: That trip to someplace warm with your company or professional association or trade group, complete with "Meetings" (Salon A, 8:30-11:30), "Recreation" (Overpriced Designer Golf Course, 12-5), "Networking" (Pool, 6-9), and "Industry Breakouts" (Bar, 9:01-Close). For many executives, it's just not February without the sight of Tiki torches and ill-advised Hawaiian shirts. (Did you see that?) Of course, in these post-Tyco, post-Enron days, it's not fashionable to speak well of the Boondoggle; shareholders hate them. We're told they're a symbol of corporate excess, the money could be better spent on (name your favorite cause), etc., etc. It's all true, sort of, and yet . . . allow me to confess: I have attended Boondoggles. I have planned and led Boondoggles. I have given countless speeches at other people's Boondoggles. And I have loved (almost) each and every one. I have been at Boondoggles in the desert (colder than you think on the patio at night), on the islands (what was that thing that just ran across my ankle?) and in the basement of a cold-weather Marriott in January (a Boondoggle to be sure, but not the kind to repeat.) I have eaten boa constrictor at a safari Boondoggle; played miniature golf in a hotel ballroom with John O'Hurley (the J. Peterman character on Seinfeld); been photographed with Las Vegas showgirls; clapped for various has-been rock bands; and said "No, thank you" to more half-warmed appetizers than I can remember. (Never eat mussels from a buffet. Trust me on this). This isn't to say, of course, that every Boondoggle has been fun in a conventional sense; and yet often the cheesier the event, the more interesting the observations. Who can forget, after all, the vicious irony of watching a drunken CEO in a flowered shirt proclaim that the people of thish company are what ish all about, nine months after a brutal layoff? Who hasn't watched in stunned awe as the Sales Director From Fargo proclaimed how the company has defined and broadened the vista of his life? (Should I laugh or cry?) In short, it's no wonder that the Boondoggle has a bad reputation these days. And yet the Boondoggle endures, for three reasons: The Human Touch: Hard as we try with Web sites and interactive voicemail, we will never eliminate the need for pressing the flesh. In fact, an argument can be made that our increasing reliance on technology for customer service has made human contact a scarce commodity, driving up its perceived value among customers. The best Boondoggles put the right people in close contact, leading to relationships, creativity and profits. The Focus Factor: We are so awash in information -- e-mails, memos, market reports, magazines, meetings, yada, yada, yada -- that most of us respond positively to any sort of prioritization. The Boondoggle corrals us and compels us to listen and maybe even think for days at a time about topics that mattered enough for us to spend cold, hard cash to get there in the first place. Life is Short: You could hold the winter sales meeting in Minneapolis (cheap hotel rooms), but . . . it's cold. Really cold. It gets dark before Happy Hour. And, well, it just seems unfair, asking people to give up their evenings, families and routines for days so that the company can make more money over the next year. Seen in this light, the Boondoggle is a good faith trade -- time for warmth -- that makes employees feel they've been treated fairly. And, of course, that they -- and you -- aren't turning into that Sales Director From Fargo. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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