Brandt on Leadership -- A Treasury of Cautionary Business Tales To Read Aloud

Jan. 12, 2008
You can read these on a plane. You can read these on a train.

A friend recently observed that annoying co-workers and bad bosses are really no different than obstreperous children -- and that the best way to deal with both is with the same firm hand that transforms rampaging rugrats into upstanding young citizens, or at least college graduates off your personal payroll. This novel concept sent me to the bookstore to find classic children's books retold for the corporate scene, including:

The Grinch Who Stole The Marketing Budget: Set not at Christmas but in the year's first quarter, this re-imagined tale features newly minted VP Chester E. Grinch. From high atop Mt. Customer-Free, this former engineer looks down in loathing upon the WhoCorp of marketers and sales representatives he has inherited, convinced he can improve profitability by cutting costs associated with all those wild advertising and promotional programs approved by his predecessor just three months before:

It could be that the PowerPoint just wasn't right.
It could be, perhaps, that his boxers were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his brain was two sizes too small....

...And the one speck of funding
He left in the budget
Was an error too small for even a marketer to fudge it.

Unfortunately, in this version the Grinch does not have an epiphany, does not return the money, and his brain does not grow three sizes that day. Or ever. Quite the contrary: After WhoCorp posts a one-year boost in profits, Chester gets promoted. The division tanks the next year, of course, and all the Who's get laid off, but the Grinch is long gone, recruited by another struggling firm. Oh, the places you'll go!

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the Never-Clean-Their-Coffee-Cuppers: Those with children will remember the original books, in which a charming old lady fixes the bad habits of neighboring children with magical cures. In the new workplace edition, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a kindly receptionist who eliminates the annoying habits of clueless and insensitive co-workers. The Anti-Cleaning Powder Cure, for example, causes an enormous clump of fungus to appear on the desks of the Never-Clean-Their-Coffee-Cuppers, while the Helium-Inhalation Spray Cure causes the Next-Cubicle-Over-Bad-1980s-Rock-Song-Hummers to squeak like mice every time they hum, sing or speak. Sadly for Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, a 21st-century human resources department takes a dim view of poisoning, no matter how well-deserved, and fires her on the spot.

Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery CEO: In which Christopher Robin, as chief executive of Hundred Acre Wood Properties Inc., becomes Impressed With His Own Intelligence, and proceeds to become a Major Blatherer on CNBC and at conferences, prattling endlessly about New Paradigms and Tectonic Shifts in Business Models. Meanwhile, back at the Wood, Piglet's division is Completely Surrounded by Foreign Competition, Pooh is caught with his Paw-in-the-Honey-Pot, and Owl is under Very Serious Investigation by the SEC. Mr. Robin does the only honorable thing: He outsources all of their positions, sells the Hundred Acres to a Chinese conglomerate, and joins an investment bank as a Well-Connected-But-Otherwise-Unemployable-Former-CEO-Turned-Senior-Advisor.

Goodnight, Spreadsheet: In this clever re-telling of the classic bedtime story for toddlers scared of the dark, a mid-level manager repeats a soothing mantra of financial mumbo jumbo to a boardroom full of senior executives anxious about fourth-quarter results:

Goodnight, spreadsheet. Goodnight, bonus.
Goodnight to the line of credit the bank finally loaned us....

Goodnight, load-ins. Goodnight, discount.
Goodnight 12/31 PO, that we hope might still count.

The words mean nothing, of course, but like those of the original, they calm the troubled souls of those who listen, allowing them to sleep blissfully unaware while the grown-ups get back to work, cleaning up the mess the children left behind.

What, you expected a happy ending?

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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