The Corporation as an Incubator
In the 2012 presidential campaign, every time President Obama pounded the podium and demanded, "We must invest in job training programs" it turned my gut into knots.
I saw this as expensive big government overreach—getting into areas that are better handled by people in the workplace.
It seems to me that the logical place to look for filling jobs is within, just like the farm system in Major League Baseball.
Let Me Share With You a Story ...
In 1964, I was out of a job. My skills and experience were thin: a little bit of book publicity and promotion and some book sales—traveling the country for a publisher selling books to retail stores, wholesalers and libraries and belting down vodka martinis with fellow book salesmen.
A friend of mine named Lew Smith worked for Grolier Enterprises, a mail order company that was bringing in buckets of cash by selling Dr. Seuss books to kids in classrooms all over the country, using teachers and parents as the conduits.
The key copy drivers: implicit fear and greed. (i.e., "If your students can't read, you have failed as a teacher. What's more, without this basic skill, the kids will never get a decent job and later in life won't have enough money to take care of their parents when they are old").
With Grolier looking to expand its business, Lew hired me to see if I could expand its business from the classroom to libraries and school libraries.
This idea did not work out. But luckily for me at that moment in time Grolier management decided to start a paperback book club. It was to be for young children in classrooms in direct competition with Scholastic and a small upstart called the Willie Whale Book club.
I was summoned into the office of Grolier's president, Elsworth Howell, whose real love was Howell Book House, a line of technical books on breeding and training show dogs. Howell himself not only owned purebred dogs, but also was a regular judge at the annual Westminster Kennel Club championships at Madison Square Garden. He was a fascinating man.
Also in the meeting: Executive Vice President Bob Clarke, a lovely guy and legend in direct marketing, who had started in the Grolier mailroom; Ed Bakal, a tough former paratrooper who had jumped into Normandy on D-Day; and Lew Smith, elegant, professorial and married to a concert pianist.
"We are going to start the Peter Possum Book Club for grades one, two and three," Howell said to me. "And you are Peter Possum."
I was to choose and edit the books, write and design all the promotional material, decide on tests and mailing schedules, track responses and tally up the money.
Howell then set the ground rules.
"Unlike Scholastic and Willie Whale, these books will be in full color throughout, 64 pages and will be priced at 35¢ each. You have to figure out the cover art, because we cannot afford varnish."
Howell looked out the window for a split second and then turned to me and said, "One more thing. I am not going to pay royalties to authors or illustrators. This means all titles must be out of copyright and in public domain."
This was the first "Holy Shit!" moment in my short career. I didn't know squat about mail order or book clubs or public domain or book production or writing and designing direct mail promotions.
In short, I was handed a big job for which I as totally unqualified.
The Grolier Enterprises School of Direct Marketing
In place was the system for selling books to kids through the teacher.
This meant creating and sending a fat booklet with tear-out pages that became promotional slips for the kids to show their parents. Working together, the parent would help the child select the books and then give the kid 35¢ up to a buck or two. The teacher would collect the money, send in a check to Peter Possum along with the children's orders and her selection of free premium books for her classroom library (or to give to those kids who could not afford to buy books). Books would arrive in the classroom and the teacher would distribute them to the students.
I quickly became an expert in copyright law and started frequenting New York antique shops and the legendary Strand Bookstore, buying out-of-copyright children's books with magnificent artwork by such great illustrators of the past as Beatrix Potter, Walter Crane, Edward Lear, L. Leslie Brooke, Gustav Doré and Boutet de Monvel. The design of the covers was elegant and practical—much white space with a four-color illustration in a center oval. It was practical, because money was being saved by not varnishing the covers. Had unvarnished ink been on the cover edges, little fingers would have become dirty and the cover and pages smudged.
I learned book production from a wizard named Marty Goodman, became conversant with lists, tests and keying from one of the industry's great professionals, Mike Chomko. I wrote and designed the mailing package—which meant knowing about letters, brochures, order devices and placement of address in the window of an envelope. The great art director Gil Evans taught me basic design.
The thing was a wild success. Every morning I would stop in the mail room and see workers unloading canvas bags full of orders and teachers' checks. It was thrilling!
The Secret of the Success: Great Mentoring
Here was the great part. I was a direct mail virgin and knew it and management knew it.
An all-points bulletin went out to the entire company telling people to give me any help I asked for to make this project work.
I worked 14-hour days and weekends and lost a wife in the process. Every time I found myself in deep and over my head I would yell for help. One of the four partners would immediately clear his desk, sit me down, talk me through the problem, pat me on the head and send me on my way.
These guys mentored me. They were patient, every now and then talking me off the edge and always taking time to explain how and why things worked in terms of the philosophy and history of direct marketing.
With access to all departments and executives, I saw close up the inner workings of the company and grew intimately familiar with the corporate culture and how to get things done.
I will tell anyone that it was the greatest job I ever had. It was total immersion, and I earned what had to be the equivalent of an MBA in direct mail, testing and book club management in five months.
No government schooling program could have taught me this stuff.
Nine Jobs in My First 12 Years in Business (and fired from five of them)
Mine was not a pretty career. When I arrived for work at several later jobs, I was shown my office, typewriter, telephone and where the men's room was and told to have at it.
Without the Grolier Enterprises experience—and the generosity and nurturing of those four executives and my associates throughout the company—I would likely have become a street person.
Takeaways to Consider
- When Peggy and I took over Target Marketing, a program was in place to take on interns from the Temple University publishing program. Their course work included real-world experience. Not only were these hard working young women—whom I was privileged to mentor closely—but also on graduation they joined the staff full time and became wonderful writers, reporters and editors.
- Conversely, some of the editors hired from the outside were disappointments. They were either too proud—or ashamed—to ask questions and, as a result, tried to fake stuff. I remember several times saying that I did not understand a sentence or a paragraph. "I don't understand it either," the editor would answer, "but that's what the guy told me in the interview." One editor said, "I figured you'd catch it and make it right."
- Are the people you work with familiar with all aspects of your business? Or is their experience one-dimensional and their knowledge confined to the job they were hired to fill?
- Doesn't it make sense to send a person in the accounting office along on a sales call, learn about production and scheduling and spend a couple of days in the marketing department to engender familiarity with what their colleagues in other areas do?
- Over the years I have broached the question of mentoring and familiarizing new employees with the overall business model and corporate culture. This gambit almost always triggers a conversation about Procter & Gamble—the gold standard in grooming employees. From the P&G website:
Built from within
P&G people are the Company's most important asset and source of competitive advantage. Our success depends entirely on the strength of our talent pipeline, which we build from within and manage with a disciplined process led by the CEO and the senior leadership team.
Our approach to developing leaders at P&G is elegantly simple. We take the same rigorous and disciplined approach to developing leaders at P&G around the world in every business and at every level.
- Also from the 2011 Procter & Gamble website:
Get an inside look at P&G!
Procter & Gamble is offering the experience of a lifetime. During the months of July & August 2011, P&G will host five different programs at our Global headquarters in Cincinnati, OH. These workshops are designed to give top diverse students the chance to learn about various functions throughout P&G, as well as provide an early opportunity to interview for internship roles in 2012. Additionally, ALL EXPENSES ARE PAID!
- If a formal mentoring program is not part of your corporate culture, rethink it. Your future depends on it.