Existing in corporate reality

I guess it's not surprising that corporations take themselves and their competitors very seriously.

I guess it's not surprising that corporations take themselves and their competitors very seriously.

Coke people don't order Pepsi (or even Tropicana orange juice for that matter). Microsoft employees won't use Google for searches. Folks at Procter & Gamble won't brush their teeth with Colgate. And if you're a vendor, fuhggedaboudit. Proud companies don't want their vendors using a competing product.

When I worked at Nissan, the corporate loyalty thing was taken to an entirely new level. Nissan was part of something called the "Fuyo Group," which was a kind of loose banking conglomerate made up of large companies from specific industries who were obligated to use each other's services. So when I was with Nissan colleagues in Japan, we had to drink Sapporo beer, use Ricoh copiers, and take pictures with Canon cameras because they were all fellow members of the Fuyo Group.

In the US, our competitive juices were focused on Toyota and Lexus. We were a bit obsessive about it. That's why I was so astounded when a guy who worked for me displayed a level of corporate tone deafness I'd never experienced before.

It happened during a recession when we downsized the communications department, but in classic corporate form, we rehired most of the laid-off employees as contractors. One of the rehires was a talented video producer to whom we gave a lot of work. About six months after offering him a nice fat consulting gig, he showed up at Nissan headquarters in a brand spanking new Lexus. Worse yet, he had the temerity to show it off to us. I almost had to cancel his contract on the spot. Ultimately, I made him promise never to show up again in a competitor's car.

Corporate tone deafness isn't just about brand loyalty, but in- ternal political realities, too. I exhibited my own deafness to this one year. At Nissan, we had a big network of salespeople calling on dealers. They spent most of the week on the road in their cars. We created an audio cassette newsletter they could listen to while driving. It was a kind of prehistoric podcast.

The problem I ran into was one of perception. During the recession, our department continued to send out these audio cassettes to all employees. Even though these mass-produced cassettes were actually quite cheap, the perception among staffers was we were laying off their colleagues while continuing to waste money on stupid, expensive programs, such as audio newsletters, that mostly ended up in the trash. It only took about six complaining e-mails to the CEO before I almost ended up in the trash.

But I learned a key lesson: during a downturn, perceptions about being wasteful are particularly sensitive.

Later in my career, after the dot-com bust and 9/11, my company at the time was in the midst of layoffs and cutbacks. We held a management meeting to rally the troops at a cheap hotel near the airport in Dallas. On the first day, a wise guy from finance got up to read a list of the three attendees who spent the least on airfare for the meeting, as well as the three who spent the most. Two senior managers had bought first-class tickets and paid nearly 10 times what the three cheapest fliers did. The ensuing response felt like a stoning from the Middle Ages.

As the recession's impact still lingers, we all must remove our earplugs. And if you offer communications counsel to senior management, you must be like a deer listening for twigs cracking in the corporate forest.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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