Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2005


This article is a little unusual, in that it's about personnel issues.  It's also a little different because most of it was written in an internet cafe in the hinterlands of Brazil.  Global village, indeed.

The topic is weenies and how to keep them out of your organization.  Now, it's harder to define the characteristics of a weenie than you might think.  Try image-Googling "weenie," and you get jpegs of hot dogs.  Nerds, on the other hand, everyone knows (see right).  It's been obvious for 20 years that you want plenty of nerds in your high-tech company.  

In contrast, you don't want any weenies hanging around your organization -- but they seem to show up in nearly every function.  Yet nobody has really focused on preventing or eliminating them.  I can't stand to work around weenies, so I'm hoping my advice can help organizations get rid of them.

No Weenies

The problem with weenies is that they are usually in disguise.  They can be smart, educated, motivated, and sociable.  They can even be good people.  So what's the problem?  Nothing very useful ever gets done in the vicinity of a weenie.

There will be progress reports.  Meetings.  Genuine effort (or at least lots of frantic activity, cell-phone calls, and bogus "metrics").  Sometimes, even real work and lots of "deliverables."  But weenies prevent real progress because they cannot achieve anything beyond the conventional.  They never even try to:  they're in for their "40 hours" (even when it's 55).  Weenies are particularly deadly when they have political skills and have made it into management.

Given the number of weenies I run across in my consulting business, they are not a minor irritant.  They are stifling a lot of businesses, from startups to large bureaucracies.  And they seem to survive more than one round of layoff, so their influence does not automatically diminish with clamp-downs.

The Anti Weenie

Since it's tough to put your finger on exactly what's wrong with a weenie, let's describe the characteristics that they don't have.  Anti-weenies are almost the definition of what both leaders and subordinates dream about in a business person.  Anti-weenies:

  • Have a bias for action -- always try to getsomething done, no matter what.
  • Really own problems and action items.  Even when overloaded, they are willing to take on a little extra work on their own plate.
  • View risk as an ingredient, not a problem.
  • Thrive on making deadlines, and love to nail action items.  They make sure the ball is always in someone else's court.  And they follow up.
  • Like to make decisions, and avoid roadblocks with glee.  They don't delegate problems to their boss.  They never let decisions become fractal or recursive loops.  They take delight in cutting "Gordian knots." 
  • Are short on empty talk.  In fact, short on talk.
  • Never blame.  Never shy away from taking full responsibility.  Wouldn't dream of a "CYA" or political blame cycle.
  • Are more worried about missing an opportunity than they are about looking bad in case of failure.  Have no fear or hesitancy thanks to the bedrock of self-confidence.
  • Have infectious enthusiasm and energy; inspire confidence in their proposals and directions.
  • Always view delay and ambiguity as problems. 
  • Really know stuff, yet are quick to learn when they don't.  
  • Are always willing to take action with incomplete information, knowing that some problems aren't worth understanding completely.
  • Are not willing to settle with a question or an observation:  they insist on an action plan.
  • Don't hedge their bets, knowing they don't have enough resources for an insurance policy.  They know that the ultimate insurance policy is their own ability to recover from problems.
  • Have real attention to detail without crippling perfectionism.
  • Have the ability to smell and avoid "boil the ocean" problems.
  • Always see the big picture without informing everyone around them (you'd never climb Mt. Everest if you knew in advance how long and hard the journey was really going to be).

Weenies:  Don't Hire Them in the First Place

From the list above, it's pretty easy to build your own set of questions to ask during the interview process.  The most telling questions,  however, you can't ask the candidate:  instead, ask their prior subordinates and colleagues.  Interestingly, bosses of weenies seldom see the real picture, so ask candidates for references other than their manager.  As soon as you get on the phone with them, ask for names of their friends so you can check up on an un-prepped reference.

Weenies have a "tell" that makes it easy to detecting them:  weenies don't produce much independently.  And almost invariably, they do not keep a portfolio of things they've worked on.  So a killer question is to ask them to bring things to the interview that they personally produced, and in particular something they did that was not a success.  This is not a sure-fire test (some good people don't have a portfolio either), but you'll detect weenie behaviors in the way they explain (1) not having anything concrete to show for years of work, or (2) why something they were involved with didn't pan out.

Weenies:  Don't Grow them through your Management Style

Worse than hiring weenies is growing them through your company's own management style.  If you do this, you're creating an organizational disability.  And this happens too often even in small companies.  Why do you think Dilbert is so universally popular?

You grow weenies by making it unsafe for employees to take risks, make choices, stand out, or be even remotely associated with failure.  Great ways to grow weenies:

  • Promote managers way too fast, and make them grow their organizations quickly.
  • Promote and reward based on appearances/nuance, instead of business results.
  • Promote someone who really doesn't know the domain and doesn't want to learn it.
  • Reward "bid to win" intramural competition, where team leaders have clear incentives to low-ball budgets, over-promise deliverables, and play games with milestones.
  • Encourage short term thinking to the exclusion of all else; engage your people in fire-drills and "fetch a rock" exercises.
  • Make sure all interesting decisions must be escalated as high as possible in the organization; as a leader, question / overrule decisions made at every level of the organization.
  • Squelch innovative thinking and ridicule deviation from the party line.
  • Hold people accountable but don't give them control of resources.  Change the schedule and priorities randomly.
  • Use fear as a management tool.
  • Unduly reward political deftness.
  • Punish failure.

Usually, process enhancements do not help identify or eliminate weenie behaviors.  In fact, the reverse is true:  weenies find more places to hide when there are lots of process steps and meetings.

Unfortunately, the marketing profession is quite vulnerable to developing weenie behaviors, and the problem grows much faster if the company culture disdains marketing (as it may in high tech).  All too often, the reason I'm called in by clients is because they've got marketing weenies on board.

Weenies:  How to Handle an Infestation

2008 Update:  Will Phelps, Professor of Management at University of Rotterdam, did a research study on the three behaviors that really hurt group performance.  This is quite a feat, as group behaviors usually overwhelm individual preferences.  The three killer behaviors are:

  • Nasty - someone who's a jerk and attacks others even if done in a humorous or even sophisticated way

  • Slacker - someone who tries to "just get it over with" or game the system

  • Depressive pessimist - someone who's a downer, and who's all too willing to give up, question "why are we even doing this," or communicate "I already know the answer here."

These personality types are particularly poisonous in someone who is clearly capable, sensitive, or intelligent.  If you want to see all of these in action, just flip on an episode of The Office.

If your find weenies in your organization, the only cure I know of, sadly, is replacement.   Before you take any action on individuals, though, you need to figure out the Weenie network:  who are the managers, who are the subordinates that are playing games, what are the "internal rules" that help weenies flourish.  You must discover and remove the elements of corporate culture (as illustrated in Dilbert) and behaviors (as listed above) that make weenies grow in your firm.  If you don't, you're merely paving the way for hiring and growing more weenies.  

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