How often as a leader have you found yourself in the position where you have regretted a decision you have made, because the benchmark you created from the decision became a millstone around your neck? When your strategic thinking went awry?

The fable of The Man the Boy and the Donkey

Aesop, a Greek slave, wrote many fables and is accredited with thousands. Each has its own moral lesson and I find the morals applicable to business as much as they are to the trials and tribulations of personal life. The fable of the Man, the Boy and the Donkey has several lessons for us in business.

Let me summarise the fable, first before I draw on my conclusions on the business lessons available from this one fable.

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market.

As they were walking along by its side, a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster; he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself.

But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey with you and your hulking son?”

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders.

They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the Donkey fell over the bridge and, his fore-feet being tied together, he was drowned.

“That will teach you” said an old man who had followed them: “Please all, and you will please none.”

For me, there are several lessons for business contained in that one fable, depending on the context.

Managing People

Working with a client, which was part of a national resort and hotel chain, on improving the service delivered to customers by their 250 odd staff, I came across a manager who tried to please all of her staff. The manager was in charge of housekeeping. She had about 40 part time staff working for her. She struggled with enforcing standards of behaviour and of housekeeping. A minority of house-keepers seemed to have a view of how beds should be made, for example. This minority also had a view of what hours they should keep and what consituted reasonable notice of their unavailability for a shift.

Instead of enforcing standards which were published and communicated clearly, she tolerated non-standard behaviours and outcomes. She did so in the belief that people had legitimate concerns about the standards of housekeeping and legitimate reasons for being late. What she only realised later was that by not enforcing a standard with a minority, she was annoying the majority who met both the standards of housekeeping and behaviour. She lost these good people as they resigned because of the frustration with her leadership. Performance declined as the standards became Illusory.

In the end she lost her job because of the poor performance and high attrition rate of the housekeeping department, which she was unable to turn around. All this happened because she tried to please all of the people all of the time.

Market Segments

The most common marketing failure I observe is of organisations failing to narrow the market which they serve enough.

I do wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say something like, “But that will not resonate with people who <insert characteristic here>.” My response is invariably, “But’s that’s OK. People with that behaviour are not our target market.”

This is so important for small companies.

Small companies generally have 2-3% market share of a global segment. That means that they can afford to ignore or even antagonise, at the extreme, up to 97% of a particular market. They do not have to please all of the people all of the time. They can afford to really please 3% of the market and do well. If they increase their market share by 50% they still only control 4.5% of the market. There is no sane reason to try to please all of the market all of the time and probably please none.

Even large companies can make this mistake. When I was marketing manager for Shell, we sold an oil which was used to both cool and insulate the windings of transformers. There were only two competitors in what was a large market. We fought over volume with our competitor and made a loss as a consequence of price cutting to defend a minimum of 50% market share. We then identified properties of our oil which bestowed benefits our competitor could not match and demanded a premium in price. Our product manager who identified the benefits of these properties was told by the nay-sayers, “But most of customers don’t understand that benefit. If you increase the price we will lose customers.” We did indeed lose customers and ended with a market share of less than 45%. However, we made a gross profit of more than $1M after 5 years of losses.

Managing Projects

My first reaction to the first really good project manager I met was that I “hated” them. (I put the word hated in inverted commas because I find it quite difficult to hate anyone and the feeling was more of frustration rather than hate). He made sure that I was clear about what outcomes I wanted, diligently estimated the time and resources required and committed both of us to milestones.

Later on during the project, as a young inexperienced and somewhat foolish manager, I wanted to change the project deliverables. He refused. I later wanted to change the design. He refused. Even later on I wanted to change the dates of the milestones. He refused.

The end result was that we delivered the outcomes on time and on budget for the first time in my career. The project manger’s refusal to satisfy my ever changing needs was a necessary characteristic of delivering a successful project. I have found since, it is ever thus.

What decisions do you make that create a millstone around your neck by trying to please all of the people all of the time? Where does your strategic thinking fall down?