The risks of the microwave mentality

1 July 2013
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When we want things cooked, we want them cooked fast. There’s no patience anymore. And sometimes patience is a good thing, certainly in business.

Businesses and businesspeople often reflect the personality of the society they live and work in.  Sometimes this is good, and sometimes it is not.

We all live today in what has been termed a “microwave” society. When we want things cooked, we want them cooked fast. There’s no patience anymore. And sometimes patience is a good thing, certainly in business.

Microwave mentality is all around us.

It takes years to put on 25 kilos of excess weight. But we no longer want to invest in sustainable lifestyle choices to take the weight off in a steady manner. No, it has to be now. Take a pill. Do a 10-day detox. Do the lemonade juice diet. Get your stomach stapled or rubber-banded. And what is the result? The world is battling a global obesity crisis. It doesn’t work. And the microwave mentality is to blame. The basics of eating healthy, day after day, and exercising, are put aside. Just cook up a fast solution!

I am all for results as fast as possible. But there are some things that simply take time. And building great companies, and great businesses, takes a blend of impatience and patience, both properly placed.

I was recently engaged in a discussion on brand building. I was confronted with an impatience that was inexplicable. I have worked on and built some of the world’s iconic brands, from Coca-Cola to Pampers to Pantene to Gillette to Lucky Strike. They are all decades old. In fact, Coca-Cola and Gillette are over 100 years old! These brands were built in time measured in decades, not in months and certainly not in weeks. But here I was, in a discussion about building a “leading brand” in a few weeks’ time! It was ridiculous. Brand building is a slow, steady, day-by-day process, not some instant oatmeal you pop in a microwave and in a jiffy you have a great brand. It takes years of marketing consistency, of delighting consumers day after day, month after month, year after year. I never tried to single-handedly build a brand. I treated each as work in progress, a living thing, like fine china. I nurtured it. I stayed true to the brand. I was consistent in my advertising. I protected my brand. And I handed it over carefully to the next generation of caretakers. And over time, person after person doing this builds a Coca-Cola. Or a Head & Shoulders. That’s a sustainable brand.

To challenge this in a microwave mentality is dangerous. It leads to short-term tactical decisions. To “deals” and promotions to get quick results. To changing advertising campaigns every time a new brand manager appears. In short, activity that doesn’t build a brand but only looks to “selling a ton of product” and loading up customers with excess stock. Or even worse, just to “do my own thing and leave a personal stamp on the brand”! This is simply brand destruction.  Brand building is taking a long-term view at its foundation — patience and more patience.

But microwave mentality not only can destroy a brand, it can also destroy a young businessperson with huge potential. I once had a young manager come and see me about his salary. He walked into my office, explained to me that he was unhappy with his compensation, and unable to live the kind of lifestyle he wanted to live, and hence he needed a raise. I was flabbergasted. I calmly explained that unfortunately salaries are not set based upon people’s “lifestyle expectations” but on marketplace realities and what the market will pay for a given job and responsibilities. And as such, at his level, I could assure him he was indeed well-paid and competitively compensated.

He wasn’t happy with that. Because, in his mind, a mind formed by a microwave mentality, he wanted a lifestyle of the “rich and famous” and yet was unwilling to put in the years it would take to develop the skills and pedigree to command such a salary in the market. And what he said has been indelibly inscribed in my memory:

“Jim, let me explain this to you. I am 26 years old. I went to a top school. I am a brand manager for a leading consumer goods company. I have put in my time and earned the right to never have to worry about money again. So either I get the pay increase I think I deserve here, today, or I will have to go elsewhere to find it.”

Rarely have I ever dressed down a young talent like I did that day. I told him he had to do what he had to do. But to be honest I found him to be incredibly immature and out of touch with reality. I made the point that “the only time success comes before work is in a dictionary”! He was unwilling to put in the time to earn the right to a major leap in his pay. And frankly, nobody earns the right to “never worry about money again.”

He moved on shortly thereafter. It has been a few years and it is sad how it has turned out. I check him out sometimes on social media. He has jumped from company to company, every one to two years like clockwork. But he never gets ahead. He is stuck at his level and unable to progress. In fact, if he had stayed in place and built sustainable skills, he would financially be way better off than he is today. The shame is, he had all the skills in the world. But the microwave mentality took him down the wrong path.

Go into any world-class restaurant’s kitchen and you will find all varieties of ovens — including microwaves. They aren’t useless; they are just limited. Likewise, there are benefits of a microwave mentality. Sometimes impatience is a good thing that spurs action. But it has to be controlled and used prudently. Like in the kitchen, some dishes can cook fast and some can’t. When it comes to business, elements like brand building and development of people are dishes that can only be cooked slowly.

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