Managing the Swarm of Business ‘Seagulls’

In the world of multinational business, the heavily matrixed organizational design is the norm. This means there are end-markets, like the Philippines, interfacing with regional and global HQ, situated most likely in far-flung locations. Decision-making is fragmented among local, regional or global groups.

Gone are the days when the local end-market could “call the shots” on the business.

Don’t get me wrong — a matrix is right to do and it can work very well. Despite the fact I am a born-and-bred local marketer, I do see the value in putting some decisions — such as packaging design on global brands — in the hands of people with a more global view. And out of the hands of a local market.

What makes a matrix work, or not work, is not dependent upon the organizational design per se, but the individual players involved, particularly those situated at the “center,” or HQ.

The very best of these central leaders subscribe to one of the key leadership principles of General Colin Powell, which he eloquently stated in his book, coming from a military perspective: “The commander in the field is always right, and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proven otherwise.”

The less effective central leaders have a different mindset. They believe the center has all the answers. They aim to prove what eight decades of Soviet Communist Central planning could not — that all great wisdom and decisions can only come from the center. That data and computers can replace “feet on the ground.” That end-markets should just keep quiet and listen and execute. But they should never think!

These kinds of central leaders exist in every multinational. And whether they know it or not, there are nicknames for them at the end-market level! A more popular designation is “seagull.” Why? Because they are akin to what a seagull will do to you when you feed them on the beach: they fly in, swoop down on your head, and then, while flying away, defecate on you!

Those who have prior military experience such as General Powell call them REMFs (rear-echelon mofos).

Regardless of the nickname, seagulls are a part of life and any local business leader needs to learn how to manage the seagulls.  You can’t avoid them. So learn how to tame them!

There are five key strategies to taming the seagulls:

Get them into the market. Make them walk the streets with you. Don’t let them sit in the “ivory tower” and just read facts off a computer screen and make decisions. Make them see reality firsthand. Many times I have had a seagull back off a decision once confronted with real consumer reactions to their ideas! Reality exists in the market, not in the HQ!

Communicate, communicate, and communicate. You can’t talk enough to your seagulls. Send them frequent updates. Share what is going on. Get a pulse on what they are thinking. Don’t go more than 48 hours without feeding your seagull!

Remember, “logic is convincing, but facts are compelling.” Seagulls don’t put much stock in opinions and local market feel. They love data. If you have a feel for the business, find a way to prove it. Get data.

Understand the needs of your seagull. Despite what you may feel or believe, seagulls actually have good intentions and want the same successful business results you do. But they may have differing needs and approaches. Bear in mind you are both on the same team, and probe to better understand their needs. With this, you can often find middle ground that meets what both of you want.

Finally, be an advocate for what you believe in. Too often, unfortunately, end-markets will “give in” to seagulls and just concede a decision to keep things moving. Then, when later faced with a failed initiative, the end-market will say, “I knew this would happen.” Everybody loses under this scenario. No matter how tough it is, have the courage to stand your ground and defend your position. With dignity and respect, yet still with passion! Many times what will sway a seagull is strength of conviction. You can’t expect them to compromise if they don’t know how you feel!

Bottom line, seagulls are a way of life in any global business. You can’t escape them, so learn how to tame them.