Notes from an Acrocanthosaurus

(Or, what it’s like to be a dinosaur still working in advertising.)

This month marks my 37th year on Madison Avenue. Except for a five-year hiatus with network television, I have somehow managed to stay employed for nearly four decades in the advertising business. In all that time, I’ve learned a lot. Okay, maybe not that much, but enough to be of some assistance to those unfortunate enough to stumble upon these words.

That doesn’t mean, or guarantee, that what I’ve learned will actually help you or your organization. In fact, my lawyer says that I should now add a disclaimer, which states that any advice given in this column is not necessarily meant to help, guide, steer, mentor, persuade, affect, or otherwise lead anyone to do anything that they wouldn’t do of their own volition.

Still, in the hopes that my words might have value, I’ve decided to write about some of my experiences and observations over the past four decades and even identify some rules, not in any particular order, that might impart some personal and organizational wisdom from an old reptile.

Rule #36: No matter what anyone says, human beings are incapable of checking their egos at “the door” or any entrance, threshold, opening, etc.

Alarm bells should go off when you hear someone use this familiar, and apparently, likeable phrase. They will have any number of ego-driven reasons to invoke the “Check Ego” directive. The first and most common is simply to warn anyone who might be foolish enough to introduce an alternative opinion that might not fall in line with those of the group already in the room. Group think, one of the greatest oxymorons in the business world, dominates decision making at all levels and has, historically, led to more and greater disasters than any other type of organized thinking.

The second and perhaps even more insidious reason for people to invoke the Check Ego directive is to ensure that their ideas (or lack thereof) reign supreme in any discussion or decision making ritual. Once the Check Ego decree has been posted, expect your opinion to be rendered completely and totally inert.

Personally, I would not want to work for a company that used or encouraged the Check Ego directive with any frequency. Egos are hard to manage (especially my own) but they and the people who come with them are the building blocks of a great enterprise. Forget about what you’ve heard about the value of team players. Yes, people must know how to work together to achieve a common goal. But before the people in your organization can all line up and hike the ball someone has to call the play. An idea may be obvious, or inspired, or even outrageous, but it has to come out of someone’s open mind.

A great idea can certainly emerge from a group discussion, but only a discussion where everyone is encouraged to bring their egos into the room and put them on display. A free and open exchange of ideas and egos is both rare and desirable; it also may be scary and chaotic. But every organization should strive for it whenever possible. So don’t ask people to check their egos. Otherwise, the inspiration that will save your company will remain outside your door.

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