Saturday, June 21, 2008

Writing on the Wall

by Stephen Glass

When Stanley Galloway, environmental engineer, steps into his small office near Dale City, Virginia, he inhales deeply through his nose, holds his breath and then exhales. His eyelids drop halfway, almost as if he is in prayer. Galloway has the appearance of a man who spends a lot of time sweating the details. The pocket of his very starched, short-sleeved, button-down shirt is overstuffed with a small ruler, five pens, two mechanical pencils and a half-consumed Pink Pearl eraser. But, in the sanctity of his office, his gangly limbs hang calmly near his body, his raced speech slows. He breathes deeply two more times. Then he reaches into a small glass fishbowl on his desk and draws a green card. "The mind, like a parachute," he reads aloud while the edges of his lips curl into a slight, beatific smile, "functions only when open." He pauses, and, behind his thick glasses, his pupils roll upwards, deep in thought. "That's a nice one, yes, a really nice one," he says. "Yes, I do feel much better."

It is only natural that Galloway's office should bring balm to his soul. It is a chapel of sorts, a shrine to worker productivity. Five framed posters line the wood-paneled walls. One is of a jogger at dusk, running on an endless road. The large orange type underneath says "Quality: The race for quality has no finish line." Another, titled "Teamwork," features rowers at dawn. On Galloway's desk is a mug emblazoned with the words: "Make it Happen." On his sport jacket, he wears a brass lapel pin engraved with the words: "Expect to Win."

Over the past eighteen months, Galloway says he has spent more than $1,500 on motivational tools such as these, and he is not satiated yet. "I really wish I could buy some more," Galloway says, wistfully. He is saving money to buy the $120, three-foot-tall "Optimism" lithograph for his mailman. "My wife's friends are sort of sick of me telling them about the virtues of workplace motivation, so I've moved on to other people," he says. "I really need to tell as many people as possible. These successories are points of light during the murky times."

"Successories." That is the term of art, or rather commerce, for self-propaganda of the sort Galloway has fallen in love with, and it is a term that has become increasingly familiar in corporate America. Successories, Inc.--the industry giant that offers more than 6,000 products--has increased sales fourteen-fold in seven years to $55 million. In addition to catalog sales, the suburban Chicago company is one of the country's fastest-growing chain-stores; it already has 100 shops covering nearly every state. The company projects that this number will triple in the next three years. Big corporations swear by successories. Southwest Airlines recently ordered $38,000 in posters for its corporate offices. Coca-Cola, Xerox, Ford, 3M and AT&T are also regular clients.

But, unlike the dozens of management trends--from teams to Total Quality Management--that come and go each year, successories have ignited a firestorm in the otherwise dreary field of human resources. In one camp is a group of academics and irritated employees called "The Hards," in light of their endless demands for hard data to prove that successories work. In the other camp are corporate executives and a few business school professors called "The Sensors," who maintain that not all information can be quantified and that people like Galloway prove successories work.

Eighty miles south of Dale City, just west of Richmond, five women sit at Barbara Fenn's dining room table licking envelopes. Fenn, a nervous woman with frizzy brown hair and bright red glasses, is the leader of a group called Successories Hurt Employees, often called SHURE. The group believes that successories, at best, irritate workers and, at worst, boost employee cynicism, actually reducing productivity. She cites herself as a case study. For more than twenty years, Fenn has worked as a paralegal at a local law firm. She says she loved going to work each morning until last year, when the firm hung a large "Teamwork" poster over her desk. "I couldn't take it. It was so insulting. It's like saying, 'You haven't been part of a team so get on board already,'" Fenn says. "But the pens, the pens angered me more." The pens came three months after the poster. One day, Fenn arrived at work to find that the firm had replaced all the paralegals' pens with new, successorized writing utensils, pens imprinted with messages like "Make it Happen" and "Whatever it Takes" inscribed on the barrel. The tipping point for Fenn came on Christmas, when the firm installed a new screen saver on her computer. "Every time I paused a motivational message popped up and filled my screen," Fenn says. "That was the last straw. It's just like a religion. Could you imagine if a Jew for Jesus or a born-again Christian was putting their messages over your desk and on your computer? I don't need to be proselytized all day long. I do my job."

On January 2, Fenn and a handful of paralegals formed SHURE and threatened to walk out if the law firm didn't remove the successories. The partners laughed. So, the paralegal team came to work twenty minutes late the next Monday. On Tuesday, they arrived forty minutes late. By Wednesday, the successories were gone. In place of the "Teamwork" poster was a framed Monet print.

"It is a quiet, brutal war," says a Hard at the University of Pennsylvania who asked that his name not be used since many of his colleagues are Sensors. "For [Sensors, successories] is a church, and these posters are the idols. They have to convert you to it."

It has been a long time since American businesses tried to motivate their workers with moralistic slogans. In the 1920s and '30s, popular signs lectured: "Let's Make Good for Mother." But the posters petered out in the 1950s and '60s when the father of quality-control, W. Edwards Deming, urged managers to eliminate slogans. Mac Anderson, the founder of Successories, Inc., is credited by many with resurrecting motivational sayings in 1985, when he sold 1.7 million copies of an inspirational quote book. Soon after, Anderson started putting the quotes on plaques, posters and paperweights.

The natural insecurity of businessmen perpetuated the rise of successories. When one company started successorizing, the other companies in that field got nervous: What if it worked? It's safer to err on the side of imitation. Successories for one became successories for all. "Every guy who came in here told us we had to have more pictures of forests with inspirational poems under them, more slogans and more quips," says a human resources manager of a Midwestern Fortune 500 company who quietly sides with the Hards. "They were everywhere. Even elevators and bathroom stalls; you couldn't escape. You're sitting on the toilet and you need to see a sign that tells you to work harder? I don't think so."

Up until last October, the Hards were a marginal and unorganized crew. But, that month, the Conference Board, a New York research group that tracks consumer confidence for the government, published a scathing article about successories in its monthly newsletter. Under the headline "Simple--or Simple-Minded?" the Conference Board ridiculed the posters as more self-help than motivation.

The article galvanized the Hards. One of them, Warren Bennis, a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, dismisses successories as worthless. "The only people they help are the people who make them," he says. "That's not good management, that's money wasted." Rick Roessler, a University of Arkansas professor who co-authored a book on modifying work behavior, says research indicates that successories are only effective if they are specific and linked to training. Otherwise, he jokes, they "just become a part of the wallpaper."

Bennis and many other Hards say their experience demonstrates that employees are so cynical about successories that the products actually reduce efficiency. "When I go to a corporation to consult," Bennis says. "I often see the employees have scribbled comments on the posters, or are throwing darts at them. Let's be honest: that's not working, and that's taking up time."

Anderson dismisses successories' critics and points to his company's roster of happy customers. "We get so many letters praising our products and telling us how they helped them get inspired through rough times," he says. "That's why we think they work." He pauses, then adds: "Look, you're going to decorate your walls anyway. Why not use something that's good for the team?"

At the moment, the battle between the Hards and the Sensors seems to be going pretty much the Sensors' way, the successories way. Financial analysts expect Successories, Inc. and its competitors to post record sales this year. And company executives say they plan to expand their market by introducing a home line and a children's line. But Fenn and the other members of SHURE say they're "in it for the long haul," and have just begun publishing a newsletter called The Hards' Way. They also sell a parody version of Successories, Inc.'s computer screen saver. It shows the boat in the "Teamwork" poster capsized and a rower drowning. They hope to eventually use the profits to buy back successories from companies that agree to destroy them.

The Hards might take heart, though, if they knew the dirty little secret at Successories, Inc. Calling the company's headquarters is certainly an inspiring experience. The sound-wallpaper a caller gets on hold is not the traditional Muzak, but quips from philosophers, politicians and sports heroes reminding the caller never to "shy away from challenges." Between quotes, the recording repeats Successories' slogan: "Our only goal is simple: to help you reach yours." Unfortunately, the company hasn't even done that well meeting its own goal. Despite record sales, creative advertising and multiplying franchises, Successories, Inc. lost millions of dollars over the past few years. In 1995, the once-profitable company posted a $7.7 million loss despite an all-time sales high. The main reason, by many accounts: low worker morale. One former employee says he "goofed off more there than any of the other four jobs [I] had before." Another says: "We spent a lot of time playing jokes on each other and wandering around."

In fact, productivity hit such a low in 1995 that the company hired James Beltrame, who had earned a reputation as a corporate turnaround expert. Beltrame cut 30 percent of the company's workforce, replacing them with new people, including an entirely new management team. He also condensed the company's eight facilities into one new building. Successories posted a $25,000 profit as of November. "Sure, there are still posters on the walls," says a longtime employee. "There have to be because that's what we sell. But no one pays any attention to it anymore."

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