The tale of the tortoise and the hare is one of the most misunderstood fables in literature, but it holds a great lesson for employees, businesses and business leaders.
The story was written by evidently armless Greek fabulist Aesop, who was once described as “of loathsome aspect … potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity.”
It tells of a race between, not so shockingly, a tortoise and a hare in which the smart-aleck rabbit busts out to a tremendous lead and then proceeds to chill before reaching the finish line while the morose by determined turtle plods his way to victory.
The moral of the fable is supposed to be that slow-and-steady wins the race, which is both patently false and an incorrect interpretation — at least in the real and modern world. The Tokyo Olympics have begun, and I guarantee you that a runner subscribing to this philosophy will not be hearing his or her national anthem while a medal of any metal is draped around his or her neck.
The lesson Aesop really was trying to teach us was about the dangers of arrogance and overconfidence. Let’s face it: Had the hare been blessed with a helping of humility and humbleness rather than hubris, his raw athletic ability would have led to a rousing victory celebration at the finish line and unhappy longshot bettors with lighter pockets.
The fact is, slow and steady doesn’t win any race of consequence, whether it’s in athletics or modern business. Slow and steady will lead to you appearing on ESPN while Stephen A. Smith mocks you — or to the scrapheap of failed company executives. And when you’re slow and arrogant, well, you’re doomed.
I have been part of slow-and-steady companies and in slow-and-steady industries. Each time I have butted up against leadership who thought the wiser course of action was to stick with an existing business model that was either cracking or crumbling at its foundation and causing massive brain drain that eliminated any chance of recovery. That’s arrogance that crosses the border into stupidity.
Let’s take a look at the newspaper industry.
For years and years and years, the newspaper was where people turned to find out about stuff and sell things. Those on the editorial side, as I was, loved to tout the integrity and grand mission of a newspaper to seek truth and publish. Noble, yes, and true to a point.
But my salary to feed my family while I pursued truth was based on a business model predicated on having a thing that drew enough consumer eyes to allow its ad salespeople to say, “Hey look! People see what you’re selling!” The instances where truth took a back seat to the demands of a powerful advertiser (read: big spender) are as numerous as they are hidden.
Enter the internet. In 1997, at the oh-so-wise age of 22, I became editor of a weekly paper no one else wanted to lead because it was god-awful. Suddenly, I found myself in management meeting with people at least twice my age from the same newspaper group who had been in the business longer than I’d been alive. When the topic of the internet came up — and it rarely did — these grizzled veteran framed it as a fad and talked about how to “keep it at bay.”
“What if we use it to our advantage?” I once asked, dreaming of offering exclusive content, interactive advertising and a whole host of things that subscribers and advertisers might actually pay for.
All eyes turned to me in my little corner at the end of the grandiose boardroom table that I imagined weighed more than a fully loaded dump truck rolling down the highway. “John … Seriously? Why would we invest time or money in something that is going to disappear in a few years?”
So instead they invested $100 million into a massive printing plant they opened in 1999, closed in 2017 and put on the market for $8.1 million.
While the internet hasn’t exactly disappeared, something else did: Newspaper advertisers and readers.
First, classified ads disappeared, as people realized they could sell their cars and Realtors figured out they could sell homes without sinking their money into newsprint. Then, readers started to disappear, as fast-acting hares such as Google and Yahoo grew into monster jackalopes that became one-stop shops for articles newspapers were paying reporters to write and put on their own websites — which offered nothing more than a regurgitation of what was in that day’s paper.
The First Amendment largely keeps the government out of the newspaper business, but that doesn’t mean newspapers are free from regulations. Even those in privately held companies are required to give an honest accounting of their circulation numbers, and those in publicly traded newspaper companies are even more closely monitored by a variety of constituencies. Smart advertisers started to notice an absolute freefall in readers. They rightly asked “Why should I pay you the same rate you were charging me for a circulation of 500,000 when now it’s only 350,000?”
Newspaper companies logically responded to this by … raising their ad rates! They literally told very smart ad buyers: “You have to pay more for less.” These ad buyers, of course, told them where they could stick their higher ad rates.
Newspapers started to shrink. With fewer ads to support daily production, your morning fish-wrapper not only had fewer pages but actually was physically smaller in its dimensions as newspaper companies reconfigured their presses to put out their product using less paper.
The rationalizations were mind-numbing.
“People will love that the paper is easier to hold in their hands!” Actually, size did matter in one way: People cared less about the cumbersome nature of a broadsheet and more about the fact they were getting less news and fewer useful ads while paying higher single-copy and subscription prices — another not-so-brilliant newspaper-executive decision.
“The money we lose on print ads will be made up for increased online revenue!” The numbers quoted in subsequent quarterly meetings sounded great. Online revenue was up 100% while print advertising dropped only 10%. Ahh, but when you looked at the actual numbers, you saw the true story. Online revenue increased from $35,000 to $70,000 while print advertising decreased from $500,000 to $450,000. Do the math. Then repeat this quarter after quarter after quarter with smaller gains on the online side and larger drops on the print side.
Any online advertising boost was unsustainable because, as with their content, newspaper companies weren’t doing anything special with internet advertising. They simply slapped an ad very similar to what was in the print edition onto a webpage. And my God were the proud when they figured out how to do banner ads! Of course, there was nothing interactive and, more importantly, it wasn’t connected to any sort of data -collection process that could tell advertisers who was looking at their ads and how best to reach them. The tortoise merely plodded along using an old, slow business model that, somehow unknowingly, was on life support.
Meanwhile, the hare quickly evolved into a beast by recognizing it wasn’t a news company at all; it was an information company. The Googles, Yahoos and, later, Facebooks of the internet couldn’t care less about what you read or clicked on; what they cared about was that others cared about what you read or clicked on — others who were willing to pay a lot of money to find out.
Suddenly, these companies were able to not only give information to potential advertisers about the people who were looking at their ads, they were able to customize what people saw when they visited an internet page. No longer did an advertiser of sporting goods have to pay for the 75-to-death demographic when what they really wanted was the 18-to-45 crowd who were much more likely to buy their products. This allowed advertisers to streamline their ad buys — and newspapers had no mechanism to say, “Yeah, but look at the cool thing we can do!” They could do no cool things because they’d been slow and arrogant.
The death spiral began. As publicly traded companies such as Gannett and Scripps-Howard sought to remain good investments in the eyes of Wall Street, they had no means of creating new revenue. The only way to maintain profit levels of any sort was to cut, and cutting is never a long-term solution.
Let me introduce you to Mr. Al Dunlap. I typically have respect for the whole, “Don’t speak ill of the dead” thing, but Dunlap’s been gone since early 2019, so I think we’re good in giving a critical review of a man who once tried to stop a company from using its plane to transport […]
Copy editors were among the first to go. Reporters and photographers were next. Advertising people were untouchable because, by God, they were the ones who were going to lead us all back to sustained profitability and renewed glory!
Remaining readers were delivered (in smaller circulation areas, by the way) error-filled papers with fewer locally produced stories and photos taken by people with no training in news photography. People noticed. Circulation declines steepened. The remaining advertisers saw their ad dollars were reaching fewer eyes (and at even higher rates, because newspaper companies did not learn from their previous stupidity), so they ditched print advertising, which led to more cuts and more lost advertisers. Rinse and repeat.
The morale of those who remained plummeted. It’s not easy to watch your co-workers queue up for the march of death into the editor’s office and be escorted out of the building 10 minutes later. It’s even harder to wonder when your own march of death is going to happen. Those with above-average abilities and the intelligence to recognize a sinking ship jumped overboard and “sold out” to come ashore in more stable fields such as marketing and public relations. Those who remain at newspapers today are either those with ink in their veins or those too good to fire but not too good to warrant a higher salary. These folks have survived wave after wave of terminations, weeks of unpaid furloughs, years of zero or minimal salary increases and tons of extra work as they seek to plug the holes once stopped by now-departed colleagues.
I believe ugly-old Aesop would have laughed.
And here’s the thing: The once-nimble hare almost always becomes the arrogant tortoise. You’ve seen it happen already in this scenario. Yahoo is a shell of what it once was and never became what it could have been. AOL is basically gone. The likely reality is that, at some point, Google will become too corporate, Facebook will miss the Next Big Thing or regulators simply will get sick of how these companies brazenly and repeatedly violate data privacy rules and break them into pieces like they did to Ma Bell (another hare that ultimately became an arrogant turtle).
This is The Way for capitalism.
The lesson in this for those starting out in their career is as simple as Aesop was hideous: Find a humble hare and stay with them until you see their plodding arrogance. Then find a new hare.
The lesson for businesses and business leaders is equally simple: Be a humble hare — and stay that way as long as you can.
More From ‘Ya Pay Peanuts, Ya Get Monkeys’
Here’s a workplace truth: Management often has no clue what the rank-and-file are thinking. This is often because employees suck at communicating directly, though their fear of doing so is often justified because of, shall we say, overzealous HR departments. Too often, however, it’s because managers are so used to being managers that they’re not […]
I received a phone call from the CEO of the company for which I served as marketing director at about 6:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. I was waiting in the parking lot of a nice restaurant for my wife to arrive. “John, our recent hires have been horrible. Why?” he asked. This was the same […]
Smart businesses allow data to guide their marketing. The ability to do this is relatively new and likely not to last too much longer. A firehose stream of information is available on a company’s marketing campaign performance, its customers and its potential customers. That stream is so strong that there’s a movement afoot to create […]
On the dashboard of my car is a tiny square, just a little bit bigger than a postage stamp, that is worse than my sister ever was. If I drive too fast, it tattles. If I brake too hard, it tattles. If I accelerate too quickly — though I struggle to think how this would […]
Bad bosses shouldn’t be. Of course, I’ve never met anyone who self-identifies as a bad boss, yet we all know they’re out there, and yes, indeed, without a shadow of a doubt, they do suck. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad bosses over the course of my career, from the one who […]
I’m not quite sure when I went from being the working world’s wide-eyed newbie to the grizzled veteran I see in the rearview mirror when I start the car for my evening commute home, yet here we are. I’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, and I’ve been doing this marketing/communications thing since […]
It’s good to be the king.” Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1 I am currently sitting in an office that no one else wanted to fill. Two weeks ago, I started a new job with a company that had a zero-WFH (Work From Home) policy as one of the conditions of hiring. That, […]
Top 3 questions to ask yourself before going into business with relatives. My wife, Carla, is an amazing woman. She is exceedingly brilliant, the owner of a whole lot more A’s in school growing up than her future husband had. We’ve known each other for nearly three decades now, the past 25 as spouses. And […]
Any idiot can gather data. In fact, idiots are gathering data all the time. Smart people are, too. So are ants and mosquitos. Every time I drive a car, I’m constantly gathering data. My brain is doing what human brains do to judge distance, speed and alignment and how each might be influenced by things […]
My elder son started an internship today at a company that makes stuff taste good. He’s a sciencey kid, very much like his mother, and will tell you the chemical name of the thing that makes something taste like cherry before he’ll tell you that it tastes like cherry. He came home from Day 1 […]
As a professional, I’m good at many things. I can churn out 500 really good words for a story or article on any topic very quickly. I can design an amazing social media ad or flyer. I can produce a funny or informative video. I can develop killer and KPI-moving strategies. What I can’t seem […]
Ask every single person whose job it is to manage other human beings and exactly none of them will self-report as a micromanager. Why exactly, then, do they seem to be so prevalent in the working world? No one ever wakes up one morning and says, “Ya know what? Today I’m going to decide to […]
I was talking with a business professional recently who was lamenting his company’s inability to hire and retain quality talent. People come in and are often highly touted, he said, but they either flame out or leave far sooner than what is good for the business. I offered to look at the company’s job postings […]
What makes a good coach? Interesting question, but it’s the wrong one. Oh, that question has all the right words. They’re just in the wrong order. If you want to talk about what makes a good coach, we can list a bunch of coach-worthy attributes — things such as charisma, assertiveness, fairness, consistency. But again, […]
I have absolutely zero formal training when it comes to planning events. Before this became part of my job duties, I hadn’t planned so much as a birthday party for my child. Of course, I have zero formal training for a lot of the things I do in my job as a marketer and communicator. […]
Last week, a woman took to Twitter (because that’s what we do these days) to ask for advice on what to do following a male co-worker’s inappropriate sexually charged remarks, and ho-ly-crap did the Twitterverse jump all over that. So frequent were the calls from well-meaning Twits for the women to take the matter to […]
It’s easy to say Facebook — sorry, Meta — is evil. They do such a good job of proving the point for us. They routinely violate their own privacy policies, they know what they do is bad for people and bad for society, and they lie when subpoenaed to testify before Congress because they know […]
It appears as if The Great Resignation is going to stick around for awhile. More than 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September, amounting to 3% of the workforce. That beat the barely-had-time-to-take-its-coat-off record of 2.9% the month before. So what are the three biggest lessons for employers? While it might be tempting to […]
🔻 What’s Below 🔻What shows our vulnerability 👨🏼🦳👨🏾🦳What step we’re currently on 🎈What the spark would be 💥 Ahhh, Dystopia, that imagined land where we watch zombies and Katniss and Mark Zuckerberg dance a creepy new form of the tango while asking ourselves, “If that’s what things are going to be like after The Fall, […]
⬇️ What’s Below ⬇️Marketing: Science or Art? 🔬🎨The nature of feelings 🤗😭😡How to measure success in marketing 📊 Here’s one thing that doesn’t impress me much as a marketing guy: The popular vote. This might seem crazy, considering the goal of marketing is, at its core, to inspire the most people to buy your product […]
Welcome to The Bad Marketing Files, the place where we look at marketing efforts ranging from the slightly off-message to the truly horrendous. The SettingA Goodwill/St. Louis Aquarium billboard on Interstate 70 The ProblemThe billboard sends messages neither entity wants associated with its brand. Today’s BM Rating💩 out of a possible💩💩💩💩💩(Translation: It’s not good, but […]
For as much as we try to complicated it with heady notions such as meaning, purpose and lasting significance, life essentially can be boiled down to two principles with roots in economics. Strip away all the not-unworthy teachings from self-help books, leadership seminars and religious institutions, and what you’ll find is that humans act as […]
Website redesign projects suck. Anyone who has ever been a part of one will tell you that, and anyone who tells you it doesn’t suck is a liar or a masochist. I have been a part of four website redesigns, and none has launched within a three months of the original schedule. When my most […]
I love the movie ‘The Godfather.’ Yes, part of it might have to do with my Italian heritage and how extended family reunions always seemed to be more than a bit like the wedding scene that opened the movie. But it’s more than that. ‘The Godfather’ is brilliant, innovative storytelling at its finest. In that […]
Remember that first night after Christmas when you were a kid? Your reward for being good all year (or, at least, being seen as less-than-horrible in December) sat right there beside you as the stars twinkled outside … that new doll or Transformer or videogame system. Where was that toy the next time Christmas Day […]
So what exactly is going on here? Well, a lot. This website is various measures of creativity, therapy, safety, career exploration, vanity and insanity (plus a few mystery ingredients I haven’t quite identified yet) — all dumped into one glass, shaken (not stirred) and poured into a 32-ounce Big Gulp cup. To better understand what […]
I freely admit I have a bit of a Joker problem. OK fine. Maybe it’s more than “a bit.” I am far from an educated film critic, but as far as I’m concerned, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the infamous Batman villain in “The Dark Knight” is the single best written, filmed and performed character in […]
I have made a living off the First Amendment for three decades now, remarkable only in that it has not yet driven me fully insane. The first part of my career was spent as a print journalist and had the greatest potential to send me to the looney bin. I started as a sports reporter […]
Stop. Take a look around your office. Put on your judge’s robe and see if you can’t classify every single person into one of these three categories: 1. People who make things better Few in number, these are the people in your company who have vision. They take what exists and improve it based on […]
I love free food at work. I don’t even have to particularly like the food being served. If it’s free, I’m happy. Not everyone shares this positivity. Every single place I’ve ever worked has nestled in its bosom at least one person who is negative no matter what the company does. “Let’s honor our company’s […]
Here’s a working world truth: Just about anyone can become a manager, but only a small percentage of people can be effective leaders. Stick around a company long enough or apply for the right positions and show an ounce of charisma, and you’ll probably get an opportunity to be a manager. Suddenly, you’ll have actual […]
Dave had about as good of a year as any first-year reporter at could ever have. I could spend paragraph after paragraph detailing all the ways he exceeded expectations, how he took the job description and obliterated it with awesomeness and work that went far beyond the words on those pages. Well, in fact, I […]
When it comes to podcasts, I need a 12-step program. I counted this morning, and I regularly or semi-regularly keep up with 16 of them. There are dozen and dozens of more that had a limited run that I plowed through at some point over the last seven or eight years. My addiction is a […]
You’ve probably heard the theory that a frog placed in a pot of water that is ever-so-slowly heated to a boil will stay in said pot and die a blissfully ignorant death. This science experiment is often brought up as an analogy for things in our lives that gradually get worse and fail to spur […]
For prospective employees, Human Resources folks are the contact lenses of a company. Through these fine folks, a candidate is able to bring into focus what the company is all about, how it operates, what it values and what day-to-day life is like there. After more than two decades in the workforce, I’m wondering why […]
Let me state this straight-away: I never peed in a bottle while I was working in an Amazon warehouse. That said, It doesn’t surprise me that some employees evidently have. Some background: I worked in an Amazon warehouse for about three months during the oh-so-fun year that was 2020. I was a marketing/communications guy in […]
Human resources folks get giddy when you start a new job. Suddenly, their purpose in life is fulfilled — fresh meat to season with all the really important information that will ensure you have the best chance of success at the company! Most of that seasoning is a different jar of the same salt you […]
One of the best parts of being a professional storyteller is that, if you find the right environments, you can explore the many different facets of your personality. And it’s a storyteller’s obligation to explore them, as well as to find the parts that are hidden in the dark corners or are guarded by the […]
“… to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Facebook mission statement The time companies spend crafting mission statements is staggeringly stupid when you transform the hours into the dollars being paid to the people around the table (or, as of late, in the Zoom). I have been […]
Early this morning, as snow fell softly in the pre-dawn darkness outside and my family slept upstairs, I had a 45-minute conversation with a little boy who couldn’t understand a word I said and who said about only two words I was able to pick up — one of which led me to give him […]
What if I told you… … that when you visited a certain website, every single thing you do is being monitored? I’m not just talking about what you click on or what you buy. Most of us have at least an inkling that companies are doing that. I’m talking about actual recordings being made of […]
There are many paths to the C Suite, fewer to the top spot and even fewer who reach that top spot with a even a fundamental understanding of how to “do” marketing. This can be infinitely frustrating to those who were hired to be the experts at maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of a company’s […]
Back in college at good old Drake University (JO 92… T-Ders will understand), I had some pretty fantastic journalism professors. There was, of course, the legendary Bob-Woodward-Not-That-Bob-Woodward, who, though he worked in Washington, D.C., during the Watergate era, did not, in fact, do any of the reporting that brought down a president. More important to […]
I am officially a Longhauler. Oh, I’m not sure that’s the actual term for it, but it’s the term I’m using to explain my membership in the oh-so-lucky club of people who are having often-debilitating COVID symptoms long after that 14-day period of suffering. We’re a fun bunch of people who are trying to support […]
I have interviewed hundreds of people during my career, everyone from professional athletes and presidential candidates to the woman promoting a charity bake sale. This past week, I interviewed my wife. Her dad — my amazing father-in-law — died early Sunday morning after a two-month fight with COVID and other complications. I sit here now, […]
His name was Fenton Powers, and my first impression of him was that he was insane. I was a newly minted middle schooler in suburban New York, reveling in the bigness of not only changing classrooms after an actual bell rang but, for my Spanish class, actually changing buildings. Anything could happen in those 40 […]
When I was a wee-little storyteller of 17 years, I had the opportunity to go to the New York Knicks training camp to interview their rookie point guard, Greg Anthony. At 6’0″, I was able to look eye-to-eye with the just-out-of-UNLV star while I talked with him in the weight room. Five feet away, a […]
One day back when your storyteller was still Newspaper Guy, I was sitting in my office one late afternoon editing the work of my reporters for the next day’s paper. It was the end of April in Minnesota, which meant the once-mountainous piles snow were down to about 2-foot-tall rounded mounds of filthy, pebble-strewn ice. […]
“Her name was Misti, but to those who lived around her in her Fairfield apartment complex, she was River Rat.” That was more or less how I started the story I wrote about the 8-year-old girl’s death back in July 1997. I was just more than a year out of college and was the editor […]
Shari’s message was one of five on my voicemail when I returned to the office after a COVID-inspired work-from-home quarantine. She told me she was one of our hospital’s first scoliosis patients 43 years ago, and, after seeing the patient stories during our recent telethon, she wanted to give back and start volunteering. Because of […]
When storytellers tell their stories, they don’t often beat you over the head with the lesson you should take away from their work. No author — be it of a 1,000-page novel or a 300-word article — says, “This is how I want you to think differently once you’re finished reading.” There are several reasons […]
On my second day of work here at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis, I received an email from our HQ in Tampa that Care Managers Week was coming up in October and asking us to do something on it. So I set about researching what Care Managers do and what this week was […]
All storytellers can be content writers. Not all content writers can be storytellers. And if you’re running a business or a marketing department, you most definitely want storytellers. So what’s the difference? There are many, but the key one is the focus. Content writers are fine. The good ones will produce lots of copy that […]
Doctors are smart people. Those whom I have met during my first two weeks at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis have impressed me, yes, with their competency, but even more so with their passion and compassion. I already have learned so much from these doctors. My education in things such as limb-lengthening procedures […]
Sometimes stories just don’t work out. You can do all the right preparation, educate yourself on what is to be discussed, show up at the right time with all the right equipment and BAM! This story you knew had tremendous potential just disappears. That happened this week. I had planned to tell a story about […]
I stood in the hallway outside a patient exam room and took a deep breath. On the other side of that door was the first potential story of a new chapter in my life. It was odd. I have been in the patient exam room of medical facilities in no fewer than six states during […]