Don’t be a Grin Fucker

OK, this will be a test of whether using real curse words in your title or post gets all of your stuff blocked by spam filters or from appearing on HackerNews or the like.  I thought about trying to spell it differently (like Guy Kawasaki always says Bull Shitake (as in the mushroom, but slightly misspelled) but somehow it lost the same effect that this saying has always had for me.  So I’m willing to suffer from less readership on this one and go with the saying. Plus, everyone on Twitter egged me on and then some. Unsurprisingly, this one way best ;-)

The title IS the post.  Don’t be a grin fucker.  I was looking up the urban dictionary definition this morning to link to it in order to better explain the phrase to you and the definition was so precious and spot on that I had to just copy it here:

“In business when someone smiles and shakes your hand assuring you that they have heard and will act upon your recommendation or concerns when in truth you have already been ignored and dismissed.

Manager Bob: “Our associates will not repond positively to further cuts in their benefits. I strongly recommend against it.”

Executive Dick: (Smiling, shaking Bob’s hand and massaging his shoulder)”Thanks Bob, we’ll take that under advisement. You know our employees are our most important asset.”

Dick then processes Bob’s pink slip and cuts non-management benefits by 30%.”

That’s the classic definition of Grin Fucking.

Years ago I was working in England and I worked for a very big company – Accenture.  I grew up in the US but lived in England for so long I can never remember from which country my slang comes.  Is this phrase a US or a UK phrase?  Anyway, I spent the first part of my career consulting for large companies.  I did 5 years of building large computer systems and computer networks for global corporations and 3+ years as a “strategy consultant.”  In many of the meetings you’d meet clients who would tell you everything you needed to know, would offer to help you and then would never follow up on the help that they had offered.  I realized over time that the offer was inauthentic in the first place.  They wanted to be able to say to their senior person (who had hired Accenture in the first place) that they had been good corporate citizens but they had no real intention of actually helping me with me work.  I realized over time that I was being grin fucked.

But then I started to see it happening internally.  Accenture always had a chip on it’s shoulder in strategy consulting – especially compared with McKinsey, BCG and Bain.  McKinsey had their “7S framework” and BCG had the “BCG Matrix” with cash cows, dogs, stars and question marks.  And of course there was the Michael Porter’s “5 Forces.”  Frankly, I kind of found all of this stuff to be bullshit (bull shiitake?) anyways.  I mean Porter’s Five forces is a useful framework but it’s basically microeconomics with a pretty wrapper.  And having frameworks is a useful way to standardize your customer studies so that highly intelligent, inexperienced young people can crank out PowerPoint slides with such authority and beautiful consistency.  But tell me how practical is the 7s’s, really?

Anyway, it was chip-on-the-shoulder inducing for many at Accenture.  So we (and by we I mean “they”) at Accenture decided to come up with our own bull shit.  So we launched a global initiative to come up with our own unique strategy based on our years of strategy experience in advising (but never running) companies.  We called it “integrated strategy.”  I actually think from a marketing perspective it could have been brilliant.  The idea was that in the late 90′s you couldn’t separate out your business strategy from your IT skills and assets.  They were intwined.  We were Accenture (then Andersen Consulting) and our core skills were in building large-scale IT systems.  We were leaders in that area so it played to our strengths.

But we couldn’t leave it as just a market positioning experience.  People started to believe that there was real intellectual insight into the bullshit PowerPoint slides and customer surveys they were spitting out.  By “people” I mean the people who were on the project.  By “people” I do not mean the rest of us.  Most people I knew were walking the halls talking cynically (it was London, after all!) about “integrated strategy” but then we’d go to company meetings and noone would say what they really thought it public.  In small meetings they’d tell the senior management that they were happy Accenture was finally creating some original thought and that they supported it.  Then those same people would come out for beers that night and declare that the people creating integrated strategy were “wankers.”

I was nearing the end of my tenure at Accenture so my cheekiness and irreverence were on the rise.  At a strategy offsite with several hundred strategy employees I was giving a presentation on stage and I asked, out loud, “why do we keep grin fucking each other (you could actually say that out loud in England) on the topic of Integrated Strategy?  Privately you all acknowledge that nobody believes in it yet we’re letting our leadership continue to invest our money and reputation on something we know is going to fail because it has no real basis.  I sure wish more people would speak up.”  Obviously I got many laughs and applause.  I guess not the most politic thing I’ve ever done, but you can ask anybody who was in the strategy practice of Accenture in London in 1999 and they’ll confirm I really did this.

Don’t be a grin fucker.  Stop the corporate bullshit when it hits your desk.  You don’t have to do it as publicly  and vocally as I did – in fact I don’t recommend it.  But please be willing to politely and respectfully stand your ground when an internal initiative is off base or you don’t agree with it.  I’ve stated previously that I believe that respectful open debate is the highest form of democracy. It also makes good business sense.  Stand for high quality.  Stand for holding people accountable when they’re proposing something you believe could damage the company’s reputation or waste time and resources.  Make your arguments fact based.

When people come to present their businesses to me I try my best not to grin fuck them.  I give direct, honest, blunt, polite and (I hope) useful feedback.  It isn’t always “rah rah.”   Last week I met with a founder who had sunk his personal money into buying a technology asset and hadn’t yet raised money – he was struggling a bit.  He told me that he had offers to sell the assets to somebody else.  I told him I thought he should sell the company rather than sink more money into his venture.  I told him to sell now even it it was at a loss.

I told him I thought it was too complicated of a business, he lacked the skills on his team to pull it off, it would take too much money and in the end I wasn’t sure it would be a valuable product.  I said as I always do, “my view point is ONE data point.  I might be wrong.  Get lots of data points.  Mix mine into your pot and see how it settles.  I’m not always right but I’d rather tell you what concerns me than to sweep it under the rug.”  In this gentleman’s case I was worried about his personal money because he wasn’t a 20 something.  He had a family.  And he was one of those guys that you meet and you just want to help because he’s so earnest and nice.

He wrote me afterward and here is our exchange:

Him:  ”Mark,Cold shower and all, how did I take the heat? Did I take the tough message at least reasonably well? Always looking how I can get better.

Also – new terminology for delivering that type of news: “You Simonized me (as in Simon Cowell from American Idol)!! I grew up and played sports all my life. I come from a world that if the coach wasn’t yelling at you, it meant he didn’t care. I appreciate you giving it to me straight.”

“LOL. I didn’t mean to Simonize you. I care about you and just wanted to be sure that you didn’t waste any personal money. All startups are hard. Most lose money. Yours had more complexity and less engineering talent secured on the team than most. That’s all.”
“I understand and that is the way I took the feedback. Like I said, pleasantries do not help people learn. You helped me and I am grateful. I thank you for that”
To this gentleman I’m grateful for the feedback and I’m here to help if I can.  Maybe people humor me, I don’t know?  But I find that 70% of the time people prefer honesty as long as it’s delivered with care, with detail and with humility.  I get emails like the one above all the time.  People often tell me that I helped change their business by challenging some of their early thoughts.  It’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job.  I’m sure that 30% of the people thinking I’m a wanker for not saying I love what they’re doing.  I’m OK with that.  As long as I help other people by not grin fucking everybody.
I found that most VC’s never gave me any feedback when I was pitching.  The “loved what I was doing but were working on other things and would love to stay apprised of my progress.” Either that or they would “noodle on it and get back to me.”  Yeah, right!
Take the harder path.  Politely speak your mind.  Take a stand.  Join the debate.  Don’t be a grin fucker.  It makes life too boring.

by Mark Suster

Read more from another writer, Brad Feld – here.

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