This Week’s Book Review – Stanley Marcus

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Engaged Employees Come from Engaged Managers: Why the Job Description is Not Enough

This Article was originally published at TalkForward.com

In his 2015 article Obsolete Annual Reviews: Gallup’s Advice, Jim Harter at Gallup published what should have been headline breaking news: Based on the Gallup studies of the American workplace only 50% of American workers strongly agreed they know what is expected at work. This figure has not changed significantly in the 2016 and 2017 reviews.

How on Earth can leaders expect their employees to execute their visions if half of their workforces are not sure of what is expected of them?

Most people want to do “good work.” But they need to understand the meaning of “good work”. If they don’t frustration with unclear expectations can quickly lead to apathy. In short, unclear or conflicted expectations can lead to employees working just for a paycheck, instead of working for the organization. I can say from personal experience, as a customer and as a manager, those employees do not understand the value of customer service and are minimally productive.

Even engaged employees cannot move the organization forward if they do not understand the roles they play in the vision and mission of the organization. Employees want to know they are valued, and that they contribute value to the organization. If that message is lost they are ripe to be plucked by another organization, and then their talents and enthusiasm are lost.

Usually, if you ask about expectations, organizations will point to the job description. I think most of us have had at least one job description that seemed nothing like what we actually did at work. There is a truth in the old joke about “Other Duties as Assigned” becoming a catch all for additional duties. Clearly, a job description by itself is inadequate for communication of expectations.

Harter also discusses the need to move from annual reviews to regular contacts that set expectations. Citing Gallup research, he proposes four approaches:

  1. Clear and meaningful organizational objectives
  2. Knowing and developing the strengths of each employee
  3. Involving the employee in setting challenging goals
  4. Ongoing conversations with each employee

In a 2016 article, Do Employees Really Know What’s Expected of Them? , by Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, Gallup studies show that:

72% of millennials who strongly agree that their manager helps them establish performance goals are engaged. And across all generations, individuals who strongly agree that their manager helps them set performance goals are nearly eight times more likely to be engaged than if they strongly disagree with the statement.

While it is common to attack millennials as lazy, please note that all generations are more engaged with managers who help them with performance goals. I think this should be obvious, but as the saying goes, “Common sense is not so common.” All humans, not just those between 20 and 40, want to feel they provide value at work, want to feel valued by the organization, and want to feel their work has meaning. Millennials are just vocal about it.

It is clear the old model of giving a brief orientation and some forms to employees will no longer work, if it ever did. Hire and forget until time for the annual review is not going to work in the 21st Century American workplace. Engaged employees require engaged managers. This means we must be training managers to look beyond static annual or semi-annual performance. Managers can no longer be a remote “boss” but need to transform into partners with the employees to achieve the greatest success.

So, if you are a manager, how do engage your direct reports? If you are a leader, how are you helping your managers engage with their direct reports? Answering these questions will be the key to unlocking your employee engagement and executing the vision and mission of your organization.

Bryan G. Stephens is a former executive on a mission to transform the workplace. He is the founder and CEO of TalkForward, a consulting and training company, utilizing Bryan’s clinical and management expertise to develop managers and teams in a corporate environment. As a licensed therapist with strong understanding of developing human potential, he is dedicated to the development of Human Capital to meet the needs of leaders, managers, and employees in the 21st Century workplace.

Bryan has an Executive MBA from Kennesaw State University, Coles School of Business, and both a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.

© 2018 Bryan G. Stephens

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TOTD 1/2: Small Business

Mine, that is.  Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the startup of my LLC, and also marks the year my total of independent employment exceeds my years as an employee of others.  Although the legal details were prepared and registered (quietly) in December of ’02, fifteen years ago today, three of my peers and I simultaneously resigned from the industrial systems integration firm of which we were senior employees.

We each had discussed our frustrations with the 51% owner’s management style, and his apparent intention to never yield any more ownership to future partners.  Gaining ownership was a five-year goal I had stated outright when I interviewed for that job, with that owner, four years before.  Or more precisely, when asked for my five year goal, I answered “Ownership of or partnership in a company like yours.”

The early years were quite difficult, as we had taken the high road with existing customer relationships — no hint whatsoever what was to come prior to our actual startup.  A few customers followed us to the new company, but most took a wait-and-see approach to the new startup.  And our old boss wasn’t shy about sharing his feelings about his former staff.  Our partnership’s (actually an LLC operated as an S-Corp) size fluctuated in the first few years as the rigors of full independence exposed some flaws and highlighted some opportunities.  The LLC stabilized at three members by the end of 2006.

The downturn of 2008 hit my last two partners quite hard, as their customer relationships were dominated by residential and commercial building products manufacturers.  With Obama’s economy failing to bring any normal recovery, they both left in 2011.  The first solo year for me was a great year, as I discovered that my own projects were quite profitable under the new low-overhead regime.

Juggling multiple customers entirely alone does have its downsides, and I put a fair amount of effort into cultivating complementary relationships with other contractors with related skill sets.  I also expanded the scope of the business to include more software content (SCADA in particular), something my less-geeky former partners were never comfortable pursuing.  The slowly morphing direction of the company has inspired other changes: for the first time, the company (me!) hired an actual non-owner full-time employee.  Given that one can’t actually hire someone out of any engineering school with the combination of skills that make me valuable in the market, I went outside normal procedures and hired a non-degreed whiz kid that I knew from a Linux users’ group.

I’ve not regretted it.  First, a non-degreed employee is cheaper to hire.  Second, you don’t get any mistraining in industrial concepts that engineering schools are prone to produce.  And if you pick someone with demonstrated self-motivation and an aptitude for technology, you can expect their skills to match a degreed individual in relatively short order.  I’ll probably have to pay this kid’s way through a tech degree to keep him, but I expect it to be worth it.  I’ve poured more resources into the company this past year than in any previous year (training the new minion, mostly), and am looking forward to the rewards of business risk-taking.

It almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if Hilary had won.

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