The Freak Show is Never in the Main Tent

by | Oct 25, 2010

Even though I am 46 years old and live 1500 miles away from my Dad, not a week goes by when I don’t hear his voice in my head telling one of his many stories about business, marketing or management. We still talk weekly, but I am most often reminded of these stories when I’m working with clients or reading the news. My family knows these stories by their headlines; he can say just a few words and get a big laugh.

Jim Head is my Dad. Apparently, he gained a lot of wisdom in his 30 years as an advertising executive in Chicago. When I was younger, I thought his stories were just funny and interesting. The older I get, the more I see the wisdom in the punch lines (after I stop laughing).

Here are a few of his best one-liners that make me smile the most:

The freak show is never in the main tent

In the circus, the main attractions play in the big top to the big crowds. The obscure and unworthy attractions, like the freak show, will never make it to the main tent no matter how hard they try. This one-line zinger applies to the politician who thinks that being unusual is going to help her win an election and to the chronic entrepreneur who keeps dreaming up new ideas that will never fit their core business.

Most organizations have one core and important “main tent” for their business — and plenty of freak shows. Are you playing in the main tent?  I certainly hope so.

There’s always someone who doesn’t get the message

Experienced CEOs and marketers know how hard it is to get your message across to everyone in a large group. This is never accomplished with just single press release, advertisement or blog post.

This one is also known in my family as, “not everyone gets the memo.” In big companies, getting the message across to the front lines (and back again) is often one of the top challenges — sometimes harder than communicating with customers. No matter what you do, there are always 10% of the people who never get the message. Jay Leno’s man on the street interviews are closer to reality than most leaders know.

Don’t be the last to get the message. People will make fun of you.

Nobody ever explained it to me like that before

As the story goes, Dad took over responsibility for a problem employee – a salesman who hadn’t made his numbers for a long time, but nobody had done anything about it. At their first meeting, he explained politely to the salesman that if he didn’t make his numbers this quarter he would have to let him go. The salesman appreciated the clarity and responded, “Nobody ever explained it to me like that before.”

Maybe the expectations you have for your employees or children are not as clearly “explained” as you think. And sometimes the message is clear but not really received. It takes two people to communicate. Just ask my wife – sometimes I need to be “’splained” for me to really get it.

Thanks for the witty advice, Dad. I remembered at least a few of your useful one-liners. 🙂