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The Business of Glengarry Glen Ross

I love the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. I’ve never seen the stage play, but the movie seems to be a faithful translation and its actors are all top shelf, so I’m willing to accept it as canonical1.

Despite the dated nature of the film’s setting, much continues to ring true about the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves. Desperate times, leading to desperate measures, with each character dealing with the same adversity in their own varied ways.

This could be considered an accurate reflection of the human condition when people are put within an organisational structure that is essentially a manufactured construct with appointed ‘leaders’ and abstracted hierarchy. Each person has their own motivation and varying degrees to which they will go to get what they want. At some point, teamwork will collapse as individuals strive to assert themselves and ‘win’, putting self before team. It becomes a case of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Besides the deep conflict that propel the movie, there are some other scenes that also neatly capture smaller elements of working life. When I’m talking to somebody on the phone to schedule a meeting, I’m sometimes ever so tempted to pause and say, “Oh Grace, would you mind checking my schedule”, just to proffer the illusion that it’s more than just me and BusyCal managing the load.

Alec Baldwin’s performance as the slick sales consultant rings true, and as much as it is a comedic moment, the enjoyment is almost excruciating given the truth behind the message. It is one that sticks with me and even does help from time to time in reality. That lesson, “A. B. C. – Always Be Closing”. Sometimes this forms part of my internal monologue when I’m talking to people!

The Glengarry Leads

Ultimately, what everybody in the movie wants is possession of the Glengarry leads. The good leads. In my work, I also want the Glengarry leads. I want introductions to the firms that are going to understand what my offer is, sign up, and work in a positive way through to conclusion.

It would be great for management to dish out some of those good leads. Don’t hold them back, share them out! This is where I think reality diverges from the plot of the movie. More often than not, I think reality is that management doesn’t actually have any Glengarry leads. They might have a nice stack of cards that look like they’re going to be great leads but if you were to examine them there may be a good chance they are more Glen Ross than Glengarry. Really, the promise of the Glengarry leads is simply a motivational method to drive sales of whatever dreck does exist. “Deal with what we’ve got, and then you will get something better”, is a fairly basic motivational ploy.

The problem is that better doesn’t necessarily exist; at least not in the hands of management. If you really want the Glengarry leads, you’d best go out and find them yourself.


  1. Despite the addition of the non-theatrical Alec Baldwin scene. 

The Business Speedometer

Trying to run a business without useful and accurate performance information is like trying to drive a car without a speedometer. Sure, you will be able to guesstimate how fast you are going, and sometimes you’ll even get it right. You might even get away with a bit of speeding! Most of the time though, you will be driving at the wrong speed. You will either not be taking full advantage of the car’s performance or you’ll get a speeding ticket.

In a business sense, running a company without timely and accurate performance reporting may deliver occasional success, but it’s not a recipe for long-term sustainability. A lack of insightful reports detailing costs, sales, productivity and profitability generated through effective data capture at the source is likely to result in a lack of insight about what is critical to the company’s success.

Costs and Pricing

Production costs and pricing can be deceptive. Clearly, a firm must ensure ensure that the price they charge the customer accounts for the costs of the people and equipment directly involved in the production process. That price, however, also needs to have a sufficient margin attached to it such that it encompasses a share of all other cost overhead of the business, from rent and electricity, to paying for accounting and staff training. Furthermore, it has to incorporate a profit margin that will enable the business to retain some earnings for future investment and deliver a dividend to the investors/owners. Suddenly, the per unit price being charged needs to be much higher than may have initially been thought.

Without accurate information it can be easy to lose track of how effective this balance between price and cost is. Cross-subsidisation of profits across activities and products is another challenge. Soon enough, it can be almost impossible to understand what profit is being generated from each element of work. This can result in a situation occurring where both people and machinery are busy but the company loses money anyway. To avoid this frustrating eventuality, a business needs to ensure it is capturing and collating business information that will generate alerts at the time such a situation arises. Otherwise the problem will remain hidden and by the time it is discovered it will be too late to react with impact. Now the business is chasing its tail with the next piece of work not only having to cover all the standard costs but also make up for the losses incurred by the earlier work.

Identify Issues at the Source

If problems are only identified when complete revenue and expenditure figures are entered and aggregated within end of month financial reports, it is too late. Management needs to stay ahead of the game. A good manager needs to ensure that the business is capturing information throughout the production process, and that this information is able to deliver insights about the productivity, performance and profitability of its activities at any point in time.

Just as the job of a car’s speedometer is to provide real-time feedback, a business also needs to be able to read and react to its own (as close to) real-time performance. Without this structure the business is not being put in the best position to succeed, irrespective of any other activities underway.

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