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Lessons from Mad

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When I was a wee laddie, my mother decided to take a driving trip to New York one summer, so off we went — my brother Mike, Grandma Claire and me, with Mom at the wheel of the family Studebaker.

Dad, wisely avoiding the drive, joined us in New York.

“It’s your trip too,” she told us kids. “What would you like to see?” I was nonplussed, and had no answer. Brother Mike, never afflicted with nonplussedness, did: “Let’s visit Mad Magazine!” Mad, the bible of bratty (or wish-they-had-the-courage-to-be bratty) boys everywhere. The universal icon of irreverence throughout the world. The address that could be reached simply by pasting postage and Alfred E. Neuman’s picture on an envelope (once achieved by a sender who lived someplace or other in Australia). Mad Magazine — brilliant! But would they even let us into the headquarters of this storied publishing empire?

I remember little of the visit itself — a nondescript red brick building, a picture of Alfred E. Neuman on the mailbox outside, and a semi-dingy interior with inexpensive linoleum-topped desks. What I do remember clearly was that everyone at Mad Magazine, from its legendary publisher William M. Gaines on down, treated us like visiting royalty, seemingly as excited by our being there as Mike and I were.

Mad has fallen on hard times. Before it disappears altogether, IT leaders can glean some important insights, both from its success and its eventual decline. For example:

Visions can make themselves irrelevant. While Gaines’ vision of a magazine distinguished by iconoclasm, impertinence, and outrageousness (“Humor in a jugular vein”) has become irrelevant in a society in which Bart Simpson is considered mainstream, Mad was a major force in making irreverence acceptable. Whatever your vision, be alert to one of the hazards of success — the need to establish a new vision, rather than becoming irrelevant in your company.

Some employees deliver unique value. Treat them accordingly. Once a year, William M. Gaines took his core team of writers and cartoonists on a vacation to some exotic locale or other, for no other reason than that they were the reason Mad was so hugely popular. (Dick DeBartolo’s hobby on these trips was to insert himself into as many group photos of Japanese tourists as he could. I just thought you’d like to know.) All of your employees deliver important value. Some, however, deliver unique value and would be uniquely hard to replace. Find ways to recognize that unique value that don’t cause resentment among the rest of your staff. It’s a tricky balance to achieve. It’s also well worth the effort.

Have the courage to stand up for yourself and your organization. In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Commission asked William M. Gaines to testify regarding Mad Magazine, and EC Comics which he also published. A member of the committee asked, ominously, how Gaines could justify his existence — he was encouraging the youth of America to read comic books instead of something worthwhile.

“Yes.” replied Gaines without flinching. “I’m encouraging them to read.” When, as often happens, other executives complain about investments in information technology whose value isn’t obvious, be just as clear and unflinching.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. The folks who wrote, drew, and published Mad were, in their own way, important, influential people. With millions of readers and international reputations, they could have been too busy for a family visiting from the Midwest. They weren’t. Instead, they were as excited to show us around as we were to be shown around, unaffectedly enthusiastic about what they did and how they did it.

To this day I’m convinced that attitude was a prerequisite to Mad‘s success, month after month. I’m equally convinced that the contagious attitude of self-importance that afflicts so many corporate executives is a major contributing factor to business failure.

Welcome visitors. You should be excited about what IT does. So should everyone else in IT. If someone is interested enough to ask for the nickel tour, shouldn’t everyone in IT be excited to show them around, explaining what goes on and who does it?

It’s a minor thing, but it does have value. Getting everyone in the habit of bragging about your organization is healthy. Not only that, but you never know.

Sometimes a simple tour can make an impression that lasts a lifetime.