How to Succeed in Business: Business Lessons from Mad Men

June 17, 2013

I’m still processing last night’s riveting episode of Mad Men. So much to say… The primary business lesson I took from last night’s episode though is not to let romance get involved in the workplace. We’ll come back to that point. It’s a great one that opens up so many possibilities.

A quick recap from last night. Ken Cosgrove had a Dick Cheney moment with his Chevy clients and was nearly killed by a shotgun blast resulting in his voluntary relinquishing of the account to Pete Campbell. Worried about getting bested by Bob Benson, Pete investigates and discovers the enigmatic character’s spotty past and uses the information to his advantage. Don Draper’s alcohol problem has officially graduated to vodka in his morning OJ and his daughter Sally continues to lay a dysfunctional foundation for what would be a pretty scathing memoir of her troubled childhood as she vies for the respect of equally insecure boarding school girls. And these are just the side character shadings and sub-plots.

The prevailing storyline revolves around Ted and Peggy. They are clearly smitten with each other and, as most workplace romances go, not good at hiding it. Don keys in on this right away. Since Don and Ted are natural competitors within the agency, this information is powerful ammunition for Don and at the end of the episode, he uses it with surgical precision for maximum devastation, managing at once to play hero for the company, ensure Peggy is not given credit for a potentially award winning commercial and publicly humiliating Ted. This is a wonderful example of the fog love can cast over work. The workplace should be about collaboration and equal weight. If you have good people, at every level their input should be valued and utilized in decision making and execution. Even the appearance of favoritism can destroy credibility and hurt morale. Having rose-colored glasses also skews objective thinking and adds one more unnecessary level of politics to an already crowded table of issues regarding strategic planning, work assignment and execution. The fact that Ted is married, apropos for this series, only makes the flirtation and attention all the more uncomfortable.

This series of blogs is about extricating business lessons from Mad Men. My favorite parts of the show are watching the pitchmen win and lose clients in the context of the interesting historical times, social code and their personal shortcomings. Keeping love outside of the workplace is probably one of the most important if not obvious lessons and one that seems to be the hardest for people to adhere. Part of what makes love such an intoxicant is the quiet conspiracy of two people becoming vulnerable, the letting down of guards. In business, relationship building is often about making business a little bit personal and building trust. These are interesting parallels but business is a contact sport. The very nature of competition and bottom-line awareness demands a level of cold, steel-eyed agnosticism that runs counter to this intimacy. As we approach next week’s season finale, it will be interesting to see if the writers of Mad Men stay true to the premise that love holds no place in “modern” New York ad agencies.