Home Thinking Aloud The Mama and The Papa

The Mama and The Papa


by Bruce Hodes, CEO of CMI Teamwork Chicago and author of “Front Line Heroes

work life balance

What follows may not sound like an article on business. I request some patience and leniency. Follow along, it all comes together, I promise.

The ocean is glass. Islands are everywhere. Big Islands with towns and cars, little ones a jumble of rocks. Many, many others of different sizes. Last July I am sailing a 120-foot gaffed rigged schooner named the Grace Bailey. Built in 1864 and sailed like it was back then. Everything is manual, nothing automatic. All food is cooked on a wood stove on a wooden ship. There is synergy in that. There is No engine. There was one phone charger on board which was fiercely argued over…

Now for a bit of business background – more patience, please. When you look at small $1M to under $5 M businesses there is a design that works and supports growth oriented companies. I first learned of this from a book titled “Corporate Lifecycles” by Ichak Adizes. The author contends that there is a life cycle to companies. A theory and methodology I buy into. Per Ichak, I love saying that name – all small and startup businesses, if they are going to grow in a healthy way, needs a mama and a papa in top leadership.

What the heck does that mean? This idea is not gender-based – it is role based. The papa role is out with the customers and is out in the marketplace. They are the visionaries that see the possibility of the company growing and prospering. Papas are a little mad, unreasonable with lots of energy. They make relationships with the customer and success in the marketplace happen.

The Mama is the saner operational one that turns the business ideas and/or clients into money. The picture that cements this for me is the papa is the one in the Eskimo couples who goes out hunting and stalks, chases and shoots the bear. Upon bringing the bear carcass home to the igloo where the mama turns the bear into something useful like bear burgers, a bear claw earrings, and a rug. Both the mama and papa roles are important inter-dependent roles and critical to the success of the enterprise. The Mama and the Papa depend on each other for the success and growth of the enterprise.

Over the years, I have seen this thinking repeatedly play out in companies. When close to the top of a company there is a split between a leader who demonstrates selling, customer focused entrepreneurial energy and a leader who embodies and demonstrates the administration and financial controls then there can be and is healthy growth. When there is not this duality at the top there are numerous pitfalls. When there is too much Papa entrepreneurial spirit you risk growing too much, acquiring too many customers and not being able to deliver the promise of the papa and handle the growth. Similarly, if a company is too Mama administrative then it runs the risk of too much administration, too much organizational bureaucracy and red tape while no one is bringing in the new business and exciting ideas.

I saw this play out at a small technology company. Gustavo (not the real name to protect the innocent), the owner was the Mama. He started out of a small office repairing computers and providing and occasionally building some systems. He was the internal face of the company attracting loyal employees and putting in internal structures. The culture was robust yet Growth was slow poking along from $3M.

Then came Marina (again not the real name), from a much larger computer company CDW where she was one of their sales leaders. Marina became the Papa and in three years they grew to $17M. This company got the design right and real growth ensued.

Now it comes together in a splash of sea spray. Thank you for your patience. It was on the deck of the schooner Grace Bailey, in conversation, while plying the calm waters off the Maine coast that the mama, papa design came back into my consciousness. in lengthy conversation with Captain Rob, the Skipper, and Owner of the Maine windjammer cruises company, I was once again reminded of its potency.

Captain Rob, decked out as an aging hippie with bleached blond shoulder length hair bemoaned that business is not what it used to be. He talked about a steady decline in business over the past few years. I was curious. Everything else in the economy was growing why not here?

I put on my listening cap, put down my beer and listened. What I heard is that Captain Rob is the essential Mama – he is an operations man. When you get, him talking about how he remade the boat and rebuilt the dining area he glowed. The Captain talked about this endeavor with great emotion.

However, when you talked about the marketplace, increased competition, and social media his effect got very flat. When you talked about marketing, staying in touch with customers and new innovations he glowered into his coffee mug and squinted into the horizon.

The glow was gone, enthusiasm vanished.

Captain Rob ran a good ship. The food was healthy and on time. The crew was lively, attentive, and entertaining. We even had a lobster bake on a small island. Who knew that could happen in Maine. From what I could see all the passengers had a good time. Operationally the grace Bailey worked.

However, it begged the questions would any of the passengers return? Would they tell and refer others to this excursion? and did Captain Rob and his company establish an ongoing relationship with the passengers? For me and for what I saw these questions are answered with a resounding no… Where is the Papa around here I cry from the bow considering the stars for an answer……?

Unfortunately, there is not one.

There was no attempt by the company or Captain Rob to establish a Face book page or email conversation with the beloved customers of the July 30th voyage. There was no attempt to turn our relationship into participation into other programs like sailing for camera buffs or learning to cook healthy or Senior sail or any other program because there was no other program. The biggest question for me is would I go back to Maine for a summer sail? Maybe. Would I go back to Captain Rob? Maybe, but I would first check out other options. I am not necessarily loyal to the Grace Bailey.

What would a true Papa do in this situation? Well first, there would be a very robust social media marketing plan. Captain Rob could even Tweet from time to time. A real focus of differentiating from the other boats with a personalized approach using technology would be undertaken.

The passenger bonded with the young crew. You could leverage what was happening with Tristan, John, and Sarah. Photos and sounds would be sent linked to the website and the magic of the trip kept alive. The brand of the Grace Baily would be one of beauty, great sailing, and great comraderie. An experience that passengers would love to share and reexperience.

There you have it. With an abundance of Mama energy and little Papa energy, the schooner Grace Bailey is left sailing off the coast of Maine. She is operationally excellent with an experienced Mama but with no direction from an excited and passionate Papa. She has the capacity, there is room for more passengers and innovation is not present. Pay attention to this tale and look at your own operations and business focus. Ask yourself the questions: how is the Mama energy in my business? How is the papa energy in my business? What is missing? Let us know what you see and report in.

Game 2017 on……


Bruce Hodes

Since growing up in his family’s boating business to founding his company CMI, Bruce Hodes has dedicated himself to helping companies grow by developing executive leadership teams, business leaders and executives into powerful performers. Bruce’s adaptable Breakthrough Strategic Business Planning methodology has been specifically designed for small-to-mid-sized companies and is especially valuable for family company challenges. In February of 2012 Bruce published his first book “Front Line Heroes“.