Don’t be a Grin Fucker

Posted on Mar 28, 2010 | 258 comments


 

Corporate ExecutiveOK, this will be a test of whether using real curse words in your title or post gets all of your stuff blocked by spam filters or from appearing on HackerNews or the like.  I thought about trying to spell it differently (like Guy Kawasaki always says Bull Shitake (as in the mushroom, but slightly misspelled) but somehow it lost the same effect that this saying has always had for me.  So I’m willing to suffer from less readership on this one and go with the saying. Plus, everyone on Twitter egged me on and then some. Unsurprisingly, this one way best ;-)

The title IS the post.  Don’t be a grin fucker.  I was looking up the urban dictionary definition this morning to link to it in order to better explain the phrase to you and the definition was so precious and spot on that I had to just copy it here:

“In business when someone smiles and shakes your hand assuring you that they have heard and will act upon your recommendation or concerns when in truth you have already been ignored and dismissed.

Manager Bob: “Our associates will not repond positively to further cuts in their benefits. I strongly recommend against it.”

Executive Dick: (Smiling, shaking Bob’s hand and massaging his shoulder)”Thanks Bob, we’ll take that under advisement. You know our employees are our most important asset.”

Dick then processes Bob’s pink slip and cuts non-management benefits by 30%.”

That’s the classic definition of Grin Fucking.

Years ago I was working in England and I worked for a very big company – Accenture.  I grew up in the US but lived in England for so long I can never remember from which country my slang comes.  Is this phrase a US or a UK phrase?  Anyway, I spent the first part of my career consulting for large companies.  I did 5 years of building large computer systems and computer networks for global corporations and 3+ years as a “strategy consultant.”  In many of the meetings you’d meet clients who would tell you everything you needed to know, would offer to help you and then would never follow up on the help that they had offered.  I realized over time that the offer was inauthentic in the first place.  They wanted to be able to say to their senior person (who had hired Accenture in the first place) that they had been good corporate citizens but they had no real intention of actually helping me with me work.  I realized over time that I was being grin fucked.

But then I started to see it happening internally.  Accenture always had a chip on it’s shoulder in strategy consulting – especially compared with McKinsey, BCG and Bain.  McKinsey had their “7S framework” and BCG had the “BCG Matrix” with cash cows, dogs, stars and question marks.  And of course there was the Michael Porter’s “5 Forces.”  Frankly, I kind of found all of this stuff to be bullshit (bull shiitake?) anyways.  I mean Porter’s Five forces is a useful framework but it’s basically microeconomics with a pretty wrapper.  And having frameworks is a useful way to standardize your customer studies so that highly intelligent, inexperienced young people can crank out PowerPoint slides with such authority and beautiful consistency.  But tell me how practical is the 7s’s, really?

Anyway, it was chip-on-the-shoulder inducing for many at Accenture.  So we (and by we I mean “they”) at Accenture decided to come up with our own bull shit.  So we launched a global initiative to come up with our own unique strategy based on our years of strategy experience in advising (but never running) companies.  We called it “integrated strategy.”  I actually think from a marketing perspective it could have been brilliant.  The idea was that in the late 90’s you couldn’t separate out your business strategy from your IT skills and assets.  They were intwined.  We were Accenture (then Andersen Consulting) and our core skills were in building large-scale IT systems.  We were leaders in that area so it played to our strengths.

But we couldn’t leave it as just a market positioning experience.  People started to believe that there was real intellectual insight into the bullshit PowerPoint slides and customer surveys they were spitting out.  By “people” I mean the people who were on the project.  By “people” I do not mean the rest of us.  Most people I knew were walking the halls talking cynically (it was London, after all!) about “integrated strategy” but then we’d go to company meetings and noone would say what they really thought it public.  In small meetings they’d tell the senior management that they were happy Accenture was finally creating some original thought and that they supported it.  Then those same people would come out for beers that night and declare that the people creating integrated strategy were “wankers.”

I was nearing the end of my tenure at Accenture so my cheekiness and irreverence were on the rise.  At a strategy offsite with several hundred strategy employees I was giving a presentation on stage and I asked, out loud, “why do we keep grin fucking each other (you could actually say that out loud in England) on the topic of Integrated Strategy?  Privately you all acknowledge that nobody believes in it yet we’re letting our leadership continue to invest our money and reputation on something we know is going to fail because it has no real basis.  I sure wish more people would speak up.”  Obviously I got many laughs and applause.  I guess not the most politic thing I’ve ever done, but you can ask anybody who was in the strategy practice of Accenture in London in 1999 and they’ll confirm I really did this.

Don’t be a grin fucker.  Stop the corporate bullshit when it hits your desk.  You don’t have to do it as publicly  and vocally as I did – in fact I don’t recommend it.  But please be willing to politely and respectfully stand your ground when an internal initiative is off base or you don’t agree with it.  I’ve stated previously that I believe that respectful open debate is the highest form of democracy. It also makes good business sense.  Stand for high quality.  Stand for holding people accountable when they’re proposing something you believe could damage the company’s reputation or waste time and resources.  Make your arguments fact based.

When people come to present their businesses to me I try my best not to grin fuck them.  I give direct, honest, blunt, polite and (I hope) useful feedback.  It isn’t always “rah rah.”   Last week I met with a founder who had sunk his personal money into buying a technology asset and hadn’t yet raised money – he was struggling a bit.  He told me that he had offers to sell the assets to somebody else.  I told him I thought he should sell the company rather than sink more money into his venture.  I told him to sell now even it it was at a loss.

I told him I thought it was too complicated of a business, he lacked the skills on his team to pull it off, it would take too much money and in the end I wasn’t sure it would be a valuable product.  I said as I always do, “my view point is ONE data point.  I might be wrong.  Get lots of data points.  Mix mine into your pot and see how it settles.  I’m not always right but I’d rather tell you what concerns me than to sweep it under the rug.”  In this gentleman’s case I was worried about his personal money because he wasn’t a 20 something.  He had a family.  And he was one of those guys that you meet and you just want to help because he’s so earnest and nice.

He wrote me afterward and here is our exchange:

Him:  “Mark,Cold shower and all, how did I take the heat? Did I take the tough message at least reasonably well? Always looking how I can get better.

Also – new terminology for delivering that type of news: “You Simonized me (as in Simon Cowell from American Idol)!! I grew up and played sports all my life. I come from a world that if the coach wasn’t yelling at you, it meant he didn’t care. I appreciate you giving it to me straight.”

Me:
“LOL. I didn’t mean to Simonize you. I care about you and just wanted to be sure that you didn’t waste any personal money. All startups are hard. Most lose money. Yours had more complexity and less engineering talent secured on the team than most. That’s all.”
Him:
“I understand and that is the way I took the feedback. Like I said, pleasantries do not help people learn. You helped me and I am grateful. I thank you for that”
To this gentleman I’m grateful for the feedback and I’m here to help if I can.  Maybe people humor me, I don’t know?  But I find that 70% of the time people prefer honesty as long as it’s delivered with care, with detail and with humility.  I get emails like the one above all the time.  People often tell me that I helped change their business by challenging some of their early thoughts.  It’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job.  I’m sure that 30% of the people thinking I’m a wanker for not saying I love what they’re doing.  I’m OK with that.  As long as I help other people by not grin fucking everybody.
I found that most VC’s never gave me any feedback when I was pitching.  The “loved what I was doing but were working on other things and would love to stay apprised of my progress.” Either that or they would “noodle on it and get back to me.”  Yeah, right!
Take the harder path.  Politely speak your mind.  Take a stand.  Join the debate.  Don’t be a grin fucker.  It makes life too boring.
Mark,
Cold shower and all, how did I take the heat? Did I take the tough message at least reasonably well? Always looking how I can get better.
Also – new terminology for delivering that type of news: “You Simonized me (as in Simon Cowell from American Idol)!! I grew up and played sports all my life. I come from a world that if the coach wasn’t yelling at you, it meant he didn’t care. I appreciate you giving it to me straight.

  • http://twitter.com/RHLiz Liz Quilty

    Ahh i hate grin fuckers, people love/hate me, because im generally honest. I don't see the point in lieing to a person about something, it doesn't do anyone any good.
    Some people love me for it, some hate me, most hate me temporarily then come back later with a 'you were right, it was just hard to hear it'.
    On the other side, im trying to reword things so they are easier to take, and slightly less offensive to others. I'm not into pointless abuse either :)

  • alexbard

    I think the terminology comes from somewhere in Canada as that is when I first heard it 7 years ago while pitching a big canadian telco. I walked out of a meeting with 10 senior execs thinking that I landed a big fish.

    My sponsor for the meeting (and investor) who was in attendance said, “No my friend, you just got grin fucked…everyone is going to walk away from the meeting and forget that you exist…even though they all smiled, nodded and agreed with everything you said…”

    CLASSIC…

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I agree with you on the over-use of frameworks in consulting.

    Their origin is often good. At the end of a project, people are looking for way to summarize the solution on one page. (I.e., Tom Peters having looked at 100s of companies to explain why they are successful [at the time of writing] and coming up with the 7S). However management theory is not like regular science. It is very hard to generalize things.

    I guess that by now clients of consulting firms are a bit better at seeing through framework “blah blah blah”/ separating substance from BS than they were in the 1990s when these things just started.

    Evidence for this is also the reduced number of business best sellers that are written around a framework or an approach (at least that what I perceive).

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    taking the michael – that's a new one for me. we always said, “taking the mickey.” Also, the famous line about consultants was, “they take your watch and tell you what time it is.” Most of my time as a consultant was actually building systems. As soon as I became a PowerPoint Ninja I knew that I had jumped the shark. But I owed them service because they paid for my MBA ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Emailed you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think Simon Cowell appeals so much in the US because people are tired of a society where people don't speak their minds. I grew up in a typically combative Jewish household so we grew up speaking our minds – even when it was best not to ;-) Britain just reinforced this behavior and added the curse words. Plus, my appreciate for ironic humor

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey, Ann! How's NorCal?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. That was great. Does that mean you've forgiven me for my poorly chosen words on Fred's blog? ;-) I tried to edit but you can't edit unless it's your blog!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey Georges,

    I've read your analyses before. While a tough pill to swallow due to the blunt nature of your writing, I found it insightful and accurate. The industry has had laggard returns and needs to reform. So no arguments from me.

    I only hope I can do better. As I've fond of telling my close friends, “no matter how excited I get by the investments I'm making now, the truth is that it will be 7+ years before I'll really know the outcome. If I know sooner it's likely because I've failed.”
    Mark

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    No arguments here, Mark.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, classic, indeed. And that is how the proverbial grin fuck is done!

  • http://www.teamsupport.com/ Eric Harrington

    Great post Mark.

  • onepage

    Of course I am not offended any more. I respect you greatly! Ans I have learnt so much reading your blog. I just feel sad any time it comes up but I have something planned to tackle it the problem. Be sure I will call on you when the time comes :)

  • http://venturecompany.com/ Georges van Hoegaerden

    Mark,

    Yes, I am writing in the direct style that is needed (albeit without f bombs) to cut out the nonsense produced by so many VCs, and to stop them from misleading entrepreneurs and thus LPs.

    Your chances as somebody with relevant operating experience are much better than most with none, so I hope that pans out for you. And seriously, do tell other VCs how to produce social economic value if they want to stay in business.

    As Einstein said “Your theorem defines what you can detect” and the theorem of many VCs needs to improve dramatically (as that will attract different entrepreneurs).

    Follow your own compass that you used as an entrepreneur and it should be easy to outperform the deplorable performance of your peers.

    Best,
    -Georges

  • Mark Suster's Fabulous Wife

    Dear Mark – more than 10 years ago, when we were both management consultants, the Client asked us to meet a direct competitor (another consultancy) to 'share information.' The esteemed Mark Suster and the venerated Ameet Shah sent ME to the meeting and told me to 'Grin F&*$k them.' Ha!

    Dear Readers – if Mark starts to Blog less know that it is Spring Break and his children might hide his computer. :)

  • http://www.mauricediesendruck.com/ Maurice

    Great Article! I hope this isn't the bull shit I face in my upcoming work experience.

    ~College senior, about to graduate UCLA

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    I agree with you on the over-use of frameworks in consulting.

    Their origin is often good. At the end of a project, people are looking for way to summarize the solution on one page. (I.e., Tom Peters having looked at 100s of companies to explain why they are successful [at the time of writing] and coming up with the 7S). However management theory is not like regular science. It is very hard to generalize things.

    I guess that by now clients of consulting firms are a bit better at seeing through framework “blah blah blah”/ separating substance from BS than they were in the 1990s when these things just started.

    Evidence for this is also the reduced number of business best sellers that are written around a framework or an approach (at least that what I perceive).

  • http://twitter.com/fbizri Fadi Bizri

    Hi Mark,

    It's great you're making the effort in saying things as they are when asked for advice. It's much easier to smile and spout some vague non-commital answer, yet much less constructive.

    I think people who can be honest with themselves will realise that you made that effort and will return the favor by not getting defensive, and by gracefully accepting your feedback.

    Ha, I still wrote 'realise' with an 's' and that's after living for only a couple of years in London.

  • http://blog.silentale.com/ Shannon Ferguson

    actually, think you have to tailor for your audience…I've had english colleagues who were more sensitive to “straight-speak” then american ones (in London)…but then again, my style is more impatient Simon than tactful Ellen ;)

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    Oh wow. I am going to take this post as a hugely valuable lesson. The day my wife (and/or kids) communicate with me by posting comments on one of my blog posts, I will know that I have my priorities slightly skewed.

    It does raise a very useful point though; for all the posts here saying “People love me/hate me, but I always tell it straight”, I sincerely doubt there isn't a single one of us that hasn't Grin Fucked someone at some point. To claim otherwise falls into that same level of dishonesty.

  • http://www.mauricediesendruck.com/ Maurice

    Great Article! I hope this isn't the bull shit I face in my upcoming work experience.

    ~College senior, about to graduate UCLA

  • http://twitter.com/fbizri Fadi Bizri

    Hi Mark,

    It's great you're making the effort in saying things as they are when asked for advice. It's much easier to smile and spout some vague non-commital answer, yet much less constructive.

    I think people who can be honest with themselves will realise that you made that effort and will return the favor by not getting defensive, and by gracefully accepting your feedback.

    Ha, I still wrote 'realise' with an 's' and that's after living for only a couple of years in London.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    OK, given Jason's comments below, I thought I'd point out that my wife made that post with me standing behind her and she made it jokingly! My colleague and I did tell her to grin fuck another consultant on the project. Was kinda funny. And I was typing on a laptop in Santa Barbara on a balcony staring at the ocean. Bliss.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: never grin fucking anybody, of course nobody is ever perfect all the time. re: my wife & kids – she was only joking. I was with her when she wrote it. read my comments above.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    And my turn to be apologetic. The UK sense of irony didn't come through in that first part about kids. I'm pretty sure your priorities are absolutely fine. :)

  • http://twitter.com/ericmjackson Eric M. Jackson

    Your blog post was a trip down memory lane for me, Mark. I started my career in Arthur Andersen's financial consulting practice (which I think was a source of tension with Accenture). I worked out of the SF office from '98-99 and saw a lot of the same corporate bull shiitake that you saw on the other side of the Atlantic. Andersen not only tolerated it, they encouraged it. The training programs at St. Charles were chock full of corporate buzz words masquerading as “tools” and “strategy.” While some client engagements did deliver real value, the company's culture embraced the grin f-er mentality that you describe and incorporated it as a sales tool. I don't miss that at all.

  • http://myOnePage.com/Oo OoTheNigerian

    oops! I dis not realise I replied logged in as my company. Pls help me delete the comment by OnePage

    Of course I am not offended any more. I respect you greatly! And I have learnt so much from reading your blog. I just feel sad any time it comes up but I have something planned to tackle it the problem. Be sure I will call on you when the time comes :)

  • http://blog.silentale.com/ Shannon Ferguson

    actually, think you have to tailor for your audience…I've had english colleagues who were more sensitive to “straight-speak” then american ones (in London)…but then again, my style is more impatient Simon than tactful Ellen ;)

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    Oh wow. I am going to take this post as a hugely valuable lesson. The day my wife (and/or kids) communicate with me by posting comments on one of my blog posts, I will know that I have my priorities slightly skewed.

    It does raise a very useful point though; for all the posts here saying “People love me/hate me, but I always tell it straight”, I sincerely doubt there isn't a single one of us that hasn't Grin Fucked someone at some point. To claim otherwise falls into that same level of dishonesty.

  • alexanderjarvis

    Just “listened” to your blog (love that startup!). You make a great point. Being diffident doesn't help anyone, which is why I always speak my mind. Similarly, it is a risky strategy though. A lot of people can't handle it, but those who can really appreciate it. Life would be easier for me if grin rimmed, but life is just too short.
    Btw, I find the American's offence to swearing endearing. On talk shows on the Beeb “can i say that? Cool shit” by American actors always cracks me up.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    OK, given Jason's comments below, I thought I'd point out that my wife made that post with me standing behind her and she made it jokingly! My colleague and I did tell her to grin fuck another consultant on the project. Was kinda funny. And I was typing on a laptop in Santa Barbara on a balcony staring at the ocean. Bliss.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: never grin fucking anybody, of course nobody is ever perfect all the time. re: my wife & kids – she was only joking. I was with her when she wrote it. read my comments above.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    And my turn to be apologetic. The UK sense of irony didn't come through in that first part about kids. I'm pretty sure your priorities are absolutely fine. :)

  • http://twitter.com/ericmjackson Eric M. Jackson

    Your blog post was a trip down memory lane for me, Mark. I started my career in Arthur Andersen's financial consulting practice (which I think was a source of tension with Accenture). I worked out of the SF office from '98-99 and saw a lot of the same corporate bull shiitake that you saw on the other side of the Atlantic. Andersen not only tolerated it, they encouraged it. The training programs at St. Charles were chock full of corporate buzz words masquerading as “tools” and “strategy.” While some client engagements did deliver real value, the company's culture embraced the grin f-er mentality that you describe and incorporated it as a sales tool. I don't miss that at all.

  • http://myOnePage.com/Oo OoTheNigerian

    oops! I dis not realise I replied logged in as my company. Pls help me delete the comment by OnePage

    Of course I am not offended any more. I respect you greatly! And I have learnt so much from reading your blog. I just feel sad any time it comes up but I have something planned to tackle it the problem. Be sure I will call on you when the time comes :)

  • tekayr

    Great post Mark I run into this as well, in my hunt for my next challenge. I always respect those who provide me with straight forwards constructive feedback. Its not the end of the world to be out of a job, so I hate it when people patronize – slightly or extremely (Grin F*** = extreme patronizing combined with driving the knife in the back!)

  • alexanderjarvis

    Just “listened” to your blog (love that startup!). You make a great point. Being diffident doesn't help anyone, which is why I always speak my mind. Similarly, it is a risky strategy though. A lot of people can't handle it, but those who can really appreciate it. Life would be easier for me if grin rimmed, but life is just too short.
    Btw, I find the American's offence to swearing endearing. On talk shows on the Beeb “can i say that? Cool shit” by American actors always cracks me up.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    done. and look forward to it.

  • tekayr

    Great post Mark I run into this as well, in my hunt for my next challenge. I always respect those who provide me with straight forwards constructive feedback. Its not the end of the world to be out of a job, so I hate it when people patronize – slightly or extremely (Grin F*** = extreme patronizing combined with driving the knife in the back!)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    done. and look forward to it.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Comment #2: it is because headlines like these that I do not envy people that sell themselves as models to stock image photographers :-)

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Comment #2: it is because headlines like these that I do not envy people that sell themselves as models to stock image photographers :-)

  • AlbertoBrizio

    I would agree that the 'everyone is great' sentiment is prevalent in the States, especially with kids. It's certainly good to encourage kids but sometimes I feel it'd be much more appropriate to offer a few clear remarks and point out what isn't so wonderful and how they can do better.

    Another thing I noticed, in grown ups too, is how easily they drop the “awesome”, “terrific” or “amazing”. Twitter is very indicative. It could be that I am not such an enthusiast, but I really have to enjoy something a whole lot before calling the experience awesome.

  • http://www.astramatch.com/blog pemo

    LOL Mark I so….understand your comments about straddling cultures through different slang. I am an Aussie but have lived in Ireland, UK, Canada & the US for a short time. I often have to ask whether whoever I am speaking to understands what I said if I spot a blank look – sorry not sure where my slang comes from anymore – could be one of a few countries! Hysterical!

  • http://twitter.com/albertobrizio Alberto Brizio

    I would agree that the 'everyone is great' sentiment is prevalent in the States, especially with kids. It's certainly good to encourage kids but sometimes I feel it'd be much more appropriate to offer a few clear remarks and point out what isn't so wonderful and how they can do better.

    Another thing I noticed, in grown ups too, is how easily they drop the “awesome”, “terrific” or “amazing”. Twitter is very indicative. It could be that I am not such an enthusiast, but I really have to enjoy something a whole lot before calling the experience awesome.

  • http://www.astramatch.com/blog pemo

    LOL Mark I so….understand your comments about straddling cultures through different slang. I am an Aussie but have lived in Ireland, UK, Canada & the US for a short time. I often have to ask whether whoever I am speaking to understands what I said if I spot a blank look – sorry not sure where my slang comes from anymore – could be one of a few countries! Hysterical!

  • http://twitter.com/williampietri William Pietri

    Not sure if you're still following this, Mark, but I wonder how you'd reconcile this with your advice to leave a company by saying, “It's not you, it's me.”

    And similarly, how would you advise people turning down job offers? The safe thing is to grin fuck your way through it, but the kind and bold thing is to be frank: I had concerns X, Y, and Z about your company, and so took something I thought better.

  • http://twitter.com/williampietri William Pietri

    Not sure if you're still following this, Mark, but I wonder how you'd reconcile this with your advice to leave a company by saying, “It's not you, it's me.”

    And similarly, how would you advise people turning down job offers? The safe thing is to grin fuck your way through it, but the kind and bold thing is to be frank: I had concerns X, Y, and Z about your company, and so took something I thought better.

  • http://twitter.com/williampietri William Pietri

    Not sure if you're still following this, Mark, but I wonder how you'd reconcile this with your advice to leave a company by saying, “It's not you, it's me.”

    And similarly, how would you advise people turning down job offers? The safe thing is to grin fuck your way through it, but the kind and bold thing is to be frank: I had concerns X, Y, and Z about your company, and so took something I thought better.

  • adamrubin

    Mark,

    I just found your blog via a tweet from Fred Wilson. This post deserves a standing ovation, or at least an 80's slow clap.

    I've worked with those people before, but never had the right term to describe them. Thanks for enlightening me. I look forward (well, not really) to the day I get to call someone out for being a grin fucker =)