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Monday, December 16, 2013

Lisa Frank and Epic

I saw this article show up on my facebook feed and was intrigued, because my wife still talks about Lisa Frank artwork on occassion: Inside the Rainbow Gulag: The Technicolor Rise and Fall of Lisa Frank. Read it now. I'll wait.

The first thing that jumped out is the similarities between Lisa Frank and Judy Faulkner.  From starting the company in 1979 to million-dollar sales shortly thereafter, to this quote: "Thirty-five years and one mega-brand later, there are only two photos of [the company's founder] floating around the Internet." I counted only 4 distinct photos of Judy on the first page of a Bing search. Last, the description "a very passionate lady, although a little manic and not always all there" could apply equally to Faulkner as it does to Frank. Anyone who was around when she was comparing Epic to Facebook and suggesting that we come up with a Farmville-esque game related to healthy children can attest to that.

As I read through the first few paragraphs describing the workers' attitudes about their place of employment, it felt like I was reading Glassdoor reviews of Epic. Lisa Frank's artists, like Epic's staff, were overworked, under-appreciated, and prone to early burnout.

Deeper in the article, however, LFI and Epic's differences begin to emerge. Lisa Frank, Inc took a more top-down, aggressively insulting approach to management, with equal rage directed at employees and middle management. Epic, in contrast, is apathetic at the top and useless in the middle. Faulkner appears to be too caught up in schmoozing hospital CEOs and directing EMR legislation as an Obama appointee to effectively manage her company. (I define management as "encouraging and providing resources for the growth and development of a company's assets, whether those assets are material or personnel.) Her lack of focus combined with Epic's much-vaunted "flat hierarchy" lead to a frustrating organizational structure for the bottom-rung employee. Instead of one unified company led by an actively participating CEO,  Epic instead has hundreds of tiny fiefdoms run by managerially-inexperienced Team Leads. These Team Leads, who are thrust into the position armed with nothing more than their previous experience as One Who Takes Orders and a couple of books, learn to lead with either the unforgiving iron fist of Power Gone To The Head; or fearing conflict, they lead with Friendliness, Understanding, and Avoidance Of Any Criticism Constructive Or Otherwise. One leads to burnt out employees who quit in disgust, while the other leads to employees who don't know if they're meeting expectations or not until they get fired.

Either way, it's a problem. Lest Epic go the way of Lisa Frank Incorporated, I suggest they invest in their employees by drastically changing their management structure. Big companies need Middle Management. Epic hasn't been a small startup in over a decade. It's time for Judy to accept that, and make adjustments to her company. 

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