SPOILER ALERT: In this blog I will bang on about Breaking Bad, which is a television show. If you haven’t seen it, go away and watch it, all of it, and then come back and read this. Off you go.

Right. Last week the best TV show ever in the history of all television came to an end, when the final episode of Breaking Bad was broadcast, to the delight of myself and fans across the world.

A week on, and I can assume that those of you who want to have watched it have now done so, and I can safely give away the ending, and also share some of the lessons that I feel Breaking Bad can offer to those of us in this crazy world of work and business and that.

Now Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stuck on a teacher’s pay and having to moonlight in a car wash, he decides to build up a little nest egg for his family to live off once he’s gone by cooking and selling crystal meth.

Before we go on, I must emphasise that I in no way condone the manufacture or selling of illegal drugs, but I do feel Walter’s various adventures, and those of his family and co-workers can give us valuable insight that we can take back to the workplace.

Firstly, Walt is a man with a vision, a vision that he pursues, well, really quite ruthlessly, what with all the murder and bombing. And again, can I emphasise very strongly that I do not advocate in any way murdering or bombing in the world of work. It is very rarely called for, and really not the done thing. Even when dealing with the finance department.

So Walt is a man with a vision, and that vision is summed up by his credo: “Respect the chemistry”. During the series we find out that Walt was a star student, a genius at crystalology (or whatever, I did an arts degree, I can’t be expected to know the technical terms). He even started a company called Gray Matter (sic, it’s American, you see) which is now a multi-billion dollar business, although Walt left early on under mysterious circumstances. He uses this genius to develop an incredibly pure product, which proves incredibly popular.

So lesson one: keep true to your vision. Respect the chemistry, or whatever it is that you and your organisation do that you are great at, hold to that vision. For a prime example check out Season 3 episode 10 – “Fly”- which, apart from being as about as perfect a piece of television drama as you could possibly hope to see, will give you some insight into the lengths which Walt will go to in order to respect the chemistry.

Now, when Walt starts out he obviously knows a lot about chemistry, but less so about the world of drug dealing. He is out with his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, on a bust when he sees a former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, legging it from the scene. Jesse is a small-time meth cook, but producing an inferior product, and Walt uses Jesse’s contacts to get himself into the demi-monde of the drug scene.

Walt and Jesse’s relationship has its ups and downs, and for me is an excellent case study on what can go wrong in a line manager relationship. Fairly early on in their relationship, Walt asks Jesse to get hold of some plastic containers so they can dissolve the bodies of some drug dealers they have gassed in the caravanette they were using as a meth lab. Like you do.

Jesse fails to follow the instructions, and uses the bath instead, with hilarious and extremely unpleasant consequences. What happened here was a failure on Walt’s part to understand Jesse and deal with him accordingly. He issues clear instructions, but doesn’t set out the scenario clearly. He doesn’t provide the motivation, i.e. “get the right plastic otherwise the bath will melt through the floor and we will end up mopping up dissolved drug dealer off your kitchen floor” is a more compelling reason for Jesse to get the right container than just the bald instruction.

In the same way, many managers in a work setting can issue instructions – “do this” without providing the context and reason for it – “do this because…” – and try and link this to your vision and purpose. So next time a manager in your business tells someone to do something, make sure they have provided the context – what is the dissolved drug dealer on the kitchen floor in your workplace?

Over time Walt develops a far more mentoring relationship with Jesse, and they become a far more effective team, and Jesse becomes a more effective meth cook, being able to replicate the recipe. There are ups and downs – Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to die, Jesse turns Walt in to his brother-in-law the DEA agent, and all the unpleasantness with the Aryan Nation gangsters, but, with all mentor/mentee relationships you have to expect ups and downs.

The lesson for me is that if you help someone develop, bring themselves on, you will be a more effective manager.

Over time Walt’s business grows, firstly by accessing the distribution network of Gus Fring, who uses a chain of chicken restaurants. Los Pollos Hermanos, as cover for his smuggling operation. Gus himself has some great lessons for leadership. He epitomises the leader as servant, coming across, initially, as humble and gentle and wanting to serve, with an admirable customer focus.

But Gus gives us another important lesson for those of us in business. He starts out a young immigrant from Chile, with his own protege, a young chemist who has developed a new method to cook meth. He goes to a Mexican drug cartel to get support, and they do it (although they do, to be fair, shoot his protege in cold blood, which is unlikely to be the outcome of a meeting with your average high street bank’s business manager, in my experience).

However, when it is time for Gus to move on from the cartel in order for him to take his business in the direction he needs, he cuts his ties and won’t allow sentimentality or false loyalty to hold him back. A bold and decisive move, and one that enables Gus to take his business forward. Admittedly his tactic of serving tequila laced with poison to the cartel’s bosses may be a tad more extreme than many in business will go, but again, it is a great example of taking the steps you need to move your business forward.

Walt, too, can make bold decisions and make a successful move into new markets. Now you would be best advised to go down the route of market research, testing, piloting and then launching, rather than the blowing up your enemy in an old people’s home and using a ruthless corporate ice-maiden to flog your drugs in the Czech republic route that Walt took, but the lesson is the same – understand what’s right for your business and take action to move it forward.

I could go on, so rich is the seam to be mined here, but I will end with three classic pieces of branding which Breaking Bad can, once again, teach us all.

First up is Walt’s ever so slightly dubious lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here is a marketing genius, with his landmark office (above a shopping mall) and his motto – “better call Saul”. Take a look here at the genius in action. And what this man doesn’t know about branding? Well, his real name is McGill but he changed it because he thought people would be more ready to trust a Jewish lawyer than an Irish one. Like I said, genius.

Secondly we have Los Pollos Hermanos – the Chicken Brothers – Gus Fring’s successful chain of fried chicken restaurants. They have a special recipe which appeals to their target demographic (research, you see) and a great brand which is re-enforced by their advertising, and a great little logo. But most of all it is the customer-centric ethic, driven from the top by Gus himself, which sets them apart. Gus works from his restaurants and works behind the counter, he really understands what life is like for the people on the front line and he knows all about the importance of delivering on your brand though your people. And how to distribute drugs.

Finally there is Walt himself, Walt knows that in the cut and thrust of the business world, a mild-mannered and unsuccessful red-haired moustachioed chemistry teacher called Walter just isn’t going to embody his vision and his product. Enter, instead, bald, goatee-bearded badass-hat-and-sunglasses-wearing Heisenberg, a man so bad that his picture appears in Mexican shrines to be prayed to by assassins. The lesson is never be afraid to reinvent, to align your brand to your vision and your product, and deliver against it relentlessly.

In the end, Walt can look back on pride on what he has achieved, and leaves the business a genuinely happy man. He has rebuilt his relationship with his protege, and ensured his vision and product remained his – he even manages to deliver on his initial purpose – to provide for his family after he has gone. Who amongst us would not wish to leave our respective businesses feeling the same way?

Although, admittedly, probably without a bullet in your abdomen.

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