As we look increasingly like adopting the American model of health care, welfare and education we also use American business expressions. Or “expressionisms” as George Bush Jnr. might have called them. So ambitious managers need to learn the management language and the rest of us need to understand what they are on about.
The USA is the land of the sports fan and America’s business and sport have one big thing in common: they are both very, very competitive. So it is not surprising that American business language is full of sporting expressions. The three big sports in the USA are basketball, baseball and (American) football - not to be confused with soccer. Some of the expressions may not, therefore, be as familiar to a British/European audience.
My favourite at the moment is a “slam dunk” which is a basketball expression for when a player gets a basket with an emphatic delivery. It means can’t miss, a sure thing, the opposite of a long shot. “Stepping up to the plate” is a baseball phrase used to mean taking responsibility and “the ballpark figure” you hear so much about is the estimated or rounded up number, as in the attendance at a sporting event.
“The whole nine yards” is an American football expression meaning to go the full distance.
Of course not all expressions have a sporting origin: some just creep into common usage or become popular because someone famous used it on TV or in a film. Remember the Godfather: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”? Well here’s another one that has American gangster overtones.
“What would it take to make this go away?” This means, how can we fix this between us, what do I have to give you to change your mind? This might sound like a bribe to a British/European ear but it is in fact a plea for a frank negotiation. A popular expression in the American business community is “leverage” as in, “what leverage have we got?” meaning what pressure we can bring to bear.
“Wake up and smell the coffee” was made popular on the American election campaign and means read the writing on the wall - it’s obvious if you think about it. Another favourite of America politicians was “where is the meat?” This was apparently taken from a TV advert for beef burgers and came to mean “this is just froth, where is the substance?”
Some of the old favourites are still in use. “It’s not rocket science” is intended to emphasise that something is not difficult. Running an idea “up the flagpole” is about drawing an idea to everyone’s attention like waving a flag.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is a cooking-themed way of saying, you can’t get something done without upsetting someone and ultimately the end result is worth the short term pain. And you’ll hear “we are all on message” or “singing from the same song sheet” when everyone is clear what is expected and we are all saying the same thing to our staff and customers.
A much used management expression at the moment is “this is not an exercise in ticking the boxes”. This is intended to convince staff that we are not just going through the motions but want to see real action. The expression comes from the fact that we have all become used to completing computerised tick box forms. If you want to negotiate a good deal or make a persuasive argument, you need to get everything in order, or get all your ducks in line. In the current harsh financial climate senior managers can be heard referring to the low hanging fruit meaning all the easy pickings for making savings have been taken. Finally senior managers can be heard trying to impress upon staff the dramatic nature of the budget situation and a sense of urgency by referring to standing on a burning platform.
If we sometimes find it hard to understand our American cousins they also have difficulty with our expressions; after all if we make a “cock-up”, they won’t understand. And looking it up on Google could lead to a disciplinary.
Life would be a lot less confusing if we all just said what we mean, and managers and staff at all levels “cut out the BS”.
As the Americans would say: “it’s a no brainer”.
Management in 100 words - inspired by Fabio Capello
The England football manager claims he only needs 100 words of English to manage the team. On the assumption that, like the England team, your team understands the basics, what would your 100 words be?
I came up with “Yes, top priority, well done”. After some thought I added “No, not good enough” and “stay in budget”.
After all, if you cut out the small talk about holidays, football and kids, what’s left? Just a few motivational phrases? “Don’t let me down”, “don’t let yourself down”, “just do what we did last time”, “you can do it”.
Of course, body language greatly extends the vocabulary, he said, head bowed, hands in pockets as he scurried back to the car park after another boring and frustrating meeting in which Wayne forgot his papers and Joe knocked over the water jug.
That’s enough words. Now get out there and get the job done!