Wednesday, January 26

What Pentagon, State Department, U.S. and other civilian NATO leaders could learn from Tabatha Coffey's lessons in hair salon management

I refused to watch "Tabatha's Salon Takeover" reality series on Bravo cable TV during its first two seasons.

"It's about hair," I snorted.

This just goes to show that one should never be a snob when casting around for solutions to problems in the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishments. As I learned when I finally caught an episode it's not really about the hair, which is also the title of Tabatha Coffey's just-published book.

The book is part memoir (she started working in the hair salon business when she was 14; she's now 41), part self-help guide, and part business management manual. It's that last which makes the show a 'must watch' for anyone running a small business start-up of any kind -- and indeed for anyone who wants to learn to be a better boss and leader.

I talked a friend, who also has no interest in hairdressing, into watching an episode. After he saw Tabatha in action he said admiringly, "She's Rommel."

I don't know enough about Erwin Rommel to say whether he would be the right comparison in the military sphere but after watching re-runs of several of the shows, I can see why my friend said what he did; she does indeed demonstate traits that I think are common to all great generals.

Tabatha's job on the show is to turn around failing hair salons; this invariably involves teaching the salon owners to be better bosses and the staff to be better employees (and better hair stylists). Given that she only has one week to rescue a troubled salon her leadership is consistently a tour de force.

The show's producers probably weed out the candidates with serious psychological problems although some salon owners that Tabatha encounters have personal issues that are at the root of their failing business; in such cases Tabatha has to juggle what's in essence an intervention with rescuing the business end of the salon. However, the majority of the failing salons are owned by people whose skill at hair styling allowed them to build enough of a clientele to open their own salon, but who don't have sufficient business experience and skill at managing employees. The upshot is that the salons run into financial trouble.

As the unpaid bills pile up and the owners' face bankruptcy they become a walking textbook of the Boss From Hell: blaming their mistakes on the staff, starting a cold war with the staff or morphing into petty tyrants -- or flipping to the opposite pole and trying to be a pal to the employees.

Such tactics naturally engender the classic employee responses to such treatment, which range from outright mutiny, to insubordination, to subtle sabotage, to a bunker mentality, to running riot, to loss of confidence and pride in their work and place of employment.

And for their part, many of the stylists employed in the salons have only their time at an American public high school and trade school as their guide to professional behavior. Such employees have no military service experience to help them forge self-discipline in a business setting, no experience with working in a corporate setting to teach them a standard of professional conduct. And many of the stylists demonstrate only the most tenuous grasp of the concept of customer service.

So Tabatha often walks into a kind of human zoo, with each stylist doing his or her own thing, and resenting any critique on the argument that they're artistes and must suffer no dampening of their free spirits.

(If this situation sounds faintly familiar, reference the Afghan War. And start with the early days of the U.S. invasion, which saw Vice President Dick Cheney take it into his head, without consulting the Commander-in-Chief or CENTCOM -- or anyone, for that matter -- to arrange an airlift out of Afghanistan for Pakistani military personnel. The personnel had been overseeing Taliban fighting against Afghans working on the U.S. side. That airlift of a few Pakistani officers morphed into an air bridge that allowed God Knows how many Taliban and al Qaeda commanders to evade capture in Afghanistan and skip out to Pakistan.)

From all that chaos Tabatha has to wrest order before she can persuade the owner and employees to follow her recommendations for transforming a failing salon into a profitable business. She does this first by taking command through the sheer force of her personality, then instilling respect for her leadership through her insightful questions and comments to the staff and owner, by teaching the employees the importance of respecting the owner's authority and conducting themselves in a professional manner, and by instilling or rekindling pride among the employees in their profession. She also inspires the owner and staff to build esprit d'corps and teaches the salon owner the ropes of good management.

If you ask, 'She does all that in a week?' -- all that and much more, although she has longer than a week to assess each salon's personnel situation and business model. She also provides technical advice on developing a successful small business model and specifically a hair salon model. Plus, she oversees a physical overhaul of the salon via improved decor and floor layout and new equipment, which the producer provides the salon for free. And she identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each hair stylist's technical skills and provides training and recommendations to improve the skills..

Before you wonder if she also walks on water, she does have a few things going for her when she embarks on a rescue mission:

> The candidates for a salon makeover are truly desperate for help; the owners are so deeply in debt that several not only stand to lose the salon but also their house, which they've mortgaged to the hilt in the attempt to keep the salon's doors open. Thus, the owners who contact Bravo to request that she rescue their salon are highly motivated to follow Tabatha's recommendations. They view her as the court of last resort.

> Tabatha Coffey is a superstar in the hairdressing world. Her technical expertise and creativity as a hair stylist and success as a salon owner are known to every person in the business.

> At least by the second season of "Tabatha's Salon Takeover," it's now in its third), the people she helps have followed her show and, so they're aware of her success at identifying and correcting a salon's problems, and thus they're weighted to at least listen to her recommendations.

> Her unannounced, highly theatrical entrance into the salon is calculated to produce shock and awe in the staff. Up that point the staff are rarely aware of how bad the salon's finances are. So just the mere appearance of the famous Tabatha at their salon clues the staff that the salon is about to crash and burn, which means they're facing the prospect of joblessness. That sobering reality, in addition to all the above is enough to give Tabatha a big advantage in the first hours of her salon takeover.

She also has one surprising advantage up her sleeve, which I think can make her more effective than many advisors who are hired to turn around failing small businesses: she is openly and famously a lesbian. While inspecting a closet in one salon she quipped, "This is the first time I've been in a closet in years."

What this means is that the staff and employees can't argue that the discipline she imposes will turn free-spirited artistes into Stepford Wives. And they know that her fame as a hair stylist is based on the unique, tailor-made hair style she creates for every client instead of wreaking a cookie-cutter fad haircut on them.

Tabatha Coffey's life is a demonstration that creativity and individualism can get along just fine with a highly disciplined, professional approach to business.

Yet much of the drama of the show arises from human nature in the raw. Despite the owner's desperation and respect for her reputation, and even after Tabatha has had the owner watch footage of a day in the salon, which shows in merciless detail the owner's failings as a boss, some of the owners fight her tooth and nail before they'll improve their attitude and behavior. Or they fight her in a passive way, by nodding like bobble-heads at every recommendation but continuing on as before. It's here that one can see in Tabatha the qualities that make for a great general. Consider two great generals;

Given the universal respect that Temujin commanded among his officers by the time he became known as Genghis Khan, it can surprise students of his life that for years his forging of Mongol tribes into an army was like herding cats. The other tribal leaders considered that they knew more about warfare than he did, if only on the basis of being older, and to a man they were very independent-minded.

It was much the same for General Eisenhower while he served as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two. He was dealing with gigantic egos, all of which believed they knew the best way to wage a war.

In short, no matter how desperate the salon owners, and despite their agreement to cede their authority to Tabatha for a week, they are commanders of their own little army, so to speak. Thus, Tabatha's greatest challenge is to help the owners transform from bad commanders into good ones without breaking their fighting spirit or asking them to strip themselves of their uniqueness. Because she approaches the salon makeover from that vantage point the show is an incredibly valuable teaching aid not only for businesspeople but also for military officers.

However, it's Tabatha's insights about mission drift that I find particularly applicable to the efforts of the U.S. military and State Department in Afghanistan. If you ask how a hair salon could suffer from mission drift -- you can't believe some of the situations she's encountered.

There was the owner who decided that the best way to shore up flagging business was by creating a singles' bar atmosphere in the salon and getting the customers, employees and himself drunk every day. Try to imagine what a drunk hair stylist can do to a client's hair while wielding a bottle of hair dye and scissors.

There was the owner who determined that the way to profits was to offer coupons for free and discounted haircuts and hair coloring work. At the point Tabatha arrived there were 40 different coupon programs, which had turned the salon into a kind of direct mail operation with stylists stuffing coupons into envelopes for much of the day, which took them away from their styling duties.

On the day that the Bravo hidden cameras were turned on in the salon they showed a woman, lured in by a coupon, sitting in a chair for two hairs waiting to be served before she gave up and left -- then being chased in the parking lot by the receptionist, who'd been too busy stuffing envelopes to notice that no work had been done on her hair, and who demanded that she pay up for her hair cut.

Those of us who remembered the brutal turf war between Pentagon and State in the wake of 9/11 were overjoyed about the successful teaming of David Petraeus and career diplomat Ryan Crocker. Their experience, technical expertise, and close cooperation helped work wonders in Iraq.

But by the spring of 2009 it was obvious that the Afghan campaign was suffering from mission drift. It was substituting policing actions and haphazard attempts at nation building for warfare, on the rationalization that this was good population-centric counterinsurgency (POPCOIN) doctrine.

The problem was that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not have a true insurgency -- not in enough measure to warrant heavy reliance on POPCOIN tactics. Instead, Afghanistan has a proxy war being orchestrated by Pakistan's military.

And yet in the attempt to win hearts and minds among illusory insurgents, the NATO troops were ordered to act in the manner of police serving in the most sophisticated community outreach programs in American big-city police forces. This approach caused unnecessary deaths and maiming to NATO troops and Afghan civilians, and by the summer of 2009 it was causing what was termed by several observers as low troop morale.

What was happening among the troops was worse than low morale. It was a growing hatred among the troops for the Afghans they were protecting, and who were setting IEDs as soon as the troops turned their backs on them. What was happening was a growing contempt for the military authority. For many NATO soldiers serving in Afghanistan, military service had come to have no meaning beyond keeping each other alive within their individual units.

The attitude of the troops was mirrored among many Afghans; they came to hate the troops and to believe that NATO wasn't serious about defeating the Taliban. And so, from a sense of self-preservation, they began tolerating the Taliban who returned to rule their regions and cooperating with them.

The arrival of Gen. Petraeus as the supreme commander in Afghanistan, once he got all his ducks in a row, reversed some of the worst aspects of the situation. But by then the U.S. Department of State was increasingly acting according to its own lights in Afghanistan with the encouragement of Robert Gates -- a U.S. Secretary of Defense who has been promoting an approach to warfare that relies heavily on theories of 'third-world' development, as found in organizations such as the World Bank.

It's an allover situation that Tabatha Coffey would instantly recognize as mission drift and a destroyer of the leadership authority that is the backbone of any successful group enterprise.

State is not a development institution. Yet State's deep involvement in development since it virtually took over USAID, coupled with its direct involvement in nation building efforts in Afghanistan, has increasingly muddied the waters of its diplomatic mission. And it's placed State on the defensive regarding complaints about the development initiatives in Afghanistan, which even include charges of corruption arising from dealings with contractors.

Meanwhile, the discipline that was evident in the Petraeus-Crocker alliance and their respective teams at State and CENTCOM collapsed in Afghanistan. One reason for this is that the Iraq operation was clearly run by one country -- the USA -- while the Afghan operation represents more of a group effort. This has translated into the nation-building aspect of POPCOIN being shared by several governments and the development contractors favored by major governments in NATO. Discipline has broken down because of this with entire areas of the war not under clear lines of authority.

One way to clarify the lines of authority would be for USAID to be absorbed into an American reconstruction and development bank (ARDB) along the lines of the regional development banks in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and so on, and which is clearly separate from State and the Pentagon.

(The creation of such a entity wouldn't interfere with U.S. membership in the World Bank; the major countries that belong to regional development banks also belong to the World Bank.)

An ARDB would put some distance between the U.S. foreign office and development and procurement issues, and between the military and development/reconstruction issues and procurements related to such.

It would also help to better formalize protocols regarding the use of development projects for counterinsurgency operations. Many such projects, including the PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams), were experimental in Iraq. Now that they have a more permanent role in military operations it's time to clearly define the limits of their use in a war setting, and the way they interface with military kinetic operations.

The creation of an ARDB is just one way that lines of authority and responsibility could be clarified; there are other ways, such as expanding the mission of some existing U.S. agencies, including USAID. The basic idea is to create enough of a buffer between State and the Pentagon that foreign policy considerations don't overwhelm the military institution and its unique function.

However, in the case of Afghanistan even the most efficient buffer would only rearrange the furniture in hell, as long as civilian leaders in NATO countries insist on using their troops to fight a situation that doesn't exist.

There's been much discussion about what the success of POPCOIN depends on. Less attention has been given to the core beliefs that support a long-running insurgency. The most fundamental belief shared by insurgents fighting an occupier is that they know better than the interloper how to help their own county. That belief can be changed by effective POPCOIN outreaches to the insurgents, as the Iraq War demonstrated.

But in the case of Afghanistan large numbers of the vaunted insurgents are Afghans in the pay of Pakistan's military/ISI, which is not interested in building up Afghanistan but in holding it back. So there's a serious problem, which POPCOIN theory is not meant to address, when it comes to the point that such Afghans are crying to outsiders that they don't want to torture and massacre their own countrymen but are being ordered to do so by their Pakistani paymasters. (See Matt Waldman's June 2010 paper, The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan's ISI and Afghan Insurgents.)

Some in Washington argue that the claims of a proxy war being waged by Pakistan are greatly exaggerated by the Afghans, and fueled by their experience after the Russian pull-out, when Pakistani-backed Taliban ran amok in Afghanistan.

From all I've studied of reports on the situation during the past three years, I don't agree that the claims are greatly exaggerated, but for the sake of discussion assume they are. That would mean NATO is dealing with a very traumatized population. Telling such people that a Pakistani proxy war is in their imagination would only to add to their paranoia.

And there is much in the day's news that would reinforce the paranoia, particularly because Afghans no longer need to be literate to be news hounds, thanks to TV and radio stations that sprang up in the country since the NATO occupation. Afghans with access to such media outlets are closely following news about their country, the NATO war effort there, and Pakistan -- and broadcasting to other Afghanss via cell phone.

At the end of this post I feature quotes from two news reports yesterday, which I picked almost at random, to illustrate why Afghans have good reason to believe NATO is more interested in covering for Pakistan than in backing their country. Such reports are so common that finding them on the internet is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Meanwhile diplomats and military officers from NATO countries heap verbal assurances on Afghans that the NATO countries have their best interests at heart. How would you react to such assurances in the face of evidence to the contrary? I know what I'd do. I'd call for a Tabatha takeover of the NATO command in Afghanistan for a week.

I can hear the excuses: 'But Tabatha our militaries are under civilian control. What can we do when we're ordered to fight a phantom insurgency?'

From my study of her salon rescues I think I can get into the ballpark about how she might reply.

She once explained to a gaudily-dressed group of stylists why so many top stylists wear black at work: because it's the client who's supposed to be the center of attention, not the hair dresser.

Good generals know it's not about them, it's about the soldiers who put their lives in their hands. If the generals' civilian bosses knowingly give orders that force them to repeatedly betray their responsibility to troops, their only recourse in a civilian-run democracy is to resign their command. The most they can then hope for is that the resignations will cause the civilian leaders and those who vote them into office to review the bad orders.

The retort is that we can't go to war with Pakistan. Who said anything about making war on Pakistan? As I've pointed out again and again, and as the incident with Dick Cheney and many other incidents and the two reports I quote from below amply illustrate, the first step with Pakistan has never been taken by the US and NATO. The step is to formulate a policy that shows unequivocal disapproval for the Pakistan regime's support of terrorism and then consistently apply the policy so that mixed signals aren't sent to the regime.

And if the civilian leaders in the United States and other NATO countries cannot grasp the benefits of clear policy consistently applied, they really do need to tune into "Tabatha's Salon Takeover" and take notes.

Now to quotes from the two January 25 reports I mentioned above:
Pakistan has "disastrous year" for human rights in 2010: HRW

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) Taliban violence and religious extremism grew in Pakistan in 2010, with the government doing little to improve the situation and often making things worse, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.

In its World Report 2011, the New York-based rights organization said militant violence was fostered by the passive acceptance of persecution of religious minorities and had active help from some elements of the intelligence agencies.

"Taliban atrocities aren't happening in a vacuum," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, "but instead with covert support from elements in the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies."
The second report:
White House, NATO Hold Up Afghan Force Size Increase
By Viola Gienger

(Bloomberg, January 25) The White House and NATO are holding up a decision on increasing the size of Afghan security forces because of their concerns over the cost and possible objections from Pakistan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said.

Levin said he urged President Barack Obama at a White House event yesterday to approve an increase in the goal for the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers to 378,000, beyond the current plan to field 305,000 by October. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Army General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, have all recommended the increase, Levin said.

“I urged the president strongly and with very direct words that this needed to be done,” Levin told reporters at the Capitol in Washington today after returning from a week-long trip to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. The decision is necessary “to enhance the possibilities of success of our mission and to speed up the reduction of our forces,” he said.

The coalition fighting in Afghanistan, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aims to turn back the Taliban and build an Afghan army and police force to take over from the foreign troops. Obama plans to begin a U.S. drawdown in July, and officials have said that training is on schedule to meet the current goal of 305,000 Afghan forces in the field by October.

The Pakistan Factor

In addition to the concerns over cost, the U.S. may be considering objections from Pakistan to having so many Afghan troops across the border, Levin said. Such an objection would be “interesting,” considering that Pakistan has often blamed Afghanistan for not controlling the flow of fighters over its border.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Levin said. “If they want the Afghans to take greater responsibility on their side of the border to stop the flow, then they should not object to the Afghan security forces being enlarged.”

Pakistan wants to help Afghanistan achieve “stability and lasting peace,” said Imran Gardezi, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

“It is the sovereign right of the government and people of Afghanistan to determine the size of their national army and police,” Gardezi said in an e-mail today.

“Pakistan has offered its cooperation in training Afghan national army and police personnel.”

Considering Many Factors

The White House is considering many factors in determining the ultimate strength of the Afghan force, including costs and quality as well as quantity, an administration official said on condition of anonymity because the decision-making process isn’t public.

Navy Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen, and Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, both declined to comment.

“There is ongoing discussion, but no decisions have been made,” said Marine Corps Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
Translation of the sound of chirping crickets emanating from the offices of Rasmussen and Mullen: They didn't expect Carl Levin to announce to the public that they were considering complaints from Pakistan's military that Afghan military and police forces were getting too big.


Anonymous said...


You aren't alone, I watched Tabatha once and knew she understood the definition of leadership.

Pundita said...

Yes, she's incredible

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should ask that she take a trip to the WH and have a sit down chat with Barack?

Pundita said...

I was thinking when I wrote the essay that it was shame she was born in Australia because that meant she couldn't run for US President. But I didn't think of your idea. That would be great. Can't you just imagine the scene? After listening to Obama and watching the video of a day at the White House: 'All right, I've seen enough. Hand me the keys. I'm taking over for a week.' LOL

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, "hand me your keys" would make my day, year, decade!