Lessons from The West Wing #3

Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House had a big block of cheese…. I am making a mental list of those who are snickering, and even as I speak I am preparing appropriate retribution.”- Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff, The West Wing


In the episode, The Crackpots and These Women, the character of Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, introduces us to the origins of the Big Block of Cheese.  In 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400 lb. wheel of cheddar brought into the main foyer of the White House, and the public was invited to partake of the cheese and discuss the events of the time.  In the TV program Big Block of Cheese Day was a colloquial reference to a tradition of granting access to interest groups which would not ordinarily get the attention of White House staff.  In this episode, the Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg, had to meet with environmentalists who were interested in obtaining funding for a highway strictly for wolves’ use.  Deputy Communications Director Sam Seabourn met with UFO conspiracy theorists.  There were also groups such as the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality and Citizens for DC Statehood.  The staffers somewhat begrudgingly enter into these meetings but come away having gained new perspective from passionate members of the public.


One of the reasons I like The West Wing is that actual events often follow the story line of this 15-year-old program.  President Obama actually implemented Big Block of Cheese Day following the State of the Unions, though the discussions were on social media (which didn’t exist when the TV show was made).  The public shared questions via the (curiously casein-free) hashtag #AskTheWH, and various officials responded throughout the day to questions on policy issues such as education, immigration, climate and energy, economic opportunity, foreign policy, and healthcare.


The Big Block of Cheese Day is actually an interesting idea for engaging a wide range of voices around important issues.  In business and in the not-for-profit, clubs and associations, it is often difficult to gauge a wide range of views but it is vitally important.   There is a paradigm shift in marketing from seller-centric marketing to buyer-centric selling.  Part of buyer-centric selling and inbound marketing is understanding who your market is and where they are on the buyer journey.  A key concept used to do this is by building personas.  This goes far beyond understanding and identifying who you market is but who they are as a person, and what is important to them at that particular time.  Look no further than the Youi insurance TV advertisements for great, quick examples of personas and how Youi have tailored their policies to each person.


There is also a case whereby the Big Block of Cheese Day could be used internally to gain a better understanding of the issues and insights of the staff.  Another TV program, (and not one of my favourites), that explores this idea is Undercover Boss, where a senior executive put on a disguise and spent a day with various parts of the operations of the company.   I’m not advocating deception but I do think it is important that there is an avenue whereby all voices can be heard within the organisation.  As part of ANZ Bank’s Breakout cultural transformation program all staff were given the permission to voice their opinion, views and ideas with anyone in the organisation – right to the then CEO Andrew McFarlane.  Not everyone did avail themselves of this opportunity but feeling empowered to do so gave the staff a sense that they were being heard.


I cover both inbound marketing and sales, and the impact of business decisions on others in my new book “Run Your Business Better – Essential information every business owner should know” which will be available in print and eBook towards the end of June 2017.

Stephen Barnes, Managing Director, Byronvale Advisors

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