The Walls We Build

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost in his timeless poem Mending Wall.

I’m not much one for poetry but I’m a fan of Frost and Mending Wall because it speaks to a fundamental truth of the human condition – we love walls.  We build them in our work and in our personal lives.

As corporate executives and business leaders the goal is to build walls around our products and services to make it hard for competitors to move in on our turf.  The biggest brands develop systems, processes and infrastructure that give them a seemingly impenetrable lock on customers. 

The late GE CEO Jack Welch believed a business was only worthwhile if it was ranked either #1 or #2 in its category.  In other words, if his leaders couldn’t find a way to build a wall high enough around their business to keep everyone else out, except for maybe one other, they didn’t have much of a future working for him.

John Malone of Liberty likes to talk about the “deep moat” the cable and broadband companies built through intense capital investment to establish the infrastructure that powers their businesses.  Any potential competitor would need to spend countless billions digging up the ground and laying cable or fiber before they could even begin investing billions more to market themselves as a credible alternative.

Businesses surrounded by big walls are sure bets for investors.  The leaders of those businesses have proven themselves in day-to-day competition and can be counted on to continue to deliver outstanding returns.  And for employees the rewards and status one can attain from working for a company with big walls can be incredibly compelling as well.

We build walls in our personal lives too.  Walls, both literal and figurative, provide us with much needed protection.  They also help us define our place in the world and establish boundaries for where we will and will not go.  Like businesses, over time we hope to build strong and sturdy walls that ensure the territory we’ve carved out for ourselves – how we perceive and engage with the world – is unassailable, free from outside threat.

Walls are about safety.  No doubt we all want and need to feel safe.  We rightly work hard every day to ensure that our families and loved ones are protected.  A world without boundaries or walls of any kind would be chaos.  So, in that sense, in both life and business Frost was right – “good fences make good neighbors.”

Yet there’s another line in Mending Wall that we should consider: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

Google and Meta have established huge walls around their businesses.  The policy missteps and unintended outcomes of both company’s actions are well-chronicled.  Would the world be a better place if their walls were smaller and there was room for more competition?  I think it’s clear for all the good both companies have produced in the world, a great deal has been “walled in” – giving them too much unchecked power.

And anyone who knows anything about the history of cable knows that as the walls got higher and the number of competitors thinned, customer service, innovation and quality suffered.  Malone has said that Netflix should never have happened because cable should have created it.  But they couldn’t see beyond their walls.  Technology has done much to knock down those walls in recent years, but the point remains.

Over time relentless focus on wall building, on ensuring you maintain #1 or #2 status no matter what, can cause corporate leaders to consider what’s good for their walls before all else.  It’s the opposite mindset of what built the business in the first place – filling a need, providing a solution, and most importantly, serving customers.  

For marketers the challenge of walls is particularly thorny.  We want to make it harder for our competition but at the same time marketing is about making connections.  It’s about inviting people to step outside their walls and try something new.  Hopefully they are so delighted by the experience that they come again, or even better tell a friend.  At its best marketing helps us break down walls and jump moats, not build them up.

And in our personal lives a relentless focus on safety and security can cause us to miss opportunities to grow, to learn, to discover, to love, and to find deeper meaning.  Just like a business, the danger comes for us when all we can see is what lies inside our walls and forget, or become afraid, to look beyond them.

There’s a poignant irony here for those of us further along in our career journeys.  On the one hand we are at the peak of our powers thanks to the skills and experience we’ve acquired through years of hard work and dedication.  It’s at this stage when we will never be better equipped to venture beyond our walls and experiment. Try something new. Take a risk.  Yet too often the later we get in our careers the more timid we become.  Protecting or fortifying the wall, perhaps long after it’s become sturdy enough, becomes all that matters.

This is a shame.  For while we can rationalize the decision in terms of safety, the missed opportunities are likely what will nag at us when we look back at the end of our lives.  Despite his ode to building walls, in The Road Not Taken Frost beautifully reminded all of us of the importance of stepping beyond our safe boundaries and taking a risk.  I can’t think of a better to way to end.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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