What Selling Girl Scout Cookies Taught Me About Breaking Rules in Business

Posted by Nora DePalma

Mar 8, 2021 9:22:26 AM

The Girl Scouts refer to their Cookie program as the largest girl-run business in the
world. It was certainly my first business venture and my first lesson that rule-breaking in business isn't always a bad thing. 

Not sure how it works now, but back in my day, all of us in the Rainbow Lakes NJ Girl Scout troop were given sales territories and a sales incentives. I'm 7. 

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Me at 7. On my honor, I will try to crush my sales goals.

The top seller in the troop would earn the gold (plated) bracelet with the Girl Scouts logo. As soon as that bright shiny bauble crossed my line of vision, I was fired up. Stand back, ladies, I will have that bracelet. 

The rules of engagement were simple: work your territory, but do not, I repeat, do NOT encroach on anyone else’s territory.

Our troop leader handed out sales targets and with territories. All good: I had plenty of room to maneuver. Mom helped me plot out my strategy, develop key messages and practice overcoming objections.  If that sounds like a lot for a 7-year-old, the Girl Scouts documented a number of business skills that girls learn by selling cookies. For girls in mid-century America, it was our only exposure to business because no one was "taking us to work" on a specific day.

I head out to sell on a sunny Saturday and let me tell you, I am on fire. I am rolling in orders and maxed out my territory before early afternoon. 

That’s when I had a brilliant idea. The apartment complexes near us were just filled with targets. I figure I could knock out triple the sales in one hour given the higher density targets.

That's when Mom reminds me, “We can’t go there, dear. It’s not in your territory.”

Shoot. Here I had a brilliant market-building idea, but this over-regulation is crushing me. 

But rules are rules. I backed off a veritable gold mine, but I did it with a clear conscious. I had kicked serious Thin Mint butt. Who else could have possibly squeezed more sales out of her territory than me?

For sure, no one did. When the big day arrived, our troop leader announced:  “Nora is our troop winner. For staying within her territory." YAS. I start to rise to get that bracelet onto my wrist.

But then she continued, "Margaret" (names changed to protect the guilty and my faulty memory) sold more than Nora, because she went outside her territory."

Didn't seem to me there was anything to decide, but the troop leader put it to a vote and it was unanimous. Rule-Breaker got the bracelet and I got the shaft.  

My first reaction: NOT FAIR.  Which I think is fair as an initial reaction. The decision did feel a teensy bit contrary to, um, Scout's honor.

Getting beyond the emotion of a disappointing business outcome took some time and perspective, but these are my business lessons learned  at 7:

  1. There are often really good reasons to break the rules in business. Integrity is key. My Mom was right about not going rogue, but my outcome would have been way different if I had proposed my plan to our troop leader.
  2. Based on the unanimous vote to approve going outside our territories, it seems like a lot of us would have pursued that route, increasing the troop cookie revenue. But nothing in our lives as young girls in that era  encouraged pushing boundaries and therefore our Scout leader didn't encourage us to think outside the box/territory.
  3. Keep your top performers motivated. For the cost of another cheap gold-plated bracelet, our troop leader could have recognized both of us. But it's unlikely our troop leader of that era was thinking about grooming good business leaders. We moved right on from cookie sales to our cooking and sewing badges. I found out I was much better at business. Still am. 

Today's Girl Scout cookie sales are not without controversy--meaning strong young ladies willing to break the rules to advocate for what's right--but still bringing business skills to the forefront, including for these troops of homeless girls in New York and Iowa

Topics: Dialogue Team Essays, Work Culture