Friday, August 11, 2017

"Grit"... a Foundation for Leaders

Almost three years ago, I wrote an essay titled "The Importance of Grit"( , where I discussed the work that Professor Angela Duckworth had done on the role of "Grit" vs. IQ as a predictor of academic success in students.  In that essay, I suggested that this concept of "Grit" not only rang home for me in the academic context that Professor Duckworth referenced, but it was directly relevant to my experiences in business.  Now almost three years later, I am more confident than even that the relevancy and importance of "Grit" in the professional landscape is significant and I want to go further today that we need to think about "grittiness" as a required, "foundational" skill/attribute for leaders.

As a reminder, Professor Duckworth defined "grit" as the combination of "passion, perseverance and stamina," and her research suggested that a student's "grittiness" had a  stronger correlation for academic success than a student's IQ scores.  My professional experience, now for over thirty two years, reinforces this finding in the professional business environment.  The most successful executives, and specifically the most successful business leaders that I have had the chance to work with were not always the smartest folks in the room.  Usually it was a mix of an individual's "passion, perseverance and stamina" (their "Grit"), combined with a unique set of skills, experiences and motivation that won the day.  I don't think this is only true historically.  In today's VERY high tempo change-filled, highly competitive workplace the leaders that are succeeding today need a lot more than high IQ's to find enduring success.

"Grit" for Senior Leaders:  I currently have the chance (and honor) in my consulting practice to work with a number of C-suite level executives across numerous industries and company sizes.  While each individual is dealing with radically different business/marketplace dynamics, a center point in each of my discussions is the need to "persevere" through times of change/challenge and to have the patience and "stamina" to face the truth of the challenges ahead and to lead their organizations with personal commitment/"passion" through the rough spots ahead.  Without realizing it, I have been "coaching Grit" all through 2017!  We can't have a false expectation that any executive is so smart that they can out think the challenges of the marketplace.  Innovation is happening too quickly, competition is moving dramatically, change and challenges are accelerating in ways that senior business leaders will simply not be able to "out smart"!  As an example imagine if you were a senior executive at Walmart or Kroger today.  Five years ago (or maybe even five quarters ago) the idea that Amazon would be a major threat for the grocery dollar in America would have been nowhere on the horizon but earlier this year with the announcement of Amazon buying Whole Foods, the market caps of both Kroger and Walmart took a major hit.  "Smarts" alone will not succeed competitively vs. Amazon, but I assure you that "perseverance" and "stamina" will be required in large supply!

Teaching "Grit":  This idea of "grit" as a foundation skill/attribute for leaders clearly rings true to me. As many of you know, I deeply believe that great leaders are also great teachers, and interestingly my most widely read essay is on that topic, "A teachable point of view"(   .  As leaders, we have a huge impact on our teams by what we prioritize and what we reward.  We need to find ways to actually allow our teams to struggle and face challenges, as ways to "build muscle" on "perseverance."  We need to allow competitive challenges or market place dynamics to push our teams into having to endure setbacks over time to "build muscle" on "stamina."  Finally, we need to find the spark of "passion" inside ourselves, and share it openly with our teams, in order to inspire our organizations to have the courage or confidence to step up and share their "passion" for the business/enterprise/brand/mission themselves.  Great leaders are great teachers and we need to find more ways to "teach grit" now more than ever.

This essay could continue, thinking about how to interview for "grit", or how to help frontline leaders foster "grit" among their teams, etc.  My focus today is to suggest that the business landscape ahead will be more dynamic, more challenging, higher tempo, with more change than the landscape historically and now more than ever we need to prioritize organizational "grittiness" in order to create "success" in times of accelerating "change"!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Look through the "other" end of the telescope ...

Across the business landscape there are headlines every day of companies realigning or restructuring their operating models to meet changing competitive challenges.  In some instances it is a retailer closing unprofitable stores, in another it may be a manufacturing entity consolidating their supply chain to improve efficiency and quite literally the list goes on and on.  When companies struggle to compete and “win,” they often look to the well-worn world of realignment/restructuring “consultants” to help them “improve” their operating model with an eye towards future success.  Having seen this trend “up-close” in a variety of contexts, it is tempting for me to “opine” on the mid-long term efficacy of these actions.  Possibly saving that content for a future blog essay, today I want to comment on the very real human side of these actions.

In a moment of coincidence, two companies from my past are executing restructuring efforts this summer and I am hearing from a number of associates/executives “impacted” in these actions.  In some circumstances they are 50+ year-old execs, being offered “early retirement” packages well before their personal plans for retirement.  In other situations, they are 30+ year old execs, 10+/- years into their careers facing the first real “speed bump” of their professional lives, and numerous situations in-between.  This essay was triggered from one such discussion that I had earlier tis week with someone on the younger end of the “impacted” spectrum.

The phone call I received early this week started innocently enough.  The woman on the other end of the line and I had worked together closely for a number of years and have known each other for the past 8 +/- years.  She had recently been “impacted” by a restructuring effort and her job was being outsourced to a third-party company.  (Very common in the restructuring playbook.)  Once we dug through the emotions of the moment, and her sadness, anger and frustration about why this plan even had to happen, she shared the core of her concerns and anxiety.  As part of the process, she was going to have to “interview” with the “third party” company for her old job and that interview was late this week.  The prospect of sitting on the other side for the table from a group of interviewers, each with their “telescopes” (her imagery) zeroed in on her every comment was a bit of a “freak-out.”  Certainly an understandable response!

Pulling out an old essay and encouraging her to “P/B/R: Pause, Breathe, & Reconnect" (see more at we talked about the upcoming interview and I encouraged her to “look through the other end of THEIR telescopes.”  Think about THEM and their needs/issues.  Here THEY were, trying to find talent and build an organization to meet the needs of their new client.  THEY needed people like her; people with exceptional track records, strong well-documented accomplishments, with demonstrated leadership talents/skills/etc.! THEY NEEDED HER!!  Looking through the “other end of the telescope,” they weren’t coming to the interview to identify and explore this woman’s flaws/weaknesses.  They were coming to the interview to identify and explore her talents, qualities and experiences.  Once again, they NEEDED & WANTED her to be great!

The phone call closed out a bit after this discussion and she seemed focused and ready with a new attitude toward the upcoming interviews .  While I will be anxious to hear the outcome of the interview experience from my old friend, I am confident that we can all learn a lesson from the “telescope” imagery.  Too often we get “stuck” by looking at the “telescopes” in our work lives solely from OUR end, rather than pausing for a moment (remember “P/B/R”) and working to “look through the telescope form the other end!”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Our Actions Betray our Intent

Our Actions Betray our Intent

I have been thinking about this topic for a number of years, and recently in my consulting practice, I have had a series of conversations with a number of clients/leaders across varied industries, organizations and roles where this theme continues to resonate.  The dynamic of an organization or a leader’s “words” communicating one set of “truth” (no “alt facts” reference intended) and that same organization’s/leader’s “actions” communicating a different “truth” is pervasive and damaging to organizations broadly.  While the “disconnect” between the “words” and “actions” is debilitating, I want to suggest that in today’s business and political climate, we must be reminded that our actions betray our intent, not our words.

Looking over past essays, you can see that I have found my way to this topic before and it continues to be an issue, and may be a growing one across our landscape today.  Back in 2014, I commented on a discussion with a work associate where this “words/actions disconnect” was front and center.  You can read more in the essay “Watch the Feet,” at  While the dynamic is common, I am coming to a point of view that the leaders who are actively engaged in this “disconnection” are fooling themselves to think that they are somehow being effective, impactful leaders with this behavior.  Maybe we have become too jaded or cynical with all the “spin,” and “talking points,” with people being trained to “stay on message” at all cost; but I suggest that broadly individuals are looking past the “spin” and watching the actual actions to understand the true intent of a leader or organization.

A living example of this is happening currently in the summer of 2017 with an impending headcount reduction at major corporation headquartered here in Atlanta.  The new CEO has described these job eliminations as a way to “ help us do fewer things better and help us support our operating units” as a “more lean and focused corporate center.”  While the “words” tell one story, the reality is that the company is struggling to grow, with the stock price at the same split adjusted price as 19 years ago, and  the company needs to cut costs dramatically in order to achieve its profit targets; thus is eliminating 1200 +/- jobs in its corporate headquarters staff  of 5500, a 22% reduction.  While the reality is harsh, it is more the “truth” of the moment rather than some “process improvement” initiative to make the corporate workplace more streamlined and efficient … the actions betray the intent!

Closing with a word of inspiration from my old boss Bruce Paynter, leaders and organizations can be amazing and powerful when their words and actions actually align!  In one of my last conversations with Bruce, he talked to me about the importance and impact of authenticity in leaders and how organizations watch leaders carefully to “see” the alignment of their words and actions.  You can find that essay at,  This need to stay “on the rail” where one’s words and actions are aligned is vital to all of us as we seek to have a positive impact on our teams/organizations/clients/families/etc. in the short run, and leave a legacy that we will be proud of in the long run!  Let’s work to “stay on the rail” of alignment and allow our actions and words (hopefully highly aligned) “betray our intent” regularly and positively!

Postscript: regardless of your political orientation, we need to hold all elected officials and candidates to a higher standard in this area.  We as members of the electorate cannot become “numb” to the massive disconnect and misalignment between “words and actions” that is pervasive on all sides of the political spectrum today.  Not only is it damaging in any specific election, it weakens the strength of our democracy in the long run!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The "Treasure" of old friends

Last week I went on one of my “pilgrimages” back to Appleton Wisconsin, where I began by career when I went to work as a young marketer at Kimberly Clark in 1985. As is my way, I visited a number of my “old haunts,” including Jacobs Market (a magnificent butcher shop), City Park (across the street from my old apartment) and the campus of Lawrence University (where my wife Jennie lived and worked as a dorm director the year before we were married.) While the sights, smells and tastes of my quick visit all hit home, nothing was more significant than the visits I had with a number of “old friends.”

First, after picking up some wine and delicious bacon (from Jacobs Market of course), I went to visit Steve and Nina. Steve started at K-C the same time that I did, and we were marketing assistants in different departments. While we worked for different bosses and even in different buildings, our jobs were very similar and many a night I would “hang out” with Steve and his wife Nina and their new son Wilson. They were my closest friends in Wisconsin for sure! What is wonderful and hilarious is that I have become “reacquainted” with Wilson as a young high performing business executive over the past few years and really enjoy his company and his fine taste in wine! Steve and Nina were so generous to host me last week, and Nina (once again) cooked a tremendous dinner that included beautiful steaks from Jacobs (of course, do you see a trend??) After a restful night and a good cup of coffee, I headed out to spend time with another old Wisconsin friend, Bruce Paynter.

As some of you know, Bruce was an old boss from K-C who was a very close friend, and who passed away from ALS in 2009. I have written a number of essays about Bruce and you can find them on my blog archive under the heading, “Lessons from Bruce Paynter.” Bruce is still a very strong presence in my thinking and my life; I use his thoughts, principles and sayings in my work/life all the time. Last week I went over to visit his grave, and spend some time with “my old friend.”

Bruce is buried in a beautiful old cemetery near the Fox River in Appleton. The morning was cool and I went and grabbed a coffee at Bruce’s favorite spot on College ave. (ACOCA Coffee) and went and “visited” with Bruce. I spent almost an hour at his grave that morning, remembering Bruce, re-reading a couple of my essays about his dying days, saying a few prayers and walking around “his corner” of the cemetery. It was a wonderful morning and as always I hated to have to “say” goodbye. Leaving Riverside Cemetery, I headed out into the country to visit Bruce’s favorite cheese factory, The Union Star cheese co-op in Zitau Wisconsin. They were packing string cheese that morning and I picked up a few “treats” for my lunch guests and headed back into town.

Lunch was at the Four Seasons Family Restaurant in Neenah and I met up with Marilyn and Donna! The “smile-filled” picture above does not do it justice, but we caught up, told stories, laughed and enjoyed a delicious meal (more on that later) and really enjoyed our time together. They are both doing great and like Steve; I worked with both of these wonderful ladies at K-C starting in 1985. Donna and Marilyn also worked closely with Bruce and both knew him well long after I left Kimberly –Clark. Sadly, we all became “re-connected” at Bruce’s funeral. It was great to share pictures of our families, catching up on acquaintances and a very “small-world” story that included Donna and Jacobs Market and 10 pounds of ground chuck!! I will save that one for another essay but it’s absolutely hilarious! We had a “lively” waitress named Pam who put up with “Bill from Georgia” and gave us extra napkins so Marilyn could avoid the pickles and any pickle juice left on her plate (what a hoot!!) It was a wonderful lunch and I look forward to seeing those two wonderful women again at the Four Seasons on my next trip to the area.

I share all of these visits to highlight the “treasure” of old friends. As you head to my stage of life, 55 years old, a thirty two year career, with one child in college and one a rising junior in high school, its easy to focus on more “earthly” treasures. One’s IRA, or 401k, or maybe the 529 account balances seem to take center stage and while retirement planning and college savings are both vital, I am suggesting that my trip last week is a great reminder that the “deeper treasure” is the love and relationships that we have in our lives. Whether re-connecting with family members, work acquaintances, or a few old friends in Wisconsin, we should all try to focus in on that “treasure” in our lives, and find reasons/excuses to get out of the rat race of a busy life and go spend a day or a lunch with the “treasures” in our lives. I hope that you enjoy your visits with “old friends” as much as I did last week!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Good Ideas Executed Brilliantly!

We live in a period of history where there are a lot of cutting edge, industry changing, “brilliant” strategies or innovations that are hitting the B2C and B2B landscapes.  I am literally writing this essay on a west coast flight, on my laptop connected to my Gmail account and listening to music on my I-Phone… lots of brilliant innovations there!  Unfortunately this essay isn’t about any of those wonderful innovations that were executed so well, but on the dynamic between the quality of the idea, ranging from Poor-> Good->Great-> Brilliant, and the executional success of that idea also ranging from Poor to Brilliant.  I have the chance in my consulting practice to work with a wide variety of clients that are often developing brilliant strategies that deeply under-optimize their potential due to a poor execution.  I have a growing point of view that rather then focusing on the most “brilliant” of ideas and innovations, organizations can really benefit from being centered on “good” ideas then focusing on ways to make the execution of those “good” ideas “brilliant”!

I had the chance to see this idea/approach brought to life last week.  Since 2014 I have had the pleasure to work with and advise an exciting Tech Startup in Atlanta.  Their business is starting to scale and the annual trade show for their primary vertical was last week in Las Vegas.  As they prepared for the show, we had a work session where we used a simple “destination document” to guide what their objective for the show was and thus their core communication points and plan.  Very quickly the team became focused on “qualifying leads” as the central objective for the trade show and developed a lofty/ambitious objective for how many “qualified leads” they wanted to secure (via a simple app supplied by the trade show folks) at the show.  So far, nothing break-though, just a simple (“good”) plan that needed exceptional execution for success; well as a guy that’s probably been to 25+/- trade shows over my career, it was impressive and delightful to see their executional intensity!

The small team was divided into two sections, one group worked the front line, “attracting” as many trade show attendees as possible.  Using a simple set of 3-4 questions (role in the industry, size, legacy technology platform, compatibility) the “attractors” would identify “qualified” leads, scan their badges, and then try to move them into the second group who were educating, running simple demos and working to close the sale.  Again a very simple two-team approach, using just a few questions (with lots of smiles and handshakes) and a few I-pads to do the demos (along with a totally kick-ass video-wall that was the talk of the tradeshow) totally won the day!  The team came away beating their objective for scanned qualified leads and even had prospective customers paying deposits in the trade show booth to insure their spot on the implementation calendar.  Each day was finished with a "Curbside debrief", truly exceptional execution and results!!

While this story/example is very recent, I encourage you to think about other examples from your career of initiatives with truly exceptional results.  Ask yourself whether they were brilliant ideas executed adequately, or good ideas executed brilliantly.  My money is on the latter, and I suggest that we could all benefit from learning or re-learning this lesson demonstrated beautifully on the Las Vegas tradeshow floor last week!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Breakfast with Cicero

Well once again I have been blown away by a small early morning experience at the 24th St. Café in Bakersfield California.  In a recent essay, I talked about lessons of business and life that I learned from a conversation with a funeral home director at the counter of this same restaurant ( and now I am inspired by the writings of a famous roman senator and orator from over 2000 years ago in a most unlikely setting!

Since 2009, I have had the chance to travel to Bakersfield numerous times for my work at Bolthouse Farms.  I have come to really enjoy travelling to “Bako”, with all of its quirks and charms, and have developed quite a routine when I visit.  Most mornings start early, checking in at home at 5 am pacific (8 am Atlanta time) in order to talk to Marie before she goes to school and to Jennie before her day gets going.  Finished by 5:15am, I usually hit the streets for my morning walk, cruising through the Westchester neighborhood near downtown Bakersfield with its beautiful historic homes and quiet streets.  Once back from my walk, I hit the shower, get ready for my workday and head over to the 24th St. Café for a great breakfast on the way to the plant.  Last Tuesday morning was no different, and I walked into the restaurant at 6:30 and quietly sat down at the counter.

With a fresh cup of coffee in hand, I noticed that one of the waitresses was standing on a booth in the corner, writing something up on a chalkboard.  Expecting to see the “special of the day” featured (their food is really out of this world!), I was blown away to see a quote from Cicero appear on the board (pictured above):

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

To say the least, that was not what I was expecting to see, early on a Tuesday morning, in Bakersfield California.  I asked the waitress what the story was about the quote and she mentioned that the owner had “sent it in” and wanted it up on the board all week.  Asking to speak to the owner, she mentioned that he should be in later in the day and came over to take my order (the Tri-Tip Omelet and sourdough toast!!)

As a historic note, the Romans believed that there were 15 common “virtues” that were part of the “Roman Way or Via Romana” that were the bedrock of what made the Roman Republic and Roman citizens unique in the world 2000 years ago.  The list includes: humor, mercy, tenacity, industriousness, truthfulness, and gratitude among others.  Cicero’s quote really got me thinking.  If “gratitude” is not only the greatest of the virtues, but also the “parent” of all the others, he must mean that you can’t really show “mercy” unless you are personally “grateful” for what you have.  In the same vein, the root of “industriousness” is to be appreciative and grateful for your own situation.  Etc., etc.  Cicero’s challenge is basically in order to be virtuous we need to be grateful!

As I headed out of the 24th St. Café that morning, the Cicero quote on gratitude really hung with me.  With so much division and challenge facing our communities/country and world, it’s hard to be “grateful” or feel “gratitude” in our everyday life.  We are so busy with the challenges and issues of the day, whether they are personal, professional or political, that we miss seeing all the “blessings” that should “stir” our “gratitude.”  The world really needs us and our “virtues” to come to life everyday, now maybe more than ever!  Taking Cicero’s quote to heart, let us focus on “gratitude” as our first step in living our “virtues” every day!