Friday, June 8, 2018

50K, 179, & 14+

The core of this essay is a big thank you and a note of appreciation from a hesitant author!  earlier this month, this blog hit a milestone of 50,000 page views and I am humbled and appreciative of your support!  These page views spanned over 179 essays and originated from more that 14 countries, thus the key metrics in the headline!  Nine years ago, I was asked/nudged/cajoled to post a "story or two" from some of the folks I used to work with at Coke, and after months of dragging my feet I posted an essay in March of 2009.  It's a massive understatement to say that I had NO expectation at that moment that nine years later, my essays would have been read more than fifty thousand times by people all over the world; humbling to say the least!

Its interesting now as I write essays regularly to reflect on the readers choices/preferences over the past 179 essays.  Working off of averages, one would expect an "average essay" to generate approximately 280 page views ( 50,000/179=279), but the page view distribution is not very "smooth."  There are actually very few essays with that level of page views, many have small followings (20-30) and a few have hundreds.  Its interesting to note that two essays that I posted in 2009, which I will highlight below, both have generated thousands of page views and are still capturing page views literally this week!  I have learned that when you post content on the internet, you literally put your ideas "out there" for the world to consume, appreciate, or critique.  I find it interesting that these two essays are both foundational to my view of "leadership" and reflect lessons that I have learned across my career.

The most read essay is titled "A teachable point of view", and comes from an experience working closely with a past CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Neville Isdell.  The lesson of expecting leaders to be not only great thinkers/strategists/problem solvers but also to be great teachers has been a  powerful lesson for me and obviously has rung true to a large set of readers.  Take a second and read ( or re-read) it and see what insights you take from the essay!

The second most read essay is titled "Three impact points of leadership" and is centered on the idea that we "manage" projects and "lead" people.  In this process of leading individuals, we need to always stay focused on the three key "impact points" of leadership, "educating the mind, inspiring the heart, and directing the hands&feet."  This essay is unique because a number of years ago it generated a large number of page views from Poland and I received a request for a Polish translation of this essay.  I am still so curious to know what group in Poland was using this essay, and in what context???  I hope some of the lessons from this story still ring true to you!

I want to close with another genuine thank you and while I am not sure how long I will keep posting essays, I still have a few more stories to share, ideas to explore and you never know, there just might be another 100+ essays in my future!

thanks again!!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How to survive a riptide ... Professionally!

While this may seem like a crazy title for a blog essay, I wanted to share some insights that are both practical for beachgoers as summer approaches and hopefully helpful to professionals dealing with changing dynamics and "dangerous tides" in their workplaces!

I had the chance last week to be in Florida for a board meeting and after the opening night board dinner, went out for a quick stroll on the beach as the sun was setting.  A warm and lovely night, a beach filled with shells and other walkers but no one out swimming in the very warm night air and water.  I asked my host why no one was out in the surf and he mentioned the dangerous riptides in the area and pointed over to a warning sign.  While not exactly the sign I have included in this essay, nonetheless a warning to swimmers of the dangers and precautions of riptides.  The sign stuck with me and thus this story of oceanic metaphors.

While I am hopeful that few of us have encountered actual riptides in the surf, I am certain that many of us have dealt with dangerous "tides" in our companies and organizations.  I had the chance to be part of three or four major corporate restructurings during my last few years at Coke and I now have a number of clients and friends dealing with major upheavals professionally.  In these circumstances, I want us to reflect on and apply the advice from the sign above and work hard to "Break the grip of the rip" in the ever changing landscapes of our work environments.  Lets look at each point of advice from the "Rip Currents" sign and apply them professionally:

1.) "Don't fight the current." After just a bit of research I found out that the huge majority of rip tide linked fatalities comes from swimmers trying to "fight the current" and swim directly back to shore, ultimately becoming fatigued and drowning in the waves.  The same seems true in the landscape of corporate restructurings.  Don't try to "fight the current" and "swim against the tide" of what the company had decided to do.  Organizations so often come to these inflection points for reasons of lack of growth, innovation, lack of competitive differentiation, or lack of productivity and see organizational restructuring as the only way to cut cost and boost EBITDA and EPS.  While we can debate those issues in another essay, in these circumstances organizations are often desperate to cut jobs, save costs and improve profitability (and hopefully productivity) and it's rarely productive to try to "fight" those trends/decisions.

2) "Swim out of the current, then to shore."  As you can see from the helpful diagram, it recommends swimming or floating "with the current", looking for "escape points" to be released from the tide and head to shore.  Often "riptide advice" includes the idea of swimming or floating "parallel" to the beach in order to find a weak spot in the dangerous tide,  or a release point of the current.  Such good advice to apply professionally!  Once in the midst of organizational turmoil, find spots or moments when you can "swim parallel to shore," looking for new structures/constructs that you might find productive for yourself or your team.  As the sign shows, it may take some time and some"swimming" before the escape points are found, but the only way to find them is to "go with the tide/current" as you are looking for a safe release!

3) "If you can't escape, float or tread water."  Don't exhaust yourself needlessly fighting the current!  Our ability to float or tread water professionally never feels very productive, but it may be REQUIRED to get yourself in position to find that release point a bit later in the process.

4) "If you need help, call or wave for assistance."  Too often our pride gets in the way of "asking or waving" for help in the work environment.  If you don't feel good about any sources of help from inside your company or enterprise, look outside for coaches, mentors or others that are not "in the rip current" with you, who might have a "fresh perspective" and the strength to help you navigate your way to shore.

Well that's enough of the "rip current" metaphor for today, but remember that you aren't in the surf alone, so many have had to deal with this same dynamic, these same dangerous and destabilizing "tides!" Try to remember a few points of this advice and find ways to "break the grip of the rip" professionally!!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Watch the Feet": Redux

Over the past nine years ( hard to imagine!!) of writing this blog, I have never "re-published a historic essay.  While I have often connected current essays to historic themes, or even expanded on historic essay topics in current essays, I have never before fully re-published an essay until now.  Earlier this week, I had a very close friend and long time work partner ask me to send him a link to this essay as it pertained to a key issue he was dealing with in his work.  As I dug it out of the 175+ essays, I re-read it and was struck how pertinent it felt to the political and social landscape we are living today. Too often the words and actions of our political and business leaders are mis-aligned, "saying" one thing but "doing" the opposite on a surprisingly consistent basis.  I worry that we are getting "numb" to this "new reality," this "double-talk," and we need to check ourselves and our attentiveness to the actual "actions" not the "spin" of our leaders or their communications teams.  Take a second and read (or re-read) this essay from almost 4 years ago, I think it will ring true to what you are seen and feeling today.  ( Thanks to Todd for his nudge to republish this story from 2014!)

"Watch the Feet": 5/15/14

Over the past few months I have found myself coming back to a theme that continues to ring true broadly in my life. In numerous professional situations, personal discussions, or political realities I am struck by how many times I keep finding myself saying to not get distracted by the talking points/discussions or “the words”, but to “watch the feet,” and let the actions of the situation betray the truth. 

I was in a recent private discussion with an old friend who had introduced me to a new professional colleague. I had just met this person as we sat down to lunch to discuss a challenge she was dealing with professionally, and my role was to be “the outside guy”, not encumbered by ANY knowledge of the specifics of the situation. She described numerous meetings, and pronouncements by the different parties involved the posturing back and forth and the debates on various key issues. After a few minutes of quietly listening she looked over to me as asked, “Bill, what does this all sound like to you???” Maybe it was lack of sleep or too much travel, but I blurted out in almost a “rain manlike” tone, “well, it sounds like a bunch of chatter, just a bunch of monkeys in the trees!” Well the conversation stopped and I apologized for being so abrupt but I asked her to describe NOT what people were saying or talking about, but what they were DOING or NOT DOING. While there had been a lot of “chatter,” it became clear from her answers there was very little action of any kind.

I shared the story from the movie “The Reader” that I have quoted in earlier essays where the student in the movie approaches his professor, asking his opinion about a challenging situation he was facing.  The professor after listening politely responds sharply that the student’s feelings and intentions were “utterly unimportant” and all that truly matters is what the student “chooses to DO!” It’s the actions, not the words/intentions/feelings that are important to assess.

Shakespeare in his tragedy Coriolanus has a marvelous quote that amplifies this same concept: 

“In such business action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears.”
This idea that “action is eloquence” is the center of my point. Even in this lesser known of Shakespeare’s plays, he advises the audience to watch the actions of the characters, more than listen to their speeches, enabling even the most ignorant to become truly learned.

Recently I was on the phone with an old friend who was once again missing a college reunion activity. He expressed his frustration on the date of the get-together and it’s conflict with his teaching schedule and while I listened for a moment, I did interrupt his commentary; reminding him that since he had missed our 5 , 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 year reunions, I wasn’t surprised that he was missing this recent activity. Flustered and a bit defensive by my comment, I just said that we would miss him and we would continue to invite him in the future, (clearly with no expectations for his participation.) Watch the Feet!

We often see this dynamic in the political arena worldwide. How many times have you seen some world leader give an eloquent speech that is a description or more likely an obfuscation of the actual facts on the ground? It is not bounded by country, party, or ideology, this habit of using “spin” (another word for “chatter”) to “reposition or clarify” the actions are unfortunately common across the globe.

Whether in business, personal affairs, or in politics, the more we can “watch the feet” and not be distracted by “the chatter in the trees”, the better we are all off to truly understand the environments where we operate. We need to work hard in our media dense world to not get distracted by the “monkeys in the trees” that bombard us every day, but to keep our eyes on the “eloquence of actions” across the landscape.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

“Strategic Inspiration” from a basketball game …. (Or maybe two!)

Preface:  I have mentioned in recent posts how lucky I am to have a consulting practice with such a wide range of clients and projects.  Ranging from tech and food startups, to massive global biotech companies (and quite an array in-between,) it’s an amazing experience to be 30+ years into a business career and having the chance to learn so much!  Over the past few months I have begun work with a dynamic and exciting “Association” in the women’s sport space, lead by two exceptional leaders Danielle and Shannon.  The work is significant and the organization very inspiring.  A pivotal event in their annual work occurred last week at the NCAA Women’s Div. 1 Final Four in Columbus Ohio.  I had the chance to participate in that event, which is a backdrop for the following essay.

After finishing my key deliverables last week at the meetings on Thursday and Friday, I had the chance to attend the two semi-final games of this year’s NCAA Women’s Div.1 basketball championship last Friday in Columbus.  Joined by my son Bryson and wife Jennie, e headed to the arena early to get a “lay of the land” and truly “soak up” the entire event.  Expecting two good basketball games, played by four exciting teams, we had no idea what was in-store!

The first game featured Mississippi State University playing against the University of Louisville; the second game featured U Conn vs. Notre Dame.  What a pair of matchups!  I won't cover any specific “play by play” highlights but each game was unbelievably exciting, each game had “buzzer beater” shots, each went to overtime and each taught me a lesson in “Strategic Inspiration.”

As a casual fan, its impossible to imagine the locker room speeches/sermons/dynamics/hysterics that must go on at half-time (none the less leading into OT) at big games like these.  While I don't know exactly what was said or done by the two wining head coaches (Coach Schaefer from Miss. St., and Coach McGraw from Notre Dame) in that “pre- OT” locker room moment, each of their teams came out to win, and win they did!!  What struck me was not only the exceptional level of their play, but their belief in their ability to win!  These two teams were “strategically inspired” to win their semifinal games in order to advance.

This dynamic of “belief” linked to a specific “objective”; in my language this “strategic inspiration” drove the success of those two teams last Friday night and is often so pivotal across companies/departments and teams in business.  Organizations need to have the right strategies/tactics/tools/talent and resources to accomplish their objectives, yet those items are “required but not sufficient” to ultimately achieve success.  They need to be coupled with a belief/drive and focus on the objective at hand…. whether it be winning/closing a new customer contract or succeeding on OT in two basketball games in front of a national TV audience!!

We will never forget those two games and that night in Columbus, by far the most exciting sporting event that we (my family and I) have ever witnessed.  But once the cheering and excitement subsided, the lesson of that night has stayed with me.  We as business leaders need to remember those two coaches and their ability to “strategically inspire” their teams to come out of the locker rooms and achieve success/victory at the end of that fateful over time period!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Contingency Planning: work the "backup to the backup" plan!

Over the course of the 175+ essays on this blog, I have often commented on the importance of executional excellence in achieving success in business.  I have been so focused on this idea that I have captured a subset of 48 essays (this will be #49) in my "topic archive" (found on the left side of this blog's homepage) that is themed "Performance Management and Execution."  Rather than being inspired by a current client challenge, or a historic business experience, today's essay was inspired by the birth of a friend's first child.

My good friend Cory and his wife Spenser celebrated the birth of their son Eliot in the past week or so and the pictures brought back all of my memories of the birth of our son Bryson almost 20 years ago.  We were living in Baltimore at the time and living on the northern edge of the city.  Jennie had a great relationship with a local doctor who was all set to deliver young Bryson.  We had attended all the "pre-natal" classes, and had not only practiced our route to GBMC (Greater Baltimore Medical Center), but had figured out a backup route in case of traffic.  I thought we were all set .... little did I know!

Jennie's pregnancy was going along well, but towards the third trimester (in mid June) it became clear that Bryson was positioned "transverse", and that unless something really changed we were probably heading to a planned c-section when he came to term in mid July.  After a regular appointment, Jennie's doctor let us know that she was heading out of town for a week or so on vacation, and introduced Jennie to her backup doctor "just in case."  All seemed set and we left that appointment thinking that we would probably see the doctor again in about a month for the planned c-section that was discussed .... again, little did I know!

Just a few days later (thank goodness I was in town!!) Jennie called my car phone (this was 1998, the early days of mobile phones) and said that her had water broken, that she was going into labor, and that I needed to get home immediately!!  I was right around the corner so I pulled into the driveway in just a few minutes and found Jennie VERY upset.  Not only was our doctor out of town on vacation, the backup doctor was nowhere to be found, and we were being connected with the "backup to the backup" doctor who practiced at a different hospital in a different part of Baltimore.  A total freakout! My wife was going into labor and were were heading to meet this "backup to the backup" doctor for the first time at a hospital that we had never visited (Mt. Sinai Hospital on Northern Parkway) ... to say the least this was not what was planned!

While a crazy ride, it all worked out ok in the end, Bryson was born the next day (an emergency c-section after all)  and mom and baby were both fine ... a bit freaked out but fine!  This memory stays with me as a reminder of how I had missed planning for the "backup to the backup" plan!  I should have taken contingency planning to the next level!

 Think how rarely we take the time or have the discipline to work a contingency plan in business, none the less take it to the "next level."  The next time that you are in planning/work session and you do some work on a "backup plan," take a few minutes and ask yourself "what if the backup plan blows up, what then??"  While it might be a freakout, ask yourself, how would I get to Mt. Sinai hospital ( or your "backup to the backup") if the chips are down?  These few minutes of work may seem like overkill, but I can assure you that in hindsight I wished I had asked some of those questions 20 years ago, and try to ask them now in business situations that I face today!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Present, Presence, & Prescient … The “Three P’s” that will help in every context!

I have been thinking about this essay for some time, and have continued to “bump” into examples of how these three concepts, the “ Three P’s” are too often NOT executed or even considered in personal and professional contexts at times with detrimental consequences!  Lets start this essay with a brief definition of each of the “Three P’s:”

Present,” In a particular place, in attendance, here, there, nearby, available

Presence,” The bearing, carriage, or air of a person, a noteworthy quality of poise and effectiveness.

Prescience,” The foreknowledge of events, human anticipation of the course of events, foresight.

These three characteristics, especially in combination, can have a very effective impact in both personal and professional contexts, and equally impactful negatively when one or all three are absent.  Lets explore each idea individually then review the idea of bringing all three to bear in combination.

Present,” this idea is probably the simplest of all three but maybe the one that is most often abused.  How many times have you been in a meeting, and while someone is speaking the rest of the room/audience is “multi-tasking” on their PC’s doing emails/social media/etc.  While everyone was in the same room “physically,” most of the attendees were not actually “present” in the meeting underway.  I was recently at a board meeting, a small and fairly intense setting with 6-7 board members seated around a table.  An hour or so into the 2017 financials review it became clear that one of the board members was actively doing something on his pc and at a key point of debate with the company’s CEO, pulled his head up and asked to “go back” so that he could “catch-up” with the discussion at hand. While we did just that the first time, the same situation occurred a few hours later and I suggested that the board member should “choose” which meeting he planned to be “present in, the one in the room or the one on his PC.  While a bit of a heavy hand on my part, we all refocused on the board meeting at hand and we all chose to be very “present” for the rest of the meeting!

Presence,” This concept is more about “how” you show up in the moments or situations where you have decided to be “present.”  While I don't want to explicitly reference one’s “posture”, (another “P” that might be worth it’s own essay) this does refer to how one physically and intellectually “carries” them selves.  If you want to have an impact with a group in any context, one needs to pay attention, take notes, make eye contact, ask relevant questions, make appropriate connections, etc.  all actions that reinforce your “presence” in the moment.  It seems so simple but how many times have you seen the opposite?  Think about the times that you have been with someone who “says” that they really want to know your opinion on a topic, only to not completely pay attention, take no notes, ask no questions, etc.  While “present” in the moment, their “presence” contradicts their stated desire to listen and learn!

“Prescience, this idea may be the most abstract of the “three P’s” but is a vital attribute of taking action to find success, either personally or professionally.  This concept is not one of “magic” or “fortune telling,” but how do you take in all of the facts/data/evidence if the moment and turn those experiences into an approach to anticipate the future.  I often find in my consulting work, if I really dig into the situation at hand, and connect it to the myriad of experiences from my past 30+ years of business experiences, I can often anticipate the challenges that my clients are facing not only today, but also in the coming months, quarters.  It’s never perfect, and while I am learning a ton in this new phase of my professional life, I often find a helpful insight or two as we look at the challenges ahead.

The combination of these three ideas, the “three P’s” is where the real magic happens; a recent airport experience brought the lack of all three to a dramatic point, and triggered me to write this essay!  At the Raleigh Durham Airport (RDU) there are escalators just past security that lead down to the gate level.   My gate last month just happened to be at the base of the escalators and I had a prime view to everyone coming down after gathering their luggage.  One young man, with a roller bag, backpack, and a belt strung around his neck, and carrying his cellphone started making his way to the top of the escalator.  Without paying much attention while he was texting/emailing on his phone, he stepped onto the escalator and all “heck” broke loose.  He quickly lost control of his roller bag that tumbled down the escalator, his belt flew off from around his neck as he grabbed for the roller bag.  He managed to hold onto his backpack only to drop his cellphone, which joined his roller bag at the bottom of the escalator, and he was only a third of the way down … absolute mayhem! 

The good news was no one was hurt and he was able to collect his bag and phone without knocking anyone over… I never did see any sign of the belt in all the confusion, but that “escalator incident” triggered me to write this essay.  That young man was absolutely NOT “Present” as he stepped onto the escalator, his mind, focus and headset were scattered and clearly not centered on successfully descending the escalator.  He had POOR “Presence”, not operating “with a poise of effectiveness”… far from it!  And finally he had limited or non-existent “Prescience,” not only not aware of his environment not able to have the “foresight” of the negative impacts of his actions.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Three "Common Denominators"

As I touched on in a recent post, I have the chance in my consulting practice to work with a wide variety of clients and companies.  Ranging from food and technology startups, to billion dollar produce and engineering companies, to a massive global bio-technology organization the breadth of companies and verticals is significant and humbling.  What is interesting across all of my experiences/engagements is that while the companies and industries vary greatly, there continues to be a small set of common issues/challenges/opportunities... or "common denominators"... that are the center of my work across assignments.  Today I want to reflect on the three "common denominators" that I keep bumping into most often.

The Impact of Personal Leadership

Leaders matter and have a real impact on an organization and so often these individuals lose track of the importance of their roles, their work, their actions, and their impact.  Think about times in your career where there has been a leadership change and that moment signaled a real change in the business and company culture, good or bad.  I think back to a leadership change that i witnessed very closely where I left a key leadership role and watched an organization really struggle both in its marketplace performance metrics and its employee engagement and company culture.  In my consulting work, I often work with leaders who underestimate their impact and are candidly not prepared for the leadership roles they occupy.  This idea of nurturing/building future leaders has come up as a priority that I am taking into many of my client assignments today.  How can we help the future leaders of tomorrow get ready, build skills, and maybe even practice a bit in their roles today??
I have written a number of essays on leadership, two that are among the most read essays on this blog and may be worth reading (or maybe re-reading) to amplify this topic:

> "A Teachable Point of View";

> "The Three Impact Points of Leadership";

"Execution" is a/the strategy

In assignment after assignment I keep running into the dynamic where good or even great ideas are executed poorly in the marketplace and performance metrics suffer.  Execution matters and this idea of focusing on the "how" not just the "what" is a big deal and is becoming a major focus in my consulting practice.  Maybe it just doesn't seem "sexy" or intellectually sophisticated to "sweat the details" and work on an execution/implementation plan for a project but as I continue on in my 30+ year business career it seems more important than ever.  Recently I wrapped up a project for a large client who has really struggled in their market over the past few years and lost a significant amount of market share.  They wanted to understand the key actions/strategies of their primary competitors, trying to understand how they took so much share over the past five years.  After digging into the data, it became clear that there was no magic equation or unique insight that the competitors brought to market, they just "out-executed" my client at every turn, across a number of years and the marketplace impact had been dramatic.  Here are a few essays on this topic that maybe helpful to review:

> "Plan the "How", not just the "What"";

> "Good ideas executed brilliantly";

"Focus" is key for all, do fewer things better

We live and work in a time when the tempo of business has never been faster and the need to balance and handle a wide variety of topics,priorities, and projects is a day to day reality.  Its hard to remember that I started my business career in the mid eighties, with no cell phones, no internet, just the beginning of PC's and the technology today lets us do so much more than I could have ever imagined 30+ years ago!  It's in this context that I have seen the need to improve our "focus" and actually work hard on doing "fewer things better."  Just because we can "pull off" a project or a meeting doesn't mean we should do that if we can't do it well.  There are so many examples of this dynamic to review but a recent one brought a smile to my face.  I was sitting at the Raleigh airport, waiting for my flight back to Atlanta, and my gate just happened to be at the base of the escalators coming from security.  I watched a young man, trying to put on his belt, carry a backpack and a coat, and pull his roller-bag while texting or emailing on his phone as he stepped onto the escalator.  It was almost comic to watch, but while thankfully no one was hurt, he dropped his roller bag which fell down the escalator and somehow lost track of his belt (I am still not sure where the belt ended up) and the calamity at the bottom of the escalators was astounding.  'Do fewer things better" immediately came to mind in that moment as it often does in my client engagements today.  I often work to "take things off" my clients' plates, so we can actually focus in on fewer priorities and work hard to  execute them well.  Again, the following are a few essays that bring this idea more to life:

> "Inflection points of a business, focus on fewer things to insure success" ;

> "Myopia, a strategy for sales, business, and life" :

These three "common denominators" continue to surface across my business landscape today and may be present in yours.  Take a few minutes and reflect on some of the linked essays and see how you might be able to share these ideas with your teams and put them into practice in your assignments today!