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!

Monday, January 15, 2018

An inspiring start to a new year!

It is a wonderful way to begin a year to celebrate Dr. King remembrance day early in January.  This
year is no exception and candidly has stood out to me as a needed break amidst a crazy barrage of headlines and unbelievable quotes from our president.  It's in this context that I share a few reflections  on this day and this inspiration from and amazing leader of our country's history.

As many of you have seen in previous essays, I have been very influenced by a number of Dr. King's writings and speeches, probably none more so that his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from December 1964.  I was only three at the time, the words and ideals that he shared that day have resonated across my life and especially his reference to the "isness and oughtness" of humanity.  I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety at

One treat of flying in and out of the airport in Atlanta is the exhibit in concourse E that has a few items from Dr. King's life, and includes a copy of his Nobel Peace Prize medal and the photo above.  While I have stopped by many times, I had never really read the caption of the photo before today and I was struck by the quote that was highlighted from his speech, " I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war ... that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."  Powerful words in 1964 that resonate deeply true today in 2018!

This inspirational and uplifting stop on a day honoring Dr. King was and is deeply needed in the "starless midnight" of today's political dynamics.  Hate, racism, divisiveness seem to be winning the day, while peace, love, and non-violence seem almost forgotten in the national discord.  Let us all remember another admonition of Dr. King's, when he said "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."  As you face the current political and civil landscape in our country, I hope that we all can focus on the "light" and the "love" of Dr. King's message.  The world desperately needs more of both, and dramatically less of "darkness" and "hate" and the "starless midnight of racism and war."

Thank you Dr, King for your life, your sacrifice and your inspiring messages for all of us here in 2018!

Friday, December 22, 2017

A brisk and inspiring morning at Arlington Cemetery

Last week I had the chance to be in Baltimore and spend a day or so with my dear friend and longtime work partner Cathy.   We have known each other, and have worked closely together, for more than 20 years and if I do say so myself, Cathy and I make a pretty darn good team!  Using the visit as planning time for our consulting practice and a good trip for the soul, we spent part of our time “wrapping up” 2017 billing and tax plans and turning our eyes towards 2018 and trying to pre-plan the client list and travel plans for as much of Q1 as possible.  The consulting business is thriving and while I never quite know where the next new clients might come from, it has been an exciting year with 14 clients year-to-date and 8 active client projects underway as we finish the year.  I feel very fortunate to have a thriving business that crosses so many companies and industries, with so many wonderful clients, and I feel especially lucky to be able to keep working with Cathy!!

Well it was a chilly morning last Wednesday in Baltimore, a high of 25 and a howling wind, but that didn't deter us! Once we finished the planning work for the business, we headed out into the cold and drove down to Arlington National Cemetery.  Cathy’s mother-in-law is buried there and I had never been there in all my trips to Washington over the years and was very eager to pay a visit.

Even though the sun was bright it was bitter cold, and bundling up in scarves, hats, gloves, etc.  we parked the car in the main parking lot and headed out to walk around the cemetery and visit a number of sights.  Arlington National Cemetery is a stunning place, massive in size and beautiful in its rolling hills and amazing vistas of the city.  Heading out of the visitor center we headed south to go find Cathy’s mother-in-law’s grave. 

Regardless of the bitter cold, funerals were going on in the cemetery that morning and we came upon two where troops of soldiers on horseback were pulling caissons carrying flag-draped caskets.  It was a sobering and inspiring moment, literally something out of a movie, hearing the lone drummer leading the horses and soldiers, heading to a corner of the cemetery for a graveside service with families in the procession.  A sobering reminder of the fragility of life and the massive sacrifice made by so many on behalf of our country!  Pausing in respect for the passing caissons, we continued our walk and quickly found our way to the grave of Cathy’s mother-in-law, Norma Jean (“Penny”) Halberg.

I never knew Penny but she had an incredible life story that included her service during WWII as a “Women Airforce Service Pilot” or “WASP.”  You can read more about this amazing group at the following link but what an inspiring story of these young women, serving our country during the war, “ferrying” aircraft all over the world. (

Moving on from Penny’s grave we made our way up to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a sentry standing guard to honor the fallen all over the world.  Clearly inspiring in it’s own right, I was struck by the vista from the height of the monument.  The way the cemetery is built, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits up on a bluff, and looks down across the sea of gravestones, then across the Potomac and straight to the U.S. Capital. 

An auspicious sight to say the least, and one that struck me dramatically.  With all of the political machinations of the current day, this tomb, and this entire cemetery, stands as a poignant reminder of the service and sacrifice of so many for the ideals and promise of our country.  This service and sacrifice calls for those in the capital building below, and candidly all of us, to put away our petty partisan squabbles and intrigues and renew our focus on the truly important values of  “freedom, tolerance and equality of opportunity” (quoted from a speech given by JFK just before his assassination in 1963, who is buried not far from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.)

With a special thanks to Cathy, and inspired by her mother-in-law Penny, I left my visit to Arlington National Cemetery inspired and uplifted, focused and energized by the potential that lies in our future, built on a massive foundation of service and sacrifice of those that have come before us!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Plan “the How” not just “ the What”

It may seem like a simple idea, but I have often been faced by the reality of great (or even just “good”) ideas failing in the marketplace because of a lack of implementation planning.   Too often most of the time is focused in the planning stages of a business on the “whats”; “what” has worked in the past, “what” is competition doing, “what” has been successful in a limited market or region, “what” do our customers need from us, “what are our ready-now innovation plans, etc.
 A litany of “whats” but very little time spent on the “hows.”

This came to life recently in a meeting that I had with a client in my consulting business.  We are working on a major brand/organization restructuring project and at a break I asked one of our client contacts about past “change initiatives” that have been executed by his company.  He described a few different examples of initiatives over the past few years, each of which had “gone off the rails” at one point or another.  I asked his opinion on why the initiatives had struggled, and quickly he responded that once they got 80% of the way to a conclusion, they “pulled the trigger” and moved on to the next issue/opportunity, not waiting to insure the first idea was executed fully and successfully.  That conversation reminded me of this dynamic of businesses and their leadership teams being so focused on the initiatives to deploy they forget the critical importance of executing those initiatives well…. Too focused on the “whats,” not the “hows.”

While the following is not an exhaustive list of ways to insure the “hows” are anticipated and planned for, these three ideas should be helpful in taking steps to insure that “the hows” get the right amount of focus:

Implementation Map

Before completing any project plan, ask the question to see the implementation plan or “map,” and if you are part of the project team, remember that no project is compete without one!  While not a hard and fast rule of thumb, if you haven’t spent at least 10-15% of your project planning time in building the implementation map, you have probably NOT given it the right amount of attention.  Insure that you map the steps required to “get the job done” with distinction.  Think of yourself as the general contractor on a building site, and push yourself to see what steps need to be taken to complete the project ahead of time, under budget, and at a very high level of quality!  No small task but if you don't take the time to ask yourself how to accomplish those outcomes, it is rare to accomplish them!

Competency Grid

Once the implementation map is drafted, start piecing together the “competency grid,” in other words the skills that are required to achieve success on this initiative.  If we want or need to rebuild a planning system, do we have the talent in-house to achieve that goal or do we need to go outside for the resources?  Don't get stuck on “how many” or “how much” you need (that is coming in the next phase), stay focused on the needed skills.  Working with a client recently who is in the middle of a major new product rollout, we realized that the organization didn't have any resources to call on or cover the targeted retail stores and check shelf placement and on-shelf pricing post rollout and have now scrambled to put that in place.   A better approach would have been to identify the competency required (in-store merchandiser coverage) as part of a “competency grid” and had that in place before the rollout.

Capacity Plan

Now we need to work on the “how many” and “how much” of the project plan.  Remembering the “implementation map” and the “competency grid,” now we need to actually analyze and build a model of the quantity of the capacities needed to fulfill or exceed the requirements of the “implementation map.”  This is so crucial in order to accurately build an implementation budget, so often either forgotten or only built at a surface level to fulfill project plan requirements.

As you dig into the work ahead, remember these three steps and most importantly remember to put your attention on the “hows” of your project/business, not just the “whats.”  As I have shared in earlier essays, “good” ideas executed brilliantly typically exceed the impact of “brilliant” ideas executed adequately…. Focus on the “hows!”