Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Don't Fight the Mudslides

It was about a year ago that the "Thomas Fire"  spread across Santa Barbara County, at that time one of the largest and most devastating fires in California history (as I write this essay, the "Mendocino Complex Fore is raging and is now the largest fire in the state's history.)  Purely by coincidence, I was connected to a great company at that time that happened to be based in Santa Barbara and I began connecting via email with the CEO.  From late Summer into the fall of 2017, we went back and forth on a number of topics and ideas, all very interesting and engaging that ultimately led to him inviting me out to meet live and see their facility which is located very close tot he airport in Santa Barbara proper.  The trip was planned and logistics locked down for me to head out to LA, and drive up to Santa Barbara for a set of meetings in early March 2018.

The routing through L.A. had a personal motivation, which allowed me to stop by and grab a dinner/coffee with my dear son Bryson, though I had no inkling to the twist and turns that would emanate from that simple decision.  While the morning was unusually rainy and stormy in L.A. proper ( which throws quite a wrench into the traffic dynamics for 'The 405")  I dove into the traffic in my rental car and headed north put of L.A. enroute to Santa Barbara.  Too busy with business calls and client dynamics, I had not paid ANY attention to the local weather dynamics and forecast as I took he exit off "The 5" to "The 101" and headed west.  I had plenty of time to spare, having planned to get up to the offices in S.B. a good hour or so early, until I saw the large flashing sign saying the 101 was closed ahead in Ventura due to Mudslides!!  Immediately I called my trusted work associate Cathy ( living in Baltimore) who went online and realized the dramatic weather related issues ahead.

"The 101" was indeed closed and we were routed onto side streets in Ventura, where I stopped for a coffee/bathroom break and a live call with Cathy to assess the situation.  Things looked bad across the region, and while the 101 was indeed closed, there was a route that looks open to both Cathy and I that lead north and up into the hills near Ojai, then hard west to S.B.  With new caffeine induced energy in my veins, and a potential new client to see in my sights, I took off on the alternate route.  The rain kept up, growing harder through the morning and was a strong steady downpour as I pulled out of the coffee shop.  I seemed to be making good progress and while slow, I thought I could still make it to the scheduled meeting.  Little did I know!

After 20 to 30 minutes of slow but steady driving north, maybe 10 miles out of Ojai I realized that there were NO cars coming south on the divided four lane state highway and only once car on my side of the highway, seemingly following me!! I pulled over, ( the trailing car when on their way) and called Cathy again ( thank god for Cathy!!) She was surprised when I told her my approximate location because on her online map, the state highway I was on was "closed due to mudslides!!"  It was un-nerving to realize that I was on a closed road, and that there were NO side options or alternate routes available not only to try to get to Santa Barbara but even to get back to L.A.  Freaky indeed!  I turned around and headed back south slowly but steadily hoping that I would make my way back to Ventura, and back to L.A.  I had a complete mental pivot.... no longer was I worried about the timing of the meeting in S.B., i was only thinking about safely returning home.... a powerful clarifying moment!

I share this story as a metaphor for so many moments in business and in life where we need to "wake up" and really see and understand the environment we are facing.  I don't want to make light of the Santa Barbara fires or mudslides/floods in anyway.  Numerous individuals and families lost their lives, none the less the billions of dollars of damage and devastation that hit that region; it was major calamity that will be remembered in that corner of California for years to come.  I just happened to be a pretty clueless visitor that learned an important lesson that day.  Too often in business we get caught up in the immediate timing and specifics of our short term deliverables ( the meeting in Santa Barbara) and forget about the context and landscape that surrounds us!  Too often we get consumed by the monthly/quarterly/annual numbers and forget that we are trying to build business legacies that should last for years or decades.  remember the mudslides and work to find ways to "stay tuned in" and keep an eye on the landscape you are dealing with more broadly.... if you are lucky enough to have a "Cathy" in your life, reach out to look for help in seeing the bigger picture.  it will certainly help you succeed in the short term and I suggest it will pay dividends in the future.

p.s. after successfully working my way back to L.A., and ultimately Atlanta, I did indeed return to Santa Barbara for successful meetings a month or so later... and the client totally understood the need for the delay!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

“Vision without execution is hallucination …. Skill without imagination is barren”

For regular readers of this blog, you know that I have focused on the power of execution and the importance of “acting with intent” across multiple essays.  Across the 30+ years of my business career, I have been stunned by the lack of focus on execution discipline/regimens vs. the pursuit of groundbreaking innovation.  Whether in food or beverage companies where I held senior operating executive roles or in my consulting assignments spanning technology startups and global bio-pharma companies, this dynamic tension between executional focus and market changing innovation has been a common denominator of my professional experiences.  Even last week in a discussion with senior executives of a current client I had a division president say that “execution is all well and good, but when are we going to get a “game changer” to sell???”  Once again another data point of this “dynamic tension” dance!

The title above, and the inspiration for this essay, once again comes from an unlikely source. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is stunning and the stories of this painter, architect, sculptor, engineer, etc., are beyond inspiring!  In an early chapter Isaacson comments on Leonardo’s ability to “blur the line between reality and fantasy” and “knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.”  This paragraph really got me thinking.   While clearly working to describe and explain this genius of the renaissance, I was struck by how applicable these ideas are and how helpful each element is to business challenges in the 21stcentury!  Lets decompose this balancing act and dig into each element and look for helpful connection points to our challenges today:

“Vision without execution is hallucination”

This first of Isaacson’s admonitions rings deeply true to me personally.  I have had the pleasure to lead large sales and marketing organizations across my career and I have often been charged with bringing new ideas to life across a number of roles and companies.   My best and most successful experiences came when we took good to very good ideas and executed them brilliantly.  Deeply planning out the executional requirements and driving executional discipline, “beating a cadence of performance management discipline” is my phrase for not just “planning” the executional requirements of a innovation launch, but staying on top of the daily reality of execution vagaries and course correcting immediately to insure market place success.  Unfortunately I have been party to a number of innovation experiences that failed, at times because of lack of vision, but most often by a failure in the executional protocol somewhere across the landscape.

“Skill without Imagination is barren”

This second component of Isaacson’s thinking is deeply vital and an important challenge to my background and orientation.  I have to continually remind myself that executional rigor on it own is not enough; it will ultimately run out of gas!  Markets change and ideas, insights and imagination are the fuel for change and success.  I remember a meeting I attended as a young brand manager in the late 80’s at the offices of Maxwell House Coffee.  A upstart Seattle based coffee company (yes, you guessed it, Starbucks) had just opened it’s 50thstore and the V. P of Marketing for Maxwell House opined that American would NEVER pay $1.00 for a cup of coffee, especially not one with a burned roast flavor!!!   To say that he was wrong is an understatement, to say that he had a lack of “imagination” of what “might be” is probably more to the point!! (Just a note, Starbucks has over 27,000 stores worldwide as of mid-2018!)

As I close I want to be reminded and inspired by the amazing balancing act of Leonardo! We should work and be reminded that “Imagination” is a vital requirement to create innovation and change, yet untethered from “Execution” it will come to nothing more than a set of professional “hallucinations.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The power of "decisiveness," lessons from a civil war general!

I am a unabashed history buff and always have a non-fiction book or two going at all times.  While an econ major (religion minor) in undergrad, I have always been fascinated by the stories and lessons of history.  In numerous blog essays, and in many off-site learning experiences, I have used historic readings to bring business/leadership lessons to life.  Notable examples include writings of Cicero, Plutarch, Ghandi, and of course the writings and speeches of Dr. Matin Luther King jr.

Recently I have really enjoyed the historic writings of Ron Chernow, a master historic storyteller!  Starting with his book on Washington, then moving to his work on Alexander Hamilton ( the inspiration of the hit broadway show), I am now deep into his work on former civil war general and president  Ulysses S. Grant.  While I had certainly expected intriguing stories of Grant's life, his military service and his presidency, I had not expected to be inspired by his words and their application to business challenges in 2018!

In 1864 after the fall of Vicksburg, General Grant assumed command of all union forces and began the campaign that would lead the end of the civil war in 1865.  In a meeting with an officer of the quartermaster corp, Grant made a quick decision regarding supplies needed for his soldiers.  The quartermaster officer questioned whether Grant was "certain" about his decision.  His response deeply struck home to me:

""No I am not" Grant shot back, "but in war anything is better than indecision.  We must decide.  If I am wrong we shall soon find out, and can do the other thing.  But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.""

This quote from 1864 really hits home to me here in 2018.  With so many of my clients today, indecision is a real killer, hurting short term business results and disadvantaging companies competitively in the marketplace over time.  As I read this quote, a few "themes" stood out to me as key lessons/concepts that I will work to apply in my current consulting practice, and I literally used one of these ideas in a client discussion yesterday!

Key lessons/themes:

 "Take action now, action is power," clearly an underlying message from U.S. Grant and one that is so broadly relevant.  Too much time is spent "speculating" on all the "what if's" of a situation and while I fashion myself a keen planner, the need to take action in the marketplace and have the consumer/client/customer DECIDE is what its all about.  All the pre-planning and analysis in the world will not replace the power and truth of the marketplace!!

"Leadership humility vs hubris" is so evident in this quote and so missing in todays business and political leadership landscape.  Grant is very open that he might wrong in his decision and doesn't try to hide or run from that potential at all!  Showing candor and humility, he suggests that if he is wrong they will quickly find out and they can change course.  Being wrong is not his concern, being indecisive and ineffective ultimately is!!

" Inactivity has huge negative consequences" comes through in the quote above.  General Grant's predecessors as leaders of the Union armies were plagued by inaction and indecision.  Those attributes lead to some of the largest military setbacks that the union faced, (the first and second battles of Bull Run along with McClellan's Peninsula campaign are textbook examples) and lead to senseless slaughter and an extension of a horrific war.

As you dive into the business and leadership challenges that you face everyday, think back on General Grant and his passion for decisiveness.  Think about a few of the key themes from his short quote above and look for ways to take action powerfully and quickly (decisively) in your work today!!

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!