Friday, December 24, 2010

Kuni's Chocolate Cake

Over the course of the essays on this blog, I have repeatedly written about my paternal grandmother, Lakie Pearl Hill Livesay, otherwise known as MaMa. The “Turkey Bag” story was candidly what inspired me to start writing this blog, inspiring me about the idea of leaving a “legacy.” Additionally I have shared the story about the “Tobacco Plug”, and last year I shared two of her recipes before Thanksgiving. Today, Christmas Eve 2010, I want to share some thoughts about my grandmother; but this essay is about my maternal grandmother, Kunigunda Lindemann Wark.

My grandmother, known affectionately to her friends as “Kuni” was a true New Yorker. Having been born in Manhattan in the early 1900’s, she lived her life in and around that magnificent city. Growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, our annual visits to New York were exotic. I remember fondly the rides on the subway, lunches at automats in Manhattan, and summer visits to Jones Beach. I still remember sleeping on my grandmother’s living room floor waiting to watch the lunar landing live on TV in the summer of 1969.

I have very fond memories of “Kuni,” my very proper German grandmother. The picture above shows her, my grandfather Wark and Aunt Lorraine standing behind my sister Alice and me many Christmases ago. I remember how my Grandmother was always so well dressed, was always so kind and gentle with us kids, and I remember her teaching us the card game “Crazy Eights” after dinner one warm summer night in New York. Simple and delicious memories of long ago!

One very clear memory is that my grandmother was a wonderful baker. There was always something sweet to enjoy in her kitchen during our visits. What follows is the recipe for “Kuni’s Chocolate Cake,” a simple and delicious small square cake that I have baked a number of times, always to rave reviews. Try it for yourself

kuni's recipe1

As I close this essay with very fond and sweet thoughts in mind, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Regardless of faith or tradition, the aspirations of hope, love, and “peace on earth, goodwill to all mankind” resonate as strongly today as they did thousands of years ago!

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Unexpected Inspiration on Concourse E

Monday morning is always a wild scene at the airport in Atlanta. Last week, my Monday flight was taking me to LA, and I was there in plenty of time for my 9:30 flight. After grabbing a coffee and a paper, I headed to gate A-10 to find out that my flight had been cancelled for mechanical reasons and that I had been moved to the next flight at 11am. After the wave of frustration passed, I realized that I had an extra hour or so to spend at the airport…how to spend that time????

My first inclination was to find an outlet, crank up my computer, and start working on one of a number of items that were on my short list for the week. For some unknown reason, an idea came to mind that I could use this extra window of time for a bit of exercise. Leaving the A concourse, I decided to walk out to Concourse E and back, a distance of more than a mile probably taking me somewhere between 30-45 minutes. Off I went with roller-bag and briefcase in tow!

As I made my way to the far end of the airport, it hit me that I could grab a water on concourse E, then head back on my walk, so I went up the escalators with hydration on my mind. At the top of the escalators is an exhibit of MLK jr., a little treasure in the airport that I had totally forgotten. The first exhibit case held a gray suit which Dr. King wore on a visit to see President Johnson when they discussed the voting rights act. A little further along, I was surprised to see a pair of glasses and a Timex watch both everyday items for an extraordinary man. The last display contained two gold medals and upon closer scrutiny, I realized that one of them was the Nobel Peace Prize that Dr. King was awarded in the winter of 1964. I was amazed! For many years I have been very inspired by Dr. King’s acceptance speech from that event and over the past ten years I have shared that speech with hundreds of work associates, friends, and colleagues. Here in the airport that I travel from/through every week is the actual medal awarded to Dr. King, connected to the speech that continues to resonate for me on some universal themes: the “isness and oughtness” of mankind, and that we are not merely “flotsam and jetsam” of history.

As I came around the corner of the display, I was surprised to find a small interfaith chapel tucked behind the exhibit. I took a moment to sit down, pause for a moment of reflection (remember the essay "PBR") and I looked up that speech, once again freshly inspired.
You can find it at
Take a moment a read it for yourself. I am confident that you will find some inspiring thoughts that will affect your day/week and maybe your life.

Totally forgetting about my water, I gathered my things and left the chapel to head back to concourse A. When I returned to gate A-10, I had taken a bit more than an hour for my “little adventure.” An hour that could have been filled by emails, work calls, and other “pressing” issues instead was filled by a walk, a medal, and an unexpected moment of inspiration.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Tyranny of the Urgent ... 5% for #2!

Over my career I have often been faced with situations where there was just too much on the plate at any one time. This reality of operating at or over personal capacity is pervasive in today’s economic reality when we all feel the need to maximize our professional impact in order to improve often lackluster business trends. When one combines this economic pressure with full personal lives including significant spouse/partner relationships, active growing children, aging and possibly ailing parents, etc., the “over capacity” reality is unfortunately common and pervasive.

While I often dream of a simpler, less frenetic lifestyle, I have come to terms with the reality that for the next number of years, my life will probably become more busy/full/hectic, not less. With that sobering assumption in mind, I wanted to share a simple model that I have found helpful in attempting to prioritize a “over capacity“life.

The chart above is a simple tool that I have often used to sort/prioritize the many professional and personal priorities that I try to juggle every day. The X-axis captures the element of” urgency”, ranging from high to low, the Y-axis captures the element of ‘importance”, again ranging from high to low. Use this graph to plot the many priorities that you are facing and push yourself to array your priorities broadly across the chart…not every priority is urgent and important!

Once you have taken a stab at the chart, pause for a moment (“PBR” once again) and take a look at the quadrants. Priorities in quadrants 1 and 4 should be pretty straight forward. Quadrant 1 items should get first priority on the daily to do list. They should be resourced well and you should be keeping an eye on them being executed well. Additionally, it is important that the quadrant 1 items are being accomplished and “checked” off the list. Lingering quadrant 1 priorities are dangerous, possibly leading to missing key deadlines.

Quadrant 4 should be equally straightforward. Push yourself to try to “prune” the quadrant 4 list! If a priority is neither urgent nor important, does it have to stay on the list? There are certainly instances where priorities that start in quadrant 4 “migrate over time into quadrant 1 so I am not suggesting that you eliminate all of these priorities. I am encouraging you to take a moment for some critical self assessment and try to eliminate as many of quadrant 4 initiatives as possible.

The real complexity of this model candidly does not lie in these previous two quadrants. The challenge that I have faced is how to handle quadrants 2 and 3. In the “over capacity” reality that I mentioned above, it is natural/common/typical to focus on the most urgent items first. At times it can feel that every day’s (every week’s/every months?) to-do lists are solely trying to handle quadrants 1 & 3. This dynamic has been coined “the tyranny of the urgent.” My experience has lead me to believe that this dynamic, “the tyranny of the urgent”, is a dangerous habit to get into. I believe this orientation is not only bad for business; it can be bad for your team and ultimately bad for yourself.

Bad for business: The danger of forgetting about priorities in quadrant 2 is that while you’re busily handling the pressing needs of the moment, important initiatives for the business are being neglected. We need to remember that the time marches on in business and before you know it will be next month, next quarter, next year, etc. If we don’t focus development time on items that WILL be important and urgent in the coming months, quarters.

Bad for your team: One of the items most often forgotten in this “tyranny of the urgent” world is taking time to connect and coach with your tem. We all need to remember that we are not the only ones who are operating in “over capacity” mode. Mt experience is that our team members are often in the same or worse situation. Finding the time to reach out and check in with your team NOT about some pressing item, but to see how they are doing and how we as leaders can help is an important activity that is rarely urgent.

Bad for self: Finally, my experience has lead me to realize that quadrants #1 and #3 rarely contain work on one’s own skills. Building skills is a vital and very important priority in all of our careers and it is too easy to always de-prioritize it because it is rarely urgent. Take a moment and read the essay titled “Execute, Excel, and Build Skills”. It is our individual responsibilities to continually build our skills, whether we are starting our careers or like me, 25+ years into a career that is still growing and challenging.

Finally, I want to suggest an easy to remember idea, “5% for #2!” If we can take just 5% of our time, ½ and hour a day or 2-3 hours per week, and force e ourselves to work on quadrant #2, I believe we can make real progress on this issue of the “tyranny of the urgent.” While I dream of a time when I can be engulfed by the “tyranny of the important,” taking a first step toward “5% for #2” needs to be the immediate action to possibly make that aspiration a reality!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stay Loose Until Rigor Counts

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

Over my career, I have had the chance to work closely with a wide variety of characters. The individuals have run the gamut across CEOs, colleagues, customers, consultants, subordinates…all in all, “workmates.” What’s important to note is that in my experience, there has been no correlation between title/level and wisdom. As I think about it, the individuals who I learned the most from and who inspired me the most haven’t been the CEOs. Don’t get me wrong, I have had the chance to work with some very inspiring senior leaders, some of whom have been CEOs of major companies. Unfortunately, the opposite has been equally true. On the whole though, I have had the fortune to broadly work with a marvelous, collaborative and inspiring set of “workmates,” a truth that I hope continues long into the future!

One specific individual has been on my mind, as I recently was reminded of a lesson I started to learn (still a work in progress on this specific area) in the early days of my career. This individual was a senior partner and founder of a prominent consulting firm that was doing a lot of work in the company and division where I was working at the time. Across numerous meetings, planning sessions, and one-on-one encounters, I would often hear him say “Levisay, stay loose until rigor counts.” He was pushing my thinking and my actions, wanting me to NOT jump to conclusions too quickly but to really WORK the problem/opportunity at hand. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether he was critiquing the depth of my thinking, the speed of my work, or whether there was some other issue. Today more than fifteen years later, his words continue to ring in my ears.

This past summer I was involved in a very challenging customer situation. We were working hard to try to finalize a new contract with a customer and the process went beyond all the established timetables. Every time we hit a deadline, the customer would extend discussions, add new requirements, change decision makers, etc. It was at one of those frustrating moments when the words “stay loose until rigor counts” emerged from my distant memory. While we were all feeling a great deal of frustration through the process, I kept trying to “stay loose” knowing that in a week, or maybe a month or so, we would actually get to the end of the contract discussions and we would need to be ready to act and close the deal. And indeed, months after the original deadline, the contract was finalized with a lot of “rigor” required in the last hours, ending in a solid successful outcome for the customer and our company!

Recently I discussed this idea with my current boss, and he used a phrase that connected for him which was to “stay open, stay wide” in situations like this. In today’s business reality, we are all maxed out multi-taskers, driven to achieve challenging goals and hopefully working to build our individual and collective skills in the process. (See the essay, Execute, Build Skills, and Excel.) The challenge for all of us is to find ways to “stay loose/stay open/stay wide” to the dynamic situations that we face every day. Whenever we feel the need to “force” a situation, we need to try to slow down long enough to ask whether the moment at hand is one to drive to action, or might it be smarter to “stay loose” and allow the situation to advance. I am not saying at all that we shouldn’t be action oriented or that we should not be focused on driving to closure. My encouragement is to find a balance that will allow and encourage deep thinking and reflection as situations develop and give us the chance to execute with excellence when the moment arrives!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The lessons of youth

After a recent week on the road, it was a delight to have a fairly open weekend to spend with my family, puttering around and running errands, cooking some meals with my kids, enjoying a dinner or two with my dear wife Jennie, all in all just enjoying being a family. In the midst of this pretty run-of-the-mill weekend I had an experience with my daughter Marie that I just have to share.

Marie is our ten-year-old daughter, bright, talented, energetic, and quite a force around our house. She has a strong personality and knows what she does or doesn’t want to do. That Friday afternoon, one of Marie’s friends came home from school with her for a playdate and a sleepover. This friend is a very sweet girl and we were all looking forward to her visit. As the schedule came together, Jen had to be with Bryson at an event that night, so I had the girls. After Marie’s dance class, we all piled into my car and headed out to dinner. While the restaurant was humming at 7pm on a Friday evening, we were seated quickly and Marie and her friend were completely on their game, ordering clearly, asking for calamari as a starter (very grown up).

After a dinner of pasta and ice cream, we returned home for a quiet evening. The next morning, the three of us went out for a bike ride in our neighborhood to try out Marie’s new bike. She recently turned 10, and received a new bike with hand brakes and gears – a big step up! She was nervous at first, but with taking it slow, and good encouragement from her friend and me, Marie took to the new bike quickly. We rode around our neighborhood for a little while and headed home to get Marie’s friend on her way for a morning soccer game.

Later that same Saturday afternoon, Marie asked me if we could go out for another bike ride, certainly a bit out of the usual to ride bike twice a day, but with a little nod from Jennie, I said sure. For the second time that day, we headed out, rode around our neighborhood and headed into a large neighboring park. This park is centrally located in Atlanta and has extensive walking/running/biking paths on scenic grounds with amazing views of the mid-town skyline. As we rode around, with Marie doing great on her new bike, the feeling that I wasn’t biking solely with my daughter blew me away, I was biking with a friend! As we headed home, Marie commented that while it was unusual, it was a good thing that we got a lot of exercise this day. She told me about the fact that it she had seen that it was the “Worldwide Day of Play” on Nickelodeon, and that instead of watching TV, we needed to be outside “playing.” Here I was, a 49 year old, getting a focused lesson from my media savvy, 10 year old daughter. What an absolute treat!

I share this story as just another example that life can (and should!) be lived as a continuous learning experience. The day we stop learning and gaining new experiences is the day we stop living! As I reflect over the essays and stories in this blog, one central theme should come through… that being that we all can learn a lot from a wide variety of moments, experiences, and situations if we only pay enough attention! Whether a walk by the Des Moines River in Iowa, or the Columbia River in eastern Washington, there were learning moments. Whether a sunrise on the coast of Florida, a chance encounter in the Customs Hall at Heathrow Airport, or an unplanned bike rides with my marvelous daughter, there were all learning moments. My encouragement is to stay open and available with your time, attention and focus, allowing learning moments to find you, wherever your path through the journey of life might take!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Moonrise over the Columbia

It had been a very busy week. I had spent Monday through Thursday in Bakersfield, CA, busy on numerous topics, leaving early Friday for a flight connecting to Pasco, WA. I was heading to Eastern Washington to visit our Bolthouse Farms carrot fields and plant in Prosser, but also to attend a memorial service to honor the passing of my friend Will’s father. Will’s dad, Bud, passed away last week, and a large memorial service was planned for Saturday to be held on the ranch in Prosser just down the road from our carrot plant. In fact, the carrot plant was a legacy of Will’s dad, as our company bought the operation from him a number of years ago.

Will and I spent a good part of Friday together, driving the 60 miles to the plant, touring the operation (which was running like a top!) and touring his family’s ranch. The ranch is in the “Horse Heaven Hills” area of Prosser, an area famous for marvelous vineyards, many of which are on this ranch. After a day of conversation and reflection, I dropped Will off at his uncle’s home and headed back to town.

After the 60 miles, I found my way back to my hotel on the banks of the Columbia River. It was a bit past seven, the air was warm and the sun was bright. I noticed a few bikes in front of the hotel and I asked the woman at the front desk whether they were for rent. “Absolutely,” she said, “five dollars for four hours.” I told her that I would be right down and by 7:20 I was back in the lobby, in my workout clothes, and ready for a ride. There was a bike path running next to my hotel, also adjacent to the river, and I quickly found my way and headed north. After a few miles I saw a sign that I was on the Sacagawea Trail, named after one of the true heroes of the Lewis and Clark expedition. What a great ride! The night grew steadily cooler as the sun set and the moon rose over the barren hills and into a cloudless darkening sky. It was stunning, seeing the moon’s reflection on the river as I was heading back to the hotel. I wondered whether Sacagawea had seen this moon, at this time of year, at this point along the Columbia River – a topic for further research! I made my way back to the front desk, totally energized by the experience along the river, and ultimately headed to bed.

Saturday dawned with rain and clouds, and after checking out, I headed to the memorial service. The gathering was large, held outside on their ranch with a stunning view of the vineyards. The service itself was very moving, with a scripture reading by Will and a number of remembrances by close friends. One of the individuals spoke about Bud and shared what an inspiration he had been to him. He summed up his thoughts by saying that “an inspirational person gets you to try harder than we want to and to do more than we need to, and Bud was that man.” What a powerful and focused tribute. Shouldn’t we all strive to be that kind of person, encouraging others to achieve more than they might think possible?

Three of Bud’s well-known quotes also were shared:

“Question with Boldness”
“Hold onto the Truth”
“Speak without Fear”

As the service ended I kept going over those three phrases, wondering how I could model them better and how could I encourage my team to bring them to life more fully. All three statements reflect a philosophy of life, work and leadership where anyone’s ideas are respected, and everyone is encouraged to actively bring their ideas, their beliefs, and their questions into the discussion! Will shared a quote from his dad that sums it up well,
"go do good things!"

I hadn’t expected a leadership lesson at the memorial service for Will’s dad, but I certainly got one. In the same way I hadn’t expected to connect to a heroine of our nation’s history on an evening bike ride, but I certainly did. As I arrived in Pasco on Friday, I had no idea that I would be so inspired by these two wildly different people. My encouragement is for all of us to stay “open” to what might affect us, always looking for ways to learn and grow from any circumstance, whether a bike ride along the banks of the Columbia River or a memorial service in Horse Heaven Hills.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Story of Floyd

The Story of Floyd

As I get ever closer to celebrating my 49th birthday I often think back to stories from my youth. As I reflect on the many lessons that I have learned over my life, I am reminded how many of the lessons occurred when and where I was working at the time. For me, work came early in my life, when as a husky yet eager 11 year old I took over my brother’s newspaper route. I became a paperboy for the Pittsburgh Press (the afternoon daily) in 1972. As I grew older, I began to work part-time in local restaurants, ultimately during my senior year in high school making my way to be THE pot washer at the local diner. To this day, that role at the diner was one of my favorite jobs ever, but I’ll keep that story for another essay. Suffice it to say that I worked a number of part-time jobs through high school and college and this story emanates from one of those jobs during the summer of my freshman year in college.

It was the summer of 1980, and instead of heading home, I traveled to Syracuse, N.Y., to spend the summer living with the family of a good friend from college. Jeff and I had become pals during our freshman year and he offered to have me come up for the summer assuring me that we could find good jobs in his home town of North Syracuse. In hindsight, it was exceedingly generous for his parents to allow an “unknown friend” to live in their home for a whole summer. I am sure that I never thanked them enough.

Good to his word, Jeff did indeed find work for us in North Syracuse. In fact we found two jobs; during the day we worked as janitors at the North Syracuse High School and most evenings we worked as bus-boys/dishwashers at the local Ponderosa Steak restaurant. Not quite the exalted heights of being THE pot washer at the diner, but not bad. This work schedule didn’t give us much extra time to get into trouble, but we did make pretty good money for those days and was able to save a bunch to take back with me to college. It was on my first day at North Syracuse High School that I heard about Floyd.

That first day reporting to work at the high school was straight out of a movie. There was quite an odd collection of individuals that gathered in the parking lot that June morning. There was Jeff and I, a few other “summer workers,” and the rest of the group were the regular janitors from across the North Syracuse School System. There were probably 10 – 15 of us in total. As we stood there waiting, a nameless person from the school districts’ administrative offices came out of the school and announced that unfortunately the head janitor, “Floyd,” was sick and wasn’t able to be there that day. Regardless, we were told that he had made work assignments for all of us and a freshly mimeographed sheet was passed out (yes, for those readers old enough, it was blue and had that memorable smell!).

The assignments were organized by school, some of us being assigned to the high school, others to the junior high or an elementary school. Each school had a list of activities, organized by week. As an example,: weeks 1-2 -- remove all desks from rooms, use putty knives to remove all gum, clean/paint over all graffiti, repair as best as possible; weeks 3-4 -- with desks in gym, mop all floors, wash all walls, clean/paint over all graffiti. The list went across the entire summer, ending with waxing the floors and replacing all the desks in their respective rooms. Jeff and I were assigned to the high school along with a few “full timers” and were told that paychecks would be handed out each Friday after work here in the parking lot. It seemed pretty straightforward to us, the work plan was very clear, and the summer was ahead.

The administrator left and we went looking for the others that were assigned to the high school. The years have faded my memory of their names, but there were two or three full time janitors also assigned to us and their first move was to offer us a cigarette as they all lit up. Jeff and I thanked them for the offer but said we didn’t smoke, which raised a few eyebrows. As we pulled out the work lists one of the smokers told us that we were lucky that Floyd was sick because he was a monster! I started to ask an innocent follow-up question and a cigarette filled hand was lifted in my direction and I was told “college boy, mind your own business. Just stay away from us and whatever you do stay away from Floyd!” Jeff and I were “assigned” the upstairs and we began to work the list.

After a few days of finding our way around, we got down to the work at hand. Quickly we started to realize a few things. First, the work list assumed that we were doing the work extremely slowly, and second, there no sign of Floyd. We worked our way through the desks a few days early and started working ahead on the list. At first, the downstairs “smokers” didn’t say too much, but after a few weeks we were stopped on the way in to work. They weren’t sure what we were trying to prove, but we needed to follow the work list because it was Floyd’s list and he was the boss. If we knew what was good for us, we would stick to the list! It was strange to be 19 years old and be somewhat “threatened” by a group of adults, and on top of that there was the mythic, unseen Floyd.

As the summer wore on, Jeff and I worked on a sort of solution. We would take Wednesdays and Thursdays off from the list and do extra work around the school; tasks not on the list. One week we washed windows, another week we painted railings, another week we bleached toilets. In this way, we pretty much stayed on schedule with the work list, and kept the criticism to a minimum from those working downstairs. While there were no actual sightings of Floyd, the stories of him only grew. We learned that he had an office down by the main furnace (as I said, straight out of a movie!). We also learned that he was an angry drinker, that he drank at work, and that he smoked Pall Malls. I wasn’t sure what to take from that cigarette reference but it was clear that none of the downstairs crew would EVER smoke a Pall Mall!

As the summer came to a close, the floors waxed and dried, with the desks finding their ways back to their rightful homes, an alarming event occurred. On the last Monday morning of the summer, there was a note taped to the front door of the high school saying “Jeff and Bill, the summer upstairs boys, report to my office at the end of the day” and the note was signed in a scratchy hand, “Floyd.” The downstairs gang took one look at the note and absolutely flipped out. They wanted to know what outrageous act we had done to cause the note. Had we been smoking pot upstairs (absolutely not!)? Had we been drinking on school property? The questions continued as they lit up and pondered our fate. To be honest with you, I was pretty freaked out about the note, not the least by the fact that Floyd actually knew our names! It was one thing for us to know his name, but he was Floyd, the feared head janitor. Who were we but some summer help?

The day was pretty shot. We moved a few desks around but Jeff and I spent most of the time wondering what we had done wrong. Sure we went off the list a bit, but was bleaching the toilets that bad? At lunchtime, we ate our ham and Velveeta (yes, Velveeta) sandwiches outside still wondering about the end of the day. One of the downstairs gang came over and kindly suggested that we could just quit now and head home. Sure we would miss a few days of pay but we could avoid Floyd; that’s what she would do! I guess we were just too much a pair of poor college students but we prepared for the afternoon “meeting.”

As the day was coming to a close, we made our way downstairs, into the basement of the high school, and headed towards the big furnace. We had been to the basement a number of times, but never anywhere near the “lair of Floyd.” It didn’t take long to find the furnace and there, just beyond, was THE office. Like two children, we shuffled up to the door and meekly knocked. “Come on in boys” was the quick reply from inside. We stepped into a small but tidy office, clip boards hanging up on a number of nails, a few spare mops in the corner. There, sitting at the desk was a rather regular looking guy with big black plastic glasses. Here was Floyd! He looked up and apologized for not having anything for us to sit on, and asked if we had had a good summer. We were speechless. Not a sound came out of me nor Jeff. He said that he had noticed our “extra work” and really appreciated it. He couldn’t pay us anything extra, that was up to the admin office, but he did say that if we wanted a job next summer he would love to have us. It was incredible. Floyd was thanking us! To this day, I am not sure what we said in response to his generous offer, we just murmured that we had had a good summer, and that we didn’t know what our plans would be for next summer, but thanks.

We never spoke a word about the meeting to the others who worked downstairs. They didn’t come near us, and we kept our distance. We finished up the week, picked up our last paycheck, and headed back to college. The next summer brought different job options (yes, one working in a restaurant) and I never went back to the North Syracuse High School.

I share this story because I often think back on this specific experience for a few reasons.
First, I learned a lot working at part time jobs when I was in high school, college, and graduate school. The value of being on time, doing a good job, taking pride in your work even when it seems pretty menial, the pleasure of cashing a hard-earned paycheck, etc., all big lessons for me, all coming from early job experiences from my youth.

Secondly, while the mimeographed sheet seemed pedantic at the time, my opinion of the simplicity and the clarity of the document has dramatically improved over the years. As a leader, I often wonder if I am being clear of my expectations of the team, and whether I have painted a clear picture of success. Floyd certainly did!

Finally, the whole “myth” of Floyd was something to remember. Rather than finding out for myself and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I got caught up in the fear mongering of my fellow workers. I had kept my distance from that fateful basement office, filled with the nonsense stories of others. If I had heard that Floyd had needed some kind of help, would I have volunteered to help, or walked the other way? Across history, individuals, groups, races and countries have often demonized others to advance their own agendas. Somehow by spreading fear about others, a strange and possibly dangerous sense of community is formed. I often think back on that innocent summer and try to remind myself about Floyd, and try to be open and inquisitive to those things, individuals, or ideas that might be new and strange to me and to try to NOT be like the downstairs gang!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Legacy of Bruce

Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In some circumstances this may be true. Most often for me, the sincerest form of flattery turns out to be storytelling. I don’t try to imitate those individuals who I most fondly remember and love the most; I try to keep them “alive” by recounting their lives and lessons through story. You may have read about my Aunt Lorraine and “Lorraine’s Law,” or my grandmother (MaMa) and her “Turkey Bag” story. Both are great examples of stories about two important women from my life: my Aunt who is very much alive, and my Grandmother, who passed away more than ten years ago.
I share these ideas as I reflect back on the passing of my dear friend Bruce Paynter, who passed away a year ago today after a gallant fight with ALS. As I think back over the year, I am reminded of how many different moments I have thought about or spoken about Bruce. In a strange way, Bruce has been very present for me (and with me) over the past year and in some perspective I have been more present with him than in some of the years before his passing.
I have thought often about his conversations with me before he passed, some at his home, some from his hospital bed at the hospice facility. Not only have I written about them on this blog, but I have archived these essays in a group that you can find by clicking on the archive link to the left and scrolling down for the group of essays listed under ”Inspirations of Bruce.” Just this past weekend, I shared his thoughts on ”Communities Matter” with a group of friends. Take a look for yourself and see what connections you make to his thoughts and comments.
What also has been amazing over the past year is how many varied groups I have spoken to about Bruce: groups with nothing in common, and no previous connection to Bruce, his hometown of Appleton Wisconsin, or his company Kimberly- Clark. For a cab driver in Bakersfield California, a CEO in West Des Moines, Iowa, a group of non-profit executives in Atlanta, or a chamber of commerce luncheon gathering in Lufkin Texas, Bruce has come alive to a wide variety of audiences over the past year! In every case, the “stories” about his life lessons have touched the varied audiences deeply. In more than one instance, my “stories” about Bruce have triggered others to talk about friends or family members who they have lost, some even from ALS. These moments of real connection are not only the outcome of “stories” and conversations; they are the very real and tangible impact or “Legacy” of Bruce.
My hope is that you take a moment and think about a friend, a family member, or even an old boss and reflect on the lessons that you have learned from their lives. As these thoughts or “stories” come to mind, don’t just hold them close to your heart, share them with others. I think you will be pleasantly surprised how many people can be touched by those stories.
I share these thoughts today primarily to recognize and celebrate a dear old friend. I can’t believe that it has been twelve months since his passing. I think about Bruce all the time and am just one of many who miss him very much.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Long Look Garden

Well it was hot and steamy in Des Moines on my recent visit. My trip to the capital of Iowa was prompted by meetings with a prominent grocery retailer headquartered on the west side of that city. Despite the weather, it was nice to be back in Des Moines, this time to meet with new folks and reconnect with a number of executives whom I have known for years. The business meetings went well and the “reconnections” were real treats. It’s fun to get to an age where numerous business relationships have evolved into true friendships, allowing us to connect on a very different level than solely the immediate commercial issues at hand.
After a very full day, I returned to my hotel, wrapped up few emails, and threw on my sneakers for a long walk to get some exercise. Downtown Des Moines has a very well constructed network of walking trails that stretch along the rivers connecting a number of city parks together.

With a map in hand, I hit the trails. I crossed the swollen Des Moines River and headed south. It was a hot and sunny evening and as I walked along the trail I realized that I was heading towards the Baseball Park that is the home of the Iowa Cubs. There was a game that night and folks were coming to the park from across the city. There really is something quintessentially American to hear the buzz of a crowd gathering for a ball game on a hot summer night in the heart of the Midwest! I didn’t have time to go in and watch the game but I did linger for a few minutes at an outfield fence to watch the stands fill. Then, I returned to my trail map and my walk. After about an hour I had made my way back to the hotel but wasn’t quite ready to dive back into the unread emails. On I went across the street to continue on the trail and immediately entered a garden. Pinks, yellows, purples…flowers of many shades were on both sides of the path and for about a hundred yard the path wound its way through this beautiful garden on the banks of the Des Moines River. Unexpected beauty to say the least!

At the end of the garden was a small plaque that announced that the garden was sponsored by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed company based in Iowa. It referenced that this was the “Long Look Garden,” honoring its long held business philosophy of taking a “long look” at business opportunities, challenges and decisions. Enough said, I quickly returned to the hotel to find out more! What follows is copied from the Pioneer Hi-Bred website:

The Pioneer way of doing business

The “Long Look," originally written in 1952, reflects our business philosophy, one that had evolved since our incorporation in 1926. While we have added and subtracted many products and services from our core seed corn business over the years, our “Long Look” business philosophy has remained constant.
1. We strive to produce the best products on the market.
2. We deal honestly and fairly with our employees, customers, seed growers, sales force, business associates and shareholders.
3. We advertise and sell our products vigorously, but without misrepresentation.
4. We give helpful management suggestions to our customers to assist them in making the greatest possible profit from our products.

This summary of tried and true business principles, now 58 years in practice, deeply ran true to me. Regardless of industry, category, or function, these four elements are applicable broadly yesterday, today and into the future. I immediately thought about how to share these with my team and how to translate them to our current business challenges. Take a minute and think about how the “Long Look” can apply to your business/leadership challenges.

On a final note, I want to emphasize a recurring theme of my blog essays. Once again from an unexpected source – a walk through a garden on a steamy summer evening in Des Moines – I found a moment of inspiration that made an impact on me and a connection to my current business challenges. It’s rarely convenient to take a few moments (never mind an hour for a walk) away from the pressing nature of business, but I continue to be amazed at how much there is to learn when I slow down enough for a moment of reflection that might include reading a plaque on the banks of the Des Moines river.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lessons from a Florida Turnpike

I think that it should be obvious by now that a recurring theme of my essays is that insight/wisdom/perspective often occur in moments where we least expect it. While I have written about those moments occurring in a customs line, a car ride with my grandmother, (and a museum in Paris,) I recently had another occur at a rest area on a Florida turnpike.
After a busy morning of customer meetings, I dropped a colleague off at the Orlando airport and began a drive across the state, working my way to West Palm Beach. I was on the phone non-stop, moving from one conference call to another and I found myself in mid-afternoon, having not eaten lunch, and needing a break. I was making good time so instead of the typical drive-thru stop, I decided to go into the McDonald’s to take a break for a few minutes and eat my lunch inside the rest stop. Blackberry in hand, I sat down to eat and catch up on emails.
The restaurant was pretty empty being mid-afternoon, but after a few minutes a grandfather arrived with a handful of grandkids (both boys and girls, maybe 4-7 years old) in tow to buy them an afternoon treat. A collection of ice cream cones and milk shakes arrived and the kids sat down in the booth next to me to devour their sweet treats. My attention was so focused on the kids that I totally missed the middle aged couple that came in to the restaurant, with the man (husband?) heading to the bathroom and the woman (wife?) heading to the counter to order. No one missed the following scene. The woman had the bag of food in her hand as the fellow came out of the bathroom and asked some sort of terse question. Without a reply, she handed over the bag. Upon looking inside, the man shouted “You are so stupid, you never get it right!” and proceeded to smash the bag of newly bought food into trash bin and stomp out of the McDonald’s. The woman looked up to and saw all of us, Grandpa, the grand kids and me, all silently watching her. She shrugged her shoulders, looked into the garbage can, hung her head and walked out of the restaurant.
I thought to myself that the guy was “a total A@#hole” and went back to my blackberry. Grandpa took better action. The kids were still silent from the outburst and he asked them whether they had all seen what that man had just done. All nodded yes. He spoke to the little girls and said to never, never let any man treat them the way that man just treated that woman. He said that too many women put up with too much from “small, mean spirited men” and that it would be better to be alone that to put up with “that nonsense.” He then looked at the boys and asked whether any of them thought the guy was cool or strong. They all shook their heads no. The grandpa finished his “lesson” with a great line when he said “Kids, I’ve lived 71 years and for me, mean never equals good!”
Quietly, the kids finished their treats, threw away their trash and started heading out. The grandpa corralled the kids out to their minivan, and headed off down the turnpike. I sat at my little plastic table and thought completely about my two kids, Bryson and Marie, and how much I wished they had been sitting with that grandpa, and how much I need to find a way to pass that lesson along to them.
While I will certainly use this essay as a way to share the lesson with them, I wanted to share it broadly on two counts. First and most importantly, the grandpa was right, “mean never equals good!” What a simple and clear truth that all of us should remember more consistently. Secondly, what I had intended to be a 15 minute afternoon stop on a Florida turnpike turned out to be a moment of learning and inspiration. Once again, in improbable spots, amazing things continue to occur!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Whiteside from the Forest

Whiteside Mountain soars to almost 5000 feet in western North Carolina. The vistas from its summit are breathtaking regardless of weather. On clear days, one can see the distant lakes that mark the northeastern border between South Carolina and Georgia, and by looking southwest, you can look into the mountains of north Georgia. Of the many hikes that my family enjoys in those mountains, the walk up Whiteside is certainly one of our favorites and one that we have enjoyed across all seasons.

As we do with many things that we love in our lives, I have tried to share the mountains of western North Carolina and more specifically Whiteside Mountain with others. In addition to family and friends, I have brought groups of work mates to these same mountains. Over my career, I have often brought work groups to various environments (battlefields, state parks, historic sites, zoos, museums, etc.) as a way to physically leave the workplace behind. I have found that different surroundings can inspire fresh insights, approaches and learnings to help face the professional challenges of that time. One memorable trip occurred on Whiteside Mountain a few years ago.

I brought a new team of about a dozen direct reports up into the mountains to finalize the work on our annual business plan. The performance goals for the year ahead were daunting, and I wanted us to work on it together knowing that everyone on the team was deeply concerned individually on how we would ever be able to accomplish the performance targets that lie ahead. My plan included having the team prepare by reading a number of documents, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. We drove to the parking lot at the trailhead which was deep in a North Carolina forest and prepared for the hike ahead. I checked that we had plenty of water, a few snacks, a first aid kit, and copies of the readings. I calmly described that the trail would take us to the top of the mountain (which was unseen amidst the trees of the parking lot), that we would take ample stops, and that we would take it pretty slow on the way up.

The hike itself went very well. We stopped a number of times on the way up and when we came out of the trees onto the summit of Whiteside Mountain, the view was breathtaking. We stopped at a few of the mountain’s natural overlooks, pausing to discuss various points of the readings and to connect them to the business challenges that lay ahead. From one overlook, a team member asked about a distant road in the valley thousands of feet below. I said that it was an alternative route that connected back to town and that it had the most amazing views of the sheer cliffs of the mountain.

An hour or so later – sweaty and tired but intact – our team made it back to the parking lot. In my typical fashion. I asked for the team’s reactions and connections between the readings and the hike. The fellow who had commented on the road in the valley was quick to respond. He asked whether I had intentionally NOT taken the valley road and rather had approached the mountain through the forest. My response was a quick no; the fastest route from town to the mountain leads through the forest and speed had been my only motivator. Quickly he described a major connection from the hike which had been completely unplanned. For him, Whiteside from the forest versus Whiteside from the valley was a major learning. If he had approached the mountain from the valley, seeing the height and the steep cliffs that lie ahead, he would have been fearful of the task ahead and doubtful of the potential for success. Instead, we had approached the mountain through the forest, stopping amidst the trees of the parking lot, checking our supplies, talking calmly of the task at hand. This individual talked about confidence and excitement instead of fear and doubt. Many of the others strongly agreed.

Often, as leaders, our responsibility is to prepare our teams for the challenges that lie ahead. At times it’s tempting to provide “lecture notes” that go into great detail about the difficulties, the complexities, and the issues that await to insure that the team has a complete view. In other words, “Whiteside from the valley.” Try to remember the power, potential, and excitement of the calm discussion in the parking lot, or “Whiteside from the forest.”
I had no idea of this “learning lesson” when I planned the hike. Good leaders need to be good teachers (see the entry “A teachable point of view”) who realize that often the best learning occurs in moments when the students can be open and candid with their thoughts, opinions and insights. It’s a mature leader/teacher who realizes that important insights can and should be found outside of “lecture notes.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The story of Clarissa

A few months ago, on one of my frequent trips to Bakersfield, Calif., my travel plans became unraveled by some unexpected weather. A massive snowstorm in the surrounding mountains resulted in pounding rain in Bakersfield, closing Interstate 5. If you’ve been to southern California, you know that “the 5” is one of the major routes to LAX. So I changed my flight to depart from Bakersfield – at 6 a.m. – and began to figure out how I was going to get there.

As it turned out, the weather wasn’t the only thing that was unexpected.

The first challenge was returning my rental car. Since Enterprise did not have a location at the airport, or a shuttle from its lot, I checked with the front desk of the hotel and asked if they had a taxi service that they could recommend. Without missing a beat, the answer was “absolutely, call Don” and a number was written down. It was about 10 p.m. when I called Don who picked up after one ring. He was chipper and professional when I asked if I could schedule a pickup at 4:45 the next morning at the Enterprise location on 24th and Chester in Bakersfield. “Absolutely” he said. “See ya tomorrow.”

The morning wakeup call came as planned, and I headed out into a rainy, dark, Bakersfield morning looking for 24th and Chester. I arrived right a bit early to the darkened lot, and waited for Don to appear. As the clock passed 4:45, I started to pull up Don’s number, thinking that there was something wrong. At that moment, headlights appeared through the rain and an old Ford sedan pulled up behind my rental car. As I started to get my things together, a woman in her mid-thirties appeared at my passenger side window. I rolled down the window and the woman asked “Are you waiting on Don?”

My uncertain look drove the woman to introduce herself as Clarissa (I changed her name for this story), a friend of Don’s, who would be taking me to the airport. My options were limited at 4:55 am, on a rainy corner of 24th and Chester. I jumped out into the rain, dropped my rental keys into the night drop box, and headed to Clarissa’s Ford. She had opened the trunk, which was a jumble of shopping bags, some clothes, and a spare tire. I threw my bags in, closed the trunk and got in the passenger side to ride shotgun.

The moment I closed the door, Clarissa...started...talking. She explained that she was a friend of Don’s, she even rented a room from him and that he had been “detained” that morning and had asked her to help out by getting me to the airport. She was quick to mention that she knew the way to the airport, a good sign. She went on to say that she worked nights and that she had worked that night waitressing/bartending and that Don liked her because he worked a lot of nights, too. She was a night person and liked to talk, an accurate self-assessment.

Now it’s not fair to say that the car was “dirty” per se; it was too dark to actually tell. What I could see was a number of empty Sugar-free Red Bull cans and a few packs of Newport cigarettes in the front of the car. Clarissa kept up her monologue as I kept a lookout for Merle Haggard Blvd. (I don’t mean that I felt like I was living a country song. Merle Haggard Blvd. was actually the route to the airport. But it fit the moment.) As she was talking about Don, Clarissa’s voice changed a bit and she started talking about the fact that she and Don had lost a close friend last summer and that it had been tough for both of them but had really brought them closer. For some unknown reason, I mentioned that I had lost a close friend to ALS the past summer as well. (You can read more about that in the blog entry “The Inspiration of Bruce.”) With that, Clarissa burst into tears and chokingly said that her friend that had died had passed away after fighting ALS for more than a year. Unbelievable!

As we turned onto Merle Haggard Blvd., Clarissa cried and I talked about my experience of losing my friend, how much it had moved me and how I am still thinking about and learning from the experience. She gathered herself as we drew closer to the airport and said that she needed to apologize to me, to apologize for lying to me. “What on earth could this be about?” I thought to myself. She said that I seemed like a very nice and kind guy, and that I didn’t deserve her lies. She continued on, in a very sheepish tone, that while she had worked the night before, she wasn’t working as a waitress. She had worked that night, as she does most nights, at a club in town as a dancer. My replacement cab driver was a stripper! I glanced over to take a closer look at Clarissa and realized that she had a turquoise bikini top on under her short jacket and that she was driving with a pair of huge acrylic heels.

Clarissa pulled her Ford to a stop and I jumped out of the car to get my bags out of the trunk. After I paid the fare, she stopped me with a question, “Don’t you think I could dance for a few more years, Bill?” With that she turned a bit so I could see her silhouette more clearly. I was struck by how sad and how candid her question was. Still kind of stunned by the entire experience of the morning, I stumbled over a response that included “absolutely” and “I’m sure for years.” I said goodbye and headed into the airport to head back to Atlanta.

Clarissa and I come from entirely different worlds, and through some twist of fate, found ourselves sharing a few moments together on a rainy morning in Bakersfield, Calif. My need for a ride put us in the car, but our common experience with ALS brought us together. To say the least, it was very humbling. As you make your way through your busy and hectic worlds, keep an eye out for the Clarissas who may cross your path, who may make a real impact on you regardless of their jobs, their attire, or their backgrounds.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Put it on the Wall"

Over the past months, I have been very active in a consulting business that I started in 2008. The work has been a pleasure.

I have worked across a wide range of industries and an equally wide variety of projects. The industries have included: tele-medicine, natural gas, retail grocery, and industrial mining to name a few. Quite a departure after spending almost 18 years at The Coca-Cola Company. The projects/assignments have also been quite varied, including: sales and marketing restructuring, board communication planning, customer value proposition development and executive coaching. As I said above, it’s truly been a pleasure!

One of the surprises over the past year or so has been the individuals with whom I have had a chance to work. On the whole, they have been dynamic leaders, working hard to take their organizations to new levels of performance and in the process to build their own capabilities as executives. While often I was brought in to help these individuals with their challenges, I found that I learned a lot from them in the process. One perfect example is Dan, a very dynamic leader of a fast growing tele-medicine company in Florida. Over the past year, Dan has become more than a client, but also a friend, one whom I have learned a lot from. His deep knowledge of his business, his passion for his customers (doctors) and their clients (patients), and his relentless drive to build and grow his organization (and his skills) are truly inspiring.

I visited Dan a number of times at his office, a very busy “open door” environment at his company’s headquarters. One thing that I noted was that Dan had numerous pictures/ photos on his walls. Unlike many executive offices, which might have decorator driven prints, or possibly company slogans or priorities, Dan’s office had a variety of pictures, one of which was of a small jet airplane. Knowing that Dan was a pilot, I asked on one of my early visits whether that was a picture of his plane. With a smile and a gleam in his eye, he said, “Not yet!” My puzzled looks lead him to share his philosophy of what it means to him to “put it on the wall.”

Dan told me that he has been very goal driven throughout his life. He laid out goals across his life and he pushed hard to achieve those objectives. Years ago, he began to capture a goal in a photo or picture, and literally “put it on the wall” to be an ever present reminder of what was yet to be achieved. Today, Dan is a very experienced pilot (both fixed wing and helicopter) and the photo on the wall of a small personal jet represents a goal for his future. This photo is just the latest of many that have been on Dan’s wall over the years. His wall has contained not only photos of potential personal goals, but of business targets and objectives that he and his organization have yet to achieve.

I recently applied this approach in a very simple way on a committee that I was leading. My children attend a wonderful independent school in Atlanta, and its annual auction is the primary event to raise funds for financial aid. I was asked by the auction chair to take on the very challenging assignment of leading the wine auction (I know, tough duty!). After looking over the stagnant performance over the past few years, I decided that the committee needed to work toward a goal of strong growth this year. With Dan’s words ringing in my ears, I held the first committee meeting months ago and communicated that we were going to drive for 20% growth in the proceeds from the wine auction. There was a bit of grumbling but everyone pretty quickly got to his or her tasks. In every communication I reinforced the goal. Every email was titled “The road to 20%.” Every meeting we took a few moments to discuss 20 ideas that might get us 20% growth. By the time of the auction, my committee members were calling me “Mr. 20.” Well the auction was held a week ago and I received the final stats just this past weekend. With a bit of nervousness, I opened the email and read that the wine auction proceeds were up over 19% over year ago. While not quite 20, I was pleased nonetheless. In my own way I had “put it on the wall,” and it had driven performance.

This process of public goal setting, “putting it on the wall,” is an important lesson to all leaders in business. We all have goals and objectives for our organizations, our businesses, and ourselves. It takes clarity and courage to not only communicate them publicly, but to publish them physically. The accountability level goes up dramatically for all involved. It was through the simplicity of the photo of the jet, that it hit me how often goals are set without any public documentation. We all need to work hard on not only setting challenging goals for our teams and ourselves, but to be public – to “put it on the wall” – so our organizations can all share in the clarity and accountability of public goal setting.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Friday, I'm in Love"

Last Friday was a day full of action and activity. The plan was to drop the kids off at school, quickly attend a little “art show” in my son Bryson’s class, take care of a bunch of work and then wisk Jennie (my sweet spouse) off to a weekend on the beach in Florida (just us, sans kids!). In all candor, my mind was going a hundred miles an hour, trying to fill about five hours of “stuff” into a four hour window…nothing new, just another example of not “being in the moment.”

I accomplished the drop-off and the “art show” well, enjoying the work that Bryson and his classmates had done as part of the school’s annual auction. As I was heading off campus, I absentmindedly tripped on uneven sidewalk and dropped my BlackBerry. “O”! “M”! “G”! My BlackBerry. As I saw it bounce I feared the worst and went down on a knee to see if “my precious” was working. (I hate the idea of referencing me mimicking Gollum, but it wasn’t far from the truth.) With a quick check, I saw that it was working, seemingly no worse for the wear, and at that moment a little girl skipped on by.

Wearing a flowered top, bright green Capri pants and pink crocs, this little five-year-old literally skipped right past me, book bag on her back, heading to her kindergarten class. I couldn’t see her face but it didn’t really matter. Immediately I said out loud “happy kids.” This image of sweetness, joy, energy and optimism penetrated my BlackBerry mania to remind me that “happy kids” was what it was all about… or maybe what more of life SHOULD be about! In a recent essay in this blog titled “The Lens of Success.” I talked about how Jennie and I aspired for our kids to be “happy, healthy, self sustaining productive citizens.” Here I was, kneeling on an uneven schoolyard sidewalk, watching the embodiment of part of that aspiration….”happy kids”

Well, the rest of the day, including the four-plus hour flight delay, didn’t quite go as planned. Not all the work was finished. We made it down to Florida later than planned. There was a 1 a.m. fire alarm at the beach resort. And so on. With all that said, it was a wonderful Friday and a marvelous weekend getaway with my wonderful wife of 23 years... and yet, one of my lasting images of that Friday will be of the little girl, skipping to class, unintentionally reminding one knucklehead (yours truly) that joy and happiness is more important than a working BlackBerry!

As a final note, I want to give a little “shout out” to the band “The Cure” and its great anthem, “Friday, I’m in Love”:

I don't care if Monday's blue

Tuesday's gray and Wednesday too

Thursday I don't care about you

It's Friday, I'm in love

Monday you can fall apart

Tuesday, Wednesday break my heart

Oh, Thursday doesn't even start

It's Friday, I'm in love

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Big Spoon

Savor: (Verb), to taste and enjoy (typically a food or drink) completely; enjoy and appreciate (typically something pleasant) completely.

It took me years to finally get around to pulling together all of our old family videos. It was 11 years ago with the birth of our first child, Bryson, that I went out like so many new dads to buy a bulky Sony video camera. Over the years, and multiple video formats, I had accumulated 23 mini videocassettes, which were collecting dust in a box in the hall closet. There wasn’t a specific event that was the trigger, but earlier this year I pulled together the tapes and had a local company transfer them in chronological order onto DVDs.

Two weeks ago I picked up the DVDs and we have started watching different snippets of our family history. It’s been a real treat to see how our kids, Bryson (11) and Marie (9), have enjoyed watching their earliest moments. From their first birthdays, early Christmas holidays, beach vacations, etc., they have been amused and delighted by watching themselves as babies and infants. There are numerous hilarious moments, and some that were amusing at the moment and maybe more poignant today.

It also has been amazingly moving to see glimpses of family members no longer with us, or with us in the same way. The earliest video, from Christmas of 1998, contains scratchy images of Jennie’s youngest sister, Carrie, laughing, talking and drinking coffee, just three months before her untimely death in early 1999. There are wonderful images of Jennie’s mother, Jane, dancing with my father-in-law, Don, and affectionately holding her new grandson. Jane is currently struggling with frontal lobe dementia, often in a wheelchair and rarely speaking.

I share all of this because once again I am struck by how much has happened over the past 11 years, and how fast it has all seemed to go. Life is absolutely blowing by and I continue to think, “If I knew then what I know now...” My reflection is not centered on what a share of Google stock would be worth today if purchased years ago. It is centered on what would I have thought or said or done differently if I had known that the Christmas of 1998 would be Carrie’s last. Let’s be reminded by the words of singer, songwriter, and philosopher Warren Zevon:

“Don Quixote had his windmills

Ponce De Leon took his cruise

Took Sinbad, seven voyages

To see that it was all a ruse!”

If we are waiting for some mythical day in the future to enjoy life…once we retire, when we have more time, once the kids are older or (one of my favorites), “when our ship comes in,”… my comment to you is don’t wait!

The lesson that I am trying to remind myself of consistently is that we need to live, enjoy, and appreciate life more fully now! Like a delicious meal or a fine wine, we need to savor life and use “the big spoon,” so that we can enjoy every drop!

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Confluence of "Three"


As a boy growing up in western Pennsylvania, I was taught from early childhood that the center of human history could be found at the confluence of three rivers –  The Monongahela, The Allegheny, and The Ohio – otherwise known as Pittsburgh.  Combined with a clear devotional focus on “The Steelers,” this orientation did make us “locals” believe that it was destiny in the years when the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins won championships.  There were even two years when two of the teams won their respective championships in the same year!

This orientation to look at things in “threes” amplified during my theological studies.  In a class called “hermeneutics,” the focus was on how to create, prepare and deliver an effective sermon.  One of the first lessons was that all good sermons had three key points.  While it was suggested that this structure was to mirror and emphasize the Trinity, I had a sneaking suspicion that the professor might have been a member of the “Steeler Nation.”

With all that said, over the past few months I found myself in a number of conversations in which I kept referring to a simple “three-part” model.  These discussions were generally with folks trying to gain clarity on their next career move, though they ranged from a company president to someone who has been out of the work force for years.  Regardless of their backgrounds, these people seemed to find this three-step approach helpful.  It centered around the concepts of:





When I’m working with people who are trying to consider professional alternatives, I try to help them find the confluence of the three factors above.  The process begins by pulling out three sheets of paper, one for skills, one for experiences, one for passions.  Then, on each sheet, write the details for each category  and rank them from high to low.  Finally, take the “highs” from each list and lay them out on a single sheet.  I have had some clients use a pyramid, a triangle, or a three dimensional graph for this step.  It works just as well to lay them out on a sheet and use them as a tool in making decisions. 

If an individual is deciding between a number of roles, he or she may use the list to see which role maximizes the confluence of the three lists.  If an individual is brainstorming possibilities, I help him or her imagine roles (or industries, companies, etc.) that would be a good combination of all three elements.  There have been moments across my career where I came close to making very bad decisions based on thinking about only two of the three factors.  As I was heading out of grad school, I had the enviable situation of having to decide between three very different job offers.  One was for a role in the marketing research department of a large food company.  I had tutored econometrics and statistics in grad school, so there was a good fit for skills.  I had worked part-time in the marketing research department of a company while at grad school, thus my experience was solid.  The trouble was that my passion for the work was a zero.  I was good at it and I hated it!  Thank goodness I had enough sense at that time to NOT take that job, but to take a role where my skills, experiences, and my passions ALL could be brought to bear.

As you face moments in your career or life when trying to make decisions about your next role or opportunity, think back to the confluence of those three rivers and try to find your best three-fold confluence.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Two Small Words

During my career at The Coca-Cola Company, I had the chance to work very closely with a wide range of senior executives.  While they all had their unique traits, none did I find as inspiring or motivating as Neville Isdell.  Neville’s career traversed multiple continents, five decades, and culminated as Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company from June 2004 to July 2008.  It was a true honor to have a chance to work on numerous initiatives that brought me in contact with him, always finding those experiences to be filled with learning and growth.  I wrote more about this recently in an entry titled “A teachable Point of View”. 

The cover of a recent issue of  “Business & Finance” magazine featured an article titled “Neville Isdell on recovery, sustainable growth and ethics.”  I was interested on first glance and dove into the article.  While a variety of topics would be appropriate to review, there was a very short paragraph that quickly caught my attention.  He is quoted as saying “that two very important words were left out of corporate strategies in the recent past: ‘over time.’  We forgot those two very important words.  What I was taught was that my role was to maximize shareholder value over time.” 

We are surrounded my so many examples, particularly in the financial sector, where a short-tem orientation has led to disastrous long-term results.  Neville says further “That became disastrous particularly when the banks’ short-term profits were driven by instruments that not many people understood, including the management of the banks.  But it is the ‘over time’ piece that is very important.”

Those two words – “over time” – seem so simple and so have they been so easy to forget?  Think about other elements of your life that are valuable to you.  It could be friends, partners, spouses, children, organizations, etc.  Are you only interested in how they are going to do next quarter, or do you have a longer view?  As I reflect on my two children, aged 9 and 11, I am interested in how well they do in school this spring, but my timeline for their “success” spans years and possibly decades.  I want them to do well “over time.”  If we can have that longer view in our personal lives, why can’t we translate that perspective into our work life?

As an action step, take a few moments and pull out your goals for 2010.  For those who might not have anything formal, write out what would success look like to you this year.  With the goals handy, push yourself to think longer term.  Use Neville’s admonition and think about succeeding “over time.”  Try thinking out over the next three years and push yourself to think about initiatives and goals that may seem impossible over the next few months but attainable “over time.” 

As an extra step, try thinking past three years.  What truly long-term objectives lie years over the horizon?  Only by laying out those goals can we reflect back on what actions we need to take over the next three years, and thus this year, to ever achieve those seemingly distant goals.  We can all benefit by remembering Neville’s two simple words, “over time,” and we can all look for ways to turn them into reality today.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Start the year off with a moment of critical self assessment

Earlier this month, I had a dear friend send along a brief article that was sourced from Harvard business Review, dated January 4th, 2010.  The author reflected on the executives that he had a chance to work with over the past year and organized that group into two categories, those that performed well and those that he wished had done better.  In an expected move, characteristics for both groups were captured.   I was very taken by the list for those executives “performing well” and I want to suggest an approach that will allow all of us to look for, and act on, ways to improve our performance in 2010.

1.)   They set clear, measurable goals for themselves and their organization.  They       talk about these goals often, and hold themselves to them.”

2.)    “They seek feedback from others on those goals.  I believe that most people are hesitant to ask for help and even find it abrasive or self-centered.  Not these executives.  They recognize the value of seeking out strong mentors and peers.  They are not afraid to ask for help or guidance.”

3.)    “They communicate thoughtfully.  They understand the power of words to motivate, direct and bring clarity, or when used carelessly, to confuse, alienate and misdirect.”

4.)    “The act thoughtfully.  Sure they are opportunistic, but they are not impetuous.  Risks are calculated.”

5.)    “After they are thoughtful, they are decisive.  In short, they can execute and rarely suffer analysis paralysis.”

6.)  “They have integrity, and as a result, people follow them.  They keep their word and care.”

7.)  “They have ego-less confidence.  This is what allows them to be bold and open to feedback at the same time.  It’s critical.”

8.)  “They are smart and they study to get smarter.  They are students of business.  Even the best continue to learn and never think they’ve learned it all.”


 As an action item, take a moment to step out of your day-to-day activities and put yourself in the third person.  Many years ago, I suggested to a hard-driving young executive “that a moment in the third person could change your life.”  My thought is that we are all so busy trying to execute in the first person that it’s rare to step back and take a moment of reflection.  With that admonition in mind, take a moment to reread the list above and reflect on your own performance against each of the characteristics.  It would be probably helpful to print this entry, and using it as a worksheet, score yourself 1-5 on each of the eight. (1 for low, 3 for average, and 5 for high.)  Seek input from a trusted friend, peer, mentor or manager (see #2 above) but if you are uncomfortable, score yourself privately.


Now, using the back, write your two highest rated characteristics and on one half of the paper then the two lowest rated on the other half..  For the highest-rated characteristics, write at least one action that you WILL do this year to amplify and take advantage of these strengths.  For the lowest-rated characteristics, write at least one action that you WILL do this year to seek improvement in that area. 

As a final step, sign and date the sheet and make two copies.  Keep one for yourself (in your desk, in your briefcase, someplace convenient) and put the other in an envelope that you stamp and address to yourself.  Look for a friend, (a peer, a boss, or a spouse, etc.) and ask them to send you that letter in three months.  While there is no guarantee that these actions will FORCE you to take action, they will continue to remind you that there are a variety of things we all can take action on today to improve our performance now and in the future.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The smallest of small worlds!

What follows is a brief and amazing story that occurred to me a little over a week ago.  Most of the time, I write my blog entries with a lesson in mind, sometimes focusing on business or leadership, and other times the entries are more centered on lessons of life.  As a brief departure from that approach, I  have written this without a clear lesson in mind as of yet.  Take a read and let me know what you think the lesson might be!

I hadn’t been to London for a few years and as my recent trip got closer, I became more and more excited.  While a business opportunity was taking me to that fair city in the midst of a cold and wintry January, my energy and enthusiasm continued to grow.  It was planned to be a quick trip, arriving early Wednesday morning and leaving early Friday.  My business obligations were to take up Wednesday evening and most of Thursday, but I was looking forward to a few hours on my own wandering the streets, doing some “strategic “ gift shopping, uncovering a new pub or two, and just all in all getting reacquainted with an old friend, The city of London.

As I have mentioned in previous entries (most notably in “Act with Intent”), I believe in planning.  With that spirit in mind, I had laid out a bit of a plan, which included not only my non-work hours in London, but also what I hoped to do (sleep/read/write etc.) on each leg of the flights.  Sitting in Atlanta, after arriving early for my departure, I boarded the flight and got ready for an interesting trip across the Atlantic.  My book was pulled, my computer handy, I-Pod fully charged, and I was ready for the 8+ hours ahead.  The seating arrangement had me on the aisle (perfect) with a single seat to my right, which was at the window.   While the flight boarded, the window seat remained open and I stared to have irrational aspirations of an open seat.  A few minutes before the boarding doors closed, someone came up to my row, put down their bags, and said, “Bill Levisay, I can’t believe I’m sitting with you!”  I looked up in alarm, and saw the smiling face of an old work mate from my days at Coke who I hadn’t seen in possibly five years.  Unbelievable!  I quickly bounded up, helped her with her bag, and allowed her into her window seat.  It was good to see her, but I started to think about all my plans for the trip.  My reading time, then dinner, maybe a movie, and then falling asleep listening to music and waking up upon descent into Gatwick airport.  Regretfully, I felt out of sorts rather than excited to see an old friend.  I guess I had hoped for a silent stranger as my travelling companion, not a long lost friend. Regardless, we settled in, caught up on old stories and acquaintances and proceeded to have a wonderful flight.  We talked for a while, had our dinners (the Mark West Pinot Noir was a good call) and while she fell asleep, I read a bit, listened to music and eventually grabbed a couple of hours sleep my self.

As I awoke, my attention was captured by an announcement from the pilot saying that due to heavy snow, Gatwick Airport was closed and he was working on getting re-directed to Heathrow.  Others on the plane began stirring with frustration, wondering how they would rebuild their connecting itineraries.  For me, my London adventure just expanded.  I hadn’t flown into Heathrow for over 30 years and I was ready to work out how to get to my hotel using public transport.  My seatmate also looked on the news a positive, seeing that she lived in central London.  After a few hours circling, we did indeed redirect to Heathrow and landed perfectly in the midst of quite a snowstorm.  De-planning via icy stairs pushed up to the aircraft, packing into busses, we were transported to the terminal heading toward customs.  Upon entering the airport, I said my goodbyes to my old friend, glad to have been with her, wished her well, passed along my business card, and headed into the customs hall.



As is true in many airports around the world, customs that morning was a bit of a madhouse.   I got into the line (or queue) and stated fishing around in my briefcase for my London Underground map (remember, have a plan!)  As I opened up the map, I looked up and those familiar words rang out in the air…”Bill Levisay, I can’t believe its you!”  While unbelievable the night before on the plane, this was incredible.  It was Nina, one of my oldest friends from my days when I live in Wisconsin, coming toward me in the customs line at Heathrow.  Nina and I first met in 1985 when her husband Steve and I started working for Kimberly-Clark at the same time.  Nina was also a good friend of my dear friend Bruce Paynter, about whom I have written a number of entries.  I last saw Nina this past summer at Bruce’s funeral and now here she is in the customs line at Heathrow, an unlikely spot partly due to the fact that this airport was not even on my itinerary (or in my plan) until an hour before.  Beyond unbelievable!  We hugged and agreed to find each other in baggage claim.  After the normal horsing around with a busy customs hall, I found Nina at her baggage carousel.  She was over for about a week, visiting a cousin and her sister Bess (who I hadn’t seen since 1987) and was heading into the city.  My solo adventure quickly became a partnership and Nina and I caught up on District Line of the underground as we travelled by “tube” into the city.  It really was unbelievable!  Sure the small world moment of having an old work mate seated next to me seemed hard to believe, but this was unimaginable.  Nina and I caught up on the train and as we neared her station, she invited me to tag along to her cousins home in West Kensington (very lovely) and while it seemed a bit crazy (and certainly not “on-plan”), I said “sure!”  We exited the station and who was waiting at the top of the stairs but her sister Bess.  Having no idea of my presence, Bess wondered why a strange man (me) was talking to her sister by name, and asking to help with the bags (very steep and slippery stairs!)  After a moment of complete uncertainty, I “reintroduced” myself and gave her a hug.  Again…unbelievable!

We trudged through the snow to her cousin’s home, retold the story a few times, had a great warming cup of coffee, and relaxed for a few moments.  After a lovely conversation with Nina and Bess’s cousin and Aunt, I headed out, needing to get to my hotel by mid-day.  After a few hurried goodbyes, I gave Nina my card and said that if they were open for dinner Thursday night, they should give me a ring.  Not being too sure what to think with a bit of jet lag settling in, I found my way to the hotel, checked in, ordered a pot of tea and immediately drew a hot bath.  I have developed a habit that when I travel to new time zones, I use a tub, some tea, and a brief nap as a way to transition to the new landscape.  After two hours or so, with fresh clothes, I set out to explore my new surroundings and to insure that I knew how to find the offices for my business obligations.  I set off in the tube, heading from the Embankment station to Black Friars, just a few stops down the line.  As I entered the train, a notice read that Black Friars station was closed and offered to close by alternatives.  No problem, map in hand, I exited at the Temple station and headed forward on-foot.  I had never walked along the Thames in the snow; the buildings and the boats were so beautiful.  I was paying more attention to the sights than the passersby, because as I looked down the sidewalk towards my destination, who was walking straight towards me but Nina and Bess.  I stopped dead in my tracks…Unbelievable!  They were equally blown away; we all thought it was unbelievable.  We were headed in opposite directions but we discussed again the idea of getting together Thursday night.

I won’t go into too many details, Nina and her cousin invited me to their home to have takeout Indian Thursday night and it was delicious!  (Nina, the eggplant was really tasty.)  It was so generous to be invited into someone’s home, and I had the chance to meet Nina and Bess’s two charming five-year-old nephews, Michael and William.   As I sit on the return flight drafting this entry, (yes, the Indian dinner was last night) trying to capture the events of the past few days, I myself am amazed and wondering what the moral of this story could/should be.  As I ponder that question, I will explain the drawing above.  Before dinner, Michael, Nina and Bess’s nephew, drew me a picture.  He didn’t say too much, he just brought it over to me and put it in my hand.  I asked if it was for me and he said yes, and that it was a picture of him and the sofa in the family room. I have no idea what motivated the artwork, but I plan to keep it in my briefcase to remind me of this amazing trip to London.  Maybe more importantly, this little drawing will remind me of the marvelous delights that can come from unexpected encounters.


Postscript:  Upon return to Atlanta, my home for 20 years, the customs hall was a madhouse but no one surprisingly called out me name.  Maybe the best-unexpected encounters are found at the start of journeys!