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!