Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Kindness Remembered

I think I have mentioned in previous essays that I lost my mother, Arline Wark Levisay, when I was a boy of 13. With my son Bryson now that same age, this holiday season has brought back many memories and images of those tough and at times very sad years. My mom passed away in early December 1974 and that first Christmas was an absolute blur. I remember so clearly my father on Christmas morning, so sad, seemingly so lost, trying to pull together some sort of a Christmas morning for his three kids. In hindsight I never gave him enough credit for just enduring the deep sorrow and absolute emptiness that my mother’s passing must have left for him. My father often reads my blog so I will say publicly how deeply I appreciate what you had to go through all those years ago, especially that sad snowy Christmas of 1974.

It was actually a few years later when I was in High School that a wonderful experience happened that I wanted to share today. While I had a number of friends in my school days, there were four of us that were nearly inseparable. Rob, Jimmy, Dave and I were all close pals, and I am proud to say remain so to this day. We all did a lot together, Jimmy and I sang in County Chorus together, Rob and I were 8th grade ping pong champs, and we all spent hours over at Dave’s house, listening to Pittsburgh Pirate games on the radio and playing homerun derby. What’s also unusual is that they all knew my mom before she passed away, a rarity among the friends and acquaintances in my life today.

As I said, we all spent a lot of time over at Dave’s house and were often showered by the kindness of his mom, Mrs. Marjorie Carfang. She always had a kind word, a welcoming smile and we all spent numerous meals at her kitchen counter. It was one of those moments that have come back to me this Christmas season. Jim and Dave are both from devout catholic families, Rob and I the troublesome Protestants in the group. Every Christmas Eve, Dave and Jimmy’s families would celebrate the coming nativity with a meal of the “seven fish.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), celebrated on Christmas Eve, also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia), is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy. Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. However, some Italian American families have been known to celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

To me this was an unknown custom, yet exotic and religious all at the same time. One Christmas Eve as a high school junior or senior I found myself back at that familiar kitchen counter. Mrs. Carfang, busy in the kitchen, patiently explained the meaning of this special meal and very kindly let me sample a number of her dishes. While I don’t remember all seven, I do remember sitting at that counter tasting all these different flavors and feeling the warmth, kindness and candidly the love of that wonderful woman.

Well Mrs. Carfang passed away a number of years ago, and it was very important to me to head home for the funeral. I don’t get back to Murrysville Pa. very often, but I try to make it back at least once a year to visit my mother’s grave, and to see Jimmy and Dave who still live in our hometown. It was early last summer that I stopped in for a visit and after visiting Rob’s mom, Jimmy and I went over to see Dave and Mr. Carfang. Dave’s dad still lives in the same home that I remember so fondly and the sight of that old kitchen counter literally brought tears to my eyes. After dinner, we pulled out the lawn chairs and sat outside, drinking Iron City beer (actually IC Light) and listened to a Pirate game on the radio; it was fantastic! After a few drinks, the conversation turned to Mrs. Carfang and it was obvious that Dave’s dad was still deeply mourning her loss. I started talking about how much I loved her cooking and how fondly I remembered sitting in HER kitchen as a boy. Well Mr. Carfang went into the house and brought out a well worn recipe book that was filled with Mrs. Carfang’s recipes. As you can tell by previous essays, I am very partial to the history, memories and love of family recipes. We went through the pages, Mr. Carfang commenting on different recipes and little tricks/secrets that Mrs. Carfang would use. That night I wrote down a number of recipes and I have been recreating them in my own kitchen. In another essay I’ll share her meatball recipe or maybe rice and pea soup recipe, two absolute treasures. What follows though is a dish that Mr. Carfang really enjoyed and he remembered it being served as one of the “Seven Fish” oh so many years ago, enjoy!

Mrs. Carfang’s Tuna Stuffed Peppers

6 green and/or red peppers (tops removed and ALL the seeds and pith removed)
1 6oz. can of Tuna (in olive oil)
¾ cup bread crumbs
1tbsp grated parmesan cheese
1 clove chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped onion
1tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 tsp oregano
8 oz. cooked eggplant (diced small)
1 egg
½ cup milk
2 cups cooked rice
Salt and pepper
Mix all ingredients, stuff peppers and place in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, add your favorite spaghetti sauce (I’ll share Mrs. Carfang’s sauce recipe in a future essay)in the pan and lightly on the peppers, bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Enjoy !

Post script: Just this week I talked to Jimmy on the phone (we talk every week) and asked him for a bit of “Holiday Kindness”. My mother’s grave is close to Mrs. Carfang’s and Jimmy’s Aunt’s graves in a lovely cemetery in Delmont Pa. I am so appreciative that Jimmy is able to stop by the cemetery this week to put some Christmas greens on my mom’s grave, with me thousands of miles away in California. This seemingly small act of “Holiday Kindness” means the world to me, and once again Jimmy, I have you to thank!

This Christmas season, try to remember the kindness that others have shared with you across your life and just like Jimmy, maybe find a way to pass that along to others who could benefit from a kind word, a visit to a cemetery, a generous act, or maybe even a stuffed pepper.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Road Ahead

Over the past year I have had the pleasure to be part of a number of fiftieth birthday celebrations including my own. For those of us born in 1961, it’s been a year of dinner parties, surprise trips, sometimes small intimate affairs and at times large raucous events. Regardless of the format, this event has typically brought friends together to recount events, reflect on the passing years, to tell stories and on the whole “celebrate” this so-to-speak milestone. It was at one of these recent birthday events that I was reminded of a fundamental lesson of life.

It was the fiftieth birthday of a dear friend, a great guy that I have known since 1979 when I met him as a college freshman. As we started making plans for get away weekend to celebrate the event, we had a late night phone conversation that shed a little light on his mindset. With quiet sincerity, he shared that he felt that more than half his life had probably passed by and what had he really accomplished. He wasn’t sure that his professional accomplishments had fulfilled his youthful potential and all in all, was feeling pretty let down by life. I tried all the obvious angles of response, reminding him of his healthy beautiful children, his successful 20+ year marriage, etc., really to no effect. I am certain that many of us in our “middle years” have probably had some sort of this same type of reflection, this same uncertainty about what we’ve accomplished and what this thing called “life” is all about. Indeed the art and literature over the centuries is filled with humanity’s pondering the infinite question of the meaning of life. (If you haven’t seen Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”, add it to you list immediately!) I am not suggesting that I have uncovered some unique insight to this eternal question, but my friend’s fiftieth did indeed remind me of an important “point of view” on this whole topic. That “point of view” is forward!

As I thought about my friend’s comments/disappointments/frustrations, it struck me that all of it was a reflection on what HAD or HAD NOT occurred to this point in his life. It was all in the past tense, all in reflection, all looking at life through the rear view mirror. None of the perspective was influenced at all by what MAY lie ahead. What challenges/adventures/experiences MIGHT be around the corner of life? What new relationships/friendships/acquaintances may be just around the corner? How can we all so easily fall into the trap that the past is somehow more valid that the future. Both the past and the future are real, both true, both important yet with one major distinction. There is an infinite INABILITY to affect the past, while there is an infinite ABILITY to affect the future! With that “truth” in mind, the future is actually a lot more important than the past. It’s “influencable,” it’s“dreamable,” it’s possible, it’s unfinished, it’s clearly yet to be!

It’s here that I want to reflect on the last few months of my friends Bruce Paynter’s life. I’ve written a number of essays about my time with Bruce, his battle with ALS, the amazing conversations I had with him as he approached his own mortality. One thing that I haven’t shared was his zest for life as his disease progressed. I remember so clearly a day when I was with him at the hospice facility just a few weeks before his passing. Through a bi-pap respirator, he not only wanted me to meet all his nurses and the volunteers, he talked with all of them about the challenges in their lives. He wasn’t some sort of passive depressed patient. Bruce was living, having an impact on the people around him, and building new relationships with a clear sense of his limited time. Writing this with tears in my eyes, I not only miss my friend Bruce but continue to be inspired by him!

We must remember that life is precious and fleeting for all of us. It’s truly a treasure to have a chance to affect the “future” of our lives. Keep my friend Bruce fresh in your mind, chatting up the staff of the hospice facility with little time left in his life. Whether we have weeks, years, or maybe decades to live, let’s all try to push away the rear view mirror and stay focused, engaged and inspired by the road ahead!

post script: in an homage to Bruce's love of music, I needed to include these wonderful lyrics from Neil Young ...

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you're thinking that
You're leaving there too soon,
You're leaving there too soon.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resiliency & Perseverance

One needs only to reflect on the past few months and years and it will quickly be evident just how challenging the recent past has been. I am not speaking only as a business leader, a father, a husband, or as an American citizen. As a citizen of the world, the past few years have been deeply clouded by global financial instability, numerous wars and acts of terrorism, natural disasters, governmental gridlock; all certainly raising concerns and posing challenges to citizens across the globe. Often the headlines reinforce the sense that these imposing issues/concerns are building and that the mere idea of an optimistic vision or point of view seems naïve and misplaced.

While I am certainly reflecting on broader issues, this sense of relentless challenge is often felt very close to home. Over the past few weeks and months, I have been faced with a growing set of issues and challenges in my work and across my extended family. Even this past week, the resignation of a key work associate rocked me deeply, adding new and more complicated challenges to what has felt like my already “full” plate. With all of these local and global dynamics at play, I have been reminded, inspired, and refreshed by breaking news of Aung San Suu Kyi and the potential for democratic progress in Burma.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the pro-democracy movement in her native Burma has long been imprisoned by the ruling military junta. After winning popular elections in 1990, she has spent the majority of the past 20+ years under house arrest by the Generals who rejected those elections’ results. After being released in recent months, she has accelerated her work for democratic progress and reform in Burma. Earlier this week, it was announced that she and her pro-democracy party would participate in upcoming elections. The BBC commented that “The move follows a number of recent changes inside Burma, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and the first elections in two decades, a formal handover of power by the long-standing military junta to a civilian administration and the release of political prisoners.” In an amazing quote from earlier this week she commented that “she did not believe she had suffered unduly, saying: “I find it rather embarrassing when people talk about my sufferings … I am thinking about others who have suffered more. In a situation like ours people have died, and it seems to me that nobody who is still alive has the right to complain.” Absolute inspiration!!!

As I have read these inspiring words and reflected on the dramatic changes ahead for Burma, I am reminded of the two words at the title of this essay, Resiliency and Perseverance. These two ideas are often forgotten in our immediate gratification, instant headline world. Now maybe more than ever, we need to keep these concepts front and center:

Resiliency: an occurrence of rebounding or springing back

Perseverance: Steady persistence in adhering to a course of action, a belief, or a purpose; steadfastness.

Take a moment on reflect on both of these rare characteristics. For Aunt San Sue Kyiv, it is simply amazing to me that after years/decades of house arrest, when released from her “prison” in late 2010, she immediately returns to the work that she had left; the effort to enact democratic reform for Burma. No idea of a sabbatical, or an extended vacation to “recharge” her batteries. In fact, exactly the opposite! It is an inspiring testimony of” resiliency” that this individual, persecuted dramatically and personally for decades, would immediately re-enter the fight upon release. Similarly over the course of the last 20+ years, her focus on democratic reform has never wavered. In moments when she and her party were prohibited to participate in dubious “elections”, in the midst of the ruling military junta cracking down on individual freedoms, and most profoundly during the decades of her imprisonment, her purpose never wavered. This profound “perseverance” continues this week as she has announced her plans to participate in upcoming elections. Truly and inspiring story of “resiliency” and “perseverance” in our time!

As we face the weeks and months ahead I am certain there will be more challenging moments for all of us. Whether from global financial issues, or situations and challenges closer to home, I am certain that we will all find ourselves in moments where hope and optimism seem distant. It’s in these moments that we need to remind ourselves of the amazing and inspiring resiliency and perseverance of Aung San Suu Kyi. Let her endurance and progress be a guide to all of us, and be reminded that the challenges that we are facing today likely pale in comparison to those that she has already overcome.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ownership, Accountability & Discipline

Over the past few weeks, I have had a number of experiences that have brought the three words of this essay’s title to mind: Ownership, Accountability & Discipline. The events have included a national merchandising conference, our annual industry trade show, numerous customer meetings and two board meetings. While it has certainly been a busy few weeks, it has also been a very successful time that reminded me of the importance of these three concepts. It is my experience that successful professional moments are rarely accidental and unplanned. Rather they are the result of planning, hard work in preparation, focused execution, and the adherence to the following three principles:


In any specific situation, imagine an important meeting or a major presentation; it is vital that clear ownership is decided up front. Who “owns” the success of the meeting and who” owns” the executional steps required for success? Too often these decisions are unclear and at times muddled by committees or group-think. Clarity of “ownership” is vital to insure solid execution and ultimately the success of the project or event. In a recent situation during our annual industry trade show, this concept was reinforced anew. In our company, I clearly “owned” the trade show and was viewed by our CEO among others as the point person for all questions/concerns/updates regarding the entire event. As part of the overall 4 day experience, numerous elements of the trade show (i.e. the booth graphics vs. the opening night customer event vs. the customer meeting room) all were lead by others. At times I was tempted to get involved in the decision areas that others “owned”, but I knew that clouding decision “ownership” in this instance would ultimately undermine the success of the overall event.


It may seem obvious that if you “own” a decision or a part of a project, then you would automatically be accountable for its complete execution; unfortunately my experiences tell a different story. Too often individuals want the authority of “owning” a certain project or event but they fail to realize that this comes with a price. If you truly “own” a part of a project, then you are “accountable” for insuring its successful execution good or bad! The night before a recent customer meeting it became clear that we needed to revise the presentation significantly and that we needed to find a 24 hour Kinko’s for late night reprinting and rebinding. While it was the last thing I personally wanted to do, I went with our National Sales Director and found the all-night location, worked side by side to revise the deck and ultimately to collate and bind copies. I owned the customer call and I was accountable for its success.


Having the “discipline” to insure the complete execution of a project/event is required for ultimate success. Too often I encounter situations where the executional focus is very good for a majority of the project/event, but once success is in sight, too often discipline wanders. I recently had the pleasure to attend a conference that was being lead by two great young leaders in my organization. The conference had gone very well and we had come to the closing evening event. Though nothing dramatically went wrong, the executional focus of both young leaders wandered that evening and we had to do some impromptu contingency planning/execution late that night. We must remember that execution is not complete until all elements of the project/event are complete AND you have had a chance to “debrief” the experience looking for ways to improve execution in the future.

As I said above, I am proud of our execution over the past few weeks and I am confident that those successful moments will be drivers to our future success. Equally I am reminded that we need to refresh ourselves regularly with the concepts of “Ownership, Accountability & Discipline” in order to enhance our execution and thus increase our performance and success in the months and quarters to come.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Angel Biscuits

It was a great surprise that my sweet wife had planned for me a few weeks ago. I was told to make it home early afternoon on a recent Friday so we could head out of town on a “getaway” trip. Following direction well, I arrived home on schedule and we drove up into the Smoky Mountains, three or so hours north of Atlanta, to spend the weekend at a wonderfully secluded inn. Jennie and I have been married now more than twenty four years and it’s still such a treat for us to have some time away just for us.

Saturday morning dawned beautiful and cool at the inn and after a delicious breakfast, a plan started to emerge for a morning adventure. As a boy my family and I had spent a few summer vacations at a lodge named Tapoco deep in the smokies. It was a pretty rustic sight, with small cabins, a central dining room, the coldest swimming pool (literally fed by the mountain stream) , shuffle board, etc. The “resort” was owned by my father’s employer, ALCOA, and being an employee allowed him access and discounts for our use as a family. Sitting after breakfast a few weeks ago I got the wild idea to see just how close we were to Tapoco. Using my trusty IPAD, I realized that we were only thirty eight miles away … the morning’s adventure was set!

With box lunches in hand, we headed straight into the mountains on one of the windiest roads I ever experienced. The journey took was gorgeous, dramatic vistas of mountains and lakes, and after almost an hour and a half, we came upon the Tapoco Lodge. Many times in life we go back to try to retrace the paths and memories of our youth, often to great disappointment. Thankfully this trip was the exact opposite. The resort was under new management, the old lodge and the dining room had been refurbished beautifully. The cabins were under renovation and while the pool was closed, the stream still ran down that little valley, still as cold as I remember. It’s important to note that while I am not certain of the dates, I think my last visit to Tapoco was as a boy in the late sixties or early seventies.

I found it very emotionally powerful to walk the grounds, remember the sights and sound of the place now four decades removed. As I walked into the dining room I was blown away not just because it looked the same, it actually smelled the same! That smell brought back instant memories of the delicious meals we shared at long communal tables in this dining room; none stronger than the memory of the delicious biscuits that I enjoyed in this room over forty years ago. A quiet woman’s voice interrupted my “biscuit memories” and asked if I needed any help. Slightly startled, I introduce myself and shared that I had visited Tapoco as a boy and I was blown away by how great it looked. She introduced herself as Ann and shared that she worked at the resort now, and had actually worked there as a teenager back in late sixties. Unbelievable! Here was a woman I had just met whom could have worked in this same dining room when my family and I ate our meals here forty plus years ago. Small world??? I was standing at one end of the dining room talking to Ann and we started to share our memories of our favorite meals for “the old days.” She loved the county ham and the fried chicken, both delicious, but my favorite was the clearly the biscuits. As we compared notes she pointed just over my shoulder and said that it was funny that we were having this conversation “in front of the old recipe box.” I turned and saw the small green “treasure chest” of a recipe box (pictured above.) Unbelievable, there it was, maybe two feet away! Almost shaking, I asked her if it was ok for me to “touch” the box and she said “sure, let’s get it down!” I pulled out the first recipe card and it was “Congealed Beet Salad”, not the top of my memory parade. I glanced at the second recipe and there it was, the jackpot, “Angel Biscuits!” I couldn’t believe it, yellowed, creased, spotted by grease, was the small recipe card bearing the treasure map. I didn’t say anything, eyes filling with tears, when Ann asked if I wanted a copy, “oh my gosh yes” I sputtered and she headed to the resorts’ office.

Angel Biscuits

I share this story and the recipe above as just another reminder of the preciousness of life. Here was an amazing experience that was absolutely unplanned just hours before, that has now become a treasured moment. We always need to find the ability, the time, and the emotional space to be “open” to experiences in our life; whether they are new cultures, new environments or the “Angel Biscuits” from the Tapoco Lodge!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Learn to do two things at once

A number of years ago, I was working for a seasoned leader at Coca-Cola, and a group of us young, relatively inexperienced, managers were all trying to perform well and impress the “big boss.” It was in the context of a staff meeting, one day, that the pressure of the business started to get the best of all of us. We were driving results, expanding the business into new customers and markets, while at the same time working to re-engineer our entire “go to market” approach. It felt to all of us that we were trying to do too much at once, that old adage of” fixing the engines while flying the plane“just didn’t feel very good. In a moment of exasperation, one of my peers (though we all were feeling the same pressure), blurted out “Enough is enough - if we can do only ONE thing, what is that ONE thing that you want us to do???” Without pausing for a breath, our boss calmly commented, “Well, if you can only do ONE thing, then learn to do TWO things at once.”

It almost seemed to not make sense –the ONE thing to do was to learn to do TWO things at once? We all sat there silent and a bit dumbfounded, and instead of blowing up at all of us, our boss shared a few well-chosen kernels of wisdom. First and foremost, he felt that business wasn’t going to get easier and less complex, if anything it was trending to do the opposite. The demands, challenges AND opportunities would certainly multiply, not decline over the years to come. (Indeed, truer words had never been said!) Secondly, now this was before Blackberries/Smartphones/PDAs, he felt that technology was not only accelerating the business around us, but it was also accelerating HOW we did business at that moment. So, the tempo of the work and the amount of communications (voice mails and emails at that time and well before texts, blogs, tweets, facebook, linkedin, etc.) were increasing rapidly. Finally, he shared that the expectations of performance were not only rising every year, driven by the ever increasing demands of a large publically traded company, but the annual “increase of expectations” (think slope of a curve) was steepening. What was a great performance last year would probably be viewed as only acceptable in the next year. To say the least, we were all a bit freaked out at the time, but I remember to this day that moment of epiphany, realizing that accelerating performance and increasing capabilities were both required activities at all times!

I share this story today, because once again, I am faced with this same type of situation. In a very busy work environment, where we are accelerating the business, I am pushing myself and others to not only be focused on driving results of the week, month or quarter, but to be passionate about stepping back to work on the necessary capabilities to improve those results in the future. Capabilities don’t get built on their own! You have to work on it just the same way that you had to work at learning Micro Economics, Calculus, Cost Accounting, or any tough subject from your past.

This year, I have found it helpful to formalize the effort by scheduling a capabilities work session, forcing myself to take my mind off the short term business challenges and to work on the capability needs of our future. My encouragement to you is to use whatever approach works, but insure that you are not tempted to think that focusing on only ONE thing at a time is a good idea. Since that staff meeting more than fifteen years ago, the business world is not simpler, slower, less complicated, less challenging, nor less filled with opportunities. We need to be great at doing two things at once, so we can start working on doing THREE at once!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Optimism… a priority for leadership and life!

You have to admit that over the past few weeks it has been hard to be “optimistic” in the face of the wild and often depressing headlines. Whether we’re facing the wild gyrations of the world’s capital markets, the inane politically motivated debates in Washington, the desperate famine conditions in Somalia, or the riots in Brixton, there seems very little to be “optimistic“ about! In the midst of these realities, it has struck me that now more than ever, we need to take a moment to discuss the importance of maintaining “Optimism” as a priority for leadership and life.

When I use the word “optimism”, I want to refresh ourselves on the dictionary definition:

” Hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something”

This is not some “Pollyannaish”, pie-in-the-sky, naïve view of the world. There are three key words in the definition, hopefulness / confidence / future, that are at the center of my thinking and in how I believe we can all apply “optimism” to our daily realities in our work and our lives.

Optimism in the face of challenges

It is often when facing challenges that we understandably are the least optimistic. How many times have you thought, “How can I/we handle this?” when facing a challenge at work. Similarly, when facing issues in our personal lives, so often the road ahead appears unclear at best. It’s in these moments that I want to encourage a quick “optimism exercise.” Take a moment and recall/write down a list of the challenges/barriers/problems that you, or your business, or your family, have faced over the past few years. Once that list is compiled, add the actions and outcomes, aligned to each “challenge/issue”, that actually occurred. I am often surprised how the major issues of the past seem so handle able and achievable in hindsight. That same truth applies to the challenges of today. If we approach our challenges of today with focus, energy, capability, and optimism, they will likely be overcome as were the challenges of the past.

Optimism in the face of opportunities

In a slightly different light than the example above, there are times that the breadth of opportunities or options in a circumstance can be debilitating rather than energizing. Whether faced by a thriving and growing business, a child with numerous education options, a parent who has their health AND adequate retirement savings, or many other situations, it is important to start with perspective. It’s a blessing, an honor and a treat to have options and opportunities. Do not let this dynamic slow you down, be optimistic about your options. Rather than trying to make “the perfect” decision/choice, focus on making a good/great choice, and I am confident that those good/great choices will amplify your opportunities in the future. Take advantage of opportunities, they are often rare and fleeting moments. Be optimistic as you use these opportunity moments to maximize the potential of a “future or successful outcome of something.”

Optimism in the face of others

While the discussions above may seem straightforward enough, I want to add another element. How many times have you been faced with an issue/problem and rather than easily having a quiet moment to gather your thoughts privately, you are surrounded by the worried eyes of your team, your department, your company, or your family. All of those eyes looking to you to gauge your reaction. If you freak out, it will certainly have an impact, possibly starting a brushfire of panic. It’s in those moments that I remind myself of “PBR” (Pause, Breath, and Reconnect: see earlier essay of same name). If possible slow down the situation and “work the problem.” I often find it helpful to deploy the team to clarify the issue and build options in moments like this. That historic phrase, “Idle hands are the devils workshop,” is good to remember. Keep your team/company/family busy as you work to clarify the situation and begin making a game plan for the required actions ahead.

Optimism for the future

If you’re honest with yourself, what do you hope for the future? What do you aspire the future to be for your kids, your team, or your company? I think most of us want the future to be bright for those we care about. I think most of us want our businesses to thrive after we move on to other challenges. Especially today in the midst of such acrimonious debate about our country’s finances, it seems that the political parties have so little common ground. But is that actually true? It may be naïve to think that regardless of party, the individual congress men and women want to leave this county better for their children or grandchildren. We all have in common the truth that our walk on this earth is amazingly short and we’ve been given a chance to have an impact, let’s do that with an optimistic eye to the future.

In closing I want to quote former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This idea that optimism can and will enhance the impact and success of an organization rings deeply true to me. The idea of “perpetual optimism”, the concept that an optimistic outlook and approach is not episodic, but continual or uninterrupted, is powerful and challenging. The question isn’t whether we will face challenges/issues/problems/setbacks in our work or our lives; we will! The opportunity for all of us it to face these moments with an eye to an “optimistic” approach, always working to have our approach be guided by the facts of the moment AND the possibilities that lie ahead.

Monday, July 25, 2011

We Deserve Better!

It is rare that I write about a topic in this blog that is related to a current political topic. With more than two years past, and over 60 essays written, my main purpose in this blog has been to share thoughts and stories that could be thought about as “lessons of leadership and life.” Unfortunately, our current political impasse regarding our debt ceiling, deficit, spending and taxation levels, et al, has lead me to be focused on one idea … we deserve better !

Regardless of political orientation, whether on the right, the left, or the broad “un –named middle” of the American political spectrum, we must remember that we are all first and foremost Americans. Today’s N.Y. Times included an article titled “Working with a new script to stop a train wreck,” stated “Now, partisan and ideological boundaries are powerfully self-reinforcing – a double layered Great Wall of Division, buttressed by fund-raising patterns and gerrymandered House districts.” This can’t be what we aspire for our democracy!

As Americans we have the freedom to travel broadly across the world, and when we travel and enter a foreign county, it is important to remember what our passports DO NOT say. There is no section for Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Independent, Green, or any other possible political party affiliation. There is the simple line that reads,

“Nationality: United States of America”

As Americans, we must remember the tortured political crucible of our beginnings. Somehow in the midst of unbelievable political turmoil, early Americans came together to form a nation and a government, based on a few fundamental principles, still very relevant today.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (U.S. Constitution)

I aspire that today’s political debate be more centered on a few of these ideas. Do the competing proposals help us “establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility,” and “provide for the common defense”? Does inaction on the mounting deficit (again regardless of party) help us “promote the general welfare”? Finally, does political grandstanding and brinksmanship help us as Americans “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,”? We must remember that though the debate is very current, our actions (or inactions) will bear fruit, good or bad, for generations to come.

With all of this said, I am not without hope for our collective, American, future. We have a history of facing great challenges and achieving great things. I continue to be reminded of an inspiring quote from Dr. Martin Luther King jr. that I have commented on in earlier essays:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech)

It is in challenging and frustrating times like today that we must seek the “oughtness” not the “isness” of mankind. We as Americans are not merely the “flotsam and jetsam” of American politics! We need to stay focused on the words of inspirational Americans , whether from the 1780’s or the 1960’s, and expect and demand our elected officials to take action on behalf of all Americans today, and for our posterity to come!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Customer Service …. From the back of the parking lot!

The past year or so since joining Bolthouse Farms has been a wonderful experience for me; learning so much and getting a chance to work with so many terrific individuals. After a career in marketing and sales of more than twenty five years, it’s invigorating (and at times very challenging) to have a chance to build new skills and have so many new experiences. I am appreciative to have this opportunity and I am trying to “savor” the experience every day, (some days easier said than done!)

One of the groups that I absolutely love working with is our merchandising team, “the secret ingredient” for Bolthouse Farms. This team of young, dynamic, energized professionals is the frontline of our business, calling on retail stores every day, working hard as an ambassador of our company to make every store a great representation of our brands and products. I have a chance to work with these folks a few times a month, never enough, and I always come away being impressed and inspired by the talent and the motivation. Whenever I have had a few tough weeks, I always try to spend a day “in the field” with one of our merchandisers and consistently I find the “spring back in my step!” A number of months ago, I was spending a day in the field and had the chance to share the following story from the early days of my career.

The story goes back to one of my first weeks working for Kimberly Clark. As I wrote about in the essay “The story of Earl”, I spent the first six months after joining K-C in a formal training program. We spent the first few months in sales training, then a month at a mill, before heading to headquarters and joining a brand team as a marketing assistant. I had spent a few days with a sales trainer, (a very seasoned salesman named Tommy Griffiths) and I was given a sales bag, a route book, and told to report back to the office on Friday. I was on my own, that much was sure, so I headed off on my route trying to hit at least 10 stores a day. My job was to check on and merchandise all of K-C products in the store, (notably Kleenex facial tissues, Huggies diapers, Hi-Dri paper towels, Kotex feminine care products) always working to expand Availability and Space. (I will cover AMPS in a future essay; little did I know that I was working on the “A” and the “S” in those early days.)

Well one day on my route, I pulled up to a small rural “Big Star” grocery store, parked right up front, pulled out my sales bag and started heading to the front door. I had taken a step or two when an older fellow wearing an apron with a name badge asked me why I was parking “up front.” I stopped in my tracks, trying to make a good impression, and introduced myself as his new Kimberly Clark sales rep and that I was at his store to check on the K-C products.
With a slow southern drawl, he said “son, if you are here to shop, you can park up front, if you’re here to sell, you park at the back of the parking lot.” He added that after I had moved my car to the other end of HIS parking lot, I should bring a few stranded shopping carts with me as I walked to the front door. Casually he turned and went back into the store, leaving me standing on the front curb. I didn’t really understand how, but just by parking my car, I had angered the manager of this grocery store. Quickly I went back into my car, drove it out to the end of the parking lot, and started again. I picked up 2-3 shopping carts and rolled them across the parking lot as I walked to the front doors. After dropping off the carts, I gathered my sales bag and entered the store. Graciously, the manager walked right up to me, shook my hand, and asked my name. The rest of the sales call is lost in the haze of memory (now almost twenty six years ago), but the memory form the parking lot is fresh today.

I shared the story because regardless of the situation, whether in a customer’s office, a meeting room, on a conference call or in a parking lot, we need to be aware and conscious of our actions and how they might affect our customers. It’s important to remember that THEIR jobs are hard, THEIR challenges real, and regardless of OUR agendas or priorities, we must always work to translate them into THEIR measures of success. We often get very wrapped up in OUR issues and challenges, but it is my experience that success starts by trying to understand THEIR challenges and priorities. That “Big Star” store manager wanted to insure that HIS customers had the best parking spots for HIS store, making it easy for HIS customers to enter HIS store and easy for them to carry their groceries out to their cars. It was a simple yet profound lesson of orientation. Was I thinking about the store manager as I pulled up in his parking lot that day so many years ago, or was I thinking about myself?

The photo above is from a recent visit with one of our talented and inspiring merchandisers in Ohio. As you can see, she is standing beside her Bolthouse Farms vehicle, parked at the back of the parking lot! Well done!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unexpected Beauty

Through the course of life, we often come to anticipate or expect beautiful sights, sounds or moments in certain specific locations. In previous essays, I have commented on the beauty of a sunrise on the Atlantic coast, or a moonrise over the Columbia River in eastern Washington State. Both were moments of tremendous beauty and both in what I would describe as beautiful environments. Additionally I have written about the moments of experiencing beauty in museums, being absolutely blown away by the marvelous impressionist paintings on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Breathtaking indeed! What I want to share today is a recent experience where I was overwhelmed by “beauty” in an environment where it was least expected.

My family and I recently returned from a marvelous vacation to Paris. We had been itching for a “big trip” and while there were a hundred reasons why it would have been “smarter” to take the trip at some later date (the kids are too young, it’s too expensive, there’s too much going on at work, etc.) I was reminded this spring on just how fragile life can be so we eagerly made plans to head to France. Our plan was simple; we would spend the whole time in Paris, each day exploring two or three sights, taking a rest in the afternoon, and heading out in the evening to find a café to enjoy a great meal. Obviously a number of the “sights” would be museums (The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, L’Orangerie, etc) and churches (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Sacre Coeur, Saint Sulpice, etc), all locations of anticipated beauty. We were not disappointed, the shimmering stained glass light in Sainte Chapelle literally did take our breath away and the water lilies by Monet at L’Orangerie were unbelievable. Huge floor to ceiling panels of Monet’s famous Japanese garden in Giverny, completely enclosing two oval rooms, absolutely overwhelming. This past year in school, Marie had done a report on the artist Edgar Degas. Watching her come upon his “Tiny Dancer” in a temporary exhibit at Musee d’Orsay was outstanding. Indeed, having her strike the statue’s famous pose brought tears to these eyes. Additionally, watching Bryson working away in his sketchbook as we visited the Louvre, sketching various statues near the Marly horses, was absolutely inspiring. How did Jennie and I get lucky enough to have these two wonderful kids???

As you can tell from the above, we did indeed experience “beauty” in numerous “expected” environments. When you visit the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa, or the Venus de Milo, you expect to find “beauty,” and we were not disappointed. It was on our journey from the Louvre back to our hotel one day that the unexpected occurred. We were constantly using the Metro in Paris and by the end of our week, we became pretty good at navigating its system. We changed trains and changed lines regularly and even used the RER line to get to and from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. The route from the Louvre back to our hotel in Montparnasse required us to change trains in the Chatelet station that day in order to head back to “our” metro stop, good old Raspail! We had changed trains at Chatelet before, without incident, but we had been left with one strong memory… the smell! For some reason, this station was obviously used by a number of Paris’s homeless community as their underground bathroom. It reeked! Jokingly, we all held our breath as we moved from one rail line to another to work our way home to the Raspail metro stop. It was in this “least expected” environment that beauty struck an amazing chord.

We literally were in the beginning of rush hour and the crowds were starting to increase as we made our way through the Chatelet station. As we turned a corner, still holding our breath a bit, we started to hear music. It wasn’t unusual at all to hear live music in the Paris metro. I am certain that we heard an accordion, a guitarist, or possibly a lone violinist every day during our visit. What was unusual at this moment was that the music grew louder and larger as we drew near. Rather than a lone musician, there were nine or ten musicians; all gathered in a small passage way, playing what I think was a Mozart string concerto, fiercely. It was unbelievable! Very few of them were reading any music, they played in wonderful unison, and the acoustics of the tiled metro station were unreal. The music stopped all of us in our tracks, and we moved to the side, up a few steps, to get out of the way and enjoy the “beauty.” I was so moved by the moment, watching my family equally consumed in this unusual scene, overwhelmed by the music that I began to cry. Marie turned to me, seeing my tears, and asked why I was crying. Was it the music? Was it the jet lag? I’m still not sure what triggered the tears. I really had no answer other than I was overwhelmed by the moment and I was so happy to be together as a family. I gathered myself as the music came to a finish, a most amazing moment in a most unexpected location.

I wanted to share this story because since our return a few weeks ago, my thoughts continue to return to that metro station. Moments like that cannot be planned, created, or even anticipated in a travel itinerary. We could go back to that metro station today and while I am confident in the smell that we would encounter, I am doubtful that we would encounter the overwhelming “beauty” of that recent moment. I think we all need to be aware and open to what might be awaiting us through the twists and turns of life. As I have written numerous times, life is fragile and life is short. Whether I think back to my mother Arline, my sister-in-law Carrie, my dear friend Bruce, or my mother-in-law Jane, all are sweet fond memories that were lost too early. Life is now, beauty can happen anywhere, whether in a historic museum or in a smelly Paris metro station. I think it’s our opportunity to try to live this life as fully as we can, keeping our eyes and hearts open to beautiful moments wherever they might occur.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lessons from the team!

Recently I had the pleasure to take a group of inspiring young leaders on a leadership experience to the North Carolina mountains. One of the activities was a hike up Whiteside Mountain, accompanied by a set of readings and discussions.

In preparation for the trip, I had the team read three documents: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech; chapters from Cicero's "On a Life Well Spent"; and a recent blog essay of mine titled "Leadership with a Growth Mindset." My intent was to use the three readings to provoke thinking around the group's approach and priorities as leaders. As we climbed the mountain trail, we paused at different points to share a reading, discuss it's meaning, and connect it to our lives and work today. The discussions were lively and profound, complemented by stunning scenery and vistas. As you can see by the photo, we were no worse for the wear from the climb and the discussions!

At the end of the trip, one of the team shared the following story. I was thrilled to hear the story on the trip, and I loved the idea that all of us have experiences and stories from our lives to share with others. I have found the story of "The Mexican Fisherman" poignant, and I hope that you do as well!

Story of the Mexican Fisherman

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his catch. “How long did it take you to get those?” he asked.
“Not so long,” said the Mexican.
“Then why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.
The Mexican explained that his small catch was quite enough to meet his needs and feed his family.

“So what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the American.
“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evening, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?” asked the Mexican.
“With the extra money the bigger boat will bring, you can buy a second boat and then a third boat, and then more until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants. Pretty soon you could open your own plant. You could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York! From there you could direct your whole enterprise.”
“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.
“Twenty — perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.
“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well, my friend,” laughed the American, “that’s when it gets really interesting. When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” said the Mexican.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a beautiful place near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take siestas with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”


The moral of the story… Know where you’re going in life — you may already be there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“Leadership with a Growth Mindset”: Amplified

I have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to my last blog essay, “Leadership with a Growth Mindset”. Over the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations and discussions on various themes that were covered in the essay, and it seems appropriate to share a few “amplifications.” As you can see in the essay below, there were six ideas or suggestions that I highlighted as being helpful to me and hopefully others. What follows are additional thoughts, ideas, and exercises for three of those themes:

1) Raise Expectations. As I mentioned, it is vital for us as leaders to raise our expectations for performance in a growth mindset. This is especially true for us as individuals. We need to model raising our expectations on OUR OWN PERFORMANCE first, before we start on our teams. I have found it helpful to share what I was personally proud about over the past months/quarters, and at the same time share my reflections on what I want/need to work on and improve for the year to come. Additionally, this is a perfect time to find new ways that might help your team raise their own expectations. Just last week I lead a group of frontline leaders on my team through an “Anchors and Sails” exercise that provided a fresh prospective. (You can read more about the idea of “Anchors and Sails” in a previous blog essay of that name) After a very successful year in part of our business, I had this team of leaders chart out our market based performance for over 60 markets on a grid where the x-axis was share growth and the y-axis was share. The mid-points on both axes were the average performance from the past year, the average growth rate on the x-axis and the average market share on the y-axis. Once completed, I reminded everyone that those markets that were above average in both growth and share were truly “Sail” markets, and leaders/drivers of our performance. Those markets that were below average in both growth and share were truly “Anchor” markets, and drags on our performance. On their own, I asked them to highlight their specific markets of responsibility and ask themselves, “were they mostly “Sails” or “Anchors””. It didn’t require any additional encouragement or discussion for each of the leaders present to identify where they needed to drive improvement and “Raise their Expectations” of performance. Try this approach with your teams and see how it can drive this idea of “Raised Expectations” across your team.

4) Be Paranoid Competitively. This idea garnered a lot of discussion and debate which deserves to be shared. While I certainly have found it productive to keep a sharp eye on competition and never underestimate the competitive landscape, the primary discussion this past week centered on the idea of giving competition too much power to alter your strategy. A great question was posed by a dear friend, “should we let competition drive our actions and thus our strategy, or should we have our strategy drive our actions and thus the competitive landscape?” Excellent question! I think the answer is simply (and complexly) both! Our strategy needs to be well informed by a deep understanding our current, and potentially future, competitors. Equally, our strategy needs to be the guide for our actions in the marketplace; impacting consumers, customers, markets and competition. This synergistic balancing act is now easy feat, but it is the strategic “dance” that is required for success.

6) Take care of yourself/Take care of your team. A member of my team shared with me that while he liked this idea a lot, he thought it was missing an important element. He said, “Bill, I think it should read “Take care of yourself/Take care of your team/Take care of your family.”” So true, I totally agree with the addition! In these accelerating times, we all need to keep our perspective about where work fits into our overall life. A friend today passed along a thought that linked this idea to a previous essay, “5% for #2.” He was at his daughter’s high school graduation and was struck by how he had wanted to spend more time for the things that were truly important, even if they might be urgent at the moment. We all need to remember that we DO work to live, not the other way around! Whether your family includes a spouse, parents, children, nieces/nephews, etc. it would benefit us all to put down our blackberries/iphones and spend more valuable time with the families that we love.

In closing, I am appreciative of the interest and dialogue over the last essay and am hopeful that these additional thoughts, “amplifications”, might be helpful as you look to find ways to “lead with a growth mindset.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

Leadership with a Growth Mindset

The landscape is changing and while nothing is ever certain, I am a deep believer that “change is certain, progress is not”. The economy has come a long way from the heights of 2007, the collapse of 2008 and the low lows of 2009. Certainly the recovery is tepid, with job growth (and in fact gdp) growing slower than anyone would like; yet the trends are still positive. In this “new” landscape of growth, I believe that we as leaders need to refresh our thinking, our priorities and our skills in order to be successful leaders with a growth mindset. Just a few years ago, I remember being in a meeting with a customer who was describing their overall flat revenue trends as “you know Bill, flat is the new up.” It’s hard to say whether that perspective was appropriate for that moment; what is not certain is that for today’s business environment, “up is the new up!”

In thinking about this dynamic, I want to share a few ideas that might be productive as we lead with an increasing “growth mindset.”

1) Raise Expectations. As leaders, we need to raise our own expectations for accelerating results in the business, capabilities across our organizations, along with our own skill sets. The last few years have been tough, really tough! With that reality there comes an understanding and possibly a tolerance for average performance. Ask yourself whether you have ever heard yourself (or other leaders) say that “with everything we’re dealing with, that performance is actually not that bad.” While tinged with compassion, I actually think it’s a disabler for an organization. We need to be vocal about raising our expectations for accelerating results AND our work performance. Think of it as the “what” and the “how”. We need to accelerate the results in the business (the “what”) and we need to improve our business practices (the”how”) across organizations. It’s my experience that if the leader doesn’t “raise the bar”, it often never gets raised.

2) Improve Talent. Over the past few years, the job market has been very tight. As business trends improve, the job markets should/will follow. In this changing landscape, we need to insure that our best, highest performing people are engaged/challenged in their roles and excited/energized to come to work every day. What is equally true is that we need to take action to remove underperformers quickly. Nothing is more de-moralizing to a high performer than a tolerated/accepted low performer. Every job opening should be thought of as an opportunity to raise the talent “bar” for the organization as a whole. I use the acronym of PTI (Progressive Talent Improvement) to remind myself that every new hire should have the capabilities/experience above the average level of the current organization. By utilizing PTI over time, you can (and should) be continually improving the organizations capabilities and potential.

3) Increase Speed, NOW! This improving business landscape is not only occurring for you and your company. It’s occurring for your competitors and their executive teams. When working on innovating new products or services, improving customer service, building new skills, or even filling open positions, do it faster. It’s dangerous to assume that you have the time to wait, time is a luxury that few businesses have!

4) Be Paranoid, competitively. I learned early on in business that competition never sleeps nor takes vacations; they’re always trying to take your business. Now I am a complete proponent of work/life balance, taking your vacation days, and getting a break from the business as an individual. My council is to be careful/paranoid as an organization. Never under assume an adversary’s capabilities and intent. If you operate with a constant “nervous itch”, you will be more likely to compete and win in any competitive landscape.

5) Increase your organizational listening and learning. As markets improve, there WILL be more innovation competitively. New products, new packaging, new technologies, etc have all been on the rise over the past few quarters. An improving business landscape will allow companies to take more risks than they have over the past few years. This reality is happening. Our opportunity as leaders is to work on ways to improve our organization’s ability to listen to, and learn from, the market place. Work to reinforce that all departments/functions could and should be more “outward” oriented; more tuned into the competitive landscape, hungrier at all times to capture and share insights and learnings from the marketplace.

6) Take care of yourself/take care of your team. As you can tell from the above topics, I clearly have the sense that the tempo and demands of business will be accelerating in the days/quarters ahead. As such, it is critical to insure that we are also taking care of our own health and the health of our teams. We all need to keep up with our sleep, our exercise, our physicals, etc. Keep an eye on your team members that are starting to work weekends and late nights regularly. Sure there will be moments when a key need/deadline requires extra-long hours, but week after week this behavior wears down an organization and ultimately reduces performance.

In closing, I want to reinforce the idea that growth is not inevitable! Certainly improving business trends are welcome (very welcome), but without a more growth oriented leadership approach, the “change” that is happening across our economy will not be translated into “progress” for you, your team, and your organization.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Best Job Ever?

Last Friday I had the pleasure to celebrate my one year anniversary as Chief Customer Officer of Bolthouse Farms. It’s been an amazing year; full of new challenges, an amazing team, and lots of learning. I have to admit that after a business career spanning more than twenty five years; it “feels” great to be learning so much. I am excited about the business, the customers and our team, and am looking forward to a great year (and years) ahead!

Last week’s anniversary started me thinking about the many jobs that I have held since I was a boy, and I started to think about which one was the “best”. It’s interesting to think back over the many part-time, summer jobs, and full time roles that I have held over my life. I have written about at least one of those occasions in “The Story of Floyd” earlier in this blog. As I reflect over my many roles/titles, (Chief Customer Officer, Senior Vice President, Director of Marketing, Brand Manager, College Tour Guide, Janitor, to name a few) I think that my best job ever was as “Pot Washer” for Dick’s Diner in Murrysville Pa.

Dick’s Diner is a classic diner that has been in business in Murrysville for over fifty years. My family ate there pretty regularly when I was a boy; and after my mother passed away in 1974, it was a god-send for my dad, my sister and me. I started working there after I turned sixteen and worked there my junior and senior years of high school. I didn’t start as “Pot Washer,” having to begin as “Bus Boy,” then moving to “Dishwasher,” and finally achieving the “Pot Washer” role! The big difference about that specific job was that you didn’t have to work a specific time-bound shift. Instead, I had a set of defined tasks that were required to complete:

1) Clean all the pots from the days’ cooking (there was always a mountain)
2) Sweep and mop all bathrooms, replace towel rolls in all bathrooms
3) Help the dishwasher during the dinner rush
4) Bring up all the ingredients needed by the night bakers from the basement storeroom
5) 15 minute dinner break all food free except Steak, Shrimp and Cherry Pie (Free as long as you had finished your dinner in the 15 minutes!)

As I think back to that role, there are a few specific characteristics that made that job stand out from all the others:

Solid Skills for Success: After the previous two roles, I was very knowledgeable of how things actually worked at the diner and was I ready to succeed in the role. I knew how to manage my own time, accomplish the work that needed to be done, and work smoothly with the others working that same shift.

Clear Knowledge of Expectations: I knew what was expected and I knew what “winning “looked like. We never had to guess what the boss was thinking about, or wonder what was the latest “strategic priority” of the quarter! The diner was a 24 hour machine that never closed so if the pots didn’t get washed, of the baking didn’t get finished at night, the machine wouldn’t run, simple as that.

Strong Sense of Community: I was proud to work at the diner as a boy and still to this day, when I return to my hometown, I always stop by for a slice of pie, or a cup of coffee. On a recent trip, I stopped by for breakfast and saw a few waitresses that I had worked with back in 1978 and 1979. It was amazing; they were still waiting tables with vigor, and carrying plates of western omelet’s and home fries with grace.

Ability to Learn and Teach: In the “Pot Washer” role, I had the chance to work closely with the day cooks and the night bakers, always listening to tips and ideas on what made the chili so good (a bit of chocolate) or what made the rolls so fluffy (allowing a triple rise.) Also, the “Pot Washer” always took the new busboys under their wing, teaching them the ropes and the ins and outs of the Diner.

These four elements of job success/happiness, Solid Skills for Success, Clear Knowledge of Expectations, Strong Sense of Community, and Ability to Learn and Teach, all ring true today. Think about the role you’re in today, or the roles that you have had in the past. Doesn’t it connect that if you have had all four of these elements in place, you would be happier and more successful in the role? What’s also interesting is to think topic not from the vantage point of an employee, but as a manager. Ask yourself whether you are creating an environment where associates:

are building skills for future success?
have a clear knowledge of expectations?
have a strong sense of community?
have the ability to learn and teach?

Postscript: As I post this essay, I am excited to say that I am on my way to Murrysville and ultimately Dick’s Diner! I have had the pleasure to stay close to three of my childhood buddies, Rob, Jim and Dave, all three whom I have known since the seventh grade. This weekend is Jimmy’s fiftieth birthday party and we are all gathering to celebrate this momentous occasion. It’s hilarious to get back together with a bunch of guys that you first met in the midst of the Watergate hearings, and whom you have been telling stories to and about since the early 70’s! I am certain that we will stop at the Diner at some point over the weekend, and I am wondering if I will still recognize a few of the waitresses form the old days!

One of the specialties of the Diner, and one of my personal favorites, is their Swiss steak, served over Mashed Potatoes. While I have never been successful to get their recipe, what follows is the recipe for Robby’s mom, Mrs. Manning, which is a dead ringer! (I think the Diner added carrots to their recipe, great either way)

Swiss Steak Recipe

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Golden Rule at Dulles Airport

It started out as a pretty regular morning. The skies were cloudy with a drizzle of rain as I picked up my car and headed out to the Bakersfield airport. A bit before 5am, I had a 6am flight to Denver, connecting to flights that day to Washington Dulles and then on to Rochester N.Y. In a flashback to earlier stories (see the essay, “The story of Clarissa”), I went past the Enterprise Rental Car office on the corner of 24th and Chester on my way to the airport. It seems like a lifetime ago since I had that crazy cab ride, but only 14 months have gone by. Time is funny that way, it seems only yesterday that my kids were born (12 and 10 years ago), and yet it seems like years since Clarissa picked me up on that rainy morning in Bakersfield!

The first legs of my travels went without a hitch, arriving early in Denver and scoring an exit row seat on the flight to Dulles. It was in our nation’s capital that things started to come off the rails. Originally I had a tight connection and I was a bit worried of making the gate change; as it turned out, that was the least of my worries! After boarding one of the motorized people movers to change terminals, I arrived at my gate for the Rochester flight with 20 minutes to spare. Closer than I like, but I had made it! The flight was originally scheduled for a 4:53pm departure, with plans to arrive in Rochester by 6:00pm. Soon after arriving at the gate, I saw that the flight was posted as delayed due to weather. I checked on-line and while the Washington D.C. area was experiencing showers, Rochester was under a full blown snow storm. I know after living in Atlanta for over 20 years I’ve become a bit soft, but snow showers on March 23rd just seems a bit much! Well that snow packed a punch, and for the next 4 hours the flight kept getting delayed 3o minutes at a shot. It was maddening, and the crowd at the gate became more agitated by the hour. Thankfully there wasn’t a bar close-by or else the delayed passengers could have become an ugly mob after the first few hours of continuous delays!

Well at 9:15pm, 5 hours after I arrived at the gate, we were cleared for boarding. Finally, better late than never! We quickly got into our seats, stashed our Ipads & Kindles, and got ready for the snow to the north. After a few minutes of not closing the boarding door, I started to contemplate trouble. Indeed, the pilot came on the PA system and shared that he was frustrated to have to communicate that the flight had just been cancelled by the airline. We wait 5 hours, board the plane, and THEN cancel the flight? Really? While I was fuming, some of my fellow travelers weren’t quite as restrained. A few “fbombs” were thrown around and we stormed off the plane and into the night.

For me, my situation had just changed dramatically. I needed to find a hotel, no more flights that night, and try again in the morning. I got on my phone to track down a hotel and headed towards baggage claim and ground transportation, roller bag and briefcase in tow. I was out at the curb waiting for a hotel shuttle when someone with an 803 area code started calling my cell. I didn’t recognize the number and at first ignored the call. After the second try, I picked up the phone and found a serious male voice on the other end. This fellow, named Will, asked me to identify myself and whether I had left my IPad in seat 14 B. It is now 10:30pm, I’m on the curb of the airport, and I check my bag and indeed my IPad is not to be found. Ugh!!!! Will suggested that I come back into the airport and find baggage claim carousel 5, and he would bring the IPad to me there in 30-45 minutes. It seemed a bit surreal, sitting back in the airport waiting for a stranger to help me out after a very frustrating 6 hours or so.

It was only 20 minutes later that an airline pilot came around the corner and asked if I was Bill Levisay. After showing him my ID, he handed me the IPad and said that they had found it as they were cleaning out the airplane after we had de-planed. Will had been the captain of my flight to Rochester, and had come out through security to help me. I asked if he was heading to find a hotel and crash for the night. He answered that after that long delay and the cancellation, he was waiting to hear where he was going to have to fly that night but he expected to have to fly somewhere at midnight , so he was looking for coffee. I thanked Will profusely and asked why he had brought the IPad to me himself. He looked over his shoulder as he walked away and said that if it had been his IPad, he would have wanted someone to do the same for him. The Golden Rule alive and well at Dulles at 10:45pm on a rainy Wednesday night.

My mood lifted as I boarded the hotel shuttle, IPad in tow. I was thinking not only about the warm bed ahead but about Will the pilot, flying out later that night, and how he had reminded at least one weary traveler to try to be open and generous to fellow travelers on this journey called life!

The Universality of the Golden Rule in the World Religions

Christianity All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 7:1
Confucianism Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state.
Analects 12:2
Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Udana-Varga 5,1
Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.
Mahabharata 5,1517
Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
Judaism What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
Talmud, Shabbat 3id
Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
Zoroastrianism That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself.
Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Third Time Flying !

Well at 4:45 am at the Bentonville airport I guess anything can happen. While my hectic travel schedule sometimes requires some crazy scheduling, 4:45 am was pretty early for me! Maybe not surprisingly, the airport was starting to get busy for the morning flights and I picked up my boarding pass form the kiosk and headed up the escalator to go through security. I wasn’t paying much attention but right at the top of the escalators, just before the security line, there were three adults giving each other hugs. There was an older couple, maybe 70, and a middle aged woman (maybe their daughter), all sharing tearful goodbyes. Trying not to eavesdrop, I gave them a wide berth and went into security. Just before walking out of earshot, I heard the older woman exclaim, “you know honey, I’m pretty nervous… this is only my third time flying.” I was blown away, with this seemingly impossible “truth” ringing in my ears. “Third time flying”, you’ve got to be kidding! Just this week alone, across a seven day period, I will have taken flights from Atlanta>Bentonville Ark.>Dallas>Los Angeles>Phoenix>Atlanta. I will have flown on five flights in less than seven days and this is kind of an average week for me these days!

Before anyone starts to critique my current travel schedule (there’s plenty of critique to go around), let’s get back to that security line. It just seemed amazing that in this day and age, someone that age could have flown so little. I took a moment to look back at the couple as they joined me in the security line. They seemed so different from me; unsure of the security process, the gentleman trying to wear his “leatherette” coat through the x-ray machine, the woman refusing to take off her shoes. I have to admit that I found myself thinking how different I was from these two novice travelers. In a quick motion, I had my laptop and my pc out of my briefcase, shoes off, two trays filled as I quickly and silently made it through the x-ray machine. I felt superior to the older couple, more traveled, worldlier, more capable, etc….

One thing is true about the Bentonville airport, once through security there really is no place to go! I gathered my bags, slipped on my shoes (slip-ons, never tied) and stood around waiting for the coffee shop to open at 5:00am. After a few minutes and some false starts, the older couple came through security and looked around the waiting area. Instantly, the man caught the eye of the middle aged woman/daughter on the other side of the glass partition and ran to the glass. He put his hand up to the glass, matching his hand in hers on the other side of the glass, and said with tears flowing that he would “miss his honey so much while he was gone, but don’t worry, we’ll be back Sunday.” It was so real, so honest and in a rush all I wanted was to be at the glass, matching my hand with the hands of my daughter Marie, my son Bryson and my dear wife Jennie!

I felt ashamed of myself for being so lost in my own world and judging theirs. This morning, before dawn at a small Arkansas airport, I learned a lesson about what we should value. Rather than being impressed by medallion points, roller bags, or efficient slip-on shoes, I was reminded once again that the true things of value in life are often found in a tearful goodbye or a smiling welcome home! Marie, Bryson, and Jennie, I can’t wait to see you when I get home on Sunday!!!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mistakes Matter!

It has taken me a full week to cycle through the full range of the Kubler- Ross five stages of grief model (Anger -> Denial->Bargaining->Depression-> Acceptance) since the end of the super bowl last Sunday night. Indeed, the loss by my beloved Steelers sent me into a funk that is just now clearing. In an attempt to garner learnings from even the most miserable of situations, I have tried to take a few moments and calmly (no small feat) reflect on my insights coming out of last week’s loss. In a nutshell, and exemplified by the three Steeler turnovers turning into three touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers, (no, not a fumble in the fourth quarter!!!) Mistakes Matter!

I have often commented that “actions have consequences”, and indeed this game is a great model for that truth. In sports as in business and in life, our actions are not without impact. Our actions actually matter (see the essay on this blog titles “Act with Intent, Redux”) and have consequences in our life both good and bad. This past super bowl is a good example of this where in a hard fought, evenly matched game, the victors turned out to be the team that executed without dramatic errors/mistakes, while the losing team made errors/mistakes throughout the game that cost them dearly. The same is true in business and in life. Often we face situations where we are “evenly matched” by a competitor or a challenge that are facing. We MUST remember (could be a good moment for a bit of “PBR”, see the blog essay by the same name) how we respond to those challenges and what actions we take really matter. As I have faced challenging moments in my past, I have often fallen victim to three typical pitfalls:

1) “Act too Quickly”; rather than taking a moment to “Pause/Breath& Reconnect”, I have often taken immediate action and often times it turned out to me in the wrong direction or against the wrong problem. Taking a few moments to clarify the “root problem”, then developing a corresponding, well crafted action plan, is always the better approach.

2) “Plan well and Execute Poorly”; this seems to be at the core of the problem with my Steelers last week. They knew what needed to be done, they know that they could not afford turnovers, but yet their execution fell short. How many times have you developed a good plan and the execution fell short. We need to be as attentive to “executing every play” as we are to crafting a great plan. Remember the old phrase, strategy is meaningless without execution. True on the football field and true in life!

3) “Don’t learn from your mistakes”; remember we all will make mistakes in life. I often quote that famous bible verse, Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of god.” The trick isn’t to try to be perfect, no-one ever will be! The trick is to learn from the mistakes in our life and improve! Remember that we have an infinite ability to make tomorrow better that yesterday just as we have an infinite inability to change yesterday!

Just the process of writing this blog has been cathartic, helping me move forward form this emotional week. As I move into the coming year, “Terrible Towel” in hand, I will continue to be a loyal fan of the black and gold, and remember the lessons from this past Super bowl that can be simply captured in the phrase, “Mistakes Matter!”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Remember, PowerPoint is a tool ... YOU are the presentation!

For many of us, a “PowerPoint” presentation is an important element of everyday activities. Just this morning, I have been working on one presentation that I am going to use next week and editing another one that a direct report of mine is planning to use in an upcoming customer meeting. I freely admit that I probably use or interact with “PowerPoint” more often than any other program on my computer. It’s a helpful, and at times powerful, communication tool. The important thing that I want all of us to remember is the word “tool”. The presentation is too often thought about as the destination or the work-product for a meeting. In my experience, this is not only far from the truth; it can also be a dangerous mindset. To illustrate my point, I want to share a story from early in my career well before “PowerPoint” was created.

The situation was back in the mid-nineties, when I was Director of Marketing and involved in what seemed like a life of death “save the business” pitch. My boss at the time and I had been working on the “presentation of presentations” to wow the customers, tell our story, and ultimately convince the CEO of this customer to sign a new multi-year contract. During those days well before “PowerPoint”, we built our presentations and ultimately turned them into slides, which went into a round Kodak slide carousel. There was always a core fear that the “locking ring” would somehow become dislodged, so I got into the habit of hand numbering the slides once we had the presentation finalized. Even then I was a bit of a nut about presentations!

Well the presentation came together, the slides were finalized and numbered, the carousel was loaded and locked, and we headed west for the meeting in Denver. There were four of us attending from our side, my boss and I, our Division’s President, and the local National Account Executive in Denver. From our customer’s side the CEO and his entire executive team planning on attending. Four of us and about ten or eleven of them … perfect odds!

The day of the big pitch came and we all gathered in Denver. The local National Account Executive had two key roles that day: 1) to handle the logistics to and from the airport and, 2) to insure that there was a working slide projector for the meeting. We arrived on time and headed to the customer’s office, nervous but ready with the slide carousel in-hand. Upon arriving at the offices, were shown to a large conference room, with s slide projector, a screen and a few flip charts. We were all set to go!

A few minutes later the room was filled the customer’s executive team and in came the CEO. After introductions were made, we all sat down and I turned on the slide projector to begin the presentation. As the first slide clicked into place there was an audible “POP” and the slide projector went out. The bulb had blown!!! Our local National Account Executive was visibly shaken and asked sheepishly “you all do have a spare bulb, don’t you?” Everyone looked around and it was clear that there was no spare bulb to be had. We had a slide tray filled with eighty or so slides and no bulb in sight; what were we going to do? My boss and the Division President both turned beet red, embarrassed and unsure of what we were going to do nest and the CEO started to look at his watch. It was time for some quick thinking!

I got up and pulled the flip charts out of the corners and said to my boss, “Jeff, we know this story so well, we really don’t need the slides. Let’s just use the flip charts.” Thankfully he followed my lead and what followed was one of those memorable business moments. We did go back and forth, telling our story by sketching the key ideas out on the flip charts and by the end of the meeting the conference room was covered with charts full of our notes, diagrams, graphs, pictures, and any imagery that could help tell the story. Somewhat amazingly, the ad hoc approach actually facilitated conversation and by the end, the customer team was all engaged and the CEO was directing follow-up actions and asking certain folks from his team to take certain sets of flip charts and work on them independently. In the end, it was one of the most successful presentations of my career, certainly the most successful of any that started with blown bulb!

The message of this story, now fifteen or so years old, is to remember that regardless of the technology, the concepts, questions, ideas and proposals that might be captured in a presentation are all actually part of a story, your story! Regardless of the situation, regardless of the technology, regardless of a thousand variables that all might go wrong, remember that you are the presentation. You need to always be prepared to tell “your story”, regardless of whether you have a perfect conference room setting or whether the bulb has just blown!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Mantra for a New Year!

Last week began in the same way as most "post holiday" weeks. I had enjoyed a very nice Christmas and New year's holiday with my family with just enough time away from work to feel re-energized and ready to dive back in! My first week back was tightly scheduled, with meetings planned in Bakersfield, Chicago, and Denver before returning to Atlanta. As soon as I hit the airport Monday morning, I had a sense that it was not going to be a "normal" week!

My flight to LA was on schedule but early that morning I started receiving messages from the folks in Bakersfield that there might be some impending travel challenges. My typical route has me flying to LAX, picking up a rental car, and driving the 115 miles to our offices in Bakersfield. The route is very direct, but requires going over the Tejon pass on I-5 (locally referred to as "The 5") which is just above 4000 feet in altitude. Typically the ride has tremendous views and it usually takes around 2 hours. Not so last monday! With unusually heavy rains in the LA basin, the mountains surrounding the city received significant snowfall, leading to the closing of the two primary routes into Bakersfield: the Tejon Pass and I-5 closed along with the Tehachapi pass on route 58. All of a sudden my simple little Monday drive became more than a bit complicated. Well, long story short and 6 1/2 hours later, I arrived in Bakersfield having taken the western route via the 101, through Santa Barbara and Santa Maria and then into Bakersfield on state route 166. Stunning views of the Ventura coast line and the mountains surrounding the Cuyama valley but what a ride!

On arriving into the office late that night the challenges only expanded. This ongoing inclement weather had lead to a variety of supply issues and the customer service concerns were starting to pile up. For the next few days, the work challenges and issues continued to mount as I headed back out of Bakersfield to lead a meeting in Chicago and then head off to Denver. I have to admit that I was feeling a bit "road weary" when I landed in Denver. The first week back from the holidays, three days into the week, and I was feeling like this? 2011 was starting with a vengeance! Well Thursday was a beautiful morning in Denver, lots of sun on the snowy Rockies. I was picked up early by an old friend who is starting to do some marketing work for us. We grabbed a quick coffee and headed to his nearby office. The office is very funky, lots of open space, great art, and a number of dogs roaming around. We set up our computers in a large conference room and got down to work.

After a few conference calls, i got up to stretch my legs and grab a glass of water. A very simple framed poster caught my eye and I went over to investigate. " Be Calm and Carry On", on a maroon background, topped by a crown (photo above). So eye catching, so simple, and so "on message" with how I was feeling. "Be Calm and Carry On", that was it, that's what I needed to do! I need to "Be Calm", manage my emotions, and not be too overwhelmed by the challenges in my way. The week had been a microcosm of travel, supply and customer challenges and rather than getting "cranked up" about things that were mostly out of my control, I needed to "be Calm!" Also when I'm not exactly sure what tpo do next, when it seems that every route of action open to me is blocked, I need to remind myself to "Carry On", keep moving forward towards the goal at hand. Quickly I thought of the closed mountain passes and the customer service challenges of the week and I said aloud, "Be Calm and Carry On." It might seem a bit cliche or overy simple, but immediately I started thinking and feeling a bit different about the challenges at hand. This reprint of a historic poster in a funky agency in Denver had hit home last thursday mroning!

The history of the poster follows, coming from an amazingly challenging time for Great Britain at the onset of World war II.

Keep Calm and Carry On was a poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of World War II, intended to raise the morale of the British public under the threat of impending invasion. It was little known and never used. The poster was rediscovered in 2000 and has been re-issued by a number of private sector companies, and used as the decorative theme for a range of other products. There are only two known surviving examples of the poster in the public domain.[1]

The poster was third in a series of three. The previous two posters from the series, "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory" (800,000 printed) and "Freedom is in Peril" (400,000 printed) were issued and used across the country for motivational purposes, as the Ministry of Information assumed that the events of the first weeks of the war would demoralise the population. Planning for the posters started in April 1939; by June designs were prepared, and by August 1939, they were on their way to the printers, to be placed up within 24 hours of the outbreak of war.

I am not a big believer of new year's resolutions, too many quickly forgotten aspirations for more exercise, more weight loss, fewer desserts, etc. but as I have thought about this inspirational motto, I have realized that it resonates as a theme or mantra for 2011. There will be challenges, possibly big ones in the year ahead. Whether at work, at home, or in other parts of our lives, there will always be challenges. The art of life seems to me not attempting to avoid them, but working on how to handle them once they arrive. As I head into the year, I will keep this simple idea, "Be Calm and Carry On" front and center as i face whatever may come. Take a moment for yourselves and see how this note of encouragement might be helpful as you face the challenges that will certainly come in 2011 and beyond.