Friday, December 28, 2012

Holiday Recipe Redux

As we close out 2012 I have one more family treasure to pass along. Yes, I promise to get back to the more pressing issues of leadership, performance management & execution in 2013 but for now, my focus remains on family and thoughts of holidays past present and future.

In my last essay I shared Jane’s now famous “Yum Yum Yam’s” recipe and indeed it graced our holiday table again this year. One additional holiday recipe tradition of my mother-in-law Jane (who passed away early in 2011) was her Turkey Stuffing casserole which was made every year a few days after Christmas to use up the leftovers. Earlier today I made that delicious dish, and we will enjoy it tonight for our dinner, with memories flooding back from casseroles made years gone by. The idea of being frugal enough not only to save the leftovers from a big family meal but to have “special” recipes for those leftovers seems a bit old fashioned in these days of excess. Well for my mother-in-law and certainly for yours truly and my family, this tradition while maybe a bit old fashioned is a sensible and delicious way for us to honor and celebrate the memory of a cherished family member. I hope that you have a chance to try this recipe either this year or after some holiday meal in your future, remember leftovers required!

Jane’s Turkey Stuffing Casserole

4-5 cups leftover turkey white and dark meat (mixed or to taste) chopped
4-5 cups leftover stuffing
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 tsp season salt (Jane always used Lawry’s)
¼ cup sherry
Melt butter in a pot and add flour to make a paste. Add milk over medium heat and add seasoned salt and sherry and let simmer until thick. Add turkey to sauce mix and put aside. Butter a casserole dish and layer leftover stuffing first, then the turkey mix, then stuffing again using all of your ingredients and finishing with a layer of stuffing on top. Cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jane's "Yum Yum Yams"

Holidays are often times that bring us closer to not only to those closest to us today, family & friends, children & spouses, but at least for me, the holiday season also brings back the memories of those close to us that have passed away over the years. Each Christmas I cherish the chance to put two small, tarnished metal ornaments on our Christmas tree, two ornaments made by my mother in 1946. These two small cherished items have been passed down in our family; and as my mom died when I was 13, they mean the world to me, and I always look forward to putting them hanging them on the tree each year. Also I think back to my wife Jennie’s sister Carrie who passed away in early 1999. Her last Christmas was actually our son Bryson’s first, and we have a wonderful photo of her holding Bryson as a baby up in Vermont from that Christmas. I miss both Carrie and my mom deeply and am thankful that the holidays bring them back to me with unique images, poignant mementos, and cherished memories.

Jennie’s mom, Jane Saliers, passed in March of 2011 and as I come towards this holiday season, my thoughts have turned strongly to her. Over the years, we made it a family tradition to spend each Christmas with Jennie’s extended family, often in Atlanta and at times in Vermont. Regardless of location, Jane and I made it a tradition to cook the Christmas meal together. While I certainly enjoyed our time on Christmas day in the kitchen, stuffing the bird, cooking the beans, helping Jane mash the potatoes, etc., my favorite memories are from our shopping prep sessions.

Before heading out for the big holiday grocery shopping experience, we would sit down together and make our plan. I can vividly remember the aluminum drip coffee pot being filled, Jane and I sitting at the Saliers little kitchen table piled with holiday cards and Christmas catalogs, and me writing out our Christmas menu and shopping list. Well before I-Pads and smart-phones, I would take my little “Franklin Planner” and write out our lists in the back of my “little black book”, ha! Over the years I actually kept a number of our annual lists in the back of my day timer, now lost in the history of moves and technology. While we would always get the menu and the list completed, those “Coffee Klatch” moments were our way of catching up; comparing notes and Christmas gift ideas, hearing about the latest stories from the library (Jane was a children’s librarian for years, learn more about her in the earlier essay “To my friend Jane”) and all in all just slowing down for a few moments to truly enjoy each other’s company. I deeply miss Jane and those little times together, and as I plan out the menu this year, I will have my friend Jane close at my side!

One of the traditional menu items that Jane made EVERY year was her “Yum Yum Yams.” While we often split the duties on most of the dishes for the meal, one year she would mash the potatoes, the next year I would, …, the “Yum Yum Yams” were her solitary domain. Even for this upcoming Christmas dinner, Jennie’s father Don has the sole responsibility to prepare and bring the “Yum Yum Yams.” I was thrilled when Jennie found Jane’s well used, highly stained, recipe card (above), and since it’s a bit hard to read over the years of use, the following is the re-printing of the recipe, Enjoy!

Yum Yum Yam Recipe

1 1/2 cup Sweet Potatoes
1 cup sugar
2 eggs scrambled
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t salt
1/2 cup scalded milk

1 cup broken pecans
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 stick oleo (butter works as well)
1/3 cup flour (preferably self-rising)

Mix well with electric mixer. Pour unto buttered baking dish. Mix topping ingredients well
and spread over the potato mixture, bake @325 degrees for 35 minutes

I hope as you gather this year with your family and friends over the holidays that you can both enjoy the company of those around you AND find special ways to remember the cherished ones that have passed; whether found in an ornament, a photo, or a delicious recipe.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ode to a "Shunpiker"

The airport was busy this morning, well before my 7:40 am flight. I was heading out to Bakersfield, then down to LA and back to Atlanta this week. That’s my itinerary after a week that included Bentonville Arkansas, Lakeland Florida, and Edina Minnesota; preceding a week that will include Boise, Idaho and San Francisco California. Wow, I get tired just writing those two sentences! Well it is in this context that I share this story. When I travel, Mondays being no exception, I try to pick up the N.Y. Times not only to catch up on the news and read the editorial pages (which I so love to do,) but to keep the art section and bring them home to my wife Jennie for the crossword puzzles. As I was reading the paper this morning, I spent a few extra moments on the obituary page for no specific reason. There were three large and very interesting obituaries that dominated the page, but one of the smaller obituaries caught my eye; in the first column there was a notice that included the word “shunpiker” in quotes. Well I needed to learn more!

The notice is on the passing of Mrs. Mary Pratt Barringer who had obviously lived a long, poignant, and significant life. Halfway through the obituary, the writer talks about her zest for life,

“Her zest for life was infectious. For her 50th college reunion she wrote: “It’s been
wonderful – aided and abetted by a husband whose curiosity is boundless and who
shares the non-directed way of life. We are “shunpikers”: we follow small roads in the
general direction of our desired destination. We frequently do not know precisely where
we are, and the time is usually longer than necessary, but enroute we see the wonders
on our way. We are not going too fast to miss the beauties of the roadside or the far
horizon, and the time spent covering the road has been worthwhile in itself.”

Powerful and beautiful prose, caught from a much unexpected source!

The combination of my ridiculous travel schedule and the normal frenetic tone of the holiday season has lead me to a funk this year, having a very short-term focus and possibly an even shorter fuse than normal. I certainly feel a long way from Mrs. Barringer’s “shunpiker,” losing track of time and intentionally taking the slower route on the intended journey. Indeed the final sentence of her quote feels like a challenge not only in this holiday season but in this phase of life. When she writes that “We are not going too fast to miss the beauties of the road or the far horizon,” I can almost read the unwritten challenge for all of us, “are you?”

As I head into the weeks ahead, still filled with numerous meetings, contracts, cities and obligations to accomplish before Christmas Eve, I am going to endeavor to keep Mrs. Barringer’s words close to mind. Join with me in the days ahead and find some ways, small or large, personal or professional, to be a bit more of a “shunpiker”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Demand Drives Price

It was my first day in Professor Galster’s Micro- Economics class; I remember walking into the classroom and seeing two things on the chalkboard (yes chalk, no “whiteboards” in those days). First was the professor’s name and the name of the class; simple enough. The second was a quote that has stayed with me over the years and seems more relevant today than ever; “ Demand Drives Price.” At that moment I had no idea at all what those three words meant, or why they were up on the board on our first day of class; yet today I often quote them to my team and to friends as a simple yet profound concept that is often forgotten in business and in life.

An easy way to jump into this idea is to consider a familiar pitfall. When someone asks the price of something they often use the phrase “what does it cost?” Totally understandable from the consumers’ point of view, wanting to know what they would be charged for an item is fundamental. My point is that phrase should NEVER be used in a business context in trying to determine the “price” of an item/product/service. While relevant in the overall economic mix, the “cost” of an item/product/service is almost in-material to the decision of the market price for that said item. This simple example is a good reminder: imagine a moment (hypothetical of course) when you could have at your fingertip three editions of the NY Times, one from last week, one from today, and one from next week. Each edition would have “cost” about the same amount to produce BUT their relative worth would be dramatically different. Today’s edition would bear a market price of $2.00 (it’s actually printed on the paper). Last week’s edition might be used to line the cat-pan, or to light a fire, but you wouldn’t pay anything near $2.00 for last week’s news today. Now next week’s edition is another thing altogether; with all the political/economic/social news that will occur over the next week, if you could buy that edition today it would be invaluable! (Certainly more than the $2.00 printed on the paper) As you can see the actual “cost” of the paper doesn’t impact the relative “price” one would pay, it is entirely driven by the relative “demand” of each edition.

It’s good to take a moment and explore a few of these concepts a little deeper. Let’s start with the definition of “Demand”: An economic principle that describes a consumer’s desire and willingness to pay a price for a specific good or service.

This concept is rooted in the idea of the “consumer’s desire and willingness to pay.” Just as it’s often said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so it is true that “Demand” is in the “eye” of the consumer. Recently my wife and I bought a new vehicle and the salesman was extolling the “Navigation system” and how much that feature was worth and why we needed to add the luxury package to the vehicle we were choosing. My wife was so turned off by the NAV system (too much technology is not always a good thing) that we weren’t willing to pay ANYTHING to add it to our vehicle. I am sure that the “Nav System” cost something to produce and install, but it was worthless to us. Our lack of “demand” drove the “price” of that item to zero.

Next let’s look at the definition of “Price”:
The quantity of one thing that is exchanged or demanded in barter or sale for another thing

While we often think of “price” defined by dollars and cents, it’s important to remind ourselves of the definition highlighted above. “Price” is the agreed on payment for the goods and services that one would receive in a transaction. Traditionally it is thought of as the “list price” or the “dead net price” of an item/good/ or service. “Price “, though can take different forms; imagine a college football star that has a breakout senior season. Rather than going undrafted into the NFL, he now is a contender for a first round draft pick that will affect his opportunities, his salary, and potentially his life-long earning potential. “Demand” was increased by his performance and thus the “price” for his future services to a NFL team rose dramatically.

Well by now I am sure that you get the idea that as you think about the marketplace; starts with “demand.” What level of “demand” does your item/good/service generate the marketplace and what “price” are your consumers/customers will to “pay? Then and only then should you look hard at your costs to understand if you have an acceptable profit margin for an ongoing enterprise, or if you need to go back to the drawing board and continue to iterate… Remember, regardless of the market, the era, or the industry, “Demand Drives Price.”

p.s. as I finish this essay a day before the thanksgiving holiday, I want to pass along a somewhat related theorem. If indeed,”Demand Drives Price” as I posit above, a corollary must also be that “those with less should be helped by those with more.” While this wasn’t taught in my Micro-Economics class, it is a profound learning of my adult life. So many of us (and many of the readers of this blog!) have enough to take care of our families AND the ability to help other families in need. My hope this Thanksgiving is that as we sit down for a meal with our families and friends, we can take a moment to be thankful for all that we have AND to turn our attention to the families in need all across the world, the country, and in each of our communities. Whether it’s sending aid to families affected by Hurricane Sandy, or to families impacted by the violence in Syria or Gaza, or possibly the homeless families that live in each of our communities, let us all commit ourselves to take action to help, and to take action NOW, partly because there is so much “need” and partly because we have so much ability to “help”!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Never Borrow Money For A Depreciating Asset

Well “Never” is a rather big and finite adverb. As you can tell from my previous essays, I am more of a believer in the possible, the whole “practice makes better” notion of life, usually steering away from absolutes like “Always” or “Never”. Well this story come from my childhood and at the time didn’t make much sense to a boy of about 6 to 8 years old. Now 40+ years later this idea continues to ring true, both professionally and personally.

My mom was a true New Yorker, born and raised in the Bayridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. At about the time of my birth, her childhood home was demolished as part of the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In 1960 or 61, her parents and her sister, (the now famous Aunt Lorraine!) moved from Brooklyn to a new home on Long Island in the village of Baldwin. I grew up spending a few weeks each summer visiting our relatives on Long Island, enjoying trips to Jones Beach, the local amusement park (Nunnally’s), train rides into “The City”, and many other exotic destinations. My memories are filled with so many great women, my mother Arline, my Aunt Lorraine, their mother (my grandmother) Kunigunda, her sister Katherine and her sister-in-law Emma. What a treasure of caring, capable, kind and lovely individuals. I still remember playing cards on the screened porch after dinner on hot summer evenings, trying to master “Crazy 8’s” and the rest of the family just enjoying the rare chance to be together. While I have many memories and stories from these impactful women, this story emanates from my maternal grandfather, Fred Wark.

Grandpa Wark was a businessman and a long time employee of J.C. Penney (I actually never remember entering a Sears store as a child). I remember him as a slightly intimidating figure, pretty serious most of the time, but always glad to see his daughter visiting from Pennsylvania with his three grandchildren. As was common most mornings, he would get up early and before the day really got started, he would head down to the local deli for “the paper”, some rolls, and maybe some cold cuts and German potato salad for lunch. Well most mornings he would call for my older brother Mark to come along to be ‘his navigator,” and they would head out in the big Buick to the store. Well one morning, somehow I was asked to come along, probably from the encouragement of my mother, and I hopped into the back seat to keep a low profile. I have no recollection how the topic came up, whether it was shared to Mark or me, but somehow we were talking about his new car. In the haze of history I remember almost none of the conversation except one fragment of a sentence from my grandfather … “remember boys; never borrow money for a depreciating asset.”

As I said, I might have been 8 years old at the time, which would make Mark the wise old age of 13, but there was very little of that phrase that made any sense to this young boy. What was an asset? Depreciating??? No clue! I kind of understood borrowing money, even at that age my little sister Alice was lending me money at the amusement park for one more pinball game or at the beach for an Italian Ice; but how did any of these ideas go together? At the time I had absolutely no idea and it took years before I connected ay of the dots.

I studied Economics during undergrad and went straight onto grad school to earn my MBA. Through those academic experiences, I started learning more about assets, appreciation, depreciation, loan structures, etc. As is often the case, practical application brings many “academic” lessons into sharper focus. The same was true for me when I set off to buy my first new car soon after taking my first professional job after business school. It was the fall of 1986 and I was moving up to Wisconsin to take my first role as a Marketing Assistant for Kimberly Clark Corp, to go to work for Bruce Paynter as my first boss. (You can read more about Bruce in this blog by clicking on “Inspirations of Bruce” in the archive on the left.) Well I had my eye on a new 1986 Honda Civic (still one of my favorite cars I have ever owned) and went to the dealership to negotiate a “deal”. After a bit of back and forth we had settled in on a car and a price, to this day remembering that the car was just about $12,000 tax, tag title, etc. That was a lot of money for one newly minted graduate! The good news was with my new job, I qualified for a car loan with a nominal down payment. Good news, that gold 1986 Honda Civic was almost mine! At that time the car loan interest rates were about 12%, and I borrowed almost all of the $12,000 over 48 months. Pretty standard stuff!

I can still remember sitting in an open cube of the car salesman’s “office”, signing the papers and preparing to drive my prize off the lot. I am not sure if it was in the required paperwork, or an innocent question, but I asked after the 48 months had passed, how much would I have paid? With a $316 monthly payment, the calculation was pretty simple…. Just north of $15,000. I added a second question of how much would the car be worth after those same 48 months? After lots of hemming and hawing, depending on mileage, maintenance, and care, etc…. the salesman said about half the sales price. So wait a minute, after 4 years I would have paid $15,000 for a car that would be worth $6,000 the day I finished my payments! The words of my grandfather rang out in the night …. “never borrow money for a depreciating asset!!!” Well I did indeed buy the gold Civic that night, borrowing the $12,000, and I took all of the 48 months to pay it off (though we owned it for 8 years and over 125k miles).

I share this story as a bit of a lesson, deep from my youth, that has served me well over the past few decades in a time when access to available and seemingly “cheap” credit has had a tremendous impact (negatively) on our economy and our country. On a personal basis, it has reinforced the idea that every individual and family needs to be clear about what they can truly “afford”. We have heard a lot in this election cycle about our country’s deficit, and the burden it is for us today and for the future generations of our country. The same holds true personally. What is your personal “deficit”, and how much do you pay to support that amount of debt every month? Remembering Grandpa Wark, is your “deficit” primarily made up of a mortgage on a home/property that might have a chance to appreciate over time? Is it made up of college/education loans that you are paying off after graduation? If so, maybe not a bad idea since borrowing money for an appreciating asset is can actually be a great idea. Or is your “deficit” made up of credit card debt which is the accumulation of purchases/expenses for a myriad of depreciating purchases (maybe including a few depreciating assets)?

This same idea applies professionally. Regardless of the size and nature of a business, it’s critical to carefully review where and how you are spending your money. If you can borrow money to support the growth of a business, looking for ways to invest in “appreciating assets” then you are probably on the right track. On the other hand, if you are taking your valuable resources and spending them on wasteful expenses, lavish offices, self congratulatory entertainment, etc. then it’s time to rethink your priorities.

Keep Grandpa Wark in mind as you review monthly bills at home or as you review your next monthly/quarterly budget review at work. Are you aware of how you are spending your money? Are you using your resources wisely? Is your personal “deficit” a large burden for you and your family? Is your “deficit” devoted to appreciating assets (education, mortgages, etc) or is it primarily focused on daily expenses and depreciating assets. My encouragement is to take small steps at first, first become aware of where you are then take steps towards reducing your debt, your personal “deficit” and work hard to “never borrow money for a depreciating asset.”

Post Script: In a related vein, I needed to make a quick comment on the idea on the role of “depreciating assets” (namely cars) to define oneself. Too often I hear friends talk about what their cars “say” about them, their families, their politics, etc. As I mentioned in a recent essay (“An Inspiring August”), we should strive to be valued by the quality of our thoughts and the kindness and generosity of our actions to those in need or with less, NOT by what brand/model of car we choose to drive!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Do Fewer Things Better

Regardless of your view of our current economic dynamic, whether you see us in a slow but progressing recovery, or in a stagnant high unemployment malaise, I think it’s broadly true that many of us are terribly busy! When you combine the tempo of work activity with enabling technologies, we are all multi-tasking more than ever. I am a living example of that reality at this precise moment. I am on a flight cross-country, connected to Wi-Fi, reviewing upcoming customer deals, re-working my travel schedule for October, drafting succession planning guidelines for key roles in my organization AND drafting this essay. I think I better get another cup of coffee!
Well it is inside of this multi-tasking reality that I want to share a story that struck me deeply over the past few weeks. I constantly feel very fortunate to be in my current role. I have had the chance to be part of a very dynamic, high growth company, working closely with a group of very inspired, motivated, and talented individuals. One reality of a high growth environment is that the scale and challenges of the business are often out-stripping the capabilities and capacities of the organization. Unlike many big companies that go through their every 2-3 year “reorganization” cycles, looking to cut costs when they can’t find/create real top line growth, we are constantly feeling the need to have the organization “catch-up” to the changing needs/challenges/size of the business. Because of this growth dynamic, individuals and teams are often stretched as their markets/customers/brands accelerate. This reality spans functions and departments all across our company, and mine is no exception.

It was in this context that a conversation from a few weeks ago has continued to reverberate in my mind. I was talking with two of my talented leaders and we were working through the facts that there seemed to be just too many priorities for them and their teams, and at that moment certain things seemed to be falling through the cracks. It wasn’t a matter of skills or motivation; it was clearly an issue of prioritization. I asked them how MANY of the projects/initiatives they thought were getting accomplished, and they said maybe 80-85%. Additionally I asked them to grade their work on how WELL they thought they were accomplishing the projects, A to F. They both thought that maybe a B or B+ would be the right score. I suggested that is if we were getting a B+ of 85% of the work, then our “score” wasn’t an overall B+/85%, but rather a 72 ( 85 x 85 = 72.3) We needed to combine how MANY of the projects were being accomplished with how WELL they were being done. Were we really working so hard just to do average work? Does the business need/require just “average” work to accomplish “exceptional” results??? It was at the end of this conversation that the three of us came to the point of view that we needed to do more A+ work even if it meant us prioritizing the work even more dramatically.

It’s tempting to try to “pull it all off”, to multi-task our brains out, to accomplish as many initiatives/projects/meetings/etc as we physically can. We fool ourselves into thinking that the true measure of success is that amount (how MANY) or output of work we can produce. I am challenging myself and my team (and I guess the readers of this essay) to think more deeply on this subject and to consider doing fewer things better. Ask yourself the hard question, when was the last time that your work/ output was truly exceptional, not just adequate to get the assignment accomplished? It’s hard to prioritize, it takes time to organize the work at hand, but that step is vital. Once we have done a better/stronger job prioritizing the work at hand (for the week/quarter/year/etc), then we must commit ourselves to strive for excellent work on the initiatives that we’ve prioritized. I know it will never be perfect. I don’t believe in”perfect,” nor do I believe that “practice makes perfect.” I DO believe that “practice makes better” and that we all can work hard on making tomorrow better than yesterday. My focus is on working to do “fewer things better”, maybe even taking a few initiatives/priorities off the plate so that we as an organization can improve our focus, and improve our “grades” on the quality not just quantity, of our work.

Friday, August 31, 2012

An Inspiring August

Like many of you, this summer has absolutely blown by for me. Just this week my kids went back to school, marking the end of another summer and a start to another school year. I hear myself saying those clichéd lines, “where did the summer go”, “time is just blowing by”, etc, etc. Well as I think back on the past few months, I will certainly remember the summer of 2012 as a time of intense work, with the successful completion of the sale of our company. While certainly significant, I will also remember this summer for some extraordinary moments with my family across the month of August.

It was earlier this month, when as a family we drove from Atlanta to Rehoboth Beach Delaware to visit friends that had gathered for a few days at the beach. It was right in the midst of the London Olympics, so every night we would get back to the hotel, climb into the beds and watch the coverage of the evening. It didn’t matter whether it was the swimming finals, synchronized diving, or water polo; we just enjoyed being together and sharing the moments as a family. It was the day after one of these “Olympic Moments” where I found myself down at the beach in the surf with my son Bryson. We somehow got into the unlikely conversation about the “medal counts” comparing the U.S. vs. the other countries, especially China. Bryson was questioning the whole media coverage of this element, and why was there so much focus on America “beating” the other countries, vs. just reporting on the success of the athletes more broadly. This lead to us talking about how at times it’s easy/typical (and maybe unfortunate) to think that a country should be “measured” by how much they “win” (in athletics, business, wars, etc) vs. thinking about measuring a county’s success by other metrics. I suggested that an age old idea was to assess societies not by how they treat their strongest, but how they treat their weakest. Most entities (cultures, businesses, families, teams, etc) do just fine when things are going well; usually a truer “test” of an entity is how they handle their tough times, the breakdowns, the tragedies, the “losses”. Bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean, having a very “real” conversation with my 14 year old son, totally inspiring!

Well a week or so later, we found ourselves visiting my sister and her family in Seattle. My brother-in-law works for the Gates Foundation, and he hosted us for a visit to their offices and a tour of their visitor center. Jennie, Marie and Bryson and I were blown away by the needs/issues globally and the audacious aspirations of the foundation to make a significant impact on a variety of major global issues. One of the brochures at the visitor center had this simple quote on the front that has stayed with me since our visit, “Every person deserves the chance to live a healthy productive life.” Seems simple, seems obvious, yet for billions of individuals across the globe, well out of reach! This visit and that simple quote has pushed us as a family, all four of us, to talk more about what we are doing to “give back.” We have been so fortunate, what can we do to have a greater impact, obviously not on the scale of the Gates Foundation, but on our scale, in our town, in our neighborhood? That simple quote,” Every person deserves the chance to live a healthy productive life,” pertains equally to families and kids growing up without adequate water, sanitation and health care in Dhaka Bangladesh as it does to families and kids with those same challenges in Atlanta Georgia.

While it is true that the summer has flown by, I have been deeply inspired by the last few weeks. I feel so fortunate to be part of a wonderful family, and am proud that we can not only enjoy “vacation time” together, but have these marvelous moments that will leave an impact on me for the rest of my life. So often we absolutely “blow through” life, the work days and the “fun” days all just flying by in a blur. I know for certain that I need to do a better job to stay “present” in the moments I have that are just family time. I know I need to abolish the idea of “multi-tasking” my family with my blackberry, and work on staying 100% focused on what we are doing together, what we might be learning about together. You never know,with a little bit of work, I might just have a few more inspiring months like this August!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Big Leaguers Don't Add Sugar To Their Tea

Just to make things clear from the start, this essay has nothing specifically to do with whether major league baseball players should or should not put sugar in their iced tea; or in fact whether they should or should not drink iced tea at all.  This essay is in fact a tribute in a way to the marvelous, high performing company I have the pleasure to be part of and some recent learnings / stories that illuminate some drivers of that success.

As I mentioned above, I deeply feel fortunate to be part of the leadership team of my current company.  Broadly the organization is talented, focused, hard working and motivated by our mission to help people lead healthy vibrant lives …. a mission we call “Inspiring the Fresh Revolution” (more on that later.)  I always feel challenged and motivated by the team to push myself to “execute, excel and build skills” (see the previous essay by that title) and after 2 ½ years, my energy to do so continues.  One of my pleasures is the chance to work closely with a set of very talented peers and direct reports whom I learn from constantly. 

I was recently working late on a key project with one of my peers when somehow we got into a conversation about our hometowns and our times growing up.  We are both from small towns in western Pennsylvania (Go Steelers), and have been surprised by how many similar experiences we have shared over our education and careers.  One experience that I did not share was the same level of athletic success.  It turns out that this fellow was a very accomplished pitcher, having played Div. 1 baseball in college, and having been scouted hard by big league clubs.  He shared a story of from his youth that a major league scout (I think form our hometown Pittsburgh Pirates) had come to see him pitch in high school and had taken him and his family out to dinner after the game.  As they were sitting down, my friend reaches over to add sugar to his iced tea; the scout looks up and says “son, big leaguers don’t put sugar in their iced tea.”  He and I were sitting together late one night, here in the summer of 2012, and that one line of wisdom rang out from a dinner maybe 30 years ago.

As I mentioned above, my lesson from this story has nothing to do about the “sugar” or the “iced tea” explicitly.  It DOES remind me though that to be excellent, to achieve superior results, you need to stay focused on the big things AND the little things that will account for that success.  I am sure that that baseball scout had some things to say that night about pitching or about the expectations of a big league club, or a wide variety of topics on the “big things.”  What’s important to note is the power of that story about one of the “little things.”  I think he was saying that to be a success, sure you need a blistering fastball, a wicked curveball, a great move to first, etc….., but that’s not enough.  You also need to watch the little things, like getting to the ballpark early, taking batting/fielding practice every time you have a chance, helping the other young guys coming up, or maybe just passing on the sugar in your iced tea.

This idea resonates in the workplace dramatically to me.  Sure the big customer presentations, the new product rollouts, the board meetings, or any other “high profile” moment are important to handle well and to prepare for diligently.  What I am connecting to are the hundreds of”little things” that happen every day, all having a big impact.  I think about not just being on time for work, or a conference call, or a meeting, but working to be a few minutes early (rather than always a few minutes late.)  Or maybe it’s how you take care of your work vehicle, is it always ready to go, well stocked and cleaned and ready to roll at a moment’s notice?  Or maybe it’s taking an extra moment to check your work, or check your calculations, to insure that your efforts speak for themselves and doesn’t need anyone having to do a review for “clerical/analytical” errors.  This list could go on and on, but the point is simple.  Keep an eye on the “little things” of work and life, don’t reach for the sugar bowl for your iced tea, and your likelihood of success on the “big things” will rise automatically!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A moment of “Truth & Beauty” in the West Economy Parking Lot

To say that things have been a bit busy lately is a massive understatement, (maybe a downright lie!)  The business is thriving but of course takes a lot of focus and effort; customers always have needs/issues/opportunities that require attention, often immediately, often in person.  The months of May and June have been an absolute blur with a travel schedule that has hit new highs (or lows based on your perspective.)  To add a bit of mania into it all, we are in the process of buying a new home in Atlanta and actually moved yesterday.  I know I know, obviously we are gluttons for punishment!

With everything going on, to say the least I have found myself a bit stressed over the past weeks/months.  My “wick” is shorter than usual, and what were normal challenges / “bumps in the road” now seem to be major issues.  I am constantly reminding myself of two concepts/principles form previous essays: “PBR: Pause/Breath/& Reconnect”, and the ever favorite “Aunt Lorraine’s Law: take Small Bites and Chew Thoroughly.”  It’s a little scary and telling when you have to work hard to reminding YOURSELF of lessons/stories that YOU wrote over the past few years.

Well this week has been a crescendo of sorts.  This past Sunday (father’s day of course) I had to fly west in order to meet with customers coming to visit us at our plant in Bakersfield California.  The meetings Sunday night and Monday went very well, and I flew out of Bakersfield Monday night to make it back to Atlanta Tuesday morning to meet the folks from the moving company packing up our old house.  (All I have to say is thank God for Jennie!)  The big crew came back on Wednesday to do the actual move, and by 8pm last night, every piece of furniture, every box, every bike, everything had made it to the new house!  What’s totally crazy is that I woke up this morning at 5:20am to get on a flight back to LA for key meetings today, returning on the red-eye late tonight.  OUCH!

To say that I was a bit groggy this morning is an understatement.  With blurry eyes and a sore back, I walked out in the dark humid Atlanta morning, got in my car and headed to the airport candidly feeling pretty sorry for myself.  Like many travelers I am a creature of habit and as is my way, I pulled into the west economy parking lot (Aisle 14, section A of course) and parked my car in my regular area just as the sky was brightening with the rising sun.  As I was pulling my bag from the car, I was “assaulted” by the energized “chirps” of a small bird perched in a tree above my car.  I couldn’t tell what I had done wrong, or was doing wrong, or at first what the small bird was trying to “say” with its “chirps.”  As I paused for a moment I realized that the bird wasn’t alone, but was sitting right above a nest of twigs filled with tiny baby birds.  Here I was quietly standing in an airport parking lot, having another “parent” tell me something about her/his kids. Unbelievable and beautiful all in the same scene; standing in an airport parking lot at the break of dawn in a moment of “Truth & Beauty.”

The “Truth” is that while it is a busy time, that little bird reminded me to “join the club!”  Could I imagine trying to raise my kids in a parking lot tree at the Atlanta airport?  I know it’s a bit wild now in my work and business life but I am lucky to have the problems that I am dealing with.  The “Truth” also is that family, whether in a nest or a new home, must come first.  The “Beauty” is that in the most unexpected moments, like the west economy parking lot, we can experience truly beautiful things.  In a previous essay from last summer titled “Unexpected Beauty”, I wrote about our family being blown away by a musical “experience” in a Paris metro station.  While it’s true that one can find beauty and inspiration in Art Museums, Cathedrals, or in a myriad of “expected” environments, work to find ways to be open and receptive to movements of “Truth & Beauty” where you may least expect them!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The way back to the trail

As many of you know, I have a tradition of leading unusual (I like to think memorable and impactful) team meetings.  Last week was another example of a great meeting that included a learning experience centered on Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” I’ll save that one for another essay, but to say the least it got people thinking in a very different mode.

This story is from more than 5 years ago, in a different team setting, at a different company, but with some lessons that I find very applicable today.  It was in the fall of 2006, and I was leading a very diverse team who were facing tremendous challenges both organizationally and competitively.  The business was behind plan, competitive pressures were high and there was talk of future reorganizations.  I decided to bring the team (of about 15 folks) together up in the mountains in North Carolina, and include a variety of readings/exercises & experiences centered on overcoming challenges and obstacles.  One of these experiences was a 5-6 mile hike along the Bartram trail (accompanied by readings from William Bartram’s journal from 1774) up Scaly Mountain.  It’s a hike I had done a number of times with my family, challenging but beautiful.  It normally takes 3-4 hours with magnificent views of the southern Appalachians from the top.

We got off to a bit of a late start, only arriving at the base of the mountain at 1:30 or so that afternoon.  What also added to the challenge ahead was that it was about 48 degrees and it had started to rain.  Not to miss a metaphoric moment, it seemed that it was all adding up to an even greater set of examples/experiences to reinforce our ability to face challenges/overcome obstacles/ and create success. The hike began in earnest!

The real problems didn’t manifest themselves on the way to the top.  We worked as a team, helping the slower folks make their way, stopping appropriately for water and snack breaks on the way up.  It took a bit more than 2 hours but we made it to the top and had a talk about the challenges we were facing in the business and in the company.  The discussion was excellent and I could feel the team starting to break down the issues into smaller pieces (see the previous essay “Aunt Lorraine’s Law”), everything seemed to be going so well!  As I paused I realized it was not almost 4pm, the rain was increasing a bit, temps were starting to come down and it dawned on me that if we didn’t move quickly, we wouldn’t make it down the mountain in the light of day.

We moved out and started back down the trail.  The momentum down was a bit better than the way up and we were making good time, not feeling the need for too many breaks.  About half way down the clouds started to settle down onto Scaly Mountain.  The base is at about 3800 ft, with the peak a bit above 5000 ft above sea level.  I was amazed how thick the clouds were and how much our visibility was limited.  After just a few minutes, we were actually in the clouds and could only see a few feet ahead.  As the leader (and the only one with any experience on Scaly Mountain) I was at the head of the team, leading the way on the trail.  I don’t know what triggered me but at some point I realized that we were not on the trail anymore; somehow we had drifted off the path and were walking somewhat randomly in a very cloud rainy chilly forest.  Time for immediate action and NOT a leadership freak-out moment!  I immediately stopped and shouted for everyone to freeze, not to move a muscle.  Luckily the team actually thought it was one of Bill’s crazy team exercises and everyone immediately stopped in their places.  I walked down the line, finding the last person and put my back to their back so I was facing 180 degrees away from where we had been heading.  Quietly and calmly I explained that we were off the trail, not sure by how far, and that if everyone just turned around to face my back, we would simply retrace our steps to regain the trail. No one said a word as they did an “about face” and started following me back the way we had come.

We were all so relieved when we regained the Bartram trail in less than 10 minutes, though those minutes were some of the longest I can remember.  All kinds of images had begun to race through my mind, all of them negative/all of them critical; but I kept reminding myself that the best thing I could do was to keep working our way back to the trail and that’s indeed what we did.  With a lot more care, and everyone keeping an eye for the color blazes on the trees marking the trail, we worked our way all the way down, back to the cars in the parking area and gladly made our way back to a warm fire, fresh clothes, a delicious dinner, and a night of stories indeed!

What makes this story come back to mind is that we all face challenges every day and always will.  Even after a tremendous success, challenges and obstacles will find their way into everyone’s path, some expected and many not.  Just like the drift off the path, many times we aren’t sure how we got into some type of challenging situation, though a core lesson is to recognize the issue quickly and work to take IMMEDIATE action.  As was the case on the Bartram trail that fall afternoon, ignoring the problem/hoping that it would handle itself/being paralyzed by fear/ or a host of other possible responses are disastrous options.  Work to recognize problems faster and faster, take action with similar alacrity and I am confident that it will help you find your way “back to the trail!”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sweat the details … literally to 63 degrees!

Over the years I have commented often about how great organizations, great companies, and great brands do the big things well and the small things even better. This idea links directly back to a very memorable experience of my youth.

  The summer after my mom died, my dear Aunt Lorraine (see the early blog essay “Aunt Lorraine’s Law”) took my sister Alice and I for a vacation to newly opened Disney World in Orlando Florida. It had been a very hard year, and the prospect of flying on a plane, staying in a hotel, AND visiting Disney World seemed too good to be true. As a boy of 13, I was in awe of the entire Disney experience. From the wild ride of “Space Mountain”, the super cool Monorail, the unusual “Wedway People Mover”, and the now defunct 20,000 leagues under the sea ride, I loved it all. After the sadness and gloom of the previous few months, Disney World seemed like paradise. One of those days, Alice, Aunt Lorraine and I were walking in the Magic Kingdom somewhere and I remember looking down and seeing a man hole cover. Innocent enough, I realized that rather than being the usual “generic” man hole cover one would see elsewhere, this one (and all of them inside Disney World) had an image of Mickey Mouse cast in the metal at the center of the cover. Even then I was blown away by this unique and unexpected detail and thought to myself, if Disney had thought of the man whole covers, they must have thought of everything!

That memory came back to me this week in a poignant moment.  We have been working closely with my old friend Todd (a total rascal and a marvelous marketer whom I have known for years)on a major presentation for weeks and we worked very hard to have everything assembled for not only a  successful experience, but an exceptional experience! The presentation was finalized, product samples assembled and merchandised beautifully, marketing materials hung around the room, everything seemed set! The morning of the meeting, I came into the conference room early (of course) and realized that the meeting room was warm, way too warm. We were going to have a fairly large group of people in the room and I knew that if it felt warm early in the day, it would only get worse. Warm room, sleepy audience, lack of concentration ……  to say the least, not good! In an amazing flashback, I was transported back in time (the early 90’s) to a large auditorium at Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta.  I had arrived early to a large marketing meeting at that time and  found the then Chairman and CEO (Roberto Gouizueta) talking in a hushed but earnest tone with the meeting planning folks. I overheard his comments that the room was too warm, that hundreds of young marketers were arriving soon and he wanted the room “fresh”, and he specifically said that “fresh” meant 63 degrees! 63 degrees, really??? That precise? That specific temperature? From the CEO? Really? Well the meeting planning folks jumped into gear, the AC immediately was adjusted, and to say the least no one “dozed” in the meeting from the room being too warm!

 Well here I was twenty years later, realizing that the meeting room was too warm and I immediately said out loud, “can we get this room to 63 degrees?” The hosts thought I was crazy but quickly a building maintenance person was found, and though he was a bit taken pack by the precision of my request, he said that the computer could program the system to the ½ degree. I reiterated 63 as the target and he got to work. Quickly the room cooled, and we had a very successful meeting over the next few hours. At the end of the day, as the clients were packing their bags, one of their senior folks commented offhandedly that the room was so cold; it must be the temperature that we recommend at Bolthouse Farms for our carrots. I quipped that while 38 degrees was best for carrots, we found that 63 degrees was the best for meetings. He was stunned that not only did I had an opinion about the room’s temperature, he realized that we had not let that to chance; that we had worked to “sweat the details” even to that level.

Whatever role, function or organization that you are part of, think about this lesson. The” little things” add up to the” big things” and if we blow off the “little things,” the “big things” just may not happen at all! Remember the manhole cover or the 63 degrees, or any other image from your experience to remind you to sweat the details. Try not to get lazy, convincing yourself that it’s “no one will care” or that “it’s somebody else’s job” to worry about the details. It would have been easier and cheaper for Disney to buy standard manhole covers; they didn’t! It would have been understandable for Roberto Gouizueta to think that someone else should worry about the auditorium’s temperature; he didn’t! Work hard to remember that it matters, it really matters, to sweat the details in order to be great!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Over the Hood & Over the Horizon

Recently I received some great advice from an old friend whom I have the pleasure of currently working with; once again reinforcing the idea that learning should never stop regardless of where you are in your life or career and that we often learn the most from people who know us the best. The lesson goes something like this:

Over the past year we have achieved some significant business results and I have been (and am!) so proud of my team and our entire company in how everyone has come together, dug deep (see the previous essay “The Hidden Vigorish”) and closed out our fiscal year with distinction. In the normal course of business life, as soon as one year’s business plan is achieved, the next year’s business plan is upon us, seemingly more challenging than ever! Well wouldn’t you know that as we dove into the new fiscal we were faced with a new set of challenges, new hurdles, new opportunities, and seemingly in a blink of an eye, the success of the past year was gone and the reality of the new fiscal was everywhere.

It was after a very stern toned conference call that I held with my team that I received a call from my old friend, checking in on me making sure that I was “aok.” My tone seemed obviously strained to him on the call and I just didn’t sound like “his old friend Bill.” We talked for a little while, me sharing some of my thoughts, challenges and frustrations (it’s good to have old friends) and he quietly shared a simple and profound idea; “Bill, just remember that you need to steer the car by looking over the hood AND looking over the horizon, not one or another.” Deeply true, deeply profound, and very timely advice for yours truly!

I had been so focused on finishing the year strong, closing out the last quarter and month in a winning way, that my focus had shifted from the horizon to the hood over the past few weeks and months. As we immediately moved into the new fiscal year I maintained that same “hood-oriented” focus, not taking a moment to readjust my approach. I had become stuck in “hood mode” and had temporarily lost the perspective on the challenges and opportunities “over the horizon.” Getting stuck in either mode has its dangers:

“Over the Hood” focused; When one become so locked on the short term challenges and results, it’s too easy to lose the strategic framework of what you are trying to achieve. What are the broader 1/3/5 year priorities, goals, and opportunities and how are your short term actions helping (or hurting) your ability to succeed? A key concern in this mode is that you and your organization could become so locked on execution and short term results, you ignore the very real need to always be building organizational skills and capabilities for future success. It’s tempting to delay training, it’s tempting to leave open positions unfilled, not having the time to interview candidates, etc, etc, etc.

“Over the Horizon” focused; When one becomes so locked on long term strategies and plans, it’s equally easy to lose the required focus and intensity on immediate execution needs. In my 25+ years of a professional career, I have never encountered a business that ran itself or had an “auto-pilot” function, and I am certain that I never will! The competitive marketplace is ever moving, ever changing, and if you ignore the short term, thinking it will take of itself, my experience tells me that you may not have a long term to even worry about!

Well my lesson was clear; while keeping my hands proverbially at the “10 & 2” on the steering wheel of the business, I needed to work on the balance of my perspective. I have kept a strong view “Over the Hood,” and have been working on ways to expand my view “over the horizon.” Whether by digging deeper into a competitive marketplace analysis, or refreshing myself on a broader view of the annual business plan with its broader challenges AND opportunities, there are numerous ways for me to intentionally refocus “over the horizon.” Very helpful and very timely!

As a closing note, a big thank you goes out to my old friend! It’s easy for all of us, regardless of success, experience, or title, to get a little “stuck” sometimes; and I am grateful to have friends in my professional life who can help me find my way” over the horizon” when it’s obvious that I am stuck trying to drive the car “looking solely over the hood.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Resiliency & Perserverance : Redux

Back in November of 2011 I wrote an essay on this blog about a woman who was a great inspiration for me: Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. At that time she had been released from house arrest and after years of confinement, she was diving back into the democracy movement in her native Burma (Myanmar.) I commented on the astounding fact that rather than “getting away”, or “recharging her batteries” after her house arrest, she immediately and inspirationally applied the characteristics of “Resiliency & Perseverance” into the changing political drama of her country.

Earlier this week, the people of her embattled country spoke in the first free election in decades and not only elected Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi to a congressional seat in Parliament, but voted her party (the NLD) in a sweeping victory into 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats contested in this election.

The AP wrote earlier this week:
Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, was elected to parliament Sunday in a historic victory buffeted by the jubilant cheers of supporters who hope her triumph will mark a major turning point in a nation still emerging from a ruthless era of military rule.

If confirmed, the election win will also mark an astonishing reversal of fortune for a woman who became one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience. When she was finally released in late 2010, just after a vote her party boycotted that was deemed neither free nor fair, few could have imagined she would make the leap from democracy advocate to elected official in less than 17 months, opening the way for a potential presidential run in 2015.

But Myanmar has changed dramatically over that time. The junta finally ceded power last year, and although many of its leaders merely swapped their military uniforms for civilian suits, they went on to stun even their staunchest critics by releasing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, relaxing press censorship and opening a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi — whom they tried to silence for decades.

I share this amazing turn of world events for two simple reasons. First, over the past few years I have been inspired by this courageous woman’s story and continue to be amazed and energized by the impact of her non-violent campaign to dramatically change the landscape of Burma. At times we look across history and find inspiration from individuals or situations from the chapters of history books. What we all need to recognize and celebrate is that among our midst, in the present glance of history, we have a unique and inspiring leader in the form of a 66 year old woman from Burma.

Secondly, I share this story as a lesson in hope & optimism. Often I am utterly depressed by the headlines both domestic and abroad. Whether it has to do with the shootings in religious schools in Oakland California or Toulouse France, or the uncertain global credit markets, or possibly the debates on health care being held at our Supreme Court, or the unthinkable shooting in Sanford Florida; the headlines can often lead one into a state of cynicism and depression. This story from Burma needs to be a guiding light to all of us. Against astounding odds, with a military government working hard to silence Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi with decades of house arrest and to eliminate her nascent NLD party, there actually WAS a fair election last week across Burma, the voice of the people WAS heard in the election results, the military junta IS attempting steps of reform to bring progressive change to Burma. All this is true! No I am not naïve to think that there won’t be setbacks in Burma’s road to their future but on this day, I am inspired by what actually HAS occurred and excited by the prospect of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi having the chance to run for President in the next elections in 2015!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The short fare can become the long fare

Across my career I have gleaned a lot from a wide range of inspirations, possible no source more than cab drivers! I have written about this fount of knowledge before, check out “The story of Clarissa” about an amazing early morning cab ride in Bakersfield California. I have had some amazing moments of clarity in cabs from Philadelphia to Bentonville Arkansas; fodder for future essays. Well last Friday, I found another moment of wisdom in the back seat of a cab in Orlando.

I had attended meetings at the convention center and was heading over to the airport mid day last Friday for a flight back home to Atlanta. With plenty of time, I jumped into a cab at the Peabody Hotel and headed off to the airport. As I always do, I asked the cab driver how business was for him that day. He was quick to say that business was “picking up” and that he would have me at the airport in less than 25 minutes. Pretty precise for timing, but I leaned back to enjoy the ride and the conversation.

Quickly the driver asked what kind of business I was in and I simply said “sales.” He smiled and said “me too,” commenting that while he had driven cabs in New York, St. Louis, and now Orlando, he was selling every day. What a great attitude! He started to share his “inside tips” on how he works the Orlando convention center hotels every Friday, alternating between the Peabody and the Hilton, but consistently getting plenty of airport runs or as he said “long fares.” I asked if he had a certain system, or looked for a certain type of passenger as he worked the hotels. He nodded his head knowingly and said “no sir, you need to work every fare as if it’s your best … you never know, the short fare can become the long fare.” I know a learning moment was afoot!
Of course I asked him what he meant and he shared a story from just the week before. He said that the past Friday he was in the cab line at the Peabody Hotel (just where he found me) and he was the second cab in line. He was there just a few minutes when two groups came out of the front of the hotel and asked the bellman for a cab; the first was a guy in jeans with a small duffel bag, the second was a big family with lots of luggage. The first cabby, seeing the same situation, jumps out of the cab to “tie his shoe”, trying to get the second fare (the family obviously going to the airport) rather than the guy in jeans going god knows where. The first cabbie bending down to his shoe wave my cabbie around and without hesitation, he said he moved around to take the first guy, “the short fare.” Asking the guy in Jeans where he was heading , “the short fare” said he was needed to make a flight at the Tampa Airport in 3 hours and could the cabby get him there in time. Unbelievable!!! The Tampa airport was not quite 100 miles away, yes he could get there in time but the fare would be over $150. The guy in back said no problem, they headed out, and what looked at first to be the “short fare” became the “longest fare” in my cabbies life!

I was blown away by the story and really connected to this simple point of wisdom. You never know what opportunities lay ahead. If you try to game the system, metaphorically “tying your shoes” at the wrong times, you might miss big things! I was reminded by this great story to try to approach every interaction with more openness of what “might” be possible. Whether a moment with a team member, a call on a customer, or a chat with an old friend, it doesn’t really matter. Even the interactions that seem to be nothing more than a “short fare” can become a “long fare” right before our eyes, maybe even a fare to the Tampa Airport!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hidden Vigorish

Growing up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania in the 60’s and 70’s, my world was pretty small. The success and failure of the steel industry played a major role in setting a tone across the region, and in many ways the center of our little universe was the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers … the center of Pittsburgh Pa. While the declining health of the U.S. steel industry was a major element through that period of history (and BTW Pittsburgh has staged an amazing comeback over the past two decades and is now quite an impressive and thriving city), my eyes were more centered on the growing success of our local sports teams. Through this period of time, the Steelers and the Pirates won multiple championships, culminating in 1979 when the Steelers won the Super bowl and the Pirates won the World Series; the moniker “city of champions” was born! I have written in a previous essay (“Mistakes Matter”) about the Steelers and to this day I remain a loyal fan. This story is about an earlier time and the more successful days of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I was 10 in 1971 when the Pirates won the world series, a team including such greats as Roberto Clemente, Willy Stargell, Steve Blass, and Manny Sanguillen just to name a few. A very small world story is that Bob Moose, a pitcher for the Pirates in those days died tragically on his 29th birthday and his grave is just a few yards away from my Mom’s in Delmont Pa. Among the stars of the Pirates in those days was also an announcer whose gravelly voice I can still hear in my ears today; that of Bob Prince better known as “the Gunner.” He was the long time voice of the Pirates through the 60’s and 70’s and was famous for unique slogans or phrases that became his signatures. “A bloop and a blast”, “A bug on a rug”,” A dying quail’, “ A #8 can of Golden Bantam” all were in his signature repertoire. Over the past few months I have been thinking about another of his “Gunnerisms” that I feel has application broadly; the need for a little “Hidden Vigorish”.

Whenever the Pirates were in a jam, or a specific player was down in the count late in a game, “the Gunner” would make his famous call for some “Hidden Vigorish”. The idea would be the need to dig deep and find that last little spark, or hint of energy, that might start a rally, strikeout an opponent, and win the day for the beloved Pirates. I can remember in the summer of 1971, playing homerun derby in my neighborhood with the other kids, listening to the ball game on the radio, and all trying to mimic Bob Prince’s raspy voice calling for that “Hidden Vigorish.”

It’s in that spirit that this memory has come back to me over the past few months. We have been having a successful year, and while we have faced many challenges, more continue to come. In the face of that continuing dynamic, I have been so inspired by my team’s ability to dig deep, find that extra ounce of energy, find a little “Hidden Vigorish”, to prevail and succeed. Now with only one month to go to close out a very successful fiscal year, it’s time for us to remember “the Gunner” and find a little “hidden vigorish” to finish off the year in winning style. Whether you are at the beginning or end of your fiscal year, whether you are in business or not, we all face challenges. Sometimes the challenges are easy to face and simple to overcome; many times they are daunting and seem impossible to endure. Regardless of their scale and intensity, think back to “the Gunner” and his call for a little “hidden vigorish” to turn the day; a call we all need more often than we often admit.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Collaborative Leadership Model

In this era of “star power” business leaders, individuals who find their faces, philosophies, and adages spread across the media landscape, I want to insert a different idea or model into the broader leadership debate. My core idea is that while individual leaders are very important to organizations, it is the unique and powerful combination of leadership talent on a senior management team that actually produces (or inhibits) significant results.

Let me take a moment to reinforce the importance of “Leadership” in today’s organizations. I have written a number of previous essays on this topic (the most read are “Three Impact Points of Leadership”, “A Teachable Point of View”, and “Leadership with a Growth Mindset”) and I feel deeply that exceptional leaders are precious and rare in organizations. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of leaders inside of organizations, whether inspiring, educating, and directing groups to historic levels of achievement and success or the exact opposite. Across my 25+ year career, I have had the chance to work for a wide range of senior leaders and unfortunately, the average & mediocre far outnumber the exceptional!

With all of this as a preface, I want to share an idea that I have witnessed and personally experienced across my career that has lead to wonderful leadership moments and success; the concept is one of collaborative leadership models. In situations where I have seen the most effective leaders, or in my personal experiences where I have been most effective as a leader, are moments when the idea of a collaborative leadership model or team has been in place. While in every situation the actual business dynamics have varied widely, there were two fundamentals in place; common vision & values, and complementary skills.

Common Vision & Values

As I have experienced successful leadership teams, one thing that is fundamental is the idea of “common vision & values.” There should be no debate to where a company is going across the senior team. Any member of the senior team not only should be able to “recite” the company’s/organization’s vision, but has also deeply internalized it so that it is authentically theirs. Too often I have seen a CEO lead with a strong vision for a company, only to have it undermined by members of his/her leadership team with separate thoughts/visions for the future of the organization. Equally, senior leaders must have alignment on the values of the company, a common view on how things are to get accomplished across the company, not just in their words but in their actions being modeled every day. These set of aligned “vision and values” form a leadership foundation that is not exclusive to one individual, but modeled and reinforced across organizations regardless of function, department, division, or geography.

Complimentary Skills

Just as I have reflected on the common elements in successful leadership teams above, I want to reinforce an idea here that seeks out and celebrates the different strengths needed for a senior team to thrive. Every individual has specific strengths to leverage in the workplace. Whether it’s an orientation towards strategic thinking, strong financial acumen, operations/production disciplines, logistics capabilities, customer management expertise, consumer marketing skills, etc. , my experience shows that no single individual possesses them all in equal measure. Rather than CEOs/Presidents feeling like they need to be the “super heroes” of the executive suite and board room, my experience has shown that truly gifted leaders start by having a very candid and accurate assessment of their own strengths (and thus inherently their weaknesses!) This step allows senior leaders to build teams around him/her with individuals that have “complimentary skills” to their own, leveraging the strengths across the team to maximize the impact and success across the entire leadership team.

My personal experience has brought this idea to life clearly over a number of assignments. My professional background has a base in consumer marketing and sales/customer management assignments and my strengths clearly fall in the areas of building brands, serving customers, and leading teams. With that said, I know enough about myself to say openly that my skills in the areas of finance, accounting, and process management fall well behind my strengths mentioned above. With this in mind, across my career, I have looked to build leadership “teams/partnerships” with highly skilled MBA’s/CPA’s with very strong skills in the areas where I am the weakest. I think back to a number of “leadership partnerships” that I have had with a number of individuals across my career (I want to thank Steve, Mark, Arlene, and Wadih specifically!!!) that have been the most successful and effective leadership moments of my career.

As you think about your role as a leader, or as you strive to form and create a successful leadership team, try to keep these two ideas in mind, “common vision & values” and “complimentary skills”. Equally I encourage you to resist the temptation to become some type of “c-suite super hero;” keep your focus on the success of your organization and work to build a leadership team that has the blend of skills to drive success and a shared orientation towards a successful future.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Determination & Abundance … Words for 2012

Well 2012 has certainly gotten off to a bang! It had been a very restful holiday, filled with quiet family time and wonderful visits, gratefully absent of extended interruptions from work. That festive tempo completely changed as the first week of January virtually exploded into action. A mixture of customer meetings, market visits, planning work sessions, and fresh volume targets all conspired to raise the tension level a bit as we dove into a new year. I guess every year starts like this but for some reason, these past two weeks have made quite an impact! As I look at the year ahead, absolutely filled with exciting and challenging new opportunities, there are two words that keep coming to mind as I look over the horizon on the months to come; “Determination” and “Abundance.”

Noun: 1. Firmness of purpose; resoluteness.
2. The process of establishing something exactly, typically by calculation or research.

This important concept, and some of its derivatives, is front and center in the year ahead. The idea of “firmness of purpose” needs to be the foundation for the 2012. As I think about the getting clear on this idea, I have used a simple three step process that has proved very helpful:

1. “Determine” what winning looks like. Often times we are so busy with the work at hand that it’s easy to forget what we are so busy working towards! What does winning look like for you and your team? How would you measure it, when do you measure it, and how do we know if we’ve won or not? What does winning look like for your company and how closely aligned is that to what winning looks like for you and your team? Being clear on these “winning metrics” is the vital first step.

2. “Determine” your current position. Once you are clear with step 1,”determining’ what winning looks like for you and your team, it is then vital to step back and clarify your current situation. Be harshly candid, using any/all outside resources, to identify your current position in the marketplace vis a vis your goals and your competition. There are times where you can be achieving or exceeding your internal company goals and a competitor is beating you in the competitive landscape. As I mentioned above, be aggressively candid in this step! You will ultimately not be very successful over time if you have a false, limited, or naïve view of your current situation.

3. “Determine” strengths to leverage/gaps to fill. Once the first two steps are accomplished, you should have a clear idea of where you’re going (what winning looks like) and where you are (what is your current position.) If you think about it, you have a pretty good “map’ of the road ahead; now it’s time to work on how to get from “here” to “there.” Everyone, every team, and every business has strengths and too often we begin our work in this are by focusing on the gaps, not the strengths of a person, team, or, business. Start by identifying key, leverageable strengths and work on how best to leverage those strengths in the year ahead. What strengths will most help us win? Which strengths should we leverage first or most in the months ahead? Start with the strengths! Once your strengths are identified, then and only then should you focus on the gaps. What gaps lie in the way of you and your team winning in 2012? What are the top three gaps in your current business situation that if not fixed in the month ahead will most affect (negatively) your ability to win?

By using this simple three step process, you can transform the foundational concept of “Determination: Firmness of Purpose, Resoluteness” into a set of actions that will accelerate success in the year ahead!

Noun: 1. A very large quantity of something.
2. The quantity or amount of something, e.g., a chemical element or an animal or plant species, present in a particular area, volume,...

This second idea, the concept of “Abundance” is primarily a sense of tone, or attitude, for the year ahead. Too often we operate with a spirit of “scarcity” in our personal lives, in the current political campaign, or in our business realities. There’s never enough time, never enough money, never enough jobs, never enough people, never enough data, never enough innovation, etc., etc., etc.; and the litany goes on! You might have heard this over the dining room table at home, or in a management conference call at work. This tone of “scarcity” vs. “abundance” unfortunately permeates so many elements of our lives and in my opinion is a massive DIS-abler! Rather than having a tone of “scarcity” guide the year, it’s my strong encouragement to try a completely opposite approach. We are all so fortunate with having the chance to live in these dynamic and challenging times. I think back to the friends, family members, and work associates that have passed away over the past decade or so and I deeply regret that all of them can’t be here now! Think about your teams, and be energized by the talent and enthusiasm that surrounds you. When I take a moment and reflect on the team of sales, merchandising, marketing, finance, and customer service folks that I work closely with today, I am humbled and appreciative to be part of that group! Just as I encouraged you to be aggressive and candid in your assessment above, do the same here. We are lucky to have a chance to live and work in interesting times, with wonderful people and while we have an infinite inability to affect the past, it’s an honor to have an infinite chance to make tomorrow better than yesterday!

My strong encouragement is to dive into 2012 with full vigor, working on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Leverage the two concepts of “Determination” and “Abundance” in order to set an aggressive plan for the year ahead and an appropriate tone to make that plan a reality!