Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Do Justice," a holiday calling from Micah

Over the past few years, I have typically shared a family recipe as part of my holiday blog essay. If you dig around in the December posts over the past five years (it’s hard to imagine that the blog is now more than five years old with over 120 posted essays, more than 30,000 page views, from over 25 countries!) you will find recipes for “Kuni’s Chocolate Cake,” and “MaMa’s Giblet gravy” to name just two. Well this year I will depart from that historic culinary tradition to share some thoughts on the weightier topic of “Justice,” a principal in short supply in our country and our world this holiday season.

Since I was a boy, I have been struck by a single passage from the Old Testament. Micah was a “prophet” who lived in the early part of the 8th century B.C. in a village 20+/- miles outside of Jerusalem. While a very small book of the bible (Micah is considered as one of the 12 “lesser prophets” of the Old Testament) I have continually found my way back to this one specific passage:

Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God

This combination of “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your god” has struck a deep cord since I was young. I have seen this passage quoted on the front of Synagogues and Churches, in a wide range of texts and sermons, and while this passage is over 2700 years old, it seems a deeply important and a very current admonition for our society today!

Over the years, I have focused on the specific idea of “walk humbly with your god.” In my experience, the space of faith/religion/belief seems often lacking in this concept of “humility” broadly, and the concept of walking “humbly with your God” is applicable to so many faith traditions across the world. Over the past few weeks and months, while this idea still rings true to me deeply, my attention has turned to an earlier portion of the verse, that being the idea of “do justice.”

Clearly we are all living in a time when “justice” seems to be lacking in every corner. Turn your attention to Ferguson or Staten Island, Hong Kong or Kobani, to NW Pakistan or NE Nigeria, to countries, cities and villages all over our world and it seems unarguable that we are living in a time that lacks of justice broadly. Whether centered on race, economic, religious, sex , sexual orientation, or other sources of injustice, our worldwide community struggles with justice broadly, and seems to be making little or no headway or progress toward a more just tomorrow.

As I reconsidered Micah’s passage this holiday season, the call to “do justice” took on a singular prominence. In a moment of research that would have made my old testament professor (from New College, the divinity school at Edinburgh University where I spent some time during my undergraduate days) smile, I dug around through a variety of translations to understand this specific portion of the verse more deeply. While clearly not exhaustive, I looked into nine English translations of Micah 6:8 with the following results:

“Do Justice:” (NRSV, RSV,ESV,NAS)
“Do Justly:” (KJV,NKJV)
“Act Justly:” (NIV,WEB,CJB)

While the specific words do change slightly, one idea rings true; this call to “justice” is an active one, pushing all of us to “do” or “act” toward “justice!” Once again it is not enough to be satisfied with thoughts, beliefs or good intentions, we must take action!

Like many reading this essay, it often seems that this call to “do justice” is meant for more significant players on the world stage. What should our president or congress do? What is the UN doing? Etc. I am convinced that all of us can and need to take action in our sometimes “small” everyday lives, communities and neighborhoods. Injustice is broad and pervasive and we can only make progress if we all find ways to “do justice” where we live every day. In my neighborhood, just a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, there is tremendous wealth and poverty living side by side. Beside the large, beautiful historic homes are individuals and families living in the streets, the alleys and the bushes. My family and I are involved in a small religious community in our neighborhood where one Sunday a month we make sandwiches for a neighborhood shelter and one Wednesday night a month we gather and share a dinner with ALL in our neighborhood… whether coming from the street or the executive suite, all gather and share a common meal in a warm, safe, welcoming space.

Now will these actions eradicate the economic “injustice” in our neighborhood? Of course not! But rather than throwing our hands in the air, thinking that the problems are too big or maybe someone else’s responsibility, it is clearly the right move for us to take action where we can. Those sandwiches or that Wednesday night meal do make a difference, and while maybe small, they are actions working to make a difference in people’s lives. Injustice is not somewhere else or someone else’s problem. Remember the quote from Dr. King where he reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”! As you enter into this holiday season, look for ways in your towns, your neighborhoods, your communities to follow Micah’s call, to look for ways big or small, to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Building Brands, a daily regimen

At the center of my career are brands, brands that matter to consumers and shoppers, and brands that have grown over the decades. I have had the pleasure to work on a number of large, growing, expanding brands that have really stood the test of time, ranging from Kleenex, to Breyers Ice Cream, to Coca-Cola, and to Bolthouse Farms. Brands are precious and valuable, and like children, are also fragile and needing of care. Brands aren’t static, they are never in “pause mode” with the consumer or shopper; they are either gaining or losing relevancy in the lives of their consumer franchise.

Not only have I had a chance to work on and represent some amazing brands, I have also had the chance to work with a number of brands that I have watched crumble over time. In my customer management roles over the years, I worked closely with the executive teams at Blockbuster, Circuit City and Woolworth. All three WERE major brands and strong retailers in their respective spaces, and today not one of them exists in the consumer landscape.

At the center of my philosophy on building brands is the concept originated by A.G. Lafley, Chairman and CEO of P&G, where he described the “First and Second Moments of Truth for a Brand.” Now more than ten years ago, I saw Lafley give a keynote speech at the FMI convention where he introduced this idea that a brand must “First” win at the point of demand, at the retail shelf. The “Shopper” needs to see the brand as a winning option. Once that hurdle is accomplished, the brand must then win a “second” time when it is used or consumed by the consumer.

A 2003 Bloomberg Businessweek article describes it well:

As CEO, Lafley hasn't made grand pronouncements on the future of P&G. Instead, he has spent an inordinate amount of time patiently communicating how he wants P&G to change. In a company famed for requiring employees to describe every new course of action in a one-page memo, Lafley's preferred approach is the slogan. For example, he felt that P&G was letting technology rather than consumer needs dictate new products. Ergo: "The consumer is boss." P&G wasn't working closely enough with retailers, the place where consumers first see the product on the shelf: "The first moment of truth." P&G wasn't concerned enough with the consumer's experience at home: "The second moment of truth."
Lafley uses these phrases constantly, and they are echoed throughout the organization. At the end of a three-day leadership seminar, 30 young marketing managers from around the world present what they have learned to Lafley. First on the list: "We are the voice of the consumer
within P&G, and they are the heart of all we do." Lafley, dressed in a suit, sits on a stool in front of the group and beams. "I love the first one," he laughs as the room erupts in applause.

This idea that brands are precious, fragile, and ever changing, and that they are built on these two “moments of truth” is at the center of my beliefs and approach. I deeply believe that while brands matter deeply, brand loyalty is an outmoded and potentially dangerous idea (see previous blog essay) and that a consumer’s “brand preference” and hopefully “brand advocacy” has to be built, rebuilt and re-earned every day, truly a daily regimen!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Brand Loyalty, a dangerous and outmoded marketing principle

Like so many things in business today, the speed and acceleration of change is having an amazing widespread impact. Across the past thirty years of my business career, I have experienced the advent and explosion of technology across a wide number of fronts. It’s hard to imagine that in my first marketing role in 1985, there was one fax machine shared in our BUILDING, one PC that was shared by my DEPARTMENT, no use of cell phones, no concept of a tablet, and no idea of what a “world wide web” might mean to any of us, personally or professionally. Clearly the distant past!! While it seems clear that the dramatic impact of technology has changed many elements of how we get our work done, it is interesting for me to see how these changes have also affected a number of the foundational principles of business and marketing that I was taught in business school. One such example has to do with the concept of “Brand Loyalty,” and the overarching “Brand Adoption Model,” which I was taught as a student over thirty years ago and unfortunately remains in many b-school curriculums today.

This “Brand Adoption Model” was a foundational element in all b-school marketing classes, and typically was depicted as a ladder or across a horizontal spectrum, linear and clear in each distinct step of the process. It usually looked something like this:

Unaided Awareness -> Aided Awareness-> Trial-> Repeat-> Preference-> Loyalty

While I have critiques across the board and at the end of this essay will offer an alternative to the model as a whole, the really dangerous idea of this approach is the concept that “Brand Loyalty” is the destination of this model, the end point of the marketing efforts, and seemingly the unassailable hill of your marketing efforts. Well my experience over the past thirty years and most importantly over the past ten years teaches me that you are never “done” as a marketer, and that the consumer may be loyal today/this moment, but tomorrow is a different story.

The reality of the “promiscuous consumer,” is prevalent across so many categories. We all have more choices for every possible purchase decision, and more information at our fingertips giving us input, ratings, suggestions, discounts, and opinions/reviews for each and every commercial choice. Whether choosing a car, a hotel, a restaurant, a doctor or a seasonal beer for a party, there is a deluge of information and input vying for the consumer’s attention. There should be no surprise that consumers may seem a bit “promiscuous,” so many choices, so little time!!

It is specifically this reality that makes me deeply question the idea of “brand loyalty,” and makes me consider it dangerous and outmoded. No marketer should EVER think about consumers as being “loyal” to their brand. Every day we need to wake with the fear and concern that some other product or brand is out there working hard to capture the interest and imagination of our brand’s consumers, and will not sleep until they divert their attention and purchases to their brand or product. There are so many examples of big brands losing their franchises over the past few decades, just remind yourself of the current status of Blockbuster, Pontiac, Kodak, or Myspace; all at one time leaders in their fields/categories, now all gone (or almost gone) from the landscape of consumer choice. There was certainly no residual “brand loyalty” that insured their success. Quite the opposite, over time consumers explored new choices in those specific categories and found alternative brands/products that better met their needs/wants/desires.

Clearly I think the idea of “Brand Loyalty” is outmoded and dangerous, and correspondingly I think it is time to consider a new “Brand Adoption Model.” Instead of a linear model, I believe that it needs to be circular and dynamic, always working to refresh itself as consumers and marketplaces change and flow over time. And instead of “adoption,” I want to advocate the idea of “Brand Advocacy” as the central defining premise.

Brand Advocacy: whether you want to think that this model begins or ends in this idea, it is vital and central to my thinking. A marketer and a business leader is working to have strong and growing advocates for their brands, and today sharing their pictures (Instagram) or ratings (Yelp) to their personal networks. The most potent way for anyone to consider a new brand / product choice is to have their friends “tell them” about it … otherwise advocate for it!

Brand Relevancy: Once advocated, is the brand relevant in my life and in my set of choices. Recently I had a friend share how much they love a specific SCUBA resort destination in the Caribbean, inclusive of pictures and specific hotel room reccos. While fascinating, I am not interested in SCUBA and thus the advocacy was irrelevant. In the sea of input, ratings and reviews, all consumers process through this “filtering” step.

Brand Action: think of this as “why act now.” Once advocated and relevant, something must trigger some sort of action. This might be an offer for a sample, a discount or a direction of where to find a certain option. Recently I was hosting a friend that not only loves craft beers but looks forward to all of the “Oktoberfest Beers” that hit the market every fall. Well this year I checked reviews on line and while reading a review for Sam Adams Oktoberfest, a pop up ad appeared, highlighting it on special at my local Publix. As a loyal Publix shopper, I was intrigued, and that little spark moved my decision making along.

Brand Purchase: Ultimately all good things need to result into a commercial action. I am a firm believer of A.G. Lafley’s first and second moments of truth for a brand (I will share that idea on a future essay) and that the fist moment of truth for any brand occurs at the point of demand. For many brands/categories that moment is at the retail shelf. Is the brand ready to win at the point of demand, to turn “advocacy, relevance, & action” into a purchase moment? Following up on my Oktoberfest beer example, on my next visit to my local Publix store, I encountered Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer in three environments in that specific store. In the deli, a small display was setup next to an area featuring brats and sauerkraut. In the beer aisle, it was clearly available and nicely merchandised and in stock and cold. Finally, towards the back of the store, there was a nice size display of a family of Sam Adams beers, clearly featuring the Oktoberfest seasonal beer. Three points of brand interaction and a number of clear calls to action at the point of demand, clearly a winning formula for the first moment of truth.

Brand Preference: Well we have come this far, how does the product actually perform to your expectations. Does that brand purchase exceed your expectations, or does it fall below your expectations? How many times have you tried a restaurant with a yelp score of 4+ stars and a sample size of n>= 200, only to be disappointed by the food or the experience? Brands need to win at the point of demand (as highlighted above) AND win at the point of consumption. What was fascinating about my Oktoberfest beer loving friend, he had dismissed Sam Adams as being to mainstream and had never bought it for himself. Once he tried one at my house, he loved it and became a quick advocate!

REPEAT and REPEAT Quickly!!

This model ends as it begins with “Brand Advocacy.” Is your brand experience good enough to make you a fan, a “raving fan,” good enough to make you a "brand advocate??" That is the destination, and hope of every marketer and business leader; that every day, you are creating more “brand advocates” than you did yesterday, more than your known competition, and you always watching the consumers and the marketplace to make your brands/products more relevant every day! This never ending cycle operates at a very high tempo, with technology accelerating the cycle over time. One needs a healthy sense of paranoia as a brand leader today; always scanning the marketplace, working to build your brand's “advocates” one day at a time, every hour and every day!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Track, Rank, & Publish

Over the past few weeks, I have had numerous conversations about performance management. Emanating from my last blog essay, “Beating Cadence, the Drumbeat of Performance Management”, the challenges and opportunities for implementing or improving performance management disciplines seem to cross industries and company sizes broadly. In those conversations, I have found myself referring back to an old practice that I call “Track, Rank & Publish.”

As I mentioned in my previous essay, I deeply believe in the practice and discipline of performance management in business. Keeping a steady “cadence” in that practice has been vital to my past success, and I shared a view in that essay of my “daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual” approach. What I want to elaborate here is that at every step of that “cadence,” I would use this idea of “Track, Rank, & Publish” to illuminate and communicate the status of the team’s performance not just as a whole, but broken down into more accountable entities. Simply put, we would “Track” performance with a regular cadence and I worked hard to eliminate any data/reporting issues that raised any questions with the reports. Second, we would “rank” performance by market, customer, and sales leader very simply high to low, first to worst, good to bad, ahead of plan -> on plan -> below plan, etc. Finally we would “publish” those results in a variety of forums, looking to stay on a “cadence” so the organization would see results and rankings regularly and become accustomed to the idea of “Track, Rank, & Publish.”

There are a number of approaches that I have used over the years to heighten the impact and awareness of the published rankings. One technique was to simply highlight the top 10% vs the bottom 10% of the ranked performance to spotlight the top and bottom performers. Clearly no one wants to be identified as a bottom performer and finding yourself in the bottom 10% was never a desired or comfortable outcome! Taking the smallest move to identify those groups in bold, or to color the top 10% in green (for money!!) and the bottom 10% in red (for stop!!) I was amazed by the impact of just color coding the list; if no one wants to be in the bottom 10%, then REALLY no one wants to be on that list when it is colored red!

Using another approach, I developed a report that I called the “Triple D” report in my last role where we tracked customer performance weekly and sorted the customers in three groups, “Drivers, Defectors, & Drains,” thus the “Triple D” report. To make the “Driver” list, the account had to have positive sales for the week vs year ago, a “Defector” showed no sales for the week and may be a lost or lapsed account, and a “Drain” account showed sales declines for the week vs year ago. Not only did we sort the accounts into these three groupings, we then ranked each list high to low, highlighting the biggest “Drivers, Defectors, & Drains” for the week. It didn’t take long for each sales leader to be watching this report like a hawk, emailing me quickly to emphasize that their customer was a significant “driver”, or WHY their customer was showing up on the “drains” list.

Regardless of approach or technique, the intent (like always) is to accelerate performance by heightening accountability across the organization. Think about your business context and find an approach that works for you, whether using the color coded top and bottom 10% approach, or something like the “Triple D” report, look for ways to expand the visibility and accountability of performance results and use the approach of “Track, Rank & Publish” to accelerate your teams performance!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Beating Cadence, The "Drumbeat" of Performance Management

Tempted as I am to wax nostalgically of my days in The College of Wooster’s Fighting Scot’s Marching Band (yes, fully attired in a Macleod tartan Kilt!), this essay is about the tempo or “cadence” required to make performance management come alive. Let’s start with a definition:

Cadence: Noun,

a: a rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds in language
B: the beat, time, or measure of rhythmical motion or activity

It’s this idea of “rhythmical motion or activity” that I want to focus on today. Over my career, I have had the chance to lead teams and manage businesses of various makeups and sizes. Early on I realized that my natural orientation was NOT to build processes or disciplines to aid me and my team in managing the business, but to move from issue and opportunity as they arose. Oh the naiveté of youth! This “reactive” approach was a mess, often leading from one crisis moment to another, creating a culture of “knee jerk” responsiveness versus one of “planful” discipline. I knew I needed to make a big change, quickly!

What became clear to me was the need to not only identify the key data points and sources, but how often to measure, track and report those key metrics. I won’t go deeply today into the concept of a “core score,” but it is vital in every business to identify the few truly vital pieces of data/metrics for your business, i.e. the “core score/s”, and then be maniacal in your management focus of those metrics. In a world of wildly expanding data, this process of focus and choice of a FEW metrics is difficult and key. My focus today is more on the tempo or cadence of that management “dance.”

After my early false starts in this area, I realized that I NEEDED a regular disciplined cadence to help me successfully manage increasingly complex and sizeable businesses. Over the years I have come to an approach that has allowed me to build a regular cadence across the year. In my most recent role, this cadence has come to fruition over the past 4+ years with great results. Let me work my way by time period:

Daily: It’s important to be careful in this area. Businesses move very dynamically and you could theoretically track performance on an hourly or minute by minute basis. A major retailer tracks their scanner data in 15 minute increments, and it is possible to download store by store data in those 15 minute increments. Fascinating, yes; meaningful, I am not so sure! For me, I like a daily sales report to start every day. I have had the pleasure to work for a California based company over the past few years and we worked out systems to report out daily sales trends by 6am pacific time every morning. Tracking our key eight product categories, we would see trends versus plan and versus year ago. Keeping in mind the vagaries that might arise daily, unique weather events, shifting holiday timing, strange year ago cycles, etc., this daily “wakeup call” allowed me a very close, daily feel for the business. While this daily sales report is widely distributed, I used it personally, not for a team based performance management discussion.

Weekly: I deeply believe in keeping a close eye, or finger, on a business. Things happen so quickly that if you don’t pay attention, a business trend can get away from you. A few months into my last assignment, business trends were very challenging and I instituted a weekly, every Tuesday WebEx/call for my entire organization. I wanted/needed everyone to focus on the immediate issues and opportunities at hand, and a weekly “all hands” call was my approach. I chose every Tuesday to allow the past week’s results to get tabulated, a few customer and product specific reports to be run, and to allow me to digest the landscape and work to guide action. Once I started that weekly call, I never stopped, holding over 200 “Tuesday calls” over the past four years. If I was on vacation, I had another leader fill-in. I lead them from airports, customer lobbies, train stations, parking lots, etc. It didn’t matter the circumstances, the “cadence” continued.

Monthly: As we closed every month, we reviewed a deeper set of metrics, diving into the entire p&l, decomposing our trends to identify action areas for immediate or longer term action. We convened a relatively small, senior team, for this review. Identifying a ½ day monthly to be devoted to this important work. Unlike the “Tuesday call” described above, we learned that this meeting needed to happen in person with all the senior staff in attendance live. We tried “calling in” at first but soon realized that we needed to really dive into the monthly metrics deeply, and discuss them aggressively, and at least our team quickly realized the need for us all to be in the room together. Monthly performance was key, and I would share the results on the next “Tuesday Call” to the broader team and work to focus our efforts on the challenges and opportunities at hand. Additionally we received a variety of syndicated reports on our market based performance relative to competition. These highly awaited “market share reports” were widely and broadly circulated, and then we would do a detailed review in the next weekly “Tuesday Call.”

Quarterly: While obviously a collection of the three prior months, quarterly closes were more than just a financial exercise. We used the quarterly “cadence” to update our team deeply on performance versus plan, since we have been on a quarterly bonus system for a number of years. Realizing that successful months make up successful quarters, and successful quarters make up successful years may seem beyond simple, but breaking a business down into “bite sized” chunks is a vital element of performance management. (read more about “bite sized chunks” in a previous essay, “Aunt Lorraine’s Law.”)

Annual: Now this is big, annual plans and annual performance management is central to success. Annual performance is the real report card of business! Finishing every year NOT ONLY tracking performance to pay bonus (if earned!), but to measure our progress against long term goals AND to gather key learnings/insights on consumer/shopper/category/competitive dynamics is vital. You NEVER miss the annual plan timing, NEVER! You are NEVER too busy to dive into the results to understand performance and to gain key learnings. I have usually tried to time annual or bi-annual sales/marketing meetings to correspond with the fiscal year end so the results and the learnings can be key elements of those experiences.

This little review of performance management cadence is clearly my approach, but one that has served me well across my career and especially over the past few years. Look deeply into your own business and its unique dynamics. You may have different tempos to consider, maybe thinking about unique seasons, or key release dates that may not fit neatly into my “daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual” model. Find the cadence that works for you and your unique situation but stay on track. Just like my 200+ “Tuesday Calls,” don’t be inconsistent with the drumbeat of your cadence. I strongly recommend that you stay on track, stay on tempo, and “beat cadence” for your business; I am confident that once you find your “right” rhythm, you will be pleased with the results and your organization will actually “count on” the consistency of your approach.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Put on the "Kindness Glasses"

You have to say that it’s been a summer filled with challenging news from across the globe. Thinking about this essay, it is almost overwhelming as I consider the range of conflicts, challenges and disasters that we face today in our global community. It is a clear focus to concentrate on the conflict with ISIS and the beheadings of the two journalists in western Iraq. The active war in eastern Ukraine and the saber rattling of both Russia and NATO bring back pre-cold war fears. The rampant spread of the Ebola virus and the potential for a real global pandemic seems to just be another part of a war and fear ridden summer of 2014. While this essay in no way attempts to handle the geo-political or geo-medical issues at hand, it does attempt to take a small step in another direction.

As many of you know and many have read, I lost a very dear friend, mentor and former boss to ALS in the summer of 2009. Bruce Paynter was one of a kind in so many ways, and my ability to spend some time with him and his family during the final few weeks and months of his life is a treasure that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have written a number of essays about that time, and my many lessons from our visits. (You can find all the essays in the archive to the left near the top of this blog listed as “Lessons from Bruce Paynter.”) Today, I want to reflect back to one idea that Bruce shared in a video that he made a few months before his passing, where he talked about “putting on the kindness glasses.”

Bruce made a video that was shared broadly across his company. In it he shares a number of perspectives and ideas, says thanks to a number of folks, and explains to the organization what was happening in his ordeal with ALS. I keep the video on my desktop and find myself “rewatching” it regularly. Towards the middle of the video, he shares a few pieces of advice that came from his ordeal, one of which was his idea of “putting on the kindness glasses.” He shared that he had been so touched and strengthened by the little gestures of others trying to help him as ALS reduced his capabilities. Whether it was cutting his food or picking up a pencil, it was the “small actions” that meant so much to Bruce. He shares that the disease opened his eyes to the many individuals that are struggling every day, with pain, illness, injury, disability, etc. Finally in the video he shares that we should NEVER underestimate how “a little kindness goes a long way.”

Somehow these words, this small video clip, are central in my mind as I reflect on the challenges facing all of us across the globe. What can I do about ISIS? What is my role in eastern Ukraine? How am I helping stop the spread of Ebola? All questions that seem “answer-less.” Well Bruce’s encouragement does come to mind, and it has hit me that maybe my response to all of these “bigger than life “ crises is to “put on the kindness glasses” in my day to day life. Maybe, just maybe, I can make a little difference in my little world. Maybe it could be in helping an older passenger on my flight this morning to LA lift her roller bag into the overhead compartment. Maybe it’s hailing the rental car bus and giving a family a hand getting all of their things from the curb into the van. Possibly it’s helping a foreign couple with directions to the train connecting concourses in Atlanta. Now I know these are all travel specific, but all three “moments” occurred just this morning as I flew from Atlanta to LA.

As I close I think back to my friend Bruce and am strengthened and encouraged (again) by his thoughts and comments and my memories of those days together. He is so right to encourage all of us to “put on the kindness glasses.” We can all take small actions, probably every day, where someone else just needs a little kindness. The world is SO filled with so much hate and pain and strife and loss and loneliness that it is a clear understatement to say that “the world needs a little kindness!”

p.s. one smile from the summer came from the ALS “ice bucket challenge.” What a phenomenon! I had the “pleasure,” to not only be challenged but to share that challenge with three other dear friends that included three ices buckets being poured over my head by my dear daughter Marie. I will keep that video for another day, ha!!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Moments of Passage

In life there are pivot points (see previous essay) and there are moments of significant change, and rarely do we get the chance to mark/recognize or celebrate these “moments” appropriately. Well last week was just that situation for yours truly, and I am proud to say that the event or “moment” was highlighted in very appropriate fashion.

After an amazing experience at Bolthouse Farms, last week I announced my plans to “retire” after having had the chance to work on the business and brand over the past five years. In many ways the time has absolutely flown by, learning so much, having so many new experiences, gaining great respect and affection for the agriculture element of our business, to name a few key highlights. Just the experience two years go of selling the company, ultimately to Campbell’s, was one that I will savor and cherish for years to come. I put “retirement” in quotes to highlight that while that is how we have announced my planned departure, I am not planning on retiring professionally. I have loved my time at Bolthouse, but having flown one million+ miles over the past 3-4 years, I needed and wanted more time with my family, thus the announcement last week.

Now with all of that said, transitions are never easy, and I am not especially good at them personally, so I wanted and needed to do something special to highlight this significant event. Thus a plan started to brew some months ago. I had my eye on an old, restored, Mercedes diesel sedan that was in Los Angeles. While no show car, it had been restored nicely and was in great shape and I went to see the car when I was in LA and started falling in love. Coincidentally, my dear son Bryson talked this past spring about wanting to do a big road trip, just him and me, and the spark of a plan was started.

Well last week that plan came together in a big way. Sunday, August 2nd, was the end of our fiscal year and we announced my departure plans on Friday July 31st. Bryson and I flew to LA on Sunday August 2nd, and after a few hours making calls and wrapping up a few things in our Santa Monica office on Monday, we found our way over to Glendale California (check out,, an awesome place that really know and love these cars), picked up our car and drove back home to Atlanta. Five days on the road, what a perfect way to digest this big event, spend some amazing hours and adventures with my 16 year old son, break in and completely fall in love with a new “old” car, etc. What a way to mark this “moment of passage!” Bryson wrote a blog during the trip, so if you want more of those adventures, checkout

For me, the nexus of the adventure occurred Tuesday afternoon, outside of the Petrified Forest in western New Mexico. Over the past four plus years, I have held a weekly (every Tuesday) conference call for a broad portion of our company at Bolthouse Farms. I would cover weekly/monthly/quarterly performance metrics, key customer/brand issues & opportunities, and close with the focus points for the week/weeks ahead. Every Tuesday, one hour, varied locations, rain or shine. Well last week, from outside the Petrified Forest, I was going to lead my last “weekly call.” I had prepared my numbers and reports as usual, and was prepared for an emotional “moment.” As I sat in the car, Bryson took his guitar, left me to my conference call, and went to sit in the shade in front of a convenience store and strum away. As I sat there, reviewing my last set of numbers while watching my dear son playing his guitar in the shade, I had tears in my eyes BOTH from the company and team that I will desperately miss, and the family that I am so anxious to spend more time with; both “moments” and profound truths exemplified in the parking lot in western New Mexico.

When you have ‘moments” of significant change in your life, and we all have and will, try to find your own way to mark, or celebrate them so they can have the right significance and place in your personal stories. While they may not contain a sixteen year old playing a guitar near the Petrified Forest in rural New Mexico, try to find your own authentic way to literally create memories for a lifetime!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Life's Pivot Points

It is a rare treat to share part of your past with those you love. Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure to take my family back to Edinburgh Scotland, where I spent part of my junior year of college. Like many students, my time abroad was exciting, challenging, a time for growth and exploration and for me a time of one of my life’s “pivot points.”

As I look back across my life, now spanning five decades and counting, there have been a few moments, or as I like to say “pivot points,” that have been dramatic “crossroads” moments of my life. As I said, there have been a few, and candidly just a few, dramatic “pivot points” as I look back over the years that have significantly affected the trajectory of my life. While I will expand on the “pivot point” that occurred so many years ago in Scotland, there have been a few other significant pivots over the years. Two of the most significant moments were my decision to propose to Jennie (and for us to get married now twenty seven years ago) and our decision ten years later to have children. Both of these decisions significantly altered the path of my life at that moment (and clearly the lives of others,) and has lead my life down paths that would not have been explored if other decisions had been made at those “pivot points.”

My moment in Scotland was no different. As I mentioned, I was a college junior, a religion major, who had the chance to study at the Divinity School at The University of Edinburgh. New College (the name of the school) was a wonderful academic environment with students from all over the globe, studying for their masters or doctoral degrees in divinity, and here I was an undergraduate student in this “rarified air.” The academics were wonderful, the professors challenging, the other students engaging, the University filled with things to explore, and other than struggling to learn the taste for Haggis and Black Pudding, my time in Edinburgh was thoroughly enjoyable; that is to say with one MAJOR exception!

I had lost my mother when I was 13, and since her early passing, I had become more and more involved in our local church. Leading Sunday school classes, preaching kid’s sermons, attending summer church camp, etc. I was “certain” that my future was destined to be in a church environment and as I headed to college, I was again “certain” that I was going to be a religion major and that I would head after college to a seminary or divinity school to study for my M.Div.( Masters in Divinity) and then be ordained. I was “certain” of my path candidly until I arrived in Scotland.

It was there, in the snowy cold months of late fall, that I approached a “pivot point.” I loved the academics, and I was flourishing in all the classes, my professors were tremendous, engaging and challenging, the other students fascinating, but as the weeks went along, I started to realize that while I was “vocationally” interested in a professional life in the church, I certainly wasn’t “called” in any spiritual sense to that life. As that became clear, it also was apparent that the folks I was engaged with all around me in that setting who I really admired (faculty, other students, staff members) were the ones who DID feel some sort of “calling” to this path of life. Well to make a long story short, after significant soul searching (more on that below), I left New College after one semester, came back to college, changed majors (from religion to economics) and proceeded to head to Vanderbilt University for my MBA , and the business career that I am in the midst of today.

As I stood in the courtyard of New College this summer, with the statue of John Knox towering above me gathered with Jennie, Bryson and Marie, that decision of thirty three years ago seemed amazingly life changing in hindsight. It was in some ways overwhelming to think about how my life would have been different if I had chosen a different path in Scotland. Would Jennie and I be together? Would Bryson and Marie be alive? Would I have been happy? Would I have had a bigger impact in life??? The questions just seemed to expand. After a few deep breaths I gathered myself and truly reflected on how fortunate I feel in life; with such a good marriage, such wonderful children, such a productive and successful career, etc. I am truly fortunate and I sincerely live life without much regret. What I did reflect on though was that “pivot point” and the elements of “how” I made that decision. As I thought more deeply on those moments in Scotland, I realized that they had a lot in common with the moments surround some of my other “pivot points” of life.

Here are a few reflections on the common “elements” of those “pivot point” decisions:

Get some time to yourself, give yourself room: It sounds so simple, so straight forward, but candidly it’s probable the most difficult of these three ideas. How to do find time away from the pressures of the day to day, made so much harder today by the incessant cacophony of email, texts, tweets, social media. Etc. I found it critical in these big decision moments to “steal away” and find the space or the “room” to dive into the decision at hand. In Edinburgh, it was easy to find time alone for walks across that beautiful city, thinking about the matters at hand, pondering the options and possible implications.

Seek advice but not too much: In a time of formal mentor relationships and an unbelievable amount of on-line advice, it may seem counter intuitive for me to say to not see too much advice. . Seek input from a very close group of trusted associates who know you VERY well, then hunker down and do some “soul searching.” Getting input too broadly will certainly end in a confusion of voices, opinions, perspectives all with good and sensible points and counterpoints. In these big “pivot points” of life, it really is up to you to sort it out for yourself. It is only YOU who will own the outcome!

Listen to your heart/gut more than your head: Once you get all of the input you need, with a bit of time and space away from the “rat race” of life, my advice is to work hard on “listening” to your heart/gut. In these big “pivot points” of life, it is very important to quiet the mind a bit and really listen to your heart and what seems to feel the most “right” to you. I know this doesn’t sound very analytical or imperial, but in my experience it holds very true. The biggest and best decisions of my past were not the ones that I “thought “were best, but those that I “felt” were right.

Well, hopefully these ideas will trigger some reflection on your own. Whether you look back on the “pivot point” decisions of your life, or you are facing one of those moments presently, see if these three ideas ring true, or can be helpful in the moments ahead. Remember the deep truth is that life is meant to be “lived”; completely UNABLE to affect yesterday but infinitely ABLE to affect the road of life and the “pivot points” ahead!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Keep Your Feet Moving Through The Hole

It’s unusual for me to use a football metaphor (that’s American Football I should say as I write this during the World Cup Final) as the theme of one of my essays. My little stories are typically tied to unique business moments from my past or family stories from my past. This theme is one that I refer to often and actually did with a dear friend last week.

I was back and forth via email with a good friend that I have known now for more than ten years. He and I were working to coordinate travel calendars, and I checked in on his travel plans in the midst of a hectic day. While busy as usual on my end, I had no idea of the challenges that my friend was handling that day. He was working through a very challenging business deal, handling the multitude of family priorities, and had just found out that his newly purchased truck was not what he had expected (previously existing title, engine not matching the truck’s serial number, etc.) As I caught up to him that evening he was feeling the challenges of the week mounting and I quickly encouraged him to “stay on your feet, don’t stop, and keep your feet moving through the hole.”

For those unfamiliar with this image from football, the idea comes from advice for a running back as he hits the line. While there may be an intended ”hole” in the line of the designed running play, it’s typical that the running back, after the handoff, hits a lot of linemen (defense and offense alike) and it seems that the “hole” has collapsed to nothing. If the running back slows down or stops at that point, he is dead in his tracks and is almost always immediately tackled. If he keeps his feet moving, driving forward, you never know what might happen. Little breaks may open up, intended or even unintended, holes may open up. From a seemingly dead stop, a big gain mya be achieved if and only if the running back “keeps his feet moving.”

This idea is direclty transferrable to the business landscape! It is very typical to hit an obstacle or an unexpected challenge that seems to stop us in our tracks. Rather than slowing down or letting the challenge of the moment stop your efforts, keep working, keep iterating, keep executing, keep trying and you never know what opportunities “might” still arise. By “keeping your feet moving through the hole,” you give yourself the chance to have good things happen. Nothing “good” will happen if you stop trying!

This idea, while it is deeply true professionally, is equally true in your personal life. We all have faced, and will face, unexpected challenges in our lives. Whether the loss of a loved one, an unexpected setback in your family, or some other challenge/issue (inclusive of a truck’s serial number not matching the chassis,) we will all face challenges and setbacks in our lives. When those moments come, as they will, don’t let them stop you completely. Keep living, keep trying, keep working to try to make tomorrow a little better than yesterday; if you can remember to “keep your feet moving through the hole,” you give yourself the best chance to make something good or great out of a tough situation.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Heartwarming "Selfie"!

I have to admit that the “selfie” in this essay is most definitively my first. Not trying to compete with the famous “selfies” of Pope Francis, or President Obama, or even Ellen DeGeneres & Bradley Cooper, I thought it was high time that I joined into this most modern trend; and who better to partner with than my dear Aunt Lorraine!

Now Aunt Lorraine will be embarrassed when she sees this essay, she has become “famous” across our company, and across a number of other organizations, for her very powerful concept, “Aunt Lorraine’s Law.” In an early essay by that same name, I shared a story of how as a boy I was quite a picky eater and Lorraine tried to get me to eat my vegetables with the admonition… “William, take small bites and chew thoroughly, and you can swallow anything!” Over the years, those simple words kept coming to mind, not as a model to “eat my vegetables,” but as a simple and powerful lesson on how to handle the challenges of life.

This week I had the need to be at our parent company’s Headquarters in Camden, NJ and one evening after work I drove over to visit Aunt Lorraine who lives an hour or so away. Lorraine had recently been having some knee troubles, so I particularly wanted to see how she was getting along. We visited for a while, catching up on family news, and after a bit we went out to dinner with her two closest friends, Herbie and Audrey. The dinner was terrific (especially the Chicken Saltimbocca!) and we raised a glass of wine and toasted to the “three canes and four smiles” around our dinner table. Herbie treated us to dinner (thanks again Herbie) and we headed back to Lorraine’s so I could drive back to my hotel in Philadelphia before it got dark that night. While only a few hours, it was a wonderful visit!

As I drove home, I thought about seeing Lorraine and all the people from our past now gone, whom I would love to have a chance to visit with again and sit around a dinner table and enjoy a meal. Of course I thought about my mom Arline Wark Levisay, Lorraine’s sister, now almost forty years past. I thought about my Dad, his mother Mama, her sister Marge and husband Adley, my mother-in-law Jane and her daughter Carrie, my friend Bruce …. and as I drove west towards Philly, the list continued to grow. What would I give for just one more visit, one more dinner, and one more chance to sit for a few hours and catch up??

As I made it back to my hotel with a beautiful sunset in sight, it was clear to me that the lesson from my visit with Lorraine was simple; see the people you love NOW, while you can! If you have a chance for a few hour visit, do it NOW, no excuses! Life is lived with no rewind feature. We only have NOW and hopefully tomorrow, but you never know. Sure life is busy and work priorities, and outside obligations often get in the way, but work hard to fight those seemingly “urgent” obligations and focus in on what is truly “important” in life, sharing time with those you love! Take a few hours and visit “your Aunt Lorraine” and take a “Heartwarming Selfie” of your own to remember help you remember the moment for years to come!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Watch the Feet!

Over the past few months I have found myself coming back to a theme that continues to ring true broadly in my life. In numerous professional situations, personal discussions, or political realities I am struck by how many times I keep finding myself saying to not get distracted by the talking points/discussions or “the words”, but to “watch the feet,” and let the actions of the situation betray the truth.

I was in a recent private discussion with an old friend who had introduced me to a new professional colleague. I had just met this person as we sat down to lunch to discuss a challenge she was dealing with professionally, and my role was to be “the outside guy”, not encumbered by ANY knowledge of the specifics of the situation. She described numerous meetings, and pronouncements by the different parties involved the posturing back and forth and the debates on various key issues. After a few minutes of quietly listening she looked over to me as asked, “Bill, what does this all sound like to you???” Maybe it was lack of sleep or too much travel, but I blurted out in almost a “rain manlike” tone, “well, it sounds like a bunch of chatter, just a bunch of monkeys in the trees!” Well the conversation stopped and I apologized for being so abrupt but I asked her to describe NOT what people were saying or talking about, but what they were DOING or NOT DOING. While there had been a lot of “chatter,” it became clear from her answers there was very little action of any kind.

I shared the story from the movie “The Reader” that I have quoted in earlier essays where the student in the movie approaches his professor, asking his opinion about a challenging situation he was facing. The professor after listening politely responds sharply that the student’s feelings and intentions were “utterly unimportant” and all that truly matters is what the student “chooses to DO!” It’s the actions, not the words/intentions/feelings that are important to assess.

Shakespeare in his tragedy Coriolanus has a marvelous quote that amplifies this same concept:

“In such business action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears.”

This idea that “action is eloquence” is the center of my point. Even in this lesser known of Shakespeare’s plays, he advises the audience to watch the actions of the characters, more than listen to their speeches, enabling even the most ignorant to become truly learned.

Recently I was on the phone with an old friend who was once again missing a college reunion activity. He expressed his frustration on the date of the get-together and it’s conflict with his teaching schedule and while I listened for a moment, I did interrupt his commentary; reminding him that since he had missed our 5 , 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 year reunions, I wasn’t surprised that he was missing this recent activity. Flustered and a bit defensive by my comment, I just said that we would miss him and we would continue to invite him in the future, (clearly with no expectations for his participation.) Watch the Feet!

We often see this dynamic in the political arena worldwide. How many times have you seen some world leader give an eloquent speech that is a description or more likely an obfuscation of the actual facts on the ground? It is not bounded by country, party, or ideology, this habit of using “spin” (another word for “chatter”) to “reposition or clarify” the actions are unfortunately common across the globe.

Whether in business, personal affairs, or in politics, the more we can “watch the feet” and not be distracted by “the chatter in the trees”, the better we are all off to truly understand the environments where we operate. We need to work hard in our media dense world to not get distracted by the “monkeys in the trees” that bombard us every day, but to keep our eyes on the “eloquence of actions” across the landscape.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Talent: Four "Precious" Traits

Over my almost thirty year career, I have really evolved on the subject of talent. When I had my first leadership assignment at Kraft Foods in the late 1980’s, I had no appreciation for the precious nature of talent. I certainly didn’t understand just how rare it was to have a team of bright, motivated, talented people waking up every day trying to do their best for you (their leader) and the company. Over the decades I have had the pleasure to lead some amazing teams, from those early days at Kraft, across the assignments at Coke and my real honor to lead my current team at Bolthouse Farms. I choose the word “honor” intentionally, feeling truly privileged to have had the chance over the past four years to work alongside such an amazing group of people. Truly honored!

As I reflect on the precious nature of talent, I am struck by a number of “traits” or characteristics that I have found precious over the past three decades, and how rare they are to find in organizations. I have not figured out how to modify current interviewing techniques to better screen for these four “traits” (maybe an idea for future opportunities), I am confident that if WE can recruit talent with more of these characteristics, our organizations will certainly benefit. After discussions with my good friend Cathy who I truly have the pleasure to work with once again, I have boiled these musings into four “precious “ traits:

Appreciative Inquiry

This rare “trait” is where an individual is not just a good questioner, but is open and excited to learn from all around them. So often, people are surrounded by tremendous resources and act like they already “know it all” and not only do they not ask many questions, they certainly aren’t excited about what they might learn. I highlighted this idea in a previous essay (“Selling: The art of the Question”) but it spans all organizational roles or functions. How many times have you come to the end of an interview and opened it up to the candidate to ask any questions on their mind? It’s amazing to me how many of those moments over the years the questions asked are limited (or nonexistent) and certainly not deeply insightful, challenging, or provocative. I often assess candidates more on the quality of their questions versus their answers in an interview. If an individual doesn’t use an interview to ask important questions, it is likely they won’t do so in a hectic, demanding work environment.

Constructive Problem Solver

Every business, every team (and in fact every nation, every family, etc.) will encounter problems over the course of time. Problems are coming, that’s a given! What isn’t certain is how an individual or a team “handles” the challenges when they do hit. Too often individuals freak out, complain, and shut down, certainly a trio of dangerous responses. In the face of challenges, having people that calmly “work the problem”, driving to understand core issues/root causes (see “Appreciative Inquiry” above) then diving into action to make things better is deeply important. While rarely driving to “perfect” answers, having a team of folks driving to solutions to make a problem “better” rather than freaking out and shutting down is often the difference between organizational success or failure.

Advocates and Agents for Growth

Growth is one of those little words that we have used since we were kids, but in the business context it is a powerful, subtle, and often misunderstood concept. My reference here is the “trait” of individuals who are not only looking for and identifying avenues for growth, but are personally diving in and making “growth” happen! How many times have you been in a meeting with really smart indivuals with a ton of ideas on how to “change the trajectory “(i.e., “drive growth”) of a brand or a business but are surprisingly scarce when the real work of making “growth” happen begins. This combination of “Advocate and Agent” is so rare and again precious, that when you find an individual or two who can embody both of these ideas simultaneously, amazing results often follow.

Humbly Optimistic

Here is another combination that is rare to find, but is such a driver of progress in an organization. Having the ability to operate every day, every month, every quarter, …. that we can always make tomorrow better than yesterday; fundamentally waking up every morning looking forward to making the future a bit better than the past is a contagious “trait” in an organization. When you combine it with a strong dose of humility rather than arrogance, tremendous things occur. When you recruit for key leadership roles, especially senior roles of “leaders of leaders”, remember this combination. Organizations today are hugely populated by millennials and the old days of successful command and control leaders are a thing of the past. The younger the organization is, the more I would encourage you to think about this combination “trait” in your leaders, and look for the leaders of tomorrow among your most humble and optimistic strong performers today!

Well I am certain there are many more ideas that I should highlight here today, but these four precious “traits” ring true to me and my experience not only over the past three decades but the last three months. Keep these four ideas in mind as you recruit for talent, or as you do your succession planning inside of your organizations in the future. Try to remember that your organization and your team are fundamentally “precious” in their own right, and that it is an honor for us to have the chance to be leaders in the first place!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Nifty Invention from a Thrifty Dad

My dad, who passed away last fall, was many things across his life. He was a great engineering student, an avid fisherman, a dedicated scout and scoutmaster, a hunter of “indian relics”, and a dedicated gardener to name but a few of his avocations. One thing he was always “famous” for was tinkering in his workshop/garage/basement and coming up with ingenious inventions. When I was a boy, my dad actually built our color TV in our basement from a box of parts and instructions that he had ordered from a company called “Heathkit.” We knew as kids to give the basement a wide berth when his soldering iron was on and he was doing detailed circuit board work!

Over the years his inventions spanned the gamut, from electronic ignitions that he made for our family cars (one of which conked out on a family trip, ha!) to the TV mentioned above, and many creations in between. Whether rigging up a radio to keep the deer out of our garden, or building a car roof rack to carry our family canoe, his creations over the years were always ingenious and practical.

Late in my dad’s life, he suffered with Parkinson’s disease. He endured that menace for over fifteen years, again using his creativity and ingenuity to work through the problems he was challenged with every day. Six or seven years ago my dad underwent the Medtronic “Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)” surgery; a procedure that includes having a number of implants placed into the brain and a “monitor” placed under the skin. While quite an invasive procedure, my dad was fascinated by the technology, and was always “tweeking” it and working with the Medtronic folks on ways to optimize the therapy. I remember a conversation with him a year or two ago when he wanted to hook himself up to one of his osciliscopes (how many dad’s have two osciliscopes??) so he could “self adjust” the electronic settings to his bodies “natural wavelength.” Thankfully the folks in the Neurologists office passed on his suggestion!

A much simpler invention that he was proud of was his “pocket hanging” cane. Because of his disease, my dad used a walking stick/cane for stability over his last few years. He was always looking for a place to put it as he opened doors, went to the bathroom, etc., and thus he came up with another ingenious solution. He built onto the cane, using common hardware, a small wire appendage that he would hook into his pocket, thus holding the cane at his side when he needed to use his hands for other work. He was so proud of this little invention and was wondering about patenting it just weeks before he passed.

I came upon another one of his inventions the other day which I have pictured below. My dad always loved a good cup of coffee and he was well known for being cheap, clearly a son of the depression! Once he discovered that he could buy good coffee in bulk at Sam’s club, he was sold but perplexed on how to keep it fresh once he had opened the package. Using the little vacuum stoppers made for wine bottles, he cut a hole in the lid of a mason jar (more on coffee and mason jars in a future essay) , sealed the stopper into the lid with epoxy, and abracadabra, you have an invention that lets you keep your ground coffee fresh by removing the air from the jar. Simple, clever, and practical! I use it now in my home to hold freshly ground coffee and it works like a charm!!

I often think back on my Dad, remembering little experiences and little stories, and on the whole I remember him very fondly. I miss my dad and I miss his little inventions. He was a regular reader of this blog before he passed, and I think he would be proud and amazed that his little mason jar coffee invention made it into one of the essays!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Selling: The Curbside Debrief

Selling: The Curbside Debrief

Well I have taken a little time on this one because of all the selling practices and management routines that I believe in and practice, the one that I am probably most known for is “The Curbside Debrief.” As is many things in life, I have been doing this for so long that I can’t exactly remember when I first learned this simple and powerful “practice.” I know for sure that I learned the idea more than twenty years ago, as a young marketer at Coke. I had the chance at that time to work closely with a number of outstanding veteran executives who were frankly “expert” in their work with customers and sales organizations. It is when I first worked with my current boss, Jeff Dunn, and we both also had the opportunity and privilege to work closely with Dick Flaig and Charlie Frenette. While I can’t be exactly sure, I think I learned the idea of the “curbside debrief” and the following approach from Jeff’s dad, Walter Dunn. Walter meant a great deal to me, and he was an amazing gentleman (I chose that word carefully and I do not use it often) and quite an icon across the Coke system globally, having worked in that organization for 40+ years! He passed away in 2009 and I know that I am only one of many who miss him deeply.

The idea behind the “Curbside Debrief” is a very simple one. Regardless of how big or small, how many people, how hot or cold, or how well the sales call went, you take the time to IMMEDIATELY review EVERY call, preferably literally at the curb of your customers office, always working on ways to constantly improve. I have literally done them in parking lots, airports, theme parks, restaurants, many times in a vehicle, and even once on a ski-lift. I remember once with Walter Dunn we had just finished an extremely successful sales call with a large team who had been working for weeks up to the [pitch that we just knocked out of the park. I wanted to let the team head out and enjoy some much deserved rest and Walter insisted that we pause and do our “Curbside Debrief” there in one of the big meeting rooms at Coke. I said to Walter that since the pitch had gone so well, why couldn’t we skip just this one time, (silly silly me!) He quietly said (and I remember the words just like it was yesterday) “well Bill, even the best moments can be made better.” Humbled quickly, we worked our way through the debrief and indeed, there were a few things that we could have made better and a number of action steps that we might have forgotten.

The approach / routine of the debrief is always the same, there are 6 key steps/questions that you use EVERY time, and you use your hand as a mnemonic device to not miss any step. A participant typically moderated the “debrief”, and the individual / individuals who lead the call provide the answers. It’s definitely a communal process, everyone can and should participate, but the ones “owning the call” ultimately “own the debrief.”

Question #1: “Was the call successful and how would you know?” (Use the thumb) Think back to your call plan, did you accomplish your sales objectives for this call? How would you know if you did? Does everyone see it the same way or are their different points of view. Remember, there are always lots of opinions, let everyone get heard!

Question #2: “What worked?” (Use the fore finger) Take a moment and celebrate the things that worked in the call, maybe a certain person played a key role, maybe a certain part of the deck really connected. It could literally be anything, but on all calls but especially unsuccessful ones, always start with “what worked.”

Question #3: “What didn’t work?”(Use the middle finger / strangely symbolic, ha!) Now don’t let this become a feeding frenzy, but go over the elements that went awry. I have seen some very successful sales calls that had some horrid moments, and the opposite is equally true. If there are a lot of items to critique, really try to start with the big ones.

Question #4: “What will we ALWAYS do again?”(Use the ring finger) The key word here is ALWAYS! This is to work to build into your process things that will become required elements every time, not just a few of the things that worked well recently. Remember that you will ALWAYS have at least one item on this list ….. You will ALWAYS do a “Curbside Debrief!”

Question #5: “What will you NEVER do again? (Use your pinkie) This is the flip side of #4, what things happened in that call that we want to NEVER see happen again, what can we take out of our repertoire for good?

Question #6: “Action Steps?” (Use your palm) It is vital to have someone take notes throughout, but vital at this step. Everyone go over their notes from the meeting, and be sure to not have missed anything. Often times the individuals presenting are not in a position to take the best notes, or capture all the action steps.

Well there you have it, the “Curbside Debrief”, a simple six step approach that with practice, will improve your approach with customers over time. As I said above, I probably learned it in the early 1990’s, but this simple approach certainly goes back decades. Use it and make it your own, and as many things go it will improve with discipline and practice, and remember ….. Immediately after EVERY call, preferably with your foot resting on the curb!!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Selling: "Sell the Suit, Don't Sell the Buttons"

As an extension to the lessons in the previous essay, “Selling: The art of Questions”, I want to take a minute and expound on a very simple idea. It seems that as we prepare ourselves for a “selling moment”, our research and pre-work sometimes produces unintended results and outcomes. As I covered in the last essay, we need to take time and prepare thoughtful and “planful” questions to use in “selling moments” in order to get the customer talking about his/her issues, opportunities or concerns. Even in moments where we have done this vital preparation, we still need to be prepared to review and cover our “selling proposition” in detail. Now, not just detail or all the details, but “detail enough” to secure the customers commitment to the sale. Sorting out this delicate balancing act, figuring out how to “Sell the suit, but not the buttons,” is the core of this essay.

In my experience, it is so tempting to be given a venue to share your thoughts and expertise, that all of us are tempted to “go overboard” with un-needed levels of details. At times, it is a matter of “showing off” on how much one knows, whether with our without intent. At times I have seen it a result of the level of preparation or pre-work gone haywire. I was in a recent customer meeting that was going well from the first minute. The “buyer” was excited about our category, our brand and our products and seemed ready to “buy” almost anything we were selling. After a few questions to help us understand the landscape and the buyer’s headset, my sales lead dove into the “deck” and started presenting our proposition. As I said above, the buyer loved it and started saying “yes” immediately. Now this was on page 5 of a 25 page presentation and rather than slowing down and taking a breath, (see a previous essay titled “PBR: pause/Breathe/Reconnect”) the sales person kept driving forward, clearly unaware of the buyers status of already being “sold.” After a page or two more I intervened, literally placing my hand on the sales persons arm to get them to stop speaking for a moment, and asked the buyer a few questions on potential next steps, and any additional information requirements. They had no follow-up questions, needed no additional information, and instead wanted to talk about timing and executional elements. Quickly we turned to page 24 & 25, shared the dates, and timing of our plan which the buyer loved and 5 minutes later we were done. We sold the “suit”, but almost had the “buttons “get in the way!

I see this situation all too often, and sometimes at very high levels in meetings between senior executives. Work hard to use questions to help understand the “selling landscape.” Stay very aware to buyer’s needs, and responses to your selling propositions. Remember to practice “PBR” and slow down enough to actually see where you might stand in the situation and work to understand what the buyer needs/wants to know in order to say “yes” to your proposition. And finally, try hard to remember to “sell the suit, don’t sell the buttons” as you work to have success in your “selling moments!”

Monday, February 10, 2014

Selling: the art of the "question"

It seems like such a simple idea. Understand your customer, his/her needs and issues enough to tailor your product/service solution to meet those needs and “close the sale” to the benefit of your customer and your company/organization. From the earliest moments of recoded history, there are depictions of interactions in “the marketplaces” of early Rome, Athens, and Alexandria all depicting the age old process of buying and selling. The simple elements of this process, regardless of the wild changes of technology over the centuries, remain in place today, relatively untouched over the millennium. What interests me today is a phenomenon that I see growing that I want to suggest should be a thing of our past.

I will start this diatribe with a thought that in my experience, the best “sellers” are actually the best “questioners.” Now it doesn’t hurt if the individuals in question can handle themselves in front of a crowd and can turn a run-of-the-mill PowerPoint deck into a compelling “Tedtalk like” experience. With that said though, individuals who are great at crafting and asking questions of potential “buyers,” using EVERY customer interaction as a chance to build their understanding of the issues and needs of their buyers, have by far been the most successful in my experience. Getting a buyer to open up and start talking about THEIR ideas, THEIR concerns, THEIR worries; measuring a sales call by how much time that you LISTENED rather than SPOKE, now that’s the true heart of successful selling!

As I mentioned above, over the past few years I have witnessed a growing trend of the one-way pitch. Too many instances where there was so much information, so much detail, so many supporting research reports, and so many slides that just “getting through the deck” would take more time that was scheduled. In a recent senior executive meeting with a major retailer, literally scheduled as a dialog and an input session, I witnessed an individual who was presenting at the moment ask an audience member, a senior executive from the retailer, OUR CUSTOMER, to hold their question and they would try to get to it later because they had “so much info” to go through. Unbelievable and unacceptable! I jumped in and asked the speaker to hold on and I turned to the retail executive and asked her to share her questions/comments. She had real concerns about the topics being discussed, and only by letting her talk could we possibly understand the real and significant underlying concerns. Regardless to say the presenter did not finish all of his slides, having to adjust his content for the time still available; instead all of us in the meeting room actually had a moment of real “input” that sparked a discussion or “dialog” on possible solutions. It was clear to me that we were much farther ahead by listening, and slowing down, rather than charging through the slides regardless of comment/concern!

In an essay written a number of years ago (“You are the PowerPoint”) I commented about this tendency of letting the presentation guide your approach. I want to re-emphasize the need to absolutely get a grip in this area. NEVER and I mean NEVER plan for more than 1 slide for each 2 minutes of a meeting. A 30 minute meeting (which is very common) can NEVER have more than 15 slides, NEVER! In the same spirit take as much time planning your QUESTIONS as you do planning and building your presentation. To do a strong, crisp 30 minute meeting (remember only 15 slides), give yourself time to craft at least 15 thoughtful and tight questions, allowing you to advance the sale of the day AND build your understanding for future interactions and sales. Recent technological advances have certainly allowed us to create impressive presentations. We must be disciplined to use that technology to allow us to be great “questioners”, not just one way “fire hosers.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Turkey Bag

For some of the early readers of this blog, now almost five years ago,
You may remember this story as the first essay that I posted. It was the
Story that prompted me to think about the idea of "Legacy" in the first
Place and seemed a very appropriate start to this on-line adventure. Now
With more than 100 essays on line, and thousands of readers from across
The globe, this adventure has taken on a life of it's own. With all of that
Said, I became aware this past week that a few of the earliest essays had somehow
Been erased or eliminated on the blog due to a maintenance error, so I needed to
Get this special story back up on line as my first priority! I hope that you enjoy it!

The story goes…in the summer of 1998, my grandmother—Lakie
Pearl Hill—became aware that she was about to die. Lakie was born
in April of 1901, and she lived for 45 or 50 years on her own in
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in a little house on 16 Mill
Hill Drive. She lived on a C&O Railroad pension.

I never knew she didn’t have very much. I just knew she was the
wisest person in my life. And she was a rascal—the 11th of 13
children of William Bryson Hill…(my son Bryson is named after
him.) He was a vagabond, a frontier scout, a silver miner, and a
Postmaster. He was a kind of outdoorsman—a trailblazer.
But Ma Ma, as she was known by all the family members, was 97
years old and she knew she was not long to live. My son Bryson
had just been born, and we as a family went to go to see her—because
she wanted to see everybody before she passed.

It was a powerful experience—the only time in my life that I’ve been with
someone aware of and reconciled to die. A long life, but she was still very,
very sharp. Her body was just about done.
My Aunt Lorraine (who is famous for Lorraine’s Law—“Take small
bites and chew thoroughly,” which is a whole separate story) and
I went to see Ma Ma in July of ‘98. We went to that little house in
White Sulphur Springs, and she’d be awake for a few hours and
then asleep— three hours on and three
or four hours off. Aunt Lorraine and I were there for two days.

What was so powerful about the experience was that she wanted
to remember things from our lives. It’s a lesson to remind yourself
—when you’re about to die, when you’re about to leave this
world…there wasn’t a single thing on her mind about stuff…or
things. There was nothing about houses or cars, or money or jewelry
or anything. What she wanted to talk to everyone about was people
and memories.

I remember sitting by her bed one afternoon, and she was asking
Lorraine “Do you remember your sister Arlene, Bill’s mom? And
that great day when she got married…and how beautiful she was?
(My mom died in 1974.) “Do you remember the day Billiam (her
nickname for me) was baptized? He just screamed like he was stuck
with a pin.” “Yes, Ma Ma, I remember…”
And it would go like that. And it was unbelievable. It was so teary
and emotional but I knew it was a meal you wanted to taste every
bite of. And it was something I’ll never forget.

That afternoon she turned her attention to me and we talked about
some of the memories of the things we did together. She said
“Billiam, do you remember coming and having Thanksgiving
with me?” And I said “Yes, Ma Ma I do…that was when I was
back in college…” She says “Do you remember what you brought
with you?”
Now, this was the summer of ’98 and my grandmother who’s about
to die was remembering me coming to see her for Thanksgiving in
November of 1981. And I was barely remembering this. Because I
was a college junior, and there were a lot of things going on…not
a lot of which I was remembering so clearly. So I said “Well Ma
Ma, if I remember right, I think I brought a turkey.”
“Yes, you did! Yes, you did Billiam, you brought a turkey, and that
was a fine turkey at that meal. Do you remember we had it for our
Thanksgiving meal, and I made turkey hash that next morning,
and we had turkey sandwiches that next day?”
“Yes, Ma Ma, I do remember that.” I’m not positive I remembered
that turkey hash, but I wanted to, that’s for certain!

Then she said, “Well Billiam, do you remember what that turkey
came in?” Now at this point I stretched my mind because I had the
decision to make whether I was going to lie to her or not. I had no earthly
recollection of what that turkey came in. And how could I? Seventeen
years ago…I barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday!

“No, Ma Ma, I’m so sorry. I don’t remember at all. What did that
turkey come in?” She said, “Well Billiam, it came in a bright yellow plastic mesh bag.

“Ma Ma, that’s incredible” I said. How can you remember that?”
“Well what you don’t realize, Billiam, is that when you left and
went back to college, I took that bag and cut it up into small squares
and tied the corners of those squares with plastic twine. I used those
squares to scrub my pots for a decade. And I always thought about you and
that great time we had together!”

It was hard to bear…the emotions of all this…I remember just breaking
down. And she said, “You know Billiam, that meant a lot
to me…”

That was the first time I learned about leaving a legacy. Because I
had no idea of what I had done. And yet to Ma Ma, she’d scrub
her pans each night and she’d remember that meal. She remembered
a legacy that I had left without really knowing it or planning it!

The truth is that we all are leaving legacies, everyday, some unintentional
like the turkey bag, and some very intentional.
I tell this story to people because…not just to remember my grandmother,
although I do want to do that…but to ask how much we’re
leaving behind that we have no idea about? Are they the things we
want to leave? Are we leaving the legacy we want to leave?

I’m proud of the fact that Ma Ma used those pot scrubbers for 10
years. I’m humbled to think that she remembered that long ago
Thanksgiving visit so sweetly. I’m also inspired to think about all
the lasting images that we are leaving behind everyday…with our friends,
our families, our workmates and our teams.

Remember Ma Ma and take a second to think about what you’re leaving behind…what are
your legacies?

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Importance of Grit

As we enter a new year, filled with challenges, uncertainty, and untold opportunity, this seems a perfect time to share this essay on the idea of “Grit.” No, I do not plan to share my sweet wife Jennie’s wonderful cheese grits recipe (though a possibility for a future essay,) nor do I want to debate the respective performances of John Wayne versus Jeff Bridges playing the wonderful role as Rooster Cogburn. No, as we refocus our efforts after a wonderful holiday break, it is time to be challenged and inspired but the work of Professor Angela Duckworth and her work on the importance of “Grit.”

Professor Duckworth gave a “TED Talk” in April of 2013 and the video of that talk was passed along to me just a few months ago. The link to that video and to a Wall Street Journal online article follows.

She shares the story that after starting her career as a management consultant, she moved to teach Junior High Math in the New York City schools. In that experience, she discovered that her students’ performance in class was not directly correlated to their IQ or their level of talent, but seemed to be dependent on significantly different factors. She realized that the students who demonstrated higher levels of “passion”, “perseverance”, and “stamina” (this combination of traits she coins as “Grit”) were the ones succeeding in her classroom, rather than those with high IQ scores.

After experiencing this phenomenon, she went back to grad school, where she studied psychology, and studied various groups/organizations on this same topic of “Grit vs. Talent/IQ” as a predictor of success. She studied more high school students, participants in the National Spelling Bee, West Point Cadets, Rookie Teachers, Corporate sales people and kept finding the same results. Those individuals who had the stamina to persevere, those who had the passion for their future goals, were the one succeeding. She shares that those who “live life like a marathon versus a sprint … and who stick with their future goals,” in shorthand those with “Grit,” were the individuals succeeding in the widely varying environments. Professor Duckworth closes her talk by raising a question, wondering whether “Grit” can be taught, and whether “Grittiness” is students and children can be encouraged and enhanced over time.

To say the least this topic has resonated with me, and correlates directly to my experiences over my almost 30 year career in business. Over that span I have had the chance to work for four public Fortune 500 companies and a private equity owned private company, literally working closely with thousands of executives, and my experiences lead me to believe that the most successful individuals in their roles, and across those company environments, have not necessarily been those with the highest IQ. Just as Professor Duckworth suggests, those typically most successful over the long haul are those individuals with a strong passion for the long term goal, those with perseverance and stamina to overcome setbacks and challenges, otherwise those with “Grit.” Now I am not going to suggest that organizational “saviness” and high levels of technical competence aren’t important drivers. In my experience they certainly are critical, just not sufficient to describe the drivers of successful individuals.
While Professor Duckworth continues her research into whether “gritiness” can be taught, I have a few ideas, or tips, on how to help to encourage and enhance it in our organizations and teams.

Manage Your Own Expectations
We need to always remember the truth that business, as in life, runs in cycles. Think about the most successful companies; at one point of time they faced obstacles and major challenges. Think of Apple Computers, certainly a major success story over the past few decades. While the successes are staggering, don’t forget about the Apple Newton, the Apple Lisa, the hockey puck mouse, or the number of other failures and setbacks that they faced AND overcame. The thing to remember is that there WILL be setbacks and issues; do not be surprised by them, expect them. The truly great organizations, teams, and individuals don’t let challenges stop them in their tracks. They identify the issues at hand and work hard and often overcome them deftly. The reality that when things are great, they may not stay great, and that when things are tough, they equally will not stay that way is often hard to remember.

Slow things down and keep breathing
Especially in moments of crisis and difficult challenge, it is easy to let the intensity of the moment accelerate the situation, often leading to less than optimal decisions and outcomes; when things get wild, work hard to actually “slow” the tempo down. Take a few extra breaths; concentrate on the immediate issues at hand that HAVE to be decided immediately, putting all others on a schedule to be handled at later times. Unlike to adage of “ripping off the band aid quickly,” I remember “Aunt Lorraine’s Law” (see previous essay by said name) and actually work to decompose the issues/challenges/problems into smaller, more handle able, “bite sized” pieces.

Keep your Feet moving through the hole
It’s rare for me to use a football reference but it is so apropos in this circumstance. When a running back, “hit’s” the hole in the line, a great coaching tip is for him to “keep his feet moving through the hole” even after he has hit a defender. By the runner keeping his momentum, he may have the chance to break free from a tackle to make significant progress. It’s the same idea in business; never let a challenge/ issue stop you dead in your tracks. Keep moving, keep thinking, keep problem solving, keep innovating and you never know what breakout success you may achieve.

As I mentioned above, this idea of “Grit” vs. talent as a driver of success has resonated with me and as a father and a leader, I have been thinking about connections all across my personal landscape. Whever you stand, think about this idea of “grit,” and possibly try out one of my ideas that may be helpful to enhance your “grittiness” in times of challenge.

Happy New Year 2014!