Thursday, December 10, 2015

The "Double Deposit"

It was thirty years ago last week, in early December of 1985, that I made a major mistake with my personal finances.  In hindsight, I think back upon that moment with surprisingly fond memories, but at the time is was a moment of fear and anxiety.  I share this story, in the spirit of the holiday season, to be a reminder of the “potential” and kindness of strangers.

I had started my business career just a few months before, graduating from Vanderbilt with my “newly minted” MBA, and taking a great role as a Marketing Assistant with Kimberly Clark.  After a few months of sales training in the field, (a wonderful experience that will be fodder for a future essay) I was assigned a role on a brand team at HQ, in Neenah Wisconsin. 

Having moved to Wisconsin in October of 1985, to a great little apartment near City Park in Appleton, I dove into my new job, new neighborhood, and new friends with gusto.  Everything was going great, I loved my job and my first boss (Bruce Paynter was my boss at the time who I have written about extensively on this blog.  Take a look at the archive to find those essays when you have a moment.) and was feeling great as we started getting close to Christmas.

An unusual reality about working for Kimberly Clark (often referred to simply as “KC”) was that they ran payroll for management once a month.  While it certainly does not seem like much in retrospect, my annual salary, net of appropriate withholdings and deductions, was sent out via check 12 times a year.  I was pretty typical of many of my peers at the time; I was single with little to no savings, some significant student loans, and a new job where I wanted to be succesful and use as a foundation for future executive roles and a long-term business career.

Everything seemed to be going just fine as we entered early December of that year.  I had purchased Christmas presents for my family, a plane ticket to go visit my girlfriend (now wife of 28 years) Jennie in Atlanta, had my car serviced and winterized in advance of a tough Wisconsin winter and still had a enough in my checkbook to “make it” to my early January paycheck.

It was a snowy Friday night that I came back to my apartment after hitting happy hour with “the gang from work” and picked up a voice message on my new, high tech home answering machine.  It was a message from a “Ms. Ratzenberger from the Valley Bank”, letting me know that my account at the bank had been frozen because I was “thousands of dollars overdrawn” and that I needed to come to the bank in person on Monday morning!!!  I can still remember the feeling of panic that hit me that cold night.  Whatever lingering effects of the “good cheer” from happy hour were washed away by a rising sensation of fear, anxiety and stomach acid.

In the cool light of a crisp Saturday morning, I tried to figure out what had happened.  I only had the account for a few months, so I pulled out the 2-3 monthly statements and my checkbook to figure it all out.  It only took a few minutes of digging to realize MY error and mistake.  Just about the time of my December paycheck, I was getting to the bottom of the “checkbook register” and the last entry on the first page was my monthly paycheck deposit.  All good so far!  As I turned the check register OVER to start the next page for some unthinkable reason I entered the December monthly paycheck deposit again and added it to my running balance.  (Just a reminder for the younger readers, there was no email/internet/cell phones/e-banking /etc. in 1985.  Just the good old checkbook and the monthly printed statements.)  I had “Double Deposited” my December paycheck and fully spent against it.  I didn’t have enough to “make it to January,” I was indeed thousands of dollars overdrawn and in trouble big time!

It was a long, sleepless, anxiety filled weekend.  I started collecting all the receipts for all my Christmas presents and seeing what I could “get back” if I took them all back to the stores.  I tried to see about what refund I could get from cancelling my plane ticket to go see Jennie for Christmas.  I tried to figure out what I could get as an advance eon my credit card, but with a $300 limit at the time (hilarious) not much there, I even tried to figure out what I could sell my car for if I needed cash fast!  As Monday morning grew closer, my anxiety only grew since I had NO plan to find the money…. what was I going to do???

In hindsight it was a very good decision to arrive at the bank early that morning, dressed in my suit and tie, ready for my meeting with Ms. Ratzenberger.  I sat quietly in the lobby when I was called back to her small office, no plan in hand and nervous and deeply scared.  At first she was stern and a little angry, asking me what had happened and how I could have become overdrawn so quickly after just opening the account a few months before.  Sheepishly I showed her my “double deposit “ error in my checkbook, how I had deposited my monthly paycheck twice and spent against it, stammering on that I wasn't sure what to do or what to sell to come up with the money.  Instead of bearing down on me, she perked up with a surprising question…. “ your monthly paycheck?  Do you work in management for KC?”  While I wasn’t sure that a Marketing Assistant was considered “management,” I said that I was in the marketing department at KC and had been there for six months.  Quickly she left her office to “make a few calls.”

I had no idea what was going on, but I sat silently as she was away from her office for a few minutes.  She returned with a smile on her face, and a stack of papers and forms in her hand.  She shared that she had called KC and confirmed my employment status and salary (I was in management afterall, ha!!).  She also said that she had a “personal loan repayment plan” for my overdrawn amount that would start in January with monthly payments for a year to closeout my “debt.”  Finally, she had the docs for me to convert my MasterCard to a Valley Bank credit card that would lower my interest rates and be linked to the “personal loan repayment plan” above.
Well to say the least I was blown away.  Rather than being some kind of overdrawn deadbeat, I was a valued new and expanding customer of Valley Bank!  I didn't need to sell my car, return the Christmas presents and cancel my flight plans.  What I needed to do was do a good job at work, payoff my loan and credit card bills to the bank on time or early, and NEVER make a “Double Deposit” again!!

As I think back on that moment thirty years ago a few lessons come to mind.  We all make mistakes and always will.  It’s futile to think about living a “fault-free” life.  Instead, we need to focus on how we handle the moments of mistakes when they come, regardless of what side of Ms. Ratzenbergers' desk you find yourself on.  If you are the one who made the blunder, own it!  Don't run from the truth; don't try to “talk your way out of it.”  Be open and honest about what happened and work towards solutions.  If you are on the other side of the desk, dealing with the “offender” find ways to be open as well.  Look for ways to turn the negative moment into a positive opportunity, find ways to turn the “deadbeat debtor” into a valued new customer!  As you head into the holiday season, keep this little "snowy Wisconsin story" in mind and find ways to turn mistakes and errors into moments of generosity and opportunity.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Humility of Community

Last week I had the chance to be back in Manhattan for full day meeting/pitch with a large PE firm.  Over the past few months, I have found my self meeting with a number of PE firms in NY, their offices all being just a few blocks from each other in midtown.  Surprising clustered; I have found myself a great little hotel that I have made my new NY home, “The Lexington” at 48th and Lexington.  Nothing fancy for sure, but a great location, decent rooms, a nice bar and a good deli across the street.  Not a bad combo!

As is my habit, I typically get up early (regardless of time zone and location) and either hit the gym or hit the streets for an early walk and to grab a coffee.  When staying at “The Lex,” I have got into the habit of starting my day with a walk a few blocks south on Lexington ave. and straight into Grand Central Station.  There is an amazing energy to be in Grand Central at 6:30 or so on a weekday when the commuting trains start coming into the city.  The energy is electric and intoxicating!  I have discovered a great little coffee place called “Joe” in the hallway not far from the Lexington ave. entrance (try their Cortado, it rocks!) that has become a required stop.

Well with coffee in hand last Tuesday morning, I found my way into the “Main Concourse” and was once again blown away by the scene.  The weather was beautiful, a crisp bright fall morning, with great light literally “pouring” into the station.  I worked my way through the growing crowd, the buzz and energy building, and found my way up a set of stairs so I could take in the scene. (the picture above is from that spot.) 

Taking it all in, the coming of the commuter trains and the growing crowds, with each individual busily heading off into their day, I was struck by the idea for the title of this essay.  I felt privileged and also humbled to be part of the mass of commuters, the “community” of Grand Central Station on that recent Tuesday morning.  It struck me that while I had been busy and focused on the presentation ahead of me that day, a huge lesson for the me was happening right there in the train station. After a few minutes of “drinking deep” from the hustle/bustle of the scene, I found my bay back onto Lexington ave., fresh coffee in hand, and made my way back to the hotel deeply energized by a most amazing “morning walk.”

  This idea of feeling proud and appreciative of being part of a group of people, a “community”, bigger than us is a bit rare these days.  With headlines filled with a shooter at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado, or terror attacks in Beirut, Bangladesh, Paris, or Mali, we seem surrounded by the darkest sides of our “community.”  We as the “community of humanity” are not and should not be defined solely by our darkest deeds or tendencies.  Indeed, WE are capable of terrible things, clearly highlighted in our history over the past centuries and the most recent weeks.  Equally WE are capable of wonderful things, great moments of beauty, of selflessness, of love and charity, great moments of caring/sharing for others that often don't find their way into the headlines of the moment.  This truth, the reality of our capabilities for great “good” and great “evil” spans cultures, nations, faiths and traditions.  It IS a reality of our human history, well documented over the centuries and millennium. 

I am not debating or denying this historic dynamic.  My suggestion, inspired by a busy train station, is that the vast majority of our community are NOT trying to destroy innocent lives, are NOT trying to dominate their world view on their neighbors, are NOT trying to dominate or discriminate their fellow “community” members based on race, creed, sex or sexual orientation.  MY view, again freshly inspired by Grand Central Station, is that most of us ARE trying to find their way in the world, ARE trying to make tomorrow just a bit better than yesterday, ARE trying to make the future better for their families or their children. 

 Leaving the station last week, I was humbled and inspired by “our community” and proud and motivated to play a role.  Regardless of headlines, I am convinced in our potential for greater good than evil; certainly brought to life by our political and religious leaders across the globe, but also in the actions of morning commuters everywhere!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hope and Love; a response to the violence and terror in Paris

I know that I stand together with millions, no probably billions, across the world aghast, saddened and angered by the terror attacks in Paris on Friday night.  The senseless killing of innocents, whether at a café, a restaurant, a concert or a stadium, is impossible to understand or justify.    Pope Francis was quoted as saying that

“ I am close to the people of France, to the families of the victims, and I am praying for all of them. … I am moved and I am saddened.  I do not understand – these things are hard to understand. …  There is no religious or human justification for it.”

I find myself sharing many of the Pope’s feelings in the wake of Friday night.  Saddened, prayerful, and not understanding how this form of brutality has any place in any religion across humanity.  Again I quote Pope Francis; “There is no religious or human justification for it”!

In response to the attacks, borders have been closed, security measures increased, and military readiness heightened across the world.  It’s more than understandable.  In the light of Saturday morning, with the shock and sadness of the madness from the night before settling into our understanding, our hearts and minds are turned to thoughts of action, consequences and retribution.  I certainly felt those emotions this weekend, and I am confident many others did as well.  I thought that since “they did that to us, what are we going to do to them?”  I hungered for a strong and deliberate response, matching fire with fire!

It was in the midst of those thoughts this weekend that my mind turned back to that amazing speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I so often go back to for inspiration.  I have often quoted in this blog and in many speeches and team meetings Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech from December of 1964.  Almost 51 years old, and yet freshly inspiring this morning!  In the context of amazing violence and hatred, he shared an amazing vision about the possibilities of humanity:

“ I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

It is hard not to be stuck in the “isness” of our “present nature”, matching hate with hate, violence with violence, and thinking that that somehow that age-old cycle will change on it’s own.  Equally it seems almost impossible this morning to reach up for the “eternal oughtness” that confronts us!  Dr. King was surrounded by hatred and violence and unthinking acts of terrorism and brutality across his landscape.  Just before he gave this speech in Oslo, the bombings occurred in the Birmingham churches, killing the young Sunday school students.  It was in this context that he gave this speech, extolling all of us to  “shake off the starless midnight of racism and war” and be focused on the possibilities of a “bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood.”
 Challenged and inspired by these words of Dr. King, I turn my mind to my memories of Paris.  I have had the chance to visit Paris, both for work and for pleasure, a number of times and I am entranced, and quite possibly in love with the city.  Ten years ago, I was there for a business trip and took some time to myself and had an amazing morning wandering the city.  I captured a few memories of that adventure in an essay on this blog (My Morning in Paris), here is an excerpt:

After an early wakeup, with my map and sunglasses as my only attachments, I headed out of Le Bristol, around the corner to the closest Metro station, Miromensil.  The Metro was busy with morning commuters but it was still early, only 7:30.  After changes at FDR and Concorde, I found myself at the Rue de Bac station, looking for Notre Dame of the Miraculous Medal.  Quite by accident I arrived just as the 8 o’clock mass had begun, celebrated by 6 priests, in French of course.  While my French is almost non-existent, the rhythm, the symbols and the beauty of the mass were very familiar to me and before I knew it I felt fully part of the service.  That beautiful church on a non-descript Wednesday morning was almost completely full.  People came and went, stopping in as part of their morning routine, or taking a few moments of prayer as part of their morning commute; certainly a step beyond my usual Atlanta rhythm.

After mass I wandered through the narrow streets into St. Germain de Pres and found a perfect table, overlooking the church, at Café Deux Margots.  “Un café’ e pan chocolat si vous plais!”  The sun was shining, the café bustling, my waiter, at first a bit stern, but once I ordered in French and ignored him appropriately behind my paper (very Parisian), he really seemed to warm up!  Sitting very close to my right was a very attractive, stylishly dressed woman of around 60, with great glasses and of course,       ” Le Monde.”  On my left was a young man, obviously very busy with his cell phone and café.  I was part of the stream of Deux Margot that morning, a sensation I will certainly enjoy again.  Though my next destination was Musee D’Orsay, I walked up to the Seine and spent some time on the bridge that crosses to the Louvre.  I stood in the middle of that bridge, watching the boats, the cars, the bicycles and the people and I kept singing to myself the song “I love Paris”.  After a few turned heads by passersby I realized that I wasn’t singing only in my head.  Oh well, its Paris!  On to D’Orsay.

It was a crowded morning at the museum and instead of strolling through the lower galleries; I went straight for the escalator that whisks you to the upper floor…the Impressionists.   Seeing Claude Monet’s water lilies in daylight, lit from above by natural light coming in through the glass ceiling of the old railroad station continues to be a delight even after a few visits.  This morning for some reason had a number of school groups of very young children with their teachers.  They would sit on the floor before these beautiful, famous paintings with their teachers describing the subject or the painter and the kids sketching away in their notebooks.  At one point in front of a Degas ballerina statue one little girl stood to show her friend that she could make the same pose as the dancer.  This 6 yr. old girl in a school jumper, replicating the exact pose, the posture, the smile of the sculpture was “art come to life”; a precious sight indeed.

My time was fleeing and though the clouds were forming, I wanted to see the Paris from Mont Matre.  Again back on the metro and on to Abesses.  With the fete de la Musique underway, the path from the station to Sacra Coeur was a collage of sounds.  There were fiddlers, an Irish Harp, a small jazz trio and a choral group from Missouri; all at various corners, all making music, and all making sense.  The Cathedral of the sacred heart (Sacra Coeur) was finished in 1914 and sits on a hill overlooking all of Paris with a view that rivals the Eiffel Tower.  Though the structure is awe inspiring, the inside, especially the blue mosaic in the dome above the altar, is breathtaking.  After a few moments of reflection I headed down the mount and back to the Metro station to head back to the hotel.  I hopped off the train at Madeline, a metro stop near Place Concorde, so I could find a quick bite for lunch before I hit Le Bristol.
After a few minutes I saw that I had made a wrong turn (no big deal, all turns that morning seemed pretty right) and wasn’t heading towards the hotel but in the opposite direction.  Maybe I really didn’t want to get on the conference call that was awaiting my return.  I found myself at rue Lavosier (a street named after a famous French scientist whose name sounds a lot like mine) and the Café Louis XVII.  I sat right on the street and unapologetically ordered a beer.  Immediately a Heineken was delivered and that may have been one of the most refreshing first sips in a long time.  I ordered the Salade Louis, mixed greens tossed in a light dressing with ham, gruyere, potatoes and tomatoes.   Light, delicious and very satisfying especially since I used every crumb of the small baguette served to enjoy the last drops of the oil and vinegar on the plate.  After paying the tab, “13 euro si vous plais,” I checked the map, cut down a side street and before I know it I was back at rue Faubourg and my hotel.

I share all this as a bit of a testimony to not just how much I loved this trip to Paris but how much I believe that life is to be lived!  Sure there will be sorrows, defeats and setbacks but there will also be triumphs, exaltations and great beauty.  Too often we live our lives at such a pace that we can’t remember one iota of the day we’ve just finished.  We are so focused on tomorrow that we forget that all we know we have in life is today…the now…


  Now in the light of a bright Atlanta morning, I am still saddened and angry about the attacks in Paris.  Senseless, hate-filled, acts of violence can never be encouraged, accepted or condoned!  But as I reflect on our world and that amazing city, I am working hard to be reminded of the images of the French schoolgirls at Musee D’Orsay, the beautiful blue ceiling of Sacra Coeur, and the delicious “Pain de Chocolat” at Café Deux Magot. 

These attacks should and will never be forgotten!  We all must share in the loss of the victims and the mourning of their families.  We all should join with the Pope with sadness and prayers.  Additionally, I am reminded and inspired by the joy, the beauty and the “light” of Paris; and am working hard to stay focused on the “oughtness” of “Hope and Love” for humanity when it is so easy to be consumed by the “isness” of the “violence and terror” of the moment!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Myopia: a “strategy” for sales, business and life

As we dive into this topic, lets start with a definition:

Myopia: noun, “Nearsightedness”, or object being seen clearly only when near the eye.

It seems strange and a bit “off track” for me to be talking about and recommending “myopia” or a “myopic viewpoint” in any setting. In a previous essay, (“Over the hood & Over the horizon”) I commented on the challenges and the necessary balance between long range and short term approaches in business and in life. Keeping those ideas in mind, it seems more than coincidental that I keep encountering the need to enhance/improve the short tem focus in multiple client engagements and in conversations with family and friends. In that spirit, I want to share some thoughts about how to productively, and maybe strategically, be “myopic” across a number of settings.

“Myopic” in Sales: I have had the pleasure to work with a wide variety of clients, across a very wide range of industries in my consulting practice this past year. (for more on that, click on Recently I began work with a new client who was coming to the end of their “sales year,” unfortunately falling well below their sales budgets. There were numerous issues/topics at hand, ranging from uncovered customers, mixed reviews on new products, sales leadership competency questions, etc., etc. …. lots going on AND dramatically behind budget! My advice was to limit the distractions, narrow the focus, and begin a weekly review of the “sales funnel” and IMMEDIATE selling activities that might drive some improvement to short-term trends. While still missing the annual target, the latest results have improved, and the momentum going into the new sales year has dramatically increased.

“Myopic” in Business: I am working now with a number of “startups” or early stage companies challenged by trying to “manage” dramatic growth. One situation is of a high growth “natural foods” business that is booming, a very “on-trend” brand accelerating coast to coast. With a young, energized but small staff, the executive team is literally trying to “do it all” and is hampered by capacity and capability barriers. Instead of doing a few things VERY well, they are doing a lot of things “so-so.” In this context, I have worked with them to prioritize the most important and urgent topics at hand, then doing a second “filter” of those priorities based on which might “kill the business” if done poorly, or “save the business” if done well. While still a work in progress, this approach has narrowed the number of projects prioritized, allowing the team to focus and execute with distinction.

“Myopic” in Life: This is a tough area because I am a big believer in personally keeping the “long view” in mind, planning for the future and often “putting off” immediate short term “pleasures” for longer term objectives. In a recent discussion with a friend facing serious marital challenges, my attention once again turned to a “myopic” point of view. Filled with grief, denial, anger and many other emotions, this individual was floundering, unable to find any path forward. After a number of “venting sessions” where I just listened and let him talk, I started trying to focus his energy on the path ahead. While it seemed overwhelming, he had to find a way to choose one of three paths: 1) Reconciliation, 2) Separation/Divorce, 3) Current State. There weren’t twenty options, clouded with one hundred emotions, Just three possible roads ahead! Again we will see what comes of this advice, but the clarity has seemed to help.

As I close, this is not meant to be some simplistic panacea to the issues and challenges in sales, business or life. These issues and situations are real, and often overwhelming! When a situation seems “too big to handle” (of course remember “Aunt Lorraine’s Law”… take small bites and chew thoroughly) it is often helpful to narrow your focus and find the discipline to take on a “myopic” point of view to gain the clarity needed on the actions that lie ahead.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Steer into the Skid

As a teen growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, “Drivers Ed” was a fact of life and taught during the summers at my High School.  Of my many memories of “summer drivers school,” none are as fresh and stark as some of those famous films created to scare the pants off of young drivers.  A few classics are up on “YouTube,” you should checkout “The Last Date” or “Highways of Agony,” …… Classics!!

One of the challenges of taking “Drivers Ed” during the summer was trying to learn to drive safely in icy and snowy winter conditions.  One of the lessons from those summer driving classes was the teacher’s repeated message to “steer into the skid” if the car lost traction on an icy road.  It seemed so counter intuitive to actually steer into the direction where you were skidding, it felt like steering into the path of trouble!  While hard to understand, the first time I hit an icy patch as a young driver and did the opposite, steering away from the skid, I sent the car into a 360-degree spin and ended in the ditch.  No one was hurt, and the front fender of our 1970 Chevelle dented a bit, but a lesson was learned.  In future moments on icy streets when I started to skid, I remembered the lesson and gently “steered in to the skid” and in most moments avoided any issues/ditches!!

As I was recently recounting this lesson with my new driving son (not many icy patches here in Atlanta but a good driving lesson anyway,) the story and memory got me thinking…. This idea of “steering into the skid” is not merely a lesson for a young driver; it is actually a powerful lesson for life!!  As we come upon the “icy patches” in our business worlds or personal lives, we need to be reminded to of this lesson and “steer” into not away from the challenges/obstacles/problems we are facing!

Business World:  In business we often focus on our moments of success, looking for ways to replicate them across broader markets/verticals/brands/products/teams.  We typically “steer away” from situations that are not going well, wanting to spend our energy (and our our team’s capacity/capabilities) on trying to replicate what’s working rather than deeply understanding the areas that are not going well.  We almost have a sense that if we just get better on the “good stuff”, the “bad stuff” will just “go away” or be lost in a haze of broader success.  Dangerous ideas and deeply untrue!

Rather than avoiding the weak spots of our business, we need to “steer into the skids” of our business.  What markets/verticals/brands/products/teams are doing the worst?  Which competitors are doing the best to take our market share?  Where are we most vulnerable in the next few months (operating plan horizon) and across a multi-year landscape (strategic plan horizon)? 

I am certainly not suggesting that we ignore the “good stuff ” in our businesses; we do need to replicate our successes all the time.  What I am specifically focusing on is to add intensity, clarity and focus on the weak spots if the business, proactively “steering into the skid” across the landscape of the business model as a method to avoid fatal professional “crashes.”

Personal Lives:  In our personal lives this same adage also rings true.  In a life that is hectic, time stretched, and often stressful, it is tempting to take any available “open time” to take a breath and relax.  While I certainly an advocate of this idea on many fronts, I have come to realize that the issues/concerns/problems or “skids” in our personal lives rarely “get better” on their own.  Think about a marriage, a friendship, and a parent-child relationship that has friction or concerns.  Letting them “simmer,” waiting to “deal with them” at some amorphous time in the future is never a good idea.  This idea applies to our physical lives as well.  If we are dealing with a chronic health issue, dive into the problem, don't put it off! 

I have a dear friend who recently underwent emergency cardiac bypass surgery after failing a “run of the mill” stress test.  The good news is that he is recovering well.  The scary part is that he had postponed three previous stress test appointments and was on the verge of delaying the test appointment that he dramatically failed; that fourth delay could have resulted in his early death, rather than a successful operation and progressing recovery.  It took him a while but he ultimately did “steer into the skid” and he is back safely on the road of life.

Whether in your personal or professional lives, think about those old “Drivers Ed” movies and remind yourself to find more opportunities to “steer into the skid.”  There is no way to live a life absent of challenges/obstacles/problems or issues.  Don't spend anytime “wishing away” your problems; instead take a few extra moments (both personally and professionally) and dive into the problem areas, “steer into the skids,” and take action (don’t postpone your stress test appointment) in order to have a smoother and safer “ride” ahead!