Leadership: No Experience Required

Not long after graduating with an MBA from Vanderbilt, I returned to Vandy to interview job candidates.  With me, was my adult supervisor, the VP of human resources—a stunning older woman; about thirty-five.  At dinner, she invited me to select the wine.  Not wanting to appear the fool, and trying to control my fawning, I pretended to study carefully the wine list.  Not having a clue, I based my selection entirely on price.  I had little or no knowledge of the subject; nonetheless, I placed the order with all the cock-sureness of a third-grader reciting the alphabet.

A few moments later Wine-man returned with a bottle, angled it towards me, and stood as rigid as a lawn statue.  After a few seconds my adult paused and motioned my attention towards Wine-man.  I remained nonplussed.  “You are supposed to tell him that the bottle he is holding is the one you ordered.”

“He knows it is what I ordered, that is why he brought it.”  I thought they were toying with me.

A few seconds later there was a slight popping sound and then Wine-man placed the cork before me on my napkin in a manner similar to how Faberge must have delivered his fabled egg to Tsar Alexander III for his wife Empress Fedorovna.  They were both staring at me, not the Tsar and the Empress—Wine-man and my adult.  “You are supposed to smell the cork.”  And so I did.

“Now what?”

“If it smells bad, it means the wine may be bad.”

To which I replied, “This is the Opryland Hotel—have you seen the wine prices?  They don’t sell bad wine.”  She nudged me with her elbow.  I could tell I was wowing her.  I smelled the cork.  “It smells like a cork,” I whispered to Wine-man.  He smiled and poured a half inch of wine in my glass.  I thought he was still pulling my lariat.

I looked bemusedly at the mostly empty glass, held it out to him, and asked him if I could have some more—I was thirsty.  Rather than embarrass me further, with a slight nod of her head my adult instructed the Wine-man that my sommelier class was over—any further proof of my inadequacies would be of limited marginal value.  Any chance that we would have gone dancing later that evening was about as flat as the wine.  I should have ordered a beer.  I was good at beer.

For those who are still reading, if you are wondering if I am actually going to make a point, here it comes.  I’m not fond of segues, so don’t blink.

Sometimes, a little guidance is helpful—even if it has to come in the form of being led around like camel with a ring through its nose.

Often, what is important in a leader is having the knowledge and temerity to ask the right question.  In business it is often the case that the number of executives with answers may exceed the number of executives asking questions.  Value is often measured by scarcity.   Good, challenging questions are often in short supply.  So are leaders who do not require adult supervision.

Pretty simple things.  The right things usually are—like knowing what to do with the wine cork.


The Joy of Sox–how to deliver a great presentation

NPR is the white noise that usually accompanies me to and from the office lest I let the traffic turn me into one of those drivers CNN broadcasts with footage of police helicopters hovering above my road rage.  For the most part I have learned to tune out NPR’s political bent and focus on their Macarena-mind human interest stories.  Stories like the whistling sound made by the yellow-spotted salamander living in equatorial Iowa.

These days NPR is all-a-thither about the forthcoming forty-eight month renewal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The noise the NPRers make high-fiving each other in the hallways is almost loud enough to drown out their rewriting of Mitt Romney’s position describing him as being in favor of shipping our homeless people to South Sudan because our homeless would have so much in common with Sudanese homeless.  It would not surprise me to learn that an NPR staff intern had drawn a caricature of the prophet and signed Mitt’s name to it as an enticement to have someone fire an RPG into Mitt’s campaign headquarters.

Was that a contrail shooting past my window?

It is an interesting exercise taking apart a one hour speech and repackaging it as a five minute talk—Twitterizing.  It goes to the quote, “I would have written less if I had more time.”  The corollary for presentations may be, if it does not fit one slide, it’s not properly thought out.

I think what a lot of presenters miss is having an understanding of what makes for a good presentation.  Here are a few of mine.

Presentation Rule 1—never bore the audience.  They are pulling for you to do well for your sake and theirs.

Presentation Rule 2—most of the audience can read.  If your slides are filled with text and bullet points, their natural inclination is to read what you’ve written.  They are doing this while you are reading aloud the very same text.  If they are reading, you become superfluous.

Presentation Rule 3—the audience cannot walk and chew gum at the same time (they can’t read your words and listen to you.)  For those presenters who favor text on their slides there are two choices; read from the slides, or try to offer commentary about the slides.  For those who do not read directly from their slides and want to offer commentary it gets even more awkward.  You look at the audience and see them reading the slide.  Your natural tendency is not to interrupt their reading because you are trying to be polite and you do not want them to miss your words of wisdom.  Then your mind starts to wonder if what you are about to say is so important if you should have written it on a slide.

Presentation Rule 4—if you wear wild looking socks–see mine above–you had better be delivering one heck of a good talk.

My philosophy about presentations is not wanting people taking notes based on what is on my slides, hence I use pictures to convey an idea.  I hand-draw concepts from which I can then speak.  Since there is nothing of import on the slides, people start staring at you, something which will make a lot of presenters even more nervous.

The downside of this approach is that since everyone will now be listening to you instead of reading or writing, you better have something worth hearing.  The issue then becomes how to craft your words in a way to get your audience to remember your message.

I favor humor and telling a story.

Will these steps work for you?  I hope they do.

I felt they were working pretty well for me the other night right until the end when an attractive woman approached me and said, “You look like Jack Nicholson, only not as unattractive”—so at least I’ve got that going for me.

Why Showing Initiative Will Kill You

Were one to judge America by what they read from scanning the headlines of the magazines in the supermarket’s checkout lane, the only items of note are that Jennifer Aniston may or may not be pregnant, and that another one of the Kardashian’s was getting married—no word as to whether or not she is pregnant.  The headlines provided no indication that we are at war or that the economy has been outpaced by my daughter’s lemonade stand.

Anyway.  I have been reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which should be on every reading list for Genocide 101.  In the book Solzhenitsyn describes numerous offenses which could get a Russian sentenced to Stalin’s gulags.  Some estimates suggest more than sixteen million people were purged under Stalin’s regime—enough people whereby those in power had to continuously invent new offenses.

In one such description Solzhenitsyn recounts a conference for Stalin’s supporters.  Every public gathering was attended by several members of the NKVD, the bad guys.  At the conclusion of the conference its chairman called for a verbal salute to Stalin which resulted in all of those attending applauding.  The vigorous applause continued for eleven minutes because everyone was afraid to be the first to stop applauding.

To stop applauding was to show initiative, was to be an individual.  Exhausted, the chairman finally stopped clapping; immediately, so did everyone else.  The chairman, a loyal communist, was arrested.  During his interrogation the interrogator told him “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”  Darwin’s natural selection; and how to grind people down with stupidity.

Nonetheless, we return to Beaver Cleaverville.

Do you ever sit in a meeting thinking it would be easier to design a revolving sliding door than to agree with or understand whatever is going on in the meeting around you?  You scan the room eying the flock of sheep each of who think of themselves as lions.  Once again, the Pickle Factory’s leader had confused motion with movement.  You scribble yourself a note using your favorite crayon—the cerulean blue, ‘I have seen our future and it needs work.’

“Well, here we are,” says the meeting’s Tartuffe-like moderator outfitted in her J C Penney imitation Vera Wang pantsuit.  For years her mind had run just fast enough to enable her thoughts to always be in the same place.

“Yeah, here is where we are,” you mumble into your cupped hand. “We have been here before and we will be here again and again.”  The person across from you seems to be humming “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

These meetings make about as much sense to you as the game played by the Afghan Pashtun tribesmen—buzkashi—sort of like polo except instead of using a ball they use a headless goat.  (Here’s hoping no Californian makes a movie of the game and uploads it to the internet.  You had to see that coming.)  Corporate executives rampage through offices each day dragging the headless carcass of their business strategy to meeting after meeting hoping to score, and the more meetings you attend the more you feel like the goat. “Maaaa”.

“What are we supposed to accomplish today?” You ask.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” replies the moderator, her mind making its way back from its visit to the land of ultima Thule.

“No, your guess is better than mine,” you say.  “It is your meeting.”  ‘Lock the gate,’ you are thinking, ‘before the village loses its idiot.’  Everything is running behind and the team wants to make up for lost time.  Your job is to try to convince them that you cannot make up for lost time; the best you can hope for is not to lose any more.

You have always known that companies which do not tolerate dissent have a tendency to ignore dissenting information but they remember the dissenters—the first person to stop clapping. In a company lacking second sight and new ideas, the old ideas are often divided evenly among the goats.  The death spiral of silence continues—employees avoid the threat of being voted off the island refrain from making any statement that may show them having an original thought.  Showing initiative can result in your being sent to the company’s gulag.

Have you noticed that the more a firm’s competitive edge erodes, the busier the firm appears to be?  Once you have fallen through the looking glass the only way out may be for you to walk back the cat, that is travel backwards to see how it is you and the others became trapped in this house of mirrors.  The problem with that strategy is that to undertake it requires you to show initiative.

The firm’s gulag is filled with people like you.  At least when you get to the gulag there will be enough players for a rigorous game of buzkashi.

One Thing Companies Don’t Know Could Save Them

A lot of companies need to go to the doctor.  Whether the firm suffers from malaise, ADHD, or depression is not really important.  Companies do not get ill, companies do not suffer.  Their employees do, get ill that is; companies merely serve as incubators of the malaise and facilitate it.

We have all seen it.  Remember Sally?  Her office was the down the hall, third door on the left.  Crayon drawings from her granddaughter hung from her credenza.  An imitation Tiffany desk lamp with a cracked shade was to the left of her monitor, and a half-dead philodendron in a clay pot grew through the slats of the Venetian blind.

Sally was always the first one in the office.  She was the person who cleaned the coffee pot and made the first pot of the day.  She filled her ceramic mug, the same one she had used for twelve years, and using her pinkie finger like a swizzle stick stirred in two packets of artificial sweetener.

Each year Sally organized the Christmas party—at a time when companies were still allowed to call them Christmas parties—she was the person who let everyone know when it was somebody’s birthday, and she was the person who sent the flowers from the company if someone was ill or had a baby.  To many employees, Sally was the human face of the company.

Sally was let go, was downsized, was laid off, was fired.  There are numerous words for what happened, and all of them are uncomfortable.  Some guy named Bob now sits in Sally’s office.  It will never be Bob’s office.  It is as though Sally never even existed; the firm marches on without her.  Her perfume no longer drifts down the hall.  Bob let her philodendron die.  The drawings are long gone along with the imitation Tiffany lamp with the cracked shade.

If you are the first one in the office you stand in the snack room trying to figure out who is going to clean the coffee pot.  Rather than cleaning it yourself, you have learned to make do with a cup of some sort of chamomile tea that smells of lavender.  You no longer know whose birthday it is or who just had a baby.

The entire workplace changed and everybody simply went along with it.  First Sally, then Mr. Withers who worked in tax.  Two people in sales left on the same day.  It feels like there should have been a wake for them or like the survivors should be wearing black arm bands.  Everyone looks like they are either going to a funeral or are just retuning from one.  You cannot remember the last time anyone went to lunch together.  You have seen the malaise and the malaise is in you and him and her.

Companies spend millions of dollars trying to figure out how to boost earnings per share, how to improve productivity, or customer satisfaction.  They hire firms like BCG and Bain thinking maybe the answers are buried in the two hundred thousand dollar white paper they never read or in the multi-million dollar supply chain project or the hundred million dollar ERP system.  The end result—mistakes are made faster because they have been automated.  During the process of automation, more people along with their half-dead philodendrons were voted off the island.

It is as though those people never existed.  The only difference between those who never existed and those they left behind is that those left behind yet to learn that they never existed either.  In many companies the employees are no more real than laptops, and perhaps less valued.  Inventory of assets: 35 accountants, 72 programmers, one hundred and seven laptops, and six half-dead philodendrons.

One need not hire BCG or Bain to recognize the problem.  Look at the condition of the coffee pot sitting on the warm burner.  Look at the months of undelivered reports that are stacked outside of Sally’s office.  Look at the faces of those in the meeting with you or those who reluctantly came to the holiday party because they thought their boss was making a mental note of who did not attend.

Companies do not need a data warehouse or a business intelligence initiative to improve their performance.  People perform; data is nothing more than a collection of numbers.  People are what make data relevant. People are what make customers like a company or leave it.

Too many companies treat their employees as disposable and replaceable assets; like philodendrons.  Customers will never see, nor will they interact with your data warehouse.  They will assess the company based on their interactions with the employees; the receptionist, the person on the phone—the one paid the least, the one coached to smile while they talk, the one coached to get the customer off the phone as quickly as possible so they can get the next person in the queue off the phone as fast as possible.

These people did not break the company; the company broke the people.  The company created and sustained an environment of malaise and only the company can fix it.  The malaise will not improve by implementing casual Tuesdays, or by placing an employee suggestion box in the cafeteria.

Employees are a lot like customers—they are smart and they want to feel valued.  Wanna bet that there is a high correlation between customer satisfaction and employee retention?  If companies want to instill an attitude in their employees such that employees would be willing to die for the company, the first thing the company needs to do is to stop killing them.

Businesses racing towards impotence

Things that fly in the face of public opinion often leave a big welt.  Sometimes we forget that anarchism is a form of leadership led by an anarch—noblesse oblique.

There is a smartphone app that allows you to erase random people from your photos.  I have a team of programmers working on an upgrade for it that will enable me to erase random people from my life.  Imagine a farfetchual situation; sitting in a meeting and with the swipe of a finger being able to do away with the person sitting across from you—the Ron Burgundy character with the seventies hair and moustache.

Anyway.  Have you noticed that too many people view fixing business problems as rocket surgery?  These are the same people who confuse motion with movement.  These are the same people who come to work each day and work on what was happening yesterday.  Who is working on what needs to be happening tomorrow?

If your own employees view going to work and company functions with less enthusiasm than they would have going to an all-day, outdoor Celine Dion concert in the dead of winter, is it any wonder that customers are running away in droves?

Businesses begin to die the day they open their front door—ask GM.  What then is the secret sauce to remaining viable?

As different as businesses are from one another, the common factor among all businesses is one thing—customers.  Hospitals, professional services firms, manufacturers, software companies all have the same mission statement, one they do not publish—We do stuff for money.  Guess who has the money—customers.  Businesses only remain in business by being able to one thing; getting those with the money to give their money to them.

Without OPM—Other People’s Money—there is no business.  We do stuff for money.  If that is true, should not every activity, every plan, every process, and every investment somehow contribute, somehow add value to the transaction of transferring OPM from them to you?  Are activities that do not add value to that transaction wasteful, redundant, or unnecessary?

With the exception of altruistic activities, every business decision, every strategy, every acquisition, and every hire should be evaluated in terms of whether or not they increase the firm’s ability to increase the amount OPM captured.

If this idea sounds too simple, that is because it is.  There is nothing complex about focusing on the customer.  But you would never know that from scanning the internet job boards.  Companies are looking to hire for a cornucopia of customer related positions; CRM, CEM, customer for life, customer first.

What do these companies need?  Business intelligence, a data warehouse, a chief marketing officer?  Hardly.  Marketing keeps trying to figure out ‘how do we get customers to pay attention to us?’  What they should be asking is “what do we have to do to pay attention to them?”

Most company executives would not know a customer if they sat next to one on the bus or in their Mercedes.  They may know about the customer; income, age, social stratification, number of children, but they do not know why they are a customer or why they were a customer.

Customers leave all the time.  They leave to find a company that either treats them better, or one with which they do not have to interact.  Welcome to the land of customer initiated virtual RFPs.  Instead of companies deciding to whom they sell their stuff or their services, customers decide from whom they are going to buy.

CRM is dead and companies killed it.  Customers know when someone is trying to manage them and they do not like it.  Now customers are managing the sellers using tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and they do not need multimillion dollar systems to do it.

Spilling Tea–Why Your Business May Be Failing

Years ago the word Lubyanka was enough to bring normal Russians to their knees in terror.  Lubyanka is known best for being the headquarters of the Soviet secret police, then called the KGB.  The basement of Lubyanka housed a prison which had one hundred and eleven cells, cells that were used to hold and interrogate political prisoners during Russia’s purge.

Two times each day the prisoners were given tea.  A prisoner in each cell would place a teapot outside the cell. Another prisoner, carrying a bucket filled with tea, would pour tea from the bucket into the teapot.

Tea spilled on to the floor.  The prisoner would clean the spilt tea with a rag.

Lubyanka’s prison operated for twenty-seven years.  Tea was served to the one hundred and eleven cells and spilled in front of each cell twice a day, seven hundred and thirty times a year per cell.

Two million one hundred eighty-eight thousand spills during those twenty-seven years.  The same number of cleanups.

Someone somewhere made the decision that it was easier or cheaper to spill and clean the tea 2,188,000 times than it was to use buckets with spouts on them.

What are the buckets in your company?  What dumb, wasteful, redundant activities and processes have been left unchanged?

The most obvious one for most companies is customer care.

It is easier to take 2,188,000 calls each year about a given problem than it is to fix the problem.

And do you know where the fallacy in the argument is?  The fallacy comes from the erroneous belief that by having a call center, by answering calls you are actually providing your customers a service.

You are not.  All you are doing is wiping up spilt tea.


Poor Project Planning–Musings of a drive-by mind

It takes a lot of energy to dislike someone, but sometimes it is worth the effort. It is not easy being a consultant.  One client required me to shout “unclean, unclean” as I passed through the hallways.  Maybe that is why I leave newspapers scattered around the floor of my desk, so nobody can sneak up on me without me being able to hear them.

I have a knack for complicating simple things, but the voices in my head tell me that is better than simplifying complicated things.  Either way, I appreciate those of you who continue to play along.  Just remember, if you choose to dine with the devil it is best to use a long spoon.

You’ve probably figured out that I am never going to be asked to substitute host any of the home improvement shows.  I wasn’t blessed with a mechanical mind, and I have the attention span bordering on the half-life of a gnat.

I’ve noticed that projects involving me and the house have a way of taking on a life of their own.  It’s not the big projects that get me in over my head—that’s why God invented phones, so we can outsource—it’s the little ones, those fifteen minute jobs meant to be accomplished during half-time of a football game, between pizza slices.

Case in point—touch-up painting the trim in your house.  Can, brush, paint can opener tool (screwdriver).  Head to the basement where all the leftover paint is stored.  You know exactly where I mean, yours is probably in the same place.  Directions:  grab the can with the dry white paint stuck to the side, open it, give a quick stir with the screwdriver, apply paint, and affix the lid using the other end of the screwdriver.  Back in the chair before the microwave beeps.

That’s how it should have worked.  It doesn’t, does it?  For some reason, you get extra motivated, figure you’ll go for the bonus points, and take a quick spin around the house, dabbing the trim paint on any damaged surface—window and doorframes, baseboards, stair spindles, and other white “things”.  Those of us who are innovators even go so far as to paint over finger prints, crayon marks, and things which otherwise simply needed a wipe down with 409.

This is when things turn bad, just as you reach for that slice of pizza.  “What are all of those white spots all over the house?”  She asks—you determine who your she is. if you do not have one I can let you borrow mine.  You explain to her that it looks like the way it does simply because the paint is still wet—good response.  To which she tells you the paint is dry—a better response.

“Why is the other paint shiny, and the spots are flat?”

You pause.  I pause, like when I’m trying to come up with a good bluff in Trivial Pursuit.  She knows the look.  She sees my bluff and raises the ante.  Thirty minutes later the game I’m watching is a distant memory.  I’ve returned from the paint store.  I am moving furniture, placing drop cloths, raising ladders, filling paint trays, all under the supervision of my personal chimera.  My fifteen-minute exercise has resulted in a multi-weekend amercement.

This is what usually happens when the project plan isn’t tested or isn’t validated.  My plan was to be done by the end of halftime.  Poor planning often results in a lot of rework.  There’s a saying something along the lines of it takes twice as long to do something over as it does to do it right the first time—the DIRT-FIT rule.  And costs twice as much.  Can you really afford either of those outcomes?  Can you really afford to scrimp on the planning part of IT?  If you don’t come out of the gate correctly, it will be impossible.

Back to my project.  Would you believe me if I said I deliberately messed up?  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but the one thing I know with certainty is that I now have half-times all to myself.