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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Elmer - A Natural Leader

Elmer worked for a school in a variety of roles – I’m not sure if he even had a job title...none could do justice to the scope of his duties anyway. The school started with pre-kindargarten and went through 12th grade.

He took care of facility maintenance, the cleaning and the minor fixin’ to keep everything presentable and functional.

He also drove the bus, bringing the kids back and forth to school as well as on the various school field trips. The kids always arrived safely and were well behaved on his bus.

Elmer tended the boilers to heat the school and provide the hot water. The old boilers were cantankerous, but he would talk to the boilers about ‘acting right’, bang on a pipe or two, and work his magic to keep the building toasty warm no matter what was happening outside.

He could patch up a broken ‘thingamajig’ to get up and running again, and could repair anything without aid of the manual or even the proper replacement parts.

An endearing quality of his was giving directions – Elmer knew how to get anywhere and was happy to share his directions with you in detail...however, he always forgot one turn, usually toward the end of the journey, so we knew that we would have an expected ‘unexpected tour’ of the area before we found the desired location.

However, while his efforts kept the facilities and logistics humming along, Elmer was most noted for his leadership. He had no formal designation as leader, but he was always at the head of any crisis – first one to begin addressing the issue, taking action, creating a plan, helping others slip in to appropriate roles to bring things back to balance and normalcy, and Elmer was usually the last one to leave once the situation had been brought under control.

He always had a good word for the students, asking about their accomplishments, and when needed, a blunt word or two – a verbal ‘kick in the butt’ - to motivate a student that was not striving to achieve their potential.

Elmer never missed a graduation – be it a kindergarten class moving forward to first grade, or a class advancing from lower school to upper school, or the big one – high school graduation. In coat and tie, he was in the back of the auditorium giving a ‘thumbs up’ sign and smile as each of the students received their diploma, and his applause seemed seemed to be the loudest in the hall.

Not surprisingly, when graduated students returned to school for a visit, the first person they would find was Elmer – to share their latest accomplishments, and their appreciation.

He was a leader of men, women, and children, each of whom followed his lead enthusiastically, without need for designated authority or the mantle of a formal title.

Personally, I learned a great deal about leadership by simply following him around, and his influence continues to guide me today. Elmer was a great man, a wonderful individual - so accomplished and meaningful to so many people.

While few organizations have such a special individual as Elmer, many have a ‘go to’ person who helps to keep things running smoothly while helping others grow and learn, all without benefit official acknowledgment or formal authority. Like Elmer, they are natural and nurture them.

Want more? See the Final Frontier for insight and ideas.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What You Have, What You Want

An effective way to begin planning almost anything is to list what you have and create a separate list of what you want – once you see this information side by side, breakthroughs can result.

Have-Want works for simple projects like planning your menu and for complex tasks like selling your business. Kicks off your planning with insight.

Imagine you have just done a quick tour of your pantry and find you have some corn-on-the-cob, small red potatoes, a few stalks of celery. Before you head out to the store, you think about what you would like to have for dinner, while looking at the list of what’s available. On your Want list you could list lettuce for a quick & easy ‘whatever I’ve got’ salad, or – seeing the basic components on the Have list for a lobster feast, you may remember the sale on lobster and mussels – lobster feast - a breakthrough dinner idea!

When considering the sale of your business, the tendency is to project the familiar - an operational view of the company – sales, inventory, payables, receivables, depreciated assets, and such. What falls through the cracks are those ’invisible’ things you take for granted – like industry knowledge, customer and competitor activities, intellectual property (processes and how you do business), and the company reputation. Each would have some value or usefulness for a new owner.

Doing Have-Want lists when considering a sale can reveal the obvious and, doing a side-by-side review, can lead to buried insights attractive to a buyer.

Here’s some rules for successful Have-Want assessments for project planning:

  • Write down each list – writing it down is a form of thinking which digs deep in your mind and memory – there’s magic in writing out the lists!
  • Be thorough, but relevant – in the Have List be sure to include intangibles which have value or recognition; in the Want List include timeframe and if you would work under contract after the sale. Don’t list every nut and bolt in the inventory, but remember to include your iconic logo or company identification
  • Be specific but concise – define, not merely describe, the Have’s and your Want’s - could someone else reading the list articulate the value or importance of the item; short, concise, specific narratives transfer the information most efficiently
  • Be honest, accurate – do not try to fool yourself – you’re too smart to fall for it anyway; accuracy can be in the eye of the beholder – so write from the other person’s view but with your knowledge...ask someone you trust to read it and interpret what you have said
  • Put the Have and Want lists on your letterhead – although the lists start off as a personal exercise, you will likely find the information useful during the sale process; putting something on letterhead transforms notes into manuscripts – and creates a tool to aid in achieving the Want’s.
Clients who were thinking of a simple (and quick) assets sale, discovered they would be discarding 50% + of the value of their organization by doing the Have -Want assessment...a worthy breakthrough.

So, what are you having for dinner – leftovers or a lobster feast?

Join us on Thursday August 28, 2014 at The Power Conference: Women Doing Business for our workshop “The Final Frontier” at Bethesda Marriott Conference Center, N. Bethesda. For details click:

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I was invited to a meeting where the guy at the front of the room was trying to improve group performance by talking himself into a froth. He had invented a ratio and convinced himself that a three percent improvement would mean something, otherwise they were going out of business.

When somebody loses it emotionally, people tend to pay attention, because we’re not sure what he’s going to do next. It’s a protective behavior. However over time, no matter how high the emotional level, people tune out.

I started thinking back to breakthroughs I have seen that changed a company or an industry. They weren’t based on questionable ratios and miniscule improvements. Indeed that kind of noise keeps people from thinking about important solutions.

Back in the eighties, I was privileged to take part in the launch of the first McCaw Cellular One in San Francisco. We didn’t have money, or customers, or a system, or much understanding about what we would do.

We did have an exceptional CEO who expected people to do great things. They believed him, so they did great things.

I remember a meeting about our worsening customer satisfaction. We had supply problems, we couldn’t control our signal, and our competitor enjoyed having us as the much weaker supplier. Grim meeting.

Kathleen ran customer service, so she had the ugly job of quantifying our situation. She did a thorough job, and added some interesting analysis. She didn’t like her job, and no one else wanted it.

Jim thanked her for presenting the situation and pointed out some of the better points she had taken the time to quantify. Then he asked the table what we could do.

There were a couple of behavioral placeholders, but nothing of substance.

Finally Kathleen said she had an idea, but was concerned these older men wouldn’t like it. She stopped.

Jim told her to press on.

Kathleen wanted to change the name of her group from customer service to customer care. The hair on the back of my neck went up. That was the first time I heard that term.

What happened after that was miraculous. Kathleen published the cost per minute of arguing with a customer. We began to promote giving the customer what they wanted (usually a small billing adjustment) and thanking the customer for using Cellular One.

The new Customer Care reps were talking about their better jobs than when they were Customer Service reps.

The customers started trying to deserve our appreciation, so they told spouses and friends. Customer Care was tracking and thanking referrals.

Our customer acquisition got better every week. We were doubling new customers every quarter.

One day Jim called me into his office and showed me the paper. The Chronicle wrote that obviously Cellular One was the highest quality cellular service in the Bay area. The paper stole our tag line! Since it was now in the paper, it must be true!

Mark and the engineers were going through their final frenzy to put up our own cellular network. We were still piping signal through the competition.

We were obviously doing other things right.

That tagline had been percolating since before it was true to remind us what we we wanted.

Jim had been a military chopper pilot, so at least one of our stations was delivered on a mountain top by chopper, with appropriate public and media coverage.

I was working overtime taking our dealers to victory celebrations.

But that one distinction, from customer service to customer care was a snowball that started an avalanche.

I thought of Kathleen when the computer scientist from Comcast told me that the reason I couldn’t get internet one morning was because my computer was too old. Go buy a new computer. I finally found out that some server cowboy had erased my address file...but not my billing file.

Or when the Verizon salesman called the cops because he didn’t know how to sell us a new phone. His boss was even more embarrassed after the cops showed up.

Most of the time we can’t tell what the best solution is going to be, but overwhelmingly it hasn’t been studying made up numbers or inconveniencing customers.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The End of Science

Charles Murray introduced me to the idea in Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. Now that the Periodic Table is filled out, and so many overarching theories are proven, what’s a producing scientist to do? 

Ever since I read that, I’ve noticed how few scientists are actually doing science. Most are teaching or opinionating, or manipulating policy. 

This week I read The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age by John Horgan, an ostentatious display of mastery by an author uniquely qualified to ask top scientists, “What is the future of Science?” 

For the last 25 years he has been interviewing noteworthy scientists and publishing those interviews, principally in Scientific American magazine. This book is a reordering of many of those interviews around a single premise, long on examples that lead to an optimistic, well reasoned conclusion. 

Along the way there are some valuable observations, after all, he has made a career out of talking with the best of the best. 

Earlier this week, I was involved with beer and the question came up, “What is the relationship between science and engineering, especially in education?” I know many busted scientists who look down at excellent engineering, glaring that if you have to ask, you are obviously too stupid to know.

So when I stumbled across this, I wanted to know.

Horgan records that the difference between science and engineering is that the scientist seeks what is true, while the engineer seeks what is good. p258

Or, as I see it, calling a tomato is a fruit is true. Not putting a tomato in a fruit salad is good. That’s useful.

Another useful point as I’m being bombarded with pseudo-scientific propaganda and opinion is:

“...verification and validation of numerical models of natural systems is impossible.” p202 Ooh, good one!

As I have written, a model is a simplified version of reality, useful when it allows you to predict what happens. Every sales manager I’ve ever known has confused the model with the reality. When the model is no longer accurate, build a better one.

A more elegant stipulation of model hysteria is No matter how hard you do the wrong thing, it never quite works.

Horgan is properly in awe of his subjects best thinking, and reverent when it has proven true and useful. He has a better grip on the role of irony and criticism than his subjects, and he knows that the big ideas seemed fanciful when first introduced.

When confronted with energetically delivered caca de vaca, he doubles down on reporting what was said, letting the subject fall on its own. Doing many major interviews gives Horgan confidence to trust the process.

The last few pages gave a new example of the future of science that was earned through all the interviews.

Many years previously he found himself in a rigorous thought experiment that showed the future of science. He was somewhat hesitant reporting the story, as he thought it was unique. 
As I read his story, the hairs on the back of my neck went up. I had had a similar experience forty years ago. I wonder how unique the experience really is?

The lesson for those considering the End of Science is that science has never been “out there,” but always “in here,” between the ears. Realizing that, I thought of Horgan’s interviews in the book of scientists who rued that they hadn’t had a good idea to follow in years.

Which explained the education, opinionating, and policy manipulation of so many former scientists. As Waylon said, “It ain’t love, but it ain’t bad.”

And for those wondering about that future? Well you can come back baby, science never forgets.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From Intellectual Understanding To Daily Practice

I find that most people know something about most subjects. To have someone make a big “aha!” isn’t part of the daily routine.

Yet the value is seldom in intellectual understanding, but in daily practice.

Years ago, I was running a weekly Sales Lab for some legendary sales professionals. The program was sponsored by a financial services provider who first wanted his people better, and then found that by opening enrollment they were getting a constant stream of referrals and new customers.

Over the years, we kept doing the same five things every week and everybody just kept getting better.

At the same time, I was consulting to a venture capital fund and the managing partner heard about the weekly meeting and wanted to attend. He was colorful, charismatic, and always behind in his sales.

He was bright and verbal, and many of the other participants already knew him. He jumped right into the exercises.

After, I asked him what he thought. He said, “I enjoyed it, and think I would do better in the advanced class.”

General laughter. The professionals knew there was no advanced class. This was like a martial art, where you just keep getting better at the basics.

Mastery is when my customer says, “We’ve always done it this way.”

When I was living in Marin County, one of my clients was an Aikido adept. He had been faithfully going to the dojo for decades.

I asked him how he measured the value from his practice?

He said, “Years ago, I was bicycling down the road with my baby daughter in the front basket. I hit a pothole, and the front of the bike collapsed. I was thrown over the bike, and was able to catch my daughter before she hit the ground.”

Mastery is not knowing how to do something. Mastery is performing when required.

Now, About Work....