Monday, June 17, 2013


The car buying experience, and the car salesman, has become the stereotype of all that is wrong with sales and selling in the eyes of the American public.

As with many stereotypes, there is a basis in fact and deed.  Manipulation, high-pressure, duplicity lying are words that consumers associate with buying automobiles specifically and sales in general. 

As a result, car salespeople rank dead last in a recent survey of most trusted professionals.  They managed to beat members of Congress in this race to the bottom, which is quite a telling performance.  

Speaking of performances, the Alec Baldwin sales "training" in Glengarry, Glen Ross, and William H. Macy's salesman in Fargo are two star-turn portrayals of the prototypical noxious sales professional.

Movies, you mock?  Well, art imitates life, as my experience this weekend in a local car dealership attests. In a 15 minute conversation bludgeoning encounter, the salesman spoke for 14 of those minutes.  He was trying to build trust, by telling me stories about himself: 30 years in the business, that most of his sales were through referrals by satisfied customers, that he opens the dealership on weekends to get ahead of his colleagues, that he works all the time getting great deals for people like me because he doesn't have a family.

Maybe this approach works for him.  Maybe I don't meet the profile of his typical customer.  Maybe he thought that I wouldn't notice all of the pictures of his wife and kids (maybe they left him because he never shut up or paid attention to them.)  As a consumer, maybe I could have cared less about him.  Nah.

But, if he had just made a minimal effort to really engage me, maybe by asking just a few questions, maybe he would have learned that I had done my homework, and maybe he would have learned that I was ready to buy if my specific terms were met.  And when he lied was misinformed about the price of the car that I was interested in, and the current financing rate that was being offered by his finance company, any trust that his approach may have engendered popped like one of the helium balloons festooning the showroom. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Customers and other strangers

If you operated Momma Mia's Meatballs, which feature do you think would give you the best advantage in the competition for customers?
  • The best location?
  • The best meatball recipe?
  • The best prices?
Would any of the above matter if you didn't have any customers?  Or if you ill-served the ones who patronized you? Probably not. At least not for long. 

I was thinking about this following a hike this weekend in a local state park.  We were hungry after finishing our jaunt and were looking forward to a burger and beer at a historic tavern near the entrance to the park.

It was closed.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon. 
In June. 

It wasn't closed because of an illness or malfunction.  Its posted hours noted that it didn't open until 4 pm on Saturdays. We took our appetites and our business elsewhere, as did others.

The little deli up the road, which didn't offer anything other than pre-packaged fare, was busy with others like us. Hungry customers. With money. 

As Peter Drucker, the father of modern business management once wrote:  "The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer."  You cannot do this successfully if you are not focused on satisfying their needs.

Monday, June 3, 2013

To serve whom?

Even if you are just a casual fan of the original Twilight Zone series, you are probably familiar with the 1962 episode titled, "To Serve Man."

Considered one of the classics of this seminal series, it tells the story of a visit to our small planet by an alien race that offers to eradicate strife and enrich the lives of earth's inhabitants.  The payback for consequences of this largesse, are, for the earthlings, unappetizing.

The show came to mind following a conversation I had this week with Sam Silverstein, author, lecturer and expert on building cultures of accountability.

I am a big fan of Sam and his concepts and have enrolled in his "Accountability Academy," as  have several of the companies with whom I work. However, despite the absence of accountability being a frequent lament an affinity for accountability is not universal. That's what Sam and I chatted about: where accountability cultures thrive, where they don't and why.

Two nuggets emerged from our talk:
  • Many individuals and organizations confuse responsibility and accountability.  "Responsibility is about things; accountability is about people," Silverstein believes.  Ironically, though, when you have a culture where individuals accept responsibility for helping others, accountability is the result.
  • Not surprisingly, organizations and individuals that practice servant leadership, are generally more successful because the concept of personal responsibility and accountability is ingrained and/or embraced.
Servant leadership is not about training a staff of business butlers, or a boss who makes sure that coffee is brewed and hot when the staff arrives.  It is a management philosophy that is people-centric, where leaders accept responsibility for enabling team performance through their own actions.

As author Bill Treasurer says:  Leaders Open Doors.

In the Washington Post, Professor Edward Hess of the University of Virginia recently noted:
"Many people think that you cannot be people-centric and maintain high standards, because employees will take advantage. That’s another leadership myth.
These high-performance organizations show that people-centric environments and high performance are not mutually exclusive. Employees in these companies have high emotional engagement, loyalty and productivity, and outperform the competition on a daily basis over long periods of time. In fact, the relationship between high performance, high employee engagement and how you treat employees is compelling. My research clearly demonstrates that employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction and loyalty."

The lesson?  If you can't grow beyond yourself, you have a job, not a business.  In a small business especially, the ability to motivate and manage your team to achieve a consistent high level of performance is the critical factor of growth -- and survival.

In a review of the new book, Give and Take, Harvard Business School Professor James Heskett writes that research "suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well."

Like the ironic ending in the To Serve Man Twilight Zone episode, there's also a surprising twist to the familiar servant/teacher cliche:  it seems that those that can do, teach.  And those that can't teach, are toast.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ownership and attitude

In one of our earliest posts, Ownership Attitude, we noted that while the definition of "ownership attitude" may be open to debate, it's attributes are manifest:
"Owners are independent, strong-willed, risk-taking, opinionated, combative, willful, perfectionist, far-sighted, deaf, myopic, sleep-deprived, the first out-of-pocket but last to be paid, and most often not 'millionaires-or-billionaires.'
While not exhaustive by any stretch, what these attributes illustrate is that owners are NOT employees.  In fact, they make HORRIBLE employees, by and large."

Here's another take, authored by the Bill Bonnstetter of Target Training International, and published in the Harvard Business Review.  Bonnstetter looks at the attributes and skills that are most and least prevalent among serial entrepreneurs.  In sum:  Great vision and drive; poor management and interpersonal skills.

If entrepreneurialism is driven by these qualities, is there any hope that the business owner can understand his/her employees' needs and motivations, given the noted deficit in empathy?

Yes, there is hope.  More than hope, actually, there is science.

According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who also visited with us last week, there are several keys to motivating humans, be they employees, co-workers, spouses or siblings.  (It is also very relevant to sales and marketing.  Ping me and I'll describe how.)

Ariely's TED presentation on meaning, motivation and ownership is thought-provoking. His conclusions:
  • Meaning drives satisfaction and performance
  • Recognition and praise is essential to meaning
  • Investment (time and effort) creates meaning and drives ownership

As a business owner, these tenets can be both comforting and troubling.  Ask yourself:
  • Am I able to bring out in others the qualities that made me successful?  
  • Can I not only install the practices but instill the culture needed to manage it?  
  • Do I need to delegate that critical assignment because I am not wired to do so?

The future success of your enterprise depends on your ability to answer those questions honestly and to execute the solutions correctly.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mother's little helper

Some mother's day musings:

Jeffrey Gitomer is one of my favorite business personalities.  His books, blogs, videos and seminars on sales and selling contain the kind of practical, no-nonsense nuggets that can only come from someone who not only has a true passion for his craft, but has truly mastered it. Such as:
"Your Mother taught you everything you needed to know about connecting to people before you were 10 years old: make friends, play nice, tell the truth, take a bath and do your homework!"
On the other hand, Dan Ariely's observations are a not exactly motherly, unless your mom is a cognitive scientist and behavioral economist.  His belief is that you can't always trust your intuition, or your eyes. But his delivery is every bit as pithy, and his conclusions are as trenchant, as Gitomer's.

Enjoy your week, all you moms and mom's helpers.  Be clean, be helpful and be mindful of your irrational behavior.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Staying afloat

From the time we are young we are schooled in the necessity to persevere.  Parents, teachers, clergy, classic literature and popular culture all channel adages and aphorisms designed to inculcate the idea that if you just keep at it, all will eventually work out in your favor.  

In other words "soldier on."  

Perhaps one of the most famous quotes on the subject from my boyhood was Vince Lombardi's motto: "Winners never quit and quitters never win."  We've written about overcoming failure as an ingredient in the recipe for success on a couple of occasions ourselves, including this post.

We all want to be winners in life, whatever our personal definition of that term may be.  Lost in the sea of exhortation though is practical, actionable advice:  "How do I do that?" Science shows that it is much more than simply the power of positive thinking.

In his book, "To Sell is Human," author Daniel H. Pink notes that whether or not the job title includes the word "sales," the vast majority of us humans are selling in some form or fashion -- moving others to take an action.   Pink lays out the attributes of a successful human "salesperson," and examines what psychologists and social scientists say are the three components of one of them: a characteristic that Pink calls "buoyancy."
  1. Interrogative self-talk:  We all talk to ourselves.  Pink writes that science shows that the best internal conversation is not necessarily positive self-talk (I am the best) but one that allows for questioning in building or reinforcing a belief (Can I do this?), and "inspire thoughts about autonomously or intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue a goal."  Think more "Bob the Builder," than Tony Robbins.
  2. Positivity ratios: Positivity is incredibly important in moving people to take action.  In his book, Pink quotes researcher Barbara Frederickson saying: "Positive emotions...broaden people's ideas about possible actions, opening our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and...making us more receptive and more creative."  Negativity is important too, judiciously and appropriately applied.  The perfect ratio for success?  3:1.
  3. Explanatory style: How you interpret events and explain them to yourself is a critical success factor.  Those with a more optimistic view of setbacks ("it's just temporary") have significantly higher success rates than those with a more pessimistic view.  Scholar Martin Seligman says "flexible optimism -- optimism with it's eyes open," is a key to what Pink calls "tough-minded buoyancy -- the proper balance between downward and upward forces."
Pink writes that "staying afloat in an ocean of rejection is [an] essential quality of moving others." I say it's an essential quality of success in all things.

Carry on.

Monday, April 29, 2013

It's magic

A few months back, we wrote about optimism and pessimism and the need for a small business owner to have a pragmatic view of his or her world.

Fixating on the bigger picture -- that is the macro environment -- is often more valuable as personal entertainment than it is productive for your enterprise.

Everyone lives in the same macro environment.  It suits some; doesn't thrill others.  The difficult job you have is to figure out how these big picture issues do, will or won't affect you and organization, without letting your personal preferences and interests color your judgement.

It's a hard task.  There are many cognitive biases that we all succumb to from time to time.  Here's a link to a list of 61 of them

Which gets us back to positive thinking, or rather, rational pragmatic thinking.  How do you check your own work, so to speak?  In a recent article, The Danger of Positive Thinking, Geoffrey James offers some tips for preventing a lapse into magical thinking:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunrise, sunset

The bookstore in my town has announced that it will be closing at the end of June, after 23 years in business. Given the societal and economic shifts that have occurred since the emergence of internet retailers and e-books/readers, it is not a shock.  If one of the largest booksellers in the country closed its doors, what chance does a mom-and-pop in a small country village have?

My family and I are emblematic of the problem, I suppose. We frequently buy books; in fact, we organize a book club for Capital Region businesspeople.  We have patronized the store, but certainly not as much as we could have and obviously not enough to make a difference.

I don't know the proprietors personally, and the reasons they stated for closing go beyond just business economics.  There are personal and health issues involved.  So they have announced a wind down.  They're shutting down in a planned process, on their terms.

If there's a proper way to go out, this seems to be a good, if not satisfying, conclusion.  It's not always the case.

Ninety percent of the 21 million US businesses are family owned. Yet only 30 percent of family run companies today succeed into the second generation, and only 15 percent survive into the third, according to  According to some studies, fewer than 30% of small business owners have a succession or contingency plan.  That's a lot of assets at risk. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Winners and...

35 years ago (I can't believe I just typed that phrase) I coached little league baseball. My youngest brother was a player and somehow I ended up running the team, and did so for several years, until he stopped playing.

I now find myself coaching (and thankfully not running)  little league baseball for my youngest son.  Talk about a time warp.  Personally, I find that I don't jump to the left like I used to.

While it is still baseball, it is a completely different world, as one would expect three and a half decades later.  There are many reasons, and they seem to me to condense down to two:  expectations and performance.

The players' expectations are high, but that has always been so.  The kids are eager to emulate their favorite pros and do so down to how they set themselves in the batting box or wear their caps in the field.  Many kids are decked out in brand-name gear and while the brands have changed, the debate over which is better and worn endorsed by which major leaguers is timeless.

Parental expectations are high, as well, but a little less innocuous.  They are eager for their kids to do well, of course, but parental pride and support is to be expected, if not always a given.  The difference I've noticed is that their desire to see Johnny/Sally excel comes with an expectation that their progeny will or should not fail.  This belief is manifested in what some call the "everyone gets a trophy" syndrome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pokes and provocations

I was meeting with a CEO client this week and the conversation turned to productivity and time management.  Well, sort of.

What he said was:  "I'd get a hell of a lot more done if my staff didn't drive me crazy."

Owners and employees.  Managers and staff.  CEOs and mangers. Why can't they just get along?

The CEO's lament reminded me of a phrase I had heard earlier, which also related to managing relationships:  "Don't poke the crazy."  I wasn't familiar with that one, but I was with its ursine iteration: "Don't poke the bear," which is similar to "gets your goat."

Whether you anthropomorphize your anger or not, losing your cool, or vice versa, is counterproductive to effective management.  Just ask Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice.  The fallout from both the bad behavior, and the condoning of it, will leave a mark.

What drives you crazy and how do you deal with provocative behavior?   Understanding personalities -- yours as well as others -- is critical to successful leadership and motivation.   

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hop and change

Ah, Spring!

The sun has passed the equator, heading north, and the arrival of robins, crocus, matzoh and Cadbury eggs heralds the season of metaphoric and symbolic renewal.

More tangibly, one of the advantages of the return of light and warmth is getting outside to play.  The benefits of outdoor play are manifest.  It helps develop creativity, problem-solving ability and social skills that carry from childhood into adult work-life interactions in ways that indoor activities do not.

Take the game of hopscotch, for example.  It is an early childhood game of which I'm sure most of you are familiar.  According to research, there's a tremendous connection between this simple game and physical and cognitive development:
" your child refines her physical coordination, she is also building essential neural pathways in the brain. It's those exact same pathways which will one day become the conduits for left/right brain thinking tasks such as creativity, reasoning, and self-regulation."
In other words, it's not play, it's training.  And it carries on to the professional level.

And as Spring represents the return of growth cycle, hopefully your thoughts are turning to your employee playtime training.  Ongoing training is essential to growth, even for the smallest of businesses.  If your organization is going to grow, you have to grow everyone involved with it.  And that takes training.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Until morale improves

You may be familiar with the term cognitive dissonance,  the "psychological conflict arising from simultaneously holding two incongruous beliefs."

It is a theory that we all seek to "hold our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and balance" and when conflicts arise, we seek to restore our sense of harmony by reducing or eliminating the dissonant. The idea that spawned the theory is that we humans want "cognitive consistency" in our beliefs -- to believe what we believe, in other words -- and that need can lead to irrational and sometimes destructive behaviors.

This pop-psychology lesson is prompted by an interesting week in the pursuit of cognitive consistency in employee-related matters.   It was a somewhat futile pursuit:
  • An employer who has bemoaned the quality of applicants for open positions, but who continues to seek candidates from the same talent pool using the same recruiting tools.
  • Employees who decry micromanagement, but won't follow simple procedures and checklists designed to make their jobs safer and more productive.
  • A CEO who was surprised when a senior staffer left after being passed over for a promotion, but who refused to discuss with the employee why they weren't being considered for the post.
Yup, it sure is hard to be an employer.  But you know what, it is also hard to be an employee.  How do some bridge the gap and remove the dissonance that is endemic in many of the disagreements relationships between boss and staff?  Many organizations are considered great places to work.  Is it as Tolstoy wrote of families, that happy workplaces share common traits, but that unhappy ones are unique?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Would you believe?

Do you thrive on order or disorder? Into Ccontrol or Kaos chaos?

Are you a connect-the-dots kind of manager, taking comfort in plans and processes, trusting in systems that provide structure to move your organization forward step-by-step?

Or do you prefer a more freewheeling environment, believing that adaptability and improvisation is a litmus test that allows one's mettle to come shining through.

It's probably not a question that business owners ponder very often, but it came up in conversation a number of times this week, speaking with prospective TAB Board members about their approaches to managing their companies.

Some of those I met with professed to love the challenge of dealing with constant change, navigating a stormy environment and choosing the correct tack to keep forward progress going.  Others, well, not so much. They preferred a more grounded and gradual approach.

I'm sure you know successful executives in both camps. Today's entrepreneurial zeitgeist certainly reflects more of the swashbuckling, freewheeling, disruptive business type. And, while the it may be a more sexy story, would you believe that this approach yields worse outcomes than the old-school methodical, follow-the-plan approach?

As Jim Collins illustrated in his book Great By Choice, a discipline he calls "20-Mile March" behavior is a leadership trait that gives organizations "the ability to impose order upon disorder, consistency amid swirling controversy" but only when it is combined with a near obsessive focus on making continued progress against the objective.

According to Collins:
"Some people believe that a world characterized by radical change and disruptive forces no longer favors those who engage in consistent 20-Mile Marching. Yet the great irony is that when we examined just this type of out-of-control, fast-paced environment, we found that every (successful) company -- unlike their less-successful peers -- exemplified the 20-Mile March principle during the era we studied."
Collins relays the expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, two well-matched teams racing for the South Pole.
"For one team, it would be a race to victory and a safe return home. For the second team, it would be a devastating defeat, reaching the Pole only to find the wind-whipped flags of their rivals planted 34 days earlier, followed by a race for their lives -- a race that they lost in the end.... One leader led his team to victory and safety. The other led his team to defeat and death....What separated these two men? Why did one achieve spectacular success in such an extreme set of conditions, while the other failed even to survive?"
Find Collins' answer here.

The difference between success and failure is often small, with progress sometimes barely measurable and perceptible only in hindsight. Most often it is the result of a series of incremental actions and decisions rather than any single event.  Having a well-drawn plan, combined with the temperament and leadership skills to implement it consistently, even in the face of adversity, gives your organization a demonstrable edge over more flamboyant but less dependable competition.

Missing by that much may make for comedic gold, but it is often not so amusing in life or in business.  Believe it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The stuff of dreams?

My cousin is married to a musician of some note in certain musical circles. A blues and R&B bassist, "Choppy" performs with several bands and we try and catch him at his local shows whenever we can.  This past weekend, he and friends played a gig in Hudson.

One of their pieces was a raucous, bluesy cover of the country standard "16 Tons" that segued into the Eurythmics' techno-pop hit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," that they stripped down and rocked out.  They synthesized two seemingly discordant musical styles and schools into a jam that brought the house down.  Smartly, the bartenders chose this moment to pass around the tip hat.  Naturally, this got me thinking about finances.  Small business finances, specifically.

I have met with several business owners lately who have not taken advantage of opportunities that would accelerate their growth.   They each had reasons:  uncomfortable funding the investment from their equity, uneasy about diminishing their cash flow, unwilling to take on debt.  It made me wonder, have even entrepreneurs become too risk-averse when it comes to employing all options for financing growth?

In the aftermath of the financial crisis that began in 2007, debt has become a figurative four-letter word (it already was a literal one.)  There's no argument that we had a debt binge in this country (globally, actually) and that our economic challenges are attributable in large part to postponing working through the necessary deleveraging process.

As marketer Seth Godin once noted:  The guy who invented ships also invented shipwrecks.  Thankfully, the perils of sailing did not scuttle seafaring.  Has the pain of the debt bubble created a mindset that is too limiting where debt financing is concerned? 

Access to debt financing can be a powerful force for small business growth.  It has ever been thus.  It is called leverage for a reason:  small amounts can have a powerful effect.  If you've kept good books, are profitable with a history of good cash flows (and have good credit score), banks and community lending institutions will and want to lend to you. 

Capital is the essential lubricant of commerce and for small businesses it is practically the elixir of life. Yet some now view debt as if it were unicorn blood, extracting a terrible toll for its employ. Smoothing out the cyclicity of cash flows rather than being hamstrung by them is smart financial management.  And the right debt can often be cheaper and provide more operating flexibility than equity capital.

Tennessee Ernie Ford may have lamented debt "to the company store" as an unholy burden, but for smart business owners, it is the stuff of which sweet dreams can be made.

      Monday, March 4, 2013

      Don't fear the reaper

      Donald Trump insinuated himself into the American psyche and lexicon with his signature bellow: "You're fired." His show, The Apprentice, had a good run before, as with many things Trump, it descended into caricature, evoking petitions for The Donald himself to be axed.

      While Trump's exterminator persona may have raised the eyebrows of kinder and gentler executives, not all disagree with his methods. One business owner I know advises:  "the best time to fire someone is the first time you think of it."

      Unrealistic, pig-headed, cold-hearted and self- destructive?  Perhaps, (and word does get around about bad bosses these days) but terminating problematic employees is not a matter for the meek or mild mannered.

      The above owner's snarky remark belies pragmatic thinking: if an employee is giving you reason to question their continuation, you'd better gear up for an exit sooner rather than later. A prepared mind, and all that.


      Trump notwithstanding, I don't know any business owners who relish the task of relieving anyone of their livelihood.  However, I have personally witnessed instances of owners extending an employee's tenure to the point that their business was gravely affected.  Not just by the brilliant jerks, whose contributions often mask their destructiveness, but by those who are chronically under-performing, disrespectful, deceitful and, in some cases, criminal. Bad apples, in other words.

      What to do?  Here's how to cowboy up, pilgrim:
      • Document, document, document:    You may think it is tedious and unnecessary, but you would be wrong about the latter and immature about the former.  Did I mention write it down? Like, yesterday?
      • Get good advice:  If you don't have an HR advisor or employment lawyer, don't be penny wise and pound foolish.  Talk to a pro. Stat.
        • Process is your friend:  You must discuss issues with the employee, and detail a plan of remedial action.  Have a plan and procedure and follow-it. Don't freelance or improvise.
        • Rehab your culture:  I have worked with a number of organizations who flourished after problem employees were exited.  This occurs only when and if owners allow an honest dialogue to occur after the dismissal.  These conversations, if conducted respectfully but openly, can rebuild trust that may have been lost through inaction or complacency.

          No business owner likes admitting to a hiring failure -- it's contrary to entrepreneurial DNA -- and many take employee issues personally.  Get over it.  If you have an employee who needs to exit your company, you must act decisively and deliberately.  Chronic bad behavior that goes unchecked is a cancer within any organization.

          Don't fear the reaper.

          Monday, February 25, 2013

          Swing and a...

          Baseball's spring training has commenced.  I know this by the calendar, and by the fact that I've been hearing baseball cliches more frequently in recent business meetings.

          "I've told my people that I want them to be more aggressive.  Have a plan and swing the bat," one CEO told me recently. "It's OK for them to strike out, but I want them swinging."

          This statement brought to mind the 2006 National League Championship Series (NLCS), when NY Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran was at the plate in a situation that many who play baseball dream about:  deciding game, bases loaded, two outs and the winning run on base.

          Monday, February 18, 2013

          Chances are...

          The 1974 film Blazing Saddles is considered one of the great American comedies.  A satire not only of movie westerns, but also of American popular culture, many of the movie's scenes have become classic.

          One of those highlights was the late Madeline Kahn's performance of "I'm Tired" a comic lament to over-abundant but largely unfulfilling opportunities:  "I'm tired of being admired..."  We should all have such problems.

          The song came to mind this week during discussions with business leaders about coping with the endless series of decisions they must make to keep their organizations moving forward.  Being fatigued was a common complaint.

          Indeed.  We've all had those days where we have felt so bombarded by incoming requests that by day's end we feel paralyzed or simply unable to process even a simple request like: "Honey, what do you want for dinner?" without risking a domestic violence charge.

          Monday, February 11, 2013

          Who loves ya, baby?

          Dear John,

          I know that we’ve never paid much attention to the Valentine’s Day thing – it’s not like it’s a legal holiday and all – but I couldn’t let it pass without saying how much better things are between us. What a difference a year makes!

          Last winter, I thought we were on the rocks, heading towards being done. You weren't yourself and it seemed like you were just going through the motions. 

          You had been caring, upbeat, positive, full of ideas.  We were a hot item. Everyone talked about us. You were proud. You loved every aspect of running your business.

          I know that the never-ending "recession" wore you down. I could see it in the little things, those small gestures that showed that you cared: studying the day’s orders to get a feel for what who was buying what: you could spot changes before they became a trend; “buddying” up with a new employee to get them up to speed, then staying late to catch up on your own work; going to Chamber events and coming back with orders, not just a few business cards that you threw into a pile.  I was worried, and I know you were too, though you didn't speak about it.

          Monday, February 4, 2013

          Deja vu all over again

          Two great American pastimes intersected this past weekend:  weather prognostication and football, in the forms of Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Sunday. 

          Both are now spectacles that have evolved far beyond their humble beginnings.  Regarding the Super Bowl, I am always awed by the sheer magnitude of this often-not-so-special event.  Some big facts about the 2013 Super Bowl:
          • 7.5 million TVs will be bought for the game.
          • Nearly $4 million will be spent per 30-second ad during the game.
          • 1.2 billion chicken wings will be consumed and 50 million cases of beer will be quaffed.
          • 2 billion gallons of water will be used to flush those wings and beer away.
          • 7 million people will call in sick on Monday

          Groundhog Day is a less over-the-top affair, even in Punxsutawney, and whatever the predicted outcome.  Whether early spring or more weeks of winter, February 2nd heralds repeated opportunities to catch one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day.  It's a classic American business morality tale.

          Monday, January 28, 2013

          Going for it

          In baseball, there's a saying, "You can't hit a five run homer."  It's an admonition to players that a deficit has to be overcome one batter at a time, and to focus in the moment, rather than project forward.  Contribute your part; let the next guy do his.  Some call it "small ball." Or deride it as incrementalism. One of the most memorable moments in American sports was built on such small steps. (Relax, Red Sox Nation, you had your moment.)

          The debate over "big play" versus "march down the field" has raged for and out of sporting arenas.  Think tortoise v. hare, a fable from Aesop and ancient Greece.

          It's true that sluggers are traditionally more revered by fans and big-armed quarterbacks capture more imagination than a great cover corner back.  We have home run derbies at the All Star game, not doubles up the gap contests.

          But do the bombers win more?  Do they contribute more to success than well-rounded excellence?  Not according to some.  The book and film Moneyball, which is about management as much as it is about baseball, is a recent contributor to this debate.  In the world of big business, the go-for-broke and grind-it-out camps each have visible success stories.

          Monday, January 21, 2013

          Is grease the word?

          "I hate to be a kicker,
          I always long for peace,
          But the wheel that does the squeaking,
          Is the one that gets the grease."
           -- Josh Billings, "The Kicker," ca. 1870

          I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the "squeaky wheel" adage, the origin of which is credited to the poem above. Josh Billings was a 19th century American humorist, second in popularity in his time only to Mark Twain.

          For business owners, the Squeaky Wheel syndrome is no laughing matter.  You want happy customers, not disgruntled ones. Organizations go great lengths and invest great sums to ensure that their organizations not only understand best practices but execute them flawlessly.  Some succeed, some don't: There are both customer service Halls of Fame and Halls of Shame

          In a recent discussion about the book Raving Fans, a bestseller about how to make great service a competitive advantage, business owners discussed how they instilled and practiced the "customer first" mentality in their companies.

          One retailer described how he sends notes and small gifts to customers who have had issues, whether real or imagined.  Asked if she did this for all unhappy customers, she replied "no," but more often than not.  Then she was asked what she sends her "best" customers...the ones who buy most frequently, spend the most, are most active on the company's social media pages.  After some uncomfortable, but thoughtful silence, the answer was, "nothing, but that will now change." 

          Squeaky wheels surely need attention.  But make sure that the silent wheels, the ones carrying the load for your business without issue or complaint, are well cared for and properly maintained.  You may not always hear them, but you'll notice them when they are gone.  And you'll save on grease, which is literally and metaphorically both messy and expensive.

          Monday, January 14, 2013

          On the edge

          I attended a terrific seminar last week, hosted by a local professional association about which I had heard many good things.  As with many first-of-the-year meetings, the topic was planning for business generation.  The room was overflowing.

          The presenter did an excellent job of building participation and conversation:  she didn't talk at the audience, but rather made a few points that led to interaction among the participants...sharing of information...making of connections, etc.  Attendees left the meeting animated and motivated.  Who could ask for more for on a January Friday afternoon?

          There was one statement that the presenter made as she exhorted the crowd to develop personal marketing plans that was a lone discordant note in a otherwise resonant and well-orchestrated presentation:
          "Your mother and grandmother were wrong: Humble does not work."
          Is that true?  The antonyms of humble include arrogant, chesty, self-important, beaming, swelled, vainglorious, big-headed, persnickety, snooty, snot-nosed, stuck-up, too big for one's breeches, boastful and braggart.  I don't think those qualities are what the presenter would recommend as keys to winning friends and influencing people.  Unless you're running for Congress.

          Business professionals today face a conundrum.  There is no question that while the ability to connect is growing exponentially, it is also harder to gain visibility and capture attention.  So we're resorting to stunts, gimmicks, the outsized and the outlandish and labeling it "edgy" to rationalize our actions.

          Monday, January 7, 2013

          Grappling and growing

          My oldest son was not an athletic child.  Growing up in Manhattan, he was an urban street kid and possessed a dexterous rather than physical prowess.  This manifested itself in highly individualist forms: yo-yoing, card tricks and magic.  Brains over brawn stuff.

          When we moved to "the country," these unique skills gained him instant visibility with his new peers and helped him to forge new connections.  They didn't alter the reality, however, that his new friends were much more interested in sports than sleight-of-hand.  He had a decision to make.

          So he chose to wrestle.  Not an easy sport to jump into, given that many of his teammates (and competitors) had been in programs (who knew?) since grade school. He spent his first year getting beaten pretty badly, which for him was a singular and disorienting experience; he had no prior experience on which to mitigate the helplessness he felt.  It was not just the losing, he said, but more so being unable to figure out how to stop losing. He couldn't just think his way out of it and was frustrated about not being able to apply what he was learning in actual competition.

          Fast forward a year:  he has as many wins as losses; placed 2nd in a 12-team tournament over the holiday, and last week pinned a more experienced opponent in less than a minute on what his coach called, "a beautifully executed move."