The Budget


If I Say It Three Times It Is True


If You Don’t Believe It… You Are Gone.


He and I sit in executive black leather easy chairs on opposite sides of an amber black coffee table.  I squirm a little, looking at him.  He squirms a little and looks right back at me. A current copy of the Harvard Business Review sits askew on the otherwise clear table and mocks us because we both know it won’t help.  Like so many times in the past, we are stuck.  I feel stuck, almost jumping out of my skin.  I am guessing he can imagine me about to jump, and is unwilling to provoke it by making a loud noise, or worse, by uttering “no” once again.  I am guessing he is feeling tentative, he doesn’t want to set me off, he’s done that before, set me off, but you know, it didn’t help any.  In truth my exasperation probably set us back some.

But this is a new day, and what he doesn’t know is that I have come to our coaching session committed to another approach.  Call it Gandhi light.  No matter what, I said to myself while preparing for the meeting, I am going to ride with him, ask him the questions that need to be asked, and under no circumstances will I push, punch, raise my voice, exaggerate, gesticulate, or react strongly.  I will listen, I will weather the pauses, I will somehow get to the bottom of why he won’t…. well that’s not fair is it?  I’m not all that sure what he should do.  What I am sure of is he is dying the death of a thousand cuts by doing nothing.  Hence his favorite word “no”.  As in “no I am not willing to do anything about it right now…” and so on.

So with the spirit of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in my heart (I hope) I squirm a little,  again, I pause for a bit, then looking right at his brown eyes and ask in a soft voice “do you see the damage he is doing to your team”?

Shifting toward me a bit he says “yes, well no… well all right yes. What I mean is I see some chaffing.  He does cause chaffing, irritation, like that.  Damage, no, I’m not so sure that’s the right word.”

“Are we talking about the same person,” I ask?


“Are we talking about Baxter Eisenstadt, your CFO?”

“Yes of course were are talking about Baxter.”

Gandhi’s  blood pressure rises slightly, I try to compensate with yet another intake of breath.

“This is the Baxter who called your COO a coward, and an imbecile?”

“Look stop throwing that in my face.  He apologized! Baxter gets wound up sometimes, but he sure as hell produces results – you have got to give him that.”


“Yes, he is the type of person I need to keep this team on track, to push them, we need results.  He is priceless that way.”

“You aren’t worried about alienation?  I mean that budget fiasco, are we over that yet?”

“Well, not exactly, did I tell you Keith quit?  Actually Keith and Janet quit, same day for gods sake, good riddance is what I say.”

Gandhi’s head is hurting – he is stunned – gobsmacked, so he inhales again, sits and just looks across the black expanse for a count of four.  One, two, three, four.

Finally he says “Good riddance?  You lost your COO and your VP HR over what, exactly?”

“They couldn’t make the grade, that’s what!  We budgeted 25 million in sales for this year.  Baxter made it clear to all of us; each exec had to belly up, step up and if they do, we should earn revenue of at least $25 million!  Otherwise there was going to be big trouble.  I should have seen it coming.  Keith screamed like a slaughtered pig when Baxter came up with his projection… he said we couldn’t do it, that we wouldn’t even make 20 Million, you know, the wheels will come off and we don’t have enough sales push – all that crap.  But Baxter, well this is why I like him, he just kept the pressure on, telling us we had to make it or else, until he pushed, well maybe a little too hard and Keith, I think, cracked.  I really should have seen it coming, we needed to upgrade anyway.”

“So he quit?”

“Yes, he quit, in a huff.”

“And Janet?”

“Well that was too bad really, but she is just too soft.  I told her to terminate Keith, and hold his expense checks and his final paycheck until we got his computer and his keys and a signed confidentiality agreement…all that stuff.  Well she said that was illegal and even if it weren’t that it was being disrespectful, contrary to our corporate values, you know, that soft stuff she loves, so Baxter told her if she didn’t follow my orders she could go too.”

“Tell me you are kidding!”

“Hell no I am not kidding.  I think Baxter is right, we need 25 Million in sales and god dammit Keith was asleep at the switch!”

“So what’s the number going to be?”

“Ah shit, 19 Million if we are lucky, they’re still counting, but yea it looks like 19 Million.”

“So your hand-picked COO, the guy who effectively built this business from 4 million to what, nineteen million in five years, he quits, and you say he doesn’t have what it takes?”

“Nope, it’s a new era, when we budget to make a number you make it or you are out the door.”

“Then why is Baxter still here?”

“Because he was right, we need 25 million, I think he was right.”

“What if the market says otherwise?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if the market only needed or wanted 19 million?”

“But we budgeted for 25 million!”

“So what?  That doesn’t mean it will happen, if there isn’t sufficient demand, or a large enough sales force or enough marketing magic, or manufacturing capacity, or.  Really what I am asking is what if Keith was right?”

“Baxter said we could do 25 million, and I decided that was right.  Keith couldn’t cut it, Janet is a wimp, Baxter is a little irritating at times, but I still think 25 Million was a good idea.”

“Sorry, but do I remember it correctly?  You did 15 million last year, right?”


“So 19 million would be a twenty-five, twenty-six percent revenue growth?”


“And 25 million would be a what… a sixty-six percent revenue growth?”

“Yes, and yes, what are you getting at?”

“I am getting at a question; what on earth convinced you that you needed sixty-six percent revenue growth in one year?”

“Aren’t you listening?  I already told you;  Baxter convinced me!”

“And Baxter’s sales and manufacturing experience is…?”

“His experience is that he sees what we could be and said we should shoot higher than we have been shooting for in the past, that we ought to be able to get to 25 million. I like that idea, and so I set that as the goal for this year.  I told Keith I wasn’t kidding, that I really wanted 25 million and I would be pissed if we didn’t get it.”

I elbow Gandhi aside and say “goddamn it, Baxter knows next to nothing about manufacturing or the market you are in: he’s an accountant!  He has never run a real business, he counts, that’s all, he counts and acts like a horses ass.  He counts and kisses your butt, and you just eat it up!”

Gandhi had left the building, along with Keith and Janet.

Exasperated I continue.  “How would you describe the state of your team now, I mean the mood?”

“Pretty shitty, but this is the real world, and this stuff happens.”

“What stuff, specifically?”

“People leaving, not making the grade, you know, like that.”

“So you are faced with rebuilding your team, replacing people who were dependable, hard working, loyal, and with the exception of the 25 million dollar budget, dependable… you are faced with reconstituting the executive team, and holding on to Baxter?”

“Yup, that’s it.”

“Can you think of a way you could have avoided this mess?”


“I can.  If you want to hear?”

“Okay, how?”

“By someone, probably you, asking the obvious question… what if the sales projection was just plain unrealistic?  What if Baxter didn’t really have a clue what you could or couldn’t really produce or sell given the condition of the company and its products?  What if he just thought a big sales increase was available because he didn’t know any better?”

“He is a seasoned CFO.”

“Yes, but Keith knew your business better than anyone in the world except perhaps you.  You’ve said it yourself, he built it.  Why would he want to understate its capacity?”

“I liked the idea of 25 million! It’s time to get out of this rut, move to a new level! I don’t like him telling me we can’t do that; it’s a defeatist attitude!”

“Yes well, anyone who heard you wasn’t likely to ask the obvious question, where they?  Except for Keith of course.  My guess is he thought you would listen to him, so naively he walks in and gives you his best advice.”

“Advice my ass, we only did 19 Million!”

“Indeed”, uttered Gandhi, who had re-entered the conversation.  “You only did 19 Million.  So Keith was probably right, only you won’t have him to help you get to 25 million, you have Baxter, who doesn’t know how to run a manufacturing business.  He knows how to count-at least I think he does.  Oh and he also knows how to tell you what you want to hear.”

I have sat in a darkened theater watching dozens of executive teams act out scenes of high tension and towering drama.  The dynamics of business, especially in the C Suite are as compelling as any Ibsen or Chekhov melodrama.  But there is one reoccurring theme that makes me want to stand up in the darkened theater and scream out “ask the obvious question… ask the obvious question and skip all the blood and guts and murder and betrayal!”  That theme is the angry and often destructive drama around a team that has fallen short of sales (or profit) targets.  Of course the immediate trigger is that someone is to blame, then the witch hunt begins, then the team itself starts pointing fingers at one another, the CEO stirs it up with his/her anger and disappointment, taking the shortfall personally, as if it was a slap in the face, a kick in the groin, and then, the real fight begins and in many cases permanently poisons relationships among team members… and through all of this; no one asks the obvious question… what if the target was unrealistic.  No one ever asks, because the leaders are unwilling to admit or accept that the sales (or profit) target may be unrealistic, because by doing so gives way to some hidden horrible infection whose symptoms include complicity, idleness, shirking or slacking.  Better to plunge everyone into a dark pit of despair and convene a knife fight than to just ask and answer that question, then do something about the answer.

Consider this as an alternate scenario to the story above:

The business is on track for 19 Million, not 25 million.  The team sees this and three to six months into the year and they re-budget (probably cut) expenses to match current sales projections (allowing capacity or flexibility in case some fourth quarter magic happens and bails everyone out).  The team immediately also begins work on a strategic assessment and planning process to develop a more abundant future based on improved and/or or re-engineered production, marketing, sales and distribution, then creating revised estimates for the following year’s projections.

No drama, other than the disappointment of a lower sales result….  They reach the only ground from which change can be launched… they reach the place of:  “it is what it is”.  Then as opposed to the angry knife fight and goon show, they collaborate, adjust, rejig and set out on a path to make the business bigger, faster, smarter through strategic thinking and investment.  And the people who know the business best have also learned something about how to budget better, and more importantly how to make the more realistic expectations come true.  And so the business continues, the team grows, experiences are shared, and the future is brighter for everyone.

Of course if you have a COO or other key executive who has reached the end of his/her capacity then you do need a change, but in most cases this isn’t what happens.  What happens is the whole business is thrown in to turmoil because no one will ask the one simple question.  If you are a CEO, know that you are the person who should ask that question and then lead the team in answering it.

One last point.  Once the question is answered… you can get to work.  Use all of that otherwise wasted energy to make the future business what it can be, which I optimistically believe is the raison d’etre of a good leadership team (CEO included), leaving the hand wringing, gut twisting drama to Ibsen and Chekhov, so you can do good work and lead a sustainable community, your business or group.

And with that, Gandhi can retire from the field.

Posted in Leadership, Leaping, Navigate the Rivers, People. People. People., Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beaver Time Retreat

On Sunday I am departing for a nine day retreat, mainly a silent one of meditation and reflection.  One of the requirements is that we turn off all electronics for the entire retreat.

What time is it when all the electronics are off?

Good question….

As I prepare for my journey, I’d like to share this poem with you.

See you when I return – from beaver time.


Beaver Time

The beaver,
at least the one I saw
in the pond
by accident
a year ago,
was surprisingly small,
making waves,
after a time,
head up,
getting back
to work,
as if to say
“well you’ve delayed me
long enough”
“I’ve decided you aren’t as dangerous as you look
so I’ll get back to work.”
Then work he did!
As if I had crossed into Shangri-La
or awoken in a magical place,
I watched the beaver swimming back and forth,
eating, moving twigs, diving for something several times
and time passed I think
from my time to “beaver time”
a clock-less, tick tock – less time,
a silent time,
with only light and dark
signing change,
not a wrist watch or iphone or
even a paper calendar.
I was suspended in Beaver time and space
and felt free for however long it took
to do whatever the beaver was doing,
plop, slap, nibble, splash, more waves
in an otherwise calm and hidden pond.

    – Walt Sutton

Posted in Live your Life | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Cat, The Fence, and Beyond

There is a scene I keep replaying in my head. I see it on an 18” antiquated television. Queue excited orchestral rising-fast-paced music. See the black and white picture of a cartoon cat running like crazy across the screen, sweat droplets falling as it barely reaches the small hole in a fence and shoots through, followed by a giant mean looking dog that slams into the fence. BANG, CRASH, the ugly mutt too large to get through the hole. The cat, now safe on the other side, wipes his brow, goes “whew” and walks away from the fence on the other side, whistling, and looking distinctly cocky.

That’s the image.



Then comes the question, in my head, well then, now that the cat has saved itself, attained a big goal, what happens to the cat?

In popular folklore and, generally, in North American and western European culture, and ubiquitously on television, the answer is the cat lives happily ever after.

Fine for kids – at least until they experience pre-teen years and Lemony Snicket or the Wizard of Oz or the great mythology tales of old cultures…. Because in those stories, the cat does not “live happily after”. In those stories, well let’s say the cat begins to live, or begins yet another story, often a better one than just meeting and avoiding death in the jaws of a dumb and ugly mutt. No matter how often the cat escapes (and remember the cat has nine lives) there is more on the other side. More life I mean. Not an endless run of “living happily ever after.”

In life, including business-life (the words “business” and “life” belong together; they cannot be separated), in business-life, what happens to the cat is, well this moment is just the beginning of something else, and much more complicated and interesting than the disingenuous “lives happily after”.

I would like to introduce you again to my friend Rick Eigenbrod because he has followed many cats who have “won the race”, gotten what they wanted, made the big score, graduated from Cat MIT, fat cats, thin cats, feral cats, cats that made it through the fence… like that. He has followed them and can tell you a lot about what is on the other side, or the next part of an adventure. As he so skillfully describes it, we all experience these endings, these gettings of the gold ring or big goals or just make it through the fence and save our necks in our own version of the black and white cartoon. He shares all this with you in his new book, “What Happens When You Get What You Want?: Success and the Challenge of Choice”. You may recall, I shared a bit of Rick’s story in an earlier posting, “Messages from a Friend”. The guy who walked the 500 mile Camino de Santiago, Rick taught me about disconnecting, and the power of clichés, and truth, and sore feet, and the journey within a real journey – among other things.

Once upon a time, I made it through the fence myself. I was a CEO and business owner for 23 years. I employed many people and had a rather riotous entrepreneurial adventure, actually many adventures, strung together for most of my young(ish) adult life. At age 49 I decided enough is enough, sold the business, and Deborah and I escaped from Los Angeles and moved to what in those days looked like the wilderness, a place called Sedona Arizona.

In 1989, Sedona had 10,000 or so inhabitants, one traffic light, one movie theater, The Flicker Shack, that showed one feature film a week. There was one grocery store, a bunch of tourist enticements hawking turquoise jewelry, T-shirts, cowboy boots, western art made on the Navajo Nation or in China, a small Old West looking line of stores and a couple of eateries along the two lane highway into Oak Creek canyon heading to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon beyond. This was the one horse version of a one horse town. Those who lived there in 1989 acted out the small town inferiority complex about being a small town: you know, aw shucks, this is just a bus stop on the way to the grand Canyon (which it was) and oh by the way, this small town was right in the middle of the most spectacular red rock eruptions, a two thousand foot escarpment to the north called the Mogollan Rim, and all of its leavings, red rock outcroppings, arches, spires, giant upward reaching shards, one looking like a five hundred foot tall coffee pot, all around.

So Deborah and I sold the goose, took a smallish golden egg and escaped to this town in the middle of nowhere (albeit a beautiful nowhere). We were done with the rat race, heads spinning, we were hell bent on escaping. We did too. So now queue the black and white cartoon cat, dusting paws and whistling as we embarked on this part of the journey.

This is where Rick begins, this moment. He can certainly talk for himself, so I will continue only a little longer with our story (Deborah and I, Haggis and Heather, our dogs and all of our worldly belongings). To escape to a place of sparkling beauty is a bone-jarring experience, deep breaths, breakfast complete with coffee, toast with butter and jam, walks, runs, car rides, checkers in the grocery store holding court, and a trip to the one gas station being the social highlight of the afternoon. In the spirit of living “away” from the noise of Los Angeles (our last home) we didn’t hook up the cable, and cancelled all our magazine and newspaper subscriptions. It was so quiet, a proverbial pin drop sounded like a thunder clap, and although it was a little disconcerting for the first three or so weeks… as we were dusting our paws off, leaving the fence and the ugly mutt behind, we were smiling, sleeping, exercising, eating better, and felt an uplifting sense of renewal, or potential renewal would be a better way to say it.

We had lived well and were very fortunate, very lucky, very driven (I was particularly) very scared, very intense, living alternately between shots of adrenaline fired off by “getting the big job” then “being scared to death we would lose the big job” then “being granted the big line of credit to do the big job”, then “having the bank call our line of credit”, and so on. It was a GREAT run, really. But what the quiet and far remove of Sedona announced to us was: one doesn’t run like that for life, or at least we weren’t the types to run like that for life… we had other things to do.

But what?

What exactly were these other things?

What exactly is life, or what is life without all that adrenaline, and structure of a business and all that it means in today’s society. Successful business people are today’s aristocracy – what happens when the count and the countess, and their three progeny and two dogs abdicate and run away to a third world country in the far away high dessert?

What will happen to us in that place?

Well it was (is) a long story. Way too long for this venue. You read this blog because, in part, you are working on a much more interesting challenge, pursuing a much more interesting subject than Walt. You want to know about YOU. What about you and your family, why are you doing this, and when you finish this, then? What? And on that note it is time to segue from this blog to one person I know who can help you parse and engage these and other questions about your journey forward. Rick’s Eigenbrod and his book “What Happens When You Get What You Want?: Success and the Challenge of Choice” will take it from here to your life, which is what this is all about.

Happy reading!

Happy living!

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Motivating With Numbers? or You Get What You Expect Parts 2 & 3

(See Part 1 May 30, 2014 blog entry)

What follows are two dialogues between the same two people about the same subject. I have chosen to present today’s story using this format because goals are good, and goals beget goal setting, begets goal checking, begets… well you’ll see for yourself. Both versions are created from reports of real conversations only modified to protect the participants’ identities.


Motivating With Numbers?
You Get What You Expect…Part 2:

The boss, AKA Goal Setter, approaches Goal Settee and behind a big smile says:
“Hi, I’m here to do a progress check.”
“Oh, hi, glad to see you.”
“Uh, huh, so let’s see, it says here on your goal sheet that your budget for this period is 10 widgets, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Okay well, how many have you done so far?”
“We just finished widget number 12 – pretty good huh?”
“Okay…so, well hell! Look, this is too easy! We’re only two thirds through the period. You might do what, 17? Maybe even 20 this quarter, right? Probably without even breaking a sweat!”
“You know I see it now! Your goal should have been… 20 all along! That’s it, 20! 20 Units this quarter – that should be your goal, your, as they say, right-sized goal! So listen, here’s the deal, you need to give me 20 or more units by period end, no question about it!”
“What happened to the goal of 12?”
“I’ve already forgotten it! You need to do 20 or more… otherwise… well, that’s all you need to focus on, I want 20… or more! Boy am I ever glad we did this goal check! Hey, you better get it in gear, time’s-a-wasting!”

After Goal Setter leaves the area, Goal Settee says to no one in particular:
“20? Times a wasting? Give me a break! If I can make 20, he’ll be on me because I didn’t do 25. I stretch and work after hours to get 25 and he’ll act like I’m cheating him for not finishing 30. This is a really stupid game! It doesn’t matter how much I produce, he’ll never be satisfied! Heads he wins, tails I loose, that’s how this place works.”

Big sigh, then to himself:

“Okay. I get it. Here we go: 19 widgets or bust!
If he wants 30, he can get a robot!
And while he’s looking for one, I’ll find another place to work.”

Or an alternate conversation about the same topic:

Motivating With Numbers?
You Get What You Expect: Part 3:

The boss, AKA Goal Setter, approaches Goal Settee and behind a big smile says:
“Hello Jack, how’s the family?”
“Oh, Hi John, good thanks. What brings you down here?”
“Well we haven’t talked since the kick-off meeting a couple of months ago, and I just thought I’d check in and see how you’re doing with the new widget assembly. How is it going?”
“Better than we thought! Remember, we said we might get 10 of them done this quarter?”
“Yeah I do, that was the goal, wasn’t it?”
“Yup, well, we blew up the goal. We’re just putting the finishing touches on the twelfth one and we have a month to go yet. That new assembly process is going a heck of lot better than any of us expected, or predicted for that matter. Nice surprise, huh?”
“Wow, it sure is. Have any idea where we will be at the end of the quarter?”
“You know, we‘re still picking up speed, finding kinks and smoothing them out… I think we could see, ah, well, maybe 20, but that’s if we keep the team together, you know, maybe even add a couple more.”
“Great work! The donuts for coffee break are on me today and tomorrow too! Tell the team thanks from all of us. We can sell everything your team can make, Jack. Also tell them to keep it up Jack, but don’t slip on QC! We’re thrilled with the production, but we need both good production and flawless quality, you know that, right?”
“Yup, we do! I’ll let you know what the revised number looks like when we get closer to the end of the quarter.”
“Thanks Jack, please do, and again, good work!”

Jack, while moving back to the assembly area is thinking to himself: “I wonder if we could do 25? Can’t quite see it yet, but we are picking up speed, who knows? I think I’ll put it to the team, see what they think, it would be a really good challenge for all of us!”

Jack’s team built 29 widgets that quarter.

As a leader, either conversation is available to you.
(And if you’re wondering what the conversation might look like if Jack was well below budget when the leader comes by, stay tuned. We’ll cover that another time.)


Posted in Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Growing your Business, Leadership, Navigate the Rivers, People. People. People. | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Very Busy (and important) Executive


In the hallway, on the way to an important meeting, Jack was intercepted by his assistant Tom who said… “Here’s the marketing department summary you asked for… I have to warn you, that group is a mess!”

Jack reads the memo while walking, Tom at his side. Twenty or so steps on, Jack thrusts the memo back into Tom’s hands saying, “Look, this is just unacceptable.  None of this can be allowed to happen, do you understand me?  It is unacceptable!”

Tom says “But it is…”

“I won’t hear any of this!  Don’t show it to me again!”

Six months later, Tom quietly enters Jack’s office, closes the door, and says, “I am sorry but we have to talk about what’s going on in Marketing – it’s just getting worse… I am afraid….”

Jack looks up, face gray with anger.  “There is no room for that type of talk about my organization, I refuse to accept that they are behaving that badly!  Get back to the stuff that’s really important, will you?”

“Look, I know this makes you angry but….”

“Tom, you are not going to work for me much longer unless you learn to listen to what I am saying, and then do what I tell you to do – full stop!  Got it?”

“Uh, sure, Jack… full stop.”

Six months later… Jack wakes up and tries to get out of bed.  As he starts to move, he notices his left leg and arm are numb.  He tries to move them but can’t.  After a call to his doctor, his wife calls 911 and he is taken to the hospital, no improvement in the numbness.  His Doctor finally appears at eleven that morning.

“Well Jack, how are you feeling?”

“I can’t move my left side, that’s how I feel.  I have to get up and get to work.

“Not today, Jack.”

“Look this is unacceptable, I can’t sit here and listen to this!  I have to get to the office!”

“Actually you’re going to be staying here for a while, Jack.  We need to be very careful for the next twenty-four hours or so.  Blood clots, that’s what caused your loss of feeling, and it will take some time to dissolve them.   We need to be sure one of them isn’t going to kill you.”

“Kill me?”

“Yes, kill you.  You’ll be here at least a week.  I think you’ll be fine, if we have a little luck, but you must to stay still and well, relax while we do our work.”


“Yes, we’ve given you a sedative to help.”


A week and a half later, in his bed at home, as if to pass the time, Jack is looking at old emails and comes across the Marketing Department memo.  He calls Tom.

”Tom, the marketing department, I just re-read your memo.  That bunch is a mess! What are we doing about it?”

“Nothing. You said you didn’t want to hear about it so we stopped paying attention, just like you said.”

“But we need to fix it!”

“Yes, well that’s true, only I don’t think it’s your problem anymore.”

“Of course it’s my problem, it’s my department, and they are totally out of control!”

“You’re right, they are, or were, Jack.  But not any more.  Your boss found out about it.”

Jack sat frozen, gripping the handset.

“I’m not sure how he found out but once he did, and then boom… all of a sudden he just took over. In two hours he had a task force, and later in the afternoon they were busy with the fix, or what they’re calling the fix.  The whole thing was over in a couple of days, while you were still in the hospital.  There was a lot of very direct talk, there were three or four reassignments, two heads rolled, and a new head of marketing appeared.  Presto, problem solved.”

“But that’s my job!  Who the hell does he think he is?”

“I think it was your job.  I don’t think it is any more.”

“But that’s unacceptable!”

“I know Jack, but it is what it is.”

“God dammit!  I said this is unacceptable!”

Yes Jack, that’s one way of looking at it, unacceptable.  But your boss didn’t think that was much of a solution, or at least that’s what he said when he took over. “

“But -”

“Like I said Jack, it is what it is!  Maybe you should start there next time?  It is what it is, and then do something about it, like that.”

Posted in Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, People. People. People. | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You get what you Expect

The problem is?

The problem is that he’s lazy.


Yes really….

Wait a minute, how do you know he’s lazy?

I just know!  I have to keep on him, to push him.

Push him?

Push him yes! You know, to work harder; everybody needs to be pushed!


Yes, people are naturally lazy.

And so?

And so it’s my job to make them work, to really push them.

What do you think he’s thinking while all your pushing is going on?

I don’t care what he’s thinking, I’m just pushing.

I bet I know what he’s thinking.


He’s thinking, he’ll push back.

What do you mean?

Push back – he learns to play YOUR game, to watch out for you, look frantic and suck up when you’re around and do as little as possible  when you aren’t – that game.  Why not?   You already think he’s lazy, he’ll never change your view, so why not beat you at your own game? 

I’m smarter than he is!  I’ll just push him harder: that’s what I’ll do!

You don’t have that kind of time; you need to be doing your real job too.  You’re trying to build something, remember, that’s what this whole thing is about.  SO… what would happen if you treated him like he isn’t lazy, treat him like an adult, and pretend he actually wants to work hard.  What do you think would happen then?

He would be worse, didn’t you hear what I said earlier: everyone is lazy.

Yes I heard, but it isn’t my experience of most people, especially when it comes to work. 

You don’t know people.

Yes I do.

All right, so what’s your story about people?

I know that most people do want to work hard, most people do want to do their best – only they need to know what good work looks like.  That’s your job, to tell them, and to show them how, perhaps to teach them, teach them how they can succeed.  If it turns out they are really lazy then fine, you need to let them be lazy somewhere else and hire a promising person from the “most people” category above.

You are a hopeless idealist.

Yes I am, but don’t let that put you off.  This idea is a very good one.  You should give it a try, I think you’ll be surprised.  If I am right, and my experience shows that I am, then you can adopt this new attitude, get on with your real work which, by the way is NOT to be following others around to be sure they’re working hard.  Your job is to build something, remember?  And if you don’t get going with building… others may think you’re lazy, and we certainly don’t want that to happen, do we?

Posted in Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, People. People. People., Time Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Virtues and Vices and Vice Versa

I was raised Catholic, which was of course spelled with a capital “C”, both then and now, at least in the religious context.  My mother’s family was black Irish, third generation Americans originally from the Emerald Isle.  Roach by name, they were prolific drinkers and baby makers, having dynastically progressed through the poor Boston ghetto, via crooked politics to become a well-educated but still crooked political establishment, all Catholic, Roman Catholic, to be precise and mostly (very) prosperous.

My youth however was spent in a different part of North America, far from the Boston stronghold of the Roaches.  I was raised in Los Angeles, in the 1940’s and 50’s. Our brand of Catholicism was a service spoken in Latin with lots of incense on holy days.  We Catholic children started our training on the first day of first grade in our new brown uniforms by memorizing daily our catechism…  which began with, as I still recall, the quintessential question that all first graders ponder: “who made us?”  The correct response inscribed in large first grader letters was “God made us!”  And so it went on, eight years of imponderable questions and proscribed answers, catechism, daily memorizing and recitations from my first to eighth grade.  We were taught by the Daughters of Mary and Joseph, an order of mainly Irish nuns, ministered and overseen by the Priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle (often Irish as well).  It was a closed system.  Our entire world was defined in these terms.  And because we lived in the sun addled West, distant from the centers of everything important in the United States (or the world), three days by train from Chicago, hours and hours by airplane (if you dared the DC-3 many stops flight across the continent) we were essentially isolated in our fully explained sun-drenched Catholic world. 

Then one day, my black Irish aunt Genevieve came to California to take me by train to Boston for the summer. The East was a revelation.  Hot, muggy, buggy, green, it was real city life, city life like I had never imagined, and a summer house in a place called Marblehead Neck which in those days was a long car ride or train trip out from Boston to the blue and breezy Atlantic shores.  The working men came out to the Neck on the weekends, staying in town to work during the week.  Here in the Roach heartland, I saw different Catholic things, a mass done differently (though still in Latin), a different catechism, and several “holy days” we hadn’t even heard of in Los Angeles. 

Catholicism, as I knew it, was bigger and more diverse than I knew or had imagined.  And it was a shock.  What this meant to me was that Los Angeles was not a suburb of Rome.  I had been comforted by a young child’s sense of security in the absolute as in “this is the only way to look at things” and “this is exactly how the whole world works.”  It was good of my Irish ancestors to grow me up some.  The visit was an important early head-shaker, with many more to come.   Of course, the meaning of “Catholic” isn’t necessarily religious.  The word “Catholic” refers to “universal” from 13th century French “Catholique” or earlier Latin “Catholicus”.  But to a six year old child of the Roman Catholic faith, well it was indeed universal; it was how the world worked, “no ifs, ands, or buts” as my aunt Genevieve would say.  Only there were plenty of ifs, ands, or buts.  Aunt Genevieve was in her own closed system too.  And that’s where we begin today, closed systems of our own imagining.

Mike, a forty two year old division manager has, in his own opinion, risen from being an engineer, assistant helper, dogs body (as he entered GE from the ranks of the great unwashed of college grads) by dint of hard work.  Oh, it was not all hard work, but hard work was the button he pushed to get through a scholarship supported engineering program, assisted by temporary jobs to make ends meet during his five years at Perdue.  Recruited into a general junior management pool and sent to (of all places) Erie, Pennsylvania to do the first lap in what he expected would be a General Electric-centric-life-long-career experience.  He was one of those people who longed to be a one company person, one who made good in a single (noteworthy) large global enterprise.  He chose GE, because of a GE campus recruiting effort –  “they” seemed to want him so he wanted “them”.  And for ten of his twelve years at GE, he was not disappointed, even though they sent him to Erie Pennsylvania (as opposed to say New York or…).

Mike quickly showed himself early as a pretty good team player, a little rough-edged and pushy perhaps, but he drove himself forward with what appeared to be a surfeit of self-confidence, intensity, and an ocean of hard work.  Several years as junior this and junior that, then assistant this and assistant that, using his engineering education, then doing things that used engineering tangentially, and then assigned to a small marketing team, and then, nine years into his career, married with two kids, great wife (a horticulturalist starting a landscape design business herself) and a nice house in the Erie burbs: Mike became Chief of the Locomotive Marketing and Sales Strategy Group.  His group was vast, a headcount of 20 professionals, 12 support staff, and they were the eyes and ears and broadcast device charged with creating demand for large locomotives, huge things, General Electric sold to the world (and held a death grip on an amazing 75% market share). The job was a big deal and Mike was thrilled.  He met with his inherited 2IC (second in charge in GE Erie speak) Kevin, and Mike was impressed.  Kevin had also applied for the job as Chief (he was six years senior to Mike).  Mike told Kevin that he looked forward to working with him and hoped that there were no hard feelings. They shook hands and got down to work.

Seven months later, Kevin transferred, abruptly leaving Erie to Cincinnati.  His exit interview suggested that Mike was hard to work with.  Mike’s written retort was that Kevin is a pretty good guy, but he needed to learn something about hard work, and meeting deadlines.  A new requisition was prepared for the 2IC position. Using, as was the practice at General Electric Erie, the full HR tool chest and attraction power that was General Electric, Mike and his HR specialist hired Janet.  She was “super qualified”, a very energetic and upbeat person, Mike liked that.  She was also very determined, an eight year GE employee on a steep promotion curve inscribed by one success after another.  In answer to one of the interview questions, she said her dream job was the job she was applying for, and the ultra dream job was Mike’s job and she hoped to earn it in the course of her time as 2IC. They both laughed at this and started work together.   Mike liked what he saw in her at the beginning.  

Yet eight months later, Mike came into the Locomotive Marketing and Sales Strategy group offices and saw that Janet’s office was empty, her desk clear, pictures removed from the walls, no dust, and a hand written note to Mike centered on her desk which read, “I’ve had enough, good luck to the next person you get in here.” And signed “The prisoner of Locomotive Marketing   AKA Janet.  She too did an exit interview, and was not a happy camper.  She filed a behavior complaint against Mike stating in part that “he is abusive, intimidating, and unreasonable”.  Mike was wounded.  HR made a note of the complaint and copied Mike’s boss. In the GE Erie HR system, a mark against Mike was a mark against his boss.

“Look, she was lazy” Mike said.  “I don’t expect to have to hound my executives in order to see that they get their work done!  So for example, I had to tell her, three separate times to get the damn budget done!  Well, I might have been a little abrupt, you would have been too, I think.  Lazy people need to… she just couldn’t get off the dime, you know, wake up, its unforgivable to be lazy, executives need to step up, and she sure as hell hadn’t stepped up in my eyes!”  He told this to HR and his boss when they asked about Janet’s complaint.

The 2IC job stayed vacant for a month.  Mike was considering scrapping the position.  His boss, who was normally willing to try anything that would save money, killed the idea as soon as it came out of Mike’s mouth.  “No way!  You’ll be dead in six months, and you’ll take half of the department down with you, my department, the one you’re supposed to be running for me.  What the hell are you thinking?”

“I was just trying to save a little money, be innovative.”

“Bullshit, you’re avoiding hiring another person.  You’ve got to learn how to do this and you can’t run my marketing and sales department without a 2IC, it’s just that simple.  What would happen if you were hit by a bus?  Get a grip will you!” 

Enter Marcello, originally from Porto Alegre, Brazil.  He and his parents immigrated to the United States when he was 10.  His father is a world expert in something that netted him an endowed chair and tenure at Boston College, and Marcello, smart and ambitious fellow he is, flew through the mechanical engineering program at MIT.  After six years at division headquarters in Chicago, Marcello wanted to get hands on experience, so applied for, and was unanimously endorsed for the job as Mike’s 2IC.  Mike and Marcello, were very different in temperament.  Mike was a blunt force, hard working boss, Marcello was Latin, more careful, very polite, very quick, non-confrontational in style, but likable and as his references said in six different ways… very easy to work with, a great young leader.  Mike began the working relationship more cautiously than before.  Something told him that this wasn’t just a new 2IC, it, he, Marcello, was a kind of test.

In the beginning Mike felt like he and Marcello were passing the test, and for three months Marcello would have agreed.  They were affable together and Marcello was a quick study.  He had what would could only be described as an uncanny ability to be proactive, and still he got a ton of work done, the Marketing and Sales group was humming!   Marcello was indeed a really good leader.   He did it, as far as Mike could tell, not so much with noise and lights, but in a strangely low key, almost behind the scenes way.  Marcello spoke quietly, smiled a lot, and was often head to head, quietly discussing details with small groups of people.  He was a calm and patient teacher, perhaps a little too patient as far as Mike was concerned, but all in all Marcello was winner, a very easy test for Mike to take, indeed.

What changed everything was Marcello’s dad – he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  In time it would likely crush him.  Marcello put in for two weeks leave to go to Boston and help the family and when he came back he just wasn’t the same person, or at least that’s how Mike described it… “not the same person. He just lost his zip.  Look I understand, he is very close to his father but enough is enough! There is a time for being sad and all that, then you have to get back at it.  Marcello isn’t rising to the challenge, it’s just that simple.  He showed up here, after two weeks of being completely gone, no email, no phone calls, just gone… and suddenly he couldn’t cut it… you can ask anybody.  I’ve given him more than a few chances, but God, I mean I don’t know how he got through engineering school let alone get this far in life with that hang dog work ethic.”  Mike was about to fire Marcello.  I say “about to” because he was stripped of his “firing” capacity as a result of Janet’s complaint, so he needed permission from both his boss and HR to do so. 

“No” said his boss.  “You are not going to fire Marcello.”

“Well then, what the hell!” grimaced Mike, ”How do you expect me to do my job?  I can’t work with him. This just isn’t fair, it’s not right.”

“What do you mean not fair?” asked his boss.

“You send me one loser after another and then you rub my nose in it – that’s what’s not fair”

“Mike”, said HR, “Why are you so hostile?”

“Listen, I’m not hostile and I don’t need a bunch of touchy feely bullshit.  I have worked hard all my life.  I expect people who work for me to work hard too, that’s it!  I have standards, that’s all, nothing is wrong, NOTHING!”

His boss signed.  “Mike, I know you work hard, and you’ve come a long way, but you can’t treat people like this, you just can’t!”

“I’m not treating people any way other than I treat myself!  I give everyone a chance to step up, to do a job, that’s all I expect, just work hard and do the damn job!”

“No,” said HR, “Kevin left, saying he was driven off by you, followed by Janet who not only leaves but files a complaint against you for abusive behavior.  Both have move on to other positions in GE and both are doing excellent work in their new jobs, each of them.  We’ve checked! Mike, Janet and Kevin are rated as top performers, Janet is rated as an elite performer.  They are fine.  You are the common denominator, Mike, and now we have Marcello who came here as an elite performer too, and you are about to terminate him, what does this pattern tell you?”

“What it tells me is that they aren’t up to it, each of them let me down, over and over.  They just don’t work hard enough, that’s what it tells me.”

HR sighs, looks at Mike’s boss and said, “I think Mike needs some time off.   He needs some perspective.”

“Yes, says Mike’s boss, “I agree.  Mike, starting today, right now, you are on probation.  I am granting you two week’s paid leave of absence.  I am instructing you not to call the office, in fact not to have any contact with your office.  We’ll put out the word you are just taking some over due vacation.  We’ll talk when you come back.  Let’s set a meeting for two weeks from today, 8:00AM this office.  Not your office, this office. We’ll continue the conversation then, and see what happens.”


“Mike, stop!  You really need some time to reflect.  We’ve talked enough.   Go home, take a break and think about this.  I don’t want to lose you but Marcello isn’t going anywhere.  If you decide to continue, if we agree you should continue, Marcello is going to be your 2IC.”

And so Mike, locked in the closet of a single intense perspective stormed out of his boss’s office, embarrassed, very angry, disillusioned, literally sent home from his dream job, his dream company.  Betrayed. 

Hard work is a very good thing.  Hard work is at the heart of most success.  Hard work is often satisfying, gratifying, stimulating, helps you to grow and so on and so on and so on.  But for Mike, hard work, his idea of hard work, was a single minded perspective and although perhaps it served Mike well in his own work flow and along his path, he used it like a club and bludgeoned those around him because of his blindness to other perspectives, other ways of doing things, other people’s challenges, and once he decided a person wasn’t “working hard enough”, he would harass them mercilessly. 

As an individual contributor Mike likely might have succeeded well enough.  But once he accepted a leadership position, charged with a group and a group’s goals, his single minded obsession killed off those around him and endangered both his group and eventually his career. 

It was from this perspective, the realization that his dream career at his dream company could be taken from him that he finally saw what the problem was.  He was the problem.  He was locked into a belief system that his way, his point of view, his intense behavior was the one and only way, the one and only approach, the one and only button to push… work harder! 

Mike returned to his job, and took some training and coaching about leading and working with others.  He still works hard, he still expects others to work hard too, but he learned that there are many ways of working hard, and many ways to approach challenges, not just one way.  His biggest learning from leadership training and coaching?  Well, there appeared a sign on the wall in his office to remind him of that lesson.  Red letters on a yellow background framed in stainless steel, the word: Listen. 

Marcello has left to run his own division and Mike has another 2IC who is developing well and is being groomed for Mike’s job, an orderly succession plan which opens up new horizons for Mike; there is talk of New York or Chicago or perhaps even London. 

The road of life is littered with “ifs, ands, or buts” in every field of human endeavor.  In some cases even Catholic isn’t really Catholic.  I learned this from my aunt Genevieve, and the black Irish Roach clan in Boston and again, fifty years later from a leader named Mike who, having learned how to work hard, was in a serious crisis of confidence.  He knew how to work but he didn’t know how to teach others how to work hard with him.  In short, he didn’t know how to lead.  Eventually, with some help from those around him, he did figure it out.  The change happened, not by pushing the “hard work” button yet again, but by learning to listen and understand, to accept that there are more ways than his way, perhaps better ways, to do things.  It took a while and it hurt a bit – to break out of his pet paradigm.  But once the lesson was learned, he, and those around him entered into a whole new world of work and discovery, a new, bigger and even more exciting world of “ifs, ands, or buts”!   

Posted in Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, People. People. People. | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Mystery of Nordstrom

or “Right in Front of your Eyes”

Photo from Nordstrom’s blog Men’s Shop Daily “Get it Custom: Made to Measure Suiting” 2013 Mar 5

I went to buy a suit (this was thirty years ago).  I needed a dark, conservative, subtle pinstripe. I was making an appearance as an expert witness in a big money commercial dispute and I wanted to look “expert”, so to speak.

The Seattle flagship Nordstrom store is in the heart of the city.  Those of us from the Pacific Northwest have lived in Nordstrom-Land most of our lives.  It started as a family owned shoe store and then, well you know what Nordstrom is today- everybody who likes to shop for clothes or shoes or accessories knows.

I went to see James in Men’s Clothing.  He greeted me by name, showed me several options, examples of the suit I might like to buy.  After about 15 minutes we knew what I wanted, and he took my measurements, because this suit had to fit like a glove, and the one I chose would be cut and tailored for me, and James would call me to retrieve my new duds within the week.  Perfect.

A week later when I appeared at the counter, James greeted me by name.  I tried on the suit, and it indeed did fit like a glove.  He said if I was interested, they were having a sale on a high end brand of men’s dress shoes, a special yearly event, big savings, but only if I was interested.  If I was, I should go and ask for Maribel who could help me.  Since I was already in for several thousand dollars (this was a very fine suit) I walked over, suit bag on my arm to look at the shoes.  James walked with me and introduced me to Maribel.  She spent twenty minutes with me.  She looked at the suit, asked what types of shoes I liked, what I wore for formal occasions, and we finally settled on a pair of soft Italian leather, lace up, black pointed, thin soled shoes.  Perfect.  I thanked Maribel, we shook hands and I left the store with my armour and boots for the courtroom joust to come.

Since this event, I have bought many more suits, even more shirts, at least five belts, many pairs of shoes, all from James and Maribel, and after James retired, I bought my suits from James’ protégé Samantha.

One last point.  I am not a “happy clothes shopper”.  I do not enjoy shopping for clothes.  I say this to place this Nordstrom back story in proper context.  So when I have a good experience, well it is more than a good experience: it is a relief, a kind of “get-out-of-jail-free card” feeling… just so you know.

Fast forward 30 years, another shopping experience.  Right after the iPhone launched, I got mine.  I had been waiting for it like millions of others, and when orders were being taken, I was one of the early adopters.  As soon as it arrived, I hooked it up to iTunes, set it up, and off I went.  For the next month my iPhone did everything it was advertised to do and more, much more.  I loved it.  Then one morning in a hotel room in New York (I live near Seattle Washington) I awoke, and the phone wouldn’t power on.  I pushed, swore, and tried to swallow panic as thoughts of being cut off, adrift and isolated, flooded my brain.  On day one of a seven day business trip, I was relying on my new iPhone to keep me in business while I travelled on a speaking tour to four more cities on a vagabond’s itinerary, one after another without breaks. 

My speech wasn’t until late afternoon so I grabbed a cab and went to the Apple store.  It was crowded, but I found one of the greeters, blue t-shirt, mike and one ear head set, triaging the onslaught of customers as we entered the white and wood arena, the receiving area of all Apple stores.  I told her “I have this phone, less than a month old, it won’t start, I’m on a business trip, I need it, I’m screwed unless you can help me.”  She took the phone, pushed a couple of buttons – nothing happened.  She said okay, I am going to send you to Rachael, she is over at the genius counter, the third person from the left there, do you see her?  I look across the room count to three and identify Rachael.  Yes, I say.  Heart still in my throat, I approach Rachael, a plump cheerful looking rosy cheeked blue t-shirted genius because that’s what it says on her shirt… “genius” in very small white letters.  I explain it all again to Rachael.  She takes the phone, pushes some buttons.  Then she inserts a plug, and tries again, reads a computer screen behind the counter, says, “Nope, it’s toast, be right back.”  She disappears for just a minute, returns with a sealed iPhone box, opens it, takes the new phone out, plugs it into her computer, asks me for some information about my iTunes account, and in ten minutes I am walking out of the store with a new “my phone” fully operational, all my stuff in it, ready for the rest of my trip.  No extra charge.

I could hardly believe my luck as I walked down …. Fifth Avenue retrieving my voicemail – calls to my account while my phone was broken.

Nordstrom has been “doing it” since 1867, right in front of everyone, including its competitors.  Apple stores have done the same thing, a retail store in the world of retail, selling computers, pretty much only their stuff, and they have made the Apple stores a spectacular success.  These stores have, for more years than one ought to care to count, been awarded excellent ratings for customer retention experience, all while the entire retail industry has been pummelled by the fall of great brands, the disintegration of the old department store model, and more than a few comings and goings in this part of the world economy.

How do Nordstrom and Apple and other companies like them (and yes there are others) do it?

Well, let me tell you.

They pay attention.

They listen.

They train.

They treat their employees (associates and geniuses all) like adult human beings, they treat them fairly and well, including paying them a living wage.  The average wage for retail salespeople is $12 an hour; at Nordstrom it’s $19.18. With commissions, some make more than $200,000 a year.  And since 2006 when Fortune started ranking the 100 Best Companies to Work For, Nordstrom has made the list every year.

Apple also offers above average retail industry pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 (better than the Gap). The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the opportunity to buy company stock, and Apple products at a discount.

That’s how (among other things).

Take for example (from Wikipedia):

For many years, new employees were given a copy of the Nordstrom’s Employee Handbook – a single 5-by-8-inch (130mm ×200mm) gray card containing 75 words:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

The message:  you as CEO, Owner, manager, team lead, you too can do this.

You can even do it better than Nordstrom or Apple.  You don’t have to build a national business with thousands of people.  Most of us have a smaller geography, smaller numbers.  But we’re all wired the same way.  We’re all human beings (not human doings), and being treated like adults and being trained and encouraged to do our best always produces excellent results.  Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.  OR if you’re already on the Nordstrom or Apple path, keep it up.  The world is literally a better place for your efforts and your organization.

Caveat: For those of you who are going to disagree with me because you don’t like Apple products, or think Nordstrom is too expensive and only appeals to a certain economic class, or those who read Steve Jobs’ biography and were as impressed as I was about how difficult a person he was… let me save you the effort of getting all riled up.  Whether you like Apple products or not, Apple stores sell more per square foot than any other retail store, and Nordstrom has consistently performed and succeeded in an industry that could only be called a disaster area for years and years and years.  You don’t have to like their product(s) or their market segment.  But what you should learn from and cannot help but admire is how they do it…. I believe the success and the genius is in the how, as in how they do it. Each of these businesses use a high touch, people centric system of building an employee community that sustains itself (and the business) by skillfully serving customers.  And the model of serving customers is based on human skills working with that most challenging of other humans… you got it – customers!

Oh yes, and they do it right in front of our eyes.

Posted in Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, People. People. People., The Secret Sauce | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

James the Great (Abuser)

Not a happy story… 

Here he is! Crossing toward center stage, a spotlight struggling to keep up, he takes long energetic strides, long strides for a short man, long for a short plump Seville Row be-suited man, an older, plump Seville Row be-suited man in handmade Italian shoes in a hurry. He arrives at last to the podium, lit cigar in hand, hazy tendrils smoking, stinking, if truth be known.  You wonder how he could possibly be allowed to have a smoking cigar on stage in a public hall in the age of No Smoking?  Wonder no more.  This is James the Great!  And he is being feted and fawned upon as the Mega-preneur Golden Legend winner, (that’s entrepreneur on a grand scale), a big ostentatious award.  Tonight he is the big shot of all big shots in this evening of big shots, all hail, all praise, all clap! 

You may be seated.  James the Great is about to speak….

Sweat glistens on his substantial forehead, cigar smoke curling up around him.  Rather predictably he starts with the “I want to thank” part, his grandfather who beat him at checkers when he was a kid and made fun of him for being stupid, his father who wasn’t there for him because of drink, and his mother who was there for him, reigning goddess of tough love, emphasis on tough, who he describes as one great lady who will undoubtedly outlive him (nervous laughter). 

By now you suspect his speech was ghost written (after all, James has several communication specialists), someone who has done a word conjuring, laying down words to exude a folksy, slightly abrupt, rough sounding patois, flavored in the tiniest ray of hope that a dollop of caring or softness might be expected right around the corner.  Of course we know the caring promise is just that: James is not the caring type. James is James the Great because, at least as he sees it, James made James, and if you are great, and he never doubts that he is, you don’t become great or stay great by caring.  The path to this podium was hard: relentlessness and tough mindedness are what it takes to make it! 

He shifts to the story telling part, three yarns of loss and triumph, into the teeth of dragons faced and unbelievably slain, epical “you will never know how hard it was” vignettes.  There is no letting up, there is no coasting, no taking one’s foot off the accelerator.  But the hope of softness, of “us-ness” as opposed to “me-ness” – well that’s just an artifice that adds breadth to his greatness, a slight of hand slipped in place by the communications specialist.  He goes on, and on, and on, because he can.  He is after all James the Great and this is his chance to tell the world how great he really is.

This story is not to vilify James.  He doesn’t need my help to do that.  He is and was a reliably disagreeable person twenty-four hours a day, at least the James I knew, my James if you will.  I worked for my James forty-five years ago, my first and only “real” corporate job.  I have him to thank for my inspiration to start out. He launched me down the entrepreneur’s path, the one that brings me to this page today, and for that I am grateful. At the time I was convinced he was the biggest jerk in the western hemisphere, and I never wanted to work for him or any jerk like him again.  What I didn’t know then that I do know now though, is that my James was not an anomaly – there are quite a few Jameses out there in the trophy case of successful executives, and to them, at them, I shake my head, not so much fearing for their souls.  James and his kin can and do take care of themselves.  I shake my head in incredulity at all the people who work for them.  In my coaching practice, I meet executives who have also worked with the Jameses of the world.  They tell their own James-inflicted stories, all tales of misery.

Spoiler alert:  Unfortunately, these Jameses rarely change.  Working for them is depressing and dispiriting, darker than a seventeenth century Russian tragedy.  People who find themselves in the maw of these Jameses are often ground down by abuse, or… worse, they become little Jameses in their own right, or double worse, James enablers… a horde.

But before you throw your hands up in despair, stay with me just a little longer – there is a point to this disheartening riff.   

Here’s one story that wouldn’t have made James’ acceptance speech, as told by one of his conscripted executives.

All the presidents of James’ companies met monthly for a joint blood-letting in some hard-to-get-to city and once there, to leave.  Although most of us resided on the US West Coast, James named the meeting locations on personal whims. One, for example, was in Cincinnati, Ohio because he wanted to see a baseball game, or so we heard.  He didn’t invite us to the baseball game:: we were on brutally tight expense accounts flying back and forth on the red eye, and most of us stayed at local motels, I’m not kidding, motels!  But at the appointed hour, we were all expected to be present and ready to fight for our lives as the doors closed in some god forsaken conference room where we were pushed up close and personal with perpetually angry James.  And heaven help you if you were late.  Like so much in these meetings, late was relative, based on James’ time, not yours.

So in Cincinnati, the meeting was set for 8:00 AM.  One of James’ thousand hot buttons was tardiness.  I was nervous all the time around him to begin with and being a bit anal about punctuality myself too, I was in the room at 7:50, in my seat, palms sweating.  There were ten presidents in all, and the others filed in after me, all but one, Mark.  At 7:55, James appeared with a bang, slammed the door behind him, turned the lock “click”, sat down, cigar in hand, smoke trailing, and barked: “All right, let’s get to it.  Roberts!  What the hell is going on in the envelopes business?”  Roberts began talking, and he and James went back and forth a bit before we heard a knock at the door.  As I was closest to the door, I got up to open it.  “Sit down!”  I nod and sat.  After three more minutes and two more knockings on the door, James ordered me to open the door.

Outside, in a chair next to the door, sat Mark, the youngest and newest of James’ presidents.  Hurrying into his empty place at the table, he said “Sorry, I thought the meeting was to start at 8:00” and was no doubt going to explain that he had arrived at one minute before eight when James barked, “Admit it, you were asleep at the switch.  You need to show up early, you need to be in your chair and ready to work well before I show up, do you understand?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

For the rest of the meeting, James referred to Mark as “Mr. Big Ben”, grinding the lesson for all of us.

The following month, we met in Stowe, Vermont because he wanted to go to some out of the way rich guy’s lodge.  We were all seated in the room by 7:45 AM.  Unfortunately in the past month, Mark’s business unit had suffered a setback, something driven by the market, but a real setback nonetheless.  He was nervous.  James appeared at 7:50, slammed the door and started the meeting growling as usual.  He asked for reports starting with the person next to Mark, still being referred to as Mr. Big Ben, then Jack, then Tom, and soon it became clear James was working his way around the table leaving Mr. Big Ben for last.  Hours later, when it was finally Mark’s turn, he sat gaunt, pale, bent over his deck.  He sucked in one last hopeless breath and began talking in a forced, over loud voice, like a teenager yelling out Shakespeare lines, telling how his business unit had met most of their budget projections, how certain costs were cut, how their new product was progressing in research and development.  After about two minutes of this, James, who was reddening like a cartoon villain, growing more and more impatient with the report, shouted “When are you going to cut the crap and tell us how you fell asleep at the switch again?”

Mr. Big Ben, already nervous, having sat through eleven reports, eight floggings and two near floggings went dumb, red-faced and staring slack-jawed at the stack of slides in front of him.  “Well, God damn it, how long do we have to wait for it Mr. Big Ben?” James shouted.  “I don’t have all day!  Speak!  Speak!  Speak I said!”

Mr. Big Ben rose and whispered, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t….”

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?  Stop right where you are! Take one more step, just one more, and you’re fired, you understand!  Stop where you are!  Get your ass back into that chair and take your medicine like a man!  You’re are @#$%^ a disgrace to this business, a pathetic underperforming coward!  Now speak!”

Mr. Big Ben described this ordeal to me ten years after it actually happened.  As he told the tale, reliving the details, he was breathing deeply, cheeks reddened, mouth worked into a frown, eyes squinted, right hand clenching into a fist, releasing, clenching, releasing.  We were working on a vision for his business, the next ten years.  We were in a pub (he lives just outside of Manchester England where a pub is the natural place to meet).  I asked him about his strategic priorities.  He had four major strategic initiatives, three of them to do with developing his people: a training initiative; a profit-sharing initiative; and a code of conduct and vision initiative.  I asked him about choosing these particular initiatives.  In response, he told me about James the Great, and how he never wanted to cause the type of injury or destruction he felt when he worked for James.

“Why did you work for him in the first place?” I asked.

“Because he was famous, he was rich, and he could be as charming as he was brutal.  He wooed me with the charm side, and then unleashed the other side, once I was in place.”

“And after that, why did you stay?”

“Working for James the Great was supposed to be the one great step for anyone who wanted to get to the top.  I wanted to get to the top, be a player, a big player, and I thought I had found the road to fame and riches, running one of his businesses.”

“Did you?”

“Well yes, but in an indirect way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, I did sit back down, at the table like he ordered me to do.  I somehow got through my report about the setback.  He ranted and tried to beat me to death, to humiliate me in front of the rest of the group.  You know a cautionary tale, the head on the spike so to speak.  And when he was done, or almost done, he asked me what I was going to do about the mess, poking his cigar at me like I was a criminal or worse.  It was at that moment, somehow… I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I saw the futility of the picture I’d been clinging to…. I just thought to my self, what an idiot I’d been.  Here was this maniac, this nasty self-absorbed jerk, and I was infantilizing myself… to him!  I was lurching this way and that, trying to follow his nonsensical, clearly capricious demands,  bowing and scraping in front of him, running with a pack of people who accepted this as normal human interaction, people who were otherwise pretty nice, hard working, diligent people but under James, were like hungry whipped dogs on call.  If this was the path to success, I didn’t want any of it.”

“Wow, big moment….”

“Well yes it was.  So as I was really leaving the room, he told me to my back, that I would never work in this industry again.  And I told him to go screw himself. Just like that.  I was done!  If he was so smart he would have no trouble fixing the problem himself… and I just walked out of the meeting.  Best thing I ever did.”


“Yes, well at first I was out of work, of course.  My wife, she’s Scottish, the idea of me being out of work is, well she was insanely worried, but to give her credit, after she recovered from the shock, she was my biggest supporter, literally.  She had been working part time in a clinic – she’s a physical therapist, and she put in for full time.  I spent a couple of months ruminating about what it was in me that would let me work for someone like that… you know bad genes, blame my parents or something!  Then I woke up one morning and just decided it was time to get off my ass and get back to work.  I took a job with a smaller company, a people-centric place.  We made a nice success there, got a bit of a nest egg, and then my wife and I decided we would start our own business.  Do it our way.  So there you are.  By the grace of god, or the dis-grace of James if you will.”

It turns out there are a lot of Jameses out there.  They’re not always as flamboyant as James the Great, not always a he, not always that loud or nasty.  But there are plenty of powerful jerks, people who are abusive, corrosive, mean spirited, people in a position of power who use it like a cudgel, or a gun, or both.  My advice: stay away from them.  And above all know that there are more agreeable, healthy, and profitable ways to behave as a leader. 

But drawing from the same pool of experience, people from all over the world who have shared stories with me about their lives and careers, I’m convinced that for every James out there, there are plenty of anti-Jameses, good leaders, good women and men, people with strong affirming values who lead enterprises large and small.  Find such a leader, become such a leader, someone who will advocate your success and development.

Human Resources doggerel says people leave managers, not companies.  The data shows that most people who quit a job do so not because of the company as a whole, but do so (in the main) to leave a specific manager.  Organizational theory says that as we form and reform groups within an enterprise, these groups face a learning curve, in part, described by how well team members know each other, how long it takes them to learn to work successfully together, how to develop and improve skills necessary to team success.  If one such team is experiencing constant turnover because of a hostile environment, a reigning jerk of a boss, let’s say, the trek up the learning curve is uncertain, more confused and the team’s potential as a team is inexorably stunted.  In short, the cost of doing business for that team (and the enterprise) becomes much higher.

Most of us know a James, or have heard tell of one.  Stories about James and his kin are everywhere, and so we have the apologists.  We hear people saying things like, well he was a real character, or she was tough but I learned a lot, or he had to be that way because of this or that.  Most of this talk is a way for the storyteller to rationalize having been victimized.  No one in the conference room in Stowe doubted that they could be flogged at any moment at any meeting about anything James wanted to get on about, anything, at the drop of a hat.  Everybody in that room knew James would fire them in a second, for any reason, no recourse, out you go.  Yes I have heard a lot of “what a character, and he was a tough old bugger but” talk.  People say these things until, as happens to everyone, their particular James dies. 

I read about my James’ passing.  Thousands had known him because his public company employed thousands.  But only thirty or so people attended his funeral, three quarters of whom were relatives.  I was there, curious and wondering what had happened to him.  It was a full blown funeral service, organ booming, flowers everywhere in an almost empty cathedral.  As it turns out, in the last years of James’ career, he directed his nasty temper on those who had followed him, his inner team, literally firing all of them over the course of two years.  He became reclusive, a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge without the redeeming bit at the end of the story.  So when he passed, what was left of his once great enterprise drifted into receivership.  None of his old comrades were at the church.  James had turned his meanness in on himself and at the end, that’s what was left to him and those around him, mostly disenfranchised family members impatient to read the will.

There is no happy ending to this tale of bad behavior.  No ending at all because we are human beings (not human doings) and being human, there is in each of us anger, meanness, and all the other unseemly bits of human nature… along with altruism, affection, humor, caring… it’s all there, human beings.  In a society of humans, there will always be people who choose to act like jerks.  And in some places, meanness will be the organizing principal.  But just in some places, not all places, not even the majority of places. 

So choose to work in a place where you are valued, where you will be encouraged to grow, to learn what you need to learn, where your development is seen as a pathway to your success, your family’s success, and the community’s success.  Businesses are commercial communities formed to make or do something, sustain themselves (profits, products, stakeholders) and engage participants with work and life experience.  Go the extra mile for yourself by insisting you keep searching until you find a place that brings out the best in you, and in turn, you can contribute to a group, an enterprise, an adventure that supports and develops everyone.

And if you happen to be the CEO or owner or leader of your community?  Well, you know what I’m going to say….

Posted in Build a Culture, Building a Community, Leadership, People. People. People. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Messages from a Friend

Last week I put my iPhone, my iPad, my Mac Book Air into a white plastic screening bin at the airport.  There we go, I thought, three thousand dollars of stuff!  Then, an even more sobering idea smacked me on the back of my head: each of these devices is the great-great-great-great-grandmother of other, even more expensive clunky devices.  Take my laptop, for instance, a Mac Book Air – well it’s at least the 15th generation of larger and heavier predecessor “portable” computers.  The founding member of my portable computer family was a brick of a thing called the Osborne One, more a suitcase sized 25 pound device (lug-able) with green lettering on a five inch glowing CRT screen, with a battery life of about an hour.  Those were the days?  Then I remembered the time, not so long ago, there also weren’t any portable phones.  My first “cell phone” was a walkie-talkie like brick called a Motorola Dynatec in 1981… I was a very early adopter.  Before that time, if you wanted to make a call while away from your desk or home, you tracked down a pay phone, which could be found in, queue superman music, a phone booth! 










I have a friend, Rick, who recently walked the 500 mile pilgrimage trail across Northern Spain known as El Camino De Santiago, all at one go.  Rick lives in Silicon Valley, and is a user of electronics too. He’s a consultant, a great guy, a deep thinker, a little older than I am, and in celebration of being at a certain stage in his life, and in order to enliven it as well, he decided to make this amazing walking journey.  In communion with the spirit of pilgrimage, (36 days of walking from village to village, hostel to hostel across Spain) he intentionally left his electronics at home. 

So, off he flew to Europe in mid September.  For the next month and a half we (his friends) received only a couple of messages from him as relayed by his wife.  She quite reasonably stayed home, mentioning something about communal sleeping with 50 snoring pilgrims each night and 500 miles of walking not coinciding with her idea of fun or a vacation.  But in the spirit of friendship and love for her husband, she relayed his messages sent by voice – phone card, or internet cafe, from the wilds of Northern Spain.

One message was:

Clichés are all that matter …  this is all about Love, life, family, friends, health, caring for one another, those are all that matter.   Clichés are clichés because we say them and think them over and over ad nauseam.  But we think them and say them over and over because they are so damn true!   As he walked 6 – 12 hour days along the pilgrimage trail, this thought about all that matters, came back to him, again and again, as the rest of the world fell away (metaphysically speaking).

Another message:

This one was actually the first one we received, just ten or so days into his walk: “The more disconnected I am, the more I want to be disconnected.”  He was of course referring to all the tech-junk I put in the bin at the airport.  On the trail, he was free from all that stuff, the electronics, those “labor saving” devices that have hooked us up 24/7 365.  He was experiencing what it was like to be free, literally and figuratively not hooked up, for a month and a half.

After you swallow the panic while imagining what it’s like to be disconnected for a month and a half, imagine, if you will, that if you are older than 40, you may have lived like this for a part of your life.  In the scheme of world timelines, cell phones are pretty new, email is newer, and “personal” computers are about 40 years old.  You may have actually lived a small part of the same experience he found to be so restorative and, in his words “peaceful, surreal and way more human”.  Remember?

Some of you can.  I have facilitated many CEO workshops where we shut the electronic world off for a period (a day or more), then investigated the experience together as part of our retreat.  Even if you aren’t a practitioner of “off switch” therapy, you can guess what happens.  Not unlike addicts going through withdrawal, at first there is an uptick of anxiety, and heightened discomfort, static noise as the nerve endings start protesting all over your body, a spike of “what the hell” ,some get angry at me… “Dumb idea, dumb facilitator, I must stay in touch with my office”.  Then as autonomy levels surge from already elevated levels spiking into the stratosphere, you remember how important you are!  Then…well it depends. 

You know that psychology experiment where four year old children are left alone in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them?  The child is told that the experimenter will return in 15 minutes.  If the child has not eaten the marshmallow he/she will receive another marshmallow and can eat both of them.  If they do eat the marshmallow before the experimenter returns they will not get a second marshmallow.  Obviously, there are clear benefits to not eating the marshmallow, but well, many of us self-directing types don’t do so well with deferred pleasure… or deferred anything for that matter. 

In my workshops, peer pressure tends to hold many of the CEOs in the room during our experiment but still, it’s a struggle.  For sure, one or two execs are bound to say “what the hell” and because we agree on the rules in advance, they have to leave the room to check email or use their phone….  But what happens for those who can refrain from eating the marshmallow?  After a couple of hours, we check in on the results of “off switch therapy” and surprise, surprise… a pattern appears as most of the execs report feeling calmer.  Many report experiencing a sense of expansiveness, an openness that, well, feels pretty good.   What they discover is a sense of “freedom” that does not come from “doing something” but comes from “not doing something”, in this case – eating the marshmallow.  What becomes apparent to the execs who can resist the temptation to “check in” is a freer way of thinking, an uncluttered space where they are able to pay attention to themselves (as in being present) and to others, without distraction.  The “without distraction” part is like having a super power; it boosts capacity a lot.  Rick had his capacity boosted a bunch for many days on the Camino.

By the way, in the marshmallow experiment, approximately two out of three of the children eat the marshmallow… see this link, and watch what psychologists learned from the experiment – and  have a good laugh too.

I have been thinking about you, wondering what to write as we launch into another calendar year.  We’ve talked about so many business things in the last year, I admit to being just a tad frustrated (with myself).  So to vent this frustration and to close out 2013 and open a new year together I have decided to cut to the chase with Rick’s help. 

I want to just say, in an unembellished way, something that I know to be the absolutely most important thing I can ever say or (in my opinion) that you will ever hear about business.  Ready?


Many of us segregate our thinking (and our lives) between business thoughts, observations, and lessons as separate or apart from personal thoughts and lessons and observations.  In a way we are attempting to protect ourselves by isolating the business part by saying… “Oh, it is just business.”

In truth, there is no such thing as “just business”… it’s all personal.  

All business is personal… Doing business is all about living, and working in the human dimension.  Every time we try to escape or look away from the glare of the personal challenge, we make our lives ten times harder, and usually introduce dysfunction for those around us. 

This is why the best books on leadership talk about authenticity as the central engine for good leadership.  This authenticity isn’t some sort of temporary mask we put on or a trick we learn.  These authors are really talking about plumbing our own selves, finding out and coming to grips with our own capabilities, foibles, strangeness, hopes and fears.  And then resolutely being that person, leading as that person, growing as that person.

To do this delving, to learn more about ourselves, to really figure out where we want to go and how we intend to get there, we need to turn off the noise, start with ourselves and work through where we are, who we’re with, and where the whole community is going in relation to where we’re going.  So yes, we must think strategically, and as we so often do, we have to do “strategic planning” but as I tell my clients, only do strategic planning after you’ve figured out: where you’re going; where your families are going; how your health is going; where your hearts want to go; and then you’re ready to do the business planning.  Never before.

Why?  Well there is nothing more disturbing than taking a business someplace you really don’t want to go or some place you can’t go because your child needs special attention and you can’t be traveling all the time, or your relationship with a partner is in tatters and you have to work with him/her, or you have a serious health issue and you need to be working on to become healthier.  It is not about business… it is about life.  That’s all there is to business, it’s just another part of life and it is all personal. Use this simple model: take care of yourself and you’ll take care of your business (or job or career) – IN THAT ORDER.

As my friend Rick walked his pilgrimage, he was visited by these and many other truths.  He was able to experience this because he disconnected, because he challenged himself to be with himself as a human being and not as a world renowned consultant and counselor (which he is).  He lived with himself, and had a six week long conversation with himself in order to “get it right”.

His messages give us the full measure of how to approach our own journeys.  First start with ourselves.  Disconnect from the outside to connect with the inside.  And yes, the clichés are all that really matter… clichés because we say them and hear them over and over.  We’ve done so for literally thousands of years… Mind, Spirit, Heart, Body… we are these things, and we go on adventures but most of all, we all live lives – some of which include business.  Start and end there.  If you can.  If you do this now, 2014 will be a great year as will the years that hopefully follow.  Rick, for example, discovered that there is a lot of important stuff left for him to do and experience – he’s 72 years old.

Use whatever process you want… But start with yourself, and work outward.  And when you feel you have a pretty good handle on yourself, strengths and weaknesses, do an inventory of your life: body, spirit, heart, and mind.  After you assess these areas of your life, then you can think about the business stuff.  And when you do plan for the business, never compromise your own body, heart, mind, or spirit…. Challenge them, develop them, but don’t compromise them.  

As I read Rick’s messages from Spain, I mulled these thoughts about myself and you too.   Out there on the trail, sleeping with the fifty snoring pilgrims each night, nursing blisters, experiencing the heat of the Spanish September sun that warmed and made sweat, Rick was reporting back to us, his friends.  He was a messenger telling us about his visit to another planet.  The planet Rick, the planet that is Rick’s life, one in which we all share a part, our humanness, one fellow’s life is like our life.   For my own part I’ve  been urging executives to take an annual personal retreat to do this work.  I know of no better way to check in with yourself.  Although I didn’t go to Spain this year for my retreat, I took Rick’s messages with me for two days.  All I could say to myself was “Rick nailed it”.   

Of course you don’t need to walk Spain’s Camino for a month and a half to do this work.   Rick tells anyone who will listen that their life will be inexplicably changed for the better if they take a great journey … but whether you go for six weeks or just a couple of days, give yourself this biggest gift of the year, in the first month of the year!  Give yourself the gift of your better self!

Happy 2014 to all of us.

Posted in Growing your Business, Leadership, Leaping, Live your Life, Strategy, The Secret Sauce | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments