I recently bought a new car. I was driving the large SUV that we “needed” when my kids were younger and it was on its last legs. I wanted to downsize, since my skills as a driver were sufficiently diminished as to make the large vehicle a menace to others.

I have 4 well defined buying criteria in seeking a new vehicle.

1. I wanted GPS to relieve the stress of always being lost or behind schedule, or both.
2. I wanted a port to plug in my iPod. After all, I continue to attend Auto University.
3. I wanted Bluetooth integration with my phone so I could be compliant with the law.
4. I wanted a back up camera. See above for the explanation.

I met several salespeople in this process and every one of them focused on the fuel economy of their vehicle. Guess what, I didn’t care. I was downsizing from a massive vehicle to a smaller one and I knew it would get better gas mileage.

They were focused on the wrong stuff. How often do we think we understand our value proposition when our clients think differently? I will bet more often that you think. Perhaps you could use a new set of eyes?

Role Players

Recently I heard a college basketball coach make the following statement. “All of my players are role players. Some have bit parts and a few. Are stars.” His job was to get each role player to excel in their role. What a great way to look at our/your business. Are your people subordinates or role players? Are they as good as they can be,mor are we as leaders helping them get better? It was very clear how the coach felt. He was just as concerned with the role players development as the stars. To get there, his first priority was to evaluate his own performance. If he gets better, then he can help others do the same. Seems like good advice.

Hobby See, Hobby Do

I like to play golf. It is stereotypical given my line of work, but as I often say, it is my main vice. I not only like to play golf, I like to compete at golf. Head to head, USGA rules, no quarter asked, no quarter given. I get a rush from the competition. I love the feeling in my stomach that you get when you have to make a shot and your nerves and mind are working against the best possible outcome. In other words, the consequences are high. So what do I do to make sure I am capable of making the shot, i.e. responding effectively? Well, I take golf lessons – many of them. I practice – often. I listen to tapes – constantly. I started thinking about the productivity of my investment in golf and for goodness sake, I should be much better. Or perhaps another way to look at it is that where would I be if I wasn’t invested in my hobby? I might be average. Here are some statistics from my research:
“To answer the question specifically, the National Golf Foundation breaks down the scores as such:

119: 15.3%

Therefore, the percentage of golfers that scores less than 100 is 51.9. Moreover, the NGF makes the assumption that all golfers are playing by the rules so there is an inherent flaw in the stats anyway. We’d all love to think that no one submits a score when a rule has been breached, especially knowingly, but it is what it is. I just want to emphasize that the NGF is reputable but the numbers are only as legit as the golfers that submit them. By no means do I endorse these numbers to be absolutes. Nor should anyone else.”
I am not alone in my commitment to my hobby. I know many people who have similar passions around fishing, biking, running, health, writing, etc. So here is my question, if we are so invested in our hobbies, then why not our businesses? Isn’t the consequence of being average higher? Are you breaking a hundred or shooting in the 70’s?

Perhaps an investment in your professional hobby is in order?

Sharpen the Saw – A Tribute

In the past two weeks, it seems that the world is coming unglued. Mass murder in Colorado and Iraq. A promising teen in Lutherville, and one-time teammate of my son, dies in an auto accident, a competitor, husband and father dies in an auto accident in Pennsylvania to name a few. All tragadies and all worth reflection.

In addition, I see today that author Steven Covey passed at the age of 79. His most famous book is the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – last year at age 78 he released another book, The 3rd Altenative. I have read the 7 Habits on multiple occasions simply because it contains incredible insight. Habits – we are habitual by design. If we want better outcomes, we need better habits. Who can argue with that? Effective – yes we desire to be successful, but isn’t effecive better. Success can be fleeting, effective is enduring.

Habit 7 from the book is to Sharpen the Saw. Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have– you.

How can a business be more effective unless the collection of its people are more effective? Hmmm.

You’re Not Special

Perhaps you have heard/seen or read about David McCullough Jr’s speech to the graduating class at Wellesley High School where he centered his speech on the reality that we are not special in the way many have suggested. For example, to be one in a million on earth means there are quite a few folks just like you or me. He makes his own points regarding this and it certainly is well worth the viewing. I was thinking is business, we don’t speak of special, we speak of differentiation. How can we deliver products and services to buyers in a way that allows us to be different and thus considered to be a premium provider? The marketplace moves all products and services towards commoditization so what means and methods do we apply to separate ourselves from our competition?
In a company this means one thing, in a career it means something different, yet similar. Companies continue to look for people to make a difference. From the promise of a high school graduation to the reality of an overcrowded employment base, we all need to find a means of differentiation. Like Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is what stupid does.” Perhaps the other side of that coin is “smart is what smart does.” Ongoing learning and development is a certain antidote to the momentum towards commoditization. Come check it out at the home of the Division 1 Lacrosse Champs.

Of Puzzles

My family likes to put together puzzles, the 1,000 piece variety. This was a gift passed on to our family by my Mother. Even today, at 81 she always has a puzzle going in her living room. It represents a family meeting place to share news, events, information and family business; all the while looking for the piece with the odd shape and the pink on the border. My family recently completed a puzzle that has been on progress for several months. Naturally, with two kids – who gets the last piece is a matter of honor. As we were completing the puzzle, I was watching my kids polish off the puzzle and was reflecting on the process of completing one. It is very much like the MBA experience.
You open the box, dump all the pieces on a table and they are scattered everywhere. What seemed like a good idea in one moment now looks like a complete mess and an impossible task. But, you dumped out the box and you might as well give it a go. So, slowly you start a process. We begin by spreading out the pieces and separating the edge pieces. In a little while the frame begins to take shape. Usually, the frame is complete except for that one missing piece. So we increase the intensity of our search and hover over the table like a spy satellite, until it is found. Having a framework makes a huge emotional impact as we embark on filling in the 880 other pieces. The trained eye looks over the remaining scattered pieces and tries to find shapes and patterns that seem to go together. Perhaps a face, or a tree or a building comes together and we make steady progress. Throughout the process we gain momentum then lose it. One of us works on the sky while another pieces together the lake and still another works on the trees. We call out our frustration for the piece that was somehow left out of the box and the team unites to restore the sanity of the frustrated searcher. Barbs are traded along with stories and many, many laughs.
After a lengthy process a beautiful seaside landscape is completed, 1,000 pieces at a time. A grand achievement, leading to a beautiful outcome for sure, but not the most important part of the process. We build camaraderie, teamwork and trust over each piece. Just like out MBA team. Come build your career puzzle and see business differently at Loyola – National Lacrosse Champs to boot!

What do you mean by that?

I was thinking about opinions the other day as I was watching some political commentator explain the latest flap that gets an undue amount of attention in my mind. Both political perspectives were hammering away, certain of the moral clarity of their perspective and equally certain of the evil intent of the opposing perspective. Does anyone’s perspective really occupy the moral high ground? It must look that way to many people, but I think it falls into the negative activity of judging. I am reminded of a Bible passage often quoted by Abraham Lincoln’s – Judge not that ye be not judged – Matthew 7:1 if you are so inclined to look it up. When we disagree, why are we so inclined to judge? This line of thinking had me reflecting on an enlightening exercise we engaged in during our Ethics class.

Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, Professor of Law & Social Responsibility in the Joseph A. Sellinger, S.J., School of Business and Management, asked our cohort to personally define diversity. One by one, we offered our perspective on what this meant to us. In the end, no two definitions matched or were easily reconciled. We had strong feelings, but no consensus and certainly no agreed definition. We did have something else – of greater value. We had trust and from that trust we were capable of disagreeing without judging. A colleague of mine likes to remind anyone who makes the mistake of asking if it is o.k. to be honest. He points out the difference between honesty and candor.

Do you get that in your daily business life? Have you fostered an environment where you can handle emotionally charged topics with candor? If not, come see your business with a clarity never experienced before at Loyola.

Trusted Advisor???

We live in an area of Baltimore that is very close to horse country. Baltimore is nice that way; you can be near the country while not being too far from the City. One of the consequences of living “in the country” is the existence of bugs and mice. This can’t be avoided. At least that is my conclusion. Unfortunately, I am married and have two children. They reject this premise and thus we have a service agreement with a pest control company. A very prominent pest control company. Like many well established businesses, they have a defined approach to client engagement. They have a well-defined process to make sure we are fully aware of their range of products and services. Termite eradication. Stink Bug elimination. Rat and mice infestation. The list seems nearly endless. In fact they want to be our trusted advisor, how do I know this, they told me. This got me to thinking. Trusted advisor seems to be the new promised land of business. We all want to be your trusted advisor.
In my experience, businesses have very few trusted advisors. It seems to me this is for good reason. How many people do you really trust? And how much advice are you really looking for on any given issue? Perhaps, even more importantly, when do you need this advice and from whom do you go get it? Isn’t that the really the point. Business people are bombarded with offers to add to their list of trusted advisors. The common response is to rightly develop means and methods to be insulated and protected. This too has some grave implications. If you don’t’ know where to go for advice or how to trust the source, could you be walking into trouble? Have you ever made a decision with an unexpectedly negative outcome? I know I have – far too often to admit, in fact.
Two benefits that came from my Loyola Executive MBA experience are (1) a new cohort of comparable business leaders who are invested in our business and (2) a whole new set of questions to ask any prospective advisor. You can see your business differently too, at Loyola.

New Spring Cleaning 2012 – Unsubscribe

Did you know that if you want to write a business plan and go to Google and search “Business Plan” – you will have 1,740,000,000 sites to help you write the best business plan? What is the probability that some of them would be excellent; perhaps 1%? Surely there are some, right? Therein lies the problem – how in the world will you find the 1% out of 1.7 Billion sites? We are in the information age and there is now an abundance of information available to all of us. Regardless of your interests, all you have to do is go to Google and search until your heart is content. This process is like being in a hall with 1.7 billion doors and opening each one to see what is inside. Friend or foe, valuable information or useless drivel – every door promises you the answer. The vast majority mislead you with false promises of actionable knowledge. Plus, who has the time for that? It is intoxicating to get an idea then “Google It” to open these doors for a brief visit. Occasionally, you find a friend and agree to correspond – by downloading a white paper, answering a question, ordering a book, or eating a “cookie.” Often those friends tell their friends and now you have many people sending you their latest and greatest idea. They are so polite and so enticing. 3 Ways to improve your health, the shank proof wedge, 10 steps to wellness, 5 ways to transform your marriage, lose 10 pounds in 10 minutes. Who can resist that when you are an information junkie?
As for me, I am an information gorger. I consume so much information looking for the one idea to unlock the secrets of success, peace, health, life, learning, reading, cooking, golf – you name it. I am obese; no I am morbidly obese with excessive information. Obesity is an excessive amount of body fat, information obesity is an excessive amount of e-mails and subscriptions. I receive hundreds of e-mails daily from all the “cookies” I have eaten, books ordered and white papers downloaded that I must live through a couple hundred – “gotta second” moments on a daily basis. You know what I mean, “ding” the envelop appears and I wonder who is sending me an e-mail. Oh, great – Gymboree is having a sale. O.K., my children are 16 and 19, and Gymboree still wants me to know that their spring line is 30% off. Last week, I decided enough is enough. I went to therapy and came away with an action plan. UNSUBSCRIBE. It is like a data cleansing. Are you sure you want to unsubscribe? Darn right – bye bye!!! I had a great week saying goodbye to Gymboree and hundreds of other sites who steal my attention, one e-mail at a time.
Back to that business plan. What if you really need a business plan? What if you should know what “Additive Manufacturing” is all about? (Yes this promises to revolutionize the US Economy and I first heard about it this week. I was eating so many cookies that I missed a major event – another consequence of being obese) Maybe the key to unlocking knowledge is not online at all. What if the best learning comes off line? Frankly, I have concluded there is a big difference between information and wisdom. I really don’t think you get wisdom from 1.7 Billion websites. My two years in the Loyola EMBA program were the most intense and rewarding exploration of wisdom and truth. That program was off line. It was an intense journey with a cohort of likeminded professionals with real accomplishments. They had both knowledge and wisdom and when the program ended I did not want to learning to end. I guess I wanted to replace that process with the internet and 4 years later, I was left wanting. My spring cleaning has been sweeping out the inbox and looking for ways to regenerate the offline process. Maybe you should too.

Living Things Grow

This past weekend, I was behaving at my Loyola best. My wife and I were planting roses and I was working as the manual labor and occupying my mind by reflecting. First, let me set the stage and make the connection. We live in an area where the deer are in abundance and they feast on our plantings. After many years of battle, we took a different tact a couple of years ago and are slowly populating our gardens with beautiful Knockout Roses. They are resilient to our local weather conditions and the deer don’t like them. Plus they bloom for an extended period of time. A lazy homeowners’ dream. Over the past couple of years, we have planted them in several spots in our yard. As we were adding to this collection, I was taking note that some of our past plantings were doing better than others – this began my evaluation followed by reflection. Why were some doing better than others? Why do some businesses do better than others? Perhaps living things grow and properly nurtured things thrive.
The healthiest plants were set in soil on our property that was most conducive to growth. Fertile soil promotes growth. Our home sits on an old farm property that a developer bought many years ago and created our neighborhood. Many times developers sell off topsoil to add to their profit. Was the difference the soil? I started wondering if fertile soil was the addition of nutrients or the absence of unhealthy material? Do our businesses thrive if our “soil” is not as fertile as our others?
Roses, like most flowering plants, require pruning to produce an abundance of blooms. The most capable rose caretaker knows how and when to prune the branches for the best effect. They don’t necessarily cut off only the dead branches; they know how to trim the bush to promote the best new growth. Isn’t that also true of a successful business? So often we think only of growth as an additive process. What about the healthy branches that, if trimmed, will promote more growth in the future? How then to decide which ones to prune? It seems to me that in business and in roses there is both an accumulation of knowledge combined with a healthy dose of experience.
One of the key challenges that face most businesses is how to develop new leaders. How do we deposit knowledge in the future leader so they will have the foundation to produce more growth down the road? It is readily acknowledged that one of the most important characteristics of successful leaders is their desire for continuous learning. There is no better place to find broad, values based learning than at Loyola University where programs have been structured to address specific areas of knowledge with leaders and future leaders seeking the same insight. If you want to see your business differently, I recommend you take a walk in a garden to notice and ask why some plants thrive, some survive and some dry up and fade away.