For Reference

“If you don’t use me as a reference, you’re too dumb for them to want to hire you.” 

–     A former mentor of mine

In the past month, I’ve been asked to provide references for five or six former employees.  It’s a great honor and gift to be asked, really.  I often quote a guy who took me under his wing in the most formative years of my career.  The quote above is from him, and he’d repeat the quote every single time I talked to him from 1988 on.

As I type this on Thursday night for posting on Friday the 13th, I realize I’ve been lucky again.  I just completed filling out a reference form for a former employee, who’s looking at his dream job.

It got me thinking about the way we measure success, which got me thinking about two of my favorite questions from The Heston Group Sales Pro Interview Template.*

  1. Think of your best boss ever.  What is the worst thing they would say about having to be your leader?
  2. Think of your worst boss ever?  What is the best thing about you that even they would have to agree is true?

When you give an honest reference, you help the hirer and the hiree.  You help yourself.  You help the market.  We can’t afford to take it lightly.


*If you’d like help with selecting the right sales talent you should have me help you implement a new approach to interviewing sales candidates.  Just sayin’…



Practice As The Price of Admission

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  Practice is the thing you do that makes you good.”

–     Malcolm Gladwell, in his game-changing book “Outliers”

Gladwell is a fascinating read, whether in The New Yorker or his books.

By now, most of you have heard of the 10,000-hour connection he makes in Outliers.  But what does that look like for a working person?

It looks a lot like the price of admission.

What we’ve always done got us here.  What we do next determines where we’ll go next, and how quickly we’ll get there.

Sorry, Allen Iverson, but it really is about practice.

If it’s a thirty-minute drive to the next meeting, we have choices on how to use the time.  Music?  No one loves music more than I do, and sometimes, I grab the time to test Spotify‘s recommendations for my playlists.  But if it’s a conversation that warrants it, I’ll still (even after all these years) rehearse it.  Out loud.  (The good news is these days, people just think I’m on my phone when they see me talking to myself driving down the street…).  “What if they say…?”  “What if the problem isn’t what I think it is?”  “What if they turn cold?”

If you’ve been in the business for 10 minutes, practice will give you the best chance to survive and thrive.  If you’ve been in the business for 10 years, 20 years or more practice will help you be fresh, it will honor your history and learnings and it will help you avoid taking prior experiences for granted.

Roleplay.  Grab a partner and roleplay.  Talk to a past client and ask them what one thing stood out about your work for them, and what one thing they wish you’d have done better or differently.  Then practice those things.

It there’s a thing that makes us good, difference-makers commit to doing it.


That Moment

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”

–     A conversation between Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, in A.A. Milne‘s beloved children’s stories 

“Today is gonna be a big day,” she said, as she grabbed her coat and coffee, kissed her husband and headed for the car.  “Huge presentation to our largest client!”

“Me, too,” he replied.  “It’s my first meeting with our new boss, and I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, but it feels different.”

The cool thing is, every day is a big day, and those days are made up of big moments.  And often, THAT moment is one that sneaks past us on the way to the presentation or the meeting with the new boss.  There’s no shortage of quotes and motivational speeches on how to live or be in the moment, and they’re all spot on.  This moment, right here, right now, is where a difference gets made.  Sometimes we won’t know we made it, and other times we might not realize someone made it for us.  But it happens here.  Now.

If we set out each day to make that day our favorite day, I like our odds.  Especially when we remember that moment when we were fully in this moment.



Data, Deciding and Dad

“You got yer data, and you got yer database…”

–     A senior, founding executive of one of the leading data firms in the world

It’s almost never about the data.  It’s about the insights.

It does, however, start with data.  That was Jim’s point.  He typically placed an expletive at the beginning and end of the statement, like punctuation.  It was his way of illustrating the point that it’s not rocket surgery, it’s data, analytics and insights.

One of my favorite Dick Heston-isms is:  “Figures lie, and liars figure.”  That belief though didn’t keep him from carrying a little pocket notebook around and “cipherin'” all the time.  When was that heifer bred?  When was that soybean crop planted?  That new power-take-off attachment?  Well, it’s got 150 hours on it, so we better get one to have in the shop, because “that hay ain’t gonna bail itself!”

The data didn’t tell Dad when “ol’ 319” (that was her ear-tag number) was going to have a calf.  It did, though, give him an idea of which birth was likely next, which cow might need moved to the barn if it was supposed to rain or snow, whether he needed to check on the cattle twice, or more on a given day.

That little notebook, his cipherin’ and all the data he kept there provided him insights on how to run the farm.  In my lifetime, I remember dad losing maybe — maybe — seven or eight calves over the 34 years that I was aware of birth and death rates in his herd.

Data Used To Develop Insight Determines Direction

What’s our win rate?  Against competitor A?  Competitor C?  In vertical market X?  In metro areas?  Rural?  Suburban?  How often do we win RFP’s?  (That’s a trick question….no one wins if an RFP is part of the process!)  How long is our sales cycle?  What’s our average revenue per client?  All of us could literally keep this paragraph going for hours, days maybe.

Let’s don’t do that.

What are the data that matter most?  Do we have, or can we get access to them?  Do we have people who can convert them into insights, or at the very least, organize them into concepts, theories and hypotheses?

Unless It’s Just Math, We Still Have To Decide

And it’s danged near never just math.  Dad was right.  Figures do lie, and liars do figure — it’s their only way to avoid the truth.

Difference makers use data to ask better questions, not just jump to quick answers.  Difference makers use data to seek understanding and perspective, not to rubber-stamp pre-conceived notions.

Difference makers decide.  Data helps them have the insight to decide sooner, better, and then, data provide them feedback on whether the decision was right, is still right or needs to be re-made.

Dad was the best business mind I’ll ever know.  He was a farmer.  And a factory worker.  He collected the data that mattered, honed it into insights, and then he decided.

We ought to do the same.




Comp Plans: To Drive or Reward?

“Thinking drives behaviors.  Behaviors drive action.  Action drives results.  No tool can fix poor thinking.”

–  Jamie Flinchbaugh , Lean “expert” and author of A3 Problem Solving: Applying Lean Thinking*

Chatter about sales compensation plans can be trending this time of year.  If I were part of the chatter, I’d add the hashtag #dontgetitwrongAGAIN.

If a company’s goal is to have long-term relationships with its customers or clients, the sales comp plan has to reward the behaviors that leaders instill and enforce in the team.  If we’re expecting our comp plan to drive behaviors, we’ve either done a poor job of hiring, creating an environment where the team can succeed, setting expectations or holding people accountable for things other than the scoreboard.  (That’d be four of the six elements of REELAX, and it could be argued that the L and X are in play, too!)

Hire for integrity, intelligence, and coachability — and then reward smart people that execute the game plan with integrity.  No matter how good a compensation plan seems to be, it won’t correct other gaps in our team.  It might mask them, but difference-makers don’t put band-aids on deep wounds.

Effective compensation plans reward behaviors and outcomes.  Effective leaders build teams that behave and create outcomes.  If the former is too big of a focus, the latter may need our attention.

* Editor’s Note:  I didn’t link the publication, because I haven’t read it.  I am a proponent of Lean principles, and Flinchbaugh captures well the point behind this post.



Walk Up Music, Money and Swagger

There is no quote today, just this classic guitar riff

If we need to instill confidence in others that we’re the ones they want to do business with, swagger matters, and there are different ways we can crank up our Swag Meter.

In the public speaking business, we talk and joke a lot about walkup music.  I’ve used Blackberry Smoke quite a bit in recent years, and The Jeff Healy Band for longer walks to the mic.  The Tallest of The Three used Collective Soul for Helfaer Field events in youth travel baseball, and his buddy Pilchie used BTO’s Sledgehammer.

We probably park in the same spot every morning, and walk into the office at about the same clip as any other day.  We might be on our phone, or checking e-mail on our phone or otherwise eyes-glued to the phone.

Swagger matters, though, if we’re going out each day to convince people to believe in us.  We have to grab some attention in order for them to trust their dollars with us for whatever we provide in return.  And, if it takes a little walk-up music to find the swag….well, then, we oughta get it on our playlist and use it.  Like these guys did.

Next week is a big week.  I’m going with this classic guitar riff for a few days, thank you.



“Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”

          –     Yousuf Karsh (1908 – 2002), as quoted by one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Ferriss

Change and pain, as we’ve often discussed, are inevitable. Misery, on the other hand, is optional.

What’s the link between change and pain?

Human nature is to resist change.  As we learned from Dr. Graff, “change will only occur when the fear of change is overcome by the pain of remaining the same.”

Ok, so what does this have to do with character?

Character isn’t developed in victory or on mountain tops.  Character is built and developed in pain; valleys, failure and the blisters and fatigue that come from relentless effort to improve, or from a forced instinct to survive.

I learned to develop photographs in the darkroom of The Troy Banner at Fairfield High School in 1978 and in the Journalism lab at The University of Iowa in 1980 and the student newspaper at Northeast Missouri State University from 1981 – 1984.  I didn’t learn to develop character, and whatever character I have — whatever character we have — is developed by getting through the darkness and from experiencing pain.

Character building isn’t a “one-and-done” event…

Our character is still being built.  For me, it may have started in 1971, when I was passed over for a starting pitching gig on the Little League All-Star team.  It may have evolved at a childhood buddy’s funeral in 1977, or in delivering eulogies for friends and family members since 1985.  It cemented itself via disappointment in 2013, challenges in 2016 and 2017 and an abject betrayal in 2018.  Some of it grew from a broken neck in 2009 and, God willing it continues to develop with each trip through the darkness, bringing us more in touch with who we are and, ideally, who we want to be.

Karsh’s greatest photograph has an element of darkness to it, and its subject does, too.  It was taken and then developed in a time when the darkroom was the place where great photographs came to be, and its subject, not ironically, grew into a man of great character in darkness that we can’t imagine.

It’s not easy to embrace the darkness.  Imagining and striving for what comes on the other side is what builds character, and makes the passage worthwhile.





“When you make a mistake there are only three things you should ever do about it.  Admit it, learn from it and don’t repeat it.”

          –     Paul “Bear” Bryant (1913 – 1983), as quoted by Robert Glazer in his Friday Forward from November 15th

If coaching is your thing, Coach Bryant would be a pretty high standard to aspire to.

If leadership and ideation is your thing….wait, are your things — Glazer’s a pretty good place to start.

A funny thing about great coaches and leaders, they pretty much agree on this concept:  Mistakes aren’t the problem.  Repeating mistakes is the problem.

Admit it?  “Hey, look, I screwed up.  I forgot to input the services in the contract calculator and now the client is ticked because we’re billing an extra $500 per month.”

Learn from it?  “I worked with the sales ops team, and we’ve changed the input fields to require a value or opt-out in every spot on the form.”

Don’t repeat it?  “In this week’s huddle, I told everyone about what I did wrong, and we all agreed to watch each other’s pace to make sure we don’t rush through the details.”

Executing on a mistake-tolerant leadership style requires vulnerability and transparency.  From top-to-bottom.  All-day, every day.

It might not be easy on Day #1, but it will get easier every day thereafter, especially when you see the talent you’ll attract, the closeness of the team and the steady, predictable improvement you’ll achieve, together.





Tech on Either Shoulder

“Technology isn’t good or evil.  It just reveals and amplifies what is already there.”

          –     Carey Nieuwhof

Remember that scene in Animal House?  The one I can’t link to in a family-friendly leadership business blog?  The one with an angel and a devil perched on opposite shoulders of Larry “Pinto” Kroger?

That’s what Carey is saying here, only probably not with that analogous movie scene in mind.  He is, after all, a pastor.

There are times each day when I wonder out loud, “How did we ever do this without technology?  Without smart phones?  Without The Google?”

On the other hand, there are times each day when I curse under my breath (or out loud), “I hate this stupid smartphone!  I miss the days when all we had to do was our jobs!  Why don’t these people just sit down and talk to one another!?”  Sometimes, I even text someone to sit down and talk to someone else.  That right there is either irony or stupidity, and I’m going with irony, so I don’t wreck my own day.

Are there other things in our days that simply reveal or amplify what’s already there?  Dr. Graf would say, “Most things are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.  Most things just are.”

He and Carey are, of course, correct.

When we deal with things at their root cause, we make a difference.  Good goal for today, and every day.



Thanksgiving Verb-iage

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled our light.”

–     Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Alsatian (then Germany, now France) philosopher, among other credentials

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies within yourself.”

–     Tecumseh (1768-1813), Native American / Shawnee Chief, possibly the first example of “working across the aisle” in politics

This week, we mark my favorite holiday. Not the most important holiday, mind you. At our house, that’s still Easter, with Christmas close behind.

No, I said my favorite holiday.

It’s the one we haven’t screwed up. Yet. Major retailers have long been making a great effort to wreck it…but as far as holidays go, Thanksgiving is still hard to beat.

It’s simple.  Straightforward.  We gather with people we genuinely love, need, care about and are thankful for, and we give thanks.

Plain and simple, in the right context, thanksgiving is a verb.

And, if we do it right, and are living to the fullest, it’s a very active verb.

Whether your flame is flickering today, or whether you’re restoring someone else’s, consider approaching the day from a thankful perspective. Some of us – some of you – face trying times, and not just in this season. Tecumseh’s point holds though, something, and likely many things, are better for us than they are for someone we know – so instead of waiting for Thursday, let’s see if we can establish the discipline of being thankful today, and every day.

Let’s agree to take the November out of Thanksgiving, even as we celebrate Thanksgiving in November.

Wait a minute….this one sounds familiar…

Editor’s Note Part Deaux:  Yep, it’s a reprise from prior Thanksgiving messages.  Sorta like the Easter post.  Unlike CS Lewis’ advice from earlier this week, Thanksgiving and Easter ought never to change.  Just sayin’…

Editor’s Note:  The Diff takes a break until Monday, giving way to family, food, friendship and, hopefully, a resounding Iowa Hawkeye victory on Friday over Nebraska. Make it a great weekend!