Fronts

“You can’t get mad about weather, because weather’s not about you.”

–     Doug Coupland (b. 1961, a very good year) Canadian novelist and writer

Most other things aren’t about us, either.

“Fronts,” the phrase weather forecasters use to refer to the leading edge of a change in weather conditions, happen multiple times per month.

Invariably, Canada (no word whether Mr. Coupland is behind it or not) sends us a heapin’ helping of cold, dry air, which collides with some warm, very moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and something big happens for a few hours.

This week…today, we’re getting our first really big “winter front.”  (PS  I hate it that they name everything in weather today.  Hurricanes?  OK.  4″ of snow?  Just a nice morning in Wisconsin…)  Sometimes it’s a warm front and sometimes it’s a cold front, and not just when it comes to weather.

A cold front can happen at work, too.  A colleague stops talking to us.  Our boss shuts down two of our projects.  Our best friend at work makes a major mistake and we get implicated by relationship. Someone commits a Rule #5 violation and the whole department feels like we should raid the grocery store for canned goods and flashlight batteries, and hunker down for a week-long blizzard.

A warm front can happen at work, too.  A rival befriends us.  Someone in another department points to our department ands says, “Hey, they “get it!”  Our boss calls us in and says, “You’ve been killing it here, take a long weekend and go (hunt, fish, play golf, shop, hit the beach, etc”…you get the point.

Just like the weather fronts, the conditions will change a little bit the day before, the day of and the day after a “work front” comes through.  We may need to metaphorically shovel, or apply some sun screen.  We may need to change the tires on the car, or make sure the sun roof still functions.

But it’s alwys temporary, and it’s almost never about us.

Two cautions:

First, we will almost never know what is going on in the other person’s life — really.  Is someone sick?  Did someone die?  Is there a squabble or a fight at home?  Was someone raised by an abusive parent or are they in an abusive relationship?  Are they euphorically “high” today, because they kicked an addiction yesterday, or has an addiction come back today to snatch their energy and sense of self-worth?  Are they newly in-love, newly estranged, feeling well, not feeling well…?

Second, are we aware of what’s causing our own “fronts.”  Did one of the kids spill their breakfast? Did our neighbor blow his snow on to our driveway?  Did the kid at the grocery store put the milk on top of the bread? Did the dog get in to the pantry and eat two loaves of bread before lunches were made for school (yes, it has happened)….?

We never know.  Except that we know it’s not about us.  And that it will pass…  And that today’s sun and shirt-sleeves will be replaced by umbrellas and boots tomorrow, followed by jackets and stocking caps a while after that, and that, as little-orphan-Annie, reminds us, the sun will come up tomorrow.

Fronts come, fronts go — difference makers prepare for and navigate them with eyes focused firmly on what comes next.

 

Great Lessons, Great Teachers

“Wax on, wax off.”

–     Mr. Miyagi in “Karate Kid” 

Experience can be a great teacher.  Particularly when the experience includes a great teacher.

Great teachers not only teach lessons that make a difference, they teach them in a way that reduces the friction that most students naturally apply to the learning process.

“Wax on, wax off,” seems stupid until the big kid in the tournament  takes a punch or a kick at your noggin, and you “wax it off,” right?

The same is true of lessons that apply to our business.  They’re often learned outside the boardroom, and outside the classroom, and they almost always involve a great teacher.

Some lessons great teachers taught me:

  1. “Get your a** around behind you!”  (Dick Heston)  I was about nine years old, wrestling with a scoop shovel in one of our grain bins, when Dad repeatedly barked this directive at me.  As a nine-year-old, I thought he’d lost his mind.  After all, where else could my a** possibly be?  Sometime about three years later, I figured out that there was a right way to use a scoop shovel — and about ten years later I realized that what he taught me was that there is a right way to do most things, and it’s usually easier and more effective.
  2. “You’re a shooter.  Shooter’s shoot.”  (Herb Justmann)  Herb was my high school basketball coach, and he’s still a dear friend.  His point was, play to your strengths.  Defense and rebounding were not things that I was awful at — ok, rebounding was not something I was awful at, but my role on the team was to shoot the basketball, and he’d get much more upset when I passed on open shots than when I forced or rushed one.  In business, almost 40 years later, if I feel like I am “playing out of position,” I hear Herb’s voice, and I settle back in to where I know my gifts lie.
  3. “YOU have to strike THIS man out!”  (Jim Peterson, my high school baseball coach, and a scary, grumpy guy, by most assessments.)  The reason to this day that I feel most comfortable when the stakes are high is because every time I faced a runner at third and less than two outs, he would, in front of my parents, grandparents, girlfriend, etc, bark out this command.  Twice.  (No, seriously, two times. He would not let me throw a pitch to the kid without saying it, at the top of his lungs, twice!  Because evidently someone three counties over didn’t hear him the first time!)  It was his way of focusing me on the piece that I could most directly impact.  Not the kid that was already at third base.  Great teachers help us focus when the stakes are high.
  4. “Most things in life are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.  Most things just are”  (Tom Graf, PhD)  Dr. Graf uses a series of “pictures” to illustrate this one.  “You win Powerball!  Good news?  Bad news?”  “GOOD NEWS!” everyone shouts out!  “Ok,” he would continue, “every member of your family and your closest friends disown you because they don’t think you give them enough money.  Good news?  Bad news?”  You’re doing it right now, aren’t you?  “Well, Steve, that would be BAD news…”  He goes on, and within about three minutes, everyone in the room realizes first hand that “good” and “bad” are labels that aren’t really productive.  When we realize that most things just “are,” it helps us deal with them in more practical terms.  It helps us separate the important from the urgent.  It helps us do our best, right now.

There are at least eleven or twelve others that come up for me almost daily, because I’ve been blessed with great teachers.  I’ve also been blessed with a career in which I regularly get to act on the lessons they taught.

What are the lessons we’ve learned that we either forgot, resist, or don’t seem applicable when we’re wearing a tie or staring at a computer?  Who were the teachers that taught those lessons?  What would they do, say, push for or remind us of that would make a difference here — now?

 

The Gap Between

” All growth depends upon activity. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.”

     –     Calvin Coolidge (1872 – 1933), 30th President of these United States 

There is all you could do, and then there is all you can do.

The gap in between the two is where growth occurs.

The Middle of The Three is a pretty decent basketballer.  In fact, his favorite t-shirt says, “Grammar is important, but basketball is importanter.”  Therein lies one of the challenges.  As naturally as basketball comes, he works hard at the gap between what he can do, and what he could do.  Not, perhaps, as hard as Dad would like him to work, but pretty diligent.  School, on the other hand, is an area that he’d prefer to stop just short of what he can do, and somewhere in the neighborhood of what he must do to get by.  To bridge the gap, a choice must be made.  How much work and effort are we willing to take on?

For us in our workaday lives, the same choice exists.  A gifted presenter who is often short on preparation will have to settle for less than if they were to fill the gap.  A brilliant analyst who is most comfortable with facts and data will only maximize their outputs when they can understand the environment and conditions wherein the data and analytics must be applied.

Madonna once sang that “we are living in a material world,” but we should note that it is not an empirical world.

The gap between what we can do and what we could do is, sometimes, definable in finite terms.  More often that not, however, it’s likely that putting in the effort and work on those things that exist in the gap helps close the gap.  The key is to take action, and put in concerted, focused effort on the gap between what we can, and ultimately could do.

As for all you should do…  “Should” is a dangerous word, especially if it is laid out there by someone else.  Ultimately, what we should do, depending on who’s saying what that might be, can inform or limit the movement towards what we could do.  If our “should do” is work every weekend, miss concerts, movies and ballgames (either those of our kids or those that we’d love to see, just as fans), it is more than likely misaligned with our “could do.”  It can become a source of guilt, feelings of defeat and emptiness.  “Perfect” is, more often than not, the enemy of “good enough.”

Difference makers grow every day — by taking action, and putting in the effort and work

Veterans Day 2016 — Everything For Something

“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

  There was a Dire Straits song back in the 1980’s called “Money For Nothing.”  In much of our society, that’s become a strategy, or at the very least an expectation.  There are many among us who’d love nothing more than to have everything for nothing — no investment, no risk, no sacrifice.

Truth be told, there are days that even the hardest working among us daydream about Powerball or some other “sweepstakes” like event that involves (metaphorically speaking) bluebirds flying through the windows with bundles of $20’s, $50’s and $100’s…

(Yes, I realize that bluebirds would be able to carry relatively small bundles of currency — stay focused here!)

For a long time, we’ve romanticized a dream that involves no investment, no risk, no sacrifice.

And then there is November 11th.

Veterans Day, in my own opinion (and it is, after all, my blog…) is the third most important holiday on the calendar, after Easter and Christmas.

Everything we have, and will ever have, is because of the men and women who put on a uniform and defend our nation, its principles and our way of life.

Today is a day we thank them, and honor them.  Every day would be a fitting alternative.

Said a bit differently, no veterans, no America.  That’s the fact, Jack.

To my friends and family who have served, you are heroes.  To Captain Carey and Colonel Blake, you are heroes.  To everyone who has stood a post, manned a watch or put themselves either in harm’s way or in a position to be called to do so, you are heroes.

That stapler on the desk?  That company issued pen, paper, cell phone or computer?  That home we go home to each night in that car we drive each day?

None of it matters without them.  The veterans, and those who serve today and in the future.

Thank you, one and all, today and every day.

 

Unprecedented, Unpredictable

“Ideas, as distinguished from events, are never unprecedented.”

     –     Hannah Arendt, German born American philosopher and writer (1906 – 1975)

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”

–     General George S. Patton, (1885 -1945)

Because ideas are the currency of difference makers.  If there are unpredictable, unforeseen events that affect us (that would be um, every day, right?), ideas are what will get us through.

Ideas can and should be steeped in the learning that came before this moment, but they shouldn’t be shackled to the past.  It’s not about the event. It’s not always about the outcome.  It is always about what.  We.  Do.  Next!

Ideas are the currency of difference makers.

It’s time to invest, and to watch that investment grow.

 

Talent or Attitude?

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”

–     Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

These are times of great change.  Market swings.  Recoveries that may or may not be real recoveries and financial fissures that may or may not be sealed up.  Global threats, cyber threats and direct, frontal attacks by competitors and regulators.  And, these factors don’t just apply to the banking space — they’re virtually universal.

Data and data analytics are the buzz words of the day, and, as the Chicago Cubs just proved, they can be critical to building and executing a strategy.  That said, until artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithms can actually generate revenue all by their little ol’ selves, talent is going to matter.  The Cubs used data and analytics to build their roster, but they also had to execute on the field, and that means coaches had to coach and players had to play.

Yes, talent matters.  But everyone at the top levels of any profession is talented.  If you watched any of the World Series, you saw two very talented teams led by two exceptional managers play really great baseball for a week and a half.  And you saw two teams that had the fuel booster they needed for their exceptional talent.

Attitude.

As leaders, there are some yardsticks we can use.  For example, we can measure activity, project timelines, lines of code per programmer, close rates, client calls, certifications and preparations.  In these cases, we can, and should, look at our teams in terms of both what they can and can’t do, and we ought to train them, if they can (and are willing to) do.

Attitude, on the other hand, is harder to measure, but it’s not hard to notice.  It’s like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart posited on obscenity:  “I know it when I see it.”

And, when we see it, we ought to celebrate it, recruit for it and cross-pollenate the heck out of it.

Practical application?  In times of great change, once we make sure the team can do what we need them to do, we need to decide whether players on our team will or won’t do.  And if they won’t do, that won’t do.

No one is irreplaceable.  As a buddy of mine often says, “Look, this ain’t rocket surgery!”  And since no one is doing triple bypass on any rockets, attitude takes its place at the head of the class.

These are times of great change.  Anyone can complain about it.  Make excuses out of it.  Run from it and try to hide from it.  (Let me know how that one works out, ok?!)  We can blame change, be paralyzed by change and resist change.  We can even ignore change, but I’m pretty sure that leads to extinction….just sayin’…

Difference makers take a different attitude.  They embrace change.  They run toward (but not into) the flame.  They participate in ideation and they take risks, make themselves vulnerable and give feedback with absolute transparency.  They raise their hands and say, “Put me in, Coach!  I’m ready to play!”

It’s a little thing that makes a big difference, just like ol’ Winston said…

 

Politics, Pop Music and Bluto — Perspective

“It’s the end of the world as we know it…”

–     Lyric from R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of The World”

“Over?  Nothing is over until WE say it is.”

–  John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi), in the final scene of “Animal House”

Wednesday morning, when America wakes up, close to 50% (heck, maybe more than 50%!) of the people will want to sing this lyric from REM, but likely without the hook — “and I feel fine.”

In our society, in these divisive times and especially in this 48-hour period during which we’ll elect our next President, there is a lot more “end of world” sentiment than there is “I feel fine” sentiment.

More on that whole election angle in a second…

In general, we are led to believe that every little thing is a big danged thing.  But it’s not.  As Dr. Graf reminds us, in the most frequently used Daily Diff quotation:  “Most things in life aren’t good or bad, right or wrong; most things just are.”  The end of the world?  Prolly not.  “I’ll get fired if I don’t win this deal?”  Prolly not.  “We’ll be out of business if…?”  Prolly not.

 

As individuals, as difference makers, all we can do in every instance is our best.  We ought to challenge ourselves to be continuously improving and we ought to make sure that our best, tomorrow, is better than our best was today.  All we can do is the best that we can do.

So, back to the election…sigh.

I’m not sure there will be any “winners” in any sense of what “winning” has come to mean to me over the years.  Not sure that the authors of the Constitution or the drafters of the Declaration would be very happy with or proud of us if this is the best we can offer.  But I am sure that Bluto was right.  (Ironically, in the closing credits we learn that John Blutarsky goes on to be a fictitious Senator…there’s a post just dying to be written…).  Yep, the Honorable Senator from Illinois, John “Food Fight” Blutarsky, Bluto, is perhaps more right on this topic than any.  When it comes to the Democratic Republic in which we live — when it comes to Capitalism and all the things that make people everywhere want to sneak across our borders to live in our mess — because it is SO much better than their messes — nothing is over until we say it is.

Dad always used to say, “If you don’t vote, you can’t bitch.”  I like that.  And what I like more is “fight for what you believe in.  Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.  Make a difference.”  Nothing is over until we say it is.  And I don’t sense, even with the most divided population we’ve seen since the Civil War, that we say, think or feel that “it” is over.  I’ll close with another lyric (this one from Semisonic) to further illustrate my point:

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

If you haven’t already, vote.  If you don’t already, volunteer for a cause.  If you don’t already, read — a lot.  If you don’t already, learn something new every day.  If you don’t already, do something today that makes a difference for someone else.  Because it’s not over, no matter what Tuesday brings.

Breaks

“Not only am I not very good, I NEVER catch a break.”

–     Me, on the golf course for the last six years…

Until the past two months or so.

More on that in a bit.

Golf is a moronically stupid game, a sadistic and nightmare-inducing hobby to which I have had an unhealthy attachment since 1986 (thanks a lot, Jack Nicklaus!).  The classic love / hate relationship now spans 30 years, and my best estimate is that I’ve said the words at the top of this post at least 13,216 times, give or take.

Until the past two months or so.

Faced with the decision to sell my clubs to some poor, unsuspecting SOB, or do something markedly different, I asked myself, “Self, why do you never get a break?”

It was supposed to be a rhetorical question.

Unfortunately, my subconscious self is a crappy listener.

“Well, dummy,” he said, just a little too enthusiastically.  “Let’s see.  What would you tell one of your employees?  What would you tell one of your former consulting clients?  What would you tell your nephew?  What would you tell your Godsons, your current clients, or anyone else who would listen?”

At this point, I developed a very negative self-sub-conscious opinion of my subconscious self.

“Well, Mister Smarty Pants, what I would say is, “Think positively!  You make your own breaks based on how well you’ve prepared.  Good breaks tend to happen where preparation meets opportunity.  The team that practices best on Tuesday, wins more often on Saturday.  Good luck is manufactured, not discovered…”

And, I’d be right.

So, a couple months ago, as I headed out to the golf course, I decided to do something markedly different.

I’d think positive thoughts.  I’d say positive things to myself.  I’d crank up some good blues music and (weird as it may sound) I’d enjoy my favorite hobby.  “You can do this,” I say, in my best Waterboy voice.  “Just slow down and hit the shot, you’ve done it dozens of times before.”  I started (even weirder, I know) practicing again.  That only-Phil Mickelson-can-possibly-hit-this-shot shot?  I’d leave that one to Philly Mick and I’d simply get the ball back in play.

I’m still not very good, by my old standards, but my handicap is down three shots, and I’m looking forward to the next round.  And the one after that.

“OK, Cheesebucket,” you’re thinking, “what the holy, heavenly heck does this have to do with business?”

Well, think positively!  You make your own breaks based on how well you’ve prepared.  Good breaks tend to happen where preparation meets opportunity.  The team that practices best on Tuesday, wins more often on Saturday.  Good luck is manufactured, not discovered.”

Our son, The Middle of The Three Who Will Not Be Tamed, got a t-shirt from Mrs. H a while back — about the time that he began to be a way-above-average basketball player.  “I’m sorry,” the shirt reads, “I practiced harder than you did.”

And when we do, it will make a difference.

The Points Society

“Cold dark lonesome, dead of night
Things gone so wrong, can’t get right
In the darkness, hear the sound
Of a world that’s upside down…”

–     Lyric from “The Price” by The Steeldrivers

We live in a “points society” wherein false expectations are built by companies to deliver substandard customer experiences for poor value.

That.  Is.  Awesome.  Right?

The world really is upside down.  And somewhere along the way the exchange of value went so wrong that it’s easy to wonder if we’ll ever get it right again.

I’ve flown something like 2.4 million miles in my career.  Actual flight miles.  On something like a dozen airlines.  All of those plane tickets were paid for by a card that “rewards” points.  And all those nights away from home were spent in hotels that “reward loyalty” by offering points.  We buy groceries and get “points.”  All these points.  So little value.  Not only is it a points society, but the balance of value is way out of whack.

Quid pro quo (Latin for “something for something” or “this for that”) is a term used when “an item or a service has been traded in return for something of value, usually when the propriety or equity of the transaction is in question.”  (Wikipedia)

So, how do we break the cycle?

Focus on the value, not on the points.  Whether we’re the provider or the consumer.  Offer a great service at a compelling value.  Invest what we’d spend in “points” in delighting the people who give us money for what we do or make.  Think of it.  Midwest Express Airlines* had it right about 15 – 20 years ago — two across seating, direct flights, “first class” amenities and exceptional (think Southwest Airlines on steroids and without the silliness) service.  I don’t even remember if they offered points or not.  I just flew them whenever they went to where I was going.  And for a road warrior, points are precious.

Except that they’re not.  In a points-driven society, someone is always expecting something more than they’re going to get from someone who is expecting them to accept less than they should.

That’s no way to run a business.

Deliver the value up front.  Consistently.  Relentlessly.  Passionately.

That’s the point.  Not the points.

*Disclaimer.  Yes, I know that Midwest Express was purchased after nearly failing in the financial and jet-fuel mess of the early 2000’s.  Yes, I realize that points rule the day and that “big” appears to be the path to victory.  I ain’t buying that.  B – I – G does not spell “best,” and in a vanilla world where everyone is shouting about “points” — there is a way to the winners circle that focuses not on a quid pro quo, but on making a difference for the people that pay us to make a difference for them…

 

Mind Our Own Business

“If the wife and I’s a fussin’, brother that’s all right.  ‘Cause me and that woman bought a license to fight.  Why don’t you mind your own business?  Mind you own business!  ‘Cause if you mind your business then you won’t be mindin’ mine.  Mindin’ others people’s business seems to be high-toned, while I got all that I can do just mindin’ my own.  Why don’t you mind your own business?  Mind your own business!  ‘Cause if you mind your business then you won’t be mindin’ mine!”

–     Lyric from “Mind Your Own Business” (1949) by Hank Williams (and reprised by his son, Hank Jr, aka “Bocephus”)

One of the challenges is that everyone’s business is more public than it used to be.  Socially sure, with Snapgram and Instachat and FaceSpace, blah, blah, blah…

And so it is at work, too.  The “matrix” rules, and not the one from the cool movie with Keanu Reaves. The matrix tricks us in to believing that we’re co-dependent (bad) vs. inter-dependent (good). Sales want to tell Ops what to do.  Ops wants to tell IT what to do.  Product wants to tell Finance what to do.  Finance and IT want to tell everyone what to do.  But if we’re minding other people’s business, then we can’t be minding ours.  Actually, everyone wants to tell everyone else what to do, sometimes instead of doing what they ought to do.

It takes more work to be interdependent.  It takes more forethought to work with another team than to second guess them.  It takes more effort to see the world through the eyes of the people we want to criticize, and to shout at, “You’re doing it all wrong!” It takes more empathy and compassion to spend a moment wondering what their “filters” look like, and what experiences or fears might be affecting their thoughts, words and actions.

And, it’s worth all that.

Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  (John 8:7)  Hank (and his son — and about 23 cover recordings, as near as I can figure) sang, “Why don’t you mind your own business…?”  So whether our preference is Jewish carpenter / savior of mankind, or hard-partyin’, Rockabilly, Country-legend — our marching orders are clear.

We ought to mind our own business.