Negative, Ghost Rider, The Pattern is Full

“If I make dark my countenance, I shut my life from happier chance.”

–     Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892), British poet, Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, in “The Two Voices”

In case today’s headline escapes any of you who’ve not seen this scene from Tom Cruise’s movie “Top Gun,” let me start there.  I toyed with changing the first word, though, to “negativity…”

There is so much negativity out there that the pattern must be full!  And when we make our countenance dark, we do much more than spill coffee on the Tower Controller.  We drag others down, and we shut ourselves off from happier chance.

A stretch of an example?  Perhaps.

So, forgive me for harkening back to Iowa’s victory in The Outback Bowl Tuesday.  Twitter is on fire with people complaining that Iowa had negative rushing yards, and two turnovers, even though they won the game. Anonymous, behind-social-media “experts” are suggesting the program should be flushed and started anew because Iowa finished 9-4, and “should have won at least 11 games…” and “should have this and should have that….”

Just.  Stop.

“Should” is one of the most dangerous words in the English language, and it’s a gate through which negativity doesn’t just enter, it rushes in.

If we’re starting more than one sentence a month with the word “should,” we should stop.  (Hey, at least I crack me up…)

And if someone starts a sentence directed at us with “should,” we ought to be able to tune them out, immediately.  (I just couldn’t do it twice in a row….alliteration be danged…)

Words matter.  “Should” and “but” are negative gateways.  “Could” and “and,” those are the vocabulary of difference-makers.  They make the happier chance a happier likelihood.

The negativity pattern is full.  And social media is sending all the flights into the pattern.  Imagine if everyone had to post their real name and cell # in their tweets…but I digress…

Experiment:  Ignore all negative posts / influences for one week.  Instead of reading them, create a trigger to conjure up a positive perspective.  Write down / journal about it for that one week.  Rate your energy level on a 1-10 scale for that week.

I’ve got a hunch the number will go up during the seven days.  And it very well could stay elevated, when we prioritize positivity.

Editor’s Note:  I tried to work in a political angle, because the examples are even more numerous, frequent and pervasive.  Doing so without becoming part of the problem seemed unlikely, so I stood down.  That said, if either side stood for something instead of against everything, we’d be better off across the board…

Freedom to Fail

“Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

–     Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989), Irish novelist, Nobel prize winner for literature (1969)

This is a difficult concept for some who have grown up products of the modern, everyone-gets-a-trophy era.  Failure?  “I refuse to fail,” one mentee once told me.  I admired her fortitude (she’s a very accomplished tennis player), and then asked her if she’d ever lost a match.  “Well……yes,” she said, but went on to describe a burning desire to never fail again.  Jack Nicklaus (still the greatest golfer of all time) genuinely believes he never missed a putt he had to make.  These are mindsets that are common in high achievers.

The obsession with not failing, though, can be debilitating.

Circa 2006, I took over a team that had been led by a “zero tolerance” manager, and on the first day, I could literally see and feel the paralysis in the room.  One young team member approached me at the lunch break.  “Give me one thing I can do right away that will make me better,” he said.  “Make a mistake every day,” I told him.  “Then stop what you’re doing, call me, tell me what the mistake was, and let’s figure out how we can get better because of it.”

He looked at me for about ten seconds.  “Can I speak freely?” he asked his new boss.  “Always,” I replied.  “That’s crazy talk!” he blurted.

But it ain’t crazy talk.

“Playing tight,” or taking the safe route can slow us down and curb our growth.  When we’re resisting our instincts or fighting the current, it might well be time to just take a flyer, try a new approach or do something we’ve never done before to see if we can get closer to the outcome we’re seeking.  And we might fail.  When we do, hopefully, we have someone we can call, who’ll celebrate the failure with us and help us figure out how we can get better because of it.

Check out this article, shared by Mark Heston of Heston Associates (a partner of The Heston Group and a world-class leadership development, HR / Compensation consulting firm).  Yes, I fully appreciate the irony of quoting the CEO of Spanx during that time of year that everyone is trying to take off the Holiday Ten, but look at the gift her dad gave her by not only giving her the freedom to fail, but by instilling comfort with the concept in to her every day!

We certainly don’t want people repeating the same mistakes.  But if we ain’t failing, we ain’t trying hard enough.  We might not get a trophy.  Some peers might snicker, and some might bluster about our ineptitude.  They’ll be wrong, and probably jealous.  As Beckett says, “No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  When we take that approach, we’ll continually get better, and make a bigger difference, day-after-day.


The Clean Slate — Resolve, Not Resolution

“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions…”

–     Joey Adams (1911 – 1999), American comedian and columnist for the New York Post

Ahh, the calendar turns and we face the proverbial “clean slate.”  (Technically, we do that every single day, but what a buzz-kill that would be for the first business day of the new year!)

Later today, when I hit the gym, (for the 50th day of the last 72, thank you very much!) it will be packed.  Of the couple hundred new people there to execute on their “resolutions,” 80% will be gone within five months.   One third won’t be there by the end of January.  The wait for the 30 pound dumbbells will be five minutes today.  It will be zero by February 10th.  We’ll see parts of the parking lot never before imagined for the next couple weeks, and then park close enough to the door that I can auto-start my car before I put my shoes on by Valentine’s Day.

Why is that?

Because resolve and resolution are two different concepts. tells us that resolve is to “deal with conclusively. To settle; solve…”  Resolution is “a formal expression of intention.”

If we dig through the definitions, we could make the argument that they’re closer cousins than I’ve just described, and from a nit-picky, English, root-of-the-word perspective they are.  Gym attendance proves the point.  The continuing rise of obesity in our culture even though 42% of us make New Year’s resolutions and most of those are to “lose weight,” give us the filter we need.

Intentions are great, and they can set us on a course.  Resolve keeps us on course.

The old saying, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is too flippant for my taste.  I had a boss once who constantly asked me to assess whether so-and-so had bad intentions.  I couldn’t honestly answer that question, but I can tell you that the person’s resolve and behaviors made it clear that they (metaphorically) weren’t gonna be on the elliptical or the squat rack tomorrow.

We have to have good intentions, and I bet 99% of us do.

But without the resolve to see things through, our outcomes will be just another resolution — a membership card in our wallet that never gets scanned as our never-gets-skinnier butt drags it around with us.

Replace the gym with the office, and the concept still holds.

Yes, it’s the first work day of a new year.  Fresh intentions will give us hope and energy.  Resolve, commitment and focus will give us the outcomes we’re seeking.

Four Cornerstones for Building A Sustainable Team

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

–     Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963), UK-Born, Canadian journalist and author, and a real difference-maker in my life / career (read Outliers!)

So, for those of you waiting on the pithy hope that Iowa wins the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, here it is; I hope Iowa wins the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, but even if they don’t, it’s been worth the extra six weeks…  And, therein lies the tenuous tie to the business message — six extra weeks of practice.  (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours-to-mastery is in play here…)

When building a team, of course we want wins.  We should want continuous improvement almost as much as the wins.  Thus the “sustainable” angle we’re taking here…

So, what are the cornerstones for building a sustainable team?

Not surprisingly, one is practice.  There’s this pervasive idea in business today that we’re too busy to do anything other than our jobs, and, to a certain degree, I concur.  But, our jobs are to get better and better, day-after-day, month-after-month, and that means that we need committed time and energy spent sharpening the axe.  A few notes on the concept:

– Practice should be intentional, planned, repeatable and designed for outcomes.

– Practice should be designed to maximize our strengths 2/3rds of the time and overcoming gaps only 1/4th of the time.  The remaining 1/8th?  Learning new things / skills…

– Practice should employ instantaneous, objective feedback loops.  Every great sports coach talks about film — and it’s a powerful tool.  So are role-play, memorization and repetition…

– Practice should be work, but keep Mary Poppins in mind (great new movie, by the way!); a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.  Find the element of fun!

Another cornerstone is talent.  Putting the best people in place is critical to building a team.  It’s not only about talent, though.

– Strategy over structure.  Every time.  Know your strategy and build the team to execute it.

– Talent must be evolutionary, not static.  Yes, hire and retain the best people you can, then expect them to improve constantly.

– Diverse talent trumps a one-size-fits-all approach to staffing.  Different points of view, skills, abilities and experiences make everyone better, if the strategy and leadership are strong.

Speaking of strategy, a third cornerstone is just that — strategy.  

– Know the corporate identity and direction, and what you want it to evolve to become.  All your “why?” answers will tie-back to this element.

– Know the market, and have an idea where it is going.  It helps to know if your plan is to go along, beat others to the punch or take a different direction / flank the market.

– Use strategy as the “True North” for your team.  The flavor-of-the-month will kill momentum and confuse the team — and confused teams without momentum rarely fare well.

Finally, make sure the fourth cornerstone is coaching.

– Consistent, focused, cohesive coaching is critical.  If the strategy, talent and practice are all solid, but the coaching isn’t strong enough, you’ll water down the results.

– Hire coaches that are strong enough to see the big-picture / long-term, but flexible enough to consider new concepts and ideas — and smart enough to incorporate them.

– Match the coaching to the strategy first, then the talent.  Strategy over structure requires coaches that are well-suited to the strategic direction you’ve chosen.

OK, back to the game.  Iowa’s coach, Kirk Ferentz, isn’t the most successful coach in the country, and Iowa’s talent isn’t the best in the country.  But the strategy fits the program, the fanbase, the culture and the market in which the team competes.  The longest-tenured head football coach at any university in the NCAA, Ferentz has Iowa in the position to get six extra weeks of practice for the 16th time in the last 18 years.  That’s why so many of the three-star athletes he’s able to recruit end up playing football for a living — and a really good living at that.

Pithy?  Perhaps, but a fitting business concept to finish 2018 while rooting for my favorite team tomorrow…

The Diff returns on Wednesday.  Happy New Year!



Do Not Be Afraid — Have Faith Instead

“Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy…”

–     Christopher Shea, as Linus Van Pelt in the 1965 classic, “Charlie Brown Christmas

–     Some guy named Luke, in a letter to some guy named Theophilus

So, one isn’t supposed to dance too close to the religion flame in a business blog?  Sorry, I just don’t care!

On Tuesday,  there will be a pretty major birthday party, marking the 2048th birthday of a carpenter who turned out to build much more than furniture or buildings.  I’m not suggesting that everyone has to celebrate it, but at our house, we will.

Today’s Daily Diff is about Faith, with an upper-case “F” and with a lower-case “f.”

As for the upper-case scenario, in the 1965 TV classic, Linus, for the only time in the entire run of the cartoon series, puts down his security blanket as he delivers this part of his speech on the real meaning of Christmas.  Look it up.  It’s the only time in all the episodes that he doesn’t have the blanket.  Because he doesn’t need the blanket, thanks to Faith.  That’s what upper-case Faith does for us.

When it comes to lower-case faith, let’s have faith in our team(s), let’s have faith in one another, in our leaders and in those to whom we’ve entrusted power.  Let’s have faith in our ability to make a difference, together.  That kind of faith will serve us well in our workaday lives.  But without Faith in something that isn’t of this world though, I simply can’t imagine how we can maintain faith in anything that is.

Merry Christmas.

The Diff, will shut down until New Year’s Eve, probably with some pithy plea for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to win the Outback Bowl, and some level of striving to connect that pithy plea to some business outcome.  You’re fairly warned!

What Have We Got To Lose?

“Having nothing, nothing can he lose.”

–     William Shakespeare

How much effort do we expend to avoid losing?

Hand-in-hand with our “good enough is good enough” concept, is the idea that we can’t lose what we don’t have.  Yet our social media fueled, everyone-is-a-critic, armchair quarterback society works tirelessly to instill a fear of losing mentality in much of what we do.

Play to win.  That big contract we don’t have yet?  We don’t have it yet.  Therefore, we can’t lose it.  Now, certainly, we shouldn’t do something dopey that jeopardizes all our hard work in getting to “this point,” but we must keep the context.

We ought to make the big bets.  We ought to deploy candor in building expectations that set us apart, especially when we deliver on them.  We ought to remember that we can’t lose what we don’t have — and then we ought to set out to win it.

The Diff takes a Christmas break after tomorrow’s post on…..wait for it….Christmas.

Until then, make a difference today!

Good Enough, or Great?

“Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.”

–     A mentor of mine

There are times, he would say, when good enough is the enemy of great.  And then, there are times, when good enough is, in fact, good enough.

When we’ve done the best we can do, there’s nothing wrong with standing down and letting whatever happens next happen next.

Dad liked to remind his white collar friends that he couldn’t make the crop grow faster, and he couldn’t make it rain, or stop raining.  All he could do was prep the soil, plant the seeds and then, for a while, it was out of his hands.

When it’s out of our hands, it doesn’t help to squeeze harder, or try to pick up three more items.

Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

Candor Can Do

“Show your hand.  The art of life is to show your hand.  There is no diplomacy like candor.  You may lose by it now and then, but it will be a loss well-gained if you do so.  Nothing is so boring as having to keep up a deception.”

–     E. V. Lucas (1868 – 1938), English humorist, writer and editor

Keeping up a deception is not only boring, it’s exhausting, too.

Candor counts.

In a knowledge-based economy, our product matters less and less and relationships matters more and more — and candor is the foundation for strong, longer-lasting relationships.

In the 90’s, I worked for a company that didn’t negotiate price.  Ever.  We just didn’t.  Did prospective clients like that?  Probably not, although after the fact, many of them commented that it brought clarity to their decision process.  So, did they respect it?  You bet they did, because when it came time for them to decide, the “dance” wasn’t necessary, because they knew the music wasn’t going to start up.  By the way, we dominated our market, and did more with fewer people than any of our competitors.  Our engagements were shorter and the outcomes were more predictable earlier, because all parties pretty much knew what to expect.

“We have to start here, so we can negotiate down to here,” is the conventional wisdom.  Or, if we take a “candor can-do” approach, we just start where we need to be, and stay there, especially if it’s fair and reasonable.

It’s not just price, either.  Service levels, expectations, support procedures and (especially) what may go wrong.  Showing our hand gives a solid look into how the relationship will function after the ink is dry on the deal.

When we show our hand, candidly and diplomatically, we put in place cornerstones upon which trust rests, and trust is as fundamental a building-block as we can ever hope for in our businesses.


“Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.”

–     Richard Swenson, MD (b. 1952), in his 2004 book “Margin; Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives”

In business, “margin” is a simple term, right?  In most of our internal conversations, margin is the difference between our costs and our revenue.  We paid 80 cents to produce that widget and we sold it for $1.12, so we made 32 cents of margin.

There are two other important applications we ought to keep at the front of our minds, though.

For the second one, let’s turn to;

  1. a limit in condition, capacity, etc., beyond or below which something ceases to exist, be desirable, or be possible:the margin of endurance; the margin of sanity

In this case, we apply margin to our decisions, our presumptions and our calculated risks.  Our prediction that demand for our Widget will be “x” has to be considered within a range.  What if a major competitor launches a full-frontal attack?  What if a market shift occurs?  What if a disruptor changes the rules faster than we can respond?  What if someone in a position of power Tweets something negative about our Widget’s spokesperson?  (What?  It could happen!)

In summary, the amount of margin we earn is critically important, and the margin around the concepts we base our strategies upon must be discussed out loud.

They may not be the most important applications of the term, however.

What about the margins we build in to our day-to-day?  What about time to think?  Time to reflect?  Time to watch the kids’ choir without checking the phone?  What about time to throw the ball for the dog, take a walk with our spouse?  What about time to ask the person in the call center or on the floor of the factory what they think?  What about time to listen to their answer and time to just consider it — without an action bias, reactive steps or anything other than a “what if?” mindset?

In these times, it’s almost as if we’re allowing ourselves to be judged — or worse, judging ourselves — by how much we pack in to the day rather than what we get out of that same day.  More is not always more, and in a marginless world, more often leads to less.

Will more mind-margin in the here and now lead to more profit margin on the bottom line, and less risk-margin in our presumptions about our business?

On the margin, that’s a bet I am willing to make.  Are you?



Natural Born?

“There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot.  Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning experience.  The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they’re the best.”

–     Chuck Yeager (b. 1923), legendary pilot and subject of the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff”

Ever been to a Broadway show?  If not, put that up there on your bucket list!  Ever been to a really great concert with one of “those” performers — the kind that just set you back in your seat for a couple hours?

Every time I walk away from one of those events, I am amazed by the performance.  What I should be amazed by is the preparation.  The number of rehearsals and repetitions required to make it “perfect” is mind-boggling.  Malcolm Gladwell refers to it in his great book, Outlierswith research that points out that 10,000 hours of preparation goes into complete mastery in most cases.  (I just grossly over-simplified that concept, by the way…get the book, you’ll be glad you did!)

The old saying, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect-practice makes perfect” comes to mind.  And, it begs the question, how much time do we spend preparing for our roles in our workaday lives?  There’s no such thing as a born CFO, CEO, salesperson, accountant, programmer or project manager either.  Those that do it more than others, those that rehearse and prepare for it more than others, those who spend time with quality coaches, role models, mentors and teachers are the best — because they’ve prepared for that moment when the lights come up and the conductor cues the lights, or that moment when the wheels leave the runway and we find ourselves flying.

It’s hard work.  And, it need never end.  A lifetime’s learning experience is worthwhile, and, when we commit to being life-learners, it becomes an incredibly exciting commitment, indeed.

The best do it more.  That’s how they make a difference.