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Archive for March, 2007

On execution.

Killer post on SeenCreative’s blog yesterday about growing a business and the importance of execution. Here is one of my favorite parts:

“We put little weight on the idea. We ask mainly out of politeness. The kind of question on the application form that we really care about is the one where we ask what cool things you’ve made. If what you’ve made is version one of a promising startup, so much the better, but the main thing we care about is whether you’re good at making things. Being lead developer of a popular open source project counts almost as much.”Paul Graham : “Want To Start A Startup?”

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is the key. Rarely is your idea going to be a completely original one; and if it is a good one, be sure that someone else is probably thinking the same thing.

But you differentiate through execution. And really, execution is the hard part.

Being able to execute an idea is vital to a business, and if your business is made up of people that do more walking than talking, than you are on the right track. You can remain agile in idea and efficient in execution. But if your co-founders are the opposite, you might need to re-evaluate the arrangement.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Have a great weekend, everyone. :)

photo by f360: Rusty’s flawless victory.

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Two words: Boo-yah!

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From this story, via Adpulp:

Circuit City Stores is firing about 3,400 workers at its stores who are paid “well above the market-based salary range for their role” and will hire new associates for these positions who will earn less, the consumer electronics retailer said Wednesday.

In a news release, the Richmond, Va.-based company said the layoffs were made to improve its cost and expense structure.

Circuit City did not provide details on how much the affected workers are compensated or how much the new hires would earn at what the company calls the “current market range.”

Mark my words: Circuit City will go out of business in the near future. When you run a retail store, the in-store experience is everything. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you think their service is right now: by deciding to get rid of thousands of employees to replace them with cheaper, less experienced staff, customers will get lousy service. And be less inclined to ever return. Since they don’t offer the lowest prices ala Wal-Mart, there’s simply no reason to shop there.

No amount of advertising or marketing can save them after a pathetic business decision like this. Saving money in the short run isn’t going to help. The retraining costs and the inevitable turnover you get with the new bottom-of-the-barrel workers will hasten the decline.

They’re killing their brand. It’s that simple.

I don’t know if Circuit City will close anytime soon (Blockbuster managed to save itself from obsolescence this year by fighting Netflix on their own turf, proving that any business circling the drain can stay alive if it is willing to fight for its own survival)… but yes, this doesn’t bode well for the electronic retailer.

Replacing a chunk of its workforce with a “cheaper” workforce?! Really? Does that sound like a smart business plan?

Even before Starbucks, Whole Foods, Aveda and even Target taught us that millions of customers were more than happy to pay a premium for a better (or even a remarkable) retail experience, this kind of decision should have seemed pretty poor. Even to an MBA.

I don’t know… Maybe Circuit City could just cut health benefits for their employees too while they’re at it. Or better yet, offer their new hires zero hourly pay and let them earn 100% commission. Or how about building a tunnel under the Pacific Ocean to sneak cheap foreign labor into their stores? I hear you can get folks to work for less than a nickel a day in some parts. Who cares that they aren’t qualified to help customers choose the right piece of equipment? Who cares if their communications skills are pretty lousy? Who cares that they don’t really want to be there? Who cares if they are reliable enough to show up to work every day? Who cares if they have attitudes or can’t pass a drug screening test or have to call their PO every three hours? Who cares if they would rather spend all day IM’ing their girlfriend than helping customers? Who cares that they would rather be anywhere but in your store? Who cares if every customer gets turned off by the remarkably lousy service they get at your stores?

Why in the world would I ever want to shop at Circuit City again, knowing that a) their prices will be the same as Best Buy, and that b) the people working there are less qualified, less happy, and less motivated to help me?

File this under “101 ways to kill your business”… or “Major bonehead management decisions”.

Sad.

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Via BrandXpress -

Rob Engelman was recently asked what a Marketing Department should be responsible for. His answer came as a list:

1. Focus on the Customer
2. Monitor the Competition
3. Own the Brand.
4. Find & Direct Outside Vendors.
5. Create New Ideas.
6. Communicate Internally.
7. Manage a Budget.
8. Understand the ROI.
9. Set the Strategy, Plan the Attack, and Execute.

Because we like to focus on brand stuff, here’s what Rob has to say about #3:

“The perceptions and feelings formed about an organization, its products / services, and its performance is what is known as its “brand.” The Marketing Department is responsible for creating meaningful messages through words, ideas, images, and names that deliver upon the promises / benefits an organization wishes to make with its customers. Furthermore, the Marketing Department is responsible for ensuring that messages and images are delivered consistently, by every member of the organization.”

Not a bad start. And for the most part, yes, he is right.

Read the rest of Rob’s points here.

Rob’s list is a great first step for any marketing department that finds itself needing to define its functions clearly. Let’s take it one step further though, with this second list, which should best serve marketing departments that have already accomplished all nine of Rob’s recommendations and are looking for the next step in their evolution:

1. Befriend your customers.
2. Become your market. (Don’t just monitor the competition. Rewrite the rules. Set the pace. Lead. Outdistance your competition. Make them copy you. Force them to up their game.)
3. Breathe your brand.
4. Recruit and direct outside vendors.
5. Foster Innovation.
6. Simplify your internal communications. Then simplify them again. And again. And again.
7. Strategize as if your budget had been slashed in half. Deliver as if your budget had been twice what it actually is.
8. Make your ROI completely clear to your clients and everyone in your organization.
9. Observe, adapt, strategize, anticipate, plan, execute. … and be ready to improvise at a moment’s notice.

Walk before you run, grasshopper.

:)

More on execution tomorrow.

Have a great Thursday, everyone.

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From Don Boudreaux’s Cafe Hayek blog:

“There are two kinds of people in the world. Members of the first group think of jobs as being rather like boxes, each of which has a monetary figure on it as well as a set of levers inside. A job-holder occupies a box, yanks on the box’s levers, and in return receives pay in the amount of the prescribed monetary figure. Lucky workers are those who land in boxes paying big money and whose levers are easy to manipulate; unlucky workers are those who find themselves in boxes paying little money and whose levers are difficult to manipulate.”

“The second group of people in the world understands that real jobs are a matter of creating value for buyers. The greater the amount of value I create for others, the better — or, at least, the higher-paying — is my job. In markets, your job isn’t a box that you get assigned to; your job is an opportunity to perform, to help improve the lives of others and, in return, to persuade these others to help you improve your life.

“And one of the most important of these performances is corporate management — the ability to coordinate large amounts of resources, time, and workers in ways that create large amounts of value for others and that makes it easier for those of us with less vision and administrative ability to find jobs that maximize the value that each of us, individually, creates for others.”

I still run into way too many senior execs who run their organizations like piles of boxes. Every time I do, I don’t know… it just makes me cringe. I get turned off. I wonder how much longer the companies they manage will continue to be profitable.

Perhaps more to the point, I wonder how much more profitable they would be if they shed their old ways and made the jump to the second group. If they championed the recruiting and mentoring of T-shaped talent and favored operational flexibility over the limitations of rigid job hierarchies.

I guess that when you belong to the first group and are one of the lucky ones (big money/easy levers), there isn’t much of an incentive for you to rock the boat and be an agent of change.

Like Don said, there are two types of people in this world.

You’re either one or the other. The question is, which one are you?

Have a great Wednesday. :)

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So today was Day #1 of the 2007 Innoventure conference in sunny Greenville, SC. One of the central purposes of the conference is to bring innovative talent, research labs, and venture capital together in one place. (So yeah, there’s some magic going on in Greenville around this time each year.) I didn’t get a chance to attend Innoventure last year, so I wanted to make sure to check it out this time around.

And as a bonus, organizer, mastermind and business development superstar John “Swamp Fox” Warner announced today that Innoventure is going on a world tour.

Okay… maybe not exactly a world tour yet… but the conference will be expanding to North Carolina and Georgia next year, which is pretty exciting.

You may not think of this part of the country as being a cradle of innovation… but it is quickly becoming just that. We have the universities, we have the industries, we have the academics, we have the banks, and we certainly have the talent.

Here are some photos from Day #1:

above: the ever popular Innovention Cafe


above: Communities of innovation

above: CIO Roundtable

above: SCIN Capital forum

Day 1 was a great start. I’m looking forward to Day #2.

Oh… and one last little photo: (Sorry, Evan. I couldn’t resist…)


Have a great Wednesday, everyone. :)

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If “I *heart* huckabee’s” has its place in your movie experience, then you will probably remember Dawn Campell’s (Naomi Watts’) line: “There is glass between us!!!”

The first time she utters it, her boyfriend (Jude Law) is hiding behind sunglasses. The second time, he is hiding behind a glass partition. She is desperately trying to connect with him, but the separation created by the glass stands in the way of a true connection.

“There is glass between us,” she laments.

Glass between us.

A layer. An interruption. A wall. A separation. Glass.

You’re a business owner or a VP or a manager. Ask yourself this: How many layers exist between you and your customers? How many interruptions? How many walls? How many separations?

I have spent most of the past year and a half working with a very small but immensely popular specialty retailer, and the experience so far has been one of the most valuable in my Marketing career: These guys have figured out how to completely eliminate the glass between them and their customers.

They have figured out how to make the shopping experience fun, informative, engaging, uplifting, welcoming, and cool. The turnover of employees is virtually inexistant. The level of professionalism, expertise, politeness and eagerness of the employees is astounding.

There is absolutely zero glass between this business’ employees and its thousands of customers.

None.

The experience there is unlike any other shopping experience I’ve ever had.

It isn’t that it is extraordinary. It isn’t like they’re the Cirque Du Soleil of shopping or anything. The experience is actually simple. Subtle. Uneventful. But it is refreshing and empowering.

Compare this to dealing with your cable company. Your credit card company. A grocery store. A fast food joint. A home improvement warehouse. A car dealership. An insurance company.

Believe it or not, human beings still respond to a friendly, honest smile. They appreciate someone asking them how they are doing – not as the prelude to a sale, but as a genuine greeting. They appreciate confidence in knowledge. They crave honest answers and suggestions.

They love to be remembered and feel accepted.

Get rid of the glass. Seriously. Every moment I spend with these guys, every time I watch them deal with a customer, I see genius in action.

And then I wonder why it is that such simple, yet essential elements of a noteworthy customer experience elude so many businesses today.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. :)

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I love it when a marketing exec working for a corporate entity boasts that their brand inspires customer loyalty. Or that it did. Or that it ever will.

Let me tell you something about loyalty: It doesn’t usually apply to corporations. It doesn’t apply to brands either. Not even great ones. You may think that it does, but it doesn’t.

(Not unless these companies or brands are heavily involved in some kind of cause that their customers feel very deeply about.)

If anything, customer loyalty applies to people, but that’s about it.

Let me elaborate:

When I lived in France, I had a friendly relationship with my neighborhood butcher. With the baker down the street. With the pharmacist on the corner. With the owner of the cafe half a block away. These were all small business owners. We knew each other by name. I couldn’t tell you what their businesses were called. The cafe was like every other cafe in Cannes. So was the pharmacy. So was the boulangerie. So was the epicerie. But I knew these people because I walked by their stores every day. Because I shopped there instead of driving to the Monoprix (think Publix or Bi-Lo or WalMart).

I wouldn’t say that any of these people were my friends. It isn’t like I had beers with them on the weekend or anything. They didn’t invite me to their children’s birthday parties. I didn’t send them Christmas cards. They were just shop owners and I was a customer. But because I felt a sense of responsibility towards them as members of my neighborhood’s business community, I also felt a certain sense of loyalty towards them.

When I needed to buy a head of lettuce or a tube of toothpaste or AA batteries or stamps, I didn’t even consider going elsewhere. If a competitor had ever opened shop across the street from them, I don’t care how cool their store looked and felt, how much cheaper they were, or how much friendlier, I would have felt guilty making the switch. I would have felt like I had betrayed them somehow. And so I would have stuck by my butcher and baker and pharmacist and cafe owner.

Out of loyalty.

Living in the US, where almost every store now is owned by a corporate entity, it is more difficult to run into instances like these. Still, I am loyal to my barber (he owns is shop). I am loyal to my triathlon store (yep, locally owned). I am loyal to my car mechanic (his name is painted in big letters on the building). I am loyal to my personal trainer.

I would feel guilty getting my hair cut anywhere else. Buying a new triathlon bike anywhere else. Getting my car worked on anywhere else.

From a business perspective, I also find myself being loyal to the web designers, graphic artists, copywriters and consultants I routinely work with. They are my extended business family.

Loyalty implies a relationship.

With people.

With specific individuals.

People you like and feel a responsibility towards.

As much as I like their products and services, I feel no responsibility towards HP or Volkswagen or Verizon.

What marketing execs at Bi-Lo or Publix or Apple or Starbucks call customer loyalty is anything but.

The term you are looking for right about now is wishful thinking.

The reality of a brand’s success and apparent customer loyalty comes to down to little more than choice.

Or rather, preference.

PC vs. Mac. Ford vs. Chevy. Trek vs. Specialized. Starbucks vs. Port City Java. More often than not, people choose one brand over another because they prefer it. Not because they feel a sense of loyalty towards it.

They prefer the experience of working with a PC over working with a Mac. They prefer the flavor of a Starbucks coffee drink to that of another coffee shop. They prefer Chevy over Ford because they are more reliable or better designed or just because their favorite NASCAR driver drives one. They prefer Specialized bikes over Trek because they are so much more fun to ride. They prefer to wear A&F or Levis or Calvin Klein because it says something about how they wish to be seen by others… but this speaks to identity, self expression, comfort, expectations of quality, and preference. Not… loyalty.

If a company is both smart and lucky, it will tap into that expression of preference and ensure that the very things that people prefer will be at the core of their customers’ experience every single time they interact with their brand or products.

They will ensure that in a world of ever shifting preferences, their customers will always favor them over their competitors.

This has nothing to do with loyalty.

Case in point: Three miles from my house are two grocery stores. One is a Bi-Lo. The other is a Publix. The Bi-Lo is a bit dirty. The floors never look clean. The lighting is harsh. The aisles are messy. The cashiers aren’t particularly friendly. The baggers still haven’t figured out that cans shouldn’t be packed on top of fruit. It takes way to long to check out. And then there is the damn Bonus Card.

Call it a rewards card. Call it an inner circle card. This is the card you scan to pay a special regular price for your food. If you don’t have a bonus card, you pay more than market value for many of your items.

In other words, the card gives you the privilege to pay normal price for items that are otherwise tagged with a hefty premium.

The Bonus Card is supposed to promote customer loyalty. It is supposed to make you feel like you’re part of the club.

Whatever.

As if I didn’t have enough crap in my wallet or dangling from my keychain as it is.

As if I didn’t already have to jump through enough hoops every day.

As if I really need to be nickled and dimed by a friggin second rate grocery store every time I need to go buy a bottle of children’s Tylenol at 11:30 at night.

Ask me about my experience shopping at Bi-Lo. Come on. Don’t be shy.

Five hundred meters away is a Publix. It’s about the same size as the Bi-Lo. It’s about the same distance from my house. It carries about the same items. Heck, it’s probably 10% more expensive than Bi-Lo. But I don’t care because I like shopping there.

The difference between Publix and Bi-Lo?

The Publix parking lot isn’t littered with trash. The carts aren’t twenty dirty shades of faded red and gray. The store is impeccable throughout. The floors are shiny. The lighting is clean and fresh. The employees are friendly, helpful, and polite. The carts always look clean and new. The produce is always fresh. The store is neat. The baggers separate my produce and my canned goods. Checking out is fast and painless. I shop there, and I feel good about myself. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. I actually feel happy shopping there.

My experience is better at Publix than at Bi-Lo in absolutely every way.

And perhaps more importantly, Publix doesn’t try to coerce me into some sort of dubious “loyalty” by forcing me to carry a Bonus Card.

I could say that because the folks at Publix treat me so well, because I love shopping there, because everything about Publix makes me feel loyal to them, but it would all be wishful thinking. I shop there simply because I prefer to shop there.

I shop there because my experience there is better than it is at Bi-Lo.

Spending any time at all trying to figure out how to create customer loyalty for any business whose owners aren’t interacting directly with their customers on a daily basis is a gargantuan waste of time.

You want to attract and retain more customers? You want to be best in class? Simple: Strive to achieve such a level of excellence in customer experience that every shopper who sets foot in your store or interacts with your product or service will recommend it to his or her family and friends.

Period.

Have a great Thursday, everyone. :)

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On doing "more".



“My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”


From the Gym Jones manifesto:

A friend and training mentor once told me, “The secret of the pros is that they train in secret.” For a while that made sense. It seemed that where performance is highly optimized — and where optimization is highly coveted — it would make sense that methodology would be closely guarded.

But secret methodology is the province of world-class athletes; not of participants; nor of enthusiasts. Most people — if sufficiently motivated, and if unencumbered by lame excuses that they assign to genetics — want to know the secret that distinguishes the pros from themselves. The real “secret” of the fit, the fast and the “talented” is no secret at all; it’s a much harder pill (than genetics) to swallow. And no one will accept it because of what it demands: real commitment in the form of regular, consistent, indefinite practice. And real practice demands devotion.

THE PROS TRAIN. And they train consistently and indefinitely. In other words, they commit.

People love to say that they don’t train (or practice or study…) They think it makes their mediocre performance more impressive. Or they use a hero as an example, saying he or she doesn’t practice either. But the truth is that anyone who becomes really world-class good at anything has devoted a large part of their lives to that thing — often to the exclusion of all else. They may not call it “training” or “practice;” the actual labels are irrelevant. It’s the time spent that counts.

“Practice” and “training” are not timelines and diet plans — although those are effective parts of it. Real training means committing to the process: showing up at the keyboard or behind the lens or in the ring or on the rope, and doing it religiously, even when you’re tired, even when you’ve got nothing to say, even when it’s too cold, too hot, too hard.

People wish they had talent. They see it as a practice-free ticket to crowd-stunning skill. But talent doesn’t exist. “Talent” doesn’t get results; practice and devotion do.

Was Picasso gifted from birth with the talent to become an artistic genius? Or was he gifted with the tenacity to become a genius at anything? As he wobbled down the street on his first bicycle, did his mother see her son’s uncommon ability, or his uncommon focus and determination? What led her to predict that he would be great? Was he out-of-the-womb a brilliant finger-painter? Or was he just stubborn?

– Scott Semple

This post isn’t really about talent. It’s about achieving a mindset. You either want to be the best at what you do, or you don’t. You either want your product or company or brand to be the best in category, or you don’t. You’re either willing to do EVERYTHING to make it happen, or you aren’t.

Some people have the heart and dedication to become world class pros – their profession of choice could be marketing, athletics, molecular biology, web design, education, law… or just about anything. Others… are simply content to be good enough.

Most of the people I meet are the latter. Most of the people I work with, train with or hang out with are not.

What category do you fall into?

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. :)

photo: Discovery Channel’s George Hincapie training at the Peak Fitness gym in Greenville, SC with personal trainer Chris Kelly.

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Forget whatever you may have heard about 300 looking like “a video game.” I only wish video games looked this good. I refer of course to some of the ridiculous reviews like these, which have popped up here and there for no apparent reason other than to remind us that movie critics in the age of the internet are about as relevant as 8-Track stereo systems:

“History is inconveniently complex. And so we get Frank Miller’s version, in which everything is simplified to the point of porridge.” – Stephen Witty

“Months before its release 300 already was revered by those who consider it a magnificent achievement for a live-action film to look exactly like a video game. Forgive me, but I don’t see that as a reason to celebrate.” – Jeffrey Westhoff

“300 is about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid.” – A.O. Scott

Ah critics. Hold on to that job with every bit of strength still left in your fingernails, guys. It’s a long fall that awaits you.

The truth is that 300 is one of the most visually stunning movies you’ll ever see. Every frame looks like a painting. It is absolutely gorgeous.

Yes, most of the visuals are CGI, but that is completely irrelevant since… (hello?) the movie is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel (comic book) and NOT intended to be a historically accurate documentary of the brave 300 Spartans’ last stand.

With its hyperstylized visual style, 300 works hard to be the most faithful big screen adaptation of a book. More so than Sin City (also based on Frank Miller’s work.) More so even than Chuck P.’s Fight Club. And those were already remarkably faithful to the material they were based upon.


If what you’re after is a historically accurate and realistic rendition of the battle of Thermopylae, watch The History Channel. 300‘s intent is to bring Frank Miller’s work to the big screen, not photorealistic history. There is a huge – and obvious – difference between the two, and in that respect, the movie delivers in every way. Anyone – especially a movie critic – who fails to grasp this simple enough notion should stick to watching gameshows and reality TV. Maybe sitcoms, but only the ones with the cued laughter so they will know when a joke is supposed to be funny.

Enough stupidity already.

The cold hard fact is that while not all of 300‘s reviews are stellar, the movie found its audience long before its US release last week. There has been more excitement over this movie than any other release this year.

Vox populi et al.

The line at my local theater reminded me of opening weekend for Star Wars, Episode 1, and the movie has already grossed well over $70M in its first week, which isn’t far from a record for a March release – and an R-Rated one at that. Sure, it probably won’t make as much bank as Shrek 3, Spiderman 3 or Pirates of the Carribean 3 (all 2007 releases, and none with an R-rating), but… as I’ve said, it has found its audience.

And it has easily secured its place in the pantheon of cult movies.


Ultimately, the success of this movie will be based on a number of things:

1. It is visually stunning. I mean, really. Sword fights, wheat fields, knights on horseback, dancing oracles, elephant charges, sea tempests and massive armies have never looked so damn good. It’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

2. The 300 Spartans are badasses and heroic, and let’s face it, there’s just something inspiring about heroic, supremely confident, loyal, fearless, principled characters like these. Especially in the world we live in today.

The word you’re looking for right now is introjection.”

3. It is the ultimate underdog story… and we like those, don’t we.

4. Despite the orc-like Persians, the giant rhinos, the mythological creatures and the stylistic liberties taken by Frank Miller, it is still a true story of courage and sacrifice… which, again, in this day and age, holds some relevance.

5. Everyone can appreciate superhero-like bodies on the big screen. (I’ve been working out a ittle harder since watching the movie. Ahem. I don’t think I am the only one either.)

6. It is shorter than any of the three The Lord Of The Rings flicks, and at least as good in every way.

7. Jar-Jar Binks is not part of this mythology.

8. The wolf hunt. The Oracle’s dance. The sea tempest. The battles. Arrows blotting out the sun. The bad guys. The leap. One of the strongest female characters I have seen in a movie in a long time. The end credits. The wow factor.

9. Visually, it’s a landmark film. Period.

10. It’s a healthy blend of mythology, cultural relevance, technical perfection and escapism, which is the magic formula for any successful blockbuster.

11. Remarkable work combined with excellent, simple, to-the-point marketing.

And despite the fact that it’s just a movie about a comic book, it does have something to say about who we are as people. About the sacrifices that we are willing or unwilling to make in this day and age. About courage. About guts. About loyalty. About honor. In other words, despite what a few malcontents would have you believe, it is far from just being about special effects, violence and escapism.


Even if the movie isn’t exactly true to what these 300 Spartans may have actually gone through over two thousand years ago, the movie and the comic book it was based upon are 100% true to the ideals that these 300 men lived for, fought for, and died for. It doesn’t matter that they fought men instead of orcs, giants, and exotic creatures. It really isn’t the point.

The word you’re looking for right now is “metaphor.”

It also doesn’t matter whether you’re a Greek fighting Persians, a GI fighting Taliban soldiers, a small company fighting a mega corporation, an accident victim fighting an unscrupulous insurance company, a child fighting an abusive parent, or a minority fighting against discrimination.

Metaphor. Really. Look it up.

And… once you look just slightly beyond this wonderful work of art and entertainment and become conscious of the central message it lays out for you, it can – and should – make you want to be a better man. Even if only for a day or two. Or three. It may seem cliche, but that’s more than I can say about most movies these days, blockbuster or not.

We all have more in common with these 300 men in our every day lives and our own personal battles, choices and demons (as insignificant as they may be compared to… a savage and murderous million-man army) than with Peter Parker, Captain Jack Sparrow, or King Shrek.

Or Paris Hilton, for that matter.

Eh. Not too bad for a video-game of a movie that’s twice as stupid as Apocalypto.

Ugh….


Go see 300 and make up your own minds. (Unless your absolute favorite movie of all time is “On Golden Pond,” you’ll have a great time.)

Have a great Thursday, everyone. :)

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Welcome to spring. Well, maybe not for all of you, and certainly not officially, but out here in South Carolina, Spring is making a grand entrance. It’s warm. It’s sunny. The days last an hour longer. Yep,spring is here.

Did I mention it’s already warm here?

I was about an hour into my first warm-weather multi-hour bike ride Sunday when I came up on a lemonade stand. In March.

I told you it was warm.

At first, I just smiled at the two 8-ish little girls on the side of the road… but… I was kind of thirsty, so I stopped, turned around, and bought myself a glass of delicious ice-cold lemonade.

Let me tell you something: That was the best glass of lemonade I’ve had in a long time.

It hit the spot, as they say.

Especially for only 50 cents.

The service was excellent too. The two little girls were pretty excited to have a customer – and at the time, I thought I might be one of maybe two or three that day… but I was wrong. (I’ll get to that in a sec.) The point is that they were friendly, fast, professional, and very precise when it came to filling the cup with ice, pouring the lemonade, and handing me back my change. It’s very serious stuff, running a lemonade stand as you wellknow, and these two little girls had obviously worked out all the kinks.

This was a well-oiled machine.

While they were busy filling, pouring and calculating, I asked them how long they had been out there. “Since 2:30, they answered.” It was 4:00(pm), so they had been working for an hour and a half. I asked them how much money they had made so far. “$49,” the older one answered.

$49???!!! In just an hour and a half?

“Yep,” she answered proudly.

I was amazed.

I asked them if they were going to split the cash two-ways, and she hesitated. She told me about her older brother who had worked with them for twenty minutes and then got bored and went back inside to play video games. She explained that she might give him ten bucks or something… but that they would keep the rest.

I filled up my bottle, thanked them for the great lemonade, congratulated them on their success, and rolled out. The last thing she said to me was “we’ll be here again next Sunday!” I shouted that I would be back. As I turned the corner, I looked over my shoulder and saw a minivan pull up to their stand. Three kids hopped out with cash in their hands.

Ca-ching!

What are these girls learning?

1. Being your own boss is hard work, but it has its rewards (whether you’re 45 or 8).
2. When it comes to retail, location matters.
3. Pricepoints matter too. ($0.50 for an ice-cold glass of lemonade isn’t bad… especially on a hot day.) I’ve seen $0.25, but I think that’s leaving money on the table, between you and me.
4. Work can be fun.
5. Starting a business doesn’t have to be complicated.
6. Basic accounting.
7. Customer service.
8. An 8-year-old can make $20/hour on a Sunday afternoon.
9. Exposure is not advertising-dependant.

Entrepreneurship isn’t dead. Not by a longshot. And that’s pretty damn cool.

Support local businesses and young entrepreneurs whenever you get a chance. It’s good for your community, and it’s good karma. ;)

Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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I was browsing Upstate Magnet yesterday (a small local business publication), and came up on this great little one-page article written by Jack Smalley (SPHR with Express Personnel).

Having seen top performers leave organizations time and time again, Jack’s points seemed sadly familiar. I have encountered them all myself, and I have to admit that each one of these can consitute a good reason for even the most talented, hard-working employee or manager to go seek greener pastures. Combine any two or three – or all five – and you can expect to spend a whole lot of your HR department’s time searching and hiring top talent to replace the folks you weren’t savvy enough to hold on to in the first place.

Here are six things your company may be doing to chase away top talent:

1. There is no link between pay and performance.

High performers expect to be rewarded for their effort. They also expect to be rewarded regardless of where they stand in the “pay scale” for their position. These people expect to be better compensated than someone who is not performing at their level. If you want average, stagnant performers, give them average, stagnant compensation. If you want to retain high performers, find ways to make them feel that they aren’t wasting their time providing you with superior work.

Several years ago, a friend found out that a co-worker whose job was exactly the same as hers was making significantly more than she was. This co-worker spent most of his day checking his stocks, surfing the web and talking to his friends on the phone. While her work exceeded expectations, his lagged – but their boss liked him better. Her decision to go work for someone else was triggered by the realization that there was no correlation between pay and performance.

2. They don’t perceive advancement opportunities.

Top performers are usually looking over the horizon. They may be well compensated, have great benefits and like what they do, but if they ever come to the conclusion that there is nothing to strive for, or that management is holding them back (either for selfish department reasons or personal resentment) they will seek and find the opportunity they desire… elsewhere.

I have seen the personal resentment factor ruin many an organization, and I can’t help but shake my head at this kind of nonsense every time. If I had a dollar for every manager who purposely held back top talent because they felt threatened by their success, I could… well, I could probably fill up my gas tank. Advancement ceilings – whatever their reasons may be – are never a good situation if you plan on holding on to top people.

3. Their contributions are not recognized.

Some of the greatest rewards are those that don’t involve money. Recognition among co-workers and industry peers is a super motivational tool for performers who exceed expectations.

How difficult is it to say thank you, give someone an ataboy and brag someone up from time to time? I mean really. Is it so hard? These things are all simple, easy, painless and free.

4. Management has unclear or unrealistic expectations.

The best performers want to know what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to do it, and most importantly, WHY they are supposed to do it that way. When any of these conditions becomes unclear, the best of the best will want clarity and accountability. If management is not a resource for the top performers, they will start to lose respect for management. Once this happens, good luck trying to hold on to that great employee much longer.

This is probably the biggest killer of good will within companies. If I can’t respect my own boss, chances are that I am not going to feel super motivated to jump through hoops for him/her. Respect, trust and admiration are essential to any boss/employee relationship from the battlefield to the corporate world. Period. Once a manager loses the respect of their employees, you might as well draw the curtain and stop the clock, because the play is over.

Clarity is also super important. A leader who isn’t able to communicate to his or her people exactly what they want needs to learn how to do so. Quickly.

5. They will no longer tolerate abusive managers.

Recent studies have shown that an employee’s opinion of the company he/she works for is a direct reflection of their opinion of their immediate supervisor. If a top performer does not respect his or her supervisor, they will have a corresponding lack of respect for their company.

Nobody likes a bully. I’ve seen top talent walk away from jobs they otherwise loved simply because their bosses were abusive. Nothing sours a job faster than a jerk taking his frustrations or insecurities out on his staff.

As an aside -

Typical traits of lousy managers:

- Excessive demands & personal sacrifices.
- Placing their department in a continual state of crisis.
- A demand for employees to be available at all hours.
- Setting unreasonable deadlines.
- Pony Express management style (Ride ‘em till they drop), causing burnout, stress and depression in their people.
- Risk-aversion.
- Abusive treatment of employees.
- Being too busy to make themselves helpful.
- Acting annoyed at requests for help, advice or insight.
- Nepotism.
- Making last-minute unilateral decisions that make absolutely no sense.
- “Big Stick” management. (Screw up, and I will hit you over the head with the big stick.)
- A complete lack of trustworthiness

Okay. Here is the last one from Jack’s list:

6. Constant reorganization of management.

If you want to keep your best performers, don’t let them become part of the flood waters of reorganization. While reorganization or a sale of a business is just part of life for most people these days, top performers are still looking at things in the long term. If they are convinced that a reorganization is a good thing for their career AND management communicates well, top performers can become some of a company’s greatest advocates. If management fails to help top performers negotiate these changes in a way that will fall in line with their long term expectations, and they will walk.

Uncertainty sucks. Top performers love challenges, but if thry feel that their work or careers are likely to suffer as a result of an unstable professional environment, they will jump ship faster than you can learn to spell “denial”. It’s that simple.

One of the conclusions from the article was as simple as it was astute, and it is this:

Most employees don’t quit their jobs. They quit their managers.

That’s pretty powerful… and absolutely correct.

I know it’s pretty obvious for many of you, but it is well worth bringing up from time to time.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. :)

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Fellow blogger, cyclist, design-thinking guru and good friend James pointed me to this great little essay written by Richard Farson (via Core77).

Note: If you aren’t a designer (professionally or at heart), you will probably find the last few paragraphs of this essay more relevant than the first few, so don’t feel bad about skipping forward a little if you are pressed for time.

Design is one of the few professions dominated by its clientele. Compared to physicians, attorneys, and academics, designers are inclined to do what they’re told. That posture is so widely accepted among designers it sometimes seems that the only ones who can occasionally insist on having things their way are the superstars of design.
(…)
That is such an old story among designers that perhaps it is small wonder that designers tend not see themselves as leaders. If they have learned not to expect their professional judgements to sway clients or employers, how can they imagine leading corporations or communities, to say nothing of exercising leadership in the developing global arena? It is simply impossible for most designers to think of themselves as having a place in high councils of decision making.

But that is where designers are most needed – at the top. It is a travesty that the only professionals close to the CEO’s are lawyers and accountants. Designers have more to offer, because increasingly our organizations need to be design driven, not just market driven. To truly prosper, our global society must have its needs met, not just its wants.

Instead, designers who work in organizations worry about not being appreciated, worry that their work is not understood by top management. As a result they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to educate the CEO about the benefits of design consciousness, not realizing that every other department is also trying to educate the CEO about the potential contribution it could make, because its members feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated.

The truth is that CEO’s don’t understand any of the professions or groups represented in the organization—and never will. Because things change so fast, they don’t even understand the departments they came from. They have other concerns. They have to see the big picture. Most of their time is spent on matters having nothing to do with the internal operations of the organizations they head—industry wide issues, government relations, community needs, raising capital, and so on.

The better strategy for designers would be to regard the current effort to educate the CEO about how designers see the world as a lost cause, and instead try to educate themselves on how the CEO sees the world. Is it possible for designers to try to gain that top leadership perspective? If and when they do, they can become the indispensable people occupying chairs at the directors’ table.

Designers, however, are understandably reluctant to leave their drawing boards or computers, preferring hands-on work with their design problems. Leading, making it possible for others to work with those design problems, somehow seems non-creative, not what they were trained to do. Nevertheless, that is the necessary change that that designers are going to be called upon to make in what has been called The Design Century. If desisgn will be the byword of the next century, designers will have to take their places as leaders of that century.

The fact that it is a difficult change to make shouldn’t deter design professionals who have already made many fundamental changes. Indeed, anyone who is still doing what he or she was trained to do is obsolete. In the past few years many designers have become cyberdesigners working in electronic space, metadesigners helping laymen create their own designs, entertainment designers who never expected to be designing experiences rather than things, and so forth. The change to a leadership posture shouldn’t be more difficult.
(…)
Many years ago my friend, the late designer George Nelson, told me a story I will never forget. Early in his career George worked for a time with Frank Lloyd Wright. One day when George and the great prairie architect were taking a walk and talking, Wright was struggling to find a metaphor that would explain the essence of architecture. At one point he stopped and pointed to a flower, saying, “Architecture is like this flower….no, that’s not it.” He then walked a bit farther, turned and said, “George, architecture is like being in love.” After he told me that story George said, “Dick, I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to figure out what he meant by that.”

Well, I’m afraid that it did. But I’m beginning to get the idea. It is a paradox. In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur. The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, meaning to love. An amateur is one who does something for the love of it. Of course. Love and passion are the organizing forces in leadership and management, overriding technique or skill, just as they are in almost everything worthwhile doing—romance, parenthood, creativity.

Paraphrasing Wright—leadership, then, is like being in love. And paraphrasing George—I hope it will not take you as long to understand that as it took me.

Leadership is like being a good host at a dinner party. Consider what that entails. A good host thoughtfully plans the evening, carefully composes the group, takes pains to create the proper environment, arranges the appropriate seating, sets the agenda or program for the evening, introduces subject matter for discussion, lubricates difficult situations, soothes relationships, takes responsibility, moves things along, attends to details, keeps controversy at a manageable level, adds humor and optimism, comes early and stays late, brings guests into the conversation who previously may have been marginal, handles one thing after another, shifts attention easily, listens well, doesn’t dominate, is at ease with self and others, and, most important, enables the guests to be at their best.

Leadership is not a skill. There are no “expert” leaders, just as there are no “expert” friends or husbands or parents. The more important a relationship, the less skill matters. Leadership is a high art. It is too important to be a skill. It needs to be understood and appreciated for its esthetic qualities, for its gracefulness and beauty, just as we appreciate these qualities in a great athlete—quite apart from that athlete’s contribution to the victory. While we can appreciate them in their own right, in both sport and leadership these esthetic qualities are fundamental to success.

All this must make it seem that becoming a leader is a rather tall order. But there is good news. You already know how. One of the amazing facts about leadership and management is that you can take people right off the production line and make them managers. Without an hour of training they start right in, and the great majority succeed. That’s not because the job is easy. In fact, leadership is the most complex, difficult, responsible job our society offers. It makes brain surgery look easy. The reason that brand new managers can do it is that they already know how.

We all have a mastery of roles that we seldom if ever get a chance to play. That new manager has experienced leadership in so many situations in life that he or she has unconsciously acquired the role, and only needed the right situation for the right behavior to be elicited.

Designers have even better preparation than most to assume leadership. They are especially qualified. Designers are already good at seeing things in context, already understand the sweep of history, already are conversant in the arts, sciences and humanities (as are the best leaders), already are good at working in ensembles, already are environmentally aware, already understand the limits of technology, its backfiring nature, already are capable of a high level of creative thinking, already can appreciate the esthetic dimensions of leadership. The first step, then, is for designers to begin to imagine themselves as leaders—of design firms, of communities, of cultural organizations, of corporations—and beyond.

The next 50 years will determine the survival of our civilization. We will succeed only if design becomes the organizing discipline of the future, and that will only happen when designers become leaders. The world needs what designers have to offer—not just on the drawing board, but on the board of directors.

Read the entire essay here. I don’t agree with everything Mr Farson writes about, but he does make some very good points. Especially towards the end. His “good host at a dinner party” comparison is dead-on. So are his observations about “The more important a relationship, the less skill matters,” and “In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur.”

Leadership, however, is both a skill and a talent. While just about anyone can become an effective manager, leaders are born, not made. You are either a leader or you aren’t. People either listen to you, follow you, or look to you for advice… or don’t. No skill is necessary there. Leaders naturally have the charisma, confidence, talent, passion and intelligence that make them… well, leaders. If you’ve ever served in the armed forces, you already know that it doesn’t take long to spot natural leaders in a crowd of recruits.

Note: Don’t confuse managers with leaders. They are not the same thing.

While leadership is a natural ability – a talent, if you will – the practice of leadership helps turn that rare, raw talent into a well-honed skill: Allow a natural leader to actually lead, to gain confidence through experience, to develop the breadth of insight that comes from a systematic trial-and-error approach to problem-solving, and to nurture his passion for his/her work… and what you will end up with is a great leader.

Leadership, like design thinking, are both talent and skill. In order to be worth anyone’s time, I don’t think they can be one without also being the other. Feel free to disagree… and be completely wrong in doing so. ;)

Designers should absolutely have more of a voice in the corporate world than they currently do. I see progress in this area, so I am hopeful that design thinking will continue to play a larger part in every aspect of our lives for generations to come… which makes me pretty happy.

Good stuff.

Have a great Thursday, everyone. :)

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