Be All There

Be All There, or Be All Here, depending on your view of language. However you say it, notice what’s going on around you, the moment to moment changes as well as the variety of more long lasting things. Hold an open mind and take it all in and avoid the arrogance and complacency that comes from the illusion of certainty.

Mindfulness, the art of paying attention and using what you notice as fodder for change and improvement. Couple this with reframing what you see into better ideas, products, and services and you’ve become more innovative and less likely to get stuck and irrelevant.

Make a mistake? Rather than explode in rage take a step back and look, really look, at what happened…and what resulted. Perhaps you’ll find that you’ve invented your own version of glue that doesn’t stick that well and have the next Post It Notes right in front of you.

Then there’s context. So much is context dependent. Context drives perceptions, actions, and perception about actions. A hand shake is a message of welcome, friendship, respect…unless you’re a man offering your hand to a woman wearing a abaya and niqab. To gain more control over your life, figure out who controls the context and what their motives are. Then do a bit of reframing and take charge. Better yet, create the context that helps you get what you want.

You can take charge and wind up with better results as long as you pay attention and turn things into opportunities rather than defeats. When you’re mindful and so paying attention to those around you, those around you see you as more charismatic. You notice opportunities, swerve around the dangers, lead more effectively.

Last week I was thinking about this while preparing to lead a program for The United Nations – The Nippon Foundation Of Japan Fellowship Programme. The group is composed of well educated and influential people from a variety of countries, cultures, languages, and backgrounds. There I am, standing in front of them ready to lead an interactive program with the vague goal of giving them advice and ideas for improving their communication and team effectiveness.

For a group such as this with the goal of becoming better global leaders, what could be better than Be All There? Be mindful of your surroundings and the people. Build the right context, pay attention to what happens, adjust and adapt to changing conditions, and remember that certainty that you’re right often leads to blindness to opportunity and shutting off the voices you most need to hear.

As for the Fellows, when we ended the day I heard those words I most enjoy. “It’s over already?”

 

 

 

 

I collect random interesting drivers of human behavior. Sometimes they give me an idea for this missive, sometimes they fit into a talk, and sometimes they are a great idea that helps me advise senior executives more effectively. Others are ideas that I’m sure will be useful for something sooner or later. While paging through a pile of such things I came across a few that have great management import but don’t jog my mind into writing a long piece about them. So…today I have a few random behavior drivers for you to ponder.

Chameleon Effect: research shows that if you mimic someone’s behavior you’ll like them more…and they you. –If you want someone to go away, do the opposite?

Fake Close Buttons: lots of crosswalk and elevator door-close buttons are fakes. They don’t do anything to speed up the door. They do give the impatient close button pusher the sense that they are doing something…and seem to make them think the door will close sooner.  –Give people something to do even if it has no effect, and calm them down.

Placebo Effect: A drug study told patients two drugs cost $100 and $1500 respectively. Those given the more expensive drug showed greater improvement. Both were placebos. Even better, those told they took the more expensive placebo did almost as well as those given the real drug. –If people believe something strongly their mind will do amazing things with their body.

Color: red prompts people to focus on the shapes within an image while gray prompts them to focus on the composite image. –Think about this, gray causes us to focus on the forest while red causes us to focus on the trees.

Campbell’s Law: The more a given metric is used to measure performance, the less reliable it becomes as a measure of success. Why? People focus on what improves the measured metric while ignoring other things, sometimes to the point of cheating. –A problem with the current student standardized testing?

Hostile Attribution Bias: Our tendency to err on the side of assuming malevolence in the intentions of others. It ratchets up because the more we sense hostility in others the more aggressive we tend to be in return. –Stop the escalation…take a few deep breaths and count to 100 before responding to imagined slights.

I mention these six because of their management importance. All have the ability to significantly impact the performance of you and those around you for good or bad. Something for you to ponder as you wonder why minor events seem to set off major explosions in people you know or why some people always hit their numbers but are still lousy employees.

 

Chameleon

Have you noticed how so many business people are lemmings? They rush from one best selling re-hash of something everyone knows to the next. They pay ridiculous sums to listen to a short talk by the author telling them what they just read, sometimes in exactly the same words.They pay even more to bring in the latest expert on saving your business as a motivational speaker at their annual meeting.

Over the years I’ve attended some of these talks. I’ll admit that occasionally there is a fantastic performer who is a joy to watch. Notice I use performer and not speaker as usually the fantastic part is due to their platform skills and not the words they spout. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that if you run your organization better you’ll get better results?

The previous words flowed rapidly. As I realized this it gave me pause. After all, I’m a consultant, storyteller (performer?), writer, and trusted advisor to CEOs and other senior people. Am I one of those who merely re-hashes and re-hashes and re-hashes? It’s a scary and horrifying thought.

I got thinking about this because I recently saw a quote from Sir John Templeton, founded of Templeton Mutual Funds. “If you want to have a better performance than the crowd, you must do things differently from the crowd.” Templeton was speaking about investing but it occurred to me that this is also the path to better organizational performance. Figure out how to do what no one else is doing, and do it well.

It’s so much easier to follow the crowd to the latest guru and drink the cool aid. After all, if everyone is following these ideas for success…they must be the best success ideas ever.

And yet, who are the people who find the greatest success? Not those following the crowd. I never heard anyone talk about Steve Jobs, who founded and led the most valuable company ever, as a follower of the latest trend. Same for Richard Branson, Travis Kalanick, Brian Chesky, Elon Musk, and even Penn and Teller.

Follow those who ignore the crowd and find their own path to success. By this I don’t mean ignoring the basics of running a good organization.  But the basics are out there everywhere so easy to find. It’s what you do with the basics that differentiates the great from the average. It’s how you take the basics and add your own special sauce, the sauce that differentiates you from everyone.

As for me, I am pleased to report that last week I met with a prospective new client referred to me by two existing clients. We got talking about branding. I shared a story about a company CEO for whom I developed a brand that made him the star of his industry. During my story my prospect kept saying, “I have gone through branding with a number of consultants and never am going do it again, and besides, we aren’t here to talk about branding.”

My response? “Your request led me to think that branding is in fact what you need to solve your problem but it’s fine with me if you want to continue to be out of sight, out of mind, and with lousy results. The choice is yours.” “His final words, “I can’t believe I’m going to say this but I want to do what you just said.”

The choice is always yours. Be exceptional or be part of the herd.

 

stand out

Everyone has too much to do and too little time and resources to do it all well. Actually this probably understates the problem. Everyone has too much to do and too little time and resources to do it all much less do it well.

The problem grows as you meet people with good ideas. Most of them will surely want you to help their project in some way. It’s hard to say no since they have such a good idea and it will be so nice to be part of it.

Don Tinney, Integrator of EOS Worldwide, sums this up nicely. “The more people you meet, the more good things they will invite you to do.” Just what most of us need, more good things to do.

Some people manage to glide through this morass of good things to do unscathed. The entreaties bounce right off them. They might offer a suggestion or idea but get involved and put in any time…never.

Their armor? Crystal Clear Focus. They have figured out exactly what they want to do and set the parameters so they can quickly figure out if something fits…or not. If it fits, do it. If not, forget it…quickly.

They stay laser focused. No glittery stuff dangled in front of them will distract them. As Tinney says, “having crystal clear focus makes it easy to say no to thousands of good things.”

Good things are everywhere. The desire to help is strong but your time and resources are finite. Be great and successful at something or spread yourself around and be mediocre everywhere.

 

path to success

Crystal Clear Focus…the path to success.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve traveled more than a day trip. During this time I’ve managed to keep a few days clear of outside meetings so I’ve been able to work from my home office. I live in a rural area down a long gravel driveway in a house that sits in the woods. It’s a very quiet, private place. Below is a picture out my office window.

fawns in yard 2-20140816-00792

During these few weeks and especially when I’m working at my house, I’m mostly cut off from the chaos that normally surrounds me. The difference in environment got me thinking about how it affects my attention. Thinking about attention got me thinking about focus and work and quality of results.

At some point it dawned on me…attention is a scarce resource. Each of us only has so much of it. Worse, we are normally surrounded by people trying to steal it. They demand we listen to them, look at their advertisements, absorb their messages. All without any conscious agreement on our part to give up our scarce resource for their needs at the expense of ours.

Being out in the world is being surrounded by the clutter of neverending attention grabbers…resource sinks. Our gadgets ping us continuously, advertisements reaching out everywhere, blaring televisions hanging off ceilings or mounted on walls, hoards of people surrounding us all loudly talking away. Have you noticed even when pumping gas you can’t get away from the little screen on top of the pump shouting at you to buy something?

Our valuable and finite attention is being stolen from us everywhere.

At my house it’s a different story. I can focus on writing this missive without interruption. I figure it takes me half the time as when I am somewhere others can interrupt. My head is my own since if there is sound it’s something I picked to support my activity. And often there is silence. Silence that allows my mind to wander unscripted and meditate on those things requiring deep thought, uninterrupted thought, focused thought. I am free to focus my attention where I want without it being dragged hither and yon without my agreement.

Some of you are no doubt thinking you’re in control of your attention, directing it where you wish and focusing it on things you pick. And yet, how many times an hour do you check your phone for email or texts? How often do you drop whatever you’re doing to instantly respond to something of minor importance? How often do you find your eyes wandering to that television playing just over the right shoulder of your lunch guest?

When this happens, how often do you find that you completely missed the last question or comment and have no idea how to respond? But you did see the beer commercial.

 

 

Lately everyone seems to be talking about why you need to be disruptive. There are zillions of books on how to be disruptive and conquer the world…or at least your niche in it. As with many things, the books have spawned a universe of programs, videos, and, of course, consultants that will show you how to become a disruptive organization. (as you know, part of my life is being a consultant so I’m a bit sensitive about my brethren raking in big bucks with often little for clients to show for it)

As with all new management fads, there are lots of good ideas coupled with reasons why it makes sense for you. There also are just as many reasons why it might not make sense for you.

As someone who often has a CEO reach out asking me to come in and think deep thoughts about how to help their company make a quantum leap rather than a small step, far be it for me to knock this interest in disruption. But…I do wonder about the idea that disruption is the path to glory for all of you reading this. If everyone is out there trying to be disruptive, disruption becomes merely another codeword for running your organization the same as everyone else.

How do you really break free from the pack?

First off, I’ve noticed that most companies would be better off fixing what they have before worrying about being on the cutting edge. Most companies are completely incapable of taking full advantage of some disruptive idea they come up with as their organization is running so poorly trying to use what it already has. Wrong people wrong seats, no accountability, horrible metrics, inadequate communication, silos everywhere, no idea about the core competencies or vision for the future, and, of course, a leadership team responsible for all this dysfunction.

Some or all of these and other dysfunctions abound in most companies. Before you jump off the disruptive cliff, fix what you have so you’re capable of taking advantage of an amazing idea if one pops up. If you’re not willing to be open and honest about your current situation and strong enough to take the necessary measures to fix things, rushing forward into something completely different will only accentuate your deficiencies.

But, once you address your issues and become a finely tuned organization fully engaged and prepared to climb new mountains, why just be disruptive? Be destructive. Why just run past your competition? Why not stomp all over them?

It’s hard to do. It takes a great team. It takes lots of energy, vision, and willingness to go beyond what anyone has done before. It takes a high risk tolerance. And it takes the moxie to keep going no matter how they try to stop you.

Be destructive.

Be Travis Kalanick…create the next Uber.

uber

 

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about perception. When we focus on something we exclude other things and thus create our own reality. Perception becomes reality.

Last week I heard Mark Zinder say “what we focus on limits what we see”. A different take on the same issue. He shared a wonderful story about a study where they showed a number of experienced radiologists an x-ray of a patients chest. In the x-ray were minute specs of cancer spread throughout the lungs. The radiologists found the minute cancer specs easily.

However, the radiologists all failed to notice the picture of a gorilla about the size of a matchbook that was embedded in the x-ray. When asked they responded that they are not supposed to find gorillas. They were able to find what they were looking for while being totally oblivious to something much larger and clearly out of place right in front of them.

As we focus our attention on smaller and smaller things we exclude more and more from our perception. Sometimes it’s good as when radiologists are able to detect minute cancer sites before they spread. But sometimes it’s bad. What if instead of a matchbook size gorilla what they missed was a matchbook sized blood clot in the lungs?

“What we focus on limits what we see.”

As with radiologists in the medical world, there are many business areas where extreme focus is needed to gain expertise. I hope the engineers and other people who designed and built the many airplanes I regularly fly were fully focused on the tasks in front of them. I hope the pilots flying my airplane are extremely focused on the instruments in the cockpit…but I also hope the pilots are focused on what’s going on around the airplane.

A conundrum, the need for total focus on the internal situation while also needing to be focused on what is going on externally.

Then there’s the business executives and leaders. Their need is to be aware of what’s going on throughout their organization while staying on top of what’s going on around the world. Is it possible? Can anyone be focused on the small things and the big picture at the same time?

It’s clearly difficult. Numerous stories elucidate the disasters that have come as executives have focused too tightly. Remember when Blackberry owned the mobile phone market? Focusing internally led to the leaders missing what their competitors were doing and the way the market was rapidly changing. I loved my Blackberry and would have one still except for seeing an iPhone in action.

Perception about being unassailable led to disaster.

Some have figured out how to have both, exceptional external focus combined with exceptional internal focus. In the cases I know of they did by being one member of a pair of twins. A pair of twins with great but divergent focus and exceptional ability to communicate with each other. One focused inside, the COO or as we say in EOS – the Integrator, and one focused outside or in EOS – The Visionary.

Two people tightly connected who together overcome the issue of where to focus and how to expand rather than constrict your perception and the reality it brings. Think Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger.

Buffet and Munger

 

Fear

Last missive I shared my thoughts from Wharton Global Consulting Practicum Devils Advocate and how it led to my thinking about the power of an Expert Think Tank. Expert Think Tank: A way to break free from your mental shackles.

Since sharing my thoughts on the power of being bombarded with lots of ideas, I’ve been thinking about what it is that keeps more leaders from availing themselves of outside…or inside.. advice. This led to wondering why other people, particularly those within or closely associated with the organization, don’t share their ideas.

It got me thinking about fear.

On the leader’s side: Fear of hearing what you don’t want to hear. Fear of being shown wrong. Fear that you really aren’t as smart as you think you are. Fear that others have better ideas. Fear that maybe you really shouldn’t be leading the organization or group.

On everyone else’s side: Fear of sharing ideas at variance with what the boss believes. Fear of challenging what the boss wants to do. Fear that “tell me what you think” really means “tell me what I want to hear”. Fear that speaking up will lead to being shown the exit.

Lots of good ideas trapped in the dark due to fear.

You’re probably now expecting some sage advice for overcoming fear. Sorry to disappoint you. No matter how much I think about this I keep coming back to failure of leadership. Unwillingness to listen and unwillingness to speak due to the nature of the leader. A nature closed to new ideas, closed to diverse and conflicting opinions, closed to the thought that the problem is them.

A closed mind is a terrible thing to have. Perhaps the only solution is a good bolt cutter.

12708

 

 

 

Expert Think Tank

In addition to advising senior executives, I oversee Africa and Latin America for the Wharton Global Consulting Practicum. GCP is a wonderful program where MBA and Executive MBA students work as consulting teams on international strategic marketing projects for multinational companies and other organizations needing strategic marketing help. The clients wind up with great ideas and recommendations for a modest fee and the students get the change to spend six months working on amazing projects that significantly impact their client’s future.

Around the middle of the projects we have an event called Devils Advocate. The teams deliver a 20 minute presentation on what they’ve done, what they’re thinking, and where they could use some good advice to a collection of Devils – international senior executives with no other knowledge about the projects than what they’ve just heard. The Devils critique what they’ve heard, offer advice, and generally force the teams to defend their work while thinking about wildly different ideas flying at them from all directions.

We had a number of Devils Advocate presentations over the last few weeks. As usual, the Devils offered loads of ideas and advice which led to spirited discussion. Since the Devils have minimal project knowledge, the ideas run the gamut from quite insightful and well targeted to project situation and objectives to ideas that at least at first glance seem way off base. First glance since as these ideas percolate through the team’s thinking over the following weeks they often wind up being the most useful ideas.

As I’ve thought about the recent Devils Advocate sessions I found myself thinking about how valuable such sessions would be for most of my clients. As we all know, as hard as they try to keep their thinking fresh, executives so often wind up stuck in the same old mindset. They spend most of their time talking to the same people and looking at ideas from within their own industry. Even when they bring in consultants for advice, too often they’re industry experts who live in the same box as their clients.

Think of the value of pulling together a group of experts with a wide variety of backgrounds. Experts with all kinds of different education, experience, beliefs, knowledge, and ideas. Put them together, share a bit of information about your issues, and turn them loose to think and offer ideas and suggestions. Who knows what they might come up with.

An Expert Think Tank aimed directly at your issues. An Expert Think Tank unhindered by group think or knowing too much. An Expert Think Tank free to let their minds roam freely.

Expert Think Tank: a way to break free from your mental shackles.

 

 

 

The government of the United States is broken. The whole world knows this including the Senators and Representatives who are the cause. It’s fascinating to watch a collection of supposed leaders back themselves into one corner after the other due to their egos, their belief in their own genius and correctness on everything, and their unbelievable rigidity of belief in things where the people they govern have vast diversity of views.

Sadly it’s not only themselves that are hurt by this. The United States and the entire world are negatively impacted by the spectacle and paralysis that results.

The latest incident is over funding for Homeland Security. Rather than pass a clean unencumbered bill that would certainly pass, the Republicans in charge added overturning Obama’s immigration policy to the bill. The Democrats and President Obama are united in opposing this. Result? Speaker Boehner has announced he’ll let Homeland Security go unfunded rather than separate the two issues.

All parties are so interested in showing everyone how tough and unflinching they are in the rightness of their beliefs that they’ll hold the security of the United States hostage. Even worse, they’ll let the funding lapse and thus security decrease so they get a few sound bites.

And they call themselves leaders.

Watching this horror show unfold got me thinking about similar behavior in the business world. Often we see someone so caught up in themselves that they ignore the destructive results of their actions. They are guided by their own beliefs to the exclusion of any evidence to the contrary.

Actually, they don’t get evidence to the contrary since they’ve build a moat around themselves guarded by sycophants. No contradictory information or ideas are allowed to enter. No dialogue with the unbelievers is allowed and the thought they might be stuck in a corner is never expressed.

Sometimes this leads to failure, sometimes just to poor performance, but always to results that are less than they could be. Certainly there are a few exceptions to this which are often touted as a reason for dictatorship. These exceptions are few and far between which is why we always hear about the same few people. For most of us, and probably for you, the moat leads to less rather than more.

Sometimes the results are so horrific that they affect the world much as the current government dysfunction does. Everyone suffers. Think what the big banks brought upon us all and the suffering that resulted.

And they thought of themselves as the smartest people around. How wide was their moat?

How wide is your moat?

 

 

 

Timeliness

I met someone the other day. When I arrived the first thing they did was look at their watch and ask “what happened to you? You’re never late.” I was about 5 minutes late…which I never am.

Since that meeting I’ve been thinking about timeliness and scheduling, or more accurately, lack thereof. As a global traveler this is a very convoluted topic as “being on time” has widely different meanings in different cultures.

I was raised to be a bit early since as Vince Lombardi, the famous coach of the Green Bay Packers football team used to say, “on time is late, early is on time.” He had the belief that if practice started at 9 that meant you were ready to go, not just arriving. As the head coach he had a great luxury that most of us don’t have, he could penalize the late player in ways that got their attention and led to a change in behavior.

My upbringing also included being led to think of being late as being rude. The late person leaves whoever they’re meeting hanging around wasting time chatting while they wait for the wayward meeting member. Often there also seems to be a  power play involved: I’m more important than you so it’s fine for you to hang around waiting for me to arrive.

In many places I still act this way. On time is late, early is on time.

But, I just returned from a trip to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana. Half the meetings weren’t finalized in advance as the schedule was “call when you get to Africa and we’ll see you.” Even most of the meetings with a set time came with a bit of flexibility depending on how it all worked out. Meeting with people ranging from government Ministers to small business people was arranged this way.

This makes American business people, and me, crazy. Spend a lot of money, block out a lot of time, fly for hours and hours, and hope that the meetings are finalized and all works out. Usually it does, sometimes not. It’s the risk you take.

Everyone jokes about meeting on Africa time. It’s such a different attitude about time that it takes some getting used to. If you want to do business in Africa you better calm down and accept that such is the way things work. Throw out those American ideas of punctuality and learn to slow down and relax.

Timeliness is cultural. In some cultures coming on time is the rude time to arrive. Showing up an hour or so late turns out to be on time.

If everyone comes from the same culture, no problem. All understand when 5 o’clock means 5 o’clock and when it means 6 or 7. But what about when people come from different cultures or have to work with those from different cultures. All kinds of bad things can happen from the misunderstanding that results.

It takes all of us to be always aware of cultural norms and how people bring these norms with them when they land in a different place. Sometimes the norms modify rapidly and before you know it they disappear as the person fully integrates into the new culture. Most of the time some of the norms modify but others hang around forever. It’s not a matter of consciously breaking the rules it’s the person unconsciously following deep set behaviors.

If you are the one traveling to new places, you become the offender. Keep it in mind, you too have your deeply held behaviors, behaviors you mostly aren’t conscious of. As a business person who wants to succeed it’s up to you to think this through and work to do what you can to act in appropriate ways wherever you find yourself.

Then there is the completely different idea of timeliness I once encountered on Air Botswana. The people at the hotel told me to make sure I got to the airport and through security at least and hour before the flight departure time. “Why?” I asked. “Because when they think everyone has arrived they will take off” was the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

Smells Fishy

I fly a lot. I fly on a variety of airlines and in all kinds of airplanes as I go to places as diverse as Tokyo and remote cities in Africa. This means I get to often experience the annoyance of getting through the airport, dealing with the airline counters, standing around squashed into the hoard waiting to board, and then…the airplane for hours and hours. It is not fun.

The reward is that I get to visit places around the world, often places that few travelers see. I get to meet amazingly interesting people in wildly differing circumstances. It’s fun after I get there. Until I have to fly home.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal. At the bottom of the front page there was an article about air travel that caught my eye. It’s title? No Nose Dives: Airlines Hope A Scent Brings Relaxation, Bookings.

Airlines as a group have become expert at providing the most miserable conditions (especially if you are over 4 feet tall with a waist of more than 22 inches) for ever increasing prices while irritating you tremendously as they add one after the other extra fees on top of the base fare. I’ve noticed they’re ignoring the rapidly falling fuel prices but were quick to add “fuel surcharges” when the price went up. Some airlines still have these!

In the interests of improving the customer experience…stop laughing…it seems that they have decided to scent the cabins. This is so important that they either already have or in the process of creating their very own scents.

For some reason they think that this will relax you, create brand awareness, and encourage you to fly them more often. To quote Mike Henny, Delta Director of Customer Experience (they must be kidding), Delta wants its customers to be “as comfortable on board as possible, and have a positive association with their experience on Delta.” (surely kidding again)

Perhaps they should have Henny talk to the sadists who design the seats instead of adding scents and causing migraines for the many who are allergic to or even just annoyed by scents.

Customer Experience: the experience that you have as a customer. How do most companies go about improving Customer Experience? They listen to the complaints and watch the comments on social media. They research how make things better for their customers, how to remove or change the things that make them crazy…like baggage charges, change fees, and most importantly – getting squashed into a seat designed for an 8 year old. The ask their customers what they can improve, and they try and improve it.

Airlines have an advantage over other companies. Their customers are stuck. They have managed to create an oligopoly that decreases customer choice so have no particular need to listen to their customers. Unless you are someone who flies first class…and pays for the seat.

They’ve managed to segment their market into those who are stuck and those who are willing to pay anything to be unstuck. If you pay, you get a bed and fancy food. If not, you get a too tiny uncomfortable seat and crappy food.

To make those without feel just as relaxed and happy as those with, some airlines now let everyone share the scent. Customer Experience at its finest, unless you go into anaphylactic shock.

 

 

 

 

Do Nothing

For many the hardest thing to do – is nothing. Nothing, not a thing. For many it seems like you’re shirking your responsibility if the action you take is no action.

As Warren Buffett says, “the trick is, when there’s nothing to do, do nothing.” He is one of the few who has followed this advice as unlike him, so many are paid for action rather than results. So many forget that not doing anything is just as much a decision and an action as running around frenetically doing this and that without any thought to the value of the activity and how it will be better than just – doing nothing.

We have a bias to action, a bias towards movement. Movement for its own sake seems so much more productive that taking a rest and allowing things to play out of their own accord.

Managers feed this frenzy of useless, and even counterproductive, activity. How often have you rewarded someone or been rewarded for sitting calmly at your desk staring out the window thinking about the best response to something you’re watching over? How often have you told someone to just do something, anything, rather than wait to see what happens?

I’m not talking about doing nothing just to do nothing. We call that taking a nap. I’m talking about thinking things through and deciding that nothing is the right response, which it is more often than we realize. The problem is that to others doing nothing seems like you abdicated your responsibility to do something. They don’t realize that you’ve made a reasoned decision and your action is no action.

Since seeing Buffett’s comment quoted above, I’ve re-evaluated my propensity to act rather than do nothing. In my case it seems that it’s just so easy to act and so hard to sit on my hands. Yet as I’ve observed myself and tried to include doing nothing in my thought process I find that more often that you would imagine, nothing is the best choice. Nothing is not only the best choice but the one needing no resources at all to do it well. All is takes is self control and a willingness to explain that doing nothing has led to the best solution at the lowest cost.

Even better, doing nothing about some things has given me more time and energy to deal with those things that require real effort. I’m actually getting more done with better results by doing nothing more often. Take Warren Buffett’s advice, be tough and do nothing more often.

 

I spent the beginning of the year in Africa: Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana. I was there to co-lead a team advising the CEO of a very large public/private partnership agricultural program. We never stopped moving for 11 days during which we visited a collection of government ministers in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire as well as the most recent past president of Ghana. Beyond that we were out in the field talking with small holder farmers as well as others in the agricultural infrastructure world.

Mostly we stayed in very decrepit hotels in poor areas with a nice hotel thrown in here and there. It’s the dry season so in addition to the heat we were in midst of unending dust so thick that you couldn’t get the taste out of your mouth. I’ve brought quite a bit of it back with me stuck to clothes and shoes.

As usual, I worked hard to pay attention not only to what we were told but also to everything else, to not only listen to the stories but to gather the feeling of the places, the energy, the story behind and underneath the story. Three countries, dozens of people of all kinds, long times in buses and vans on dirt roads, long conversations about things well beyond agricultural, and a visual panoply that stretched the mind.

Reflecting on all this a few things jelled in my mind. The most powerful one is the customer service exhibited by everyone. In the most downmarket hotel of the trip in a very poor area (where when my toilet broke they gave me a bucket to use for the day until it was fixed), the owner was spectacular. He was so helpful and accommodating that we put up with the rooms and general conditions without complaining. All his staff exhibited the same friendliness and helpfullness, often in spite of no language in common with us.

We found the same service everywhere we went. Mostly we were dealing with people lacking in education and training as we think of it in the business world. And yet, they exhibited skill with customers as good as any you’ll see anywhere. Certainly not the most sophisticated service but definitely at the top of the wanting to be helpful list.

I compare this to a very fancy hotel I was in a few months ago where when telling the front desk that I had just been stuck in an elevator and they needed to do something I was told “all our elevators are working” and then they went back to what they were doing.

The other thing that struck me is how in spite of what we would consider dire circumstances of deep poverty with limited opportunity, there is an energy and a hopefulness that they will find a way to improve their situation. Not everyone  of course, but many. The small holder farmers are excited about learning new ways to improve their yields and add a few new crops. They grab any opportunity and take full advantage of any help offered.

I never once heard “we can’t do that” or “it’s not how we do it here.” Instead they asked “what else can you tell us?”

As I ruminated on these two things I got wondering how this could be. Those with so little so good at customer service and so engaged in learning new things while so many I run into in the developed world are so lacking in these things.

It’s really hard to be poor. You work much harder and often much longer hours than those with good jobs and a nice middle class life. You appreciate everything much more and learn what to do to connect with people as connecting with people is the path to improving your situation. You learn how to show yourself to your best and take advantage of help offered. You watch carefully for new ideas. And you learn to do these things always.

Those with a much more well off life somehow often don’t seem to appreciate these things even thought they bring just as much to those with as to those without. I wound up thinking how odd it is that the path to better customer service and a more energetic and engaged workforce might be getting your people to think more like those without than like those with.

 

James Martin is an interesting fellow. He grew up in Plymouth Meeting Pennsylvania, a short drive from Birchrunville where I live. Another connection to me is that he started out with a business degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (I hold a Wharton MBA) and then went off to work in finance for General Electric for 6 or 7 years.  Then we went our separate ways as he became a Jesuit priest…and I didn’t.

Martin is a prolific writer, a wildly entertaining and humorous speaker, and quite the thinker on a variety of issues that have great bearing on improving your management skills. Recently I had the good fortune to hear him interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR.

Much of what he talked about had major implications for better management and improved business results. I was particularly struck by a story he shared about Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits. The story was all about the power of meeting people where they are. Where they are not meaning physically where they are but mentally where they are.

Most powerfully, it was about you meeting them where they are, not you expecting them to meet you where you are. Martin spoke eloquently and humorously about the power of being willing to listen to others, understand their situation and thinking, and modify your words and actions to connect with them…where they are.

Communication only happens when all the parties are willing to meet the others where they are. All the parties need to be willing to walk in the other person’s shoes, to understand how they got where they are, how it shaped their current beliefs and actions, and what this means for connecting with them and communicating effectively.

We all are where we are, a situation build from a confluence of all that went before, all we experienced. What comes next is built on this base. Great care needs to be taken to respect this history and use it as the basis for what is to come. Great care needs to be taken to start where they are and create a path forward the builds on rather than dismisses or ignores this history. Their history not yours.

All too often those in charge forget that it is their responsibility to meet their people where they are and guide them forward. It takes lots of listening, lots of understanding, lots of being willing to accept that others have different backgrounds, different experiences, different education, different abilities and skills. Different, not better or worse.

It’s up to you to meet them where they are and use the mutual understanding this generates to draw the path forward in ways that build on their history and lead them forward in ways that they can see and understand. In ways that connect with them fully, draw them in, excite them, and lead them to be fully engaged in the journey rather than dragged kicking and screaming down a path they don’t understand, that makes no sense to them, that ignores their history.

Listen to Ignatius of Loyola, and James Martin, meet them where they are.

 

 

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