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America The Amazing

July 2, 2009

The United States of America is celebrating its 233 birthday this July 4th.  To understand fully how truly young our country is, let me provide a little perspective.   Most are aware that the vast majority of other countries and civilizations have existed for thousands of years, with the oldest civilizations dating to about 10,000 years old or so.  This by itself makes The United States seem like an infant on this earth, but also consider how long some of the great ancient world powers existed.  The Persian Empire ruled the ancient world for about the same amount of time that we’ve been a country.  The (Western) Roman Empire ruled for over 500 years and the Eastern Roman Empire (The Byzantine Empire) existed for over 1000 years.    The British Empire was the dominant world power off and on for about 300 years.    So not only are we far younger than just about every other country by a long shot, there have been numerous empires whose rule lasted longer than The U.S. has existed.

In our short 233 year history we have gained our independence, survived a civil war, settled 50 states, contributed to victories in 2 world wars, and sent a man to the moon.   In the days leading up to America’s birth in 1776, under the leadership of our founding fathers, all 13 of the original colonies unanimously signed the declaration penned by Thomas Jefferson.  This Virginian was chosen deliberately to ensure we had the vital support of the South in our quest for independence.  The differing relations between the North and South continued  for many years, leading us into a Civil War in 1861.  Although this was the deadliest war in U.S. history, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, it effectively ended slavery and created an even stronger Union that would go on to become a world superpower.  Between 1917 and 1918, after joining the Allied Powers in WWI, The U.S. was able to mobilize 1,300,000 troops to Europe in just over a year, and at its peak was sending 10,000 fresh troops a day to France, all by ship.  This rapid mobilization caught the enemy unprepared for America’s involvement and was key in our ability to turn the tide of the war .  Just over 20 years later, after losing nearly all of our battleships in the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, we entered and fought a war on 2 fronts (Europe and The Pacific), and against all odds, The U.S. helped defeat The Axis Powers.   I deliberately used the words “helped defeat” when describing the outcome.  You see, it is true The U.S. sacrificed about 400,000 lives in the war, however, in contrast, our ally the Soviet Union lost over 25,000,000 (civilian and military).

Our population’s growth has been unprecedented.  Shortly after our country was born at the turn of the century, our population was just over 3 Million.  Today, about 10 generations later, our population is estimated to be over 300 Million.   To accommodate America’s rapidly growing population, a celebrated General from WWII, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, launched what has become the largest system of highways in the world.  From 1956 to 1993, 42,000 miles of Interstate Highways were built connecting all corners of America, enough to circle the earth just about twice.  Finally, also this July, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo mission which magnificently achieved John F. Kennedy’s goal of putting the first man on the moon.  When Neil Armstrong announced, “The Eagle Has Landed”, it was revealed that the lunar module only had 17 secs of landing fuel left, a miraculous event that was only seconds away from disaster!  Over the next 3 years, we would send 5 more manned missions to the moon.  The United States is still the only country to have flown a man to the surface of the moon.

Over the course of our history, The United States produced the following inventions: Bifocals, Refrigeration, The Telegraph, The Revolver, The Combine, The Printing Press, The Potato Chip (Yum!), The Motorcycle, The Game of Baseball, The Vacuum Cleaner, The Fire Hydrant, The Phonograph, The Fountain Pen, The Skyscraper, The Escalator, The Tractor, Cotton Candy, Air Conditioning, The Hearing Aid, The Bulldozer, Sunglasses and who can forget, The Wright Brothers famous Airplane.  The list could go on and on with modern day technological inventions, but you get the idea, The United States is truly the land of opportunity where your only limits are the boundaries of your imagination.

If you are fortunate enough to be a part of this great democracy, as a citizen or as a guest, I hope you recognize and appreciate all of the rich history and amazing gifts that America has to offer.  In her brief 233 years, she has accomplished so much and we should feel pride every day.  America is rightfully named “The Land of Opportunity”, and it should be clear, if you put your mind to it, anything, and I mean anything, is possible.  Happy Birthday America!

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Less What More Why!

June 24, 2009

“Mr. Watson, come here, I need you”!  The famous words of Alexander Graham Bell which ushered in a new era of communication.  Do you think Thomas Watson had any idea why Mr Bell needed him, well in this case he surely did, they had just invented the telephone!  Many times in our communications, it isn’t so clear what the genesis of the message is, and the true context of the communication isn’t so obvious.  One recent Saturday, I sent my young daughter next door and told her to ask for some “brown twine” (I needed to tie a clematis vine to a post).  Well, without understanding why I needed brown twine off she went.  I wish I could have been present for that conversation next door because you see, she promptly carried back a bottle of “white wine”!   I can hear my neighbor now, “Are you sure he didn’t want white wine, there is red and white, but no brown wine”!  Had I simply explained to my daughter why I needed the brown twine, she easily could have accomplished this task on the first try.

Another simple example from my life.  I treated my son and 4 of his friends to a day of paint ball, renting them all of the equipment and buying them a “starter pack” of paintballs.  Well, they were burning through paintballs much faster than I anticipated with these semi-automatic paint ball guns (markers).    So after yet another refill, I told them to “not shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”.   Soon enough, they were back for yet another refill with seemingly little improvement in paintball conservation.  So this time I simply said, “it costs me a nickel every time each of you pulls the trigger”……ahh, the lightbulbs went on as they all realized that although this was my treat, they were needlessly costing me more money by firing with reckless abandon.   Well, as you can expect, the paintball burn rate improved dramatically from that point, they now clearly understood “the why” behind my request.

Often times in our everyday business communications (especially in superior to subordinate exchanges) we are too quick to exclude the context of the message or request.  This not only makes it more difficult to successfully accomplish a task, but it also gives the recipient the feeling of just being a worker as opposed to being a key step in the process or part of the bigger picture.  This is often referred to as being “engaged”.    A recent Gallup study cited that an engaged team delivers greater customer advocacy, improved productivity and increased profitability.  I’ve talked about the importance of empowerment, but empowerment is useless if you can’t get the team to engage.   The former CEO of GE, Jack Welch, said, “getting every employee’s mind into the game…there’s nothing more important!”.

Here’s an analogy from the football field.  Imagine if a quarterback only told the offensive line their blocking scheme without informing them of the play?  Not only would this would severely limit their ability to adjust on the fly and improvise when necessary, but it would also make them feel like they’re not really a very important part of the team.

Oftentimes organizations will try to function with a style akin to the  traditional military chain of command.  The top of the pyramid makes the decisions, the middle passes on this information and bottom executes with little room for interpretation.   These line workers end up being like the doomed soldiers, immortalized by Alfred Tennyson’s, The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death

The men Tennyson was writing about were not born with the willingness to obey without question to their deaths.  Although they might not understand why, they react without hesitation because they’ve had countless hours of military training, teaching them to unconditionally follow orders.  Their inherent creative intellect had to be suppressed before they could go into battle.  Although this is very effective for soldiers, it just isn’t the best strategy for most other organizations.

This concept of more effective communication is closely related to my earlier post, “Don’t Forget to Share”.  The more you share information and the more effectively you communicate within your organization, the better chance you’ll have a fully engaged workforce.  The bottom line is not only should you be over communicating within your organization, you also need to be careful to ensure that everyone understands the important details behind your communications.  So let’s review, communicate early and often and be clear about the context of not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it!

“22” A Rally Cry

June 17, 2009

Long ago a ship set sail with a full crew from the West Coast of Europe.  They encountered calm seas and the navigation was sound.   They made it to their destination in the Southern Atlantic on schedule and didn’t encounter any major issues while en route.  Although this is a terrific outcome, it’s not a very exciting story.  Not the kind of story that produces legends or great non-fiction literary works.  My point is that, during tough times, like the rough economic situation we’re experiencing right now, is when new leaders are born.  This post is about finding your motivation to succeed in not just good times, but in tough times as well.   If you look carefully, you’ll find extraordinary opportunities in times like these, this is your window of opportunity to step up, differentiate yourself and truly make a difference.

Now what is the title “22” all about?  In 1914, Sir Ernest Shakleton, with his 28 man crew, set sail on the Endurance on a expedition to achieve the first land crossing of the Antarctic Continent.   I won’t get into the details of their multi-year adventure in this post, but let’s just say that things didn’t go as planned.  To net it out, just a few months into their journey, they lost their ship to the crushing grip of the ice pack and spent the rest of their journey stranded in isolated, sub-zero cold and barren conditions.  Through the skillful planning and leadership of Shakleton, and the determination of his crew, they managed to find food, create shelter and opportunistically changed camps many times as they made strategic moves in an effort to survive this ordeal.  In the end, Shakleton secured their own rescue by launching himself and 5 men in a life raft on a 16 day journey through rough and icy seas back to the island of South Georgia where they launched the expedition many months prior.   Shakleton returned with another ship to pick up his crew and it would be almost 2 years from the time they left civilization until their ultimate rescue, and amazingly every member of the crew survived this 22 month ordeal.

So the simple phrase “22” has become the rally cry for my team in these tough economic times.  With determination and resolve, anything is possible, and the inspirational 22 month journey of Ernest Shakleton and his crew is one more source to fuel an “anything is possible” attitude that can drive one towards continued success.   I recommend Dennis Perkins, Leading at the Edge for a leadership account of this extraordinary saga.

Mr Whitacre, Are You Experienced?

June 14, 2009

This week GM named Edward Whitacre, a former CEO of AT&T, to be the Chairman of GM’s Board.  Now Mr. Whitacre admittedly knows nothing about cars, so what is GM up to here?  Are we not to hire Corporate leaders based upon solid industry experience anymore?   GM sees what IBM saw in Lou Gerstner when he was named Chairman and CEO fresh off a stint at American Express.  Both GM and IBM saw solid leaders who could quickly grasp their new industries.   An analogy from basketball is the saying, “you can teach a kid to shoot and dribble, but you can’t teach tall!”   In other words, you can learn a new industry, but good luck trying to teach someone to be a great leader.   This doesn’t just apply to Chairmen and CEO’s, it applies at all levels of an organization.  You will find that there are plenty of people who have the experience for the job, but there are far fewer who have that intangible ability to adapt and succeed under any circumstance.

Now why not just find a great leader from within your industry you may ask?  Many successful companies eventually become victims of their own success.  IBM was days away from bankruptcy in the 90’s prior to bringing in Gerstner.  They had become blinded by their dominating success with the mainframe and began to ignore key indicators that they were due for a strategic realignment.   GM also became paralyzed by the same factors that made them successful.  Like a too tall building that eventually crumbles under it’s own weight, the legacy policies and programs that built a great company, slowly began to suffocate the corporation and led to an unsustainable business model.  Like IBM, they too had blinders on and didn’t recognize the need for a strategic shift.  Bringing in an outsider like Whitacre will bring a new perspective with unbiased judgement and fresh ideas to GM.  Sometimes to get “out of the box” thinking you actually have to find someone who is not in your box!

Social Networking…So What?

June 12, 2009

I lead a team that sells collaboration and social networking solutions to businesses large and small.  Because we sell these tools, we personally tend to be “early adopters” of most new social related technologies that hit the streets.  Many still believe that this phenomenon will always be  just the toys of a younger generation.   However, I want to provide a different perspective on tools like Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

LinkedIn was the first social networking tool that I began utilizing and the one that I could quickly and clearly see the benefit.  This creates a strong business network and allows you to connect with others who have similar business or education related interests.  I have searched for and found new hire candidates using LinkedIn.  This is clearly a business focused tool and I see tangible value in being an active user.

I wasn’t as quickly convinced with Facebook which is much more of a purely social tool.   The issue is that I have ended up with work friends, personal friends and relatives (of all ages) as friends on my Facebook page.   Maybe Facebook is looking at ways to segregate your friends, relatives and work associates into different groups but for now, this is too much mixed company.  I love my (college age) nieces, but I don’t necessarily want my work associates knowing what they did last night with their friends!  The big benefit that I do see is I am now connected with, not only friends and relatives that I wouldn’t have stayed in touch with otherwise, but also with a whole bunch of Dygert’s that I didn’t even know existed.

Finally Twitter, the latest social networking craze.  Many people think this is the “what I had for lunch” (and how can this possibly be interesting) blogging service.  Twitter is referred to as microblogging which limits you to 140 characters (truth is 140 was picked due to the limitations of text messaging).  I am currently following many work associates, and between the now and then “lunch” tweets, there are beneficial insights to be had.  For instance, in our ever growing virtual work world, this allows us to at least feel like we’re not miles or cities apart.   Also, people can quickly share findings, insights or customer interactions on Twitter via a phone or blackberry and not have to worry about remembering to send it out via email later.  And although the “what I had for lunch” part isn’t that important, the part about having lunch with one of our most important customers is (it’s hard to keep track of 12 sales and 7 tech reps across 6 states!).  Finally, the search capabilities within Twitter allows unique and unprecedented access to the thoughts and minds of thousands of consumers.  We have been able to pick up random (but valuable) chatter on our products that we never would have been privy to otherwise.

There are many other great tools that help expand our social reach like RSS/Atom Feeds, Del.icio.us, AddThis, and others that really help us to effectively stay connected and share (too much to cover in detail in this post, but worth a mention).   It’s funny, there is one tool I haven’t mentioned, good old email.  As amazing as it seems, to our current 16 to 29 year old technology savvy youth movement, email is just about as “old school” to them as compact disks have become.  They are all about MP3 downloads and  real time and rich communication that email just doesn’t provide.

So, if you’re just an active email user, you’re just not hip to the times.  I suspect that email as we know it will be drastically different in just 5 years.  In the end, I am a believer of today’s social networking world but it is somewhat like the “Wild West” right now.  Eventually these tools will adapt and evolve to become an intergral part of most of our lives.   Go ahead, join the revolution and reach out to an old friend or relative and say hi, it will make you feel better, I promise.  I will continue to use and experiment with the social networking movement until I decide that I really just want to be left alone……..and oh by the way, I had turkey and swiss on wheat for lunch!

Popcorn Here!

June 4, 2009

Quick, picture a box of popcorn in your head……….did a white box with red vertical stripes and a circle in the middle come to mind?  It probably did as 99% of all popcorn boxes are exactly the same.  What a fantastic classic consistent branding that has stood the test of time.  No need for tweaking the design or re-branding the good old popcorn box, it is a perennial brand survivor!  It’s a simplistic example of a very important topic, the state of your brand image.

When you think of copiers, you think of Xerox.  When you think of mainframes, you think of IBM.  MP3 players…..iPod (Apple).  Coffee Shops…..Starbucks.  Orlando…..Disney.  Online Search…..Google.  Routers…..Cisco.   Gambling…..Las Vegas.  Microblogging…..Twitter.  Ketchup…..Heinz.    You get the idea, these entities absolutely monopolize their categories.

Now, you don’t have to monopolize a category to have an effective brand image.  When you think of overnight shipping, you think of FedEx and UPS.  Colas…..Coke and Pepsi.  What about classic baseball parks, about 5 come to mind.   These certainly don’t monopolize their categories, but they’ve earned a permanent seat at the mind-share table.

What about your personal brand?  What immediately comes to mind when people think of you?   If you’re a professional (Doctor, Dentist, Lawyer, etc), are you striving to be known as one of the best for at least some segment of your profession?   Not everyone can be #1, but you could be #1 in your specialty in your city or region.  What about sales (my profession), you could be a smart and capable salesperson, but what comes to mind when your customers think of you, what image are you portraying?  Have you earned a top spot in one of your customer’s key categories?  Do you come to mind when they think of their most trusted, or most valued vendors?   Do you make the top 5?  Will you be able to maintain that position?

Being the biggest, or the best, or the most famous doesn’t have to be an absolute.  Break it down to a sub-category that, with some hard work, is within your reach.  This is simply committing to continuous improvement.  Be better at something, be known for something, come to mind when your customers or your vendors think of quality partners.  Unlike our popcorn box, I am sure that all of us could use a personal brand makeover to progress the standing of our own brand image.  So the next time you’re at the ballpark and see that classic popcorn box, think about what you’re going to start doing to improve the state of your own brand image…..and enjoy the popcorn!

It was the best of times….

May 27, 2009

And the #1 pick goes to……..Do you ever wonder why so many #1 picks (in any sport) never produce the results that are expected?   One of the biggest factors is adversity.  Your typical #1 pick played on an average to good college team in an overall satisfactory (or better) situation that allowed them to shine at that level.  What happens when they are drafted high in the first round?  They go to one of the worst teams in the league and face significant adversity, often for the first time.  The true character and resolve of a person is most evident in tough times, not in good times.  For many of these superstars, their true mettle was never tested at the college level,  and they fail to thrive in this tough new environment.  Sometimes, the anticipated success doesn’t materialize simply because their heart is never really in the game playing for a poor team and/or bad organization.  These are certainly good athletes, but they just haven’t had the proper stress testing to weed out the true superstars from the ones who can only effectively navigate in calm seas.

In business good people often find themselves in adverse situations, maybe working for a company that is having trouble meeting revenue or profit targets, or maybe just working for a boss that you can’t stand, or even in a city you don’t like.  As mentioned before, the true character of a person comes out in situations like these, and the ones who deal with adversity well, and play all out all of the time, for the team that they might not even want to be on, are the true superstars.   It often takes a rough patch like the current economic crisis to discover your most talented and loyal employees.  I would rather have a Rudy (the inspirational walk on at Notre Dame) over  a “prima donna”  #1 pick on my team every time.   You see, during challenging times, both behaviors are contagious.  Just as the extra effort and positive attitude of the hard worker will pull others up, a half-hearted “star” will certainly bring others down.  So when it’s time for those annual employee appraisals, think about how your people performed not just during the best of times, but also during the worst of times.