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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.

In “You” We Trust

May 20, 2009

Back in Navy flight training, one of my instructors used to say, “these aircraft are designed by PHD’s, built by Master’s Degrees, flown by Undergrads, and maintained by High School Grads”.    That always struck me as a very interesting hierarchy that has to include plenty of trust.  In fact, I can take this analogy one step farther as my aircraft, the P3 Orion, had a crew full of high school grads.  We had a crew of 12, and 7 of those were enlisted servicemen, most with just high school degrees.    As the first pilot and plane commander, I had to hold quite a bit of trust in my crew as their individual roles were critical to our mission success and safety.  One particular mission, we were flying in the Adriatic Sea assisting a NATO blockade against the former Yugoslavia.   There were numerous countries involved in this operation, including many submarines, and the P3’s primary mission was hunting submarines.   An unknown sub slipped into the Adriatic from the South, was closing in on the blockade, and it was not responding to our requests to identify itself (concerning because Yugoslavia had 3 submarines!).   We tracked the unidentified sub as it moved closer to the blockade using underwater sonobuoys (basically an underwater microphone).  We had 2 enlisted Acoustic Sensor Operators on board whose role was to track submarines using sound coming from the subs, the sound manifesting itself as seemingly abstract lines on a rolling page.  This was a multi hour evolution of tracking, attempted communications and waiting for engagement authorization from NATO headquarters, so I will “cut to the chase”.  We were minutes away from receiving authorization to engage this unidentified sub when my First Sensor Operator, a fine young man only a few years out of high school, said, “Sir, based upon what I am seeing here, this is a French Submarine”.   Trusting this highly skilled sailor, I immediately called off our engagement and notified NATO.   A Sensor Operator normally isn’t asked to identify a sub, but only to track it’s course, speed and depth.  The good ones are so experienced that they can identify the unique audio signature that each sub creates.   On this successful mission, the entire outcome was based upon me trusting the opinion of one fantastic sailor.  Successful leaders  put good people in place, empower them, and most importantly, trust them.  Trust is a powerful tool!   You can read more about the P3 Orion here,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-3_Orion

Don’t Forget to Share!

May 19, 2009

I was recently reading an INC magazine article on the 30 best examples of innovation from business over the past 30 years.  One common theme that was consistent in many of the companies profiled was to drive new innovation and strategy by just sharing.   Yes, that’s it, just share with to your employees and suppliers.     Seems simple enough, but most businesses are not willing to share information because they’re afraid they’ll be divulging some great competitive secret, or that they’ll gain nothing by sharing.  Honda started a program where they go out to their supplier base and share their best practices.  Honda realizes that a healthy supplier base makes for a healthier Honda.  At Springfield Remanufacturing (from the INC article), they share all key business data by literally opening the books for all employees to see.  This gives the employees a better sense of ownership and allows them think about how their actions will impact the bottom line.   The more your employees and suppliers know, the more they’ll feel a part of the bigger picture.  An employee satisfaction survey was distributed at a large insurance company and the number one answer chosen when asked what impacts morale the most was not salary or titles, but simply being kept in the loop.   So that simple rule you learned in kindergarten still holds true, “don’t forget to share”!

“Empower” to the People

May 18, 2009

Someone asked me recently about my management style and I told them that I believe in empowerment.  The puzzled look that was returned made me realize that empowerment doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking of classic management styles.  The only way to be sure you’re capturing all of the unique talents and abilities of your people is to empower them to freely make decisions, take actions and to provide input.

The online retailer Zappos is so confident in its customer service reps that they don’t provide any scripts, but instead rely on the unique abilities of each employee to handle each situation in their own way.   When at a restaurant, I can tell when the servers have been empowered by management and when they haven’t, it is evident in their behaviors and level of confidence, and most importantly in their ability to satisfy the customer.   Stew Leonard runs a very successful grocery chain on the East Coast and one of his secrets is listen to the customer.  He empowers his customers to act much like a board of directors, making decisions that Stew immediately executes in his stores.  So if you’re looking for a  employee that just follows orders or a customer who doesn’t speak up, you may want to invest in an army of robots.  I believe that there’s “gold in them there brains” and I intend to tap every ounce!

Day 1

May 16, 2009

I have been pondering starting a blog for some time, taking copious notes and brainstorming topics.  I already have about a dozen topics that I want to blog about.  My plan is to take random everyday personal and work interactions and translate them into the context of management and leadership (thus “In Context”).    I am going to share my insights for the benefit of my team as well as anyone else who decides to drop in.

Hello world!

May 8, 2009

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!