Just Another 4th of July Parade?

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My Uncle Clyde was everyone’s idea of what a favorite uncle should be – he certainly was my favorite!

One sundrenched summer day when I was a young boy my family stood on a downtown sidewalk watching the annual 4th of July parade my older brother Walt was proudly marching in. As my brother’s group marched by, my Uncle Clyde leaned over and whispered to me, “Look Joe, your brother is the only one marching in step!” Needless to say, my Uncle Clyde and I couldn’t stop laughing.

I’m pretty sure my uncle picked up that phrase while in the army during World War II, and I’ll never forget it. Even though I know my uncle was just kidding, I’ve wondered many times since then if I or someone else were the only ones “in step”.

There may not be an easy answer for knowing whether my Uncle Clyde’s observation holds true in every situation we may encounter, but what I think is important is that we seriously analyze the choices we have in front of us.  I think we should be secure enough to critically and honestly ask ourselves if we are a few steps behind rather than a few steps ahead.

Good Ole Uncle Clyde, hopefully his funny statement about marching in step can help us remember to make reasoned decisions that aren’t merely good for us, but good for everyone.

Dinner Parties, International Study and Workplace Politics

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Last summer one of my former students spent time in Zambia on an Exploration Seminar to study Economic Development in 3rd world countries. She said her experience was an eye- opening one and couldn’t wait to get back to Zambia. I suspect she can’t wait to get back because of the people she met. Even though they have very little, they know how to have fun, tease their friends and family, are welcoming to others and love to laugh.

A few nights ago I went to a fun dinner party. What I liked about it, and what made it fun for me, was how it felt like “family”. We ate and drank heartily, laughed continuously and even played a juvenile card game that had us all in stitches.

I think the similarities of these two groups are pretty close.  I can’t wait to get together with my friends again and my former student can’t wait to see her new friends.

What can we take to the world of workplace politics from these two experiences?

If we treat our co-workers like we treat our friends and family when we’re having fun, if our attitudes are more welcoming and accepting of others, and if we easily laugh and appreciate what we have, aren’t these messages strong and positive political statements?

The Thorniest Part of Solving Conflict?

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In my dealings with solving conflict, one of the biggest roadblocks is simply “how do I start the conversation?”. A common way people start a conversation about a conflicted situation is by simply saying “We need to talk!”

I don’t know about women but I do know that nearly every guy in the history of mankind cringes when he hears those four little words “we need to talk”!  When I hear them, the first thing I want to do is run for my life. Early in my career, when I was a department store young men’s fashion buyer, occasionally I would have vendors say to me “you need to buy this product”. Every time I heard that line, whether I should be buying the product or not, my first thought was “I don’t need to do anything”. How come? Let’s think about it: what the vendor did was take away my right of choice. I considered it to be theft and automatically my brain triggered a primal instinct for survival. There is nothing collaborative about the statement “you need to…”

The same thing happens when someone says “we need to talk”.  The primal brain is hearing “this is NOT going to be a pleasant experience and I have no say in this whatsoever!”

Instead of stealing someone’s right to choose and causing an instinctual negative reaction, what would happen if you opened the conversation by giving someone a choice?

For instance, what if you started out by asking permission to talk? How about something like “may I be totally honest with you?” or “do you mind if I share with you something that’s been bothering me?” The receiving person’s primal brain thinks, “sure, why not? I don’t have to do any work; all I have to do is listen.” This is no big deal; I’m in! You have now given the other person a choice and they made it.

Myth of the Perfect Product

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How many times have we thought, “Wow what a great product! It is going to make a fortune.” How often do entrepreneurs and inventors get so caught-up in the wow factor of a particular product that all they think about are sugar plums and their sparkling future? Is not the product or service the most important aspect of any business or idea?

One of my friends is an expert when it comes to skin and skin care. Not too long ago she came across an incredible skin care product developed by a scientist, who was also the company’s CEO, in Europe. What is so amazing about the product is that it actually works. She was so excited she contacted the European company that owned the US distribution rights. After meeting with the owner of the US distributor, she was hired to represent the company. Through her contacts my friend was able to obtain a meeting with a large US-based specialty store and her boss flew into town from Europe for the meeting. Although my friend is extremely knowledgeable about skin care she has little expertise in marketing a product. Unfortunately, as it seems, neither did her boss from Europe. Not only did he not understand the US market, he didn’t act like he cared to learn. You see, he was taking his clues from a scientist who thought the product was “King”.

Understandably, my friend became frustrated when her management wasn’t responsive to USA requirements and continually sent mixed messages to her as to what her role was. One second she was just to be a product specialist, and then she was to arrange for sales and marketing. Next, she was told to stay out of the business side of the product altogether. Needless to say she wasn’t happy about the lack of clear communication. Even though it seemed apparent management was causing chaos with its lack of responsiveness to the US market and from their mixed messages to her, she still wanted to stay on because the product was so remarkable.

My friend had succumbed to the myth of the perfect product. She was so in love with the product she overlooked management’s dysfunction. Her mantra became “I can’t leave this company … its product is going to make a fortune”. Unfortunately, the perfect product is not responsible for properly communicating, operationally organizing, and understanding customer expectations nor does a product market itself. Only people do these jobs. Management does not consist of a conference table with perfect products sitting around it making decisions. Management consists of real people who must daily make important decisions that affect the company’s future.

We all know of companies with terrific products that failed because their management was so enamored with their product they thought it would literally “sell itself”. I’m afraid the scientist CEO leading the business my friend was involved with succumbed to the myth of the perfect product. He and his management team seemed to have made the mistake of not respecting the importance of the people who design, innovate, produce, distribute, market, and buy their product.

Personal Politics of Workplace Dysfunction

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Most of us have had jobs working in a dysfunctional environment. We either had a dysfunctional supervisor or we worked with dysfunctional people on our team. I know I have. Once I reached my personal “point of no return”, no amount of money would have kept me working there.

I have witnessed professionals I have coached who bravely tried to work with their dysfunctional supervisors. Eventually they left jobs and teams they liked because of disrespectful managers. Interestingly, these professionals found jobs they loved working in respectful cultures. The amount of stress they left behind when they moved on was well worth it.

Ultimately, we may not be able to influence our work surroundings but we all have control of our choice whether to stay or to leave.

Are You Being Passionate or Just Emotional?

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A student of mine once made the important distinction that “you drive passion whereas emotion drives you”.

One of my mistakes in business was using the word passion as a convenient excuse for an emotional response. Instead of stepping back and logically analyzing a particular situation, I would often wind up making an emotional response. Afterwards someone would say “wow … you seem to be passionate about that”. Although people want to be lead by a passionate person, most importantly, they want that person to be in control of their emotions.

There were times when I composed myself in not making an emotional response and each time it was a painful experience. Yes painful! Because I rationalized my emotional responses as passionate responses, I didn’t realize I should even be changing my behavior. It wasn’t until we sold our company and I was able to step back through teaching and writing that the emotional mistakes I made became clearer to me.

I think we must first recognize that the essential ingredient to changing a behavior is going through the effort of practice. Most everyone knows that anything you want to get better at requires practice. With all difficult practice, whether physical or mental: “no pain, no gain”.

We can either embrace the pain of practice or we can make excuses and rationalizations.  My rationalization was equating an emotional response to a passionate response.

By embracing and practicing the act of emotional self control, we can ultimately become stronger leaders and set a good example for the people around us.

The Myth of Workplace Politics

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I’ve asked countless people to give me a single word or phrase that they think of when I ask “what instantly comes to your mind when you hear the term “workplace politics”?

Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard:

  • Back stabbing
  • Money grubbing
  • Deceit
  • Power playing
  • Kiss up
  • Manipulating
  • Gossiping behind peoples back

Most everyone thinks that workplace politicking is negative. Not only that, it can be personally disruptive and easily cause a dysfunctional work environment.

Can there be positive workplace politics? Of course! It happens all the time but we don’t always notice it when work runs smoothly without drama.

I think there is a simple reason negative workplace politics is more prevalent.

It is easy to be manipulative, back stabbing, deceitful and a gossip. People can be negative without the requirements of any effort or reasoned thought. All it takes is being confrontational with others while caring solely about your own self interests.

I think when you practice positive workplace politics you must also practice the traits of empathy, concern, affirmation, collaboration and, possibly the most difficult trait, trust. None of these traits are directed inward. They are all practiced with the well being of others in mind.

So what is the reason we don’t practice positive politics? I think the answer lies in the word “practice”. Like anything, being good at something requires a great deal of energy and “practice”.

Engaging in negative politics is lazy and takes virtually no energy or thought at all. Lazy minds are not allowed in an environment of positive workplace politics.

Thus the myth that workplace politics is   only negative!

The Mentor Myth

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Looking back on my business career, I wished that I would have had a mentor. How much more could I have accomplished by having someone to better guide me?

That statement is the myth of the mentor. Myth you say? It certainly sounds reasonable to me.

I think the myth comes from my thinking that if I had had a mentor, I would have actually listened to him or her.

As I think back, although I was definitely confident in myself, I can safely say I wasn’t secure. Isn’t confidence the same thing as being secure? I used to think so but what I did was use my confidence to mask my insecurity.

Confident people who are not secure don’t need help or advice, their plans are clearly better than anyone else’s. Confident and insecure people don’t need to listen to other ideas or solutions because their way is the best way. Confident yet insecure people look at others, shake their head, roll their eyes and think “they just don’t get it”.

Confident yet insecure people think they are the smartest person  in the room even when they are not. If their ideas are challenged they have a tendency to belittle the challenger instead of offering sound reasons for refuting the challenger’s ideas. They rarely answer direct questions and have learned to obfuscate by either not answering or answering a question with another question of their own.

If something goes awry, instead of taking responsibility for their actions, insecure people always look for someone or something to lay the blame on.

Confident secure people seek out advice and help. They are secure enough in themselves to want to search for better and more ingenious ways. Secure people are open to other reasoned ideas that may be better than their own. When they make a decision they own their decisions. They do not blame others if there is a problem and they do not have the need to always take credit when things go well. When asked a question they answer it in a direct reasoned manner they do not have a need to obfuscate.

To this day, asking personal and business friends for help is difficult for me. This is true even when I know that fundamentally, people like to help. I certainly know I enjoy strategizing with others about their personal or business plans and directions.

The moral of the story? Don’t make the mistake of thinking being confident is being secure.  This way, if you are blessed with having a good adviser, you may actually listen to and benefit from listening to them.

CEO Sets the Company Culture

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As one of the young men’s fashion buyers at The Bon Marche in Seattle, now Macy’s, it seemed like every other word that came out of our mouths was a swear word! At the time, our CEO at the Bon was a hard charging merchant and an equally hard charging drinker who loved a good party. All of us thought of him as a great role model in the world of retail. We had a great time but our moral compasses weren’t exactly on tract. That’s not to say we weren’t ethical because we were but in sense, we worked in a dysfunctional workplace. We all were young and thought this hard charging manner was the way we should act in business. Of course, this wasn’t true.

The moral of this story, regardless of what you may think, the CEO of a company always sets to tone for the culture of the company.

First Day on the Job

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Wearing the new suit of clothes I received for graduation and taking the cable car to my first day at work was exciting but also nerve wracking. This was the start of my first real job as an executive trainee at the Emporium/Capwell on Market Street in San Francisco. After arriving at the store, I was sent to the men’s clothing department. I didn’t know that men’s clothing was short for men’s “tailored clothing” meaning suits, sport coats and slacks. Eventually I figured out where I should be.

John, the men’s clothing salesman, was a sage pro. That morning John said something to me that has stayed with me all of these years. He began by telling me to straighten up the department. Fold all the clothes, make sure the jackets were hanging perfectly straight, and make sure every bit of lint was picked up off the floor.  Of course, I conscientiously swept, straightened and arranged all of the clothes and did everything John asked me to do.  It was a Monday morning and business was slow so it didn’t take me more than an hour or so to have that department in what I thought was pristine shape! After I proudly finished my task, I asked John “what should I do next”? He said start all over again. Well, this didn’t seem very logical to me. For heavens sake, I was a college graduate and I like to be efficient with my time. Was there a reason to re-do and re-straighten?  John then said to me a simple thing which has stayed with me all of these years. He said “When you think no one is watching, they are” Yea right! Oh well, I thought, John’s my boss today I’ll do what he says. Not long after I started diligently refolding a pair of slacks, I looked up and standing by my side was the merchandise manager for the entire men’s area. He gave me a smile and a nod of approval. At that point what John, the sage salesman, said made utter and absolute sense. I never forgot what John told me. Now that doesn’t mean I perfectly practiced it, but I always remembered the importance of what John told me that first day on the job.

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