Saturday, April 26, 2008

Watermelons or Potatoes??

Farmers are a risk taking bunch. Elements out of their control affect their success or failure. They are at the mercy of the scorching sun, drenching rains, and driving winds. I propose that the most successful farmers don’t pay much attention to the circumstances out of their control however, but are obsessive about the factors within their realm of influence.

The farmer prepares the field each season by ridding it of unwanted weeds, fertilizing the soil and providing adequate irrigation. He gathers the right tools and equipment and labor. In a word, he is “ready” to succeed.

But….do you suppose that a farmer ever meticulously prepares the land then plants potatoes at planting time and at harvest time is surprised that watermelons have not grown? Of course not, farmers are smarter than that. They know you reap what you sow. Planting potatoes yield potatoes not watermelons….this is a well known farming fact. Why would we plant one crop and expect another? We should not, and for this very reason I have developed a saying, a rule of sorts…it goes like this… “Don’t plant potatoes if you want watermelons.” Brilliant!

This past spring a family of raccoons (just coons, if you are from Southwest Mississippi) took up residence in my attic. It may sound funny to you, but to my wife and daughters this was no laughing matter. I was charged with ridding the house of these unwanted visitors. So…I secured a “capture alive” trap from my local animal control office and set about trapping the intruders. I was informed by the animal control officers that Baton Rouge raccoons love cat food. Now the only coons I knew about (the Southwest Mississippi version) loved corn out of Mr. Bill Trask’s fields or odorous leftovers out of unattended garbage cans. But what did I know; I am a country boy now in the city. I baited the trap with cat food.

It was only after I let the extremely irritated cat out of the trap at 3:30 am, while dressed only in my tightie whities that I realized I had broken my own rule. When you bait with cat food you catch cats, not coons. Watermelons or potatoes, coons or cats….interesting. I eventually caught all the raccoons and released them near some of my best friends’ homes…just kidding….and all is well on the home front. But somehow I could not let go of the reap what you sow thoughts.

If we treat our kids disrespectfully, why do we expect them to treat us respectfully? If we practice our chosen sport lackadaisically, why do we expect to play well during the game? If we do not prepare for business meetings or learn all about our products, how can we expect to help our customers to the extent they will become repeat purchasers? Expecting watermelons when potatoes are planted is akin to insanity.

Like the farmer, however, only so much is within our control. Treating children with respect will not guarantee they will always be respectful. Practicing extremely hard will not guarantee a sporting victory. Knowing your stuff in business situations will not guarantee delighted customers.

But there is one guarantee….not preparing as we should will guarantee failure. Oh sure, a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then, but is that how you want to live your life? Hoping you are lucky?

By doing what we need to do to put ourselves in the place of most potential to succeed we will certainly increase our “batting average” in our quest for successful life experiences and business ventures. But what happens when we do all we can do? We have worked with our children regarding respectfulness, practiced until we could play the sport in our sleep, prepared for the meetings until every answer is automatic… yet the sun scorches, the rain drenches, and the winds shred our crops? Should we crawl in the proverbial hole and wait for the next natural disaster? Of course not. Man up! Hold your head high and set your sights on trying again. Persevere!

Life is actually a series of risks. And the successful mitigate those risks as much as possible by putting themselves in the place of most potential. Without risks there would be no reward. And not only no reward but no excitement either. Teddy Roosevelt put it very succinctly when he said:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Are you half heartedly stumbling through life, dejected because you planted potatoes and expected watermelons? If not I bet your are excited about today and even more so about tomorrow, if not there is great news…yesterday ended last night and today watermelons seeds are on sale! All you have to do is sow them!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hammer or Swiss Army Knife?

It has been said that to the hammer, everything looks like a nail.

When I first heard this said by a business associate I had to think very hard about the real meaning of it. The context of the conversation was a discussion of how some attorneys in a law firm approach every case the exact same, no matter the differing facts of the cases. To those attorneys every situation appears the same, thus should be handled the same.

In today’s world this could be a recipe for disaster.

Treating every client, every employee, every student, every customer, and every circumstance the same doesn’t take into consideration the needs of the individuals involved in the process. Sure we could look for only the individuals to employ, teach or serve that exactly fit our wants and needs, but is this really practical? What we should look for is not the hammer but the Swiss Army knife. This instrument has more gadgets than a few. It is adaptable to multiple situations.

As the leader of an organization or business, adaptability is an enviable trait. I have never heard it said that a single ridged business philosophy will conquer the market. Flexibility and being adaptive to change more likely tips the odds in your favor.

“Bear” Bryant, one of the winningest coaches in college football, admitted in his autobiography, Bear, that he made the mistake, early in his career, of treating all of his players the same. He also admitted to losing some kids due to this belief and behavior. Kids , he became to believe, which could have really helped his teams had he been more flexible. Later in his career, during the time he was winning the most, his philosophy regarding coaching became more adaptive to the individual. He said, “You just have to know who will react best to a kick in the butt… or a pat on the butt.” I believe it was this understanding that lead to his success and to a rival coach saying, “He can take his’n and beat your’n or take your’n and beat his’n.” (Obviously that rival coach was from the South!)

So how can this translate to business? Just as coaches teach and inspire youngsters to perform at the top of their ability in sports, business owners should teach and inspire their teams of employees to perform at their best. To do this a business leader should work to discover the individual wants and needs of his team members. What is it that will inspire them? It is easy to assume that more money in the paycheck is the answer.


Money could be one of the things that inspire, but I propose that reasonable compensation is only a table stake, a method of getting in the game. Employee team members usually want to feel like part of a team, to know they are appreciated for their part…no matter how small a role. In our consulting practice, we often perform an exercise with a management team by asking them what is the most important part of a vehicle. The most common answer is the engine. This is hard to argue with, until you begin discussing the challenges of trying to drive anywhere in a driving rain without windshield wipers! The “stars” on the team are important, but the team itself is paramount. It must all come together.

Recognition, a fun working environment, and strong, trusting relationships with co-workers could be as, or more, important as the size of any paycheck.

What about customers….should we treat them equally? Absolutely not! Choices, choices, and more choices seem to be the mantra of the American consumer. Those institutions that have become adept at serving many customers in an individual (not equal) manner tend to be the most successful.

Professionals charging by the hour for their services are one of the most offensive methods of treating customers equally. I propose that this understanding by professionals that being treated equally is what the consumer wants is 100% false. I also propose that the consumer wants to be treated individually. He has unique wants and needs. Why should he be forced to go through the same meat grinder as everyone before him? Also, this hourly method of pricing services presupposes that every hour of a professional’s time has the same value as any other hour. Again, this could not be further from the truth.

Now, let’s consider Starbucks, a champion of treating customers individually. (One of my friends calls it 4 Bucks..because of the pricyness of the coffee.) The actual process the employees use to greet customers and make the coffee is fairly standard. At the end of the line the cups look pretty much the same. But oh… the content of that cup can be drastically customized! I call it “customerized”. Starbucks also is wonderful at explaining to its employees that value of customization. I have a friend whose name is Eric and he sometimes goes by “E”. E frequents Starbucks. The team at his favorite store greets him by name and has even named his customized coffee concoction an “E”. Given a choice, where do you think E will go to purchase his $4 cup of coffee?

And Starbucks profit margin on the $4 cup….about $3.60! Starbucks is a Swiss Army knife…not a hammer. They have mastered the art of extreme customerization.

How does your business or organization stack up? Is a customer just a number, or do you take the time to understand what they each prefer and appreciate? Consumers are looking for value, not necessarily the lowest price. And value, remember, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You can get a cup of blah coffee at the Quick Stop for about 75 cents or you can get a double latte, with double chocolate syrup, Splenda, fat-free creamer, and whipped cream at Starbucks.

What is your cup of Joe, Joe?

Are you a hammer or a Swiss Army knife?

Super Bowls are not won (or lost) on Super Sunday

Can this really be an essay about business? Certainly…just as ballgames are not actually won on the day of the game but in the countless hours of practice beforehand, successful businesses become successful through careful planning and preparation.

The late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, the famous coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, said that to be successful the will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare. Enough said! Everyone wants to be a winner, but few take the time and put forth the effort to do what it takes to prepare to win.

In athletic events the variables are many, but in business the variables are innumerable. How can we prepare for every contingency? We can’t, but we can prepare for the most likely ones. We simply need to raise the “batting average” when batting in a business venue. A successful business associate informed me that he works on contingency planning during his most highly productive time of his day. He calls this working ON not IN his business. He knows that events seldom happen just as planned and by thinking through where the most likely problems will occur, he can devise plan B….and C, and D. He calls this “Chinese Fire Drill” avoidance! By conditioning his team to think in this manner, there are not many surprises to be faced. They know that if “this” happens then we do “that” and if “that” happens then we do “this”.

I have heard many not-so-successful business people lament about their more successful competition being lucky in one way, shape, or form. Sure sometimes the playing field is tipped in favor of another, but most of the time it is a matter of someone else working harder and preparing to be successful, rather than leaving it up to chance.

My older daughter has recently graduated from college and has begun her working career. In the weeks leading up to the actual graduation ceremony many friends and acquaintances asked me about her university experience and what she was on to next. I proudly informed them of her tennis accomplishments (Samford University freshman of the year, 2 time all conference, 2 time conference tournament champs, 2 NCAA appearances, and 1 regular season championship) they inevitably comment about how lucky she is.

Then I talk about her academic accomplishments (President’s scholar, Athletic commissioner’s Honor role, a degree in 4 years)… again the word luck comes up.

From there I talk about her nursing job she has accepted in the city she wants to live in, at the hospital that she wants to work in, on the floor that she wants to work on, and the very shift she requested.

We then talk about her renting a nice house from one of her professors that is close to her work and to other places of importance to her.

Lucky….they all say it. I myself have even said it. She is a lucky girl.

But then I started to think about that a little. What is luck and how does it come about?

In regard to tennis, I seem to recall hundreds of thousands of serves, forehands, backhands, and volleys, hours and hours of practice and strategy discussions with her coach, untold numbers of tournaments, and camps. And, my personal favorite, early mornings before school with Dad working on something she wasn’t happy with in her game. Yeah, she was lucky in tennis.

Academics… even though I wasn’t personally there, I heard about the classes, the library, the study groups, the visits with professors and advisors and the, back of the tennis van, study sessions. Yeah, she was lucky when it came to academics.

Beginning career and living arrangements….again, I wasn’t there but I got the calls about all the options, salary, benefits, retirement plans, future opportunities, stepping stones, budgets, house vs. apartments, her visits and relationship with Geri (her favorite professor and mentor), and about a thousand and one other issues she has been considering. She sought out advice from those who had done it before or had specific knowledge in an area…..Yeah, she is lucky with the job and house.

I think you get the picture….you make your own luck, most of the time. Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. Luck is what happens when you are bold.

Preparation, a strong work ethic, and boldness…what a combination….almost unstoppable! Where are you in these areas? I can honestly say I have fallen short in all of them from time to time.

Please note that in none of the paragraphs above is intellect mentioned. It is not that I believe intellect to be not important or desirable. But I believe there is a very low ratio between success and intellect. The world is full of intellectuals who do not convert thought to action. Action brings results! Preparation makes taking action much easier. In most cases it is not “getting it right” that matters but “getting it started”. Until the rocket is launched it cannot adjust its course.
And it could not be even launched with out a vast amount of preparation.

Here’s to showing up, being ready for the game, studying the business plan, and launching rockets!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cheating....It can be the right thing to do!

OK, so the title may be misleading, but how else to describe fraud? Still confused? Let me explain. When I was growing up I was the youngest of 4 male cousins and a brother. All of them were talented athletes. Sure I had some talent but nowhere near how God had blessed them. When we would play touch football (which often turned into tackle football) I was always last to be chosen. My ego was often bruised and battered. To this day I have an inferiority complex. So….I began to cheat.

I began to practice even when they were not around. I would throw the ball high in the air and run to catch it. I would throw the ball into a small cedar tree until the neighbor thought the tree would die. I would read books about great football players and if they said they ate raw eggs…I ate raw eggs. (This is all true.) You see, I really wasn’t that good, but by cheating I was able to commit fraud…and convince myself that I was. I thought by working extra hard when they were not looking, I may be able to surprise them next time.

Does this make a little sense now? In some instances cheating can be good.

In school I sometimes did not quite “get” what the teacher was talking about. Maybe because it was complicated or it was a left brain activity and I am right brained or maybe I just simply was not fully paying attention. So…I cheated.

I would re-read the material, ask a friend to allow me to study her notes or explain it to me again. Sometimes I even visited the teacher before the test for some extra tutoring. By cheating…(studying more), most of the time, I got a good result.

Today, I cheat daily in my business life. My job is one of consulting (talking) with business owners about how to improve the performance of their businesses. In order to be able to make some sense to them, I read lots of books and papers about business. I attend seminars and lectures on subject matter that may help me help the business owners. I prod my team to help me think through situations and circumstances. Two (or more) brains are better than one. And I usually don’t depend too much on my memory. I cheat…I take notes, then I read and re read those notes. I spend time thinking about what I read or heard and how it may apply to a situation with one of my customers. I also usually go into meetings with an agenda. Once a business man told me he was impressed by how organized I was and that I knew what we needed to talk about each time we met. I didn’t tell him that the agenda is nothing more than my cheat notes!

Most of the truly great athletes, business persons, and world leaders are cheaters! These people begin with a tremendous amount of talent (a blessing from God) then they begin the cheating process. They create an unfair advantage for themselves by working so hard and creating muscle memory and brain automation.

My younger daughter, when she was 10, was the number 1 ranked 10 year old in the state of Louisiana in competitive tennis. She picked it up just because the rest of my family enjoyed tennis. She played from the time she could carry a racquet until she was about 12. She is 14 now and has not played in a couple of years. She and I went to the court last weekend and hit a few balls around. I was amazed at how she played. Although rusty, she was still very good. Why? Muscle memory. She had done it so much in her childhood that keeping her head down on the ball, getting her feet into position, and striking the ball crisply was as natural as walking to her.

This exercise with my daughter triggered my thinking toward mind memory or brain automation. If we think a certain way long enough, it becomes automatic. Have you ever noticed that some people are negative most of the time and some people are positive most of the time? The way they think is automatic…they simply cannot help it.


This brings me back to cheating.

If you are a negative (deficit based) thinker and have reacted that way to information or suggestions for a long period of time, then that thought process may have become entrenched and automatic. But if you want to make a change in this habit you may have to cheat a bit. If you think about thoughts moving through your brain just as water flows in a river bed, the more or longer the same type thoughts flow, the deeper the channel and more difficult for a change in course. But, nature has provided us with a built in “Corps of Engineers”. You can send in the “workers” to dig a new channel, a small tributary, which can begin to divert your thoughts in another direction.

This is where the cheating comes in. When a negative thought occurs, simply call on the “workers” to wipe it out and replace it with a positive thought. After doing this time and time again, a new tributary will be formed. If simply calling on the workers will not work for you, maybe an advance form of cheating could be employed.

Charles Barkley, a celebrated and talented professional basketball player, who was once known as the “Round Mound of Rebound”, was overweight for most of his youth. When he wanted to eat between meals and the “workers” wouldn’t answer the call, he popped his wrist with a rubber band that he wore there. The sting would remind him of his negative thought and then he could more readily replace it with a positive action. After employing this technique over a period of time, he was able to remove the rubber band. The tributary to the thought river was deep enough to navigate!

For some reason, we think, idealistically, that the world should be always fair. Intellectually, however, we know this is not true. So why do we think in any situation, whether it be school, business, family life or war that the circumstances should be fair? General Colin Powell commented when he heard a statement from an esteemed Senator from the great state of New York concerning how the United States had really not accomplished much in defeating Iraq because of the unfairness of the fight. “It absolutely was not fair and I never want it to be!” General Powell indicated he wanted overwhelming superiority in every facet of the battle, in numbers, equipment, training, technology, and enthusiasm, and to add to that, he also wanted to catch the enemy asleep and totally unsuspecting.

Now that it cheating, and it is the way to success!

I don’t know about you but I want the field tipped in my favor every time. And if I have to cheat to do it, I will. Yes, the verb “cheat” as I use it, is a play on words. I hope that your thought rivers run true and your tributaries are easily built. But if they are not, please don’t be afraid to cheat as much and as often as you can.

Cheating can be good.