Monthly Archives: November 2016

Hiring Cast Iron People

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I want to dwell on cast iron pans. Hopefully, you own a couple and they’re not sitting in some drawer rusting away. What I’ve been thinking about today is how there are some real misunderstandings about cast iron and how a number of those misunderstandings have equivalencies in how some folks look at employees. Let me explain.

Those of you who don’t use cast iron regularly probably have a few misconceptions. You think that it’s an outdated technology and newer types of pans are lighter and have better non-stick surfaces. You feel that cast iron is temperamental. You can’t wash it with soap and water and as a result, it always has a gross sheen of old cooking oil and other gunk on it. You fear using anything metal on it in case you disrupt the non-stick surface. Finally, you fear cooking acidic food such as tomato sauces in it because the acid will result in an off taste as it interacts with the metal.

None of the above is true. Well, ok. The pans are heavy. I have a 15-inch cast iron skillet that requires a back brace to lift. But it makes a roux like no other pan I have. It took a while to learn how to use cast iron properly. It doesn’t heat evenly but it holds heat fantastically. Because of that, it puts an amazing sear on anything. It can go from stovetop to oven with no fear. I wash mine with soap and water all the time and the non-stick surface is fine. Why? Because it’s not old oil that creates the non-stick. It’s a layer of polymerized oil that has already bonded to the surface. That is also why I cook acidic foods in it without issue as well. The more I fry it in the better that layer becomes. So what does this have to do with business?

We often look at people much as we look at cast iron pans. We think that people who are older can’t have the properties that make them valuable. We hear rumors they’re difficult and that they’re temperamental. We don’t think they are versatile enough to deal with any situation. We hear they require constant care and maintenance. None of those things are true, at least not to a degree that’s any worse than we face with any demographic. The reality is that more experienced people can often perform a multitude of tasks and, like cast iron, get better at them over time and with use.

There is one other thing cast iron has that’s extremely valuable. It’s called emissivity, which is its tendency to expel a lot of heat energy from its surface in the form of radiation. Not only does it cook what’s in contact with its surface but also the food above that surface (think roasting). Who wouldn’t want an employee that radiates high energy to those around them?

If you have a cast iron pan in a closet someplace, take it out, clean it up, reseason it, and put it to work. Not a bad thought for the underutilized experienced employee in your midst either!

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Dead Wrong

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the events of the last couple of days and not all of them pertain to our politics. One question I think I hear from people who fall all across the political spectrum is “how could almost every prediction be so wrong?” After all, putting aside the prognostications of loyalists on either side, none of the pollsters and data-based predictors got this right.

I’m not going to go into the politics but we can learn some valuable business lessons here. I’m not sure this was a case of garbage in, garbage out. That said, it’s clear that the legacy systems from which samples are drawn such as calling landline telephones are not accurate anymore. The real issue is one that I think we have in business, though, which is the inability to tell the difference between “good” data and noise. More importantly, we tend to rely on faulty data to the exclusion of both external factors and our own common sense. We like to tell stories that can be believed, and that happens when the stories echo popular beliefs. We focus on things that have happened already and in so doing we often miss subtle undertones that tell us what went before may not indicate what will come next.

We also suffer from the echo chamber in business. We talk to our coworkers and reinforce faulty information. We tell the tales that our tribe shares and miss those from the outside – the other tribes.

I was just as bad as many of you on Tuesday. I said more than once “unless every poll is dead wrong, it’s going to be a short night.” Well, they were and so was I. While the pollsters will have to wait 4 years to show they’ve learned how data can’t be the only thing we consider as we make decisions about the right path, you get that chance the next time some information crosses your desk. Take it!

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Affirmation And Information

Tomorrow is Election Day here in the US. That’s usually followed in most places by “get out and vote” but not here. Instead, I’m hoping that all of us who are eligible will get informed and then vote. The problem is that many people believe they’re doing just that but aren’t. It’s a problem common to business as well. 

I am pretty sure you’ve shared the experience I’m about to describe although I wonder if you’ve thought about it in business. A friend shares something on social media which you discover is just not true. I had that happen twice last week. I saw something and rather than immediately dismissing it because it didn’t jibe with my world view, I did a little hunting to see it what he posted was factual. It wasn’t and I let him know. Did I expect him to take it down? Hoped, maybe, but not expected. Instead, many of his contacts with a similar world view ignored the facts and continued to comment as if what he posted was gospel.

That’s the issue, both in our business lives and our personal lives. Most of us no longer seek information but instead want affirmation. We want something to tell us we’re right and not something that tells us the truth. That is how businesses go off the rails. The boss has a point of view based on misinformation and his minions spend time finding affirmation, not information. I think it’s also how a country gets off the rails too.

Here comes the cranky old man part. As the internet evolved I was happy because it eliminates gatekeepers of many sorts, including those that restrict the flow of information. Given the absolute deluge of crap, lies, misinformation, and worse that’s out there, I yearn for some responsible gatekeeping. We all need to be better informed as we make important decisions. Seeking what’s true and not just what we want to be true makes a huge difference in our decision-making. Maybe today’s a good day to pledge to do that because there are important decisions to be made, both tomorrow and beyond and in the voting booth as well as in the office. You with me?

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Filed under Reality checks, What's Going On

Hurt Feelings And Non-Competes

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week we have a bit of legal drama. I’ve mentioned several times before in this space that I am a fan of Cook’s Illustrated and have learned a lot about food and cooking from the publication. It was run for its entire existence by Christopher Kimball whom you may know from TV. He left the company a while back and has started his own publication (and media platform) called Milk Street. A few days ago,  The Boston Globe reported that America’s Test Kitchen (the corporate parent) is suing Kimball. Why?

Cook's Illustrated

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lawsuit (filed) Monday against Kimball in Suffolk Superior Court, accusing the firm’s most prominent former employee of disloyalty, saying he “literally and conceptually ripped off America’s Test Kitchen.” “He kept on saying he wasn’t going to compete,” said Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen. “I took him at his word. I think everyone on the board was taking him at his word.”

Hmm. As with most legal spats, there are two versions here that contain much of the truth but THE truth lies somewhere in between. For our purposes, what can we learn that’s applicable to your business?

First, what Kimball appears to have been doing was planning his next venture for some time while he was still employed at ATK. If you’re employed, are you never to think about your next job? Headhunters call people all the time and many startup founders were employees someplace else while they developed their new company’s business plan. It’s unrealistic to think that the folks who work for us don’t look around to see what else is out there. What we can do is to make the choice to leave extremely difficult by keeping them happy, motivated, as well-paid as they could be anyplace else, and continually growing in their jobs.

Second, there doesn’t seem to have been a non-compete in place. This isn’t legal advice but you should be aware that non-competes are generally not enforceable if they’re signed after someone begins working for you without some additional compensation to the employee for having signed. The point of a non-compete for the company is to protect trade secrets and to protect against unfair competition. “Trade secrets” really have to be  proprietary and should be kept secret. They’re not secrets just because the employer says they are. Is ATK doing testing in a way that no one else is? Nope. One look at Serious Eats will show you that.  Have they found a secret business model? Nope. On the other hand, Kimball is alleged to have used ATK’s mailing lists to help start his new venture. That is theft and way over the line. Before you demand someone sign a non-compete, be sure that you have something that’s protectable and have the employee sign the document BEFORE they start work. If you’re adding one retroactively, be sure you give the employee something in return.

Finally, the new magazine just came out and the suit says it  bears a striking resemblance to Cook’s Illustrated, right down to its 32-page size. I got my copy the other day and it’s similar but not the same. You can’t protect look and feel, and clearly, it’s original content (not plagiarized) so a good part of this seems to be hurt feelings. Our jobs as managers and businesspeople are to make feelings of that sort a rarity. Treat your co-workers at least as well as you’d treat a customer (and you know how I feel about that!).

I don’t know which side I’m on but I do know that the entire matter could probably have been avoided with better communication and a lot more transparency. I’m pretty sure that the legal fees each side will incur are a good chunk of what either might have given or received had they talked this through. Better idea, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Don’t Better Deal

Have you ever been to a business function or a cocktail party where the person with whom you’re speaking is constantly searching the room with his eyes? They’re better dealing you. They’re trying to find someone more important (or interesting) who is a better deal than you. In a business setting, it’s usually a higher-up they’d like to impress but it’s generally someone who they think can make their life better than you can. I think that sort of thing is rude. Sure, you should have a general awareness of who is in the room but I think it’s important to be “present” in any conversation you’re having. If you want to end it gracefully and move on, so be it, but don’t nod your head and mumble “uh-huh” while scanning the room.

I can hear you thinking that you’d never do that, at least not unless someone was a boring, raging drunk. As it turns out, there is evidence to suggest that many marketers are better-dealing their customers all the time instead of focusing on what the customer is saying. How do I know? This from eMarketer:

HubSpot examined marketing priorities of marketers worldwide practicing inbound strategies (next-generation techniques that foster a two-way interaction and relationship with prospects and that aim for customers to come to the brand) and outbound strategies (more traditional marketing, in which customers are sought out and reached with general, one-way messaging such as TV, print ads or cold calls). Converting contacts and leads into customers was a marketing priority for 77% of inbound marketers and 68% of outbound marketers.

Increasing revenue from current customers , on the other hand, was only a priority for 46%. This despite the fact that it’s about 5x more efficient to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one. Thinking of it another way, you would have to find five new customers to gain the same profitability as you would from retaining one. You have a 60%-70% chance of selling something to an existing customer and only a 5%-20% chance to sell to a new one. Which odds are more appealing?

You might think you’re giving yourself a better deal by focusing on the next conversation (finding new customers) but as it turns out you’re way better off devoting resources and staying focused on the current chat (your current customers). The odds are the “better deal” will still be at the party when your current conversation moves on. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks