If you’ve spent any time reading this drivel, you’ve probably seen my constant nagging to provide value by solving problems. No, I’ve not changed my thinking about that, but I’d like to put one stipulation on the statement: make sure that the problem is real. I’m thinking specifically of those people who have hero syndrome. Not the seriously ill type such as the firefighter who is also an arsonist, lighting fires so they can save the day. I mean the people who are constantly solving problems that don’t exist.
I used to work with someone who would stick their head in my office and report that some client or partner was having an issue. They also told me not to worry – they were on the case and would handle it. Phew! Of course, it was rather odd when I mentioned to one of the “saved” partners that I was happy that my team member was able to solve their issue and the partner had no clue what I meant. Fortunately, the “hero” in question moved on not long afterward.
The other side of the equation is also true. There are people who are the “go-to” people in various areas and who become indispensable, so much so that their mental and physical health can suffer because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s another aspect of hero syndrome. They feel as if they won’t be appreciated if they ask for help. Instead, they often become bitter, burnout, or both.
How do we handle people with hero syndrome? First, make sure the problems they are solving are real and are worth solving. Not everything is a crisis, you know. Second, make sure that they have the resources to solve the problem quickly, efficiently, and completely. Sometimes for those of us who were higher-ups, it means getting your hands dirtier than usual, often doing work for which you’re overqualified. I always felt as if I was paid to be everyone’s safety net, so if it was a job I could do, I did it. I have plenty of paper cut scars from making last-minute copies and assembling binders when I was needed. Finally, pay attention to the folks who are constantly being heroes. Make sure they’re not lighting the fires they’re busy extinguishing. Make sure no one is constantly backlogged with work and everyone knows it’s OK to just say “no” when they’re overwhelmed. Those times are when those of us in management earn our pay.
Way back when in 1995, I was working at ABC Sports as their VP of Marketing. My job entailed meeting with advertisers and constructing packages of media and on-site benefits. We’d collaboratively design in-program elements, popularly known then as “enhancements”, to capitalize on the marketers’ involvement with a sport or an event. These things all took place on-air or on-site. The other big “on” – online – didn’t exist.
One day the president of ABC Sports walked into my office and asked me if I knew anything about computers. As a user of AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and other early services, I replied that I did. He informed me that I was in charge and was to attend a meeting. ABC corporate had made a deal with this little start-up of under a million users called America OnLine and I was now to provide sports programming on behalf of ABC.
That was my pivot into digital. I didn’t realize it at the time, but saying “yes” to my boss’ question and being willing to take on some new, different responsibility had changed my life forever. None of us knew at the time that digital was going to disrupt the television business. We certainly didn’t think of it as anything other than an interesting sideline. But we began to see a little money coming in based on what we were doing, and once in a while, I could add some online stuff to the broad package of rights and benefits I was offering in my “real” job. Less than 5 years later, my job had become fully centered on digital, as I was now running a division of the NHL that didn’t even exist when I entered the digital world.
Being willing to pivot is a critical thing. Many businesses would be long gone if they were unwilling to do so. Foursquare, for example, pivoted their business from a consumer product to a B2B product, providing “location intelligence” to marketers. 90% of their revenue comes from that change. YouTube started as a video dating site. Nokia was a paper company. Twitter was a podcasting network. None of those businesses would be as successful, or maybe even exist, if they hadn’t been willing to shift their business paradigm and pivot.
I’d love to tell you that I saw the digital tsunami coming and got out in front of it on purpose but that would be a lie. I was lucky enough to ride the wave once it did show up because in my mind we were just doing what we’d always done – making great content and deriving value from the attention users gave it – albeit through a very different channel. The pivot was allowing my mind to be open enough to make that connection and to take the risk that it would be a rewarding road. Is your mind open to things like that?
Today is the first day of school around here. If these kids are like many of the ones I’ve met over the years (and maybe even the two we raised), at some point the inevitable question pops up:
Why do I need to go to school?
As they get older, the question changes a bit (probably because they enjoy seeing their friends at school every day):
Why do I need to learn this stuff?
That’s our topic today, and I think it’s something that applies to the business world as well. The answer to the first question is pretty obvious, and it’s not just because your parents are exhausted after driving you around all summer and need you gone for a bit. I’m a lot more interested in the second question because I think that most students, parents, and teachers get the answer wrong. You don’t need to learn “this stuff.” I can’t think of a single instance in my adult life where understanding differential equations or the structure of the carbon atom has been required.
So as a public service, I’m going to give you the answer to the second question which hopefully also answers the first. I’ve given it out before but hey, it’s the first day of school and the questions might come up again so you’re welcome.
You go to school to learn two things.
- How to locate and verify pieces of information (let’s call them facts) in order to formulate your thoughts.
- How to express the thoughts you formulate both orally and in writing to communicate your thinking.
That’s it. Learn those two things and you can pretty much do anything you choose to do in this world. Ask yourself how many business people you know who can do those two things successfully and I’ll bet you also have a list of the best business people you know. In an era when “fake news” is a term thrown around like beads at a Mardi Gras parade, understanding how to determine what news is really fake and what’s just being labeled as such to distract you from facts is critical. Not everything you read in your school books is accurate, but if you don’t have a well-developed BS detector as well as the skills to track down the truth, how will you create accurate thoughts from inaccurate information either in school or beyond?
Please feel free to print this off and hand it to your kids, large or small, who are wondering about school. Feel free to ask yourself if you managed to learn those things along the way as well. If not, maybe it’s back to school for you too?
I’m going to be a little lazy today since I have a sneaky feeling that many of you are off having fun for the extended holiday weekend. My laziness is taking the form of reposting this piece from July of 2008. As I reread it, It struck me that it’s even more appropriate now than it was 9 years ago (have I really been at this for that long??). No, it’s not an election year, but the rest of it struck a chord with me. You?
It’s going on July 4th and to all of us raised on the Red, White, and Blue we know it’s a day (OK, a long weekend) during which we can celebrate the fundamental principles that make the US of A what it is. No, I’m not going to venture into politics (although it IS an election year and there’s a LOT to talk about). What I do want to write about is the contradiction of the “independence day” term.
The Constitution (I know – a bit after the Declaration) begins with the word “we.” We The People. Not “me.” The independence rightly celebrated this weekend is, to me, about the specific rights and freedoms we have to be ourselves as a people, with all the quirks that make us unique. WE are independent of other folks (Great Britain, specifically, long ago) but NOT from one another. I’ve spent the last 30+ years learning how critical having a strong bunch of folks around you is as well as setting the bar high in terms of with whom you do business as best you can. Why? Because the better they are, the better you become. As I’ve transitioned from corporate life to consulting, the friends and business friends I’ve made over the last 30 years have been an unbelievable support network, even for a guy who is now independent.
Jack Ingram puts it well in his song “We’re All In This Together“:
We all think we’re special
And I hate to have to say
There’s a bunch of us on every corner
Of any town U.S.A.
We all got our problems
We all pay our dues
So if you’re thinking no one understands
I’ve got news for you
We’re all in this together
Whether we like it or not
So we might as well have a good time
With the little piece of time we got
Life’s too short to fuss and fight
So we might as well be friends
‘Cause we’re all in this together
Together till the bitter end
So Happy July 4th. Enjoy being independent. Together.
Like many of you, I often feel as if I have way too many things on my “to do” list. I’ll often start one task and then segue into another while trying to complete the first. Maybe I’ll read my email mail while I’m talking on the phone or maybe I’ll try to write the screed while I’m thinking of solutions to a client’s problem. My guess is that you make similar attempts to multitask.
Then there are the dummies who multitask at the worst possible times. Texting and driving, for example. The sad fact is that multitasking – even in situations where there aren’t potentially deadly results – does not work. As the American Psychological Association research found:
Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.
When we try to begin a new task while performing another, we have to make a mental switch to whatever rules and information will govern the new task. Our brains can’t do two things at once, and that switching means that we’re actually losing time and being less efficient in our attempt to be more efficient. Doing one thing at a time – and finishing it! – helps you get more done. Most importantly, you feel better as you can actually cross something off that “to do” list.
I think we’re all a bit ADD. The non-stop stream of news, email, social pings, and other distractions makes it incredibly hard to focus. I’ll admit to having a shorter attention span than I did 20 years ago, and I don’t think it’s (solely) because my aging brain is less functional. We’ve all become victims of the TL;DR syndrome or, even worse, the Fear Of Missing Out by remaining focused to the exclusion of all those alerts. Everything is too long and we want Cliff’s Notes versions. It’s hard to pay attention to that one task for an extended period, at least it seems so to me. But overcoming that desire to multitask is really the key to getting things done. I’m really going to work harder on it. You?
I’ve mentioned before here on the screed that I have friends of all political persuasions. By definition, that means that some of them diverge quite a bit from where I stand on various issues. I posted something on Facebook the other day about an action the Senate took to restrict press access (since rescinded). While my post had to do with the need for our First Amendment rights to remain unimpeded, a friend replied with a long comment that was a litany of hate speech the left wing had spewed. I suspect he was reacting to the horrible shootings in Alexandria last week.
He had missed my point entirely but that’s not my topic today. Instead, I want to reflect upon my immediate response and why it can be a horrible mistake in business. Within a few seconds of reading his rant, I had flipped over to the place on Facebook where you can block someone. After all, I don’t want my page to be filled with half-truths and venom. Fortunately, I took a breath and remembered a couple of things. First, this guy is a friend of over 20 years, and I know he has a big heart even if his head seems to interpret the world very differently from mine. Second, he and I have had many chats about politics and we’ve actually found that we agree on a lot more than you might expect. But it was the last thing I thought about which is relevant to you and to your business.
One of the biggest problems anyone in business can face is incomplete information. The other thing is that they live in an echo chamber, a place where all they hear is their own voice reflected back at them. Some people like it that way – I’ve worked for guys who never heard anything that contradicted their world view because they made it intolerable for anyone who brought them that sort of information. Closing off your mind to divergent points of view doesn’t improve your decision-making nor does it reflect the reality of the world. If you believe that all your customers are happy and totally satisfied, you’re delusional. Shooting the messenger or writing off the negative reviews is short-sighted. Ignoring data that point to a different direction than the one you’re taking is simply fostering ignorance. When I thought about blocking my friend and his divergent thinking from my page, I was heading down a very dangerous road (and infringing on his First Amendment rights too!).
As I’ve written before, I’m a firm believer in anyone’s ability – inside or outside of business – to express their opinions. I insist, however, that those opinions be grounded in fact. Is that how you approach things? Do you welcome new ideas and new thinking? Are you keeping an open mind?
This Foodie Friday our topic is rudeness. OK, maybe not rudeness per se but whatever it is one would call being brusque with servers in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and elsewhere. You know what I’m talking about. You probably have a friend who treats the waitstaff as if they are indentured servants rather than food service professionals who work long hours for not a lot of money. Maybe they make ridiculous demands or maybe they manage to find fault with everything that’s sent from the kitchen, causing problems not just for the server but also for the cook who will probably have to refire the dish.
It’s an important business point. When you’re dining out, you’re in a position of power with respect to the servers and, to a lesser extent, the entire kitchen. In an office setting, there are managers who revel in that and they’re the ones whose subordinates can’t wait to find employment elsewhere. No one likes being treated dismissively. The rude manager is probably feeling a need to demonstrate how special (or entitled) they are. To a lesser extent, I think they’re trying to see what they can get away with. Unfortunately, subordinates rarely get the chance to tell the manager’s manager how detrimental this behavior is to the entire team.
I’m not saying we need to be obsequious either to the waitstaff or to our subordinates. I am saying that “please,” “thank you,” and other demonstrations of appreciation (a nice tip to the server, a decent raise if possible to the employee) will get you better results than being demanding and rude. I often wished that I could take every candidate I was thinking of hiring out for a meal, or at least for coffee. You will learn an awful lot about their character, especially if the service really is bad or if their order gets messed up.
One of my bosses told me a long time ago to think about managing as if I were moving a piece of string. If you get behind it and push, it rarely will go where you want. If you get out in front and pull, you can lead it anywhere. Good manners are part of being out in front, whether in a restaurant or an office, don’t you think?