Dr. Alan Weiss Interviews Omar Khan

Click on the arrow below to listen to this rare interview where million dollar consultant, Alan Weiss, interviews global consultant, Omar Khan

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Client Matters

Here are two opposite ends of the spectrum of what consultants often experience with clients.

GIVE ME A SESSION

We’ll often get contacted with the following, “We want a two day session for our senior team.” Many neophyte consultants lick their lips and pounce on the ‘opportunity’ with alacrity. They start shooting off proposals, buffing up their hallowed methodology, and more.

A more sane, measured and customer-serving response to the request for a two day session is, “Why?”

That always stops people in their tracks. “Why do you want a two day session for your senior team and how do you know that’s the right thing to do?”

In the act of asking that question, you start actually consulting. And if you engage in a real dialogue on the basis of those questions you will gain bracing insight into the real issues, challenges and aspirations of the clients. You may also get a bracing introduction to the assumptions they’re making — many of which are potentially untested.

It may well be that a two day session is like a relatively empty vessel, into which after suitable diagnostics and appropriate design, you can pour content that will actually serve their needs and best interests. But it may also be that a half day alignment session would suffice, and the real action needs to take place at other organizational levels, or with a different group of people, or may require preliminary contact with customers or other stakeholders. It could be that a six month process is needed, but woven in holistically to meetings already planned rather than a separate offsite.

My recommendation to clients is if you put out a request like the one above, and get a proposal back in response, disqualify the person or group from further consideration as the request has no meaning without further exploration.

And if you receive a request like the above, differentiate yourself meaningfully by helping to get to the core of  what’s driving the request, rather than getting infatuated by the format proposed.

AVOIDING THE PANACEA OF EMPTY PROCESS

Here’s another common challenge. An organization decides they need to create a strategy and manage its roll-out. They get an organizational consultant with a strategy implementation process, anchored in the balanced scorecard or some other framework. As they proceed, courtesy of this framework, they are deluged with meetings, with process charts, with communiques, and eventually they arrive at what they perceive to be The Holy Grail. Namely, they have a clear map. All inconsistencies are removed (on the charts anyway), and the path forward glitters like a mythical Yellow Brick Road.

The problem is the map is not the territory, and never has been. The problem is that underlying the process clarity is dysfunctional relationships, misguided leadership behaviors, poorly aligned teams, social networks that don’t operate well, governance practices that may be out of kilter with strategic aspirations, information hoarded rather than shared, a culture that is ossified with past practices rather than vitalized by future aspirations. And eventually the ‘knowing/doing gap’ will become that much more profound.

I always advise people that once they have process clarity, they have to convert that into a more human map: of  behaviors-in-action, team composition and alignment, presence of vibrant or nullifying relationships, communication and network effectiveness, leadership role-modeling and relevant efforts at culture-shifting in order to make the processes actually manifest. Until these adaptive elements are infused into the process steps, to humanize and actualize the processes, we run the risk of trying to run the world from an operating manual.

It doesn’t work. In fact, most of us don’t even run our computers from a manual. We get some hands-on experience while drawing on some guidance, then tinkering and adapting based on results. Alas in an organization there are many more moving parts, and my ‘tinkering’ can have expensive consequences if not synergized with the learnings and efforts of others.

Process clarity and human engagement must march together. You can see an organization as a collection of processes and plans. Fair enough. But you can even more meaningfully see it pulsating with what we call, human performance. In other words, the subtotal of all the actions, interactions, behaviors, collaboration and communication between all the people who make a difference to the success or failure of the organization. You can see the organization as a patchwork quilt of teams, conversations and acted upon commitments. These are human dimensions, and if not addressed, all the gewgaws and trinkets of process clarity will be fallow and leave your strategic vision unfulfilled.

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A Content Free Zone!

Listening today to US government representatives intoning platitudes about the potentially epochal happenings in the Middle East, was both dispiriting and instructive in a broader sense.

Interviewers would ask about the lessons of Egypt, our 30 years of support for an increasingly imperious dictator, the behavior of the Bahraini government before being reined in by global opinion and US pressure, the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood stepping into the breach in Egypt and more. Almost as if the nuances and specifics of the question didn’t matter, out would come on auto-pilot, the almost statutory talking points.

Generic codswallop about “we support democracy”, “we are behind the legitimate aspirations of the people of….(fill in the blank),” “everyone should be peaceful”, “we have been sending this message for years” (one is reminded about the old saw of insanity having to do with repeating the same things over and over and hoping for different results), “we vetoed the UN resolution calling the Israeli settlements illegal because we think they are illegitimate but not illegal and we’re trying to get he parties to the table” (Heaven forefend that we actually do so any time in the near future, but it’s a lovely bit of rhetorical flotsam).

An entirely content free zone. No insight, no analysis, no self-criticism, no indication that we don’t have a pathological immunity to learning (why our “intelligence” community missed the Iranian revolution and the Egyptian ‘implosion’ with virtually equal obliviousness for example), nothing that would be more than a PR slogan. The devolution of discourse is alarming. No one in a politically representative position says anything. We hope they think something, and their thoughts have greater gravitas than their lacunae-riddled  public statements.

How it would be nice to hear any of the following:

*The oil resources of the Middle East are central to our economy. Hence its stability has been construed to be a strategic priority. This has led to us supporting some very unsavory regimes and leaders.

*Mubarak kept the Camp David Peace Accords together after the assassination of Sadat. This has kept the Middle East from war. Because with Egypt being an ally of the United States and Israel, such a war would be unthinkable. Mubarak has also helped with arms embargoes to Gaza and more. Given that, while we could entreat him to be more rational as a dictator (not flash his pictures or his progeny or his loot so palpably, not to so egregiously steal elections and silence dissenters), we were between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

*We cannot of course take a stance against the peaceful aspirations of a populace, and this caught us completely off guard — the maturity, grace and courage of the Egyptian people gives us both pause and hope.

*The Muslim Brotherhood is a minority party in Egypt and we should not attempt to make them into a bogey-man. We have to hope that the entire spectrum of Egyptian opinion can be expressed when political parties are formed and true elections held. We will do whatever we can to assist this process.

*The events now occurring in other parts of the Middle East, require a delicate balancing act from us. We support such aspirations, but have realities to contend with, like a naval fleet parked in Bahrain and that country’s role as a US staging post in many ways.

*Our move to alternative energy is critical. The reason Iran continues as it does, is because of petro-dollars. Absent such income, all such regimes would have to tap their human capital. That would mean legitimizing themselves and enrolling the commitment of their people, tapping their productive energies. Then ideology and pragmatism would be allied. Over time, that is the synergy that changes the world.

As leaders, political leaders or business leaders, apply this litmus test to what you say in public.

1) Will this put the most critical issues into sharper relief and give us the right terms for engagement in a dialogue?

2) Will people have learned something by the time I’m done conveying the message that they didn’t know prior?

3) Is there enough authenticity and candor that people will trust future messages, or will they tune-out rather than be numbed insensate by what is little more than elocution practice?

Too much is afoot in the world for us to tolerate empty blandishments and talking points. We need insight, we need courage, we need awareness and we need action.

Perhaps rather than preening for cameras, our “leaders” can transform our own seeming contempt for the perspicacity of those who listen to us, as a way to role-model to dictators the need to respect the more basic rights of their populace. Yes, these are at very different levels of a Maslowian Hierarchy of Needs. But why not start with our own reflexes? Radical change is so much easier to preach elsewhere than to exemplify at home. That may be why our posturing looks so hollow and sounds so often shrill.

Let’s really talk — the genius of the American system is the mobilizing and transforming power of dialogue as it ripples through the various organs of power. We can be a lot smarter than we currently sound.

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A Week of Stimuli!

At the BA Lounge in JFK last week awaiting our flight to Heathrow. John Stauss, Area VP and General Manager of The Four Seasons Hotels in the UK ran across us. He was heading back for the much heralded relaunch of the once “Inn on the Park” that launched the entire Four Seasons luxury chain and brand.

Two years and a Croesus-level investment later, a re-imagined hotel is ready to be showcased. As they had prepared to close, John Stauss personally introduced us to a rival hotel to ensure we would be be comfortable in London while he was refitting his own hotel. We’ve stayed in touch, he is an enthusiastic entree to their other hotels and a friend. That level of personal care, attention and warmth are not only human assets, they are formidable business advantages. How do you compete against that?

We did a pre-opening walk through with him while in London and he showed us what he called “your suite”. We met with the Chefs and our preferences and favorite dishes were discussed as well as balcony and garden locations explored where I could have a postprandial puff.

Intimacy and high touch take over and take us across the finish line when the physical endowments and technological assets have laid the foundation. As I’ve said above, imagination and rapport are competitive advantages that are far harder to benchmark or to imitate.

While in London, at our current home of The Connaught, a jewel of hospitality overall, we were flummoxed by the staff turnover and found we were reintroducing ourselves to people in an hotel allegedly famed for intimacy and continuity. The former without the latter is very hard to realize.

The Connaught once had a “resident chauffeur”. So guests got to know Andy and were looked after by him. If you came out on a rainy night when cabs were scarce, and Andy didn’t have a job, he’d jauntily offer you a ride. That intervention on such a night would be a gesture you always remembered and which repaid the hotel in loyalty and positive word of mouth that is immeasurable.

Now the group that owns The Connaught, Claridges and The Berkeley has opted to have a “chauffeur pool” in some tilt towards “efficiency” no doubt. So having built rapport (all these properties had resident Chauffeurs), they now make it ludicrously difficult for guests to get the person they request — as it’s a common pool! Also the drivers now know less about the properties, the rhythms of life there, the people who entertain there, stay there and more. So emasculate insight, buffer service stars from those who want them, and have hacks allocating them in terms of some scheduling coefficient and call this “efficiency”!  This was the very opposite principle of what worked so well with John Stauss…and it took the intervention of the Head Concierge as well as Andy’s own diligence for us to get him over to us. A minor matter overall — but we know and like Andy and on the long rides we had to take for clients on drizzly English mornings, I preferred to pay the same tariff and have a “mate” behind the wheel. Why make that hard to do? Why not leverage it for the competitive edge it should be?

We had a working week-end with our clients, a Danish senior leadership team. They did a deep dive into relationships, priorities and behaviors. They moved from amiable pseudo-community to having successively more candid and trusting conversations and challenging and supporting each other in generating successively more pragmatic and yet visionary commitments to activate and be accountable for.

While doing so they competitively scoped out Windsor, did a very creditable Ice Sculpture, practiced archery and composed and executed a musical piece on African drums. Why? “Why not?” is the better question.

As in between these hefty dialogues they bonded by experiencing something new, flexing their paradigms, and gaining both new experiences and new skills while having fun. If anyone believes that judiciously threading such experiences through radical business engagement doesn’t loosen hangups, remove masks, foster warmth, liberate energy and help people take themselves less seriously, then they are operating in an alternate universe. It does and it did. They left with rich memories as well as with robust commitments.

We returned yesterday to New York and the same evening attended a wine auction and dinner at New York’s legendary Per Se restaurant to benefit the Perlman music program run by Itzhak Perlman to develop young musical talent.

Afflicted with polio at a young age, the violin virtuoso Perlman is a living embodiment of the passionate love of musical expression and of art truly vivified by artistry. Humble, affable, witty, compelling, with a prodigious love of life, talent and fine wine (his first question to me last night: “So what’s your one desert island wine?”), friends and admirers and supporters had come together to affirm the mission of this wonderful program. Over $300,000 was raised in small lots of wine and dining experiences among much jollity and camaraderie.

During the course of the evening, two lovely young ladies (students at Julliard, alumni of the Perlman music program) graced us with a breathtaking classical  rendition. These young musicians were passionately alive, as someone said “struggling with the thing they love, to express themselves, whether the effort lead to success or failure; as they would rather fail in something they love than succeed in something they don’t care about.” That transmuting of personal ego into fulsome dedication, a human being lit by the fire of possibility, is a beautiful thing to observe, and we were all blessed by it. We can understand the ardor for music, but few of us glimpse the arduousness that lets a life-time of devotion shine through the prism of application into high art.

Nothing strings all these experiences together really — they were a week’s worth of abundant stimuli. Well nothing except to say that success, business success or personal success, comes from being deeply and courageously personal — with others, with your craft, with yourself, inviting life to be your teacher, your conduit and your canvas. Connect with compassion and care with others, learn avidly and with humility, express passionately and with personality, and give yourself to that which you care about for all you’re worth. If that’s not success — nothing is!

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Time To Ask the Real Question

I was trolling through various websites, of various gurus and pundits. And you hear incontestable gems like, “Teamwork really pays off,” or “Managers have to care about who the person is beyond the 9 to 5 job,” or “Don’t let negativity get you down,” or “If you don’t care about your health, who will?”  Now, underneath the fortune cookie gloss there are veins of wisdom in each of these observations, that if mined can be genuinely illuminating.

But why are these base-line statements still needed? Why haven’t we moved on to saying, as perhaps a next-stage observation for each of these: “For teamwork to pay off you have to know who you’re on a team with and why,” or “Managers have to show they know their people by customizing recognition and coaching accordingly,” or “Look to reframe the negative concerns shared with you in a way that releases rather than inhibits possibility,” or “Care about your health by creating goals that would be fun to realize even if seemingly tough to reach.”  These are far more interesting insights and assume we’ve at least passed “go” already.

Arguably the reason we keep reiterating basics as if they were first-time bolts from the heavens is because cerebral repetition, even of almost axiomatic observations, just doesn’t work. And while I can as a fan of  the indefatigable nature of the human spirit applaud the seeming immunity to lack of results (or can I?) that engenders such enthusiastic repetition, the consultant in me would suggest we’re using enthusiasm as a surrogate for strategy which is rarely wise. Sure, absent a viable strategy, I’d rather have enthusiasm, as we’ll  at least muddle forward until we find a way through — a way that can spawn a strategy. But when there’s a repeatedly failing and dysfunctional strategy, enthusiasm can be just a convenient name given to dogmatism and obtuseness.

The real question is not, “Do teams deliver value?” Surely we’re past that.  The real question is, “Given how valuable teams can be, why are we not one, or seeking to become one?”

The real question is not, “Should managers value people as people?”  Again, paradigmatically at least it’s the 21st century not the 19th. Rather it is, “Why would you practically expect to get the best from someone if they feel you don’t know them or care about them?” And, “How can we most effectively and appropriately care about those who work with us and for us?”

The question is not, “Should you let negativity get you down?”  Surely everyone from Zig Ziglar to the Dalai Lama have helped us tackle that one. The question is instead: “Why do we so often encourage and proliferate negative downward spiral conversations and thought patterns?”

The real question can’t be, “Should you care about your health?”  Our mania in this regard is well documented. Health-obsession, at least insofar as the cosmetic aspects of health having become a virtual religion,  the real question is, “Since we all have a vested interest in our health, how can we make sure that translates into how we live?”

Questions need to be applied at the fulcrum of knowledge and behavior, at the potential disconnect between understanding and emotional commitment. Repeating nostrums won’t help. Delving into barriers, obstacles, limiting logic, ineffective default positions, outmoded reflexes, can be transformational. The Archimedean lever with which to move the world is asking the right question. A question jarring enough to our complacency that it almost impels action. A question that mobilizes action, not just piles on more insight.

So beware of any adviser, guru, consultant, or otherwise, who spends the bulk of their time with you repeating homilies or seeking to browbeat you into acting on the patently obvious — by stint of its conceptual incorrigibility. There is a huge knowing-doing gap in human affairs. Otherwise the Golden Rule would have outlawed almost all conflict a couple of millennia ago.

Understanding what keeps that gap gaping in specific situations for specific people and organizations, and thereby understanding, learning and practicing how to bridge that gap based on such understanding — that’s where the mother lode is.

Decide to make 80% of all problem solving or educational or coaching conversations about why what needs to happen isn’t happening, and demanding accountable progress at those epicenters of the issue, and watch your business, your life and your results, and those of others you are seeking to help, positively transform!

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Communication or Reality?

There are numerous analyses of the US midterm elections.

However there seems to be a confusion over “ideas” as opposed to “communication”.

The ancients reminded us that communication effectiveness (as highlighted in an earlier post) revolves around the trinity of  “Ethos” (the credibility and character of the communicator), “Pathos” (appeal to common human feelings and emotions) and “Logos” (logic).

President Obama will never win the Ethos argument with some who reflexively dislike him, or who fantasize about Kenyan thought viruses in his make-up, or his being a closet Muslim (with the implications that he must be a Manchurian Candidate on behalf of radical Muslim extremists), or who believe anyone left of center is a card-carrying Trotskyite.

The President excels in Logos…in fact he’s a little too good at it. He seems to be lecturing the nation from a rostrum rather than engaging with us in the heartland. He comes across at times as our “Lecturer-in-Chief”. There are human forces stronger than logic, and logic provides a scaffolding for persuasiveness in a crisis at best.

So given the above, where he needs to shine is Pathos. I’ve heard pundits proclaiming he needs to get better at sound-bites. But what all the sound bites they refer to have in common (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” “Mr. Gorbachev, take down the wall,”  or even the Churchillian “We will never surrender!”), is that they engage, tap and appeal to common emotions, values, feelings, aspirations and pride. That’s where President Obama has to come through.

He’s an admirable, intelligent, genuine person…but he needs a broader team, and he needs to spend actual time with people not photo-ops where $15,000 a plate dinners, involve him arriving for 20 minutes to shake a few hands and then jet off, while people are left feeling like extras at a deserted movie set. His team seem detached, almost smug…their pulse needs to beat far more in tune and in time with the concerns of the larger populace. They need listening posts and relay stations back to the President.

President Obama’s ability to take on his own party, not submitting to Congressional fiat which made it seem that the White House was as inbred as Congress, would have been refreshing. Well, it’s a new day. And we have the “blessings” of divided Government that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to tackle the Cold War, and Bill Clinton and the once ‘saner’ Newt Gingrich (chastened after the debacle of his government shutdown backfired) to balance the budget among other accomplishments.

So now the President should become “Connector-in-Chief” and not let himself be “handled” into being a pastel President. We need primary colors, and we need him to be his own man, and take on Republicans where necessary and to work with them where wise. And he needs to do the same with his own Party. The tidal wave that brought him into office was generated in part by a belief that he was more of an “outsider” than Hilary and would constitute a real change. Those who stayed away from voting in the mid-terms, even some who despise the alternatives who were voted in, were arguably conveying through their seeming apathy that they would not rush out to underwrite ‘business as usual’. If that’s all we have to look forward to, then indeed let’s make sure neither Party can move without consulting with and gaining consensus from the other. It’s a lot safer all around…

Something radical may well be needed. But let’s hope it’s not the radicalism of imbecility and blinkered extremism as some candidates seemed to exemplify, but real radicalsim, a return to roots. Perhaps we can be radical enough to to execute on glaring basics. Namely get money (1 trillion parked with banks and corporations) into the market, to rehabilitate education and fast-track job training so those out of work can fill the vacancies out there, to seek to lead the Green economy and get manufacturing back to key parts of the country, to continue to attract foreign investment but put it to good use (not to underwrite the next consumption binge), to crack the cul-de-sac of current immigration policy and do an across-the-board cut in spending (as we’ll never do it program by program, all of which have their own lobbyists and interest groups). Americans will get behind a regimen where they can see “means” hook up to “ends” and where someone asks them to sacrifice for ensuring our future is bigger certainly than our recent past. This will require real leadership not just management. The latter is about managing today (important), the former is about creating the future (essential).

If such a President didn’t get re-elected, shame on us. If someone who has the office, won’t aspire to be or become such a President, re-election or not, shame on them.

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Know What You’re There For

I am beginning to worry that ours may, in retrospect, be called “The Age of Obliviousness”.  Worrying studies show that the almost 18/7, if not 24/7 barrage of “noise” (via cellphones, Ipods/Pads and whatnot) are producing people with a reduction in the literal ability to hear (an almost 20% reduced ability in some cases). Everything is on “full blast” — nothing gentler need apply. So too with garish visuals that numb our appreciation for subtler visual nuance, increasingly explicit movies where the visceral nature of the guts and gore on display somehow are acknowledged as “realism” (though the action scenes are almost cartoonish and outlandishly caricatured and only the destructive aftermath has any realism at all), and even cable channel “news” shows that resemble a bout of extreme fighting (an actual debate requiring attention to ideas would be doubtless far too onerous).

Last night my wife and I attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the musical Les Miserables at the O2 Hall in London (which usually hosts rock concerts)…over 30,000 people attended, it was beamed live around the world…quite an occasion for those of us who love this exceptionally stirring, evocative, powerful, edifying, musical masterpiece. Alas, the mike volume was at times so high that I wondered if everyone had a hearing problem…or would leave with one otherwise.

But far worse, at the end, when the original cast came on, and various songs were reprised, with current cast stars and the original stars singing together, no sooner would a song begin but the crowd would start clapping and cheering, thereby drowning out the very song and performers they were cheering for!

Though they were utterly drowning out key parts of the songs, yet people had a euphoric look on their face! It almost begged the question of whether they came to hear themselves scream or to enjoy extraordinary performances at an historic event.

Some of these original artists may not ever be heard again in these portrayals — certainly not in concert (pun intended) with younger stars at such an occasion. Rather than revel in the moment, to drink it in, to swoon (silently) over the performances being lavished on us, why scream, clap, and holler, competing to outdo everyone else in terms of frenzied volume, as if the main aim was to participate in an orgy of squealing delight? Let the performance conclude, and then indeed, let’s give back our appreciation and share our joy for all we’re worth if we’ve been overwhelmed.

To me this was a microcosm of forgetting at many junctures where we are and why we’re there. We tap distractedly on our “Crackberries” while allegedly with those we “love” in intimate moments. We listen half-heartedly at key moments when customers tell us what they need — though these same customers may well hold keys to our livelihood and flourishing. We arrive at a stunning spot for an unforgettable sunset, and are too busy posing in front of it for pictures, to take in the fullness and majesty of the experience. We kiss someone wondering how to progress romantically to the next step, rather than making the kiss worth lingering over and carrying on from in itself. We speak not to communicate but to project, we listen not to understand but simply to polish our own response. We have to manically look and act like we’re having a good time, rather than relaxing enough and being open enough to actually have that good time.

Our fascination with our own tastes, peeves, selves, as projected by twits who twitter endlessly, and Facebook-induced self-absorption, is producing a culture in which the exalting of who we are, rather than evolving and developing who we are, celebrating our egos over our potential, and wanting desperately to bask in the reflected glow of someone’s celebrity (rather than becoming justly celebrated among those who matter in a calling of our own), exemplified by the artistic obscenity of drowning out those whose talent you’re there to bask in (as at the O2 Les Miz performance), is becoming worryingly pronounced.

So what to do? Let’s remind ourselves that we are here to experience life, to experience and express our own potential, to learn and teach, to receive and to give, and to thereby meaningfully connect with others. Our sense of isolation and irrelevance is not dispelled by drowning out our doubts with unremitting loud noise, or dissipating consciousness with every pop-cultural or technological distraction out there.

Rather, our sense of existential futility is better transcended when we can fully engage and commit — to things we care about, to areas we are seeking excellence in, to those we love, and to purposes that require our genuine commitment. We grow up and outgrow our haunting fear that we are the sum of all things…and worrying perhaps the sums don’t quite add up. We instead tap into the generative, multiplier benefits of passion, community, love and engagement.

We will shout less, and enjoy more. It may be time to reclaim aspects of our sanity and our souls from all the bedlam. As we pay more attention to where we are and why we’re there, we’ll also be less easily duped and manipulated, in tastes, in ideals, in decisions.

And more people fully present and engaged, “here” and knowing where here is and why it matters, is something the world, the business world no less than the world-at-large, could really use. Let’s join that crusade!

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The Inarticulate Drool of Modern Communication

There is something vapid and vacuous about much of modern discourse. Stopping for an Espresso today, I was obliged to listen in on the animated banter of two ladies, spurred by caffeine and the salaciousness of gossip to be shared,  to emote with the abandon of an Athenian orator. Though alas, they did so with jarring diction, vocabulary and syntax.

One of the primary verbal sins of the age was flicked hither and thither like a wet towel — the curious use of the word “like” as a recurring hyphen, qualifier and punctuation mark. “I was like you know saying to this guy, I’m not like…like that kind of girl; like man don’t like treat me like I’m some kind of idiot.” That we escaped this sentence with but one gratuitous dollop of “you know” as additional muesli for the mix, was a true blessing.

The diminution of thought by way of the devolution of language impoverishes discourse far and wide, and not just on cafe stools amongst those possibly taking a break from coherence.  I heard on a morning show someone ranting that they differed from President Obama because he did not believe in American exceptionalism, and the ranter did. The host of the show also piped in with an almost self-evident reaffirmation of his faith in American exceptionalism.

But what does American “exceptionalism” mean? It could mean that the United States has been blessed with tremendous advantages and we are obliged to make the best use of them. If so, bravo! It could mean acknowledging the evident leadership the United States has provided post World War Two to the world. Wonderful!  But if it means that America has to be better than others in some zero sum (I win you lose) way, it gets murkier. And if the belief is that a great country at times guilty of great blinkers, that has undermined its middle class and emasculated its education system, has been on military and consumer binges it cannot now easily afford, with a democracy “for sale” to the highest bidder, must not be challenged to recover its greatness, then it’s imbecilic. If the act of holding ourselves accountable to our ideals and potential is unpatriotic heresy, we’re done for.

On a recurring rampage, atheism propagandist Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be perennially jarred and emotionally inflamed by an allegedly non-existent Deity, nevertheless demonstrates the power of polemical fireworks as he mobilizes and rouses the legions of those supposedly liberated from the yoke of medieval superstitions. Taking a diametrically different view, mathematician and scientific philosopher David Berlinksi derides what he calls the “scientific pretensions” of atheism. Berlinksi is as eminently readable in his sardonic and satirical rapier thrusts against the dogmatism of fundamentalist atheists as Hitchens is compelling in his incendiary outrage at the gullibility of religious rubes.  People flock to these books, not because they point out anything profoundly new (these debates have been with us for quite some time), but for the pleasure of enjoying the performance.

Plato warned about the dangers of rhetoric. He warned of reason being seduced and swindled by linguistic sleight-of-hand and verbal embroidery. But Robert Pirsig, gave modern voice to a co-equal disquiet about the divorce between the “search for truth” and the “search for beauty”. The rhetorical triumvirate of ethos (the credibility and standing of the communicator), pathos (appeal to common emotions and intuitions) and logos (logical reasoning) is something we would do well to recover…and to teach again.

Emotions swirl within us. Thoughts cascade in our minds. If they remain inarticulate, or are rendered specious or trivial through a paucity of language or an inability to convey what we intend or to marshal the nuances of what we think and/or feel, we (and our relationships with us) become far less than what they might be.

We don’t need the flatulent zeal of charismatics, but we don’t need the dribbling confusion that so often poses for communication in modern life either. Perhaps a world of increasing complexity and challenge needs us as citizens and contributors to show up mentally, emotionally and linguistically. We need to show up to listen, to evaluate, to challenge, to engage, to learn, to generate, to design, and to hold the feet of our political leaders to the fire of accountability. We can’t be misled by drivel, and we must demand more than the empty drumbeat of slogans or the gewgaws of simplistic jargon.

Plato’s teacher and mentor, Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined leader is not worth having. And all of us must examine, really examine, with all the armaments of education and with the widest possible consideration of alternatives, our countries, our leaders, our possibilities, and our own lives and then take an articulate, passionate and persuasive stand for our beliefs, our convictions and our aspirations. Now that’s a worthy dialogue to envisage!

Oliver Wendell Holmes once opined that truth is the shifting residue from a competition of ideas. If not “truth”, then perhaps at least human progress.But ideas can only meaningfully compete when they can be fully expressed and genuinely understood.

Let’s take a stand for such understanding.

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The Nature of Value

Some members of my team from the US and UK spent a fascinating day with my co-author and friend, Alan Weiss. I had asked Alan to help us with a new process for helping companies convert current performance into potential performance. We’re excited…it seems we’re clearly onto something.

With any consulting offering, a common question is, how should value be established? I can think of a particular company who hired an ex-consulting firm partner in a senior role, whose response to an outbreak of rabid cost-cutting was to try and convert every trusted advisor to the level of a commodity vendor, demanding time sheets virtually and even reneging on established terms of business. This then became a company that signed up for “deliverables” (consultant-speak for methodology, activities, inputs) at the lowest cost rather than outcomes at the best value (defined as ROI, transfer of skills, relevance of solutions, depth and degree of customization to their particular situation, etc).

Most of our clients are either inherently wiser, or have sagely allowed themselves to be educated in this regard. I remember recently an HR person going into “shock” when I advised that a coaching intervention being asked for by his boss, spanning six months would be $35,000. I wasn’t doing the coaching personally, it would have been more. But I’m not sure it would have been more value to the coachee, given the situation I wasn’t needed. This other coach from our network was the perfect foil. When I unpacked “value” in terms of this coachee being a country manager for a $25 million country operation, who they knew was at a behavioral plateau that would keep him from moving up in the organization to potentially oversee a $100 million per annum regional operation, the money ceased to be the discussion. We shifted to making the coaching valuable. We would do a base-line 360 before and after, provide access to the coach throughout the period and some teleconferences as needed in preparation for the face-to-face time, there would be time observing behavior “live”, their regional boss would get input as to how to reinforce the coaching, and we would be tracking throughout clearly defined improvement areas. Heck by the time we finished the discussion, they were excited by the “deal!” We received another call to engage another country operation head for them just two months into this assignment! Fees were never questioned again.

The nature of value is multi-faceted. But eliciting and defining value from the perspective of the organization and the leader(s) in question is what our job is. Until that is established, running around “doing things” is just feverish confusion. Billing anything for that is definitely charging too much.

Some value facets include:

*Business outcomes (improvement in some overall business metrics or results)

*Market based continuous improvement and/or innovation (growing the capability to profitably and distinctively serve a market segment and customer base)

*Process simplification (ways to simplify, focus or amplify business activity for gains in productivity or elimination of waste)

*Interactive benefits (less wear and tear, candid and constructive communication, stronger relationships, more productive collaboration)

*Engagement benefits (creating an environment that enables discretionary commitment, improving your employee value proposition to improve retention and development of top talent, aligned and focused effort)

This is almost a “balanced scorecard” of value, where the business results are almost lag indicators and the improvement/innovation, process, interactive and engagement improvements are lead indicators.

Not all assignments may require a focus on all these elements, but to the extent that what you do, in partnership with your clients (as you have to ultimately get them to take accountability and take appropriate action), provides gains in these five arenas, you will not only deliver value, but that value will be palpable.

Without awareness of the potential interplay of these or similar elements, you may well help to produce gains, but your clients most often won’t be able to sustain them.

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THE REAL NATURE OF THE CONTROVERSY

There is currently much furore about the proposed building of a Mosque and Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. The essential positions as best I can glean are as follows.

Those who feel the Mosque shouldn’t go up in that location are wielding signs saying things like, “You can build a Mosque at Ground Zero when we can build a Church in Mecca.” That’s of course palpably absurd. Why would citizens in the United States be barred from building a house of worship, contingent on an outbreak of tolerance in another country, over which they have no control? And who is this “you” and who are the “we”? If someone is a Muslim they don’t automatically become “you” surely. They may well be American citizens, i.e. “us”.

But more sanely there are those who say this is unnecessarily inflammatory and insensitive — why not build the Mosque and Islamic Center in another part of Manhattan? Why rub raw wounds or provoke unnecessary, even if somewhat misplaced, ire? If you’re not making a statement, surely this location wasn’t necessary.

On the other hand, there are two types of supporters. Those who defend the legal rights of those who are proposing this construction, and those who feel a statement of a very different kind needs to be made.

The legal side is clear. Those who rail against Mayor Bloomberg’s constitutional stance that the government cannot interfere with a lawful private group building a house of worship on private property, are really advocating a slippery slope. If mass appeal determines rights, rather than laws, we are all eventually undone. And hysteria against groups, Jews, Catholics, the innocent majority of Muslims in this country, is nothing to either have amnesia regarding, or to stoke anew today.

The other basis for support comes from those in the Muslim and interfaith circles who know that Osama Bin Laden and his murderous, bigoted, unholy thugs would like nothing better than to “hijack” the faith of a billion people and equate their savage barbarism with it. It is in no one’s best interests, whatever your theological beliefs or lack thereof, to allow them to succeed in this equation. Too few Muslim leaders have spoken courageously enough, clearly enough, about taking their faith back. If this Center becomes a symbol of healing, a way to promote true interfaith interaction, an alternative paradigm for the practice of Islam, the pain could be transcended, and we could potentially find hope among hatred’s debris. But if this is the case, those promoting this construction should make it, vociferously and unambiguously. That would be an effort worth joining.

Let me offer some unsolicited consulting counsel to both sides. To the detractors, beware that the same end of the pencil can erase things you hold dear as well. Paraphrasing something Thomas More once said, “I would give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own sake.” Well these aren’t devils. These are people brought up in a faith that hopefully they hold dear, people who want better lives for their own children and families, just like anyone else. Defending their rights, even when unsavory to some of us, is the very nature of what makes a right. And for God’s sake and ours, let’s not make this about Islam. Simple statistics demonstrate that if just being  in this religion made people violent, then there would be a billion warriors. There aren’t, happily. There aren’t many Indian Muslim terrorists, or many Bengalis, or Singaporeans, or Sri Lankan Muslims on the front lines…it’s clearly about more than the faith.

On the other side, let’s tread softly. A desire to rehabilitate the perception of a faith precious to you, a desire to take a stand in creating a positively transformational dialogue (and we have to pray that’s what’s behind this) cannot be done with indifference to other people’s pain. Whether you feel others are inappropriately transferring their rightful loathing of the acts of the terrorists to a religion that is being unjustly abused and manipulated, the pain remains and has to be acknowledged on its own merits. And the sensitivities and the fears and yes, maybe a measure of paranoia, have to be outgrown, they cannot be bulldozed away.

It would be wonderful if in this clash of views, in this debate, we could accept we are facing a dilemma — a conflict between two rights, not between a right and a wrong. And if we could have the guts and humanity to ask for dialogue, if we could share our pain and our passion, reflectively and openly…we would potentially create a dynamic that could do real homage to heroes and victims here and elsewhere, and to all those who believe their values and their faiths call on them to ensure hatred and fear don’t have the last word.

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