The Genius of Places

Having just returned from a three week working tour of Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, London and Marseille (with extra pit stops in Singapore and Dubai in between), the genius of places almost shouts at me.

Dubai’s genius is to offer a modern example of what a flourishing Middle East can look like. Albeit currently in economic doldrums, needing perhaps to make peace with the fact that the bubble is gone and real growth is now needed, Dubai is a tolerant, eclectic, cosmopolitan, visionary city with guts and a measure of class. And from Dubai if you head to Turkey, to Jordan, to Lebanon, you see some of the shoots of the culture of the region that deserve to be watered, supported and extended. It’s a far cry from the raving nihilism of Al Qaeda or the medieval iniquity of the Taliban.

Singapore’s genius is to show how a controlled experiment in democracy can produce a vibrant, thriving, diverse, stimulating country. It is a polyglot of cultures, an epicenter for business, a culinary crossroads, a place where greater expression is becoming increasingly possible.  30 years ago it was a Malarial swamp. Decry the one party rule there as much as you like, but it’s an engaging place to nurture a family, run a business, and be near the most dynamic growth region of the 21st century. Moreover, give them time…the story is far from being fully written.

We were next in Hong Kong, arguably the freest economy on the planet, with a skyline to rival New York’s, and a pace, intensity and energy, very reminiscent of the Big Apple. The Fragrant Harbor is world class in every sense. And whether China comes to more resemble Hong Kong or vice-versa is an open story. It is Asia’s “world city” as the PR tag line proclaims. And while freedoms have been constricted, they haven’t been eliminated. It’s a springboard TO China, and a springboard FROM China…a city where entrepreneurial people built an extraordinary economy from virtually nothing. It is the quintessence of value creation. From the stunning efficiency that abounds everywhere, to gastronomic delights like Roast Goose and 3 star Michelin Cantonese culinary temples, from top-notch IT to world-class cultural events, Hong Kong rocks!

We went on to Mumbai — teeming, a study in contrasts, wealthy ghettos co-existing with abject poverty, a clanging 24/7 set of multi-sensory stimuli. But it is also an important economic engine for the world’s largest democracy — which manages to transfer power peacefully — and for a primarily Hindu country, they’ve had a Muslim President and a Sikh Prime Minister (promoted by an ex-Roman Catholic “Kingmaker” in Sonia Gandhi), and an extraordinary track record to date in creating economic value. They need to deal with infrastructure issues, improve sanitation and more…but there is a genius to this sprawling, cacophonous, vital, human enterprise incubating powerhouse.

We arrived in London — still a showcase for its past, as well as  hub of culture, distinction, sophistication and focused energy. London communicates that delicate balancing act between the gravitas of the past, and the edginess of the present. The restaurants shine, the cab drivers quip engagingly, the theater audiences are au fait with the historical or cultural references and the nuances of bon mots, people are by and large well turned out, and an 5 mile jaunt through Hyde Park throws up the whole panoply of cultures and ethnicities that make London such an intoxicating brew. Hatchards is my favorite book-store to browse in, I love the eclectic Hunan’s restaurant where they scowl if you ask for the non-existant menu but tapas style fiery Hunanese cuisine comes out until you ask them to stop, the whimsy of the Cinammon Club (a wonderful modern Indian) being housed in the old Westminster Library always tickles me, and the Neopolitan tailor (Rubinacci) across from the Connaught whose gusto for your sartorial well being truly underscores “the dolce vita” cannot but help upflit you. And for something quintessentially British (other than Hatchards of course), the fusty but reliable Scott’s is nearby to repair to for oysters and Grilled Dover Sole after perhaps a visit to the Royal Gallery and a Blanc de Blancs in the Coburg Bar of the Connaught. Such is London!

From London for a Leadership Journey to Marseille and then the Languedoc. Marseille, though being one of the great port cities, has a reputation for being seedy. But in the Vieux Port (the Old Port), with the right bouillabase and glass (or two) of Tavel Rose, all that fades away into obscurity. The Languedoc in turn was Roman France, and neighboring Provence as it does, it is replete with Mediterranean Gallic charm, cuisine, artisans, wine, olive oil, and stunning Roman remains like the Pont du Gard (the greatest surviving Aqueduct in the world), the amphitheater in Arles or the stunning Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon. There is a sensuous, elegant, charm and artistic and aesthetic depth to this place, that sends you out stimulated, vital, with your senses questing and alert having been awash in such truly abundant but diverse stimuli. In response, your smile has more depth, your chagrin more poetry, your insights are dappled with that golden Provencal light that illuminated so much of the work of masters like Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Each place has it’s own genius, and while we went to some highly distinctive ones, our ability to fathom what each can contribute to us, rather than a litany of their irritations and shortcomings is the way to underscore and heighten our overall perspicacity. It is also a way to better irrigate our souls.

We landed from all this and headed out for another Leadership Journey, this time in more prosaic seeming Illinois and Wisconsin. But the open spaces, and the beaming countenances, the lack of sophistry and the presence of welcome, the essential characer of pride in one’s work and community, all had their own enchantments, and with those in view, the limitations present were far less…limiting.

Seeing possibility, evoking it, celebrating it and helping to actualize it,  is the essence of  life and leadership.

Wallow in the genius of the places and people you encounter! From that basis, you will be best positioned to notice where to help, and how to help those very people grow.

Sign Up For What?

Business Traveller Magazine announced that a famed hotel in Hong Kong was hosting a spectacular event. A group called “Premium Families of Wine” was doing a set of dinners, pairing top Estate wines from some of the world’s top wine families, with the cuisine of a Michelin-starred Chef.

I had our hotel call for details. After 48 hours of being assured details were “forthcoming”, they sent over a Credit Card authorization form and a price — but no specific event details!

I told them they were hanging on to sanity by a thread to have gone so far as to establish a price, and then having the gall to ask for a non-refundable payment, while providing no details of the menu, the wines, or their vintages. I have therefore no basis to assess the value being offered!

They responded with more rhetoric about a “superb chef” and “top vintages”.  I’m sure that’s the intent, but I’d like to see what’s actually on offer.

This led me to consider how often we make it difficult for clients to know what we’re offering. Agreements are imprecise, metrics fuzzy, and we attempt to overload people with verbal excess rather than clarity and simplicity. Why?

Might it not be an idea to be as transparent as possible? If not, why not?

It’s true that some requests are inappropriate. For example, asking a surgeon for a blow-by-blow game-plan of an upcoming surgery is beyond obtuse. We are counting on their skill and ability to adapt procedures to what they find as they proceed. Similarly as consultants, we rightfully chafe when people ask us for a blow-by-blow of a key engagement. We can and should agree and share outcomes and be answerable for them. But a pre-fabricated game-plan suggests that we are applying stodgy templates from the past, not current imagination.

Working with a client in Mumbai, I kept hearing the refrain, “We’re in a crisis, and we fear there’s too much random and scattered activity.” Smart people! Again, vague, ill-defined strategies and actions, absent any prioritization, can give the illusion of purposeful action. But a surfeit of this actually saps energy from strategically differentiated actions. And the largest lament from the team there was: tell us the larger vision, when we shift from established plans, tell us not only what we have to change but why, validated against the larger vision — the aligned upon “end in mind”.

Absence of clarity reveals an absence of the following: strategy, planning, prioritization or decisive action. Sometimes it reveals a deficit of all of these.

One of my Credit Cards was re-issued. I called to ask how many reward points I had. They said “zero”. I told them my last redemption was two years ago, and I had demonstrably spent a significant amount on this Card.  Hence logically, there cannot be zero points — unless some expired. They said there had been no expiry, but wondered if there was some technical error. I said, “Nothing to wonder about. Look at the expenditure. And as these points are generated by expenditure, tell me where they are. So there is definitely a technical error.” Dead silence, a complaint reference number, and a request to call back in 72 hours. Yet it took three repetitions to drive home the point, that on the face of it, there was clearly an issue. This customer service agent hadn’t bothered to consider with any clarity how these points were issued, and therefore the evident fact that there was a systems error.  So he aroused irritation, suspicion and distrust as to his organization’s collective competence. Hardly an impact to be desired.

So, in dealing with clients, customers, friends and colleagues, when enrolling them for something, make sure they know in terms of key parameters and anticipated value, what they’re signing up for. Try to be clear as to what counts, what matters, and how it will be evaluated. And then align those intuitions and judgments, so you’re not debating the basics over and over.

I continue to hope for the listing of wines and the menu from this venue in Hong Kong. As they sell this in tables of eight, there is a major sale waiting to happen. However, each day that passes, my interest wanes somewhat, the likelihood of my making alternative plans goes up. It’s an interesting insight that when we confuse our clients, leave them uncertain, or unclear, they too, despite evident interest, may take their intentions and interests elsewhere.

Reach out today and check understanding of salient outcomes and expectations with key stakeholders and partners. Insist on being impeccably clear in your dealings, agreements and transactions, as well as in your offerings and proposals. The act of arriving at that clarity is part of the very breakthrough that makes you valuable. So make that effort and ensure you come through here. You’ll find very little competition if you do. Even more importantly, you’ll find scores of grateful and avid clients and fans in your portfolio. You’ll find them, and you’ll be far more likely to keep them.

An Abundance of Experiences

Just landed in Hong Kong…what a week!

At home in New York last week, discussions with two potential partners, scoping two major assignments, sneaking in a lovely 10 kilometer walk from near the pier to the West Village to Soho to Chinatown to Little Italy back through Washington Square Park, to Union Square and finally up Park Avenue. What a city!

On a plane for an 8 hour lay-over in Dubai, signing papers, meeting with some people on our team. Overnight to Singapore — “jet advance” rather than “jet lag” taking over.

A quiet Sunday — taking the family of one of our partners out to Morton’s (of all places) in Singapore. Opened a Meerlust Rubicon 2004 that was stunning, followed by a Lan Rioja Private Edition 2002 that was also breath-taking. Other than the classic Morton’s Key Lime Pie having lost any residual tartness and therefore having devolved into an “impostor”, all was well. The Avo Maduro cigar capped a great dinner.

Monday saw three fairly intense coaching engagements, two client email responses that were needed on quite complex issues, a phone review of progress on a major project, lunch with a team-member…whew!

Today we’ve just landed in Hong Kong. We’ll take our hike up the Peak tomorrow, have our favorite Peking Duck at the 2 Michelin starred Summer Palace at The Island Shangri La, engage with a client, meet another prospective partner, and then meet and hopefully make some new friends (fellow members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs from the US who are in town) for dinner at M’s on the Fringe.

Then a day off to visit some favorite haunts, get a massage and get ready to head back to Singapore on Friday for an action packed afternoon. In between, replying to requests, counseling colleagues, reading some superb books, and realizing that an abundance of experiences is a great gift — it keeps us fresh, sharp, open, responsive.

Boredom is a choice. I realize this is an atypical week by most standards, and we’re blessed by stimulus: cultural, culinary, relationship-based and business-related. But that’s come by plying a trade with passion, seeking out new frontiers, keeping eyes, hearts and mind (relatively) open.

We’ve got some major challenges and opportunities ahead this month, and if we tackle them imaginatively and effectively, and get a few friendly winds…wow!  Either way, it’s worth nothing else but full engagement. Whatever happens, we’ll be richer in experiences, more abundant in insight and understanding. We’ll be richer.

I’m tempted to say “I can’t wait!” But I can. To think otherwise would be to miss the precious now — the abundance of possibility in this next moment, the  next idea, the next flutter of emotion, the next shimmering of perception…flowing from everything that abounds right now.

Let’s wallow… in life!

Parts of the Puzzle

I’ve taken a brief hiatus from posting — being inundated with guests, clients and the exhilarating billows of life.

We’re on the verge of the next trip: Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Dubai, London, Marseille.

I’ve waited 15 minutes for someone to call who missed a phone appointment last week and zealously promised to call this time. Last time the excuse proffered sounded reasonable — today I’m beginning to wonder if it’s pathological.

A key client asked me to help a colleague of his within their organization. He’s missed four confirmed, in the diary, phone appointments but continues to say he’s “very interested” in being helped. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s “very interested” in ticking a box that shows he made a requisite, even if token, effort.

A friend introduced me to a pal — foundering on various reefs in life. This externally successful over-achiever clearly had issues to grapple with — don’t we all? But his demons were quite visible — it seemed even to himself. He told me he didn’t like to dither and wanted to get started. I laid out a work plan. Deafening silence. Two weeks later he told my friend who had introduced us that he wanted a “few more clarifications” from me. How? Long distance mind reading? Responding to my email would have been a start. We spoke again, and he demonstrated he had only skimmed the details. No problem, I  was happy to walk him through it. He’s since disappeared once more…

I have to say this is less than 1% of the people I deal with — on purpose. I tend to move quickly on, and were it not for a close friend and a key client involved here, my forbearance wouldn’t have been nearly as forthcoming. That said, it makes for a fascinating case study.

Might it be that as NLP theorists suggested, we are made up of many “parts” — different psychological aspects with their own agendas, emotional lobbyists, paradigmatic blinkers and more? Could it be we are all Jekyll and Hyde to some extent? And might it be the part of us that gasps for help is over-ruled at times by other parts keen to perpetuate current plateaus?

It could indeed. And this then begs the question, are we just the sum of our parts, or is there a core “us” that can assert itself?

There is a core, the unifying wick emerges from the purposes that coalesce from our medley of appetites, values, impulses, ideas, desires and commitments. And from these in turn are generated, life priorities. And if the priority is strong enough, we can silence our inner nay-sayers.

We won’t become impeccable in execution, follow up, follow through and more overnight necessarily. But we will palpably advance as Thoreau said “in the direction of our dreams”. If we can’t continue taking steps to be and become more than our past, we’re sunk and we’re pretty much done.

So then we have to become fans of progress, of movement, of ways to outgrow parts of us that are really the detritus of past pain. Eventually we have to give up the fantasy that we can somehow manufacture a happier past. The only way to make the past any happier is move beyond its negative delusions — the ones we’ve been towing around since then — and choose better resources to take forward instead.

So pick an area where you’re stuck and tune in to the competing passions at play. Identify your largest priority and find it’s hook up to a key purpose in your life. Then advance boldly in that direction. If you fail, fail forward and keep moving. As Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

And at least be impeccable in the small things that add up to larger things. Be responsive, keep appointments, beat deadlines, show up a little early, leave doubt at the door and engage creatively and courageously in key situations, tell these wailing parts you’ve heard them but can’t afford to indulge them any more.

Harmonize who you are through the actions you consistently take and the types of things you vivify by  taking daily aim at. Treat mistakes as detours not demos. Intention prevails, when we believe it is the greater truth about us than our doubts.

So, leave behind the excuses…or better yet, learn from them and use them as catalysts.

In other words…LEAD!

Nantucket Confidential

Apparently Omar has left just enough cigars and wine in Nantucket for me to enjoy myself!

Had my martini with blue-cheese-stuffed olives at the bar last night, with
Mitch doing honors once again. (You can see Mitch in the August, 2008
postings of Nantucket Journal here on the blog.)

We had the chef’s eight-course tasting menu at Topper’s which, even with
half-portions, was huge. The sommelier, whom I’ve trusted for many years,
discussed a price, as is our habit, and then his task is to delight me. He
chose a fantastic 1999 Shafer Cab, so outstanding that the lovely,
non-drinking Maria decided to drink, that’s how good it was. (And that’s how
I wound up with half my usual imbibing!)

I wrote out on the deck from 6:30 to 7:30 or so this morning, sipping coffee
and watching a flock of cormorants fly in formation over the lawn. After
breakfast al fresco on the restaurant’s deck, we headed across the dunes.

Once again the beach was mostly deserted. Tonight we’ll fire up the car and
head into town for The Pearl.

My newest book, Thrive!, is complete and I’m editing the chapters, something
I don’t normally do, but I’m planning something special for this book.

Dinner at The Pearl consisted of outstanding soft shell crab in black pepper sauce and very rare tuna. We had Conundrum, one of my favorite “casual” white wines. Then I actually had an espresso martini for dessert. Once we returned, a Montecristo #2 with an 1875 Madeira provided by Mitch (and Reese’s peanut butter cups, I’m sorry, I’m a heathen) out on the deck under the stars.

We have a full breakfast when we go over to the ocean side, so that we can both stay there all day AND skip lunch. I did share a pretzel with my gull friend, whose picture will appear here both watching me from a dune and flying by one of the houses along the beach that’s probably worth about $5 million.

I’m reading three novels: One Second After, South of Broad, and The Last Ember. I’ve already polished off the first, good beach read, but predictable and sometimes embarrassingly written. (The educated, worldly protagonists, for example, say “Should of….” and “Would of….” instead of “Should have…” and “Would have….” That’s what happens when you have editors who were using Cliff Notes to get by in school.)

Tonight we’ll watch the sunset at The Galley.

I returned a few business calls from the beach and sent a few return emails via my iPhone. People are aghast that I’m responding from the waterside at Nantucket. What better place?

© Alan Weiss, 2009. All rights reserved.

The Nature of Client Value

Consultants often congratulate themselves gratuitously on providing great service, caring about their clients, being trusted advisers, etc and ad nauseum.

Here is a simple but non-negotiable check-list to ascertain whether you are really providing premium relationship value — value by virtue of a client relating with you — over and above the type of general expertise that is almost certainly readily available through multiple sources.

1) Most of your conversations should be about client outcomes, not your methodologies, six step models, catchy jargon, or a nifty new template. Clients if they come from serious companies, have lives that are amply complicated already. Our job is to simplify complexity, help produce value out of the static…not add more of it.

2) Do your homework relentlessly. No matter how well you think you know that company or individual, prep for all key meetings, coaching conversations and the like, so a minimum amount of the time that is supposed to be earmarked for delivering value is spent catching you up or just giving you information you could have imbibed and thought about well in advance. Hit the ground running and chalk up as much progress via each interaction as possible.

3) Commit to the client’s success, not your comfort level or peace of mind. Clients respect courage and people who help them see and face things they otherwise might not have. What percentage of the time you spend with your clients is in this zone, rather than politically correct acquiescence or amiable tautologies that may provide some therapeutic reprieve or the equivalent of quinine water to their temples, without actually confronting challenges to tangibly advancing their goals and interests?

4) Be able to defuse ire, irritation and misunderstandings. If you’re going to implement number (3), you will often set off sparks. Be able to calmly reframe the situation, and hang in there with them until the truly intended message makes it across. Your client says, “You keep telling me how I’m being ineffective as a coach. What about my people? Don’t they have any responsibility?” You: “They do, and we’ll define effective coaching on your part as effectively getting them to take that responsibility, rather than making your own life unnecessarily harder. Can we focus on that opportunity?” A smart client will get over bristling and realize there’s real value here.

5)  Make sure “success” is defined as business value not “project completion”. You can satisfy the statutory requirements of “project success” and deliver no real ROI. The client won’t be able to quibble, but they’ll never hire you again. Ensure business value is tracked constantly, barriers to achieving it are tackled in real-time and pathways to raising the bar on it are innovated and exploited as a signature of your work.

6) Be impeccable with commitments, assiduously timely with promised responses, unambiguous in communication, easy to contact and to be connected to, non-defensively open to course-correction (again as long as it relates to business value) and a world-class listener (if they don’t get your prime attention, they will be highly dubious as to whether they’re getting the best of your expertise either).

7) Deliver unanticipated value, but value relevant to them, as you get to know them. Then you can offer a real value add, not cosmetic “bonuses” that no one wants and which you can mindlessly dish out telling yourself you’re doing so much for them. Be gracious, be generous — but first be humble enough to be curious and genuine enough to be empathic.

8) Don’t just jump to attention and do everything asked of you. Be a true advisor and help them think through what they’re requesting to ensure it will get them the value they anticipate. Your judgment is a critical part of the value you offer. Don’t do this in a haughty way, shooting down their ideas. But do it in a collegiate manner, helping clients check assumptions, ensure data is valid, that we’re not prematurely falling in love with the first idea we have, and then execute what’s agreed with passion and professionalism. Saying later, “You asked me to do this,” won’t help if the action taken is counterproductive. We had best be there to help our clients get the best help from us they possibly can. They probably already have enough stooges in house.

9) Be an object of interest. Clients want to engage with people they enjoy, respect, possibly even admire in some ways. If you’re a fascinating person, people will feel they get stimulus from their time with you, outside the professional engagement. That personalizes the interaction and provides the ultimate basis for rapport. You can’t partner with someone you never get to know. You won’t want to partner with someone who seems drab or one-dimensional. After all, the client may fear your advice and assistance may be as monochromatic as you seem to be. Flex your personality — not arrogantly, but openly and invitationally.

Run through these nine client engagement health checks. Assuming you’re a competent professional who can add client value, these nine differentiators will allow you to scale the commanding heights of client value…by going up the client hierarchy of value. HJ Heinz opined that if we do common things uncommonly well, we will succeed. These are uncommon things alas — do them uncommonly well, and you’ll occupy your own category with your clients — a special and rarefied one in which you each support each other’s success.

The Opportunty Cost of Non-Communication!

We’ve just been at the Shaw Festival and saw a superb production of “The Devil’s Disciple”.

While it has many themes, one of the most intriguing is the story of the British General Burgoyne. Burgoyne is known as the man who lost the Battle of Saratoga, a decisive turning point in the Revolutionary War. The American success there emboldened France to join with the fledgling nation, leading in time to the French navy interceding to help enable the historic victory at Yorktown.

Burgoyne was scape-goated for this, though arguably he had marched south from Quebec with a daring plan that could potentially have turned the tide in their favor. He was to be joined by the army of General Howe (located in New York). They were going to catch the Americans in a pincer movement. Alas, the orders to General Howe from London were very likely not sent, or if sent, were ambiguous. General Howe headed to Philadelphia, and a vastly outnumbered Burgoyne had to surrender. Burgoyne took this philosophically and returned to a measure of eminence after the cronies of mad King George were no longer in power. Apparently the official who was to send the orders to General Howe went on a vacation to Kent and opted NOT to interfere with his plans! But for that lack of communication…history could have been very different, and even a gifted commander could do little, when strategy failed to be aligned upon or executed.  As an American, I’m glad! But it’s highly instructive to say the least.

Laura Secord is a Canadian heroine. She overheard American plans to launch an attack during the war of 1812, and walked 32 kilometers at night to give a warning to a key Canadian outpost. The Canadian troops were forewarned, but for 48 hours the American attack never came. As it turned out the American troops were lost in the woods! The leader of that attack claimed they didn’t need maps or guidance as he claimed to know the woods “like the back of his hands”. Most of us don’t inspect the back of our hands, he clearly hadn’t either! They were picked off trying to find their way.  Better planning, better communication, would have again been critical.

In more recent times we know that the perpetrators of 9/11 were, many of them, wanted by various agencies in the United States. But the computers of various agencies weren’t linked to each other, so amazingly these people weren’t stopped at the airport and actually allowed to board planes! Arguably, all the information needed to identify them was present, but unable to be effectively deployed. When what we know isn’t effectively networked, no amount of knowledge will provide “intelligence”.

It behooves us then to realize that having strategies that are clear to us will be ineffectual if they aren’t relayed to everyone critical for their execution. The Governor of Quebec also received orders to bolster Burgoyne’s forces. But because his rank had been slighted in the communication, he hesitated…at that most critical of moments for British forces with ruinous consequences. So we have to not only “order”, we have to “enroll”. We need more than compliance, we need passionate engagement.

We also have to double-check our plans and preparation, rather than “assume” we know the way through the woods. Ensure, don’t assume.

Finally, we have to find ways of letting ideas, information, insights and perspectives connect and find their way throughout our network. We never know where the next breakthrough will come from, or who will be in position to avert disaster.

It’s easier to scape-goat someone or indeed to wring our hands in the aftermath. But proactive unambiguous communication, coupled with validated information and careful planning, and the sharing of what we’ve learned throughout the entire value chain, is how we ensure we achieve results rather than precipitate disaster.

“The Spirit of Learning”

My co-author Alan Weiss and I received some unsolicited, hopefully well-intended, feedback about our book, THE GLOBAL CONSULTANT. The person bristled at our suggesting the world by and large sought out American thought-leadership in business and management.

In acknowledging other world-class centers of learning however, by error when we wrote our draft, we placed INSEAD in Switzerland rather than France (it also has a campus in Singapore). We may have had IMD in mind, or we might have just made an honest error. Alas, three sets of editors (two in Singapore, and one in the United Kingdom) failed to catch it, and it made it’s way into print.

It is one line in a 284 page book, commending INSEAD by the way (though this writer suggested we had insulted INSEAD by getting its location wrong, — AND he suggested we may have offended IMD too on the off chance we actually had it in mind!). Surely INSEAD’s self-esteem is not so precarious, even if this writer is demonstrating that his own might be.

This one oversight, seems to draw fire from more than one person who seems unsettled by some of our observations, and can find nothing substantive in the book to decry. People have said imperiously that this error erodes our overall credibility,  even that it shows we don’t know anything about Europe — thereby displaying their loose handle on logic (how does getting a location of a university wrong accidentally, show anything about your overall cultural, economic, historical or other knowledge of an entire Continent?).

I mention this because if I read a 240 (or so) page book, and wrote in, spending several paragraphs on a minor publishing gaffe , I’d have to wonder what the book stirred in me. A desire for real learning would have me wondering why I’m so bothered, why I needed to find such a dubious scapegoat within the book so that I could vent.

This particular writer caps his comments by saying he hopes we “appreciate” the input “in the spirit of learning”.  Well, we’re happy to learn of an error, even a truly inadvertent one like this. But the “spirit of learning” is the last thing that comes across in the communication. So, let’s just use this as a quick case-study on offering input that truly might stimulate learning.

Stated as it is, with such sweepingly excessive conclusions, this communication makes one wonder at the motivation for the observations. This distracts from any “learning” that may otherwise take place. So, first if you want to communicate a view, keep the focus on the learning you want to share, or the real point, minimize off-ramps and gratuitous secondary conclusions from your observations.

Then, give prime-time to what really matters to you in the communication. And be honest as to whether you’re sharing that you’re just emotionally miffed for whatever personal reason, or making a point you want intellectual engagement on.

The truth is the writer seems to really be annoyed about the perceived US-centrism of some of our comments in the opening chapters (he confessed to only having made it to page 39). Our actual point was that in an earlier age, we would have sounded more French-centric or English-centric, tomorrow we may be more China-centric. At the time of writing, we were speaking about American predominance in the world of management thinking and also global business given the overall size of the US economy. It was factual, not subjective. It wasn’t a paean to cultural or economic “manifest destiny”. It was about facing facts — so we can build on them —  for consulting and business success. We clearly mentioned that as these facts change, so would the specifics of our advice. We’d have suggested learning French in the 18th century, do suggest English for today and may suggest Mandarin and Hindi 20 or so years from now. Let’s see.

Had the writer focused their comments on this issue, we might have had a fascinating and illuminating dialogue. Harping on a relatively trivial reference (trivial to the sweep of the book and the point being made), was a distraction and an emotional indulgence that was intriguing, but not in the way intended.

Finally, choose your irritations carefully. Opt to be far more often amused or even bemused if you like. And if irritation keeps getting the better of you, ask first what YOU can learn from it, before asking others to be educated by a display of your annoyance, especially when accompanied by rickety logic and odd inductive liberties you’re taking. The more you come from composure, are relaxed and flexible, the more you are likely to generate as well as communicate points worth learning from. You don’t need to get your hackles up to be impactful. On the contrary.

Reflexive ire and pulpit pounding don’t produce the spirit of learning. The spirit of learning requires curiosity and exploration, enrolling someone in dialogue, sharing and owning our own feelings and reactions, and thereby irrigating the possibility that we all might just discover something new.

Beware of Dubious Things Mindlessly Repeated

If something is stupid, one technique, slavishly followed by opinion manipulators, is to keep repeating it as if it was a self-evident triusm.

We shouldn’t proceed with Health Care reform because it would be tantamount to “socialized medicine”. Okay, but a “socialized military” and a “socialized fire brigade” are just fine? “No one knows how to pay for this,” is another gem. But today in the US we have the most expensive health care system in the developed world, and statistically it delivers less by way of health compared to these other benchmark countries as well! So how are we paying for it now? Just because it’s already part of our expenditure, deficits etc, we mustn’t think we’re not already paying! Let’s have a robust debate for sure…but not by means of bumper sticker slogans.

In the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, it was argued by some that she was (as she has herself said in a different vein) an “affirmative action” beneficiary. This is said as if to imply that if so, you don’t have merit! Some talking heads have said they don’t mind Latinos (very big of them), but let’s get the geniuses who really deserve to get into Ivy League schools. Really, like George W Bush? How did he get in? On merit, or by being the scion of a powerful family? Perhaps we could compare his grades with those of Sonia Sotomayor. The point is, affirmative action is meant to balance the scales of privilege and access enjoyed by the monied, as well as by majorities in mainstream society. Done doltishly, it becomes a quota system and perpetuates inequality by setting vastly different standards for people based precisely on ethnicity and heritage. But done well, it makes room for the fact that talent is multi-faceted, and shows up in more than test scores. But if your father can’t make a phone call, then perhaps something other than “connections” has to get you in. And diversity isn’t a bad argument, as long as it bridges such a gap for the clearly talented, rather than degrades the importance of applied talent. Something has to break the pattern, to create a wider pool of talented people, so that in time we can indeed move on to a truly color-blind merit based system.

Stupid things are heard elsewhere too. “Leaders don’t have time to be cheerleaders, we pay people, that’s the motivation…” But if you then ask these same people if they themselves deserve good leadership, or whether their own paycheck should suffice and make them endure inept guidance…they bristle. They complain about unfair treatment, poor communication, fuzzy goal-setting. Everyone feels they deserve better than just a paycheck.

Moreover, how did we conflate, engaging people with “cheer leading”? The job of leaders is to get maximum potential from all company assets, including their own talent pool. What else are they there for? Arguably to also set direction. But compare the strategies of major competitors and the difference that makes the difference is hardly dazzling strategic insight.

“Times have changed, we have to keep an eye on costs.” Really? And before you had to do what? Isn’t that a self-insulting, condescending confession? And surely you have to keep an eye on value. If you could invest in something and it gave you a 10:1 ROI (as to me, a proper consulting project should), you still wouldn’t do it because cosmetically it may “seem” like a cost? That’s the caliber of leadership you want to offer?

“The economy is rebounding, Goldman Sachs have posted record profits.” Yes, due in large part to the government-sponsored bail-out they received. But fine, we want them to put the money to good use. But if they pay themselves pre-crisis level bonuses, they’re maggots and dunderheads. Receiving public largesse gave you a lease on life — manage PR, manage your character, and be judicious. This is a time for measured optimism perhaps, not party hats. We need to see that rewards are more in line with realities not premature runaway euphoria. We’d all like to think we’ve collectively learned something from this economic pain.

Take an unromantic look at things that are constantly repeated, often without much nuance. Just beyond the gloss is probably a much more textured reality. Get good at spotting these and you can often achieve breakthroughs — in paradigms, strategies and tactics, and very likely….in results!

Make the Choice!

A dear friend and long-time client recently asked me whether I felt we in the United States were peculiarly afflicted with poor service. I had to confess that hotels and airports here do seek to redefine “rancid” in terms of service. He regaled me with a story of an endlessly snaking check-in line at his hotel after a long flight. When finally, with a glacial pace that would have done any immigration inspector proud, he made it to the front, he heard a canned greeting: “Hello sir, and how are you today?”

It was clear he was seething, had been inconvenienced, and the last thing he wanted was to exchange banter about his state of health. A more situationally observant service provider would likely have said, “I’m SO sorry for the long line, let’s get you to your room right away…” And then having aligned on that priority, very likely having somewhat defused his frustration, rapport could have been more naturally built as the inevitable check-in process chugged along. Scripted, mechanically delivered inanities are not service, any more than what you hear in the elevator is really music.

Truth be told, most countries have service blind spots. Nitwits abound everywhere, as do stars. It comes down to a fundamental choice.

And service isn’t just smiles and bedside manner, it’s also what’s delivered. A famous hotel in Singapore abounds with gushing smiles, and yet delivers substandard croissants, despite being a legend in the industry. A small inn in the Languedoc in France, delivers that same croissant, moist and glistening with buttery appeal. The morning smiles are a tad more restrained at the inn. Which is providing the better service? Well, it truly depends. Singapore is not necessarily famous for breakfast croissants and Nasi Lemak there is pretty good. Add that to the smiles, and you can give them a pass (though truly, a Julia Child cookbook could cure the problem). The inn isn’t known for morning cheerleading sessions, and yet the staff is attentive, friendly and IS in a region known for exceptional croissants. Service is as service does. It’s situational to a large extent and depends on what you’re after and the expectations created.

However, the really diabolical service is usually not the failure of expertise, but the unwillingness to make a key choice. That choice is this: whether this is a job you wish to continue in, whether you rail against an imperfect cosmos for obliging you to take such a job or not, it is not the fault of the person you are serving! Hence, for the sake of God and Mammon (more on this momentarily), don’t take it out on them! Choose to have who you are reflected by how you serve.

If instead, you take your life not being perfect out on customers, you’ll drive them away, your gratuities will diminish, and you’ll be another commodity. Instead make the choice, that while you are here, you will shine, and make people grateful and glad to interact with you.  Commit to being a rock star in this role, and you’ll command more revenue, your prowess will likely be noticed, and you’ll cultivate critical interactive and responsive skills for whatever higher calling you may aspire to. Why do people who feel they could be so much more, insist on acting like so much less?

I went to Boston to deliver a speech. For my sins, I had to stay at a Sheraton (no other hotels at a sane distance, believe me), deliver at a Conference Center about 20 minutes away, and then return late night, and back home the next day. I booked a car service. Everything was duly confirmed back to me. Arrival at Boston, no problem. Trip from Sheraton to Conference Center, fine. At 10:30 pm when I emerged…no car. When I called I was told, “We don’t have a booking for you.” This was said as if it settled the matter. I asked if they’d like me to forward the confirmation I received. Silence. Then, a grudging confession: well that’s done out of LA and they’re supposed to fax us the confirmed runs. Fax? As I asked if they had checked the century we were in recently, they finally sprang into action, and got a car there in 30 minutes. Great! But it was 30 minutes longer than I needed to be hanging around. It was stress and aggravation that I was paying them not to have to endure (by calling a local cab company, which probably would have done the trick otherwise).

It’s this kind of service gaffe, which takes place every day, where you have to continuously check to see if people have ‘clicked’ to things they’ve confirmed to you, that makes you despair. On the other hand,  for those making the alternative choice, it means there’s ample room to shine…and scant competition.

We often in New York run across bartenders and wait-staff who are aspiring actors. Many are charming and clearly talented, at least insofar as you can intuit from their repartee, voice modulation, alertness and more. But some sport an attitude, as if to convey that we should consider ourselves fortunate to get their antipathy and churlishness. I am often tempted to say, “You say you can act? Prove it, try acting like a waiter. Put on a show for tonight called “I’m here to serve.”

We all have bad days. Never take them out on people you serve. They deserve better. And delivering that service, despite being down, despite the vicissitudes in our own personal lives, is the essence of being a professional. And thereby you build your brand. So be impeccable. Offer enthusiasm — generate it by delivering it if it’s in short supply naturally that day. Empower yourself to make someone’s day better.

Make the choice!