Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Scenes From the Culture Clash - Danielle Sacks

In a very timely article in the Jan/Feb issue of FastCompany Magazine, Danielle Sacks brings us stories from the frontlines about our newest generation of employees. It makes me glad I left the field of Human Resources in 1994. The very fact that Human Resources is now asked to deal not only with employees and their issues, but also with their parents, is not something I could have conceived of a decade ago.

This article supports what Eric Chester articulated in his book Getting Them to Give a Damn. It's a brave new world and adapting is essential to companies surviving this influx of young people. Sacks tells us there are 76 million children of baby boomers born between 1978 and 2000, and they are flooding into our workplaces where three other generations are already trying to productively coexist: the traditionalists (born before 1945), boomers (born 1946-1964) and generation X (born 1965-1977).

Their expectations are simply different and centered much more around the idea of a work/life balance, with the "life" factor featured most prominently. They don't live to work, they work to live, and they fully expect companies to understand and accommodate that worldview. And companies are doing just that - including bastions of tradition such as law firms and consulting firms. In order to attract the best and the brightest, they are learning to adapt age old systems to new age demands. There's a great deal to be gleaned from some of the companies who are taking these bold new steps to meet this generation of workers head on. In the real estate world, it's not just employees who are looking for these accommodations, but future real estate agents as well. How they choose to structure their life as an independent contractor will likely change how some firms decide to recruit, train and support this new cadre of professionals. The millennials are a force to be reckoned with, and companies of every size in every industry would be wise to reckon with them now.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Getting Them to Give a Damn - Eric Chester

Subtitled "How to Get Your Font Line to Care About Your Bottom Line." The book deals with managing and motivating the newest generation of employees known as Generation Y (or Generation Why, the Millennials, NetGen or Echo Boomers.) These are the youngest of employees from ages 16 to 24 that the author has dubbed "kidployees." They are essential to the workforce because increasingly there are more jobs than kidployees to fill them, and at a number around 75 million, they will be with us for the next 50 years. Even though I don't manage employees this age at the moment, I am a parent to someone else's employees and I've seen how their experience in the workplace is shaped by the environment they are placed in.

Chester points out early on in the book that we baby boomers have always believed the old axiom "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." He challenges that notion with a reality for the 21st century: "If you do what you've always done, you are out of business." The book rings true from start to finish. He points out that most of us in management are the equivalent of analog thinkers, whereas this generation is digital. How they are wired for making choices is very different from our own experience, so we predict behavior based on an erroneous set of assumptions from the start. One interesting point he makes is that they can't stand to be bored. "In fact, when surveyed, many young people respond that their fear of boredom in a job is greater than their fear of physical injury." We can keep applying the same thinking, policies, rules and procedures that we have for the last 20 years, but the results will not be the same.

The book has great suggestions for how to deal with the new generation of kidployees that transcends the notion of age. What he suggests will motivate these employees will in fact have a very positive affect on employees of every age. This age group might need a little more attention, but a company's entire employee population can in fact benefit from some updated thinking. He outlines some of the successful initiatives undertaken by Eddie Bauer, Cold Stone Creamery, the Ritz Carlton and even the US Army. He reprints the employment information found in the online job application for the restaurant chain Chipotle (at chipotle.com) as an example of how to communicate so they will be engaged from the beginning.

One of his more interesting concepts is the "Give A Damn" continuum (which he shortens to the GAD continuum throughout the book.) On one end is zero and is labeled "Sabotage" and on the other is a 10 labeled "Total Buy In." He then lays out the various types of kidployees within that scale including the Disenfranchised, Bread-and-Butter, Solid Subordinates, and Gems. (Sounds like it could apply to any employee population.) He does talk a great deal about kidployees who are Opies (after the Opie in the old Andy Griffith Show.) And it's Opies that you want to cultivate and keep in your employ. But Opies are not just a matter of what kind of kidployee you have on staff, it's the environment they are placed in. Chester rightly points out that it's not inherent personality traits themselves that give you Gems and Opies, it's putting these kidployees in a job that's a good fit for them, managing the work environment, and motivating them to grow.

It's all very sound thinking with plenty of research to back it up. Chester makes an excellent case for why we need to care about this as management. Companies will continue to have their ranks filled with employees of this age group and we need to be prepared for that challenge.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Seoul of Design - Bill Breen

This article in the December '05 issue of FastCompany Magazine captures a concept that I have tried to explain numerous times to people about our own company: the concept of yin-yang. In this instance, the concept has become the touchstone for the transformation of Korea's Samsung into the world's most profitable tech company. The yin-yang symbol which is found on the Korean flag, "represents the simultaneous unity and duality of all things." From this, Samsung developed its high concept of "Balance of Reason and Feeling" that it applies to all its technology design and development.

Chairman Kun-Hee Lee, son of the founder, completely transformed this company into a global technology leader from it's humble beginnings in 1938 as an exporter of rice, sugar and fish. The book he wrote that outlines his philosophy, Change Begins With Me, I could could not find on Amazon. But I was struck immediately by the title, which echoes the main theme of the Arbinger Institute's Leadership and Self-Deception. It seems to me that it's the rare leader who understand where large scale change must begin.

This article, among other things, is an ode to design as the fundamental driver in becoming a technology leader in the crowded field that exists today. Samsung created it's own design school, borrowing elements of Western thought and totally transforming and adapting them to work in this culture. The dollars, the time and the resources that have been invested by Samsung in educating it's designers to be world class is impressive. But if the proof is in the pudding, then there is ample evidence here in the value of emphasizing design as a differentiating factor in the products they produce.

The scale they have developed as part of their yin-yang concept has reason on one end and feeling on the other, and incorporates the values of "simplicity" and "complexity" as well. In measuring their competitors on this scale, they found "In one recent analysis, Apple occupied the 'simplicity/feeling' zone, with Sony in the 'complexity/reason' field. Samsung seeks out areas where there are no competitors - that's where opportunity lies." And therein lies the entire thesis of Blue Ocean Strategy - creating a space where there are no competitors. The more I read, the more these same themes seem to emerge in different places, each validating the premise of the other. This is a great success story and a wonderful example of how one leader's vision transformed a 67 year old export company into a world leader in technology product design.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Big Moo - Seth Godin, Editor

Subtitled "Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable" the book is set up as short vignettes written by 33 well known writers, leaders and all around gurus. Folks like Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters, Daniel H. Pink, Mark Cuban, Alan Webber and Tom Kelly - The Group of 33.

Several remarkable things about this book: all the contributors gave their work free of charge; 100% of author proceeds go directly to three listed charities; and Mr. Godin invites those of us who purchased the book to photocopy as much as we want and send it to as many people as we would like.

If you are familiar with any of Seth Godin's works, such as Permission Marketing or Purple Cow, such outside-the-box thinking will not be a surprise. There is probably no one more qualified to speak to this subject of being remarkable than this man. He is an original and this book is the product of original thinking. In order to make the book flow, the decision was made not to put each author's name on the contribution he or she made. That actually adds a great deal to the experience of reading these reflections since we aren't distracted by trying to place these thoughts in the context of what we already know about the author. Another excellent choice that affirms that this book is what it tells us we should all strive to be - remarkable.

The Big Moo is in the category of what I would call an easy read: it's structured as easily digestible bits of insight. The kind that you want to quote, underline, write down or email to people you work with. There is something that will speak to everyone, no matter what you do or what company you work for. It's the kind of book that sits on your desk so you can pick it up and find that great story or quote that great example in trying to make your own point. It's a handbook of affirmation.

I like to read in the early morning and it's become a regular routine because of my son's schedule in getting ready for school. I read just over half the book this morning. Then I attended a two hour department heads meeting from 10 to noon where I kept listening to what was said in the context of what I had just read. Real life does not mesh with the ideal too often.

Of the many things that I read in the book this evening, this one leaped out at me from "Defying Gravity": "Numbers-based innovations are easy to sell . . . They rarely cause people to look back in awe at the amazing thing they've done. It's the emotional stuff - the stuff that some smart people don't think will work - that you need to be a part of." This was followed in the next vignette with an equally interesting observation: "In a metric-minded organization, it's very tempting to focus on things that are easy to measure instead of those things that are important to measure." This is the stuff that meetings are made of.

This is a must-read in my opinion. It was recommended by Val August, and I am very grateful to have so many reading friends who keep pointing me in the right direction. Everything about this book is interesting and engaging, including the short profiles of the contributors at the end. If you want to buy a book that will help you while helping several good causes, this would be the one.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama

This is not really what I would put in the category of Business literature, but I have recommended it to so many people lately, I decided to talk about it here anyway. Barack Obama wrote this book shortly after leaving Harvard Law School. His thoughts on the genesis of the book in the Preface and Introduction of the 2004 edition add a great deal to the experience of reading it, as does the entire text of his keynote address delivered at the Democratic National in July of 2004, which appears at the end.

The book itself is first and foremost one man's personal journey. It's not a glossed over press piece written to impress a constituency and potential voters, nor is it a warmly remembered personal history written at the end of a successful and noteworthy life. Barack Obama wrote this well before he could have imagined the life in which he finds himself as a US Senator from Illinois. It's deeply personal, very genuine and evokes such a sense of struggle. It's not just a coming of age story, it's an attempt to shine a light on race issues in this country that many of us could not otherwise imagine. But those issues are cast in terms of this man's life.

His birth was the result of a brief union between a white mother from Kansas and an educated black Kenyan father who met while attending the University of Hawaii. His father was absent for the majority of his life and he was raised principally by his mother and grandparents. Like any good story, it's engaging in the details. The book tends to bog down a bit in the middle when he describes his years as a community organizer in Chicago. He really details the entire experience - the people he was trying to help, those he worked with to try and orchestrate meaningful change, the key players that shaped the efforts to bring decent housing, education and employment to the poorest of African-American communities. It's definitely an inside view of something most of us will never see or experience. I thought about that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and suddenly a natural disaster became embroiled in issues of race and poverty. Barack Obama does an excellent job in painting a portrait of the daily lives and despair of these people. The challenges of poor African-Americans in New Orleans are probably not vastly different from what he saw in Chicago. These people and their problems are invisible to the vast majority of Americans who don't want to see or know these problems exist.

The latter part of the book is about connecting with his half-sisters and brothers in Africa and visiting them in Kenya. He has a gift for evoking a sense of time and place that is very vivid and real, but always in the context of a deeply personal journey. He is meeting these family members for the first time, and through them, discovering a father he never really knew. There is something unique about this man, and his story is worth knowing.

Business books are not all that I read. It seemed like there was more value in narrowing the scope of books to be reviewed and discussed in this blog. But there is much to be discovered in all kinds of books, and this is one of those exceptional ones.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The MySpace Generation - BusinessWeek

The Dec. 12th issue of BusinessWeek has a really interesting cover story on the MySpace Generation. MySpace.com is a networking site geared toward young people aged 12 to 24. It's an absolute phenomenon. It's ironic that I was having a conversation with a co-worker last week at our monthly Happy Hour about MySpace, which is a site he had never heard of despite having kids in this age range. Most parents I've spoken to have never heard of the site, but the number of users registered at MySpace has quadrupled from January to October and is now at 40 million members. Keep in mind this has spread entirely by word of mouth from one teenager to another. According to this article, "Youngsters log on so obsessively that MySpace is ranked No. 15 on the entire U.S. Internet in terms of page hits in October . . ." Here are some other interesting numbers from this article: The estimated teen consumer spending market - $175 billion; estimated college student consumer spending market - $200 billion; the percentage of high school seniors with a credit card - 33%.

My own teenagers introduced me to MySpace earlier this year when they all created profiles on the site and wanted to show me the pages for some of their friends. A footnote here: my kids actually share a lot of things with me in an effort to keep me clued in. I'm not sure why, but I'm greatly flattered that they think I am so teachable. I listen intently to music they play for me (some of which I can't understand at all), I watch movie trailers and downloads they are excited about, visit websites they think are cool and generally listen to them explain life as they experience it.

So when I saw an article in July about Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. purchasing Intermix Media, the parent of MySpace, for $580 million, I had an idea that this demographic and this particular medium to reach them was significant from a business perspective. The article really delves in to the psyche, lifestyles and communities these young people inhabit. It also explores how companies like Coca-Cola and Apple have found effective ways of tapping into these complex networks. How this age group communicates greatly affects the flow of information, the speed at which it travels, and the influence of "group think" on how and what is being purchased.

If you visit the MySpace website (I encourage you to do so) and type in the real name of your own kids, nieces or nephews, or neighbors kids, you will see profiles come up which have only a first name or a "display name." My own kids all have fictitious "display names" but a search of their real names pulls up their profile. I have searched out their cousins all over the country and have easily found some of them. Even though there might be 3 pages of "Beths" I can tell which one is the cousin by the fact they identify the city and states where they all live and their age. Almost all these profiles also contain photos, many of which are not in very good taste, but this is the nitty gritty reality of the world they inhabit. Intimate information they would never tell their parents (do you smoke, drink, use pot, lost your virginity?) they post in cyberspace! Their friends post messages for them that are in the public domain. Some of these friends are offline friends as well, but others are people they meet online but have never met in person.

How this age group processes information greatly affects what influences their purchasing decisions. Companies need to understand how to reach them at this age if we want to be positioned as the go-to source for purchases of cars, homes, insurance, furniture, electronics, entertainment, clothing and cosmetics. While new technologies and the fickle whims of the 12 to 24 year old age group will change rapidly, it's a demographic worth keeping up with if you want to tap this multi-billion dollar market. Rupert Murdoch decided it was worth $580 million dollars to his enterprises and it's probably a worthwhile investment.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Word About Silence

In the December issue of FastCompany Magazine there is an interesting article about the artists retreat in New Hampshire, McDowell Colony. It's been there for nearly a century and it still attracts many contemporary writers, composers, and artists of all varieties. In this day and age, it's interesting to read that creative people still find the experience of being in a secluded and quiet environment essential to their creative process. They also find their interactions with other artists from different disciplines at breakfast and dinner to be stimulating and inspirational to their own art.

It's interesting that artists can recognize that these things are integral to what they do, but others getting along in the work-a-day world don't see these things as essential: quiet and contact with people outside our own immediate sphere. I had a conversation recently with the CEO of one of the companies I work with. He was talking about his pastor giving sermon on Sunday about noise. Part of the sermon included a long period of silence, designed to make people aware of how uncomfortable we are with silence. In fact, life's noise has become more than just the constant drone of TVs, radios, iPods, and streaming video, it's the vibrating Blackberry, the endless email, the ringing cell phone, the back-to-back meetings, the weekends crammed with one activity after another. We are always "on," always accessible, always in the middle of ceaseless noise of one variety or another. So when does anyone have time to think, create or innovate?

Carl was saying he always gets his best ideas in the shower. I used to as well before getting in the habit of long evening walks with my dog through a dark and quiet suburban neighborhood. Maybe that's because it's the one time and place where no one can really interrupt you. And it's quiet. And your brain has time to bubble up all the things that have been sitting there getting worked out, but whose thoughts can't cut through the noise of the every day. How much time do we spending "doing" and how much time to we spend thinking about what we are doing?

I recently heard a very well known real estate speaker at one of our company events talk about what it takes to be successful in this business. He was talking to a group of rookie real estate agents and his presentation was full of very practical ideas for what they needed to do on a daily basis to truly succeed. One of his suggestions was to spend 45 uninterrupted minutes a day planning their business. That seems like such a no-brainer. But most of us spend so much of our day doing what needs to be done, we don't spend time thinking about what we are doing. How can we create and innovate in an environment like this? Why have we filled up our lives with so much noise?

Well I have no answers for these questions, but they are worth pondering. I'll go take a shower now and think about it some more.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Make Their Day! - Cindy Ventrice

Subtitled "Employee Recognition that Works" the books offers "simple ways to boost morale, productivity and profits." I would put it in the category of a quick and easy read full of very practical ideas that have proven effective for me in working with my own staff. There are so many things that can be done on a regular basis, many at no cost, to make employees feel recognized and valued. Most companies pay a great deal of lip service to their employees as the "company's greatest asset" but this book points out that employee surveys tell a different story. The assumption is often made that compensation and benefits are the critical deciding factors to employees, but again the research has not borne that out. In surveying my own staff, those considerations were not in the top three of the things that mattered to them most.

Having said that, we need to consider Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs. We all remember that from school, right? Basically, Mazlow theorized that physiological and safety needs at the bottom of the pyramid have to be taken care of in order to move onto higher level concerns of belonging, self-esteem, and the ultimate self-actualization. This theory, to me, has always explained the meaning of life. Applying this model to employees in the workplace, it makes sense that certain basic needs have to be met at the bottom of the pyramid: a living wage, transportation to work, daycare/elder care for dependents, space to work, instruction/training/guidance from a supervisor, and basic equipment or tools with which to do the job. If any of those issues are not met, then expecting employees to be focused on being the best that they can be is probably not very realistic.

Employers can't solve all of the challenges of their employees personal situations, nor can they take responsibility for the issues outside the office that contribute to their employee's state of mind when they arrive for work. But many of the companies who routinely stay on the various "Best Companies to Work For" list have tried to address those bottom of the pyramid issues with things like daycare, telecommuting and flextime. Those efforts send a message about the value that company has placed on working with individual employees in order to retain them.

So assuming now (since I have digressed a bit) that we are talking about employees who have those basic needs met, what is that they want? Well, we need to give them recognition. Sometimes publicly when an accomplishment merits bringing it to the attention of those higher up or to the notice of the rest of staff or department. We need to take a moment to individually and privately tell employees one-on-one that they are important to the team, that what they do so well is important and appreciated, that they really are an asset to the company. It's as simple as saying "thank you" for the job they do every day. I try to remember to thank my staff every day, in some way, for the care they take in doing their jobs so well - even when I'm not watching. Most employees want to do well, they want to be successful, they just need to understand what it is that is expected and they want to be recognized for meeting or exceeding those expectations. Not too much to ask, is it? So why are there dozens of books out there to tell us how to do this?

Two things I thought were particularly outstanding suggestions: Encourage your employees to praise and recognize each other. Get people in the habit of catching someone else doing something great and then recognizing that - with a note, an email, or some other token. Behavior like that becomes a habit, and it encourages people to do more than expected and to keep their eyes open to other employees doing the same.

The second good idea: Recognize the people above you. We expect that our bosses should be telling us what a great job we are doing, but everyone appreciates positive feedback and recognition no matter how high up in the company. Have you hugged your CEO today?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots

This book is awesome! I mean a must read even if you only read one business book a year. Recommended to me by Val August, it was a quick and easy read that was engaging and entertaining from the front cover to the acknowledgments. The three authors are all from Deloitte Consulting and they have designed "bullshit" detecting software to eliminate corporate double-speak from business communications. What a concept!

I was laughing out loud by page 7, which is always a bad sign for my kids. It means I will read to them aloud. Since my chair (the official chair which no one is supposed to sit in except me) is positioned strategically between the rest of the house and the refrigerator, they cannot escape this. Since it was a Sunday and there was a chocolate cake on the counter, my son heard lots of excerpts from this book. I'm sure the experience has enriched him.

In all honesty, I can say I recognized myself in the examples in this book, but I also recognized everybody I work with! This really should be mandatory reading for anyone who is issued a corporate email account, and certainly for those who make presentations to the rest of the company. It's funny precisely because it is so real. They speak a lot about the need for authenticity, and the "voice" of this book is totally genuine in the best sense of the word. I was really knocked over when I kept seeing the phrase "Woo hoo!" throughout the book because I use that too. I liked both the style and substance.

An interesting quote that echoes the work of Scott McKain: "There are too many nice people with clear messages who fade into the din of business with no real impact because they didn't realize they were in show business. Whether it's writing or speaking, you're an entertainer." This quote is on the page right before the chapter entitled "Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll for Business People." These three people know their subject and their audience.

One final side note is in the acknowledgments where they thank their book designer for "mercifully liberating us from our own self-imposed hell brought on by The Great Cover Debate." It's truly a brave new world when Design and Show Business are now an accepted part of our corporate vocabulary.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Leadership and Self Deception - Arbinger Institute

Subtitled "Getting Out of the Box" this is another parable type story that works well. Amazon pairs it with another book entitled Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves by C. Terry Warner, also of the Arbinger Institute. I thought both were excellent and would recommend both. The Leadership book explores the precepts put forth in Bonds within a business context.

It's tough to really boil this down to a bullet (but I'm working on learning the skill), so I guess it would be this: everything starts with us individually as a person. It's action and reaction. Every action we take causes a reaction. Sometimes that cause and effect is intentional, but often it is subconscious, and we don't see what we are doing as the cause of a situation or circumstance that is a problem. Whether it's cultural or just human nature, we look for solutions to problems "out there somewhere." No one immediately looks inward to assess whether they are part of the problem. Both these books show how we deceive ourselves to think that what we believe, think, feel or act on is not part of every situation we are involved in.

Part of my job sometimes involves dealing with unhappy, irate and angry clients - both internal and external ones. Many times there are more than two parties involved in a dispute, each with their own version of the story, each with their own agenda, each with their own idea of what a fair resolution would be. On days when I am most cynical, I feel that all these people see is retribution and restitution: find someone to blame and make them pay. But I can see the truth of what both these books have to say and how the application of these ideas can make a difference. On days when I have listened carefully to someone and heard that their anger isn't the particular situation we are discussing, but many other things in their life that have made this problem the focus of accumulated disappointment or despair, I have been able to offer a sympathic ear. So much of the time people want understanding and to be heard. Kindness costs nothing, so why are we so stingy in giving it? Things that could make such a difference in the workplace - patience, courtesy, praise, empathy, understanding - are found wanting in so many places and yet we never look inwardly to assess if we have something to do with the absence. That must be management's problem - right? These books are great for starting the journey from the outside in. To change anything at all, we have to start with ourselves.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Trend Spotting

I was very excited to see the Amazon.com box on my porch today. Every year one of my New Year's Resolutions is "Buy fewer books." Every year I think I do a little better, but not significantly better. So I have ordered three books - one recommended by FastCompany and two recommended by one of our branch managers. Here is what I noticed immediately: books are getting smaller. I'm currently in the middle of a book on leadership orginally written in the 80's, updated in the 90's with this edition published in 2002. You could use it as a doorstop. The three books I received today were more like drink coasters by comparison.

This is something else I've noticed: the chapters are shorter, the text is often broken up by graphics or a photo, and sometimes there are lists or other types of supplemental information. These new books show a lot of attention to DESIGN. Yes, there's that watch word of the 21st century again. Design has hit book publishing in a big way. Who needs a 5 lb tome when you can have a very attractive, conveniently sized, lightweight vessel with its message crafted in more digestible bits?

We are living in a PowerPoint world. As if we didn't know this already. Say it with bullets. I'm surprised Hallmark has not launched it's own line of "Say it with PowerPoint!" You log-in, plug in your bullets, and Hallmark adds the puppies, kittens, flowers and background music and off it goes across the globe. Text-heavy is a bad thing - even I think so. And I am often told I use too many words. So for the second year my annual performance evaluation is encouraging me to work on word reduction in my written communications. This blog is part of my 12 step plan to cut back on words. I call it "Thinking Light."

I have to admit that I like the new look of the new books. I can appreciate the well crafted message in an eye-pleasing format sized to make it less intimidating to actually open and read. But one does wonder where it will stop. With podcasts, audio downloads and streaming video perhaps the written word will just shrink and shrink until we have a language comprised of universal icons - like the no smoking sign or pedestrians crossing. :)

Good to Great - Jim Collins

What is there left to say about this book? Amazon is showing 406 reviews since it was published in 2001, and I'm sure the rest of the world has said it all. I was given this book to read by our VP of Relocation probably two years ago. She said that a number of people in our company had read the book and she thought it would be helpful to me. It was.

I am regularly asked, "Have you read Good to Great?" This question generally precedes the speaker's introduction of what is the most famous concept of the book: getting the right people on the bus, and getting them in the right seats. It's interesting that in Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, he has an entire chapter on metaphors. He posits that being able to work in metaphors is going to be one of the necessary skills in this new conceptual age. The bus metaphor in Good to Great is probably the most well known and frequently used business metaphor of the last five years. But with good reason. It does very aptly describe what it takes to build a team. Having the right team is essential to everything else.

There's obviously much more to Good to Great than this one example. The book is well written and thoroughly researched with conclusions supported quantifiable data. The fact that the book has been read by so many people gives a common language (shared metaphors?) to those who want to discuss the concepts Collins introduces. Doesn't everyone want to work for a great rather than a good company? If there is anyone out there who hasn't read this book, you need to catch up. This one is not to be missed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Peter Drucker - John A. Byrne

The cover story in the current issue of BusinesWeek is about Peter Drucker and is written by John A. Byrne. Until recently, Byrne was the editor-in-chief of FastCompany Magazine, where I thought he did a great job. When the magazine changed hands earlier this year, he went back to BusinessWeek, which is where he had been for many years previously. This article is an excellent example of his writing skills and his subject is both interesting and one he seems to know well.

Peter Drucker died earlier this month at the age of 95. Credited with being "The Man Who Invented Mangement," I was very surprised to read in this article that his books on management practice were not considered material for MBA programs; that some academics considered his work "superficial" and not rigorous enough or backed up by quantifiable research. Yet many of the people quoted in this article - business icons, writers, politicians, religious leaders - talked about his enormous contribution to business, management and organizational development. It made me ponder what the gap might be between the academic perspective on business and what really takes place in companies all over the world on a daily basis. I have said for years, only half in jest, that the Harvard Business School should do a case study on our company. There is no question in my mind that that the experience would leave many venerated business academics scratching their heads in both wonder and frustration that we could be so successful in spite of ourselves.

I think the proliferation of books on all things related to business is an acknowledgement that the study of what makes a business successful is a life-long on-going process that never stops. The Internet has been a great equalizer in the dissemination of information and knowledge in the last decade. More than ever before, access to educational opportunities is tied less and less to location, affluence or even language. But if the playing field is more level, then the motivation of the individual players becomes more critical as the field becomes more crowded. More than ever, schools should stress the importance of acquiring skills to be a life-long learner and promote the concept that education doesn't stop when you step outside the classroom, school or university. I'm not sure how many people really understand that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

All Business is Show Business - Scott McKain

Subtitled "Strategies for Earning Standing Ovations from Your Customers" this book was published in 2002. I actually bought it at a second hand book store and still think it's a great book despite it's lack of chart topping popularity. I think it speaks to me most particularly because I come from the world of theater and I understand his frame of reference. His very first chapter addresses how Sesame Street has changed the expectations of the generation that was raised on it and all who have come after. We are a culture of people looking for an experience - to be engaged, entertained and wowed. In the business world today, all we talk about is the consumer experience and almost everything is secondary to getting that right.

McKain's theories are hardly new, but he presents them extremely well. One standout concept is that employees are the stars of any business and should be treated as such. I agree that if you have unhappy and undervalued employees, they are not delivering Academy Award winning services to your customers. He's also on target about telling your story well and having a memorable high concept that captures the imagination. This to me is very PT Barnum. I frequently tell people that I'm a graduate of the PT Barnum School of Marketing. Now there was a guy who knew his market. I'm probably one of the few people who has the video of Michael Crawford in the London production of the musical "Barnum." My kids groan when they see me bringing it upstairs from the dust covered shelves in the basement. I love that show! And undoubtedly that's why this book has such appeal to me. I agree with Scott McKain that all business is show business!

The Success Principles - Jack Canfield

This book was actually a gift from one of my staff members. Jack Canfield is co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soup series of books. The other half of the team, Mark Victor Hansen, was the featured speaker at our agent Top Producer Retreat in Victoria, BC, last month. The term that springs to mind for this book is "formulaic." That's not so much a criticism as an observation. Both these gentlemen have found a very successful formula, and it's something they work tirelessly to share with many other people through their books, seminars and other projects.

One of the keys to the success of the Chicken Soup books are their reliance on the story format. The oldest possible form of information sharing dating back to the caveman. Research, data, statistics and theories are all well and good, but nothing captivates the interest and imagination more than the story. This book is full of them too and the one that has stayed with me is the story of Jeff Arch, a karate instructor motivated by a Tony Robbin's motivational program who sat down and wrote the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle in less than a month. Okay, I was impressed by that. Mainly because I can't imagine writing a screenplay in less than a month (or really at all) and I just love that movie!

I don't think there's anything particularly groundbreaking about this book, but time invested in the power of positive thinking is time well spent. It's good to be reminded of the things we all know but don't do. I mark all my books with post-it flags (can't bear to mark in a book) and when I pick them up off the shelf, there all all these little colored tabs peaking out between the pages that let me find immediately a thought I wanted to keep. In flipping back through this book there are some well phrased pearls of wisdom that are worth keeping and even sharing. If you are a fan of the Chicken Soup books, you'll certainly enjoy this one.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Contagious Success - Susan Lucia Annunzio

This is a really great book that is probably not destined for the best seller list. It is definitly designed to educate and inform more than entertain. It's based on a monumental amount of global research across many industries, which is in and of itself quite fascinating. But what the author has done is to take all that research and try to distill what separates high performing work groups from those who just think they are in that category. That was a surprising result of her research - the enormous gap in the percentage of participants who considered themselves high performing and those that could actually substantiate that claim. Only ten percent of those participating could actually show that their results supported their own assessment. So this book is a very practical nuts-and-bolts approach in identifying the best practices that make for a high performing work group. It's only in that way that such success can be replicated and spread throughout an organization, hence the title of the book as contagion. There are some real "aha" moments in this book and some practical concepts that are not difficult to implement. I found it very useful in working with my own team.

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

It's interesting to me how many people I have run into that have read both Blink and The Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell is definitely a new age guru, and an articulate one who writes engaging books that speak to a great many people. The most common reaction to Blink is that he forgot to tell us what to do now. He does a great job of explaining how we think without thinking, and the art of thin slicing, and the perils of making poor snap judgments based on long held prejudices. But now what? How do we somehow improve this complex mental process he's so clearly explained to us? I enjoyed the book for the fascinating information it contained and I'm not personally all that troubled over what my brain is doing subconsciously. It's a step in the right direction that I'm at least more aware of it. But it does seem to vex others who have read the book and want that how-to-improve component. Perhaps this is a commentary on the pervasiveness of our self-help culture. If someone else has written the how-to part, please let me know.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

This book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was originally published in 1990. I bought it because of an article about the book in FastCompany Magazine several months ago. I took the book with me to read at our company's manager's retreat in September. I was reading it poolside and ran into one of my colleagues who was reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. Later that evening when we ran into each other in the bar, he told me the book he was reading had referenced the book that I was reading! This says something about the relevance of these ideas even today. Unlike other concepts and theories that go in and out of fashion, those in Flow have been recycled, repackaged and resold to a new generation in Daniel Pink's new book (which I also thoroughly enjoyed.)

This is not an easy read. It's not pop psychology and it takes a great deal of concentration to understand the theories he puts forth. I found it very slow going, but a wonderful journey of discovery. At the base of all we do is the quest for happiness. The author really delves into when we are truly happiest and how we don't consciously realize those states that make us happiest . Therefore we tend to pursue all the wrong things in this elusive quest to be happy. Things that stretch us and stress us are often those things we look back on and realize were situations in which we were truly engaged, happily and totally invested in that place, time and endeavor. This book really is very significant as a foundation for understanding so many other things. No doubt that's why other writers are still talking about it.

Freakonomics - Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner

There's a reason this book has been on the NY Times Bestseller list for such a long time. It's interesting. It takes things that are completely familiar to us and makes us look at them in an entirely different way - from the framwork of economic theory. If this was music, it would definitely be on the Billboard Pop Chart. This book was developed for mass consumption and it hits the bullseye in style, substance and accessibility. It was the pefect pairing of the "Rogue Economist" of the subtitle and a New York Times Magazine writer who understands what the greater public wants to read. It's not a brain drain, but engaging in every sense of the word. I thought Chapter 2, "How the Ku Klux Klan is like a Group of Real Estate Agents" was a bit of a stretch. Coming from that particular industry, I have specific issues with how they positioned some of their theories. Nevertheless, one can't dismiss it completely.

In many ways, I found this to be an enjoyable read in much the same way as Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Blink. Those are two other books that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, but fit into almost a separate genre in which Freakonomics also belongs. It seems to be hip these days for people to read books that actually make them think (but not too hard.) I think it could become an actual trend. We'll have to keep an eye on the NY Times Bestseller List to see if that can be verified.

Confidence - Rosabeth Moss Kanter

I've read some reader reviews on Amazon that talk about the repetition and reduncancy that some people found in this book. While there is some repetition, I didn't feel that it in any way took away from the overall value of the book. Subtitled "How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin and End" this book really looks closely at teamwork and leadership. I thought it was a real page turner. The author's studies of sports teams from the high school to the professional level was really interesting and a great illustrator of her points about winning and losing streaks. But as you move through the book, her research at the BBC and her profile of Nelson Mandela add an interesting depth to her theories that go beyond the sports analogy. It's very inspiring. The relationships she forged with the people who appear in this book provide stories and insights most of us would never have knowledge of otherwise. She truly got inside these teams and companies in order to better tell their stories. The chapters that include the struggles of both the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots made their appearance at last year's Superbowl all the more significant for having understood what it took for those teams to get there. It's a very engaging read that has a lot of relevance to how companies need to look at the concept of winning.

Blue Ocean Strategy - C. Kim, R. Maubrgne

An offering from the Havard Business School Press subtitled "How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant." An exceptional book about truly assessing where the market is going and figuring out how to create a new space before your competition does. It's a matter of looking at your own company's unique strengths, seeing what can be dropped or eliminated that the consumer no longer really sees as differentiating; and looking at research as to who your customer isn't and why. The authors use very interesting case studies to illustrate how enterprises as diverse as Cirque de Soleil, Yellow Tail Wines, and Starbucks found their blue oceans. Their concept of creating a strategy canvas makes their concepts very visual. For any company that's in maturing market with shrinking marketshare, this book provides a framework for looking at something as familiar as a century old industry in an entirely different way. I thought is was very worthwhile.

Think Big, Act Small - Jason Jennings

I loved this book. The subtitle is "How America's Best Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive." I found it through a book review in FastCompany magazine, which often profiles excellent new books. The beginning of the book speaks immediately to those who have experience with a "start-up." Although our company was a start-up over thirty years ago, there is still a very strong entreprenurial spirit in our company culture. We also know our start-up story well, which makes these other companies' stories seem very familiar. But as the book moves on, there are divergent paths chosen by these companies that produced a result that is remarkable. All of the companies profiled have a fascinating story to tell. How they have tackled problems of growth and profitability speak to anyone who deals with those issues every day.

For me, the profile of Koch Industries and the CEO Charles G. Koch was a revelation. I had never heard of either one, and yet that particular story is amazing. What struck me most profoundly is the degree to which Charles Koch reads, and how he has incorporated all that he has read into developing management systems and methods for his company that have contributed to what can only be described as stellar success in a variety of industries. His whole philosophy regarding how he creates, runs, and ultimately sells off various enterprises is a study unto itself. If it sounds like I am gushing - I am. Under "bibliophile" in the dictionary it should say "see Charles G. Koch." For a special thrill, Google him. He is just amazing. He is also actively involved with the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University (my alma mater) which wasn't even mentioned in the book.

I will confess that I wrote the first fan letter of my 40-something life to this man. I never before felt compelled to write a fan letter (the very idea!) until I discovered Charles G. Koch. The good news is that apparently he didn't think I was either insane or dangerous, because he wrote me back! I keep the letter in its envelope on my desk and occasionally take it out to look at it. It is very inspiring to me personally to know that someone as successful as Charles Koch feels the same way I do about the quest for life long learning and the impact it can have, for real, in being successful in business.

A Peacock in the Land of the Penguins

One of those business fables made so popular by writers like Ken Blanchard, who wrote the forward for this third edition. This book was recommended by our VP of Insurance (recently made President of Personal Lines) who announced at a department heads meeting that he considered me a peacock. It is one of the highest compliments paid to me in my professional life. The author, BJ Gallagher Hateley, has subtitled it "A Fable about Creativity & Courage." And it will strike a cord with anyone who has felt they were out of step in some way with the rest of their organization. Companies need talented people who bring a wide variety of skills to the table. Managing such diversity corporately is a challenge, but it's essential to create a culture where many different types of people feel valued and their contributions recognized. As the job force ages and there are fewer talented people to hire, those companies who have put thought and resources into creating a diversity friendly environment will be the employers of choice. My 19 year old daughter picked this book up off the table and started reading it because of the title and cover illustration. She found the concepts presented there fascinating and it spoke to her in a way she readily understood even though she has had a very short work experience. She too recognized that she was like one of the personality types described in the book who doesn't quite fit in - Sara the Swan. The book will have something to say to nearly everyone who reads it I think.

Winning - Jack Welch

I definitely want to be Jack Welch when I grow up. If I had any plans to grow up. I'm still considering my careers options - dancing pirate or possibly talk show host. Still, Jack has a way of cutting to the essential truths about running a business. Especially a large, complex, multi-national business. But large or small, there are some very basic truths about what it takes to successfully lead a company. His chapter on Mergers & Acquisitions I found particularly interesting since this is an issue my company has dealt with over three decades. What I walked away with, that I think about on a daily basis , is that issues have to be dealt with - decisively. Problems don't solve themselves and they don't improve by being ignored or put off. I try to face into the wind with more resolve when dealing with problems. This book made be feel more capable of doing a better job.

The World is Flat - Thomas L. Friedman

This book was recommended by one of our regional vice presidents in SW Virginia. The book is excellent for giving a background and overview to the articles that are appearing every day from the Wall Street Journal to BusinessWeek. Globalization seems to have come out of nowhere with the rise of India and China seemingly an overnight phenomenon. Friedman gives a great deal of background on what has happened over the last 50 years that has led to the rise of these countries that only recently we considered to be poor and overpopulated. His research is integral to understanding what is happening every day and how there could soon be other superpowers economically and politically in a very short time. The book is extremely well written and I found it riveting from start to finish. I even read sections of it aloud to my teenaged children to help them understand how our educational system has contributed to an impending shortage of engineers and scientists. I think this book is destined to be the definitive text of it's time on the factors leading to our current world economy.

A Whole New Mind - Daniel Pink

Just finished Daniel H. Pink's A Whole New Mind. It was loaned to me by one of my colleagues in the Training Division whose son was assigned the book as part of a college course. The concepts are very interesting and the author makes an excellent case for an overall shift in business from an age of information to "the conceptual age." For those of us who inhabit the business world but see ourselves as more creative than analytical, this is a message that's well received. His emphasis on the importance of design to all businesses is simply reinforcing articles I have recently seen in FastCompany Magazine and BusinessWeek. It's definitely a brave new world with global competition an increasingly pivotal factor. This books makes a great case for the skills that will be needed in a flatter world.