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.