Elvis Has Left the Building!

On the first day of my 51st year, I headed out for an early morning run, and followed it up with a wonderful ride in the cool morning air on the Ducati. I couldn’t help thinking about what an intense week it had been.

This past Wednesday, after weeks of furious preparations, we dropped our one and only son off at Marquette University to begin his freshman year. We dutifully lined up with our carts full of supplies, bags strapped on every appendage, and mashed into the elevator for our journey to the 17th floor of his dormitory. A cacophony of wobbling wheels, dropped boxes and overly agitated collegiate students provided the backdrop to our mission to move him in. Since his roommate had not yet arrived, we took the liberty of helping him arrange the furniture. Look! I know we are supposed to just let go, but the room was so full of boxes, desks, tables, suitcases, clothes and supplies, that something had to be done. There was only a single four foot by three foot empty bit of floor space. I convinced Connor that we should seize the moment, and move things at least into some semblance of organization. Like solving that little 15-square puzzle game, also called the Mystic Square, utilizing the empty tile space to shuffle the other pieces into order, we made our plan of attack and completed our furniture ballet with nary a dent nor scratch. Shortly after, Nolan and family arrive, and we bid a hasty retreat. Although he is completely ready to be on his own, I felt a notable extra squeeze to his parting hug.

This past Friday, I celebrated turning 50 years old. Yes, it is that mark of all marks, a half century down! I am sure the mailbox is stuffed with AARP applications right now. Still a bit stunned and exhausted from sending Connor off, I think I pretty much have stumbled through the 50-mark. Not really ignoring it, but more or less just wandering past it in a bit of a daze. I did reflect a bit as I ran and rode this morning, taking stock and for some reason, was stuck on the healthy, wealthy and wise promise of being an early riser. Healthy? Most certainly! Other than the occasional irritated calf muscle strained while running, or the slightly wacky eyesight that has forced me to buy some driving goggles, I am overjoyed at moving into my second half-century feeling absolutely great. Wealthy? Indeed. I continue to be blessed with family and friends that would put George Bailey to shame. I was aptly reminded of this over this past week and wish to thank you all. Wise? Hmmm … well, I suppose I have my moments, and my failings. Just a couple of days ago, traveling on a business trip and realizing only moments before I needed to be ready for a business meeting that I had forgotten my toothpaste, I did my best MacGyver survey of the room. The options were bleak, and it came down to the soap; a very unwise decision. When I was young, I obviously never had my mouth washed out with soap, for I would absolutely remember THAT taste. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

As I ponder these two major events, separated by only a day, I can’t help but feel the sense of loss for Connor as a child, and for youth. I have to come to terms with the fact that he is an adult, very well equipped to take on the next phase of his life, and celebrate his accomplishments. I also have to come to terms with the fact that I cannot purchase any new vehicles, clothing, or do anything out of the ordinary for the next decade, for I will be shunned for having some type of mid-life crisis. Most of all, even though I want to linger and reminisce about both of these pasts, it is pointless. Ladies and gentlemen, in both cases, Elvis has most definitely left the building! It is time to see what comes next.

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Serious Ear Therapy

Over the course of the last three decades, music has progressed (or regressed) from purely analog to digital, then to sampled and compressed digital. This was driven by the desire to ‘personalize’ music and bring and have as much of it available, in as little space as possible. From the audio CD, to MP3 players, and into the iPod decade, the music and components kept getting smaller and more compact. The problem with this is that the audio quality diminishes the more the music is compressed. Depending on the sampling settings you used when you loaded the music in, the listening experience may be anywhere from slightly deteriorated to horribly thin and distorted. Combine the compressed music files with crappy little earbuds, and it is almost a wonder you can recognize what the music actually originally was. But over the course of years, you become accustomed to listening to that thin facsimile … and you simply forget. And then, something comes along to remind you.

At work, we have been working with a stereophone manufacturer for a number of years … and I am purposefully not talking about brands, because this isn’t an infomercial … this is about music. This is about being awakened to, and reminded of, what music is supposed to be. Through our work and conversations about the essence of stereophones, of the brand promise of how music is meant to be heard, I was reminded of those days back in the late 70’s, plugged into the turntable, a monster pair of headphones perched on your head, listening to a new album without any ambient noise. Throughout our conversation, I remembered thinking of how good the music sounded when you slipped on a pair of cans; how you could hear things in the music you simply never heard before; how you heard the music the way it was meant to be heard.

Having lost track of the last pair of headphones I owned, probably back in the early 90’s, and being inspired by reminiscent thoughts of pure music, I ordered a pair of high-end, over the ear, studio stereo-phones. Two days later, I was opening the box and pulling out a full-sized, fully cushioned, metal framed pair of cans that were meant for business. Simply holding them in my hands made me anticipate the sounds I would hear. My earbuds lay impotently crumpled in a pile as I plugged myself into the iPad. I completely understand the loss of audio quality with MP3s, so I have always ripped my CDs in at a higher sampling rate. They are not ripped in at ‘loss-less’, but certainly better than default settings. I spun through the selections and started really listening.

For the next three hours, I sat quietly listening to the music. I simply listened to music, like I haven’t heard music, in almost 20 years. I started with Rachmaninov as played by Gavrilov, each note as clear as if I were sitting on the bench next to him. The impossibly large intervals, being complimented by the faint sounds of pedaling. Next, I listened to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major. As the viola plaintively and expressively cries the melody, the clarity causes your breathing to become just a bit ragged, uneven. Moving into contemporary music, I needed to hear the jazzy and complex interactions of Weather Report’s Birdland, and the full orchestra accompaniments in Fool’s Overture on Supertramp’s Even in the Quietest Moments. Typically very restless and task oriented, I had no problem working my way through song after song, genre after genre. I was listening to the incredibly moving voice that belongs to Leona Lewis when my plug got pulled and I was herded off to get ready for dinner.

As I gently set the phones on the table, I was completely transported back to my early listening days. My memories were completely accurate. The music I had just listened to was full, rich and perfectly tuned to be delivered to my ears just as it had been done. It was serious ear therapy, and something I had not enjoyed for two decades. How did that happen? How did I wander away so far away from what music really is? As I walked away, I was already making a mental list of the CD’s I would be re-ripping into my library under the loss-less encoder, thus bringing the experience completely back to how it was originally recorded. While I am not completely convinced I’ll be able to pick up the subtle audio differences of going that extra step, I certainly look forward to my therapy session and finding out.

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BP, You’re Dead to Me!

Like too many of us in America, my family consumes a lot of gasoline. In our little fleet, we are trying to keep four cars, three motorcycles, two lawn mowers, one ATV and a partridge in a pear tree running. When you throw in the weed eater and other miscellany, astonishingly I think we are approaching 50 spark plugs. Clearly it is time to begin divesting, but in the meantime, all of these cylinders … when in use … have been fueled by British Petroleum. My affinity for the BP brand began when the first Amoco stations starting being re-branded over to the ‘BP green’ brand. I don’t know if it felt a bit gentler, or greener, or had a slight British sophistication that appealed to me. For whatever reason, we have been a highly loyal BP fleet, pumping considerable amounts of our hard earned cash into BP machines, for years. It is funny how brand loyalty works; what starts a relationship, what trauma a relationship survives, and what eventually kills it.

Part of our commitment to BP is the accumulation of loyalty points; which then can be redeemed for any number of awards, including BP Gift Cards. The gift cards, typically our chosen award, is simply a prepaid credit card in increments of $25 or $50. You drive up to the pump, swipe the card, pump until the card is emptied, and off you go. Or at least that is the way it is supposed to work. Unfortunately, our local BP station, the Delafield Convenience, can’t seem to get the process mastered. Maybe they have old pumps. Maybe they don’t know how to configure what payment is accepted during which business hours. Maybe they are employing a strategy of coaxing you into the store by disallowing pay-at-the pump. Whatever the cause, I would suggest they are blissfully ignorant of what erodes brand loyalty. For the past couple of years, I have been met with a consistent stream of disallowed attempts to read gift cards, get receipts, use the regular BP Credit Card, etc. In a scene horribly reminiscent of “PC Load Letter” in Office Space, the pump simply reads “See Clerk”. Well guess what! I don’t want to see the clerk. And I certainly don’t want to see the clerk simply to use the gift card that has been awarded to me for my consistent loyalty. What logic is being employed to disallow the use of their own BP Gift Cards? They hold value, or they don’t. The pump automatically stops when the card is exhausted. There is no “drive off” risk to the station. Yet, the pump silently taunts me with “See Clerk”.

I stroll into the station, as I have done dozens of times to get a receipt that should automatically shoot out of the pump, or ask why I cannot process a gift card … to be met with the explanation that the gift card in question will work inside if the pump won’t let it be used outside. Fine! A stroll in, a stroll out, pump some gas, a stroll in and back out will be a nice addition of exercise to my morning errand. Yet at the pump, I try to engage the fuel type by selecting “Pay Inside” only to be met with the intransigent adherence to “See Clerk”. As I stare in irritated disbelief, the clerk sticks her head out the door and broadcasts loudly that I need to pull around to the inside pump to pay inside. Really? Seriously? I replace the nozzle with my right hand, as I form the “OK” signal with my left hand, and give her an exaggerated wink. Quick as a bunny, I jump into my car, pull across the street to the Daybreak Mobil Station, and activate the pump with my credit card. With the aforementioned clerk watching from across the street, I fill my car, collect my receipt on the spot, and drive off quietly.

As I reflected, I realized that brand loyalty is truly a peculiar phenomenon. In this case, it started for reasons I can’t even remember. Once the connection was made, however, it was a strong enough bond to survive a trauma of global proportions. The Gulf spill was a horrible event, but I rationalized that it really could have happened to any company, and anybody that has worked in a giant company will completely understand … huge multinationals, like our governments, are totally unprepared to deal with catastrophe. With that line of thinking, I had continued to stick by BP. But when it came down to the day-to-day interaction with the local representative of the brand, when it came to repeatedly disallowing the most simple of transactions … I cracked. Essentially, I threw my hands in the air and proclaimed “BP, you’re dead to me!” Years of loyalty eventually undone by the one local station that I interacted with the most. Hours later, remembering the cheerful blue Mobil pump and the advertising for the efficient Speed Pass feature, I jumped on the web and opened a Mobil account, complete with cards and Speed Pass key fobs. I guess for me, at least with commodity products, it comes down to making sure that everyone you rely on to represent your brand, starts with getting the basics done right and done consistently. Without the basics, there really isn’t anything left to build upon.

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The Unintentional Executive, Vol. IX

Like many of you, I have been in the business world for quite some time. Early in my career, I remember being intrigued by the process of Strategic Planning, and the resulting Business Plans. They seemed so critical to business, so mysterious, so omnipotent. These sessions, and the plans they produced, were windows into the future. They charted the course the business would take over the next three, four, or even five years. They foretold the future. They unlocked the secrets to success.

As I progressed and matured in my career, I gained access to the plans and became involved in the planning sessions. I quickly realized that what I thought these sessions and plans were, was a far cry from what they actually were. Although the plans would contain overall revenue goals, product goals, etc. they didn’t necessarily address the strategies and tactics to really achieve those goals. They typically had a good deal of clarity for the short-term, but quickly became fuzzy as the time horizon expanded. Over the years, the horizon of clarity didn’t increase, but surprisingly began to decrease. In a world where immediate access to information was fueling an increasing rate of change, we were becoming rather near-sighted. The business world was simply changing too fast. Change was impacting everything, expect for the concept of annualized strategic planning.

Enter Agile Strategic Planning(SM) … a concept proposed a few years back and actually being implemented now. Essentially, you need to recognize that the planning horizon is no longer constrained by your fiscal or calendar year; and you need to adopt processes and tools to support shorter cycles. In our business, we decided to break our year into trimesters, but you can use whatever makes sense to your business. So instead of doing an annual strategic planning process and creating a multi-year business plan, we review our strategic plan every four months, and tile our plan out three trimesters into the future. We are always looking forward a year, but that horizon continuously moves as our business moves. Our theory is that we will be able to more easily and quickly adjust to changes in our business and industry. In a couple of trimesters, we’ll let you know how it works.

To make this work, we recognized early on that we needed to streamline our planning process and the artifacts that we create and maintain. In our case, we chose to leverage a digital collaboration portal. Everything we do is organized in our Strategic Planning hub; goals, objectives, strategies and tactics. They exist as text pages, documents, spreadsheets, etc. that are revision controlled and accessible to everyone. To institutionalize this concept, our challenge will be to have the discipline to turn that portal into a continuously updated representation of where we are going and how we plan to get there. We are early in the process, but it is promising and exciting.

If you stop and reflect for a moment on your organization, and whatever planning process you engage in, or don’t if that is the case … how effective is it for your business? Do you find yourself spending tremendous amounts of time and energy creating plans and presentations that provide structure for the first few months of the year, but quickly become aged and out of date? Is your business changing so quickly that you feel as if you are being reactionary for much of the year? Does the idea of laying out detailed plans 24-months into the future sound a bit ridiculous? If so, maybe it is as simple as realizing the concept of planning on annual boundaries is no longer valid, and the rate of business change has shrunk our long-term visibility. Maybe short-term horizons are now four to nine months, and long-term are six to eighteen months, depending on your business. Maybe it is time for your planning process to catch up to your business reality.

Back to Vol. VIII

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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

It was yet another incredible evening as I left work tonight and headed west on St. Paul Avenue. After loading up the motorcycle, strapping on the helmet and navigating some of the most congested incoming Summerfest traffic, I felt I was clear as I headed across the river and towards the Amtrak Station, or Multi-Modal Station as it called in Milwaukee. Traffic was still heavy coming east, but since I was heading west out of town, I was thinking I was past the worst. But as I approached the station on the left, I noticed a line of cars up on my right, trying to turn left from a cross street, through my westbound traffic, onto St. Paul and into the eastbound stream. As I got closer to the waiting line of cars, a previously hidden minivan shot out from the right side of the line in a crazy attempt to make a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane.

I can only imagine what somebody is thinking at that moment in time. They are making a left-hand turn, from the right-hand lane, in front of a waiting line of cars? Are they thinking the cars are waiting for no particular reason? Maybe the guy had main stage tickets for Katy Perry and the thought of being late was driving him crazy. Maybe he didn’t really ever learn how to drive and thought turning from any lane to any direction was acceptable. Maybe his wife was distracting him, in a bad way or in a good way, and he just lost his mind. Maybe he was just incredibly impatient and didn’t make the logical connection that the cars that were waiting next to him, were waiting for a reason … namely me.

The next 2.4 seconds felt like an eternity. As the van pulled directly into my path only 30 feet away, my eyes registered the image and sent it to my brain for processing. Within a split second, the danger was recognized and my brain instructed my adrenal gland to flood my system. At that moment, time actually seems to slow down. You are processing the available information at an incredible pace. I remember thinking about whether to swerve into the oncoming lane, or hold the bike straight and brake. Brake! Simultaneously, my right foot shot forward to the brake pedal as my right hand grabbed the front brake lever. It didn’t really matter, because the Gold Wing automatically distributes the braking pressure front to rear for maximum stopping power. But at that point, everything was instinctual, muscle movements trained over the last 35 years of riding. Quickly and deliberately, I applied increasing pressure on the brakes as I straightened my arms to push my weight backwards. Shifting weight back helps to keep weight on the rear tire and give just a bit extra bite on the road. Listening to the tires start to whine, the point where they are just beginning to lose traction and skid, I loosen just a hair on the brakes. Whining is OK … skidding is very bad. Somewhere deep inside the front forks, the anti-dive valves had pinched closed, stopping the compression of the shocks and keeping the back of the 800 pound bike firmly on the ground. By this time, the driver of the van had finally noticed that he had pulled directly into my path, slammed on his brakes, and came to rest in front of, and turned slightly towards me. Heart pounding, blood pumping, teeth clenched, I held the bike straight as it bounced over a rough patch in the road and screeched to a stop. My feet shot out to the sides and hit the pavement.

Everything was frozen in that moment. I was sitting on the bike, in the middle of my lane, with my arms straight and stiff, leaning back and trying to exhale. Three inches in front of my front tire sat the silver and black Dodge minivan. At about a 45 degree angle to me, I turned slight to the right to look directly into the faces of the man driving, and woman sitting next to him. Perched in their leatherette high back seats, they both were motionless and wide eyed. She held a yellow strip of paper in front of her, as if she had been reading it. Through my helmet, visor and sun shield, they could likely see very little of me. I, however, remember the most interesting details. He had some Asian ancestry, but mixed with something else. His mouth hung open, as if he wanted to say something. There was a wad of gum perched on his right lower molars. She had black shoulder-length hair, a green scoop neck t-shirt, and one of those leather braided necklaces with the little silver pieces on it. When she wasn’t looking horrified, I would suspect she has a pleasant smile.

Maybe they thought I would faint, or start screaming, or kicking the front of their van. Considering the incredibly stupid maneuver he had just attempted, all of the aforementioned would have been justified. Instead, I simply took a couple of deep breaths, made sure the road was clear and headed on my way. It took a good 15 or 20 minutes for the adrenaline rush to completely subside. I was passing the Milwaukee Zoo on I-94 as I thought about the different close calls I have had over the years. I realize that on a motorcycle you are invisible to a lot of drivers, and you have to drive like nobody sees you. It really does make it difficult, however, when they hide behind a line of patiently waiting cars and shoot out in front of you. That one is really hard to anticipate. That one was really close. As that thought passed through my mind, I started laughing, thinking of the million times I have heard my father say ‘Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.’ Tonight, close really did count; and tonight, it counted in my favor.

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Channeling Bobby Brown

On this past Saturday, a beautiful sunny day, I set out for a little motorcycle ride. It was already midday, so the temperatures were up in the high 70’s and heading for the 80’s. I am one of those riders that like to have some semblance of protective clothing when I ride, but when I reached for my heavy leather jacket, I just couldn’t do it. I moved a few hangers to the right and grabbed my trusty blue jean jacket. Saying it has been a long time friend would be an understatement.

I am the proud owner of one beauty of a vintage Georges Marciano Guess jacket from the late 1980’s. It is undeniably one of the most outdated jackets you could ever find. Don’t believe me? Simply search for the term ‘vintage Georges Marciano Guess jean jacket’ and you’ll see what I mean. Tight fitting at the waist, it balloons to Homeric proportions by the time it reaches the dropped shoulders. A couple of high flap pockets on the chest nicely complement the large lower-front kangaroo pouch pockets. Mine, a particularly fine specimen, is an oddly discolored acid wash. Over the years, I have collected a number of flair pins from places we have visited; Mt. Rushmore, Cherokee Harley Davidson, Memphis Belle, Liberty Bell, etc. They have completely overtaken the flaps of the front pockets and started to move onto the front of the jacket. In a lightning storm, I am probably in a bit of peril. On the back lower center of the jacket is a specialty patch given to me by a good friend. He and I enjoy a Gin Martini on occasion, and on one such evening, he presented me with one of the only remaining patches that he had from his earlier fishing days. Proudly displaying a fish, a deck of cards, a martini glass and a giant mosquito … the patch was designed to commemorate many wonderful fishing trips. With the banner proudly reading “Royal Order of Hummers”, I immediately knew it belonged on the back of that Guess jacket.

I know the pins and patch should be salvaged and the jacket should end up in the garbage, but I have always held out hope that maybe it would get a little closer to ‘back in style’. Never gonna happen. But the thing is, it is a great jacket for riding. Because it buttons tight at the waist, and has the oversize and dropped shoulders, it is incredibly comfortable for the riding position. When it is warm out, it has plenty of airflow, but makes me at least feel as if I have some protection between me and the pavement. Hell, if I go down on a bike, and can manage to slide on one of those pin laden pockets, I probably can go for half a mile, sparks trailing behind me … and then we’ll see who has the last laugh. In the end, the jacket sees the light of day for a ride once in a while and then gets tucked back into the closet.

Unfortunately, on this trip, I felt I could use a bottle of water after I had filled the gas tank. Standing in line at the gas station, with the Aquafina in my hand, I couldn’t believe when I heard the guy behind me mumble to his buddy, “I bet that jacket would look better if he were wearing some Zubaz.” I froze for a second. Did I really hear that correctly? Oh no he didn’t say that?!? I put my right toe behind my left heel, and slowly spun myself around. Calmly, I replied, “My friend Bobby Brown is outside, and he isn’t gonna like that kind of talk.” Stunned for a second, the wise guy and his buddy both got a little wide eyed, and once the comment registered, started laughing. I simply repeated my spin move, and quietly started signing, “Everybody’s talkin’ all this stuff about me, why don’t they just let me live?”

I finished my ride that day, and lovingly returned my Guess jacket to the closet. It patiently waits for the next 80 degree riding day. When that day comes, once again I will reach for my comfy jacket, because … it’s my prerogative.

Posted in Life, Travel | 6 Comments

The Unintentional Executive, Vol. VIII

We had a discussion the other day on what it means to be a sales-oriented culture. In our services business, while we have to create strong marketing practices to drive awareness and ample qualified and interested leads, we undoubtedly need have a strong sales orientation to secure the business we desire. But what exactly does it mean to be a sales-oriented culture? Is it short-sighted and potentially destructive to your business?

In my opinion, and since this is my blog that is what you get, the sales-oriented culture is part philosophy and part discipline. From a philosophical perspective, it means that most of the people in the organization are very aware of sales. They are constantly looking for opportunities in their extended and personal networks. They are aware sales engagements will naturally take priority over many other types of work. They recognize the key role that is played by the leader of the opportunity and offer their full support whenever possible.

But who exactly is the key role in a sales engagement? A sales-oriented culture recognizes that role as the person being held accountable for the opportunity, and everyone in the organization is deferential to that person for that engagement. For new business, that is likely a salesperson. For existing client expansion, that is likely an account manager or executive. Regardless of who it is, they should absolutely play the lead role, conducting or orchestrating the opportunity. If that is the person that will be held responsible for success or failure, then it must be the person who decides who is involved, who isn’t, what exactly they should say, and what they shouldn’t say. To really subscribe to this philosophy, you must have no ego about which situations are you called into, and which you are not. You have to recognize that each engagement should demand the exact best people for that situation. This simply won’t always include you.

From a sales or account management perspective, however, this can begin to feel like a pretty powerful position. In many ways it is, but always remember it is your responsibility is to engage the correct people in such a way as to engender support and enthusiasm. After all, it is you that will be held accountable, and you that understands the subtleties of each engagement well beyond what others in your organization will. Use that knowledge to create the appropriate situational context and coaching. It is you that is in the best position to guarantee each person you call in performs as well as they possibly can.

But is a sales-oriented culture automatically short-sighted and destructive? Absolutely not. While many companies mistakenly slip from a position of being a sales-oriented culture, to a position of being run by the salespeople, it isn’t a foregone conclusion. The salespeople should absolutely be in complete control of how the engagements are orchestrated and maneuvered. However, they must have clear boundaries of what can be sold to ensure alignment to the overall corporate goals. The winning combination is a culture that has a strong sense of where they want to be from a market perspective, and an engaged employee base all pulling in that same direction on individual sales engagements … that is a sales-oriented culture.

Go to Vol. IX
Back to Vol. VII

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