Petra: A Portal in Time

Gulf of Suez,
In queue to enter the Canal
En route to Israel
60 years – 1 day

Our stops throughout this journey have been at points of intersection, where waves of successive cultures left their marks on local histories, sometimes in still distinct layers, others as ingredients in various exotic mixtures.

All have been remarkable, but none more so than our most recent waypoint — Petra, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan… which we experienced as an opening of time itself, into an exotic past. Continue reading

Reflections on Oman, and Leadership

At Sea
1 Day out of Salālah
En Route to Aqaba, Jordan*

With no waking witness, the first milky light of day notched into the cabin around the time our ship slipped into port. A short time later, when the door chime announced breakfast’s arrival, the living room was fully lit in a diffuse glow.

Salalah Oman lay just outside, and a half day’s exploring it just ahead.

As Ellie poured strong coffee, I pulled the curtains fully aside, uncovering a view of docks, and container vessels, and cranes in methodical operation, and limestone quarries crossed by trails of dust, and busses all in a row, and workers busy sweeping in a choreographed procession to clear the after effects of a day-earlier sandstorm we found to be the reason the day’s light had its particular character upon our arrival.

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Throughout the day, the cloudless sky never turned blue, and the air carried a dust so fine as to escape any direct observation. All we saw was its veil-like effect on the light, and its remains on flat surfaces. It added nicely to the sense of the exotic, in this, our first visit to the Sultanate of Oman. Continue reading

Watchman’s Rattle?

Watchman'srattleCosta I read an interesting, if a bit quirky, little book a short time back called "The Watchman's Rattle," whose premise is that over the history of our species, societies tend to grow in scale and sophistication… to the point of inevitable collapse, as a result of our mind's inability to cope with the resulting non-linear expansion of complexity. At the time I filed it under "imaginative pseudo-science."

The events of the past few years give pause however: Financial meltdown, precipitated by a greed-begat swan of black color and petards self-hoisted by corporate dandys of all pin-stripes. Political polarization to the point of absurdity ("I am not a witch") and dysfunction (state legislators scurrying away to avoid a quorum). Religious tectonics along the north 10th parallel fueling non-stop spasms of violence in one part of the globe, and the inevitable geologic tectonics of another creating apocolyptic convergences of failure — all amplified in emotive power while drained of reason by our media priests. 

Where are the reasoned men, leading, teaching and serving as examples of the "practical wisdom" Aristotle pointed us toward?

Perhaps the complexities of our times simply overwhelm? If so, I believe it's because the noise, accelerating novelty and confusion sets up a fog, within which lesser men and ideas can maneuver and emerge into positions of power and influence.

We must learn to see through that fog.

Not with goggles that mask the realities and truths of our times, collapsing them down to kindergarten nuggets on blackboards using smarmy bombast posing as "truth."

Not with smarter-than-thou rhetoric that ignores basic values and fails to deal with the world as it is.

Rather, with a penetrating gaze that sees things as they are, and with the wisdom to choose leaders who apply calm and steadfast courage in mounting a reasoned response.

I don't hear a rattle. I hear a clarion call…

The Future Of Selling

As a result of a kind introduction by my good friend David Brock, I recently participated in a fascinating project organized by OgilvyOne Worldwide, called "The Future of Selling."

By bringing together a community of interested (and interesting) marketing and sales professionals, it focused attention on how changes in buyer behavior, combined with current and emerging trends in social media, are challenging B2B sellers to think differently about their trade.

Many intriguing and valuable ideas were exchanged, and a great number of new relationships were forged. I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate, and congratulate OgilvyOne's Chairman, Brian Fetherstonhaugh, for the success in making it all happen.

You can view an overview presentation below and download the detailed white paper here:  Download Ogilvyonethefutureofselling.


The Future of Selling

View more presentations from Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.





Innovate or else!

Fact One:
I'm on the Incubation Board at my company, and chair the subcommittee responsible for raising the internal profile and encouraging the use of our "OpenIdea Portal," a tool to allow all of our employees to post, comment on and rate ideas for innovation.

Fact Two:
I used to love National Lampoon.

Combining Facts One and Two:


A Question for Leaders: Are Your Team’s Energies Spent on What Matters?

This is a topic likely of greater concern in larger enterprises than in their smaller brethren, but worth some consideration by all leaders.

The idea behind the title question of this post is simple: there are activities undertaken by your team that add significant value to your company but, almost certainly, others that don't. You clearly want to shift time and energies spent on the latter to the former.

Value creating tasks tend to be outward focused: meeting with customers to develop new opportunities, creating new products and services to bring to market, solving customer problems, communications with the people that influence your fortunes (customers, partners, press and analysts, investors…) and cultivating new partnerships aimed at enhancing your value to customers.

While there are important value creating inward directed activities (e.g. planning processes, meetings and other communications means aimed at ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction), it is very easy, especially in larger organizations, for an increasing proportion of available resource to be spent on activities that are entirely about "the inner life" of the organization:

  • Writing and reading internal emails that are too long, poorly focused, distributed too widely, or not directed at value-creating topics;
  • Sitting through endless meetings without clearly defined objectives or agenda, with too many people in the room;
  • Overly elaborate preparations for internal presentations (because they've become the cultural norm);
  • Dealing with the same old problem again and again, because of a culture too weak in candor and accountability or a reluctance to confront difficult people decisions;
  • Wasted time getting to a decision on action because the organization has too many layers, underdeveloped skills in fact-based decision making, not enough focus on the customer or a lack of sense of urgency;
  • Any process that exists more because "that's the way it's always been done" than because it serves a useful purpose today.

I'm sure that you can add many other items to this list. You get the idea.

It's not that anyone consciously sets out to create time-wasting activities. They just sort of happen, typically as organizations grow and mature. In some cases they exist because at some point in the past they added value. In others, they're protected by people whose jobs are linked to them. In many others, they exist only because they're under the radar screen. But they are likely sucking up a great deal of your team's available energy, every single day.

As a leader, it's your job to root them out.

It starts with awareness. That's why I'm writing this. Take another look at the list above. Recognize any of these things going on around you? I'll bet you do. Put a spotlight on them (so others will see the waste) and then put a stop sign in front of them.

[ Note: There are likely many not-so-obvious non-value-add practices scattered around your organization and its work flows. There are surely others that may be painfully apparent, but where the steps toward their effective elimination or retooling are not, or where side effect risks or implementation costs may be great. In all of these cases, you'll need to reach into the Continuous Improvement tool kit for one of the broad array of available structured problem solving techniques (DMAIC, Kaizen…). My notes today are directed at the simpler forms of waste. Those that are obvious to all (or at least most) and easy to eliminate with minimal complication or risk. I claim that dealing with these has great power precisely because they are so visible to everyone. Your tolerance of there continued existence is a tacit endorsement of waste that saps vigor from your team.]

If you focus on this and follow through with leadership action, your team will thank you and your organization will benefit from the application of freed up resource to the real work of your company: delivering value to your customers by making, selling and servicing great products.

Do You Really Know What’s Going On?

This is an article primarily intended for leaders at or near the top of their organizations. The reason: the rest of you already know what I'm going to explain.

The more time I spend in business, the more amazed I am at how frequently and how badly leaders handicap themselves by not realizing a simple truth: the foundation for every aspect of their effectiveness is a firm grasp of what's really going on in their organizations. Not what they wish, plan, project or orate about — what's really happening, and not, "on the ground."

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics has likely heard how this is one of the challenges facing a President. How the layers of staff, security, protocol and process combine to insulate the holder of that office in what's sometime called a "bubble," other times an echo chamber.

The former connotes simple isolation, a cutting off from information flows about what's going on outside of the White House; the later layers on the additional distorting effect of the administration being fooled by listeing to itself talk.

You don't need to be the POTUS for this effect to complicate and compound your challenges as a leader. The head of an organization of any size bears the same risks, caused by some combination of the following:

  • Lower level staff being afraid to bring bad news up the organization;
  • The way the "telephone effect" adds incremental distortion with each retelling of a "fact" as it's passed up the line in a hierarchy;
  • Senior leaders failing to spend time with the ground troops, actively inquiring about realities and listening, actively, to what they hear;
  • Leaders who are so caught up in their own story lines and rhetoric that they form their own echo chamber in which all they hear, in effect, is themselves;
  • Leaders who desperately want to believe their plans are working, and are afraid to see if it's so;
  • Leaders who purposefully isolate themselves, retreating to their senior teams and executive suites because they're more comfortable there, in their familiar routines involving abstractions and numbers, than they are in the nitty gritty stuff of the business.

Whatever the causes, this behavior cripples effective leadership. How can you make sound judgments if you don't know the true facts of the situation? How can you lead if your credibility is undermined by the quiet snickering of your team as they realize you don't really know what's going on? You can't.

As vexing as this problem is, its solution is simple. Get out of your office and talk with all layers of your team, one-on-one and in small groups preferably, and engage in an honest two way dialogue about the business, as they see it. What's working? What's not? Why? Are things trending positive or negative? You may have to do this for a while before your team fully opens up and trusts, and you need to be careful not to cut the legs out from under your middle management, but this simple process works.

Not only will your decisions benefit from better information, and your credibility with the troops improve, your team will be and feel more engaged in the business.

While you've likely heard about this issue before, (it's behind the "Management by walking around" idea), I thought this reminder might be useful and timely.

Do you know what's going on? Really?

A Useful Exercise in Social (Network) Anthropology

One of my favorite truisms: it's not what you say that matters, it's what your audience hears.

Your audience reads, hears or sees you through a filter constructed over their entire lifetimes, aggregating inputs from their individual cultures, politics, languages, values, locales, experiences and so on. The words chosen by you with a certain intended connotation are heard by them through this filter. What they interpret from your words (and other non-verbal clues such as tone, body language and so on) may be quite different from your original intent.

It's easy to underestimate just how diverse and active the filters of those with whom you wish to communicate actually is. I propose an experiment. It's based on observing information flow in the opposite direction, inbound toward you rather than outbound to your audience, but I believe it illuminates the question at hand. Here's how…

If you're reading this, you likely have an account on one or more of the popular social networks: LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. (If you don't, get them; they're at worst painless and you can retreat to passivity or drop your account at your pleasure. Maximizing the experience while avoiding the pitfalls is the subject for a future post.) While this experiment can work on any of them, I believe it does best on Twitter, because of the frequency of posts and the way in which the 140 character limit condenses a certain "essential" aspect out of the authors' thoughts.

To do the experiment, you'll need to end up with a "Following" list that looks something like mine: a relatively large number of "discovered" / random participants beyond those that you've chosen because they're in your close circle of friends. It's the former group that's of interest. (For a while now I've been ignoring the "how to get ahead on Twitter" advice to keep your following list shorter than your followed list — which strikes me as silly, and adding a follow to just about any user that seems remotely interesting. I do avoid the online hookers, but even they would be useful for our purpose if they posted more than that one pathetic tweet!)

Now, finally, the experiment…

Take a half hour or so and watch the Twitter stream from your followed community. Look at the diversity of the posts, in terms of style, language, esthetics, topic, frequency, bellicosity and so on. Then try to peer through the patterns of those posts to the personality, character, interests and values of those people… As I've done that, I've found a cast of characters that include:

  • A young female writer at the New Yorker whose every other Tweet is peppered with profanity (what would Eustance Tilley think?);
  • A writer for the NY Times whose posts signal that his interests revolves around racial issues;
  • A famous pioneer in computer networking whose posts alternate between a logging of his current weight and aspirational goal (automated, via a WiFi scale no less) and conservative critiques of the Obama administration;
  • A well known IT marketer and pioneer blogger who's automated his tweets so that each hits three times, at eight hour intervals, so as to maximize the efficiency in driving readers to his blog (it seems to work, albeit at the cost of annoyance to some);
  • A health and fitness guru who informs us of her every workout completed, blueberry pancake breakfast consumed, departure for and arrival at work, and on and on;
  • The sports nut;
  • The narcissist twenty-something;
  • The expat transplant to an exotic corner of the Far East;
  • A  significant number of aggressive "ReTweeters" who scour the blogosphere and social network domains for interesting posts, and then send those out to their followers (so as to add value to their online presence);

I think you get the picture…

As you're watching your Twitter stream, ask yourself, "would I post those tweets, in just that way, with those words?" I suspect that you'll answer "no" in a large number of cases. Well, they did. There's a difference somewhere, right?

Now, thinking about the following list you've been watching, imagine that you're behind a podium, and that these folks are your audience. Can you imagine how differently each will perceive your message? Do you see the challenge here to effective communication? Can you see how easy it is for people to talk past each other, and for misunderstandings to occur, expand and fester? And, without veering off into politics, how the current distressing levels of polarization in our country are grounded in this phenomenon?

So, what to do about this?

Well, even the simple awareness of this filter effect will make you a better communicator, by instinct. You won't as easily as before assume that your audience is made up of folks "pretty much like me" that hear my words and get my intended meaning.

Beyond simply being sensitive to differences, I believe that there are a number of specifics that can help:

  • Use simple and direct language. (It's good practice anyway, but it also has a lower probability of being misunderstood.)
  • Excepting when in a known homogeneous group of peers, beware of language that is tied to your particular industry, country or culture. It might not be in their dictionaries.
  • Consider communicating your most important points in several different ways: straight exposition, example and / or story, graphically.
  • Test your draft communication by imagining  yourself a particular member of your audience — how does it sound?
  • Solicit feedback, real time if possible (easier in small meetings than in large groups or in writing), to confirm that they "got it", really.

Do you have other ideas that might help? If so, leave a comment here. Also, please feel free to let me know if I've fallen short of my own advice in this article. (Wouldn't be the first time.)

And remember, if you want to be a great communicator, you don't want to be heard… you want to be understood.