Know What You Don’t Know

“He can’t learn what he doesn’t know because he doesn’t know he doesn’t know it.”

Reading this quote got me thinking how people with less knowledge and expertise in a field tend to be more confident in their opinions about this field than true experts. True experts realize that their knowledge only goes so far. They realize how much more there is for them to know and so become less confident in their opinions and more open to additional information.

Untangling the quote even further led me to a better understanding of a phenomenon in business and other fields that’s been puzzling me. How is it that the leaders of organizations, whether business, non-profit or governmental, with less knowledge, experience, and a narrow view of the world are so often the most forceful about proclaiming their leadership superiority?

Over the years, when I’ve asked successful CEOs what it is that makes them so good at running their business, they tend to say something similar to what Mike Kowalski, the recently retired CEO of Tiffany & Co. once told me. “I’m not so smart. I’ve been lucky and managed to get a great group of managers who really know what they’re doing.” I paraphrase a bit but the sentiment is all his.

This from someone who did a wonderful job successfully leading Tiffany through some extremely difficult economic times. When he was CEO I used to drop in on Tiffany stores I passed and talk to the people working there about the company and Mike. Their eyes lit up as they shared their stories about his inclusive leadership and the people-centric culture he created.

On the other hand, I’ve been asked to “deal with” several CEOs who in spite of all evidence to the contrary are absolutely convinced of their all-encompassing knowledge and expertise. These know-it-alls don’t know what they don’t know. Their false confidence blinds them to their shortcomings and failings, and as a result, they blame and berate others for the results of their own poor leadership abilities and results.

They fall to Nietzche’s dictum that “there are no facts, only interpretations” and their interpretations, based on poor knowledge and narrow view, are way off the mark.

These CEOs are no longer employed…

The odd thing to me is how they got hired in the first place. Clearly the hiring people were won over by their confidence in themselves and didn’t investigate deeply enough to see the blindness behind it. Or perhaps the hiring people themselves suffer from not knowing what they don’t know, making decisions based on interpretations at variance with reality.

The quote up top is from Newt Gingrich, referring to someone you’ve heard a lot from recently. I leave you to identify him and to contemplate the implications.









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Emergency Plan…Pizza and Beer

Many of us watched recently as Delta Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights day after day. Thousands of Delta’s passengers were the victims of these cancellations, waiting stranded, some for days. Delta initially said they grounded flights due to a utility electrical failure. I felt sorry for the passengers and at first I also felt sorry for Delta for experiencing a major problem seemingly beyond their control.

My sympathy for the company disappeared when I read two articles which covered the story in the August 10 Wall Street Journal. They showed that Delta misled us about the reason for the failure and stranded passengers due to their own misguided confidence in the reliability of their operations.

Georgia Power, the utility providing power to Delta’s Atlanta headquarters where the problem occurred, announced that there was no power failure. Delta’s throwing them under the bus understandably made them push back with the facts.

It seems that a module failed in Delta’s system leading to a power surge and cascading system failures. Their emergency back-up systems failed to kick in and the problems intensified.

Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO, finally admitted that in spite of “investing hundreds of millions in technology infrastructure upgrades and systems…the network essentially crashed.”

I understand that incredibly complex systems sometimes break down but don’t understand why the immediate message was “it’s someone else’s fault”. I’m also confused about how you can spend hundreds of million dollars on the system that is the heart of your global operations, and have such poorly designed and tested emergency backup systems. Without additional redundancies in place, just in case.

I do give Bastian credit for rapidly releasing the correct reason for the problem and taking responsibility when they figured out what it was. But about those stranded passengers…

The fiasco uncovered another troubling decision Delta made.

They dropped their interline agreement with American Airlines…the largest US carrier…due to disputes over fees and other matters. Interlining is the agreements airlines have in place with each other to carry other airlines’ passengers when there are flight cancellations and delays. Seems Delta’s executives were so confident in their operations that they didn’t feel the need to keep this interline agreement in place.

Bad decision.

Worse decision: Delta had been celebrating a good streak. They have had “the best operational record among major network airlines over the last few years.”

A period of things going well caused them to think their good fortune would go on forever. They figured they’d make some extra money by ending the discounts they were giving other airlines when carrying their stranded passengers. They didn’t do what they needed to do to ensure their emergency backup systems were functioning perfectly…and perhaps put a secondary emergency back-up in place just in case.

Complacency and placing revenue and profits above emergency preparedness hijacked sound business judgment.

The result? Massive global system failure. Hundreds of cancelled flights. Thousands of stranded passengers. A public relations disaster. Millions of dollars lost.

Trust in Delta and those in charge…lost.

One of the most important accountabilities of the CEO and senior management is ensuring preparedness for emergencies. Delta’s emergency plan? Crews ordering pizza and beer for passengers stranded in planes for hours.

Delta headquarters

Update: After scheduling this story but before it was published CEO Bastian issued additional comments also chronicled in the Wall Street Journal.

“There is nothing endemic to make us believe we’re at risk, “he states confidently.” How can he possibly know this within a few days of a global meltdown? Especially since he then says Delta is still investigating what went wrong.

Then he admits that when they rebooted, the system didn’t come back as smoothly as hoped. Hoped? Didn’t they test their emergency procedures and make sure they would work?

And yet, he still confidently tells us he doesn’t believe Delta is at risk for this to happen again. But then, he never thought it could happen this time.

Bastian also mentions that “we realize we’ve let our customers down” and added that the situation took a toll on Delta employees. A toll, I would add, that they bear due to executive complacency.

Bastian deserves credit for almost saying correctly something CEOs these days rarely have the courage to say “This is our responsibility. The buck stops here.” Almost because the best CEOs actually say “I take responsibility. The buck stops with me.”


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Convention Conversation with Robby Mook

The Wall Street Journal invited me to participate in a discussion they sponsored titled “Convention Conversation with Robby Mook.” The main conversationalists were Mook, Campaign Manager of Hillary for America, Gerard Baker, WSJ’s Editor in Chief, and Gerald F. Seib, the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief.

My first thought upon receiving my invitation was “how cool.” My second was “why me.” And my third was “no way am I going to brave the traffic and security to get into the Democratic Convention area for a two hour conversation with these three gentlemen…as cool as it would be.

Upon further thought, and after I realized that the site of the event, the Bellevue Hotel, was far from the actual Convention site, I accepted. After all, how often do you get invited to such things?

I figured I would be witnessing an enlightening discussion from three insiders about the presidential election. Since it was a small gathering, I thought they might get into deep detail about the campaign and possibly share a few things that weren’t splashed across the media already.

While waiting for the discussion to begin, Glenn Hall, the Wall Street Journal’s U.S. editor, and I chatted over lunch about the state of the US economy and the world situation. I was pleased to see that his assessment of how we’re doing in the US and mine are about the same. While there are many having problems, as a country we’re actually doing pretty well with a growing economy and low unemployment.

The discussion itself was interesting, more interesting than most of what I’ve heard this election season, but it was a set piece. Knowledgeable attendees asked great questions that were met with reasoned and detailed answers.

But the questions fell along the same lines they always do. The answers, while somewhat more detailed, offered up the same things I’d heard before. I didn’t hear a single thing that seemed off-key or not right out of the playbook.

I don’t think I learned anything new about Clinton’s ideas or what she and her people think about Trump. However, I did come away with respect and admiration for the professionalism and preparation of the conversationalists.

They were skilled speakers with a strong command of the facts, a sense of humor, and an agility for fielding curve ball questions. Perhaps more importantly, they had a presence that enfolds and draws in their listeners.

As I reflected on their performances, I compared them to similar ones I’d seen from a variety of senior people. Some have done as well, most have done worse, and a few were stellar.

The stellar ones have a confidence, a passion, an inclusiveness, and a self-effacing manner that leaves you wanting to be involved in their cause, be it ending poverty or building a great company.

In the political arena it’s the skill that great statesmen have. In the corporate world it’s the skill that exceptional CEOs have. It’s the skill that great leaders have wherever they sit in their organization. They know how to bring us together for the greater good.

Fortunately, it’s a skill that can be learned. Study the great speakers. Notice how they speak and move. Practice the things you notice. Use them always. Before too long you too will become a more powerful speaker able to enfold your audience and draw them into your ideas and vision.


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Lighten Up

“Our business isn’t going as well as I’d like.” “I can only afford a Chevy and not the BMW I really want”. “My co-worker just got promoted and I didn’t.” “With two kids in Ivy League colleges I’m doing more staycations than vacations.”

Have you noticed how these kinds of complaints are often circling around you? Perhaps you’re one of the people doling them out..For reasons I don’t understand, many of us are much more interested in looking at the dark side of life (and in the case of the presidential election campaign, hearing about it)…be it work life or home life. We’re more likely to get upset and share something bad that happened than get excited and share something good.

The oddest thing is that the bad things we like to share don’t necessarily have anything to do with us personally. Yet we still take them personally and get depressed and worked up about them.

Tornado thousands of miles away…We worry about it. Murder in a foreign country… More worry. Gossip about a long senior executive meeting that took place in the company…Worry something will happen to us. News that a well liked co-worker is leaving for a new job…Worry about what it means. Your company building a new building in another state…worry worry worry.

Sometimes there may be a reason to worry – if word arrives that sales are down, you may be out of a job. But mostly we worry about things that we have no control over and things that have little if any impact on our lives.

If we stepped back and thought about the things we complain about we’d often see that they’re just minor inconveniences related to positive events. Two kids in ivy league colleges is something to cheer. Staying home is a break from the hassles of travel and allows you to spend more time relaxing.

Looking at the dark side of life drains your energy. It leads to thinking in negative ways in general. It hurts creativity. And it hurts performance.

Companies staffed by people always looking at the dark side of things never win “Best Place to Work” awards. Their offices and counters and cubicles are filled with underperforming, unhappy people.

Your company doesn’t t have to be like this.

There’s a simple thing you can do to switch the tenor of your entire organization from negative to positive: start every meeting by having people share two good things that happened to them in the last week or two…one personal and one business. Not long stories. Just a few words so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for 5 or 6 people to share their good news. You’ll be amazed at the difference this simple exercise makes in the meeting that follows.

Sharing the news of an upcoming wedding, a big sale finalized, a child’s acceptance at college, a huge project being on time and on budget, a vacation scheduled, and a great new hire gets people smiling. People laugh, breathe deeply, get in the mindset to do great work.

Take this idea further. Every time someone greets you by asking “what’s happening” or “how’s things” or “what’s new”, make it a point to briefly share some good news.

Before too long people will look forward to regularly sharing and hearing good news. The company culture will become more energized, more enthusiastic, and more positive about what’s going on and what’s to come. Problems will shrink in importance and creativity and optimism will fuel all you do.

Who knows, there just might be a “Great Place To Work” award in your future.




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Sit In The Middle Seat

“Ex-Continental CEO Larry Kellner, all 6’5” of him, used to fly in middle seats in the back. He told me this at a party and I about spit out my cocktail.”

This quote from Mike Holovacs, a hospitality expert, jumped out at me when I looked at my latest email from Quora. It’s his response to a question someone had sent in asking if airline CEOs fly commercial.

If you have never heard of Quora, it’s a wonderful website where you can send in questions and have them answered by exceptionally knowledgeable people ranging from corporate CEOs to university professors to a variety of experts in just about any area you can imagine. I highly recommend checking in every now and then, or signing up for their regular emails, to see what questions they’re answering. Or ask you own question. It’s always interesting and thought provoking.

Another response to the same question came from Avik Chopra, who worked for Jet Blue. He shared how “our legendary CEO, David Neeleman, always flew on our commercial scheduled flights.” Seems “he usually sat in the last row, and helped the crew after the airplane had landed.”

And Samuel Harrison, Principal Naspers Ventures, shared that when Andy Harrison (related?) was the CEO of easyJet, he flew with him several times and observed how Harrison would interact with the passengers and crew…and would help pick up the garbage after landing.

Imagine being the CEO of an airline and choosing to sit for hours in the cheap seats where everyone can see…and talk with…you. By see I mean stare and by talk I mean offer comments about all the things the airline does wrong.

And you have no way to hide.

Imagine being the CEO and still having the humility to rummage through seatback pockets filled with all kinds of slimy things?

Now imagine the impact this kind of behavior has on the entire crew…and how the crew shares the story across the fleet.

Lots of CEOs talk about being one with their people. How many show they mean it by helping out with the cleaning? How many show they mean it by eschewing free first class seats for steerage class?

Lots of CEOs also talk about being in touch with their customers. How many lock themselves up in an inescapable place for hours with a random collection of a hundred or so of them? Customers free to berate them for real and imagined slights.

By sitting in the last row, and observing what went on with the passengers in all of the seats in front of him, David Needleman figured out the optimum seat number for an Airbus 320. In the same way, I’m sure the other CEOs mentioned in Quora noticed ways to improve operations and address crew and customer issues with their airlines.

I have no idea if the CEOs of other airlines travel this way or whether or not the CEOs of large non-airline companies spend time in the trenches with their employees and make themselves accessible to random customers. Small company CEOs, or owners as they’re often called, do it all the time. You should too.

How far away from your average employee are you? From your customers? Imagine what you’re missing that could help you rapidly improve the results of your business.











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What’s On Your Mind?…and What Do I Actually Do?

“I read your last blog. You addressed something that I’ve been thinking about! Thanks for your thoughts and advice.”

I’ve been writing and publishing this little missive for years. Tuesday after Tuesday after Tuesday. Lots of you have sent me emails similar to the one I’ve quoted. Thankfully I rarely hear from the trolls.

I’m very grateful for this nice feedback, but it would be even more fun going forward if you’d post your responses as comments on the blog so others can see your thoughts.

In addition to your thoughts on these postings, I’d really like to hear what else is on your mind. Coming up with something interesting, humorous, timely, relevant, subtle, and somehow useful for improving your leadership and management skills on a weekly basis is fun…but can be brutal. The fun increases on those rare and delightful occasions when someone sends me a short story about something that happened to them or that they’ve been wondering about.

Perhaps you have some ideas that would improve company results. Send them my way. Or send me questions about something that irritates you during your work day. Better yet, tell me about the idiosyncrasies of your management that make your workday more difficult. And whatever you send, if you can, add a real life story that happened to you or that you observed.

Inundate me with your thoughts, stories, and ideas. I love hearing from you. And can always use more inspiration.

Now, onto the answer to one of the questions readers often ask, “What do you actually do?” I figure this is from people who haven’t yet looked at the Benari website that houses this blog. But, what the heck, since you asked, here’s a bit of a shameless plug.

My company, Benari, advises people who run businesses, global to early stage. We work with quite a few CEOs, owners, partners, and others who use Benari as their trusted advisor on strategy, marketing, people situations, international matters, and other management issues. Trusted because we’ve run companies, consulted around the world, served on various boards, and offer totally open and honest advice.

In addition, Benari guides leadership teams through implementing EOS, an operating system for organizations that builds accountability, alignment, measurement, and integrated structure enabling the organization to become the best they can be and achieve all their goals more efficiently and effectively.

I’m also Region Manager Africa and Middle East for the Wharton Global Consulting Practicum, a program of the Wharton School MBA marketing department. This is a fancy way of saying I oversee MBA students working on global strategic marketing projects for corporate, NGO, and government clients.

And last but not least, I’m Strategic Advisor to Geneva Global, the world’s foremost consultancy on global philanthropy.

When you add it all up, “what I do” is provide global perspective, strategic thinking, international experience, creative problem solving, and brutal honesty that leads to solving problems, developing creative solutions, and improving results.

Don’t be shy. Tell me your business stories and ideas, offer your comments, and reach out to me if you’d like to hear more about what I do. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.






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Ask Questions Like A Kid

During the recent Fourth of July holiday I had great fun spending some time with my great-niece and great-nephew. I rarely get to see them as they live thousands of miles way so I was observing closely. Aria is just two while Caden is almost four-and-a-half.

There were a lot of big people fawning all over them, so at first they were understandably a bit shy. But once they got past that, they were energetic and talkative just like most young children.

Their conversation intrigued me. Not just the things they talked about (the birds at the feeder, the smoke from the grill, the piles of toys, my facial hair…) but also the way they watched whomever they were talking to. Watched closely while asking questions and listening to the replies.

Their questions came continuously. Some were asked with words while others were asked merely by holding something up and seeing what response they received. They showed no fear of asking a silly question, no fear of asking again if they didn’t understand the first response, no fear of asking follow-up questions. And no worry about being judged as uneducated, inexperienced, or stupid.

It was clear to me that they were observing their conversational partners so closely in order to gauge the facial response that went with the verbal answer. They were continuously checking to see how their question was received. And taking notice of which questions made their older relatives uncomfortable and which ones were answered easily.

Of course the questions that brought an uncomfortable response were the ones they liked the most and pressed the hardest.

It occurred to me as I watched and listened that these youngsters had quite a bit to teach those in the business world.

How often are we fearful of asking questions, fearful of how they will be received, fearful of appearing stupid? Yes…all the time.

And so we have organizations filled with people stuck in their thinking, unwilling to question perceived wisdom, following the path unquestioningly right over the cliff.

It’s not the answers that are the most important element in helping you move forward. It’s the questions. Questions that challenge assumptions and existing ways of doing things. Questions that attack the status quo. Questions that lead you down new paths. Questions that set people back on their heels .

When you don’t understand, when something isn’t right, when things are going poorly…take a deep breath and ask questions. Loudly and repeatedly. Keep asking until you understand, until things are fixed, until the situation improves, until clarity is achieved.

And then ask more questions to ensure you wind up with the best results possible.

Question the assumptions.

Question the methodology.

Question the need.

Question the cost.

Question why it’s being done at all…or why not.

Then keep questioning.

Be fearless in your questioning, just like a young child. Have any doubts about how to do this? Perhaps you can hire Aria and Caden to come to your office and show you the way.





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Overcooked Overcome

Sitting in a restaurant with my dining companion, after a less than wonderful dinner, I was contemplating the credit card receipts I had just been given to sign. The first one was for $126.30, but this total had been crossed out. The second one was labeled “Final” and was for $96.46.

When Ray, our exceptional waiter, had handed me the bill, he mentioned that he had shared our food complaints with the manager who had decided to offer us a discount. Now I considered how much to tip.

We wound up at this restaurant because I happened to receive a $20 off coupon for it. Testimonials gave the food good reviews, it was not too far away, and they had outdoor seating…perfect for the beautiful evening. And as an inveterate restaurant explorer, I’m always up for the adventure of trying a new place.

Things started off nicely. We were seated at an outside table with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills. The restaurant had a small but interesting wine list that yielded a good Ravenswood Zinfandel. The menu was eclectic with a number of dishes that especially caught our attention.

Ray was friendly, knowledgeable, and patient as he answered our questions about the food, the restaurant, and where he had worked previously.

Unfortunately, while the setting was quite nice, the waiter wonderful, and the menu interesting…the food was a different story. When my companion’s lobster bisque arrived, it looked like crab soup. And tasted like it.

We called Ray over and asked him about this. He clarified that this was, in fact, the lobster bisque but it had some other things in it. Without pause he offered to replace it with another appetizer. Within a few moments, a nice onion soup appeared.

Then the entrées arrived. The flatbread was burned and the rare steak I had ordered was clearly well done…not a bit of pink and oozing juices to be found.

I have a number of famous chefs as clients. All have told me that if I ever find anything wrong in their restaurants, I should tell them immediately, as that’s the only way they’ll know that something needs fixing. With this request in mind, we decided to politely offer some helpful comments.

When Ray returned, we shared our further dismay at the entrees and told him my chefs’ story. He immediately offered to replace the dinners. We declined and said we would make do with what we had, but added that he really needed to talk to the chef.

When he brought the discounted bill, he explained that he had found out what happened to the steak. Seems someone else had ordered the same dinner at the same time and the plates got confused. One of the other waiters had a woman complaining about her rare steak as we were discussing my overcooked one.

As we were leaving the restaurant, we discussed our experience. We decided to return sometime and give them another chance. Why? Perhaps we showed up on the chef’s bad day. But mostly because their service was great and the manager, unasked, handled our problem in a satisfactory way.

Absent such customer service the restaurant would have wound up with their name in this missive and my not-so-nice review on Trip Advisor (where I seem to be a highly rated reviewer…meaning lots of people read my reviews).

Great customer service can overcome all kinds of problems and stop bad publicity in its tracks. Poor customer service and at best you’ve forever lost that customer; at worst, you’ve lost a lot of business when their story is widely shared.

As for Ray, I figure he must have been thinking he was going to end up with a miserly tip or perhaps nothing at all. Imagine his surprise to find that in spite of the food problems his performance earned him a generous reward.





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