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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Taken For A Ride

In my recent blog post, “Death by Upgrade”, I bemoaned the fact that companies trick you into thinking that their convoluted changes in services represent improvements for all of their customers, when in fact, they only benefit a few. Now a story comes along that describes another, even worse indignity for the consumer.

Bloomberg tells us: “Tesla’s Betting You’ll Pay $9,000 for a Software Upgrade”. A new Tesla model contains built-in capability for the car to use its full battery capacity and get maximum miles per charge. But full battery capacity is not activated! You have to pay an additional $9000 and then Tesla will be happy to flip a switch and fully activate your battery.

It seems Tesla intentionally downgraded the range of the vehicle, “crippled its range,” hoping, expecting you to pay to upgrade to full utilization of the battery pack.

It gets worse. Tesla does the same thing with autopilot options. They’re in the car when you buy it but it costs you another $2500 to activate them.

This brings new meaning to “upgrade”. Being taken for a ride comes to mind. Not in the way Tesla would like you to think of it.

Am I missing something? Don’t you expect that when buying a product, you’re able to take advantage of its full capabilities?

To say Tesla’s practice is not customer-friendly is an understatement.

I can see where this trend is going. “Sir, we are giving you the entire steak but that part on the right that is covered…for another 10 dollars you can eat that too.” “Congratulations. Here are the keys to your new house. You’ll notice the toilets don’t flush…for an extra $5000 we’ll activate them for you.”

Now consider this other news item, from the Economist: “Elon Musk’s Empire—Clouds Appear.” Tesla is having lots of problems right now. In spite of these problems they still managed to get thousands of people to give them $1000 deposits for cars that are still in design stage but hopefully will be manufactured and start to arrive in customer’s driveways…sooner or later.

This worked because they have a rabid, cult following. But cults can lose their appeal and cultists can wander off to better products and more customer friendly arenas. Think Blackberry.

When the news is bad about the financial health of your company, product recalls are ongoing and delivery times are slipping, it just doesn’t seem like the time to be out there irritating your customers and prospects.

Instead of headlines about how you’re forcing customers to pay to fully utilize your product’s capabilities, wouldn’t you rather see articles about how you’re delivering an excellent product that outperforms all the competition? How you price fairly with no gimmicks and extra costs?

While I’m sure there are people happy to pony up for the upgrade to get full use of their Tesla car, there are many others who will feel ripped off. And competitors are undoubtedly already preparing their messages that point to the marvelous capabilities of their cars, for which you don’t have to pay a penny extra.

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Brainfreeze Thawed

Sometimes when I sit down to write…nothing good happens. Such was the result when I initially sat down to write this missive.

Nothing good takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a blank screen that stays blank no matter how long I stare at it. Other times a few words or paragraphs appear but they are, to be brutally honest with myself, crap. Worst of all, nothing good means I get frustrated and aggravated.

Seeking to break free of the bad state I was stuck in, I engaged in my favorite mind-clearing activity, walking around outside and letting my thoughts run free. It worked nicely. Relaxed me, drained the frustration, gave me uninterrupted time to think about some client issues…and about what I wanted to write.

I found myself thinking about creativity, particularly about the way it appears and disappears, often unwilling to do your bidding on command.

As it happened to me so it happens to everyone from time to time. And the usual response when good ideas aren’t coming quickly to mind is frustration and aggravation.

The result? The more you berate yourself and push yourself to come up with a good idea, the more likely you are to end up empty handed.

Really good ideas require a stress-free mind which allows thoughts to flow and to connect in new ways. The more you push yourself to think creatively, the more constricted, and uncreative your thinking becomes. Your mind gets stuck in ossified patterns and is unable to break through to new territory.

At first, it might seem like you’re wasting time, goofing off when you pop up from the computer and go off to do whatever it is that clears your mind. In my case, it’s taking a brisk walk.

In your case it depends on your situation. If you have the freedom I have, go off and take some time to do something you love to do. If you work in an office, consider taking a short trip to the coffee machine and engage in some light banter with co-workers along the way. Or start working on something completely different that excites you greatly. The key is to allow your thoughts to roam freely, to stop fixating on the issue you were trying to solve.

As I write this, it’s Friday afternoon. I spent this morning with a CEO client and his CFO. They’re facing a major company issue that has required them to quickly change some ways they operate as they go through a rapid expansion.

While some things are moving along well, other things are proving more difficult to figure out. As I listened to their discussion about solutions for these more intractable issues, I realized they were caught in a loop, saying more or less the same things over and over. This kind of repetition doesn’t lead to creative solutions, it leads to brainfreeze…

When I was alone with the CEO after he and the CFO finally agreed on next steps to address immediate issues while tabling other issues where agreement was lacking, I got him talking about his favorite thing. He loves to go off on weekends with his family, put the business out of his mind, and laze around on his boat.

As he talked about leaving for the lake at the end of the day, his face lit up. His body relaxed, he spoke more softly, and he came up with a few possible solutions for issues that moments before seemed unsolvable. Just thinking about the relaxing weekend to come got his creative juices flowing.

Who knows what he’ll tell me when he returns, what he’ll think of while drifting along in the waves as they flow across the water. What I’m sure of is that his creativity will flow along with the waves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Death By Upgrade

Every time I hear “upgrade” or “update” attached to anything I like…I shudder. All too often it means I will receive poorer service, I will no longer have access to the features I like, and I’ll have to spend time and money to fix problems it’s caused.

I saw one of the dreaded words recently when I received an email from American Airlines with the scary subject line, “We’re making changes to the AAdvantage program.” Reading on I discovered a link to “AAdvantage program updates.”

I now have pages and pages and pages of complex and often incomprehensible information on the wonderful things they’re doing to upgrade their frequent flyer program…all designed to make my experience better!

I am dubious, to say the least, about this claim.

I have nothing against new ideas, new products, making things better…I love my iPhone Gargantuan…but I do have problems with the seeming insatiable need of companies to continually tinker with things that are already working quite well.  Companies are always finding solutions for things that aren’t problems. As a result, they’re making their customers’ lives miserable…including mine.

Change for change’s sake is a bad idea.

And using glowing terms when sharing your unnecessary and even detrimental changes with your customers is irritating and insulting.

Irritating and insulting your customers is also a bad idea.

I am at the highest level of American Airline’s frequent flyer program: Executive Platinum. Have been for some years. I’m a body aching million miler. Apparently after showering me with gratitude over the years because they value me, American has decided they really don’t like me all that much.

How do I know? Because once I weeded through the reams of information about their “improvements” I saw that they changed the program in such a way that it discounts how much you fly in favor of how much you spend. It’s those who purchase the most expensive tickets who are now valued.

I can imagine the meeting during which they decided to try and dupe all of us getting the raw end of the deal…which is most of us. “They’re really not all that bright so we’ll tell them what we’re doing is wonderful and a huge improvement. Let’s fill up pages with information that no one can understand and throw in obscure airline codes to really confuse them. We’ll hide the things we’re taking away in little type at the end—no one ever reads that.”

When it comes to making changes in your product or service, honesty and openness is the best policy. Explain fully and clearly what it is you’re doing and treat us like intelligent people who can understand why you have to do something that we’d rather you didn’t do. Is it a change you’re making simply because it’s likely to lead to the highest profits for your shareholders and big raises for senior management? Or, is it a genuine fix that addresses a real problem and improves the customer experience?

The latter is an UPGRADE, the former is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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