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Archive for September, 2010

Image Credit: Shallow Hal, Glenn Watson

If you feel deeply about something doesn’t it make sense that you would seek to know as much as you could about the object of your affection? I read an article yesterday that blew me away. The article, “Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans,” looks at the fact that Americans are deeply religious people who are on the average deeply ignorant about religion.

Citing results from a telephone survey performed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the author noted that on average, people who took the survey answered half of the 32 questions correctly. More interesting than that, many had troubles answering questions about their own faith.

I bumped into this phenomenon of shallowness in another arena while I was completing part of my MBA in Bordeaux, France. Invited to dinner by a fascinating older couple after a chance discussion in the open-air market about the truffles in the region, I had no idea what to expect. They invited me to their gorgeous apartment and in the course of the evening I discovered something that I later found to be true of the French in general.

If you say you like something in France, say truffles or art, you are likely to receive a slew of genuine questions about why, which period, what type, which artist, from which farm and so on. I remember at the time being more careful when revealing what I liked. If and when I did, I had to know why and be able to explain it intelligently. If you care deeply about something, it makes sense to me that you would take the time to know your facts, to understand the heritage and background factors that make what you like or care deeply about what it is today.

Many Americans claim to be proud of their country and rightly so, there are many wonderful facets to America. Scratch a little deeper, however, and you’ll find only a small handful of people know much of anything about the history of the country, its political institutions, its founding fathers and so on, while the majority of people (typically the most vociferous) have no more depth of understanding or knowledge than a 5th grader.

My point in all of this is that it is worth investing the time to get to know that which you love. The failure to do so will turn that which you love into a hollow mockery of an empty shell over time. The American dream, for instance, can return to being a dream just as quickly as it became a reality if we are not careful.

I had a wonderful conversation with one of my managers today about the importance of having everyone in the company know and understand our products. We discussed the fact that it is easy to get wrapped up in what you are doing so completely that you lose sight of the context in which you are contained.

The result of the call was exciting. We are going to launch a campaign of company education that provides training and information on our product line: why we produce what we produce, why we use the production methods we use and what each product is designed to do for the end consumer.

If you haven’t had a chance to see the first episode of “Outsourced,” I recommend it if you’re up for a chuckle or two and aren’t easily offended by generalizations. It follows the life of an young manager, Todd Dempsey, who is sent to take charge of a call center in India that was set up by his company (which makes useless novelty items) to save money while he was out for training. At a certain point he attempts to describe the absurd range of products sold by his company to a group of locals who have no context through which they could understand the value, purpose or desirability of the products. I bet every company faces this dilemma in one way or another.

Education is critical to participation. Participation is the cornerstone of belonging. Belonging is the essence of feeling valuable and meaningful. My job as CEO is to ensure that our clients’ needs are being met by employees who not only feel, but know that they are valuable and I look forward to seeing what this simple, yet significant change will produce over time.

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Image by Associated Press

Here’s some food for thought for you today. While moving through the “Fast Checkout – 10 items or less” line to pay for my two items I looked over at the other queues of shoppers, mostly exhausted-looking mothers, who had shopping carts filled to overflowing with food. I thought to myself that it must have taken them hours to select those many items, backed by a handful of item-specific coupons.

These are the store’s best customers, the men and women who come in to shop for an army, yet the store does nothing to make it easier for those elite clients to do business with them. They make them stand in the longest lines in the store, subjecting them to the longest waits of any of their customer base (particularly those good for nothing two item purchasers like me) without apology, compensation or even the slightest hint of care.

Sure they have loyalty programs that provide savings but those savings are available to all, regardless of purchase volume. I have to wonder why no store in all the years I’ve been food shopping has ever recognized and acknowledged the fact that their best shoppers are being treated like second class citizens.

I know that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have adopted the banking and airline industry’s use of the single line managed by a line director in some locations with a degree of success, but surely there must be more creative ways to improve the experience of the top customers!?!

Why not tie total dollar purchase volume over time to some type of “elite” or “gold” status like the airlines do? Give those clients a special line, a featured beverage at the front door, personal shoppers or even a lounge where they can sit, rest or socialize? It rarely takes much to give credit where credit is due and I hope that someday, somewhere, a bright marketing person in a forward-thinking, customer-centric grocery store will see the light.

My company is in the midst of reengineering the way we do business to this very end. We want to identify ways in which we can make it easier for our clients to do business with us. I have no doubt that we, like the grocery stores across the nation, have developed processes and systems that are ineffective if not diametrically opposed to this goal and my hope is that over the next three months we can free ourselves from as many of those bad practices as possible.

I am open to ideas – as always! – and appreciate the opportunity to flesh out this line of thought that has been tapping at my chamber door.

Have a great day!

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Harvest Moon, Image by Wikipedia

On Fields O’er which the Reaper’s Hand has Passed by Henry David Thoreau

On fields o’er which the reaper’s hand has pass’d
Lit by the harvest moon and autumn sun,
My thoughts like stubble floating in the wind
And of such fineness as October airs,
There after harvest could I glean my life
A richer harvest reaping without toil,
And weaving gorgeous fancies at my will
In subtler webs than finest summer haze.

What is it in your life, in this world or beyond that calls forth your finest thoughts? Is it stories of great men or women who overcame the enormous gravity of mediocrity? Or perhaps the simplest revelation of nature’s many beauties? Is it time alone with Bach’s heavenly Suite for Solo Cello in G Major – Prelude or maybe time shared with friends while savoring Caciocavallo Podolico, the only cheese in Italy which is not, and cannot by definition be, industrially-produced?

Our lives are filled with influences that will, if allowed, produce mediocre thoughts. The trouble with mediocre thoughts is that they tend to generate mediocre actions. There is an old alchemical principle worth noting here: “As above, so below.” Your thoughts are higher than your actions in the sense that thought precedes action. Finer thought, therefore, generates finer action.

Some actions may come with little forethought, as with habitual or instinctive reactions, but living a reasoned life – especially in today’s day and age – requires the ability to think finely in coarse situations.

Excellence is nothing more than the finest thing in the room. It is a relative thing and as such excellence is available to everyone in any situation. You can hold an external standard in mind to assist you in your quest for finer thoughts, but ultimately it comes down to you. It matters not what another would do were he or she in your boots, what would, better yet, what should you do?

When conversation turns south, do you fly along unquestioningly like a migrating goose? When your spirits are low, do you allow thoughts of desperation, impotence or perhaps despair to corrupt your mind? When a friend asks: “Are you feeling well?” does your mind turn easily from rosy, productive thoughts to lesser things that may not even be true of you in that moment?

If so, you have some work to do. Your mind is a remarkable instrument that, properly used, can rise to produce precious and wonderful thoughts that are perfect for the occasion. Think about your life and ask yourself when you did your most creative, constructive, salient thinking. If it was only in the past, why? What changed?

If it is now, well, kudos! You’re on the right track. Your mind – if you’ll pardon the cliché – is a terrible thing to waste. Exercise it rightly, feed it well, reveal excellence where you would normally settle for mediocrity and your world – our world – will change for the better.

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I was first introduced to Italian gelato while traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass many years ago. My friends and I were having a difficult time finding lodging in Florence as we had arrived unknowingly on an extremely popular Italian holiday, All Saint’s Day. As we walked along the River Arno, admiring the stunning architecture of the city, I read a poem written by Longfellow that captured the essence of this magnificent place:

The Old Bridge at Florence

Taddeo Gaddi built me. I am old,
Five centuries old. I plant my foot of stone
Upon the Arno, as St. Michael’s own
Was planted on the dragon. fold by fold
Beneath me as it struggles. I behold
Its glistening scales. Twice it hath overthrown
My kindred and companions. Me alone
It moveth not, but is by me controlled.
I can remember when the Medici
Were driven from Florence; longer still ago
The final wars of Ghibelline and Guelf.
Florence adorns me with her jewelry;
And when I think that Michael Angelo
Hath leaned on me, I glory in myself.

We turned up the Via de’ Benci, turned left at the Piazza San Croce and happened upon Vivoli gelateria. I tried several different flavors and I can assure you that it was love at first bite. Having grown up eating ice cream, I never knew what I was missing.

All of this came to mind as I was reading an article in the L.A. Times entitled “The Inside Scoop on Making Gelato.” Gelato has less fat than ice cream and is much creamier. If you haven’t tried it before, I recommend that you do so when given the chance.

If there is one thing that constrains to an experience of staleness, it is the unwillingness to try new things. Author Roger von Oech offered the following advice: “Everyone has a ‘risk muscle.’ You keep it in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it at least once a day.”

Step out of your normal routine, your well-trodden preferences and your predictable habits every now and again. Your taste buds will thank you and more than that, you will live a dynamic and interesting life!

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Well the cold/flu that was slowly making its way through my family finally overcame my defenses Friday night, giving me the opportunity to get some rest this weekend. It seems that there are two types of people, those who go down with every little ailment and others who require nothing short of World War III to stop moving forward. As you can guess, I tend to follow the latter pattern.

Changes in routine of any type can result in new experiences and broadened horizons. Yesterday morning I had enough strength to watch a new series on MTV called “World of Jenks.” Produced by a 24 year old filmmaker, this thoughtful program takes Andrew Jenks on deep into the lives of various people around the country.

World of Jenks, Photo by MTV

The particular episode I watched told the story of Chad, a 20 year old with autism. Jenks and Chad get to know one another while, a process that reveals the challenges faced by someone with autism. Jenks, in his cool yet caring style touched Chad’s heart, but what is more surprising to Jenks and viewers is how much Chad touched Jenks’ heart.

Being temporarily limited in capacity by virtue of this flu, I cannot imagine what a permanent disability must feel like. The everyday normal experience of most people is nothing but a distant dream for many people on earth for various reasons.

If anything today I have discovered a new level of empathy for those who are physically, mentally or emotionally limited. I could tell from Jenks’ experience that he had to maintain a high level of expectation relative to Chad, but that he also had to be careful to make allowances for the “flat spots” in Chad’s development and function.

What about you? Are you tolerant of those in your world, to a fault? Are you sensitive enough to set the bar high where it can be achieved by those you serve while knowing how to set markers of progress for those who fall short in one area or another? To be sure, there is a balance.

Unreasonably high and consistently unattainable goals will eventually isolate those around you from you while aiming too low will eventually result in performance akin to a low-grade fever…neither hot nor cold.

Look to those who depend on you as being the canvas upon which you paint a picture of eternal progress in your world. There may be the occasional setback, but take care not to throw up your hands and abdicate your position of responsibility in relation to that one.

If you haven’t had a chance, watch “World of Jenks” and you will be delightfully surprised at what a 24 year old is capable of when he sets himself to an uncommon task.

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There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” ~ Orson Wells

Several years ago my uncle and I flew up to Boston to pick up our new company airplane and fly it back to Georgia following the installation of an anti-icing system. The first third of the trip was uneventful, we flew over Long Island, JFK, passed within spitting distance of Manhattan, and then turned slightly inland over New Jersey, per Air Traffic Control’s (ATCs) instructions.

Piper Inadvertant Icing Protection (TKS)

The new inadvertent icing system was designed to cover the airplane with an antifreeze solution through a porous titanium plate along the leading edge of the wings and tail and through a slinger on the propeller in the event of an accidental encounter with icing conditions. As we were leaving, the installers recommended that I cycle the system every two weeks or so to keep the lines clear and verify its functioning.

We had just asked ATC were granted a climb from 6,000 feet to 10,000 feet in an attempt to get above of the moderate turbulence that was ruffling the lower altitudes in the region and once we were established in the climb I had the idea of testing the new system. Wasting no time I advised my uncle of my intentions and flipped the switch to “Max.”

The fluid came out as promised, slowly coating the plane with a comfort-inspiring viscous solution that prevents ice from adhering to the airframe. Two minutes later our peaceful climb was interrupted by a THWACK! from the engine cowling in front of us. Was it a bird strike? Did we throw a rod? The engine purred along as before but the alternator warning light and horn soon came on, dashing our hopes that there would be no further repercussions from the sound we heard.

The emergency training my instructor had drilled into my head quickly took over. I made sure that I kept control of the airplane instead of falling prey to panic or distraction and handed my uncle the POH (Pilot Operating Handbook) that sat between us and asked him to read the procedure for a failed alternator out to me, to confirm that my memorized steps were accurate. Keeping to my course I focused my attention on the moving map display to determine the nearest airport. I then called ATC, advised them of the sound we had heard and asked to divert to the nearest airport to inspect the problem.

We followed the procedure carefully detailed in the POH, landed at the nearest airport and shut the engine down. After removing the cowling with the help of a mechanic who happened to be on the field despite the fact that it was Sunday morning, we discovered that the alternator belt had broken in flight, hitting the cowling as it went, producing the disturbing THWACK! we heard somewhere northeast of Washington DC.

The mechanic assured us that it was no big deal, especially given that we had a backup alternator. After stopping in for pizza at the restaurant on the field, which incidentally is where we confirmed we were in New Jersey when the waitress asked “How are yous guys today?”, we flew to a nearby airport for the repair. Three days and two commercial flights later the plane was good to go.

Eager to determine what caused the belt to go in a new airplane, the shop foreman and I dug into it a bit further and discovered that the tube the fed the prop slinger (basically a ring with a channel on its underside) was misaligned when the anti-icing system was installed and when I turned the system on it sprayed the slippery solution all over the front of the engine, including the alternator belt.

The belt no doubt began slipping, built up heat and broke, shutting down my alternator. Needless to say I have since added an item to my checklist before every flight, namely, making sure that the feeder tube is properly aligned with the slinger ring.

What I learned from this experience is that extra attention and caution is required during the break-in period of anything new and that it is important to run tests of those new systems in as controlled an environment as possible. I was also reminded of the importance of staying calm, cool and collected when the unexpected happens. Finally, I learned that I can – and should – add items to my preflight checklists as experience dictates.

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I took my son to the doctor this morning to deal with an ear infection and had such a nice time that I couldn’t help but share the story with you. It is a short tale of observation, consideration and reciprocation that begins with our family pediatrician, a man who is arguably one of the kindest and most empathetic in the business.

As soon as the doctor entered the room he sought to connect with my son. Crouching down to get eye to eye with my son he did everything he could to be non-threatening, if not downright inviting. He didn’t talk over his head, he kept his own countenance bright and encouraging even though I could tell from the waiting room that he had a long day ahead of him.

When he asked questions he waited to hear the answers. He asked purposeful questions that didn’t overwhelm but felt like small talk. He joked while he poked, inspected and assessed my son’s symptoms.

At one point he jokingly asked my son about moving his ear to his eyeball and his eyeball to his ear, much to my son’s delight. The doctor asked “do you think I can get eyeballs at Walmart?” My son said no way, and added that he would look for them when he was shopping. At the end of the appointment my son whispered in my ear “Daddy, he is the best doctor in the world.”

We left with a prescription, a toy and a smile. It felt more like a trip to Disneyland than to a doctor’s office. And I thought to myself, why shouldn’t every visit to the doctor progress as smoothly? We stopped at the drugstore to pick up his medicine and lo and behold my son discovered a bag full of bouncing eyeballs in the Halloween aisle! He begged me to buy them for the doctor.

As we pulled into the driveway my son asked, “Daddy, why did the doctor have a cast on his foot?” Having noticed and wondered myself I didn’t ask the doctor at the time given his likely pressing schedule so I offered: “I’m not sure. Maybe he broke a bone?” My son thought for a moment further and said: “Daddy, can we write him a note to get better soon?” I consented and we went inside.

I’ve just returned from mailing the note and a bag of bouncing eyeballs to our doctor (definitely the first time and probably the last that I will ever have such a task). I’m sure that he’ll appreciate the gesture from a five year old who was impressed by his bedside manner and I imagine that a handful of lucky children will leave his office with a new bouncy eyeball in the days to come.

Be observant, be considerate and reciprocate good deeds and success and happiness will follow!

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