Sacred Time

July 28, 2010

Susan and Stephanie were having a Sister Day.

Two or three times a year, they get together simply to enjoy each other’s company and share the joy of being sisters. Usually, it involves some self-indulgent activity like manis or pedis or shopping and, sooner (usually) or later, consumption of alcohol. Sometimes, in the evening, the boys are allowed to join them.

Sister Days are sacred time, not to be interrupted by social engagements or family demands or work. The girls put up a wall around their time together and decline the opportunity to bring the rest of the world inside.

Sometimes, the rest of the world might bristle, just a bit, at their practice. If something comes up, why can’t the girls postpone their day? There are a million opportunities for them to spend time together, so why not make an adjustment to fit in a new engagement?

Which got me to thinking, as most things do, about time and priorities. How we spend time—our most precious resource—is a measure of our values. When do we bend, when do we break and when do we hold firm? What or who comes first on our list and when do we move people aside—including ourselves—for someone else’s benefit?

If a customer called with a problem, would we be expected to interrupt our honeymoon? Skip a funeral? Work on New Year’s Day? What if it wasn’t a honeymoon, but a long-delayed dinner? What if it wasn’t a funeral, but a long-awaited visit to the zoo? And what if it wasn’t a customer, but one of many friends who suddenly can fit us into THEIR schedule?

Would we forgive someone for declining to meet with us because they were riding a bicycle, reading a book or having a Sister Day? Could we acknowledge that their schedule of personal time is just as valuable, just as critical, as their career?

If you had been working for 21 straight days and had blocked out Day 22 for simply sitting in the house and reading a book, would you feel comfortable letting the world know about your choice? If mom or the boss or a friend from college called on the evening of Day 21 to suggest lunch the next day, could you decline the offer? Could you disclose the reason for your choice?

Some days, we’re the highest priority on somebody’s list. Other days, we’re not. It doesn’t make us, or them, bad people. Sometimes, it’s just a conflict of sacred times.

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How to Succeed In Business….

July 8, 2010

….As we continue our life lessons for the recent grads and suddenly-minted grown-ups who are out in the workplace, earning a living, and trying to hold onto a job. (Of course, if they haven’t read Your Name Here: Guide to Life yet, none of this great advice will work. JK.)

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A number of years ago, we had an opening for an administrative assistant, paying something in the $14,000 range. Yes, it was a long time ago and, no, it wasn’t a queen’s ransom even then. One woman who interviewed for the job was the executive assistant to the president of a major institution. I don’t remember if it was a university or a hospital, but it was absolutely a big-time organization.

So I asked her why she was interviewing with us, since this was not a top administrative job and our pay level was about a third of what she was earning in her then-current position. And she told me, “They expect me to be nice to everyone. People come in to see my boss and I’m supposed to show them around and treat them like they’re important. I don’t know these people and I’m tired of having to treat them like I care.”

Not quite a word-for-word quote, but pretty darned close. Surprisingly, I decided not to hire her and force her to be nice to any of my clients.

I was reminded of my cantankerous applicant a few days ago while flying home from an assignment. (Actually, we weren’t flying home at all. We were sitting on a tarmac in St. Louis, waiting to refuel, because weather delays at O’Hare meant the plane didn’t have enough fuel to get all the way to Chicago.)

My seatmate and I were talking about the tough job market for recent grads and the lack of preparedness many feel about their entry into the real world. Both of us agreed that it’s very easy to succeed by making customers happy, but that most companies and their employees expend huge efforts to achieve the opposite effect. (Did I mention we were customers of an airline when the topic came up? What a coincidence!)

As we talked, I noted that we didn’t have to cite some major management guru or the hottest new reality show about apprentice bachelors lost in hell’s kitchen. It’s tough to succeed in business without really trying, but it doesn’t take much effort to get ahead of the competition.

For recent grads seeking the not-so-secret bits of wisdom that practically guarantee success, here are a few that we discussed while stranded on the tarmac:

1. Ask the customer. The customer is the ultimate arbiter of value, so her opinions are important. Why does she buy from you? Why won’t she buy something else that you sell? What are you doing that makes her loyal and what are you doing to push her away? Many people are afraid of rejection, so they don’t want to ask for trouble. The people who do ask are rare, but appreciated. Even better, they get the chance to identify and resolve issues before the customer leaves forever.

2. Return the phone call. FaceBook and LinkedIn and blogs (yeah, I get the irony) are a bunch of people talking without really anticipating a response. Phone calls are different, though, and people want to be called back. So many calls are left in voice mail forever—or can’t be left because the mailbox is full—that the person who returns calls promptly is miles ahead. There’s a corollary to the statement, “If it’s important, they’ll call back.” It’s also true that, “If YOU”RE important, they’ll call back.” If you’re not that important, they’ll move on to someone more responsive.

3. Prep for the meeting. Few things are more annoying in a meeting than wasting everyone’s time by reviewing what they should all know already. Even worse, some people proudly announce that, “I didn’t get a chance to read the materials, so I’ll just listen for a while.” Translated into English: “No point inviting me to future meetings because you’ll just be paying me to sit here and add nothing.” If it’s in the package you got before the meeting, read it. And if you somehow are unable to read it, don’t brag about your ignorance.

4. Follow up. I recently had a $1 million account relationship to place, so I contacted three businesses to get proposals for the package. Two responded with proposals within a few days of the meeting. One didn’t follow up for nearly three months, which was about ten weeks after they were out of the running. It’s not always this dramatic, but major points come from following up quickly.

5. Offer help. When a problem comes up, 75% of the people in this world will offer one of the following responses:
• It’s not my fault.
• Our policy doesn’t cover that.
• Are you sure you didn’t break this intentionally?
• There’s nothing I can do.

The other 25%, the successful ones, will offer to help. “Let’s see how we can fix this,” is a good start to a repaired relationship. Even if the problem cannot be fixed, the customer doesn’t blame you, because you’re the one who tried. When someone’s initial response is, “There’s nothing I can do,” they get no points if the problem is ultimately resolved.
…..
My seatmate and I agreed that technical skills and trade secrets offer little assurance of career achievement. Simple skills, the kind of stuff we all were supposed to learn in grade school, represent the fundamentals tools for careers, as well as the rest of life.

Pass this note on to your friends, kids, kids’ friends and anyone you know who’s starting out in the working world. Only a small percentage will actually follow these simple rules, but those happy few will be very grateful to their mentors.

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Pies Are Square

May 22, 2010

We were digging into our 13th or 14th slice of pumpkin pie before we found one that actually tasted like pumpkin. Jill was on slice number 18 or 19 before she found an apple pie that tasted like apple. Such are the tragedies of life for judges in the American Pie Championships. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it and, last month, we were among those somebodies.

Two words that always go well together are free and food, so what could be more fun than a weekend of sampling the best pie recipes from across the country? From apple to cherry to sweet potato and pumpkin, the buffet was open.

Between us, Jill and I tasted and rated more than 70 pies from promising (and not-so-promising) amateurs and well-established professionals over a weekend in Florida. Our fellow judges were food writers, bakers, pie equipment salesmen and plain old consumers like us. And, if we were paying any attention at all, we shared another journey into the every day is a model of life file. A few lessons from the world of pie:

Pies Are Square. There were very few hippies, yippies, bikers, artistes and other nonconforming types at the party. If you ever want to see Mainstream America, in a good way, check out the people whose passion is pie.

Keep it simple. A pumpkin pie should have pumpkin; an apple pie should have, um, what’s that fruit….apple. So many entrants came up with interesting concepts that went nowhere, simply because they made it so complicated that the recipe didn’t seem to fit in the category.

Life isn’t fair. A great baker in Arizona or Colorado is going to face new challenges in the humidity and altitude in Florida. If the competition was in Aspen, you’d take home all the awards, but it isn’t in Aspen, so you walk home empty handed.

Find the common ground. I got to be the table captain for one session, which gave me the chance to see the variety of taste preferences on our panel. Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee, but lots of people don’t like much clove or ginger or brown sugar or eucalyptus or jalapenos in their pies. So how do you find a winner? The best is universal, pleasing everyone to some degree.

Everything becomes a job after a while. Even the role of honored judge gets to be a drudge by the time you’re analyzing the mouth feel of your 15th slice. Whatever you’re eating, nothing tastes as good, or bad, as the first bite. As in the rest of life, novelty is a treat, until it stops being novel.

The greatest gift is time. Spend a few hours in someone else’s world and you discover a whole new dimension to them. The friends who invited us to be pie judges are involved in the industry, but we see them at all kinds of activities that have nothing to do with pie. Taking a journey into their other world added a new dimension and spark to our appreciation of them.

All these great life lessons, and FREE FOOD!!! What could be better?

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