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.)


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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Immigration and Ockham’s Razor

July 4, 2010

Fourth of July Note: Before posting this item, I passed it by some friends, both conservative and liberal and somewhere in between. None has unfriended me on FaceBook and they still take my phone calls, so it’s just possible there’s some truth in common sense. And isn’t this great country all about common sense, common people and the commonwealth? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha.”


I am continually amazed at the people who think immigration reform is a controversial topic of some sort. When you approach it like a true American, it’s so simple that even a child couldn’t screw it up.

Thank God we have Congress to handle it for us. Or not handle it, as the case may be.


The United States is a really special country and part of what makes us special is our history of accepting all kinds of people from all kinds of places and turning them into AMERICANS. We’re all hyphenated Americans of a sort, but most of us end up with the second half (xyz-AMERICAN) in all caps.

The ability to take in boatloads of people and transform them in a generation or two is such a quiet and consistent process in this land that we sometimes forget it exists. Like the cleanup teams at Disneyland, the work is so silent and efficient that you can forget it’s going on.


We all take pride in saying this is a nation of immigrants and, in fact, most of us are no more than two or three generations removed from the people who grabbed a batch of clothes and a fry pan and hopped on some ship—in steerage. Most of us, I suspect, have actually met the person who was the first of our family to set foot on these shores, even if that person is no longer with us today.

We believe in the American Dream, the ability of strangers who know nothing of this country or its culture to become a part of us and to succeed. Many (most) of us recognize that the American Dream has been at work in our own families.

People come here to pursue the American Dream and you don’t see a whole lot of people begging for a chance to leave. The exit door is open, but there’s a lot of cobwebs on the hinges. The American Dream involves work and most people come to work. You can see it in the fast food joints, the donut shops, dry cleaners, landscaping companies, factories—pretty much anywhere that the wages are low and the work is difficult. It’s the first step on the ladder and they’re ready to jump on it.

Immigration is good for many reasons. It brings in new workers—people with drive and ideas—enriches our overall culture and builds our economy. Everyone in this country needs to eat, to sleep, to have a roof overhead, to attend school and buy clothes and pay for texts. Strip away all the political spinning and lies and you find that population growth builds the economy and immigration is a good way to build population.

By the way, population growth is one reason the United States might fare better than many European countries that are aging faster and have few younger workers to pay taxes. Whatever we might think about Social Security and Health Care Reform and other government programs, it’s an absolute fact that each of us pays less taxes than we would if there were fewer people to support the system. If anything, immigration is a good way to reduce the burdens per capita from unaffordable programs.


First, let’s stop saying politically correct things like “undocumented.” Using euphemisms makes people sound fearful, unable to address topics head-on.

The challenge in discussing illegal immigration is that the distinction is legality, not immigration. Lots of people who don’t like immigrants, other than their own grannies, will talk about immigrants as if all are illegal. Lots of people who see legality as a mere technicality talk about illegals as if they don’t represent a problem at all.

So we come to the question: Why does legality matter? If a person comes to work, as most do, why do we care if they come with papers or not?

There are two simple answers here:

First, if we cannot know whether Jose or Piotr or Winston has entered the country legally, we cannot know if Osama bin Laden is here, either. Knowing who is in the country is a national security issue. It’s not particularly dangerous when Pedro comes to harvest fruit or Mani overstays his visa to keep writing code, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore their presence. In the world of security, you can’t inspect only the bad guys, because they tend to hide among the good ones.

Second, illegal immigration creates a number of distortions in our country. Illegal immigrants are more likely to be abused in the workplace and less likely to report a crime. Illegal immigrants with native-born children run the risk of being deported, leaving their citizen offspring behind. Illegal immigrants are more likely to work for cash, and be off the tax rolls, although lots of American shrimp boat operators in the Gulf are suddenly discovering the downside of that gambit as they need to show BP how much income they’re losing.

The cost of illegal immigrants to the nation is really hard to calculate, although you can find very specific numbers trumpeted on both ends of the political noise machine. If an employer pays illegal immigrants in cash and provides no benefits, that employer’s income rises and he pays more taxes as a result. Assuming our law-abiding employer is actually paying the full amount of his taxes owed, the government might see a net gain in its income—because the employer is paying at a higher marginal tax rate than his worker. As money circulates through the economy, the total impact of Illegal/legal immigrants might not vary much, but there could be large displacements as local school boards get less, for example, and the state government or feds get more.

Illegal immigration also creates distortions in law enforcement. Local police have fewer cooperating witnesses when the victims of crimes have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. More federal dollars go to tracking down and deporting criminals here illegally, people who would be simply local/state targets if they were citizens or, in some cases, legally within our borders. As a result, less federal time and dollars go to anti-terrorism efforts.


Okay, assuming everything above is true, which it is, what do we do? We benefit from immigration, but illegal immigration creates costly displacements in the economy. Is there, perhaps, a three-step solution to fix all of this?

Why, yes, there is.

1. Secure the borders. It costs much less to keep the border secure than to try to find and address issues across 50 states. By borders, I’m talking about the coasts and Canada, along with Mexico. This is a national security issue, not a Mexican immigrant issue. We do need to invest more heavily in the South, as a practical matter, but people who speak only of the southern border betray more of their beliefs than they might realize. This government, like every government, has all good reason to know who is and isn’t coming into the country. Why waste money on immigration enforcement in the States when it takes about a week for a deported person to re-enter our space? Secure borders are a necessity. In fact, nothing works without secure borders, because people who are thrown out find it far too easy to come back.
2. Open the gates. Bring in immigrants by the truckload and encourage them to become citizens. Yeah, there’s no more room here, but that’s what they said when our grandparents were getting off the boat, too. We have room and we have opportunity—that American Dream thing we like to talk about. People on the left love Zero Growth when it comes to environment, but not immigration. People on the right love Zero Growth when it comes to immigration, but not the environment. They’re both wrong. When we make it easier to come legally, we reduce the incentive to come illegally. Fewer criminals enter, including terrorists, because the border is secure, and people who are deported are likely to stay deported, for the same reason. The good, hard-working people who want to become Americans will be able to do so and we will know how to keep the others out of our fine nation.
3. Create a path to citizenship. Let’s face facts. We aren’t going to deport 12-20 million people. First, it might not be possible for us to identify and process that many people in a lifetime and we would end up with multi-trillion-dollar costs in doing so. In addition, the movement of 12-20 million people, many of them employed and, contrary to public opinion, paying taxes, would cause gigantic disruptions to our economy. Not to mention the violent battles in the streets of our nation.

If we eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes said, we’ll arrive at the truth. The truth is that we would benefit immensely from having 12-20 million additional tax-paying, voting, engaged citizens. (NB: Republican fears that all will be Democratic votes might not come to pass. Contrary to much punditry, Latino doesn’t equal Liberal.) Bringing illegals out of the shadows, to the extent they are hiding now, will also accelerate their acculturation as Americans.

The Puritanical side of me believes all the illegal immigrants should have to pay fines and back taxes and otherwise jump through flaming hoops to become citizens. The common sense part of me says we should make the path attractive—even it it isn’t free—and naturalize as many as we can as fast as we can. It will be less expensive, less time consuming and less disruptive over the long term.

Sometimes, we make situations more complicated than they need to be. In seeking or insisting on the perfect solution, we give ourselves the excuse to provide no solution at all. The problem gets worse, as has been the case with government spending, Social Security shortfall, state pension programs, personal debt and so on. We pass the problem on to our children like an heirloom that is not only priceless but also unaffordable.

Every so often, Ockham’s Razor is the scalpel we need. Every so often, we must decide whether we want to be vindicated in our beliefs or simply choose to resolve an issue. Immigration reform is simple, if we want it enough to choose common sense, decency and practicality over ideology.

And, on this Fourth of July, isn’t it nice to recall that common sense, decency and practicality are fundamental strengths of this great nation?

You betcha.

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Your Idiot Boss

June 21, 2010

Being the font of wisdom that I am, younger folks will sometimes ask me important questions, such as, “Do you want paper or plastic?” “Is that for here or to go?” and “Did you dress that way intentionally?”

Young people are learning new things every day, of course, and their education doesn’t end with graduation. Just like childhood (I bet I can climb all the way! How many of these can I fit in my nose?) the metamorphosis from teen to adult is a time of constant wonder that the newly independent are anxious to share.

Mom, you just don’t realize how hard it is to have a job and do your own laundry.
Dad, can you believe my landlord expects me to take out my own garbage instead of getting it from me?
Mom, you just don’t understand how much groceries cost.
Dad, you won’t believe how much money the government takes out of my paycheck. MY paycheck.

Forget it, Wonder Bread. The formative years aren’t ages 1-12. They’re 18-23. It’s a time of immense discovery for young adults and for immense smirking and giggling among parents everywhere.

Many of the greatest sources of wonder and bewilderment originate in the workplace, where the newest employees on the payroll discover all the failings of their employers and ask one of my favorite questions of all time: How did this idiot get to be my boss?

Alas, it is true. Like Mork from Ork and Benjamin Button, we regress as we advance in our careers. The person who can run the company after 40 hours of indoctrination must abide the foolish prattle of a clueless manager while waiting to show everyone how it should be done.

It is the ultimate irony. The same guy who was smart enough, insightful enough and farsighted enough to hire my young friends turns out, in the end, to be an idiot.

“Hiring me was the smartest thing he ever did,” they might say. “Other than that, it’s hard to believe he’s allowed to operate a cell phone. I’ve been here all of two weeks and I already understand the company better than he does.”

I have great sympathy for my young friends, as I also discovered the shocking ineptitude and idiocy of many bosses on the way to becoming an inept and idiotic boss myself. I know the temptation that comes from seeing things more clearly than the people at the top of the organization.

“I bring a fresh perspective and great analytical skills that are strangely absent anywhere in the company until now,” I would say. “In fact, my new boss hired me for exactly that reason, hoping I would tell her how she is screwing up and how she can do her job better.”

All of this is true, of course, but the really savvy novice will focus on something deeper than the incompetence that dwells on the surface. Perhaps the boss has a hidden talent, much like the X-Men or porn stars. Somewhere, behind the memos and the policies and the mind-numbing incoherence of their strategies, somewhere beneath the contradictory goals and illogical incentives and undeserved self-esteem, a genius could reside. After all, if a person so untalented could rise in the organization, they must know something. Right?

Right. If their skill set is not found in actually running the company, perhaps they are savants at getting promoted by their own bosses. If a new hire could have all the answers to running the company AND learn how to get promoted more quickly, there’s no end to the opportunity.

And so, young people, I suggest that you hold back from saving the company for just a few days and take the time to really study your boss. What did she do to get where she is now? How does she hide her incompetence from her own bosses? And how did THOSE doofuses get to the top? The answers to these questions are the keys to success.

Study them. Admire them. Mirror their behavior. If they can do it, you can do it faster and better. All you need is a good sense of humor and a whole lot of patience.

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$600 for Binoculars? YAKM!!!

June 9, 2010

My Sunday magazine supplement had a great article over the weekend about the best gift ideas for “dads and grads.” Notice how dads rank so high that we don’t even get our own gift list. Even worse, note how graduating females are assumed to want the same gifts as both 18-year-old high school seniors and 85-year-old men.

But I digress.

In the first paragraph, a gift expert assured us that “you don’t have to spend a ton of money to make sure your loved one feels special, whether it’s Father’s Day or graduation.” Or Arbor Day, Halloween or Festivus, or any other unrelated events that arrive at about the same time.

And then we have a list of four products which, combined, would cost $1,620. The cheapest is a handheld vacuum (Hint: don’t buy this for Mother’s Day, either.) and the most expensive are night vision binoculars. Because every graduate wants two things right out of school: binoculars and a job.

But I digress.

So what’s the best gift for grads and dads? The same thing that’s the best gift for everyone: Time.

As I’m overly fond of saying, you can’t make it, store it, replace it or experience it the same way twice. It’s the greatest gift in the world and, both free and priceless at the same time.

Of course, I could also use one of those long shoe horns that let you put on your shoes without having to bend over too much. And some light bulbs for the upstairs track light. Both are gifts I know I can use and they’re both in my size.

But I digress. Again.

I asked a bunch of dads what they wanted for Father’s Day and nobody asked for some high-tech gizmo or overpriced novelty item. They don’t want to be carted off to some new place they never went to before or receive an introduction to a new pastime like crochet or collectible plates.

All they wanted was some time with their families, an opportunity to relax and someone to share it with.

Take advantage of this sentiment. It’s about as close as we ever get to cuddling.

(Originally posted at

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And So, Fellow Graduates…

May 8, 2010

I was hoping my commencement speech at Harvard this year would help me promote Your Name Here: Guide to Life as the ideal gift (Unisex!! One size fits all!!) for graduates entering the real world….but their invitation got lost in the mail for the 57th consecutive year.

I had the speech already written, though, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And so, (breathless anticipation) graduates and families, here is the speech you should be hearing….

Graduates, I bring you warm and heartfelt congratulations today, not merely for earning 120 class credits but also for your brilliant financial decision not to attend Harvard. (If you attended Harvard, insert some other name here.)

By taking the cheap route, you’ve put yourself well ahead of those peers who enter the real world with a prestigious degree and $300,000 of student loans. After about one year on the job, few people will ever ask you where you went to school, and even fewer will care about the answer.

So congratulations. You’ve avoided paying $300k for 12 months of bragging rights. If all your other financial decisions are this good, we’ll all be working for you five years from now. (Remember that I was your friend before you were fabulously wealthy and famous.) Of course, there will be pitfalls along the way, and you’ll need some special insights to avoid the traps that lie in wait for recent graduates. Herewith is almost everything you need to know to succeed in this world.

1. Relax. You aren’t the future of our nation and the universe doesn’t rest in your hands. It’s tough enough finding both a job and a good deli without the extra burden of saving the world. Don’t worry about it. You’re responsible for yourself and, if you choose to have kids, raising them to be responsible for themselves. Being responsible for yourself sounds easy, until you try to do it, so take great pride if you get it right.

2. You’re going to fail most of the time, but you only need a small number of victories to have a great life. Remember that a baseball player who fails to get a hit 60% of the time is almost guaranteed a shrine in Cooperstown.

3. Listening is the most underrated form of persuasion. If you want people to like you and trust you, learn to listen more than you speak.

4. There is always a camera. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, somebody within 20 feet has a camera. If you’re doing something really stupid, it’s going into your permanent record. On YouTube.

5. No problem ever gets resolved by e-mail. If there’s a real issue, pick up the phone, pay a visit and, oh yeah, listen to what the other person has to say. E-mail is great for forwarding links, but terrible for linking people.

6. Unless you have a billion dollars already, nobody is going to bring you a billion-dollar investment opportunity. Somebody’s going to invent the next e-Bay or Google or FaceBook. Most likely, that person isn’t coming to you for seed capital. Just spend 10% less than you earn every year, sock money away for retirement and you’ll probably do just fine.

7. The bad stuff is the price of admission. You’ll put up with all kinds of nonsense as you start your career, date, raise a family, and pay off the mortgage. We all pay a price to get what we want. Eventually, we get comfortable enough that we can mock the next generation of whiners.

8. In the first meeting, the answer is always ‘Yes.’ Whether it’s a job interview or a sales call or a friend who needs help moving, ‘yes’ is how you build relationships and lifelong success. You can work out the details and end up saying ‘no’ later, if needed, but at least people will know you were willing to make the attempt.

9. Like embezzlement, change is an inside job. You can’t change anyone else and nobody can change you. If you want to be better at something, nobody can stop you…other than you, of course.

10. You have power, because you have choices. Go or stay, buy or sell, love or hate, it’s all up to you. Never make yourself subservient to someone else by blaming them for your decisions.

11. Life isn’t about what you have or what happens to you. It’s all about how you respond. Everyone gets a share of pain and aggravation, but the ones who end up happy are those who deal with it and move on.

12. You have three reputations to protect in your career. Yours is first, your boss is second and your company is third. Never forget that yours is the one you’ll be renting out to your next boss and your next company—and passing on to your kids.

13. Everybody has something to offer in this world. The more you look for it, the more you’ll find it. That means you’ll have access to friends and resources that other people miss, because you paid attention to the people everyone else was ignoring.

And so, graduates of 2010, you now know almost everything you need to know to achieve happiness, love, serenity, prosperity and successful lives. The rest is contained in Your Name Here: Guide to Life and, if your parents really loved you, they would have bought you a copy by now. Forgive them, however, as they were smart enough to raise you to be a responsible adult (See Note 1 above.) and you should be eternally grateful for that gift.

Now, go forth and prosper as the world of joy unfolds before you. Remember, whenever your face hardships, setbacks and difficulties, that millions of others have faced the same and worse.

They survived it.

So will you.

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