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.)


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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Geese Must Comply With New Rules

May 16, 2010

A woman is walking along the pier with her son when a wave rolls over the deck and washes the boy over the edge. He disappears under the water and she begins to pray. “Oh, Lord, save my son, don’t let him drown, I will do anything, I will be so grateful, he is my life…”

A few seconds later, another wave rolls over the pier and returns her son to her, coughing and soaked, but otherwise unharmed. She looks down at her son and back to the heavens. She raises her tear-streaked face to the sky as she cries out to the Almighty:

“Hey! Where’s his hat?”

I was reminded of this story as I read the latest news about The Miracle on the Hudson, in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his merry crew landed their Airbus 320 in the Hudson River and 155 people lived to tell the tale.

Several days ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the accident, in which both jet engines died after ingesting undercooked poultry.

The NTSB investigation benefited from a rare luxury that is tragically lacking in most such inquiries: witnesses. Analysts could ask 155 people to recount the turmoil over three very tense minutes on the potentially doomed flight. Freed of the limitations of voice recorders and instrument readings, they could review, possibly for the first time, all the thousands of possible and actual events on a falling jet.

Shockingly, the NTSB discovered that not all contingency plans were activated and not every prescribed step was taken as the plane was falling from the sky. In some cases, the crew simply ran out of time to complete its checklist, which resulted from the fact that the bird strike happened at such low altitude. In his recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande credits that checklist with keeping people focused and effective.

The agency’s analysts say the crew wasted too much time trying to restart the engines, indicating a need for better sensors to tell the pilots when it’s useless to even try. (It is impossible to imagine a pilot trusting such an indicator, after the impact of a bird strike or other incident, and NOT trying to restart the engines anyway.) Worse, they suggested that maybe these sensors could be designed by NASA. NASA?

Equally significant, the passengers were unprepared for the emergency because 70% of them ignored the safety briefing. You know, the prescribed, word-for-word briefing that begins with instructions on how to fasten a seat belt…a briefing so boring and rote that they don’t even bother to have living people deliver it on most flights.

The NTSB now wants the airlines to find catchier ways to deliver the safety briefing, so people listen. (My recommendation: show a video of USAir 1549 sinking in the Hudson River.)

The agency also recommends that water landing equipment be mandated on all flights, whether they are expected to travel over water or not. Of course, the equipment was on Flight 1549 and most people couldn’t figure out how to use it.

Most of the issues raised by the NTSB were tied to the idea that the process can be perfected. Nothing will be in the wrong place, passengers will arise, or sit, as a Crackerjack Evac Squad, bird strikes won’t occur below 2,000 feet….

Ah, the arrogance of human beings.

I was a bit surprised they didn’t add a requirement that all bird strikes and engine failures occur within one mile of a smooth body of water. Crew competence notwithstanding, the Hudson River was the ultimate salvation of the plane. Along with dozens of tug/ferry/barge operators, of course.

In any complex situation, thousands of things go right and thousands go wrong. And the fixes that would have worked in the last crisis might actually make things worse the next time disaster strikes. Best intentions notwithstanding, you can’t fine-tune fate.

Every so often, you just have to accept the limitations of human endeavor and be very, very grateful.

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