What makes me happy in April

April can be a trying month; the weather is iffy, even in Texas.  Taxes are due.  You plant basil, knowing it will fry by July.  But this month I’ve been startled by little things, which we’ve been told, is the point of it all:

Bulbuls are common in the Middle East; their song is "doctor-quick doctor-quick be-quick"

Bulbuls are common in the Middle East; they sit in prominent spots; their song is “doctor-quick doctor-quick be-quick.”

  • The five year-old foster child at the Helping Hand Home with a scar across his cheek who advises me to dye my hair.  You won’t look so old, he says.  Helpful if you’re taking yourself too seriously.
  • Kate Murphy’s Download column on Sanjit Roy:  “Listening:  I’m listening to the bulbus in my garden, which sit as a pair on the bougainvillea tree during lunchtime. They are black with red fringe on the forehead.”
  • The fellow who wanders out of the hedge of a neighboring house and hands me a bouquet of yellow and red-tipped white roses as I’m walking the dog.  “I was going to throw them away,” he says.   Can’t get better than this.
  • The somewhat monolithic mid-century modern house, built in what used to be a modest neighborhood, with a huge stained glass image of St. George and the Dragon in the second-story window.  I’ve been walking by that window for a year and just figured it out.  Who would have thought?
  • My friend Anne Fish’s talk, in Spanish, as a volunteer, to 600 residents in one of Austin’s poorest neighborhoods on developing habits to keep healthy, based on her personal story of losing 60 pounds.  Indomitable and inspirational.

Pay attention.   It’s an amazing world out there.

Beyond Work Hard/Play Hard: Building a Resilient Culture

The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated.  “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended.  Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:

  • Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
  • Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
  • Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)

    More than work hard/play hard:  Culture is a major success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

    Culture is a major organizational success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

The takeaway:  Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture.  It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the  check and balance.

All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality.  Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.

Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones.  I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90′s, during the start up bust of the early 2000′s and again with a small agency.  Warning:  Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD.  Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:

Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:

            • What books are you reading?
            • What was the last thing you googled?
            • What do you watch on TV/movies?

Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:

  • Considering a new job?  Ask to read the handbook.
  • Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
  • How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both?  Does it offer multiple functional spaces?  Common spaces for accidental intersections?

The hardest:  Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:

  • Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
  • Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?

Food for thought – and action.

 

 

Who Put Brussel Sprouts in Every Shopping Basket?

What I want to know is this:  Who engineered the comeback of brussel sprouts?  Did I miss the tweets?  Because the humble vegetable of my childhood, grey and waterlogged, has morphed into a supply side challenge.

Can farmers keep up?

               Can farmers keep up?

Was it Mark Bittman and those classy NYT spreads?  Some trendy chef in upper New York state, or even here in what was once a comfortably populist ATX (Tex Mex or a steak, anyone?)?

There’s been no humiliating name change (bruss?), as prunes have had to endure (dried plums?).  They look the same:  little cabbages, hard and round.  No labor-saving innovations;  still a somewhat tedious process that requires a colander, trimming, cutting, and unless you’re a roaster, a two-step cooking process.

They still, sauces and marinades aside, taste (and smell) like cabbages.

Was there a blog?  A reality show (an island, 20-somethings, a case of brussel sprouts and lots of conflict?)  Opeds?

Did Dr. Oz endorse them for their digestive qualities?  Was it the source-agnostic but ever-purist French?

Where is the marketing team?  I want to meet them.

Be Great

Each of us can be great — in our own way.  Great human beings don’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ head like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration.  The trick lies in uncovering, then nurturing its seed.

Thanks to technology (and I include publishing), we’ve no shortage of examples — in business, the arts and politics.  We can read, see and hear the stories of people who discovered their gift and then overcame their circumstances, doubts and fears to be bigger, broader and richer (if that’s what they wanted).

Work at being great -- in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Work at being great — in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Many of us have to dig to find our seed of greatness.  Maybe it’s writing, or developing great relationships or designing gardens.  But believing in ourselves — and our unique greatness — is pivotal.  Otherwise, our hands are tied.  We fail to act.  So we have to look for examples and learn from others.

Take entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are energizers.  They charge us up with their self-confidence and sheer drive.  Last week I sat in on a talk by John Arrow, the brilliant young CEO of Mutual Mobile.  Arrow told about his first entrepreneurial effort, a grammar school newsletter that was shut down for profiling students’ popularity.  (Sounds a little like a Facebook prototype, yes?) While his co-conspirators were punished by their parents, he was praised for his business acumen.  That chutzpah — and vision — has taken him far.

Or statesmen.  Nelson Mandela believed in a cause so great it dwarfed the failure and suffering he endured to become an icon of humanitarianism. Bill Keller‘s coverage drew from a 2007 interview.  Mandela was asked how he kept his hatred in check:  “… his answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders cannot afford to hate.”  My sense is Mandela, although born the son of a tribal chief, was not always so adept a diplomat. I listened to a former colleague describe him as a “head knocker.”  If that’s the case, then Mandela had to master his anger to achieve his goals.

Or musicians.  A quote from the late, great Lou Reed, who as a young man had been through electroshock therapy, and in his music never seemed too concerned about popular opinion.  He followed his muse:

I’ve never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are.  You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful.  And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

As we wind down another year, rushing madly along, let’s go for one thing:  Let’s try for greatness.  Or as Steven Pressfield puts it,  … Follow your unconventional, crazy heart.  Do the work.

Stay Curious Despite the Shutdown: Try edX

“We’re looking for the international space station,” my elderly neighbors said as they looked up at the night sky.

“What does it look like?”  I asked.

The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas.  That's Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.

The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas. That’s Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.

“We’re not sure, but it’s supposed to be out here someplace.”

We spend a lot of our time looking for things without knowing exactly what we’re looking for.   Ideally, there’s a sense of wonder, but also frustration and alas, impatience.

Whether it’s a job, a new client or partner.  We know they’re out there, somewhere.  But where?

The trick is to stay curious, so curious we keep trying.

To keep my curiosity in tune, I’m trying our edX, specifically Dr. Micheal Webber’s Energy 101 MOOC.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The content is terrific, especially the widgets.  I find myself sliding over maps of Europe, Africa, India and South America to get a sense of our world — in constant flux.  Want to see fracking in action?  Stephen Rountree’s 3D infographic is one of the best I’ve seen.

But it’s the sheer scope of the effort that sparks my imagination.  Comments and introductions from people all over the world – Iran, Palestine, Iceland.

It’s like the night sky; makes you think anything is possible.  (Even this photo, taken by intrepid volunteers on Astronomy Day 2013 by the Night Sky Network, despite the federal shutdown)

Here’s to the Joyful Pivot

It’s not just Ben Bernake;  sudden course corrections are the rule of the day.  I used to worry about feeling stuck.  Then I heard the musician Laurie Anderson say she feels stuck all the time.  Now I worry if I don’t feel stuck; I figure if I’m comfortable, I’m not paying attention.

Most of us don’t make tough decisions until there’s a crisis. Detroit didn’t pivot — if that’s what it was — until it was broke.  We lose a client (or worse, a friend), an elderly parent falls and breaks a hip, we lose our job.  

Writing in Forbes, Martin Zwilling defines (the over-used term) pivot as a quick change in direction that keeps an organization grounded in what’s been learned.  “(Startups that pivot) keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”

Nothing is more reassuring than the scent of possibility.

The trick is to separate setback from failure and train our eyes on the possible.  I’m reminded of an anecdote the marvelous Laurie Anderson told during her recent visit here:  It became clear that a collaboration with Brian Eno wasn’t working.  Eno clapped his hands and said, “Oh boy, a problem.  We can throw everything out and re-think the thing.”

That’s such a large idea:  being Joyful when things don’t go as planned. Years ago, I worked with the talented producer Linda Batwin.  I’d asked her help with a corporate project that wasn’t going as smoothly (surprise!).  I was in a snit, and Linda said to me, not in a preachy way, but as someone working towards mastery:  I try to enjoy the process.

So here’s to possibilities — and the process of working towards them with joy, wisdom and hopefully, a little help from our friends.

Courtesy Fast Company Design

Courtesy Fast Company Design

Over Deliver and Keep ‘Em Coming Back for More

“Do you know anyone in Togo?”

Brand loyalty is built by extraordinary service.

Brand loyalty is built on relationships.

I picked up the call over 20 years ago on a July 4th afternoon.  The voice at the other end of the line belonged to an AT&T customer service representative who’d flagged a series of calls from my number to a tiny country on Africa’s Gold Coast.  By going beyond her job description (or contract, or scope), she saved me hundreds of dollars and countless hours spent trying to straighten the mess out.  She made my life a little easier.

Brand loyalty isn’t always logical, but it has a long memory.  AT&T is an entirely different entity than it was then, but I continue to have an emotional connection with the brand.   I told this story to an AT&T call center representative once when I was trying to untangle a bill.  I’m not sure they got it.

The market has changed, as have my needs. AT&T long ago laid off the people who did what that woman did.  I hope she is happily retired — or teaching companies how to bond with customers for life.

I recently moved into a building served by another provider and got a quick refresher on the  bare-knuckles world of the consumer broadband industry:  bait and swap, if-you don’t-like-it-take-your-business-somewhere-else.  No brand loyalty there.

A friend once critiqued a piece of work I did, “Remember, over deliver and keep ‘em coming back for more.”

On whatever scale you’re operating, those are words to the wise.