My Second Book

As noted by the title, tEE Coverhis post is meant to announce the forthcoming release of my second book, Endless Encores. It will be published by The Story Plant on September 22, 2015 in hardcover and as an eBook. Since that is still several months off and I have at times already mentioned the book is coming, let me come back to that in a moment.

I often get into the discussion of whether corporate mission statements matter.

I also wrestle with people on whether we are blowing hot air when we say we want to hire the very best talent we can.

Then there is the loaded question of whether bringing a true “change agent” into a company suggests an oxymoron.

The answer to all three of these questions for me is quite simple: It depends whether your answer is cursory or heartfelt, pat or authentic, expository or evangelistic.

You’re likely quite familiar with the expression Don’t Be Evil. It was the rallying cry of one of the most successful digital companies of our time in its offering prospectus. Here’s a tangent to that declaration I’d like to offer that can put to rest most questions around an empowering mission statement, talent that matters, and harnessing a change agent: Don’t Be Cynical. Today let’s call that DBC.

If you DBC when you speak to mission, you will find nothing more powerful to inspire people to do the best work of their careers. If you DBC when you speak to the impact of extraordinary talent, you will surround yourself with the real deal and reap the rewards. If you DBC when you identify a human change agent, you will open your doors to innovation and allow change to happen.

Fall back into corporate-speak on any of these borderline-highfalutin ideals, and you will suck all the life out of the room. No question. The spread between demoralization and inspiration is just that wide, but the line separating them is micropixel thin. Walk that line carefully. Fall to the wrong side of the balance beam and you lose; to the correct side, and you win.

That’s why I wrote Endless Encores.

What is cynical? Cynical is a poster in the lobby that reads “Our people are what we value most.” Then earnings are announced and miss expectations. Wall Street punishes your company’s stock. There is a layoff and a thousand people see that poster as they are walking out the door carrying boxes of work mementos.

What is DBC? DBC is the same lobby, same poster, but an announcement that because of a soft quarter, all senior management team members are deferring annual bonuses and taking a voluntary pay cut of 10% to cover the shortfall in earnings until the company regains growth momentum. No one walks out the door. The mementos stay on the desks. The boss holds a pizza party to reset the year’s goals. Everyone recommits to achieve growth together.

DBC can be extremely hard to master, mostly because we usually don’t set out to be cynical; we sadly roll ourselves into the muck tub. It’s great to say galvanizing words, but they inevitably have to be followed by felicity in our actions, and that’s when it becomes the greatest of all possible business challenges: to marry the power of intentions with the expectation of outcomes. Said another way: Can our delivered actions live up to our rousing words?

It’s not Utopian. It happens. It’s what matters. If you say it, mean it. If you mean it, do it.

Let’s make it harder. Can we do it consistently? Can we do it again and again? Can we have careers that span more than a single triumph, encompassing values that become us, delighting customers with outrageous excellence in good times and bad?

To invoke another catch phrase, Yes, We Can.

Speaking of catch phrases, if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, or even if this is your first visit, you’ll note in the blog’s description the words “People, Products, Profits—in that order.” Those are the business words I have tried to live by these last three decades, part rallying cry, part personal philosophy, part sanity meter. If you’ve worked with me you’ve heard those words way too many times and possibly even begun to repeat them. When I’m called to look at a creative company and I don’t see those words at play, they flow freely from my lips. There’s a reason. They work.

This book is about those words. It’s about how to have a career that matters, how to infuse those around you with passion, how to love your customers, how to innovate and reinvent without fear of failure, and how to avoid the trap of the one-hit wonder. That’s a lot to cover in so few words, and yet, the book is not a very long one (those who might have been concerned another volume like This Is Rage was on the way can breathe easy). Strangely, the book took me just as long to write, because as my wise editor, Lou Aronica, warned me in advance, writing simply about immensely complex ideas of discipline is no small trick. If you want to get people fired up about something that can change their lives without sounding like a soapbox pundit, you have to pick every word carefully, and that takes time.

Why condense a lifetime of highly personal learning into a book and share it with people I may never meet? I want you to succeed, over and over, and I know you can. I want you to understand why it will make you more productive to embrace the notion of DBC. I want you to master this framework, become a mentor, and pass on your good fortune to others. I want People, Products, Profits to be the worst-kept secret on the planet. I want you to take this little business parable, the story of Daphne Lonner and Paul Beckett, read it all the way through, and then keep it near your desk when you need a hit of pure oxygen.

You can repeat. You should repeat.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Dodging the Great Hits Graveyard. I had been at a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert with my wife, sitting down front surrounded by fans who had come to hear the familiar tunes of their Christmas show. In the middle of the second set they stopped playing familiar tunes and introduced something completely new. There was an awkward pause, and it would have been easy to assume that the band had taken an immense risk and bit off a raw chunk of failure with the lost energy. Three years later, that song became the tent pole of a new album and tour, joyously celebrated by old fans as well as new. Somewhere in that window I knew I had to turn the fear of the new into a story of returning triumph, even if every triumph wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. That’s when I knew I had to write about DBC. That’s when I knew I had to write Endless Encores.

I hope you’ll follow some of my recurring themes in the months leading up to publication, and once you have the book in your hands, please let me hear from you. Missions matter. Talent matters. Change agents matter. Don’t Be Cynical. Surround yourself with People, Products, Profits—in that order. You too can have a shot at a lifetime of repeat success, letting the moments of failure become learning opportunities, not endpoints.

Come meet Daphne and Paul. If innovation and reinvention are in your sights, their story might be your story. You can pre-order a copy of Endless Encores so it is sent to you on publication date. Below is an excerpt to give a sense of where this tale wants to take you. See you on the winning side of the balance beam.

♫ ♫ ♫

“Do you like music?” asked Daphne. “Contemporary bands, classic rock, pop tunes from various times?”

“Sure, of course,” said Paul. “Who doesn’t have a favorite band or two?”

“Those bands that are your favorites—did they have one or two hits, or a pretty decent run over the years?”

“You mean like the Eagles? The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? Obviously they had a string of hits, sometimes one after another.”

“How hard do you think it was for them to keep trying to top themselves?” asked Daphne.

“Hard,” conveyed Paul. “Very, very hard. In my business, hardly anyone repeats.”

“More like the one-hit wonders on the pop charts from the sixties, seventies, and eighties,” noted Daphne. “‘My Sharona.’ ‘Tainted Love.’ ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’”

“You’re dating yourself a little,” chuckled Paul. “But yes, you nailed it. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I don’t want to be like Friendster or Pet Rocks or the Cabbage Patch Kids. I want to make lots of hits, like you said, an endless series of hits. I want to be that guy. How do you make hits time after time after time?”

“A lot of us ask ourselves that question,” shared Daphne. “I wish I could tell you the answer. What I can tell you is that luck is not such a bad thing. It’s okay to embrace it.”

“Yeah, but can you repeat it?” asked Paul. “Can you make it happen again and again, predict it, make it repeatable?”

“From my experience, I think the best you can do is increase your odds. To build a career that allows for Endless Encores, you can never stand on your laurels. You have to be innovating all the time, not just when the clock is ticking against you. You do a little crowd pleasing with what they know, then a little thought leading by showing them something new.”

“It would be difficult to think about Endless Encores with a limited repertoire,” noted Paul.

“The only sure path to a limited repertoire is not to push yourself beyond the familiar. Your range is only gated by your courage to pursue the unknown, despite the doubters who relish the false safety of narrowing your path. You risk, you stretch, you can’t know what’s going to stick. No matter how much you know the familiar will carry you, you navigate the balance of old and new, constantly committing to reinvention. Repeat success is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, knowing that luck will shine again, but never knowing when or how.”

The Art of the Winback

Last month I wrote a post called How to Lose a Customer for Life for Ten Bucks. I received a lot of feedback, mostly private and positive, but some people didn’t understand my point. I have no interest in punishing a business that lets me down. I simply choose to redirect my business to someone who wants it more. I applaud entrepreneurs at every level, but first and foremost, my mantra of “People, Products, Profits—in that order” is not directed exclusively toward the People who run the business. It extends to the customers who are served by the business, the suppliers and partners who support the business, and even the investors who champion the business. The People part of business is unending, complex, fascinating, and a noble bedrock on which to establish competitive advantage.

Dilbert Customer ServiceNowhere is this more true than in the discipline and practice of customer service. My key point in the tale of enforcing restaurant corkage as specified by company policy despite customer confusion was not that the restaurant owner had upset and lost me as a customer by not showing concern for my concern. It was that he had willingly tossed into the incinerator an opportunity to bond me as a customer forever, future cost of acquisition priced at zero.

This is the takeaway that matters: Any botched moment in a transaction is a moment of truth, a distinct fork in the road that will lead you to one of two places, separated or hitched. Mess-ups are good. Mess-ups are big-ticket fountains of light. A momentary instance of failure is the single best opportunity a business will ever have to connect with a customer’s conviction. Understanding that a boo-boo is not a lethal wound is as simple as knowing that almost anything gone wrong unintentionally and without malice opens the door to a celebrated winback.

When something goes wrong, you have a unique opportunity presented to you on a platter. This is opportunity you can’t create intentionally in good faith; it happens when things go astray in a way you hadn’t planned. When something goes boom, you can lose your customer or you can save your customer. They are likely both forever choices. You get to decide. You just have to make that decision on the spot, quickly and correctly.

The error can be your friend if the winback is always what you keep top of mind. Do it right, reach beyond the customer’s expectations, they’ll be back again and again. It works every time.

You just bought your child an ice cream cone from a local vendor in the park. Your child takes a bite and drops the cone on the ground, eyes already beginning to tear. The vendor can offer up a free replacement before you ask, or else charge you for another one. Of course the free one hurts his pocketbook. Which choice makes him the hero you always come back to find?

You arrive at your hotel room late at night and discover the bed is not made. You’re tired, perturbed, and frankly a bit shocked. You call down to the front desk, not exactly joyful. The attendant at the front desk sees no other rooms available on par with yours, leaving the options of sending up a housekeeper or upgrading you to a suite. It’s a busy time of year and the attendant is pretty sure he can sell the suite in the next hour at triple the discount price you paid. What’s the attendant’s best move?

You pick up a half-dozen shirts from the dry cleaner. Your favorite one has been returned with frayed cuffs. The owner has seen this shirt come through more than a few times, and everyone knows that laundering can be harsh on pressed cotton. You complain that this was your favorite shirt and you really hadn’t sent it to the cleaner that many times, although maybe you had. The owner can delete the cost of cleaning that shirt, offer not to charge you for that order, or offer you the replacement cost of the shirt. What will serve you and the owner best?

What is at stake here is nothing less than the lifetime value of your customer. In any one of these cases, the customer might refuse the act of good will and make due, but your kind offer is unlikely to be forgotten or undervalued. If the customer does take you up on your generosity, you might have invested in ten times or a hundred times the business. All three of these examples are real for me, not the exact circumstances, but close enough. As a result, I make a point of where I buy ice cream, which hotel chain I favor, and which dry cleaner gets my laundry bag every single week. Honestly, I can’t remember whether I took their offer or not, but I remember the point of failure, I remember the response attitude, and I now am as loyal a customer as I could ever be, way more so than if the failure had never occurred. The winback is that powerful. It makes bad into good, good into great, temporal into forever. No advertising can do that, no coupon can do that, no promotion can do that. Only a person can do that by making a smart choice that is authentic and heartfelt.

Are there awful customers who will take advantage of merchants and service providers? Of course there are. As I said in my prior article, the customer is not always right. Sometimes a truly miserable customer will force the point of failure to see what goodies will come, even lie about the unmade bed to sneak a free upgrade. Yes, there are good customers and there are bad customers. Decide which one you’re dealing with and act accordingly. My experience is that if you worry less about whether there is a charade before you and more about the immeasurable value of the winback opportunity, the bucket of winback business will fully offset the times you get beat for your graciousness.

Good business starts at the front lines, where those who interact with customers are meeting their true boss. All the small things we can do to make businesses better at any touchpoint can add longevity and prosperity to the enterprise. It’s that kind of creativity I most encourage when a winback is at hand.

Go on, get out there, and start winning ’em back! Reach way out. It’s worth the stretch.

____________

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

A Very Good Year for Good Men

GMPI started writing for The Good Men Project in its second year of life, offering to share some of my thoughts on business, creative leadership, and management also published on my own blog. In its third year I joined the board of directors and became a strategic advisor to the CEO. As we embark now on its fourth year, I continue onward, helping to accelerate our growth, invigorated by what our CEO and team have accomplished in driving, “The Conversation No One Else is Having.”

What is this Good Man Project? It’s an editorial content destination you’ll find on the web and through mobile, riding the wave of digital publishing through curated editorial viewpoints on topics ranging from love and parenting to ethics and sports. Founded by entrepreneur Tom Matlack, our vision is never to tell anyone what we think a good man might be, but to share the considered points of view of thousands of vetted contributors on the uneasy questions surrounding the issues of being a man in the 21st century. Why Good Man and not Good Person? We observe that there are any number of sites dealing with the broader issues faced by both genders, but almost none taking a serious approach to some of the deeper issues faced by men. Curiously, we have found our audience to be half men and half women, with our contributors mirroring that dichotomy. Perhaps more interestingly, we find no bias as to whether a topic is covered by a man or a woman, and in the often hundreds of comments that follow our stories, we observe men and women talking with each other about subjects you seldom observe strangers discussing and debating without invective or attack. It’s a wild line we walk, and we love it.

How are we doing after three years on the playing field? Here are a few metrics that make us especially proud:

  • We have surpassed 150 million cumulative page views.
  • We have published over 22,000 articles.
  • We have ranked as high as #243 in Quantcast.
  • We average about 3 million page views per week, with more than half our stories getting over 5000 views and our best stories over 100,000 views. And of course we occasionally have runaway hits that are off the charts.
  • We have over 60,000 Facebook fans and over 100,000 Twitter followers.
  • Our work is overseen by more than 30 editors from the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Spain, and the U.K.

What do we think about this? We call it a decent start. If you had asked anyone at the launch of The Good Men Project how far into the future 100 million page views would be, I promise you no one would have said 3 years–not a chance! So when we think about what our business might look like a year from today, it is impossible for us to predict much of anything other than to say we aspire to do better.

When asked to what do I attribute our joyous success to date, that’s easy: People, Products, Profits, in that order. Yes, that happens to be my life mantra for innovation and the theme of my blog, but like I say, for me, these aren’t words, it’s a mandate. Recently I was reviewing a draft of our annual report with our CEO–more about her in a moment–and as we edited our slides, I got fixated on a virtual org chart that we didn’t have a year ago. It was a matrix of our editors and the categories they cover every week. In looking at that chart and how it tied back to our exponentially increased workflow, it was once again obvious to me that none of this would be possible without the immense talent in our community; these are the People who create our Product. That Product, our collection of stories and voices to which we add new material almost every waking hour of the day, is what our customers experience. The excellence of that Product is our lifeblood, and our unending commitment to improve it is what has graciously allowed us to create an embraced customer experience. Customers mean the world to us, their experience is what matters most, but it is our team that creates that experience, and that is where we focus our energy. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, having focused on People and Products, we are already modestly profitable, albeit at a very early scale, enough to let us recommit to our core values.

None of this would be possible without the ceaseless commitment of our CEO, Lisa Hickey. Lisa’s passion for this subject is exemplary, and her evangelism for our brand and our community is a source of pride for everyone involved with this mission. I honestly don’t think she sleeps. She is at the helm of every aspect of The Good Men Project from uptime to story selection to ad sales to social media integration. And yes, Lisa is a woman guiding The Good Man Project, and that is a big part of what makes us unique. She is welcoming, encouraging, open-minded, and forward-thinking. Most of all, she is a great partner, and I will have to twist her virtual arm to leave this paragraph in the post.

We thank everyone involved–our readers, our commentors, our writers, our editors, our sponsors, and our suppliers–for being part of this launch. We hope if you are a regular, you will sign up for our free email list (we publish a fantastic daily digest) or consider becoming a premium member for a small fee that includes a welcome gift. If you haven’t visited The Good Men Project in a while, come see how we have shaped and molded and evolved our site over the first three years, then join our community and help us take it together into the future. Like I said, we’re just getting started. We have a tremendous amount of work to do, and we can’t do it without you!

The 70% – Part 2

EngagementHierarchyIn the Executive Coaching Workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli for Coaches Training Institute, we discuss early in the curriculum the pervasive epidemic of Bad Boss Syndrome.  It is jaw-dropping how many employees reflect on the lack of leadership and vision they receive from those who manage them, how starved they are for inspiration, and how little it takes to turn a bad day into a good day.  When you think about the study published recently by Gallup noting that 70% of employees are disengaged — and that too many of them hate their jobs — boss improvement is a good place to start.

Another good place to start is the Dead Brand Graveyard, where we also focus in the workshop.  Surely some brands die purposefully in mergers and consolidations, but my observation is that many more die because they break their promise to their customers, who simply move on.  In a world of virtually unlimited customer choice, when a company fails to innovate or repeatedly breaks a brand promise, the Dead Brand Graveyard is soon to cement a new tombstone.  For the employees who are part of the letdown, the lost promise, and ultimately the job loss that follows, demoralization is readily understood.  Remember, a lot of these employees came to their companies with hope and passion and energy and ideas.  They may have had the solutions to their company’s death sentence on their desktops.  Perhaps no one was listening.  That takes us right back to Bad Boss Land.  It’s an infinite loop.

Let’s pull these two concepts together — bad bosses and dying brands — and then think about the twelve Gallup questions which you can find in last week’s post, Part 1 of this inquiry.  None of the questions involve compensation.  They ask things like whether individuals have the opportunity to do what they do best, whether their supervisor cares about them or their advancement, whether the mission or purpose of their company is understood and they are part of something that matters, whether there is a commitment to quality in the workplace, and whether there are peers or leaders in the environment who are supportive.

Human stuff, huh?  HR mush?  Not the stuff of hard-won profit and loss?  Garbage!  If companies have it so right, why are brands evaporating from the landscape in record time?  Why are fully capitalized companies lasting half as long as the average human lifespan?  Creative destruction, you say, the natural course of things business?  Well, sure, I’ll give you that.  So is top management willing to say the whole Circle of Life is out of their hands and the survival of the enterprise is entirely up to market forces, to fate rather than strategy, to a competitor’s campaign rather than a driven response to galvanizing the single most important asset in the company’s inventory, the intellectual capital that is allowed to rest idle and fester?

That’s not very optimistic.  And yet, optimism is the spirit that drives opportunity, and opportunity is the backbone of capitalist enterprise.

Why do we so often get this so completely wrong?  Why would we let 70% of employees churn in the ranks, angry and sad and defeated?  Why would anyone allow a brand to go stale, to break a promise to a customer, to fail to reinvent itself when invention is the lifeblood of all revenue and profit growth?  Borders, Circuit City, Kodak, Polaroid, Palm — all once admired companies, all with revered brands — what do you suspect the internal opinions were of management as repositioning opportunities were missed and tired product performance spiraled downward?

Much has been written about short-term versus long-term financial incentives as value destroying tactics, particularly among senior management at the top of the compensation bell curve.  That is only part of the problem.  Certainly if you set a sales target for a commission based or stocky savvy executive, she or he will chase that goal aggressively, often with widespread collateral damage.  Yet is it the incentive that is the time bomb, or the misperception on the individual’s part of the fundamental rewards that may or may not be at hand?  To that end, I mentioned that the Gallup poll does not reference compensation.  I would be willing to bet Big Money that the disengagement factor cuts across every salary band in the spectrum.  It is my own observation that once you get past basic human needs being met — housing, food, safety, decent educational opportunities for the kids and maybe a family vacation now and again — there is no guarantee whatsoever that financial reward brings vast job satisfaction.  I have met as many or more unhappy wealthy people as I have in the middle class.  The tendency to focus on the wrong motivation is not exclusive to the underpaid or overpaid, and the failure to align truly rewarding incentives with human performance is almost always the difference between long brand life and flash in pan cash register rings.

When I hear that 70% of employees are disengaged, and when I see brands and companies dying in record time, I experience one story.  We try hard to focus the executive coaching mission on revitalizing the human potential in an organization, to bring the executive’s focus back to the brand promise, and to evangelize that set of values broadly among the members of a team as a rallying cry.

I see three major factors that matter in a job — what you do, who you do it for and with, and the compensation you receive for what you give.  If the first two mandates of that string aren’t met, it seems ludicrous to believe that compensation is going to make up for the loss.  And if the only thing that people are focusing on is compensation, what real chance does that company have at longevity?  A brand will not be reinvented because it needs to be more profitable; it will be the magnet of innovation because people care about it and bond together to transform it into something it currently is not because it matters.  From that investment of idealism will flow vast improvements in continuing profitability.

Short-term harvesting of any cash cow is possible — if you want to squeeze profits, go ahead and squeeze the people who are producing them.  At the moment 70% of those people are telling you they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it for.  Want to make the Big Money that lasts the long run?  The Gallup survey tells you in the questions alone where we’re leaving the Big Money on the table.  Start Thinking Different!

Bosses must learn to listen.  Employees need to teach their bosses to listen so they can be heard and emerge.  Coaching can be implicit or explicit, but it has to be obvious that letting ideas flow not only improves morale, it is vital to sustaining the enterprise.  Companies that last do so because they apply long-term strategies, both in terms of bolstering their brands and employee engagement.  Everyone can win — especially customers — if that’s the walk that leadership walks, leadership by example.  It does not happen accidentally, but by commitment, and constant reminder of core values that can be shared.

For me, it will always be People, Products, Profits — In That Order.