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Sometimes It’s Best to Just “Zip Your Lip”

At a very early point in my career as a business consultant it became clear to me that what we really do in organizations is talk, or have conversations. I discovered in practical, everyday situations that what’s really at the heart and soul of an organization is “a set of conversations.” Said another way, what is happening all the time in an organization is that conversations are taking place at every level and with everybody. For example, executives talking to the Board, managers talking to employees, employees talking to customers, suppliers talking to buyers. Both the quality of these conversations and which conversations are taking place largely determines the commitments of an organization, and therefore its results. These conversations are what drives thinking, strategy, and decision-making.

In a very real way one could say that you are paid to have conversations. Since the quality of these conversations is what determines the actions to be taken, it makes sense to conclude that the higher the level of a conversation, the more value will get added to the business. For instance, if we’re “just chatting,” we will not likely be having conversations that make any change or contribution to the organization. If we are having conversations about what our business is up to, we will have an entirely different level of conversation ~ one that potentially adds value. Conversations take place prior to the initiation of action. Whether the company moves forward on a capital investment is a function of the conversation that took place right before that decision was made; whether to staff up or staff down is proceeded by a conversation; whether or not a company competes in certain markets is the result of conversations. 

Obviously in any conversation there are two main components ~ a speaker and a listener. There’s what’s being said by one or more people and what’s being heard by one or more people. Typically, most organizational cultures favor avoiding confronting difficult conversations. Consequently, I am a big fan of people speaking up ~ getting things on the table to be addressed and not ignoring the “elephant in the room.” Throughout my career I have encouraged people to do exactly that: speak up, say exactly what’s on your mind, and get those issues addressed. Getting things on the table allows for issues and concerns to be dealt with in an open manner. When people are open and are willing to talk about the issues, including critical or difficult ones, better decisions get made and more effective actions take place. This kind of open communication breeds success in organizations. 

However, there are some conversations that are not productive and do not move things forward. Saying what’s on your mind is not always the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases you would be better off not saying what’s on your mind because it is not going to move things forward and serves to do exactly the opposite by shutting down the conversation. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. When this is the case I suggest that we “zip our lips” and instead take a deep breath, let the cosmic energy flow through you, “grasshopper”, because what you’re about to say is only going to cause problems for you and everyone else. Therefore, in those situations the best course of action is to say nothing. The adage holds true, “silence is golden”. For example, let’s say you have a negative attitude from past experiences with the IT department in your company. There’s a discussion in the room about turning something over to IT; here’s your chance to take your well-deserved dig at IT one more time so that you can be right again with “I hope we don’t run into the typical problem we always have with IT.” Nope ~ zip it. The comment will make no difference and it will only do damage in the relationship, which is not what you need right now. Instead of building trust, it will destroy it.

What I’ve observed over the years while working in many organizations is that these conversations – which I’ll call “conversations for no possibility” – are usually had by certain people who I consider the “naysayers.” These are the “glass half empty” folks who look at the situation from what’s wrong with it while focusing on the flaws. Such people and such conversations serve to slow progress down or stop progress altogether. So many times I’ve seen these naysayers raise their hands right when we’re about to make an important decision and lob in a non-sequitur. It’s usually in the form of a question that sounds something like this: “Do we know what business we’re really in?” or “We tried this before unsuccessfully. What makes us think we can do it this time?” Full stop. Once they do this you can watch what happens to the conversation right there in the room. What was just before a focused, positive conversation steadily advancing the ball is now completely thrown off track by this “psychic bong hit” that just got blurted out and throws it into a whole other gear. It creates a kind of dizziness in the room. My assessment is that, though these people consider themselves fundamentally committed to making a difference, instead of their contribution serving to forward the action, it derails it and sends it off in a different direction which is almost always non-productive. The other people in the conversation are left with questions and doubts about what the naysayer is out to produce.

Considering the opportunity to choose the conversations we have, my coaching is that perhaps it would be best to consider what you are about to put into the conversation and ask yourself, “Is this going to forward the conversation or is it going to derail the conversation?” And if it’s the latter maybe it would be best if it didn’t get added. Another way to say that is “zip your lip.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Hiring the Right People – A Trim Tab

The Trim Tab metaphor was used by Buckminster Fuller ~ an American philosopher, systems theorist, architect, and inventor. I met him years ago. He shared something that has impacted me ever since: the Trim Tab Effect. It provides access to the possibility of making something happen more efficiently without exerting more effort. Bucky said:

“Think of the Queen Mary – the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.” 

Consider your hiring process. Face it, you’re not going to be happy if you hire the wrong person. Anyone who has done so knows exactly what we’re talking about here. It takes a lot of time to recognize that you’ve hired the wrong person. Then, a lot of time to admit it to yourself, to try to adjust to it, and then to attempt to fix the problem. After all that, it usually takes a lot of time to make the decision to fire that person. And you then have to start the process over again ~ more time, more energy, and more money. Have a process that makes something happen more efficiently without exerting more effort. Trim Tab.

Here’s the process we designed to ensure a good hire:  

  1. Start with good, qualified candidates. We hire a good placement firm. 
    • The candidates will be pre-screened for skill level. In our firm it is essential that the right hire is competent in all Microsoft processes.
    • The placement firm will pre-test and pre-qualify candidates before referring them.
    • They will also conduct a thorough background check ~ don’t underestimate the value of this. I have, and it has backfired on us. Trim Tab.
  2. Conduct a thorough interview process. This means more than one interview with several people interviewing each potential hire. Sometimes there is the right “chemistry” with one person, but another manager may not experience the same. We conduct three interviews:
    • The initial interview
    • The call back
    • A final interview. Simultaneously the firm is interviewing several other candidates in the process, rather than a linear process. This will expedite things significantly. Trim Tab.
  3. Test their skill. Give the potential candidates a TASK to complete. We do a lot of presentations with our clients, so it is essential that our employees are facile with generating PowerPoint presentations. The assigned task is to provide a 14-page presentation ~ “Tell us why we should hire you.”
    • The document should represent who the candidates are and what they are about. The purpose of the PowerPoint is to present themselves in a way that represents them as the best person for the job. This will give the hiring committee a chance to find out more about the candidates; give a sample of the kind of work they do and the quality of the work they do; give a better sense of how they think of themselves, how they think and approach a situation, and how they think they might fit in with the company (we then give examples slide by slide of how the person might complete the task).
    • PROVIDE SIMPLE, CLEAR DIRECTIONS: “Complete the following assignment and send it back within 24 hours.” Following directions is a “must.” I’ve learned a lot from this step as well ~ how a person follows directions is essential to the successful fulfillment of workflow in the firm. Trim Tab.  
  4. Trust your instinct. Recognize the difference between what’s “on paper” vs. what your “gut” is telling you. Some candidates have all of the right qualifications, but something about them tells you they are “not quite right.” Determine the difference between their credibility versus how they “show up” for you in person. Trim Tab.
  5. Bring them into a public setting. We’re looking to discover what it’s going to be like working with this person ~ what they’re like in real life. We take them out for a lunch or dinner meeting. There, we can see how they interact with people ~ it reveals much more than how they behave in an interview. How do they treat the wait staff? How do they place their order ~ are they ordering from the menu or requesting the chef design something specific for them? Are they easy to interact with socially? Where is their attention focused ~ on themselves or on others? Trim Tab.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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“The Best Career Advice I’ve Ever Gotten” by Ryan Holiday

I’m sharing this blog article written by Ryan Holiday with you today because of its value and good advice for those just starting in their careers. Thanks to Regina Mellinger from Primary Services for bringing this great article to my attention. Please see the end of the article for the link to Ryan Holiday’s original blog post.

At the height of the financial crisis in 1975, Bill Belichick—the now six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots—was 23 years old and unemployed. Desperate for a job in football after an assistant position fell through, according to his biographer David Halberstam, he wrote some 250 letters to college and professional football coaches. Nothing came of it except a unpaid job for the Baltimore Colts. 

The Colts’ head coach desperately needed someone for the one part of the job everyone else disliked: analyzing film. 

Most people would have hated this job, especially back then, but it turned out to be the springboard through which the greatest coach in football was launched into his legendary career.

In this lowly position, Belichick thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it, and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more,” said another.

Most importantly, he made the other coaches look good. His insights gave them things they could give their players. It gave them an edge they would take credit for exploiting in the game. 

It’s a strategy that all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in. Forget credit. Do the work. 

I’m lucky enough someone told me that early on, and I still try to follow it today. Don’t worry about credit, they said. Starting as an assistant in Hollywood, the best thing I could do was make my boss look good. 

Forget credit so hard, they said, that you’re glad when other people get it instead of you.

It ended up being pretty decent advice, but it was nowhere near the right wording. I certainly wouldn’t have moved upwards as quickly as I have if I’d just sat there and worked on the way people thought about my boss.

Now that I’ve been around a bit, I think a better way to express it would be:

Find canvases for other people to paint on.

It’s what I now call the canvas strategy.

I used it as a research assistant for bestselling authors. I used it as Head of Marketing for American Apparel. And I continue to use it with my company Brass Check, advising companies like Google and Complex, as well as multi-platinum musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world.

I even wrote a chapter about it in Ego Is the Enemy.

One of the things I kept coming across in my research was that Belichick wasn’t unique. So many of the greats—everyone from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin—used the same strategy to become great. The strategy? The canvas strategy.

In the Roman system of art and science, there existed a concept for which we have only a partial analog. Successful businessmen, politicians and rich playboys would subsidize certain favored writers, artists, and performers.

More than just being paid to produce works of art, these artists performed a number of tasks in exchange for protection, food and gifts. One of the roles was that of an anteambulo, literally meaning one who clears the path.

An anteambulo proceeded in front of his patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier. The artists who did this were rewarded with stipends and commissions that allowed them to pursue their art.

That takes humility. The canvas strategy takes humility.

It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies—the angry, underappreciated geniuses forced to do stuff she doesn’t like for people she doesn’t respect as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this. The injustice, the waste.

But when you enter a new field, we can usually be sure of a few things:

  1. You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are.
  2. You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted.
  3. Most of what you think you know, or most of what you learned in books or in school, is out of date or wrong.

There’s one fabulous way to work all of that out of your system:

Attach yourself to people in organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously.

It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory, though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward. That’s the other side of this attitude. It reduces your ego at a critical time in your career, letting you absorb everything you can without the obstructions that block other’s vision and progress.

Imagine if for every person you met you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them, and you looked at it in a way that entirely benefitted them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have overtime would be profound.

You would learn a great deal by solving diverse problems.

You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable.

You’d have countless new relationships.

You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.

That’s what the canvas strategy is about—helping yourself by helping others, making a concerted effort to trade your short term gratification for a longer term payoff.

Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be respected, you could forget credit. Let others take their credit on credit while you defer and earn interest on the principle.

The strategy part of it is the hardest. It’s easy to be bitter, to hate even the thought of subservience, to despise those who have more means, more experience, more status than you, to tell yourself that every second not spent doing your work or working on yourself is a waste of your gift to insist, I will not be demeaned like this.

Once we fight this emotional and egotistical impulse, the canvas strategy is easy. The iterations are endless.

  • Maybe it’s coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss.
  • Find people, thinkers, up and comers to introduce them to. Cross wires to create new sparks.
  • Find what nobody else wants to do and do it.
  • Find inefficiency and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.
  • Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.

In other words, discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It’s a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. Consider each one an investment in relationships and in your own development.

If you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating. The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.

*Written by Ryan Holiday. For original post on his blog, please go to https://ryanholiday.net/career-advice/

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Why Being the Bigger Person Matters

So often in life we get caught up in insignificant matters that really don’t make any difference. Getting caught up in those things takes us off our game; it can be very distracting and unproductive. There’s an art to living life in such a way that you consistently score 3-pointers because you’ve got your game organized to produce high scores. It takes being a bigger person ~ not only in the significant matters, but in the smaller matters as well. Being big about something is an art, it requires skill and thoughtfulness.

Here’s an example ~ the other day I was having lunch with a client at a restaurant near his place of business. After we took a quick look at the menu, the waitress came. I ordered Chicken Romano Salad, which I almost always order at this restaurant, and my client ordered Salmon with Rigatoni. While we were engaged in a great conversation, the waitress came with our meals and placed the Chicken Romano Salad in front of me and a Chicken Romano Salad in front of my client. There was an awkward moment while we looked down and, seeing what had happened, I said, “That doesn’t look like Salmon with Rigatoni to me.” At which point the waitress reached for his plate to make the correction. My client simply said, “No, this will be fine. It’s something new and I’d like to try it.” She made another attempt and he assured her he was satisfied with the plate in front of him.

When she walked away, I looked at him and commented, “My god, that was amazing.” He really didn’t know why I thought so. I told him that “error” would have become a major issue for them making a big scene over it. I have witnessed a meltdown over much less. He said that after I had ordered the Chicken Romano Salad, he wondered if maybe he should try it, too. We both got a laugh and I said, “You willed it here.” Given what had just happened, I told him, “I want to appreciate something about you, Ken, and that is your ability to be a big person and not get hooked by inconsequential things. You focus on what matters. And that’s a great attribute of yours.” I have known Ken for 15 years and have never seen him be anything but dignified and gracious ~ probably why he is so good at his job and such a strong leader. It was a perfect example of someone being bigger than the situation and being a bigger person. It’s easy for any of us to be small. And at the same time, it takes something on our part to be big about anything.

Conversely, I was having dinner with a client recently (who happened to be a woman) and, unbeknownst to me, she had experience in the restaurant business. Consequently, she had pretty high standards and since this was a nice restaurant she felt entitled to expect the highest level of service. But what I noticed and what ensued was a series of tirades correcting the waiter ~ everything he did was wrong. We had ordered slowly, several times actually because she was sure that the waiter didn’t understand what she was saying. He did. Additionally, she had ordered a “special appetizer” that she said would take a while to prepare. She instructed the waiter to serve her Caesar salad before the appetizer. Of course, the appetizer came first. She “ate” the guy. The guy couldn’t have been genuinely sorrier or more apologetic. The salad was soggy. She had ordered splitting two entrees, which she explained three times and spoke to him like he was an idiot. She just lit into the guy and she wouldn’t back off, she just wouldn’t let it go. It was embarrassing ~ I wanted to crawl under the table.

After her third “attack” of this poor guy, she turned on me and said, “Can you see why I’m single?” She was joking, but there was a lot of truth in it. Even she recognized how awful she was being and she could tell that I was uncomfortable…that prompted my making the request that follows. “I have a request of you ~ be nice to the waiter for the rest of the meal. It’s making me very uncomfortable. Would you just be nice to him?” I explained to her that he was just a great waiter and didn’t sign up for the Michelin test tonight. From that point on she was really great to him. She apologized. It took my request that she back off to get her to be the bigger person.

It can go either way. It’s a choice ~ how we react, how we respond to any given situation, is a choice. It takes practice and discipline to develop the muscle I’ll call “being the bigger person.” Generally, we react in fight or flight mode. It’s an instinctive response to protect ourselves from real or perceived threats. But after a few deep breaths, we usually discover that most of what’s coming at us is not a threat at all, and we have a choice about how we’ll respond.

We have an automatic response to “being right” ~ something that is dear to most people. Being the bigger person sometimes means that we apologize even when we’re sure we’re right. It’s a very generous act. At some point we need to consider what’s really important ~ moving things forward or being right? We always have a choice of striking out with our righteousness or letting it go for the sake of what’s possible. Being the bigger person makes you a bigger person.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Sometimes You Think It’s One Way, But It’s Clearly Another

Insights From Kevin | April 23, 2019 

Have you ever had the shocking realization that something you believed to be true was completely false? You were absolutely sure that something was one way, then you suddenly discovered it wasn’t that way at all; you just thought it was. This certainly happens in life situations, but it also happens in business situations where an assumption was made, decisions were made based on that assumption, which then turned out to be a bad assumption. It could be an assumption about the market, a trumped-up assumption about a buyer’s interest for a product, underestimating your competition. But nevertheless, you place a bet on how you saw that situation and it turned out you were dead wrong. This can be very costly. 

Daniel-san, not everything is as seems.

Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid

Here’s an example ~ and while it’s not a business example, it highlights what can happen when you don’t see the bigger picture. Way back when I was dating someone and early on in our relationship, we took a vacation trip to Kauai (the Garden Isle in Hawaii). Though a small island, Kauai has many different features, including the wettest spot on earth, the dramatic Napali Coast, and Waimea Canyon, which is a mini-version of the Grand Canyon on this small tropical island. The island is very peaceful, serene, and calm; not much commercialism makes it a perfect place to “chill” with a very relaxing vibe. 

One day the two of us went for a drive around the island exploring. As we were traveling up one of the winding roads, we noticed off to our right a young couple was just coming out from a trail on the side of the road with big smiles on their faces. The trail looked interesting, so we pulled over and asked them what was down the trail. They said there was a beautiful waterfall down the trail about a mile hike away along the streambed. If we just walked along the rocky bank of the stream, we would find it. So we took our day packs and headed down the trail in search of the waterfall. Just as they told us, after about a half a mile we could hear the powerful rushing sound of what turned out to be an absolutely picturesque waterfall. As we approached, we saw a deep blue tropical pond beneath the waterfall. For a moment we stood there amazed at its beauty. Since no one was there we had this little moment in paradise all to ourselves. And with nobody around we decided to skinny-dip. My girlfriend fancied herself as a bit of a goddess-type ~ you know, the type that wears flowy garments and floral headbands (retro-hippie genre). 

This for her was a very sacred moment. She’d be able to be free in nature and be “one with the universe”. My girlfriend happened to be quite attractive and particularly curvaceous. And as she headed out into the middle of the pond where the mist of the waterfall sprayed in the air, she floated there still in nature fully naked. We spent about an hour there together. After some romantic carrying on we dried off, put our clothes back on and headed back up the trail to our car. She exclaimed that this experience was “one of the most extraordinary moments of my life ~ to be alone in a private paradise and to be ‘at one’ with nature”. 

We drove up the road about a mile and as we approached the top of the mountain road, we noticed there was a look-out point where about 5 large tourist buses were parked. We were curious ~ something must be interesting. We got out of the car and joined about 100 Japanese tourists loaded with cameras and video cameras who were taking in and recording the sights below. When we peered over the rail what we saw was the very pond we just left. Unbeknownst to us, during our “private sacred time” it was now clear that 100s of Asian tourists were capturing our sacred moments on camera and video. Yes, they were documenting the goddess in all her glory, naked, floating in this exotic pond. My girlfriend’s face froze. She looked like she’d been hit with a Taser. By this time, I was already laughing hysterically and seeing the humor in this, turned to her and said, “You are now a porn star in Japan.” She did not find it funny. Fortunately, this was before the internet and YouTube had taken off, so I don’t think she ever made it onto the social media scene. 

However, beyond the obvious, we both learned an important lesson that day. Sometimes how you think a situation is isn’t how it really is. Making assumptions based on what’s in the foreground and not considering what’s in the background and beyond can lead to very surprising and potentially dangerous consequences. Keep your eye on the focus of your project, but step back and see the larger picture in your industry before committing your resources. Sometimes you think it’s one way, but it’s clearly another.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com