Listen Up!

earphonesWe all know people who like to talk.  Talk, talk, talk. And then talk some more. Even the most eloquent orators are best advised to shut up and listen once in awhile. Sometimes silence really can be golden.

Opening Remarks

Listening can be hard work, so it’s no surprise that so few people choose to engage in this challenging behavior. It really does take practice, and after all, who has time these days to do anything but say what they need to say and then move on to the next task or one-sided discussion?

We just have too much going on to care about what someone else is saying. Unfortunately, all too many people see listening as a non-productive use of their time.  When organizational leaders feel this way, sub-optimization cannot be too far behind.

Soliloquy & Segue

Ask any good musician what it takes to be successful. One of the tips they almost always give is that the best musicians listen to what others are playing. That’s how the great bands become more than just the sum of their parts.  Sure it’s always about having the chops necessary to play one’s parts; however, an unwillingness to listen – by even the most naturally gifted and talented player in the band – will keep the overall unit from reaching its potential.

Corporations, small businesses, governments, and non-profits alike, as well as the organizations within them, all work the same way in this regard. The bully pulpit that often attaches to leadership positions and subject matter expertise is a bit like Eve and that apple. Tempting as it may be to push the agenda forward as quickly as possible, those who keep talking and don’t listen run the risk of missing things. Sometimes the devil really is in the details…details which only become known by listening to what someone else has to say.

Rambling On

The lost art of  listening can lead to better solutions to every day business problems.  In many professions, it’s not unusual to get caught in the middle between functional and business leaders. There seems to really be no shortage of those situations that put proverbial body parts of employees within the tight grips of proverbial vises.  Not a fun place to be, but hardly unusual or unique.

Both protagonists and antagonists of high rank often tend to be quite good at making the meek, humble, and occupationally-dependent feel overwhelming and unhealthy senses of personal responsibility/accountability for whatever the problem is in a particular situation. Usually the “science” of the competing arguments is clear and at least somewhat justified. However, it’s the lost “art” of listening that is a lot less obvious in its potential to help everyone move past apparent impasse and productivity loss.

Closing Arguments

In arguing its case through you, does each side make its point in a way that considers that there is an opposing view that could have some merit? Are they stopping to get your opinion or just telling you how it is and how it’s going to be? Is self-promotion and/or self-preservation behavior evident? Do tone and word selection convey emotion?

Depending on the answers to these questions,  there’s probably not much to be gained at any level from matching word count, volume, or apparent strength of conviction. Sometimes it’s best to just let it all go down and be the sponge. Soak it all in. Walk away. Think. Let things chill a bit – especially if there’s been a precipitating event that touched things off.

Now just might be the time for everyone to ‘Listen Up!‘.

Got Feel?

Are you just going through the motions in your job?  Or do you feel it…you know, really feel it?

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Mixed Bag of Feel

Many people go to jobs each day that they outright hate or at least really don’t enjoy very much. Some people awake daily in pre-dawn hours and commute great distances for what – to basically be unhappy for eight hours plus. Each and every day. For various reasons, they do it – day after day, week after week, year after year.  Before they know it, they are locked into a seemingly unbreakable routine for their entire careers. Yes, doing jobs they don’t really like. For a lifetime. What gives?

Fortunately the opposite is also true. And quite often.  Real life people, with whom you come in contact and who seem to really enjoy what they’re doing, really do exist. Think about the guy takes your favorite deli sandwich to the next level.  What about the yoga studio owner who seems totally on this earth to be doing exactly what she’s doing? Then there’s that starving artist-type musician who effortless conveys  a sweet vibe of contentment with his or her art form.  Yes, these people are really out there.

And do you know what?  These people all have something in common. They got feel.

First Level of Feel

And what is this feel that these people got?  Well, for one thing – it is in knowing in their hearts and minds that they’ve picked the right trade, profession, or career.  Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, and when they do, we can see right through it.  As difficult as it was to say, I once counseled an exiting employee not to seek employment in another financial position.  Sometimes disconnects really are that fundamental and irreparable.  Fulfilling this first fundamental of feel requires having the natural talents or acquired learning to even get on the map of occupational or professional competency.

You won’t see this type of feel in a customer service representative who doesn’t enjoy helping people. You won’t see it in a sales person who doesn’t enjoy the challenge of overcoming objections and providing customers with solutions. You won’t see it an engineer who doesn’t have a natural inclination and facility around math and the applied sciences. And you won’t see it an accountant who isn’t good with numbers, the litigator who doesn’t enjoy persuasive debate, a veterinarian who doesn’t like animals, or the actress who shuns the camera.  You get the idea.

Second & Third Tier Feel

A second distinguishing characteristic of those who got feel is that they have a real connection to what they’re doing.  They aren’t just going through the motions.  It’s not just one size fits all, parts is parts, and doesn’t matter to me whether I’m selling refrigerators, automobiles, or timeshares kind of thing.  Ironically this lack of feel has a certain transparency about it that allows us to see right through it.

Some might refer to the feel of connection as passion, but it doesn’t even necessarily have to go that far.  That word can be a little strong at times and is often overused. The feel of connection can be as simple as a natural affinity for a particular industry or product group. For example, a high school drummer friend of mine has made what appears to be a pretty good career working for a cymbal company.  From his Facebook posts featuring outright stars of percussion and his product informational videos, you can tell he’s got feel.

Feel can also derive from cultivated interest or appreciation in what’s going on around you.  In other words, the attributes or foundational characteristics of those around you in the workplace or the business at hand can lead one to feel it.  Maybe your workplace is a non-profit that really makes a positive difference in people’s lives.  Or maybe your business provides a life-sustaining product or does research that ultimately increases our quality of life.   Perhaps you work for architectural firm that specializes in commercially unique design.  Even if your job is not directly involved in product or service delivery in one of these situations, you can still feel it. If you do, you got feel.

Do I got feel?

So, do I got feel?  Yeah, I got feel.  First off I picked one of the professions to which my natural aptitudes and abilities were well-suited.  You see, generically speaking, I am an accountant. There I’ve said it –  an accountant. You know, those folks who are routinely accused of not feeling anything let alone feeling it.  Those born without emotion, compassion, or ability to feel close to anything or anyone.  But it’s not that simple ever, is it?

Signing on to an accounting career pretty much involves agreeing that you will never be the star of the show. If you do become a star of your employer’s show, you either work in public accounting or your company has big problems.  Accordingly you agree to serve in a support role to the primary activities of your employer.  For me, it’s been a career that’s consisted of strong, relatively long runs with only three different employers.

The Wheel of Feel

So let’s spin the big wheel of feel, and we’re only going to need to spin it three times. But nonetheless, around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody knows…..

On our first wheel stop, feel came for me from the perfect corporate culture at the perfect time within which I very naturally cozied up to the company’s noble calling of digging limestone out of the ground, mixing it with specialty polymers, and creating the stunning visuals of resilient vinyl flooring.  Strange as it sounds, my feel for this particular business came from knowing that chemists, engineers, production crews, and product stylists knew how to generate market-leading floors that consumers really wanted to buy.  At least part of this theme would reprise.

Next stop for the wheel would be a marketing services fulfillment business where I never fully connected with the culture.  Because I was Controller and then CFO, there was a certain built-in professional feel for me because I was for the first time in my career able to call most of my own shots in a financial sense.  That part was a lot of fun.  So there was some feel in this respect, but the pick, pack, and ship mantra of the fulfillment industry left me less than fulfilled.  Ultimately in this case, feel and fulfillment did not go together in the final analysis.

As the third wheel stop clicks into place, my connection of feel emanates from an association with an electronics business whose stars are smart in ways that I am clearly not and never will be. To me, it’s hugely impressive (in similar fashion to the aforementioned vinyl mine) that electrical engineers, product managers, and sales/marketing folks can go from design to build to market with solutions that are truly cutting edge from a technology point of view.  To these stars, the products and their own accomplishments are not necessarily anything more than “what it is that we do”, but to me and to others in our larger corporate family, what these people do has a certain geek is chic mystique to it. And it is very impressive.

Huge non-financial dividends of feel exist for those in support positions such as mine who go beyond the sea of mind-numbing part numbers to really feel what is all around us.  On the functional side of the organization, there’s the additional feel kicker of being part of a very highly accomplished and skilled corporate finance team that keeps me on my toes and engaged.

So oh yeah baby, I got feel. Do you?

Can’t Refuse

When Don Corleone is talking to you, sometimes what follows is an offer that you just can’t refuse.  Often the smart money says to take it. Otherwise you could end up like Luca Brasi. You know, swimming with the fishes! 

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Opportunity Knocks

This is true even in Corporate America.  A Godfather-like opportunity came my way about a year and a half ago.  It was truly an offer I couldn’t refuse. Fortunately it was in a corporate setting and didn’t carry with it the full and final existential impact of a mafia movie plot.  It was much more subtle, but a top company official took the time to call me several times to provide counsel and input on a job opportunity that had rather suddenly come my way within the company.

It was clear that I should take the job, but it wasn’t very clear as to why I should take it or what would happen if I didn’t.  Despite rumors, rumblings, and other innuendo on the corporate street corners, information was sketchy out there in the land of organizational ambiguity. Clearly others knew more about the situation than I did, but perhaps an organizational omerta kept them from talking.

After I had accepted the new job and after the passage of some time with little to no action to fill my prior position, I realized that I had indeed accepted one of those offers you really just can’t refuse.  Rather suddenly or so it seemed, I now had two jobs!

Two Jobs & Quick Math

When confronted with confusion, chaos, and/or crisis, most people naturally revert back to their innate strengths.  For me – a guy who has demonstrated some facility with numbers over the years – this meant that situational clarity would be attained via some quick math.  As it turned out, I didn’t really need excel to perform the arithmetic functions to yield the result that having two jobs was considerably better than having no job.

You see… sometimes out there in Corporate America, top executives see opportunities for cost savings. Often the people who get to be high-ranking corporate executives are really good at this.   It’s almost like a golfer who can hit a wedge that lends on the green and backspins to the hole not taking that club out of the bag when they need a good shot to keep pace or exceed the competition.  It’s an everyday go-to must-do can’t-pass it by kind of thing.

So by now we all should see it very clearly.  Having two jobs really was an opportunity.  The organization and its leaders had expressed considerable confidence in me or had concluded that the downside risks were manageable.  You know, how much damage could this guy with two jobs do in a year’s time?  So, it was with great enthusiasm and gusto that I moved forward with this new dual role gig.

First Responders & Roadside Assistance

Because people not positions make up organizations, boxes on an organizational chart are simply empty shapes until someone breathes life into them.  Enter the human and organizational aspects that became so much a part of what developed into a great learning experience. The dual role assignment became nothing short of a fantastic vantage point in the human behavior laboratory.  As is the case at most accident scenes, first responders are the ones who get there first. Unlike most accident scenes, first responders in Corporate America aren’t necessarily there to provide roadside assistance.

“Boy, you really got screwed.”, was the commentary vocalized by several first responders. Interestingly, several of these folks later (through no action of mine) became cost savings. Others said, “Wow, how are you going to do all that work?”… “You’re going to have to sleep here.”…  Also interrogatively whispered from the shadows on more than one occasion was, “Now, what are you going to do?”.

Get the picture? It was definitely a “good luck with that, buddy” kind of vibe.

Rugged Individualism is Human Nature

True to human nature and the rugged individualism that often governs survival in Corporate America, not offering to help is actually not about wishing ill will on a colleague.  It is also a huge difference from people who thrive on throwing others under buses.  Not offering to help is about self-interest . From a very early age, people are conditioned to take care of number one because no one else will.  This starts as children. Children eventually grow up to become coworkers.  It’s life’s natural order.

No one really ever assigned me hero status or knighted me for agreeing to take on the dual role challenge.  Nor were they willing to cut the guy with two jobs any slack. It really was at times very cold and thankless. Not to mention lonely when the building routinely cleared out at night and was otherwise empty on weekends.  Everyone still expected all of the previous deliverables from both positions even though it was now only one person fulfilling them.

I’m sure someone somewhere wanted to me fail or at least struggle mightily, but I must say indifference and/or self-absorption were the most prevalent themes. There are a lot worse parts of human nature that could have surfaced but didn’t. For this, we give thanks.

Opportunities & Rewards

The dual role situation became an excellent opportunity to improve processes.  Necessity became of the mother of invention. Financial positions offer very little latitude on meeting deadlines.  You either meet them, or you’re gone.  Controllers keep the trains running on time and get their passengers from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.  To do this in dual role mode required new approaches and fresh thinking.  And not just on my part.

This again brings us back to that inescapable factor in organizations -people.  The dual role situation required that people change what they were doing if the collective was to succeed.  This may not have been initially comfortable for all. However, embracing new ways of doing things and actually doing more and different things became SOP within the work group. Moving beyond comfort zones brought with it accelerated employee development.

In the final analysis, my single biggest reward from the dual assignment was seeing an employee who knew they would be exiting the company through related organizational change get a very good next position with a new employer. Accountant II easily moves to Accounting Manager in new position – in good part the result of experience gained from….well….an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

Sometimes when you pick up the phone it just may be an offer you just can’t refuse.  You don’t ever really know, do you?

 

Brand It

“All the world’s indeed a stage. And we are merely players. Performers and portrayers. Each another’s audience. Outside the gilded cage.”

Business posts do not typically start out by quoting rock lyrics. But maybe that’s just part of what I do and how I do it. In and of itself, this is an illustration of personal branding in action. Long before I ever heard or read about this term, the above Rush lyrics conveyed to me a message that someone is always watching and that we all have a choice as to how we wish to be perceived by others.

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Cultivating Image vs. Personal Branding

There are numerous examples of high-profile celebrities who cultivate their personal brands by performing and portraying in a way that creates an imagery that facilitates “the sale”.  One favorite example is Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who would certainly be dead by now if his on-brand and legendary self-destructive behaviors were a continued reality. Throw in an occasional tidbit like falling out of a palm tree in the Fijis to maintain the mystique, and you’re all set in his biz. Yes, that’s right. Falling out of a palm tree.

Cultivating image and personal branding do at some point intersect.  However, personal branding is its more earnest self when it comes naturally and manifests as a relatively effortless synergy of one’s genuine personality traits.  It’s where the various aspects of what makes us who we are become evident in our work and how we do it.  When we have an approach that’s just a little bit different from the norm, and it creates a niche.  When the feedback we get from others tells us that we are effective but that we may be doing our typically mundane jobs in a way that sets us ever-so-slightly apart from our peers.

Do you know yours?

It is important to know and understand your personal brand. Do you know yours?  I know mine. My personal brand is about being the finance guy who understands the business and can explain financial things to non-financial people in a way that strengthens their ability to create value for the business.  It’s about displaying situational leadership, being the approachable accountant with as much personality as the job enables me to have, and mentoring others to build stronger organizational capability.

Throw in my amateur writing, semi-competitive running, and musician wannabe pursuits, and it becomes a broadened brand comprised of quite a few things for people to grab onto and by which to remember me.  A reasonable level of performance in these areas comes somewhat naturally for me.  Personal branding at its best is about doing what comes naturally and doing it in a way that has impact.

Personal branding involves differentiation. Sometimes differentiation takes on oxymoronic character and can be quite refreshing.  Just the other day, someone was telling me that their son may want to become an actuary.  The immediate connotation is that this would be one very boring career choice. I suggested to the parent that there would be a real niche for a “flamboyant” actuary.  While I could have picked any number of adjectives in juxtaposition, my main point was that there would be a real niche for someone who added non-stereotypical value to this heavy-stat role that helps insurance companies weigh present and future values of things like premiums and death benefits.

“America’s Team”

I very recently heard part of a fascinating Philly sport talk station interview with former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.  At the height of his career, clean-cut USNA grad Staubach was an obvious poster-boy for the wholesome values that were seen as what was still good about this country during and immediately after our country’s protest era.  He was an essential component of the NFL’s and Dallas Cowboys’ launch of their “America’s Team” marketing campaign.

The “America’s Team” tag line ultimately became a classic example of successful branding and marketing.  To some extent, it still endures today in the Jerry Jones-Tony Romo era.  Not even they can fully dilute the brand they inherited. What Roger had to say about all this was very interesting. He said that the players hated the “America’s Team” label because it put targets on their backs during games.  The players didn’t understand and embrace the brand.  However, they rolled with it because that’s how their employer was selling the product.

Does Personal Brand Trump All?

Eventually, the image of the Cowboys team, as widely documented (eg. “North Dallas Forty”), migrated more toward celebrity trappings hubris and away from the wholesome aspects of the previously cultivated all-American image.  It was just as widely known that Stabauch didn’t fit that mold.  The key is that the brand Staubach had established for himself was too strong to be devalued by the dysfunctional behavior of co-workers.

By way of testimonial to the strength of the Staubach personal brand, Philadelphia Eagles’ fans who meet a certain age threshold grew up hating “America’s Team”.  We really did.  After the recent radio interview concluded, the primary theme of the Philadelphians who called the show was how much they hated the Cowboys but actually liked and respected Roger Staubach and the way he did what he did.  Repeatedly heralded as being a “class act” and someone “who played the game the right way”, it was all about personal branding.

From rock lyrics to business to sports and back again, it’s all here and part of the brand.  Personal branding in action.  By the way, read Dennis Nishi’s article (link) on personal branding too – it’s also a good read!

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