Not Deciding Is A Decision

A story today that seven percent of newborn’s have an email address at birth. By the age of two, 81 percent have a ‘digital footprint’. 

Today, we need not even be sentient before we are defined by others. And the simple truth is that from the moment we are a failed pregnancy test we have two choices. Define ourselves. Or someone else will.

But whereas the multi-faceted talents of humans are often lost when their owners being placed into early boxes, businesses instead benefit from clearly defined intent.

For some companies, the willingness to define themselves comes without supporting action.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster, for instance, focused attention on BP’s claim to be safety conscious. And on corporate behavior that undermined that claim almost systematically. 

But for most companies the failure goes far beyond the incongruity between stated intentions and action. 

It rests instead in the belief that in the absence of a definition, the world has no negative view of you. That your image is for you to define. And no one else.

This is the fantasy of management that believes the absence of a decision is not itself a decision. 

I have seen companies at intimate quarters act on the basis that the availability of a senior executive to attend a meeting was the pivot point in a process.

In the real world, the availability of a senior executive is entirely meaningless to the regard in which that company is held by its customers, suppliers and shareholders. The employees might care, because they’ve been trained to do so. But everyone else is interested only in impact. Whether financial, environmental, social or humanitarian.

And today, impact is created by companies and individuals moving not at enterprise speed but at entrepreneurial or social speed.

And in those companies every minute is spent acting. Because they know where they’re headed. And how they’re going to get there.

So the next time you find yourself waiting for someone at your company to make a decision, remind yourself of one thing.

They already did.

They just don't know it.


Can. Do.

I walked past a homeless man last night. Chris and I were on our way to shop for dinner.  A brief interlude of being husband and wife at a time of intense professional focus and opportunity.

He was sitting on the still damp sidewalk leaning against the wall that separates Starbucks and the dry cleaners - an example of retail location management that I hope is an indicator of somebody’s ability to turn strategy into real estate reality.   

As we passed he reached out towards us and mumbled something. “Can you help me out?”

There are some people that ask for money that appear to me to be using it as a way to pass the time. They are both diffident and menacing. A difficult combination to express in the few seconds it takes for the exchange to take place. Dressed too well. Disinterested too quickly. They leave you with a feeling of relief as they fade into the immediate past.

This man was not one of those. This man sat on cold, wet concrete and looked up with anxiety in his face. This man was dressed in newspapers.

These were not newspapers he had wrapped around him at random. These were newspapers he had made carefully and artfully into clothing. These were newspapers whose purpose had reached new heights through this man’s endeavor. These were newspapers that told you more about the man than any study of his history could have revealed in an hour of conversation.

I was startled. Not by his situation, which is all too common on the streets of New York these days. But by his solution. And I wanted to help.

I reached into my pocket and felt a few coins. Insufficient either to help him significantly or reward him appropriately, his need and his artistry both vying for attention in my conscience.

“Do you have any cash on you,” I asked Chris.

She shook her head. “You were buying my dinner, remember?”

I did. And my wallet was safely tucked away underneath two layers of coat and jacket. And it was cold.

“I’ll give him something on the way back. We’ll only be ten minutes.” I smiled at him as I withdrew my hand from my pocket. “We’ll be back,” I said.

The line at the take-out counter was a little longer than I expected, and we stopped into another shop along the way that we had walked past for two years without venturing inside. The image of the newspaper man strayed into my mind, and I felt for the bills that I had stuffed in my pocket at the register.

It had started to rain, softly and without menace, but I was glad for the weather-proof shell and rubber soled boots I was wearing. And as I stood on the street corner, waiting for the light to change, I wondered what it would be like to wear newspapers for clothes. Wondered whether he had learned the skill from someone else. Wondered how often he  had to replace them. Wondered which papers worked best. Wondered what he will do if we really do start to get all our news electronically. I’m a fan of the iPad, but as a way to keep warm, it leaves a lot to be desired.

As the light changed and the mass of people on either side of 23rd street began their journeys towards the middle the crowd parted just enough for me to see the wall where he had been sitting.

It was empty. He was gone.

Suddenly the money rolled up in my hand felt like newspaper. And utterly useless. Its purpose taken away. I stopped for a moment as we reached Starbucks and looked inside, hoping to see him sitting in a chair. With or without a laptop. I wouldn’t have minded either way.

Chis went into the dry cleaners and asked about their drop off hours for this morning. The warmth of the dryers and the smell of the chemicals rolled into the night like excited children on Halloween.

I looked across 6th Avenue, and then back the way we came. There were people everywhere. Clothed. And invisible.

As we walked the final two blocks home I wondered why I hadn’t taken the time to follow my instinct when I first saw him.

Why I had thought that to put off an action now would give me an equal opportunity to carry it out later. Why I had assumed that circumstances wouldn’t change. That my plan would fit everyone else’s plan.

There is a difference between intent and action.

It is called opportunity.

And we miss them every single day.

A Christmas To Remember

I love Christmas. Passionately.

About the only thing I won’t do is pray for it. It’s against my religion. That is, I have none. Which makes the Christmas spirit, perversely, even more essential to me.

In every other way I am its disciple. A commitment that manifests itself practically and philosophically.

Three years ago I put together the definitive Christmas playlist. Uninterrupted, it lasts 24 hours. From Bing to Sting, from the Partridge Family to pear trees, it contains the entire spectrum of Christmas musical styles and sentiments. Plus the delicious irony that comes with including songs from the Carpenters’ Christmas collection. The power of the aspostrophe.

But Christmas is a visual luxury as well. And my Christmas tree lighting methodology is legendary in certain circles. Indeed, attempts to replicate it without sufficient guidance have resulted in disaster. The key is to start with the trunk. And never to use less than 1500 lights per tree - a recommendation your electrician may take exception to. Ours did.

1500 lights takes some time. About seven hours. Enough to watch the four movies that exemplify Christmas. Which, I suspect, explains why lighting our tree takes exactly seven hours every year. A classic example of work expanding to fit the time available. Or required.

It’s A Wonderful Life. The power of context.

Miracle on 34th Street - the Edmund Gwen version. Sentiment and business strategy in a single sitting.

White Christmas. When the day comes that I open the barn doors to find a foot of snow and a horse drawn sleigh passing by, every breath thereafter will be a bonus. First, we need a barn.

And finally, A Christmas Carol. The 1951 version with Alistair Sim.

I grew up with the story of Scrooge. A man lost. A man reclaimed. A man saved. A hope that we each carry with us. For ourselves. And for our species. In many ways it is nothing less than a biographical account of the history of mankind.

It may also be the most widely and broadly interpreted story in the history of literature. Among my favorite versions is BlackAdder's Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer BlackAdder, the kindest man in all of England, is visited by three spirits. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say, this is not how Dickens saw it turning out.

Of all the film versions, Alistair Sim’s portrayal remains truest to the spirit and original words. Artful, beautiful and evocative. It offers the most sympathetic and skilled depiction of Dickens’ story.

Depiction, however, is an important word. And infers interpretation. Assistance that Dickens, of all writers, seldom requires.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self contained and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The film incorporates many of Dickens’ words. And for many years satisfied me hugely. On many levels it still does.

But in 1994, its place in my heart was taken by another.

Truthfully, I don’t know how I learned that year that Patrick Stewart was performing a one-man version of A Christmas Carol for four weeks on Broadway. Christmas 1994 were the earliest days of the internet. And at 14.4 dial-up speeds, browsing and Google did not yet exist. Google, in fact, is still only 11 years old today. Which seems like saying air and water have only been around for a decade or so.

Chris and I had been together for not quite a year when we arrived in Manhattan that Christmas Eve. We were in the initial throes of starting our new company and life was filled with extraordinary promise. And uncertainty. Not until this year have I experienced the same range of possibilities. Hope and fear. Powerful forces when applied purposefully.

Hope and fear are foundations of A Christmas Carol. Base emotions that are behind almost all achievements of significance. And if there is a medium that evokes either more powerfully than Mr Stewart alone on a stage, I have yet to experience it. He played 41 characters, each as separate as if he were joined by a full cast.

Things that become important to our lives do so at different speeds. Some introductions provide instant reward and value. Other relationships develop less obviously, surprising us with their significance later. And often only once they have disappeared. A price for not living in the present. And a higher one than we realize at the time.

The opening line of A Christmas Carol - which until that night I had never heard spoken - belongs in my life to the former, instantly taking me to a world I have no wish to leave until the story is complete.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

For the next two hours that night Mr Stewart took us on the ride of a lifetime. Scrooge’s lifetime. It touches every emotion. Pulls at every heart-string. Is comedic and tragic in the same breath. And by the time, in the voice of a six year old boy, he delivered Tiny Tim’s immortal last line, every one of us was standing, applauding and weeping. It was as though we had swallowed Christmas whole. And the light came pouring from us as we floated home, the soundtrack safely in our possession.

The following year, we began a tradition of driving ourselves, Harry and Maya to Christmas on the east coast.

150 miles from Washington DC we hit play on disc one and heard, as though for the first time, Mr Stewart begin again.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

We have done this, without exception every year since. And for two and a half hours we are anchored, connected and reminded of all that is important in our small corner of the world. Perspective is easily lost, even by those fully conscious of its value. And touchstones imbued with objectivity become increasingly important as the world becomes more strident and complex.

We have hoped since 1994 to spend another evening in Mr Stewart’s company. But except for one near miss in 2002 - the last time he performed the production - we have come to see that particular Christmas Eve as our visit to Brigadoon. A magical world, accessible only once in every lifetime through an enchanted door.

Last week, however, it is possible I found a rusty key.

In Barneys.

It’s been a busy month, and the Christmas spirit has been elusive. Goodwill is a mindset, but exhibiting it or absorbing it in anything more than passing amounts requires time. And physical presence. Social media has yet to find a substitute for either.

With a week left before Christmas I decided some of both was in order. Besides which I needed a present for Chris. A stroll down Fifth Avenue on a freezing cold day later and I arrived at Barney’s.

Wandering the departments I soon found myself on the top floor. Christmas decorations and the restaurant. As I headed for the down escalator I hesitated for a moment so that a couple leaving after lunch could step on first. The man was bald.

He turned slightly as the escalator re-built itself, leaving me one step closer to him than I intended.

It was Patrick Stewart.

The ride to the floor below lasted less than fifteen seconds. It passed in an instant and lasted an eternity.

As we stepped off, I decided.

There is great risk in meeting those we admire. In those few moments they hold sway over foundations of our lives. Kindness, and our judgement is validated. Irritation, and another piece of our innocence is fractured. Like pavement ice on a thawing morning.

I interrupted him in mid-pause, as he and his companion were considering their immediate next step. He was slightly startled by my approach, his reaction that of a man un-used to intrusion, not tired by it. He is not tall but has great presence. One that allows him to fill any space he occupies.

I spoke quickly. Nervous excitement, and anxiety to get the words A Christmas Carol across my lips. An instinct that they provided a connection.

Instincts are high risk. But they need to take flight if we are to learn about ourselves. Strategically sound judgement is crucial. In business. Or life. But magic comes from exploration. And the unknown.

“Do you think you’ll ever perform A Christmas Carol again?” I asked breathlessly. “We saw your performance on Christmas Eve 1994, here in New York. It’s become an important part of our Christmas.”

I stopped. 

He smiled. Gently. Shyly.

“There’s a question.” He paused and glanced away. “It gets harder.” He said it as though to himself.

I nodded. And mumbled understanding.

Suddenly he turned back towards me, “I would like to. It’s very important to me personally.”

I looked at him with sudden confidence. “I know,” I said. “It’s what makes it great.”

The shyness had left him. He put his hand across his heart. “Thank you for stopping and saying something. It means a lot to me.”

I held out my hand and he took it firmly. “Merry Christmas.” I stopped abruptly, choking off his name, suddenly conscious that I wasn’t sure which one would emerge.

“Merry Christmas to you.” He smiled. Openly and warmly.

As he turned and walked away, I heard, I am sure, the voice of a six year old boy from somewhere close by.

Merry Christmas.

Change - An Epilogue

We left Chicago yesterday after a four day visit. It was our first trip back since we sold our house in July.

We saw friends, went shopping and felt as comfortable and as warm as if we had returned to the womb.

In many ways we had. Chicago is where we met, fell in love, built a business, adopted five dogs, and sucked the marrow out of a temporary retirement. It has been safety and security for as long as we can remember.

It is a beautiful city. The most beautiful in the world to my eyes. And in many ways we found it better than when we left. We had dinner in the new Trump Hotel, which might be the most magical setting in Chicago. We drove the newly resurfaced Lakeshore Drive, marveled at the new wing of the Art Institute, and walked the Christmas lights of Michigan Avenue. Yesterday morning we woke to a perfect snowfall. Light enough to offer no impediment. Dense enough to paint everything perfectly, gently white.

It felt like a personal acknowledgement that we were in town.

And yet, yesterday evening as we boarded the plane to Los Angeles I was certain of two things.

Chicago is not our home. That, and our lives lie in New York. A decision that was hard to come by but which has become more obviously right as the year has gone by.

And we will be back.

We have not done everything right over the last couple of years. But we end 2009 where we should be.

And, at least for now, exactly where we want to be.

Life Lessons

My father reads my blog.

Which represents a sea change in our relationship.

Because until April 28th, we had spoken only once this Millennium.

We parted ways on Christmas Eve, 1999. For most of the nine years we were estranged I thought of him as dead. Not wishing he were. Simply an emotional reality that arrived naturally. A matter-of-fact state of grace for a painful relationship.

My father was an ad giant. A cerebral thinker who defined global advertising. Among his vast portfolio are two of the world’s iconic pieces of global brand building.

When Sergio Zyman plotted the introduction of New Coke, my father told him that wasn’t his call. “You don’t own Coke,” he said. “The American people own Coke. They won’t let you change it.” Two months and several hundred million dollars later, the American consumer proved his point.

Assuming you know better than your customers is a lesson learned expensively. And often only once.

The trouble was that all my father's big picture, macro-marketing, advertising-for-the-ages achievements came with a large price tag. Paid by his family. It’s an old song. My mother, sister and I weren’t the first to be sacrificed at the alter of ambition. And we won’t be the last. But over time, everyone gets a bill.

What someone is prepared to sacrifice in order to succeed is the most personal of equations. And those for whom the choices made at the prime of their career came with a side of guilt, never find a payment plan that gets the balance to zero. A realization that always comes too late.

Because the consequence of any decision is hard to see in real time. And the urgency of today usually overwhelms the warnings of tomorrow.

But conscious decisions made within context stand the test of history. And come with fewer regrets. If any. Because though we can’t know the outcome, we can be satisfied with how consciously we made a choice. A difference my father would accept today. A late maturity in which he is not alone.

At eight years old, I knew my father was in trouble. He left for a month - his first significant absence - and we held each other and sobbed as the cab waited outside. It was the last time for forty years that he was present emotionally. His physical disappearance took a little longer.

Over the next ten years, the absurd become normal. We were used to him traveling all the time. We were used to him missing, well, everything. And when, in 1978, he made it home only for the day after Christmas - only meaning one, out of 365 - we accepted that as normal too.

Life is informed by perspective. And we often see what we want to see. A fact that makes life simpler in the short run, business riskier in the long run, and the end result anything other than that which we hope for.

As 1979 broke on the horizon, my father and my future lay elsewhere. And my past was about to seem a very long way away. 

Outside Help

Entrepreneurs, by nature, are independent spirits. And figuring it out ourselves has often been part of the joy of the journey.

But in the last year, almost every small business has lost its margin for error. And most business owners that I’ve met recently have told me that they’re worried their next mistake will be their last.

It has always struck me as odd that so few small businesses take advantage of outside help. Since outside help is my business, it’s a statement that reeks of self-servitude.

But, while I obviously believe there is no substitute for specific and specialized help at certain points in your company’s evolution, not enough small businesses take advantage of that inexpensive yet powerful development tool called The Board.

The Board is typically comprised of a small group of experienced, diverse professionals with expertise in specific areas that are relevant to your business. The best Boards are objective, transparent, skeptically supportive ( a rare and healthy combination ), and dedicated.

It takes time and commitment to put a great Board together. There are some costs. Typically travel reimbursement and a fee for attending Board meetings. But the best ones pay for themselves a hundred fold. And sometimes several thousand times more than that.

I have yet to find a small business that would not be significantly improved by having a formal group of advisors.

And yet, though I’ve seen no figures, my experience tells me that the vast majority do not. My guess would be only one in four.

Business today is harder than at any time since 1929. Combine that with the fact that we’re living through an epoch, and it becomes clear that, by ourselves, none of us have the experience to navigate every situation we face today.

In my own business, we’re currently working with no fewer than four different companies or individuals who help us make better decisions about building The Lookinglass Consultancy. They have effectively become an informal Board of Directors.

As a society, and as a species we’re living through history.

As small business owners, the choice before us is whether to shape it or become it.

A no brainer, right?

Just Because You Can...

Entrepreneurs are extraordinary problem solvers. It gives them the confidence to act on ideas. To try things. To see a different future, unafraid of the obstacles that hold back the rest of the world.To an entrepreneur, a problem is not a problem. It is - cliche or not - an opportunity. Problems get them up in the morning and keep them awake at night - for all the right reasons. To take away an entrepreneur’s problem is to cut off their oxygen. It’s their seven percent solution.

10 - 10 - 10

I'm always looking for elegant ways to present big thoughts. Here's one that Suzy Welch has come up with in her new book that talks about something we do with a lot of our clients. Providing a context.

Building a business is part instinct, part passion, part plan. The better the plan, the more impact your passion and your instinct will have. Because you're giving them purpose.

But keeping the long-term plan in focus while life is coming at you is hard. And getting harder.

Suzy's elegant solution is 10 - 10 - 10 which suggests you put a frame around each decision. What impact will this have on me 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now?

I wish I'd thought of it myself.

But if you try to apply it to every business decision, you run the risk of drowning in paralysis by analysis.

So use 10-10-10. But filter it.

10 Minutes: Judge your instinctive reaction to something twice. Now and ten minutes from now. If it passes the 10 minute test - act on it. As Frank Capra said,  "A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something."

10 Months: If you feel passionate about something, stop and ask yourself if you're prepared to invest a year of your life in making it happen. You'll be amazed at how many times the honest answer is no.

10 Years: If you're analyzing a decision that's taking more than a few minutes to think through, decide if the best outcome you can imagine gets you closer to where you want to be ten years from now. Then decide if the worst case scenario will prevent you from getting there at all. If the answer to part two is yes, don't do it - regardless of the best case scenario. You'll find another way.


Instinct. Passion. Plan.