What Really Matters to Most People

The Harvard Business Review recently finished a piece of research in an attempt to understand what makes a day great.

An esoteric question that should defy any attempt to produce a specific answer. The definition of great being as unique to each of us as a snowflake.

The results, however, suggest otherwise. And resonated as soon as I read them.

Life is a journey in which we are born incomplete and die unfinished. A reality that is hard to accept in youth and increasingly obvious with age.

In the quest to make a difference, a goal in which we are all connected, we become obsessed by results and absolute measurements of success and failure. A focus which makes us less mindful of the opportunity of today. And reduces to the sporadic few the number of occasions on which we can feel the satisfaction of achievement.

Over ten years of owning our own business we expanded the number of offices from one to four. At the end of each year we made a point to attend each individual office party. In part to provide connectivity. But largely to offer three perspectives.

The state of the business.
The contribution made by each individual.
The goals for next year.

To do so we talked first about how far we had come as a company over the preceding year, and thanked each person individually for their role in that growth. Recognition that elicited the most heartfelt responses over the course of a decade and a sense of gratitude no raise or promotion ever brought forth.

The reason for which, as the Harvard Business Review research now quantifies, is that the attribute which people value most in their day is a belief that they have made one thing.


That regardless of the final outcome, they have made a difference.

People do not need to define this for themselves. Indeed they are happy to operate within a set of expectations defined by others. A fact which emphasizes the impact of management on employee satisfaction.

Telling people what they are doing is important is evangelical.

Telling them what to do is managerial.

But making sure they know how they’re doing is not only good business.

It’s human.

Lovin’ It

45% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs.

Which means if you are, the next person you encounter today probably isn’t. A sobering thought if you’re responsible for managing your company.

All of which entirely ignores whether satisfied is a measurement we should be striving for in the first place.

Passionate seems like a better threshold. The kind that comes when we believe what we’re doing is contributing to something significant.

Great companies are evangelical. They are clear about what they’re building, passionate and consistent in how they articulate that vision, and realistic about which people can help them get there. And which ones can’t.

A distinction that separates supporting employees from enabling.

Building an evangelical company requires finding the story that separates you from everyone else.

A skill missed by even the great brands.

Take McDonald’s.

McDonald’s is a remarkable business. They serve 58 million people a day. Which is tantamount to feeding all of Great Britain. Every 24 hours. It makes one wonder what they might be able to do managing health care.

I have spent a lot of time at McDonald’s - the corporation - at various stages in my career. It is a company that elicits pride and passion among its executives.

But it is a company that has also systematically focused on the wrong story.

The food. An area which they have done much to address over the last few years. But which still remains a bigger obstacle than it does a benefit.

People don’t go to McDonald’s for the food. They go because they know what they will get.


And a great experience for their kids. Which is why McDonald’s distributes more toys than anyone except Mattel.

Those two attributes are global truths. And helps to explain why, as Thomas Friedman points out in his excellent book The Lexus and the Olive Tree no two countries that have a McDonald’s have ever gone to war.

I don’t think either of us would theorize that the solution to world peace is simply to build McDonald’s.

But what is undeniable is that McDonald’s brings people together.

And that’s as evangelical as it gets.

Five Things Entrepreneurs Would Like To Change About Their Business

1. They don’t know where they are financially today. Either because their system (people and software) can’t tell them. Or because they have no one to find the story inside the numbers. 
The solution: simpler systems and a short education.

2. Their partnership agreement doesn’t reflect the value each partner is providing. But to raise the issue seems like opening Pandora’s box. With a big bill to follow. Financially and emotionally. 
The solution: courageous conversations, historic vs future value and fast action.

3. Their staff doesn’t do what they want, how they want. Usually because they haven’t been told. Or have been told excessively.
The solution: company purpose, personal ambition, responsibility and accountability

4. Their potential is greater than their success. Because they don’t understand their value. Or can’t articulate it.
The solution: a walk in the customer’s shoes and a single line without the use of the word ‘and’.

5. They keep having the same conversations. Proving that the first sign of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome.
The solution: Plan The Last Day First®. A practice that focuses on where you want to end up. Analyzes where you are. And connects the two points.

Philosophical Friday: Trust

It takes time to earn trust.

Consistency and transparency accelerate the process. But as employees or customers, we withhold wholehearted emotional investment until a company proves it deserves that from us.

I heard this week of a company which is dominant in its industry that has cut its staff salaries by ten percent this year. Across the board. Including its receptionist.

When asked why he had taken this step, the owner is reported to have said, “because I can.”

How you define success is entirely personal.

Which doesn’t mean it affects only you. 

Dance and Yodel. Why Books Aren’t In Trouble. But The People Who Sell Them Are.

I went to Barnes and Noble this morning. I was one of 35 people standing outside waiting for them to open.

Where else in Manhattan, I wonder, did a retailer draw a crowd today without a free giveaway involved?

No one went to the cafe. No one went to music and video. Two people headed to the magazine sections. And the rest of us went looking for books.

45 minutes later, I walked out with four. Thanks to no-one and nothing. Except my perseverance and determination.

In the business section, an employee stood at his counter drumming his fingers on the counter-top. Loudly. I think it was loudly. It was hard to hear above the noise of the phone ringing beside him.

I turned to the computer help centers. Helpful. Provided you know the precise spelling of author. Or book. Luckily my iPhone Google search interpreted my attempt, and corrected me. No inter-device cut and paste, however. Dutifully I tried again. The book was in stock, one aisle over.

Except it wasn’t. I tried to decode the cataloguing system. An explanation somewhere would have been helpful. Even if I can’t re-sort by clicking a column header, understanding how you’re trying to do it would save me the trouble of figuring it out for myself. Alphabetical by title? Ah, by author. Except here and here and here. And in any event, my title and author exist in neither.

Another staff member walked by. I looked up plaintively. Without breaking stride she asked me if I needed any help. “I’m looking for the Art of Seduction,” I said, more loudly than I cared to. Based on her response, I’m fairly sure she hasn’t read it. Though I sensed she knew where it was. Her gesture had a number of interpretations, one of which was to duck. But as she disappeared round the corner I gave one last hopeful glance in the general vicinity of her final indication. There, a single copy, lay forlornly and ironically by itself. Clearly, sympathetic presentation of the merchandise hadn’t been on that morning’s staff meeting agenda either.

If you’re going to sell something, sell it. Use technology intelligently, find people who care, train them properly and worry about the details.

Demand is out there for all kinds of things. But if it matters more to your customer than it does to you, their standards will eventually decide if you’re in business.

Google just announced the launch of their online book store.

How much is a Kindle?

Who's Working For Who?

This morning, every one of the people who work for you made a decision to do so again today.

The vast majority probably didn’t think about it like that.

But you should.

Otherwise they will.

The fact is, we all have a choice about what we do for a living. Even with unemployment approaching ten percent, nine out of ten people who want to work are doing so.

If you’re building a better business, you’re hiring insightfully, training pro-actively, mentoring sensitively, promoting effectively and compensating fairly.

Which is a start.

Being sure that you’re also building a company that creates long term possibilities for your best people is the other part of the equation.

We meet so many business owners these days who missed their time. Who thought they alone were responsible for their company’s success. Who thought it would never end.

Until now.

For them, it’s too late.

But for you, it’s not.

Build a business that gives your employees a reason to keep coming back. Personal growth. Long term economic benefit that goes beyond a salary. A voice.

The company will expand beyond your DNA. And will begin to incorporate theirs.

When you’re ready to leave, they will no longer need you.

But they will need your equity.

A win-win.

And the key to this model?

Two words at the end of every day. Spoken to every employee. With real understanding of the choice they will make tomorrow.

Thank. You.

Courageous Conversations

At the heart of the problems faced by many companies, is that the owner has so far avoided a Courageous Conversation.

Instead of identifying and exposing what's really going on, owners resort to analyzing the company's strategy, a debate that is often substituted as an alternative to confronting two primary questions.

Am I still in love with this business? What am I trying to achieve?

Entrepreneurs build extraordinary businesses when their talents meet their passion. When their passion fades, the business suffers.

Unless it has been built to thrive without them.

Most are not.

And when owners bury the real issues - consciously or sub-consciously - the interests of the company, its staff and ultimately the owners themselves are seriously damaged. Often permanently.

The situation is complicated a hundred-fold when a partnership is involved. Then, the absence of an exit strategy and an ownership transition plan becomes a noose from which many companies never escape.

A Courageous Conversation is needed when you see these conditions appear in combination:

  • A business without a clearly defined Purpose.

  • A partnership that used to work effortlessly but is now increasingly disjointed.

  • Employees taking sides.

Employees smell lack of ownership interest instinctively. And even if you’re kidding yourself, you won’t kid your employees for very long. In the absence of a company Purpose, great employees will stick around in this economy only long enough for the unemployment numbers to start falling.

Sometimes, a Courageous Conversation results in a genuine re-commitment by the owners to the business. Madonna Badger of Badger and Partners and Jerry Solomon of Epoch Media talk about this on our website.

Other times, it highlights the divide, and requires the negotiation of a fair, equitable and practical separation. No small feat. And often hardest for close partners who tie themselves in knots trying to be reasonable at the expense of reality.

The good news is that Courageous Conversations are the fuel of empowerment. And liberation.

Two traits on which both companies and lives can prosper.

Note: The concept of the Courageous Conversation was brought to us by our newest
associate, Jamie Gutfreund.

Jamie was introduced to us by Dana Astrow, our first.

Their background and expertise speaks for itself. Their insight is extraordinary. Their enthusiasm infectious. We’re a much better business for having them be part of it. 

66% = Two Out Of Three

One of the issues we hear from clients most frequently is the difficulty of getting their people to work together.

And until you solve that problem, any hope of making substantive change to your business is on long-term hold.

Long-term as in forever.

The solution lies in two basic instincts we share as a species.

  1. We change our behavior when we believe the result makes the effort worthwhile.

  2. We want to express ourselves. To have a voice. Sometimes literally.

I can offer you no better proof than this video two friends posted on Facebook yesterday.

I don’t speak Swedish. I suspect you don’t either. It doesn’t matter.

66% is a universal language.

Money Can't Buy You Love

Chris and I were in Bloomingdale's in Manhattan last week. It was the first time either of us had stepped inside in two decades.

It's possible we'll go again. If we live to be 100.

Bloomingdale's used to be IT. When I last lived here in the early 80s it was a destination filled with atmosphere, attitide, aspiration and Big Brown Bags.

Today all that's left is the attitude.

Bloomingdale's owns Macy's. Who own Thanksgiving. And large parts of Christmas. Well, one street's worth.

Macy's is spending several millions of dollars refurbishing Bloomie's. Construction is everywhere. Which gives the impression for a few minutes that something is happening.

It is.

Money is being wasted. Display case fulls at a time. Because regardless of what they stock, Bloomingdale's staff is singularly uninterested in selling it.

In a twenty minute excursion we asked for help from five different people. To say we were an inconvenience would be to suggest that root canal during love making is a distraction. And the person who smiled at us most warmly? The man who held the door open as we left. As he pulled it closed we turned, half expecting to see the staff offer us a collective grimace before returning to the pursuits we had clearly interrupted.

Building a better business means making sure what and where you're selling comes after who you're selling to.

Because once they've walked out the door, all the fresh paint in the world won't bring them back.


One of the traits we talk about with every company we work with is the value of transparency. With your customers and your staff.

This is often greeted by resistance. Strong resistance. As though pulling back the curtain will reveal the Wizard of Oz.

A lack of self-belief that we work hard to correct.

A better business is not defined by what you do. But how you do it. And in a service business, value is a subjective equation whose point of differentiation is often the confidence with which the service is provided.

Telling you what I'm going to do and then doing it is confidence built on capability. The best kind of business model. And one that spreads reputations quickly.

I was going to describe this using a story that my friend Jerry Solomon told me the other day. He beat me to it this morning. Since it was his story I can't complain about that.

So instead, I'll save the time of writing it myself and suggest you go to his blog to read it.

Ah, delegation.



Your Business IS Your Life - Rethought

The great thing about writing on the internet is that your internal editor can demand a re-think. I woke up thinking today's blog was half a thought. This I think is a whole one.

Apologies to those who already took the time. Hopefully you'll think this one worth another moment.


Building a better business is hard work. No news there.

And the fuel that drives us comes from many sources.

Pride. Ambition. Competition. Vision.

And Fear. Of failure. Or insignificance.

Regardless of how deep the reserve, humans need to refuel.

Building a better business happens when we balance needs. Of the business. And ourselves.

Sometimes that means putting other things first.

I talked to a friend this afternoon who after many years of driving a business forward decided to take a serious break this summer.

The energy and sense of possibility were palpable the moment they walked in the door.

By the time we’d finished talking I had established a new principle I’m going to recommend to our clients. That any one who has worked at the same company for ten years should be required to take a serious, paid break. Required. Serious. Paid.

No less than a month. Ideally two.

What you get back will pay for itself a hundred times over.

Because even when your business is your life, sometimes you need to reverse the order.

For tomorrow is only a promise.

And as today reminds us, sometimes those get broken.

Are You Hiring Wristwatches or iPhones?

If wristwatches didn’t exist would someone still invent them?

Their introduction was simplicity itself. A Frenchman by the name of Blaise Pascal took his pocket watch and in or around 1650, tied it to his wrist with a piece of string.

The precise date is unknown. An early case of irony.

At eighteen, Pascal had invented the first calculator. He then developed the science by which atmospheric pressure is measured. And along the way, invented the first roulette wheel.

He was 39 when he died. Had he lived another ten years it’s possible we would have had the iPhone very much earlier.

The wristwatch is a testament to reliability. It performs a precisely defined function immaculately. It is also an indicator of personal taste. And age.

Because with rare exception, as Sir Ken Robinson points out, people under thirty don’t wear watches. They don’t see the point of single function devices.

People under thirty get the time from their iPhone or iPod, or computer. Devices that are central to their understanding of what it means to be alive.

They do so because because phones and ipods have become multi-function platforms that can do limitless other things besides their original purpose.

Slowly, around the world there are signs the economy is turning the corner. The trailing indicator is employment. Once that begins to change (and this morning saw the first indications that it might be), the recovery will be well under way.

In the United States, companies with 99 or fewer staff, employ as many people as businesses with more than 2500 employees.

Which means that re-employment will be driven as much by small business as big.

Given that the talent pool has never been as deep in our lifetime, hiring the right people is crucial to fueling your company’s rebirth.

When we help clients during the hiring process, we typically try to find iPhones.

Specifically, that means focusing on two areas. The candidate’s ability to articulate why this is such an important opportunity for them. And their adaptability.

Anyone can write a good looking resume these days. Descriptions of past experiences, and glowing references are not sufficient discriminators between the bad, the good and the great.

Chemistry and commitment will get both candidate and company much further.

If a candidate can explain why a job is important to them, it mattered enough for them to have already thought about it. Surprisingly rare in many people looking for a job.

And adaptability is often seen as a weakness by employers. Too many experiences as an inability to commit. Sometimes that’s the case. But you can also uncover jewels.

There is one other aspect to an interview that is often overlooked. It is one that I advise all of our clients to apply. Brutal honesty.

Too many employers try to sell the job. And unquestionably it’s important to present the opportunity as a significant one. If it’s not, why does the position exist?

But the candidate needs to understand there is a consequence to mis-representing their own enthusiasm and commitment. We tell them it’s a Three Job Bluff. The one they gave up to take this one. The one you will remove them from if you discover they’re not what they claim to be. And the one they’ll need if you fire them.

Hiring the right person is perhaps the hardest aspect of running a business.

And occasionally you’ll need to employ a wrist watch.

But unless you’re certain that need will never change - and today never is somewhat fragile - you will grow a better business if you hire iPhones.

Making sure you use them wisely is a subject for another day.

Jump In

Breaking news this morning that the unemployment rate is beginning to turn around.

Running a better business means combining empirical information and instinct.

Based on that, I think this is as deep as the talent pool gets. In every industry, incredible people are looking for new opportunities.

If you think there is even a one in one hundred chance you might need to add someone this year, now is the time to go looking.

In our lifetimes, there will never be a better moment.

Freezing In Place Only Makes Your Teeth Chatter

In tough times, it's become standard advice that companies shouldn’t freeze in place. That's true. Problems that were obvious even in good times become infinitely worse if you do nothing when your market is shrinking. The challenge now is to find a way to move forward without adding risk.

The first step is to leverage your best assets. Your people.

Start at the top and make sure your stars are doing things that only they can do. Have them delegate everything else, then go through the same process with every level of staff. You'll eliminate the 15-20% of busy work that no one at the company should be doing and immediately foster higher job satisfaction. People who like what they do also start to innovate better ways to do it.

When the economy comes back, your business and your people will be ready to take advantage of this new-found focus.