Seeing The Way

Companies are fearful of change. Which drives them to places they would never willingly go if they could see where they were headed. 

This week’s fiasco on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago is a pretty good example of what happens when fear of change makes you do the same thing you always do, even in the face of growing evidence that this will not turn out well. 

On Tuesday night, the people who ended up trapped in their cars were those who believed that so wide a road and so many companions would provide safe passage. 

In fact, it took only one gently sliding bus to block the way and create a situation in which many people became convinced that they would die where they sat. Frozen and alone. Fifty yards from one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the world. On a piece of road that has provided a reliable and predictable way home to hundreds of millions of travelers over the last 100 years.

From habit to hell in three hours. It rarely happens that fast. But it can.

Those that took the side streets found the roads difficult, but passable. It took longer than usual, but they made it safely to their destinations.

Taking the less traveled path requires two steps:

  • Recognizing that external forces are creating the need for change
  • Working knowledge of possible alternatives

As a business this requires combining a strategic view of where you’re headed, and constant exploration of the best way to get there. 

Which is not always the most direct. Or the most familiar.

Sitting on The Edge of Revolution

These are turbulent times. Politically, economically, socially.

A story on the web this morning reports that a fire department in rural Tennessee allowed a family’s house to burn to the ground because they hadn’t paid an annual $75 fee for fire department service. 

In addition to losing all of their possessions, the family’s cat and three dogs were killed. 

When the fire department arrived at the scene because the neighbor’s house was being threatened - they had paid the $75 fee - the fire chief ordered that water be sprayed only up to the property line between the two homes, despite the home owner offering to pay ‘anything’ to have his home saved.

I have a pragmatic view about building a business. You define a Purpose, hire people that you think can help you create that vision, invest in them until doing so becomes destructive to the organization or unhelpful to them, and then make a change. It’s called accountability. The mid point between ruthlessness and enablement.

Accountability must have flex in it. Circumstances and people are not fixed points of reference. And absolute rules create only dictatorships. 

I believe the most effective management structure is a benevolent hierachy. One that listens and then decides. A model that allows you to judge the quality of the thinking of the leadership of an organization, and its prospects for achieving its Purpose.

I have never thought about the Purpose of a fire department. ‘Protect lives and property,’ seems like a good place to start. Sending a large bill after you’ve provided that service would be an acceptable quid pro quo for even the most radical opponent of socialized government.

The news website on which I saw this story is running an online poll. 22% of the respondents believe that the fire chief was right to let the home burn.

Clearly they’re not animal lovers.

Revolutions are not known for promoting rational thought. 

Fear in buckets, yes. 

Which tends only to promote the circumstances that created the need for revolution to begin with.

Running any business during a revolution is hard. The screaming and yelling drowning out most of the ability to think clearly. 

But if you’re clear about why your business exists - clear to the point of being able to write it down in a single line without the use of the word ‘and’ - you’ll put out your customers’ fires with increasing ease.

And get paid handsomely for doing so.

Playing The Percentages

“The dumbest decision I’ve ever seen.”

This was one of the kinder epithets thrown at Bill Belichik over the last two days. Bill is the head coach of the New England Patriots. He’s won three Super Bowls already, and is generally regarded as having already earned a place in the Hall of Fame as a coach. Everyone who has an opinion regards him as the best coach in the NFL. Everyone. By some distance.

On Sunday night, in the biggest game of the year so far, he made a decision. 4th down. His team’s 28 yard line. 2 yards to go. 2 and a half minutes to go. His team leading by 6.
He decided to go for it.

In the moment that it happened, there was a gasp. From the crowd. The announcers on tv. And from every person watching around the world. All of us were stunned.

The play gained 1 yard. And the Patriots turned the ball over on their own 29 yard line to arguably the greatest quarterback in the game. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.

1 minute 47 seconds later the Colts scored. And 13 seconds after that, the Patriots had lost.

For 24 hours, the airwaves were filled with commentators berating Belichik. Include me in that group. ‘You don’t do that,’ was our collective consideration. Ever. Period.

Bill Belichik made mistakes that night. But that decision, I have come to realize, was not one of them.

People judge decisions by the results all the time.

Which is categorically and absolutely wrong.

Decisions should be judged by the quality of the thinking and information that went into them.

Not by what happened afterwards. The results of which are affected too much by chance and external forces.

When a decision creates a bad outcome, the predilection to focus on the result means we learn almost nothing from the outcome. And a bad result and no learning is the ultimate lose-lose.

Worse, it convinces us that the alternative option was correct. Which is the case far less often than we believe. A lose, lose, lose.

In Bill Belichik’s case, the decision was derided because it didn’t work. And yet, the logic behind it was absolutely sound.

If the Patriots had gained two yards on the play, not one, they would have won the game. They could run the clock out and prevent the Colts from getting the ball back. One play, win the game. 100%

If they punt the ball, they give away the 100% option. Most pundits believe the Colts had a 33% chance to drive 70 yards in two minutes and score the winning touchdown. Better, they said to make them go 70 yards than 29.

Which ignores the fact there was a 100% option on the table. Which beats 66% every time.

Bell Belichik is a thick-skinned guy. But even he appeared rattled by the aftermath. I suspect if a similar situation comes up, even he won’t try it again.

Which would itself be a mistake. Because the real question he should analyze is why the play he called gained one yard not two. And whether there was a play more likely to create the outcome he wanted.

To win.

Learning from our mistakes is critical. In business and life. It’s how we evolve as a species.

Which means first recognizing what is a mistake.

What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Business

Edward Tufte is one of the world's leading authorities on presenting vast amounts of complex data in such a way that it tells simple, powerful stories.

He has self-published four books that are filled with incredible examples that range from the evolution of music to the design of the Vietnam War Memorial - the genius of which is that it lists the names of those it remembers not alphabetically, but by date. Which allows any visitor to see the context and the relationship in which lives were lost. The story of their sacrifice. Not simply the fact of it.

One of the most illustrative examples that Tufte presents is shown below - sadly in limited resolution. You can buy the poster or his books through his website.

The image is a graphical representation of Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812. The brown line represents proportionally the number of men under his command on the march to Moscow. The black line, the number during the return.

At various points you'll see the line's thickness changes dramatically, with the corresponding event provided in a call-out below. For instance, at one stage more than half the remaining force was lost crossing a river, a story that is suddenly brought to dramatic and vivid reality based on the thickness of a black line. The date is recorded, as is the temperature. No small factor in Russia.

This diagram represents a historical reflection of fact. But it's not very hard to envision this approach being used as the projection of a proposed strategy. Afer all, many of the facts were known in advance: seasonal temperature; distance; position of major obstacles.

Sadly, it's the kind of analysis that escapes most business owners who, like Napoleon are fixated on the next big win, as opposed to serious consideration of what they are actually trying to achieve and instead rush headlong into short-term glory. Or worse short-term survival. Worse because surviving is the first step to dying.

As we expand our consultancy and talk to more business owners I'm struck by three things.

1. How much potential exists to build truly great businesses

2. How much effort, money and intent is being expended

3. How much of that is being mis-applied

Napoleon was not the first person to have big dreams.

But as the diagram shows, the difference between a dream and a nightmare can be the thickness of a line.


Never Mind The Beef. Where’s The Plan?

Sad news in the advertising industry this week with the demise of Cliff Freeman & Partners, the legendary ad agency whose founder was responsible for, among other noteworthy entries, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign.

The Ad Age article that describes the company’s closure cites various causes, including lack of a succession plan, an inability to evolve with the changing media landscape, and failed merger attempts.

Creative service companies often end up like Mr Freeman’s. From king of the hill to an industry by-line in a decade.

These three reasons are present in virtually every case:

  1. The inability or unwillingness of the founder to make themselves irrelevant. By the time Mr Freeman tried to do so, the company was operating from a position of relative weakness, and the management evolution appeared borne of desperation.

  2. A relentless focus on the service that made them successful, without ever understanding the core strength that made those services valuable - as the creator of memorable brand personalities, in any medium.

  3. Failed restructuring attempts. 80% of all mergers fail. When the underlying motivation is a shotgun wedding to fix a fundamental weakness, that number goes up into the high nineties. Mergers and acquisitions work when the chemistry is instinctive, or there is a clearly defined and articulated vision that one person takes responsibility for.

Mr Freeman isn’t the first to make these mistakes. And he won’t be the last.

But every one of them is avoidable.

At a time when the marketing food chain is changing before our eyes, the advertisng and production industries are in desperate need of better business models.

Head meet sand, however, is not one of them.

Eight Tips For A Simpler Life

1. Walk backwards to get your lunch today. So you can see where you came from.

2. Ask you kids’ school bus driver to make the journey tomorrow in reverse. So that he doesn’t get distracted by having to look ahead.

3. Next time you go food shopping, don’t think about what you’re going to make for dinner, just buy the first ten items you can find that are on sale.

4. If you discover your roof is leaking, throw a bucket on the floor and appreciate how great it is to have electric light in your house.

5. If your property taxes go up, demolish a bedroom. And a bathroom.

6. Ask everyone in your family to write down what they want to do next weekend. If you don’t get unanimous agreement, do nothing.

7. If your cable company over-charges you by $1.50, spend as much time as you need on the phone to get the mistake corrected, so that the mistake never happens again. Visit them in person, if necessary. No matter how far away.

8. If your accountant tells you your income tax bill is higher this year, ask to have your salary cut.

You probably won’t take any of these suggestions in you personal life. Who would?

Which makes us wonder why so many businesses and organizations are being run like this.

But leaves us less surprised at the results.

Your Business is Unique. Your Problems Are Not.

A little while ago, I put up on our website a list of the nine biggest mistakes we see entrepreneurs make. You'll find it here.

I re-read it again this weekend to see if the list needs updating. Instead, I was struck by how consistently we come across these issues, even in the most diverse businesses.

In the past month, we have started to see another.

Companies that believe the economy has turned around and that their problems are subsiding. That is now number ten.

We see ourselves as business optimists. We look for what can be done. Not what can't.

But we're also pragmatists. Who don't often accept the first answer as the whole story. And the story on this recession is a long way from being over.

House sales are up but prices are way down. The single largest deflationary influence in the American consumer's portfolio. Earning are up, but based on one-time savings in the form of lay-offs. Of consumers who can't contribute to the recovery until they get a job. And unemployment is forecast to rise through the first quarter. At least. Which doesn't address catastrophic vacancy rates in commercial real estate which don't have thirty year mortgages to act as safety nets. Many in fact come due in the next year, with the majority of borrowers upside-down on an asset-value to debt ratio.

If your business has still to define its essential value to its customers, and you're still acting reactively to surrounding events, you are guaranteeing only that you will continue to be a victim of other people's mistakes.

Not all companies have suffered in this economy. Hyundai and Apple, for instance, are having record breaking years. At a time when a new car and a new computer would seem low on anyone's list of priorities, understanding why they are thriving is valuable information.

The answer is simple. Value.

What's yours?

How do you release it?

And what are you going to do with it?

Irrelevant This

We don’t know what we don’t know.

Which makes building a better business difficult at the best of times.

But virtually impossible if we ignore what we do know.

Or convince ourselves that this time the facts won’t apply. That we should act based only on what we want to be true.

As a case in point, consider Roland Burris.

For those outside the U.S., Roland Burris is the junior senator from Illinois. Appointed to replace Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate by the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was then impeached for trying to auction the seat to the highest bidder.

As his final official act, he appointed Mr Burris, a 72 year old black Chicago politician, to fill the seat. A move the leadership of his party in the Senate immediately decided they would reject.

It was, the Democrats said, inappropriate, unacceptable, illegal, unconstitutional. Mr Burris was told his claim was invalid. They denied him the seat. Then they turned him away at the door. Literally.

Here are two facts they ignored:

Fact 1: There was no legal basis for their position. None that withstood the simplest scrutiny.

Fact 2: Nor any political one. Denying a black candidate the opportunity to replace the only black senator is bad for electoral college counting.

And so, after two weeks of noise and bluster, Mr Burris became Senator Burris.

For eight months, a chilly detente has existed. The Democrats counting the days until his term ends in 2011. Mr Burris left isolated and unwanted, and fighting his own ethics charges without support from his party.

Until now. When the issue of health care reform approaches a final vote in the senate. And the debate about the public option becomes real.

For the record:

  • 77% of America wants health care reform with some form of government  provided health care. The so-called public option.

  • The Democrats need all 60 of their Senators to pass any kind of health care reform.

  • Several are reluctant to support a public option.

  • Mr Burris has declared, "I would not support a bill that does not have a public option. That position will not change."

Which leads us to two more facts the Democrats tried to exclude from their analysis:

Fact 3: Without Mr Burris’ support, the Democrats can’t pass health care reform.

Fact 4: Without health care reform, the Obama presidency slogan becomes, No, we can’t.

Imagine whatever vision of the future you want. Then put that aside and deal in facts.

Because dreams can come true. But only if you accept reality first.

Philosophical Friday: Living for Today. Planning For Tomorrow

As part of a weekly feature, we're going to start dedicating Friday's posts to a philosophical thought. A reflective end to the week.

Here's the first. Let us know what you think.


The announcement that 79 metro areas in North America have come out of recession is good news and bad.

The good news is that a strengthening economy carries everyone along for the ride.

The bad news is that good news makes people go back to bad patterns.

Most of which involve looking intently at the present.

Focus on today as a path towards personal tranquility.

But look first at tomorrow if you want to build a better business.

After all, one year from today is still today.

No matter how hard you stare at it.

5 Myths About Selling A Service Business

When we started our own business, it seemed obvious that we should build it so we could sell it one day.

After all, even in the first raptures of blissful entrepreneurship, we thought it was possible we might not want to stay until the day we died.

So we did what we thought made sense.

We spent eleven years making ourselves irrelevant.

Which allowed us to sell when we were ready to go. And the company to prosper without us.

In the four years that we’ve been consulting, we’ve come across five myths about selling a business in a service industry that we would like to shatter.

1. The Disbeliever: You Can’t Scale A Service Business.

James O. McKinsey was an accounting professor at the University of Chicago. In 1926 he started a business in an industry that didn’t exist. Today, McKinsey & Company are the largest management consulting firm in the world. They keep their sales figures private. But will admit to at least $5 billion a year. Some estimates put it closer to $13 billion.

If the business isn’t scaling, don’t look at the base. Look at the head.

2. The Skeptic: Selling A Service Business Always Involves An Earn Out.

Only if you have made yourself essential to the business.

In which case, the price is depressed because of the uncertainty of what happens when you leave. And you have to stay longer, in order to extract yourself on someone else’s terms.

If the business functions perfectly without you, you get money in the bank and a great goodbye party.

3. The Talker: We’re Definitely Interested In Selling One Day. We’re Going To Start Planning For That Next Year.

Selling begins the day you start. We call it Plan The Last Day First®. It informs every decision, every hire, every customer relationship.

It costs no more to build for sale, than to build to stay. The only difference is the choices you have when the last day comes. Which is usually sooner than you can possibly imagine.

4. The Optimist: I Get Calls All The Time From People Interested In Buying My Business.

There’s a difference between buying a company. And talking about buying a company.

The first involves due diligence. A process that is invasive and uncomfortable and spends a lot of time looking at your financial statements. You’ll know when someone’s really interested in your business when they ask the third set of follow up questions. The ones you were hoping they wouldn’t.

The second involves a salad and a decaf cappuccino.

5. The Fantasist: We’re having a bad year. But if I got the right offer, I’d consider selling. 

This is actually two myths in one.

Buyers don’t buy service businesses in a bad cycle unless they can see the problem clearly. Buyers buy service businesses when things are pretty good, and they think they can run them better. Which typically means cheaper.

And unless you’ve trained other people to do what you do, the ‘right’ offer will definitely involve an earn-out. In other words, this scenario means giving your company to someone else, and then having them tell you what to do for the next three years.

And if they get it wrong, you don’t get paid.

The Sixth Myth

There is a sixth myth. It’s the one that says building a company that can be sold means you’re betraying your craft, your passion, your calling.

The alternative is closing the doors when you’ve had enough. Or dropping dead at your desk.

Which seems like a waste of a lot of time and money.

Unless you believe in fairy tales.

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.

The Non-Denial Denial

In the darkest moments of Watergate, with the White House engaged in full frontal attack, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post kept Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation moving forward by focusing on the substance of the administration’s response.

Loud. Confident. Assertive.

Filled with reasons about why the accusations couldn’t be true.

But absent any evidence that they weren’t.

Bradlee came to describe them as non-denial denials.

Politics has used Watergate as a new benchmark. Anything above breaking-in is acceptable. Anything below, we can talk about.

Which is fine, because we’ve become more cynical consumers of politics. And why when a politician gives even a reasonably straightforward answer we greet them as champions of change.

But in our own lives, personally and professionally, the non-denial denial has become a destructive impulse to which we all succumb.

In the last few months I have been increasingly aware of the determination with which we paint reality to suit our own narrative.

We don’t deny that things are tough. We simply tell ourselves that somehow it will all come right. That the future will take care of it. That we’ll worry about it later. The current benchmark is after Christmas.

I have had five conversations recently with smart, self-aware, successful people whom I admire greatly. Some work for companies. Some own them.

In every case I have come away stunned by the paper-thin reality to which they are clinging. And their artful articulation of why the evidence they themselves present does not in fact draw the conclusion I suggest.

The do not deny the evidence. They do not say I am missing something in my analysis. They just say it isn’t that way.

A non-denial denial.

The truth is hard. But denying it is ultimately much more costly. And finding it is free.

It requires three things.

Someone you trust.
A willingness to ask hard questions
A willingness to answer them honestly

It doesn’t matter what title they go by. Friend. Relative. Consultant. Coach.

But there is no one I know who doesn’t need to go through this process.

Including us.

Which is why we just hired a consultant.

Because the future is coming and I for one want to meet it on my terms.

The facts. The truth.

Powerful platforms on which to build a better business.

Russian Roulette

The current state of affairs in which the production community is allowing itself to operate reminds me of a gambler sitting at a roulette wheel.

Practices such as sequential liability and ninety day payments terms are nothing more than 50/50 bets in an under-capitalized industry.

Add limited credit and slashed profit margins, and the odds of survival fall further.

With everything riding on red, the gambler peers anxiously at the tumbling ball.

There is no jackpot for winning. Just the chance to play again.

Lose. And it’s game over.

The ball tumbles. The gambler waits.

Fade to black.

Heart and Soul

To many people owning your own business is a microcosm of life.

I think that’s true.

If you get it wrong.

Most people do.

In the early stages the analogy is exact. Romantic. Beguiling. You start with nothing. You create life. You nurture, teach, feed and protect. It grows. It becomes unruly. You rein it in. Teach it good from bad. Right from wrong. It continues to grow. It becomes self-sustaining.

You keep your hand in by making sure the critical decisions go through you. After all, it was built from your DNA. Who else really understands it the way you do. But instinctively you start to sit back a little.

And ignore the ticking clock.

Businesses are like dogs. They get old in a hurry. One day they’re ten, bounding upstairs like a puppy. The next, they have a hard time getting down off the couch. When that happens you know the time they have left is less than the time they have had. And though you can ease the discomfort and slow the aging process, the end is inevitable. And coming like a freight train.

But businesses don’t have to get old. They should outlive us. After all, why build a business that can not, when it takes the same effort to build one that can?

What it requires is less. Less ego for one. Less hubris for two.

Most business owners define themselves by their companies. They describe themselves as its heart and soul. It radiates from them and through them. Which is fine for a while.

Business owners talk about heart and soul a lot. As though they were inextricably linked. Which, of course, they are not.

The soul is one of the great mysteries of existence. It is purported by some to weigh 21 grams. Maybe. But unquestionably, it is the essence that makes us who we are.

The heart is perhaps the most studied organ in medicine. No surprise given that it is the epicenter of our life force. The fulcrum around which every action is taken. But over time, we have learned that it is replaceable. That we can use someone else’s without losing the uniqueness of who we are.

Our heart is transplantable. Our soul is not.

If you want to create a business that lasts, it will require your heart and your soul.

But only to begin with.

Eventually, as your enthusiasm wanes (and it will), your business will need to get its energy from somewhere else. It will need a new life force. It will need a heart transplant.

If you see this as the natural progression of things, you will prepare for it and embrace it. It hurts. But only a little. And the rewards are extraordinary.

And if you get it right, your business retains your soul. Indelibly imprinted long after you have left the building.

As Chris and I walked out the door of the Whitehouse for the last time on that Friday night in 2005, two things were certain.

Part of who we are was forever infused into the soul of that company.

Someone else would turn on the lights on Monday morning.


Tom Watson came within one decision of writing the greatest sports story of all time yesterday.

That is not hyperbole. He is two months short of sixty. He has an artificial hip. And for four days he beat the best in the world. Walking.

Put it this way. The year he was born Harry Truman announced his Fair Deal program. One of his competitors was born during Bill Clinton’s Presidency.

He came within one foot of rewriting every sporting record book there is. He did so because he has extraordinary talent. Because he believed he could. Because he had a plan. Because he had done so before.

He did not, because in the heat of the moment the perspective that experience provides was not enough.

In the 18th fairway, a 4 needed to win the 'World’s Open' as Watson himself calls it, he selected an 8 iron.  The wind. The hardness of the ground. All of these are variables he could only sense. There were no absolute measurements. Just experience.

As history will forever show, it was a 9 iron.

The perfectly struck 8 carried on the wind further then he intended, bounced hard and rolled over the back of the green. For a moment it looked as though the ball would stop on the fringe, but with one last agonizing roll it slipped down the slope and came to rest.

There were two shots left to be played, but a sense of the inevitable suddenly descended.

Looking back, it was easy to see the mistake. Adrenaline is a powerful chemical. And golfers the world over have seen its effect at critical moments when it suddenly provides super-human strength.

In the middle of the most demanding moment in his life, the most experienced golfer in the tournament failed to see it.

He will never forget its consequence.

Many businesses are faced with life changing situations at the moment. All or nothing decisions.

But no matter how much of it you have, experience alone will not be enough.

You must combine it with context. And perspective.

So that when everything says hit the 8, you know that what you need is a 9. The difference might be only a foot. But as Tom Watson will tell you, a foot can be a very long way.

Change. The End.

We sold our house on Tuesday. An end to a lot of timelines. Twenty five years in Chicago. Fifteen years in our home. Eighteen months on the market. Two months of negotiation.

I’ve done a lot of deals in the last few years. There weren’t any harder than this. We walked away a number of times. Initially on price - until our broker told us it was this or wait a year. And then increasingly on dignity.

Change is one thing. Capitulation on someone else’s terms is another.

If you are in a situation that you have decided must be changed, creating the conditions in which you can overcome your own fears is critical.

You have to burn your ships. But you also have to make sure you’re not relying on third party, fourth-hand information to make decisions. Humility is a scarce and valuable resource in a negotiation and it evaporates quickly as we sense we are losing control. Add not being heard to the equation and it disappears entirely.

For a while on this occasion we let brokers and lawyers do all the talking. Then our broker did a very smart thing. She humanized us. She asked me to send her an email outlining our view of the deal. Then she passed that on to their broker. Who of course passed it on to the buyer. We got a response, and suddenly each of us was dealing with a human being.

In every future deal I do, I’m insisting on talking directly to the other side. No exceptions. I blogged about this a few weeks ago.

In the heat of an emotional battle, mostly with oneself, it's hard to take even the best advice. But one of the benefits of writing this blog is that it puts what I think down in black on white. It’s hard to ignore that.

Seventeen days ago, we received an email from the buyer's lawyer via ours. It accused us of being liars. I may be a lot of things but telling lies comes very, very hard. I can remember every untruth I’ve ever told. And they haunt me. Needless to say, the accusation went down very badly.

As far as I was concerned, that was it. They weren’t getting my house. My home. My lifeboat. Not those people. Not dead.

Lawyers don’t do deals. You do.

I went back and re-read my blog. Then I re-read the buyer’s email. Its tone did not match his lawyer’s. I see that a lot. Lawyers with big egos thrashing about to make an impression. Often it has the inverse effect to the one their client is hoping for. At best it’s boorish. At worst it’s deal ending. Most of them get paid regardless. I’d rather pay for results than bombastic letters.

Chris and I decided to heed my own advice. We invited the buyer and his family to come to the house so that we could show them round in person, take them through its eccentricities and explain the work we were doing to ensure we handed it over in the best possible condition.

This strategy was not universally supported. In fact we couldn’t find anyone who agreed with it. But we were convinced of two things. Transparency is a powerful lubricant. And the only behavior you can control is your own. If we acted honorably at least we had one foundation we could lean on.

It was a turning point. The instant we met we knew we had sold to the right people. They love our house as we do. And when I handed over the keys for the final time, the fear I felt was not for the future of our former home.

The last few days have been extraordinary emotional. Much more so than I had imagined. And the sense of loss is profound. Twenty-five years is more than half my life. And 650 West Hutchinson Street was the first home in which love was more than just a word to me.

Those are hard things to give up consciously in the belief that the future is better met elsewhere. And on one level, by leaving Chicago and my home behind, I feel I have betrayed places that have given me so much.

But the fact is life had become too easy. Too rhythmic. Too settled. And that is not a foundation for growth and exploration.

And so I step out into the storm and face the unknown. Grateful beyond words for the past I have lived. And hopeful for the possibilities that tomorrow will bring.

Talk Is Expensive

The public humiliation of yet another ‘do as I say, not as I do’ leader, is a timely reminder of what happens when power meets self importance.

Business owners face this challenge daily. And many mistake authority for the ability to speak first and think about the consequences later.

For employees, however, the equation is exactly reversed and every word they utter in front of their employer is measured and weighed.

The net result is that the very act of speaking becomes currency in a work environment. And how you spend it has enormous impact on the health of the business.

As a business owner there are some simple guidelines to follow that will maximize the weight of what you say:

  • Never make a promise you aren’t certain you will be able to keep. One un-delivered commitment turns inspiration into hyperbole forever after.

  • Listen first, second and third. Employees want to be heard. And will work with more commitment for a company that respects them enough to provide them that courtesy.

  • Have ideals and standards. But only those that you can live by yourself. Hypocrisy has a stench that is unmistakable.

  • If you over-reach, admit it, and learn from the mistake. Restoring trust will take time. But the clock only starts once you accept responsibility.

Change Your Business? Listen To The Birds.

I was with a group of clients last week who have fully embraced the fact that their business will never be the same. Change is in the air, like never before.

It’s been a long time coming. And there have, so far, been many more words than deeds. As a species we try very hard to intellectualize our environment. Fight or flight? Neither, actually. Can we talk about it instead?

Our ability to analyze complex scenarios and evaluate possibilities is one of the attributes that separates us from other species. The other is imagination. The fuel on which the future is formed.

Where are we going? And how are we going to get there? If you’re not asking those questions it’s probably time to think about doing something else.

But analysis and imagination are not enough. The ability to act is the crucial link between the two. And in this regard, other species leave us in the proverbial dust.

Birds fly south for the winter. There is no meeting to debate the pros and cons. No assumption that they should go north again because that’s what they did last time. It is enough that they know they must go and that south is where they want to end up.

As a business owner you need to know where you are going. And you need to know why. And if the best answers you come up with are ‘south’ and to ‘survive’, then that’s good enough to start moving.

The alternative is to talk about it some more or continue in the same direction.

And when an economic winter like this one arrives, all that will be left are a few frozen feathers.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Imitation

Change is tough for a lot of people. And when you’ve built an entire company around one way of doing things, it’s hard to find another way - even if suddenly you really want to.

When someone has the insight, the clarity and the courage to invoke fundamental change into an industry or a company it’s amazing how quickly the initial nay-sayers jump on board once the results come rolling in.

I’ve blogged about Hyundai’s innovation of protecting car buyers from losing their jobs by offering a guarantee that they can return any new Hyundai they buy this year.

While the Big Three were pre-occupied by heading to Congress with hands outstretched, Hyundai got about the business of change. And it worked.

Now that the evidence is in, both Ford and Saturn have offered similar approaches. Typically, they are trying to hedge their bets by limiting the amount of the guarantee.

The good news is they’re trying something.

The bad news is that by putting limiters on the program, they also limit their own learning.

In this case it’s particularly short-sighted because they already had a case study to follow. If they achieve less than Hyundai’s results, will that be because (a) consumers wanted a cast-iron guarantee (b) liked Hyundai better (c) wouldn’t buy an American car at any price or (d) none of the above? Answers on a postcard.

If you’re going to try something. Try something. Even if that means you start by following someone else’s success. The process will teach you something about your business you didn’t know.

And that is the definition of growth.