Tell Me What You See

When you look at me, what do you see? When you look at others, what do you see? Am I judged by my appearance? Are you skeptical or wary? These thoughts offer an interesting commentary on our society in general and on entrepreneurship in particular. Here’s what I have observed – about others and sometimes about myself. Are we actually looking for the good in our fellow man, or are we focused on finding fault? The political situation has disproportionately magnified this concern. Our country is so divided and partisan that it’s easy to instantly brand another person based upon what we perceive to be their ideology. Rightly or wrongly, if they are branded as a liberal or conservative; a Democrat or Republican, we may automatically draw conclusions that don’t serve us well.

I am renewing my efforts to work harder to see the good in others; to help build others up, rather than tearing them down. Does this sound trite? Think about it for a moment. Jonathan is negotiating to purchase a piece of equipment for his factory. There are major dollars involved and he has located the item that is only slightly used. Jonathan’s first thought is, “I wonder how I’m going to get screwed by the seller?” Right out of the blocks he’s telling the universe that he expects to be taken advantage of. He knows nothing about the individual who is selling the equipment. When asked why he feels this way, he responds, “Well, you can’t trust anyone these days.” Wow! We’ve all heard this before. But why would we set expectations this way? The transaction is immediately infused with negative energy from the start.

Here’s another one. Molly is the 28-year of vice-president of marketing at a consumer products company. While interacting with a prospective client who is in his sixties, he makes a rather inartful comment. Molly is immediately triggered into thinking that she is being harassed. The comment was harmless to the client from a generational perspective, but Molly now sees him as a horrible person. From this point forward, everything he says and does is seen by Molly in a negative light.

Here’s the last example. Henry is interviewing candidates to fill a software development position. One individual had a very pronounced southern accent and was slightly overweight. These traits were off-putting to Henry and he scratched the candidate from consideration. This was a classic case of “judging a book by its cover.”

Now let’s look at the flip side of these encounters. For Jonathan, he had no idea that the company selling the used piece of equipment had a new piece of equipment arriving within two weeks and needed to quickly remove the old piece. To accomplish this, the company marked down the price significantly in order to move it.  The equipment had been maintained in pristine condition and was truly a bargain. Instead of her knee-jerk reaction to the older client, Molly might have chalked it up as a comment that was not intended to be offensive and watched to see if there was any other behavior that warranted concern. Finally, had Henry tested his candidate, he might have found a brilliant mind hiding inside that southern good old boy.

Ronald Reagan once used the term, “trust but verify” when answering a question about nuclear disarmament. This concept remains as viable today as it did back in the 1980s. Rather than thinking the worst about others, we instead genuinely think the best about them and through our interactions, verify that they deserve our positive feelings and goodwill. Instead of being on guard all the time, we embrace others and reject the notion that they intend to do us harm. If at some point it is clear they are intentionally breaking our trust, then we change our feelings toward them.

Our entrepreneurial endeavors are enhanced when we see the best in others. When we establish our relationships in a positive manner they will flourish. When we help build others up, both parties will be the beneficiaries. I recently had the opportunity to begin working with an individual that represents a company with which we’ve done business for years. Another member of our team had previously dealt with him numerous times and had fairly negative things to say about their encounters. I chose not to have preconceived notions about this individual and after several e-mails and conversations, found him to be most pleasant and helpful. He conducted himself honorably and while a little slow with his responses, always managed to follow through. I believe that if I had bought into my teammates feelings, my interactions might have been less positive.

When we adopt the trust but verify attitude, we can build strong and lasting relationships that will flourish over time. Thus, when you ask me what I see, I say that it’s all good.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Un-Stale Leadership Ideas

There’s an interesting article by Stefan Stern from the Financial Times publication dated November 10, 2008. “While cleaning out his attic, a British business leader stumbled upon some typewritten notes on leadership from the 1950s. ‘Leadership is the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action, the art of controlling them and getting the best out of them.’” Sounds kind of old-fashioned, doesn’t it? The art of controlling them? That’s an attitude that’s not likely to win many awards in this day and age. The article and this statement in particular got me to thinking about leadership. And because I’ve lived long enough, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many different leadership styles. So, here are some personal observations that have helped me develop my own leadership style.

Entrepreneurs are often “quick on the draw.” A team member asks a question or brings us a problem and our instinct is to provide the answer or solve the problem. Then we move on . . . quickly. In the old days, that would probably have been considered “leadership.” One of my goals is to develop a sustainable organization that is no longer dependent solely upon me. If I answer every question and offer every solution, how does this support others in their quest to step-up and become leaders in their own right? I believe that leadership involves leading people to answers and solutions rather than simply telling them.

I’ve heard certain pro athletes and a number of entrepreneurs who says it’s not their job to be role models. It seems to me that anyone who has the megaphone ought to savor the opportunity to set an example for others. Doing so also enables us to become more accountable to our team. Back to the sustainable organization concept for a moment – do I want to display anger; yell at people; exhibit boorish behavior, and generally put my ego front and center? When I model this way, what message does it send to up-and-coming leaders? Here’s the simple truth for me. I don’t want to show any sort of negative behavior for which I should apologize.

One of the toughest aspects of being an entrepreneur is communicating our vision to our team. Most of us have a vision of some sort locked away in our brains. I was asked for years by my teammates for my vision, but never could figure out how to articulate it clearly until recently. Having a vision and communicating that vision are two entirely different things. When I mentor other entrepreneurs, I ask them a very basic question. What does it look like when we get there? Focusing on this question eliminates the psycho-babble and gets to the heart of the matter. In plain English it requires that we paint a word picture that everyone can understand. We should never forget that people are drawn to leaders who can express a strong and powerful vision.

As a leader, how much time do you spend working on your business rather than in your business? I can tell you that I love doing complicated real estate deals. Without question, that’s working in my business. It would be very easy (and profitable) for me to focus all of my time and energy on buying and owning apartment properties. But that doesn’t advance the cause for the sustainable organization that I have envisioned. Thus, I must spend significant time working on my business. This involves developing a wide range of strategic initiatives, cultivating and educating team members, and helping to define our mission. A great leader will spend far more time working on his or her business than working in it.

While there are many other modern leadership traits to be explored, the last one on which I want to focus is that of attitude. Leaders with negative attitudes generally produce negative results. Over the past four-plus decades I think I’ve become more and more positive and optimistic. I realized that it’s not much fun to work in a negative environment. And as a leader, if I’m down-in-the-mouth it’s pretty hard for that attitude not to become contagious. I’ve come to realize that there’s always a silver lining in every situation and it’s my aim to find it. This doesn’t mean that negative things won’t happen – they do. But the faster we can move on and regain positive footing, the faster we’ll get back on track. It’s my goal to be a positive and optimistic leader every second of the day.

Modern leadership still embodies ageless basics and fundamentals that unlike bread, never grow stale. But there are some “new age” twists that help propel us to new heights of success and create sustainable organizations in the process.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Winning

“Just concentrate on throwing the ball over the plate rather than breaking the sound barrier and be more varied and selective with your pitches.” That’s the advice catcher Norm Sherry gave to future Hall of Fame pitcher, Sandy Koufax, in 1961. Prior to that Koufax had labored through several seasons of mediocre pitching. Once he solved his control problem, he became nearly unhittable striking out 2,396 batters in his relatively short career. Koufax retired from the game in 1967 at age 30. Without a doubt, he went out a winner.

When we think of winning, what comes to mind? Most of us would say that we have achieved the success of victory – that’s the obvious answer. But when we’re asked how we won, the answer becomes a bit murkier. So, exactly how do we win? Do we simply throw the ball harder than anyone else? Or is there something deeper?

As we study great winners in sports and other walks of life one thing becomes abundantly clear. Great winners are fanatical about the basics and fundamentals of what they do. We’ve all heard how the basics and fundamentals are the foundational elements to success. And yet many times we just want to swing hard and hit the ball into the left field seats. The result is that we often strikeout. Lesson #1 – we’ll strikeout less and win more if we pay attention to how well we are executing the basics and fundamentals of our game. In business, perhaps we have enjoyed a winning streak lately. Human nature may cause us to take our foot off the accelerator and start enjoying the ride. What happens then? Maybe our winning streak comes to an end. We haven’t spent the time and energy continuing to cultivate relationships. We aren’t making the follow-up calls that we used to make. And we aren’t doing the homework necessary to understand what our customers really need and want.

Sandy Koufax would be an anomaly in today’s sports environment. He shunned the spotlight and stayed out of the public eye. He loved violin music – it’s said that Mendelsohn was one of his favorite composers. He chose not to chase the money and quit the game rather than risk further injury to an ailing arm. He was his own man which in itself is a special mindset. Lesson #2 – ignoring the noise in the world around us and maintaining our focus puts us on the path to winning.

Winning is seemingly about competing – right? Well, yes and no. If we are out to “beat” someone else the chances are higher that we won’t. In other words, if we become fixated on how to beat the competition, we’re really ceding our power to someone else. Why? Because our focus has shifted away from what we need to do to execute in the necessary fashion, and we’re now conjuring a methodology that we think will give us a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten that the way we win is to ignore the noise around us and execute our game plan in a flawless manner. Lesson #3 – don’t allow our competition to dictate the terms and conditions for winning.

Zig Ziglar famously said, “You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.” I used the term “special mindset” in this blog. The only thing special is the absolute, 100% core belief that we deserve to win, and we will win. But there’s one more piece to this puzzle. We must relax into winning. If our intensity is too great, we can easily deviate from the basics and fundamentals and overcompensate. I’ve seen terrific baseball pitchers that start losing because they are so amped up that they try to “throw” the ball and over-control it, rather than relaxing and “pitching” the way they know how. Lesson #4 – to win, we must believe that we will and we must remain relaxed while doing so.

Winning is a relatively simple formula that involves always executing the basics and fundamentals; ignoring all the noise that is going on around us; playing our game and not trying to beat the competition and believing without any doubt that we’ll win. Oh, and yes, relax. Putting it altogether ensures that we’ll be Hall of Famers in our own right.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Mom Was a Genius

There’s sure a lot of noise in the world these days. Unfortunately, much of the noise is angry. Social media eruptions occur continuously. People attack each other as human beings – maybe more so than they argue ideas with which they disagree. Twitter, Facebook, e-mails and text messages can be toxic and dripping with vitriol. And once a meme goes viral the crowd frenzy snowballs with everyone piling on. It’s no wonder that stress levels are high, and unhappiness has reached similar proportions. This is a dangerous environment for entrepreneurs (and everyone else for that matter).

I find it interesting that when those who yell the loudest find themselves in a room, one-on-one with someone who is their target, their demeanor changes. Suddenly there is a living and breathing individual – much like themselves – sitting across the table in a face-to-face setting. For some reason the bellicosity and histrionics melt away. One-on-one, civility emerges, and a rational conversation may occur. I call this the “talking tough behind the locked screen door” syndrome. Many people seem to be less inhibited when they aren’t having to personally interact with the individual with whom they disagree. They are easily triggered and react instantly and in an amplified manner. The one-dimensional aspect of communicating in a written format seems to be emboldening. Add the mob mentality to the equation and it quickly becomes a powder keg that could explode (and often does) without any notice.

As a youngster growing up my mother had a simple technique for dealing with anger. I’ll bet your mother used the same technique. When I got spun up about something and was ready to lash out, she would say, “Lee, count slowly to ten.” Most of the time it worked. By the time I reached ten, my frustration had defused somewhat, and I was becoming calmer and more rational. My mom was a genius back in the day! Either mothers today aren’t teaching the 10-Count Rule, or it’s been forgotten.

As an entrepreneur here’s something I’ve learned. I don’t enter into any discussion on social media that could become contentious. There’s nothing whatsoever to be gained and I’m not going to change anyone’s mind utilizing this format. I also have learned not to engage via e-mail in subject matter that could result in conflict. Think about it. We receive an e-mail – perhaps from an external source – that we may perceive as accusatory. Our immediate impulse may be to fire off a response that is defensive and lobs a few grenades in the other direction as well. We are indignant that someone attacked us in an e-mail, and we are going to fight back and “win” the argument with our prose. But does this really work? Are we changing minds or are we simply contributing to the entrenchment of each other’s positions?

The minute I smell conflict in a written communication, I typically short-circuit it with a face-to-face conversation (most preferable); a video call (next most preferable) or a phone call (least preferable). I like to be physically present for the ensuing conversation so that I can “read” the other person and show authentic empathy. I’m not interested in fighting but seek resolution. I’m not interested in escalation but seek common ground. We still may disagree, but we can do so respectfully and avoid hard feelings.

Even in face-to-face situations there may still be times when tempers flare and personal accusations boil over. This is a perfect time for Mom’s 10-Count Rule. I prefer to let the other person finish their rant and then become still and quiet for a moment (counting to at least 10 in my head). I may say something like, “I hear your frustration and think I understand where we disagree.” But I’m not about to engage in emotional dialogue and will likely ignore the personal attacks. I will speak in a quiet and deliberate voice and review the facts of the situation. Ultimately, we may agree to disagree, but at least I have avoided belittling the other person and making them feel even worse. Some may think that this is manipulation. I think it’s simply the concept of “it takes two to tango,” and I’m not going to be one of the two.

The 10-Count Rule isn’t about knocking the other person out of the argument. Instead it’s about maintaining our composure and self-control to dial back confrontation in order to reach an acceptable resolution for all parties.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Panicked Entrepreneur

The mind is an amazing organism. It can move from a euphoric state to a panicked state in a millisecond. All of us – entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike – are continually challenged to manage our thought processes. That said, have you ever found yourself in what I call a “wired-up overwhelmed near-panic spiral?” You wake up at 3:30 AM with this gnawing feeling – you’re not worried about anything in particular, but that feeling is there. You can’t go back to sleep so you get up and make some coffee. You surf the internet while drinking three cups of coffee. Then you hit the drive-through at Starbucks on the way to work and get a Triple Frappasomething with an extra double shot of cappuccino. It’s been consumed before you reach the first stoplight. By the time you arrive at the office the feeling is welling up. With few more cups of coffee, a glance at 75 new e-mails and a minor crisis dropped in your lap, you’ve now reached the pinnacle of classic panic. Oh, and it’s only 8:11 AM. What to do?

The first step is to recognize the state that we’re in. The quicker we can do this the faster we can move toward resolution. When we push on without stepping back our feelings cascade and we end up in a spiral. In aviation parlance, we’re now in full-fledged crash and burn mode. When we recognize that we’re headed into a state panic we need to stop what we’re doing IMMEDIATELY. Then we need to go and find a quiet place for decompression.

Once in our quiet place it’s important to sit with our feet flat on the floor and hands in our lap with our eyes closed. We take a deep breath and let it out slowly. We do it again and again. Focusing on our breathing is a sure-fire method of calming ourselves. Deep breathing delivers increased amounts of oxygen to the brain. Livestrong.com says this: “Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out neurohormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, which secretes the hormones that regulate all activities throughout the body.” Scientific explanation or not, this process definitely works.

Once we have begun to “unwire” through deep breathing, we might undertake the ROY G BIV exercise. ROY G BIV is an acronym for the seven colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. In our mind’s eye we see each of the colors of the rainbow traveling from the center of the earth through the bottom of our feet, up our leg, across our midsection, down the other leg and back to the center of the earth. We do this slowly and intentionally with each color of the rainbow. The purpose of ROY G BIV is to ground ourselves. I know that when I’ve been in a state of panic, I have a weird free-floating out-of-control feeling. ROY G BIV eliminates this feeling.

After spending ten or fifteen minutes deep breathing and grounding ourselves, we are now ready to move back into the day. But first we should review our goals and objectives for the day. We spend a few moments with our “To Do” list and make sure we are clear on what we intend to accomplish for the rest of the day. Then we move forward with a new purpose and a new attitude. And . . . we avoid any additional caffeine for the rest of the day. We can also eliminate panic altogether if we exercise regularly (daily for me); limit our consumption of caffeine and maintain a daily practice of meditation or quiet time.

One more thought. The older I’ve become the more I realize how I tend to allow my mind to blow things out of proportion. Almost always, what I’m imagining isn’t nearly as bad as reality. And sometimes my imagination doesn’t even reflect reality at all. Bottom line – I’m learning not to take everything so seriously which also helps to eliminate the panic that I may have felt in the past.

Recognizing that we are heading into panic mode is critical. Breaking the spiral with deep breathing and ROY G BIV is paramount. Recommitting to the day with a clear understanding of what we intend to accomplish puts us back on the calm and productive path we desire.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Difficult Conversations

It’s a fact of life that there will be times when we must communicate with someone else about something that may make both parties uncomfortable. Yes, we all will have many difficult conversations over the course of our lives – personally and professionally. And while no one looks forward to such conversations, it is important that they not be avoided. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen situations where two people just need to have that hard conversation to get back on the same page. Instead, they avoid each other entirely for a while. Then if by happenstance they are thrown together, there are awkward moments galore. I’ve seen friendships end and business partnerships blow up, simply because two people can’t come to grips with the fact that they need to clear the air and “talk it out.”

Why are these conversations so hard to have in the first place? Often it evolves from one of three places. First, we may perceive the encounter to be one where conflict will be present, and we are highly allergic to conflict. Second, we may have let ourselves be hurt and just can’t stand the thought of interacting with the person who allegedly hurt us. Or third, we may be concerned that our conversation with the other person may be hurtful to them and we don’t want to be the one to play that role. So, we suffer in silence . . . or maybe not. Rather than addressing the issue with the other person, we may have a tendency to talk to everyone else about the situation – friends, family, colleagues – often wringing our hands in despair and playing the tape(s) over and over for them. Here’s the bottom-line question. Did taking this tack make us feel any better? Probably not. Did it solve the problem? Definitely not. Were others around us unnecessarily drawn into the negativity of the situation. Almost always.

Refraining from having an honest conversation about a difficult matter does a disservice to our relationships. Now assume that we have finally decided to address the issue. Let’s talk rules of engagement. Should we have these conversations one-on-one or should a third-party be present? While there are exceptions to the rule, I think we need to have the guts to deal directly with the other person. While it may help our courage to have a wingman, the person with whom we are trying to resolve an issue may not feel comfortable putting all his or her cards on the table. Do we have the conversation in private, or do it in a public place? I’ve witnessed situations where one person wants to meet with the other in a restaurant “to avoid a meltdown.” This could be perceived by the other party as being manipulative and further strains the relationship. I’m always in favor of meeting in private and behind closed doors if possible.

Our body language is critical to the success of the encounter. We should be as open and relaxed as we possibly can. Sitting with our body turned away from the other person and our arms folded doesn’t send the message that we want to resolve anything. Keeping palms open, smiling and making eye contact will help put the other person at ease. How direct do we want the conversation to be? In my book, directness is fine, but we need to use warm candor instead of brutal honesty. We don’t need to sugarcoat our dialogue, but we must be sensitive to the other person’s feelings. If we’re there to score points and prove that we are right and they are wrong, then by all means, rub their nose in it. But if we really want resolution, we are gentle with our words while still making certain that there is no ambiguity in what we are saying.

I’ve also found that sticking to the facts is a good practice. That said, we must remember that the reason the conversation may be difficult in the first place could be due to emotions that ran amuck. Thus, we need to have empathy for the emotional factor but keep the discussion in the logical realm. And sometimes, rehashing the disagreement isn’t necessarily productive – it may be best to just apologize and move on (if an apology is warranted).

Difficult conversations are necessary and will generally be successful by adhering to this simple principle. I will treat the other person the same way I want to be treated.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The No-Fault Entrepreneur

There’s a game we learned how to play as children. Remember this? Parent – “Who tracked this mud into the house?” Children (pointing fingers) – “Freddy did it!” Then there was always that one kid who did this. Tattle-Tale Kid – “Miss Flanders, Jimmy knocked over the globe in the back of the room after recess and broke it.” As we got older and started our careers, how many times did we hear conversations like this? “We lost the Smith account. It was because John Doe didn’t pull his weight and let us down.” Ah yes, we all know about the “blame game.”

Why is it that human nature drives us to deflect blame and make sure everyone knows “I didn’t do it?” Is this a self-confidence thing? Maybe it’s reflective of the fact that none of us want to disappoint others. Whatever the case, the blame game is unproductive in any entrepreneurial environment. And it signals a flaw in an organization’s culture when the game is played regularly. Perhaps those who make mistakes are so severely held accountable that everyone is afraid to be tagged with a flub.

Entrepreneurial leaders should shun the blame game and adopt a different mindset. It’s a mindset that goes like this – “It may not be my fault, but it is my problem.” And here’s where the real leadership begins. Rather than reacting with a “whose fault is this,” the enlightened leader says instead, “Houston, we have a problem. Let’s talk about how we’re going to fix it.” Thus, the first step is identifying the problem and working with the team to find a solution. When we make this the go-to response every single time, the fear of blame among our teammates is dissipated. But solving the problem doesn’t mean that we’re finished with the issue.

Once the smoke clears and the problem has been fixed, it’s critical that we move to the second step. This is where we look at the various facets of the problem and figure out how it can be prevented in the future. It might be that we need to re-design a system or process. Maybe more training would be helpful. It’s also possible that roles and accountabilities for the team members involved weren’t as clear and precise as necessary. All of this can be accomplished without playing the blame game.

Let’s apply these principles to a real-life scenario.

Old Way – Boss says to his employees, “We were just fired by a customer because the product he ordered wasn’t delivered on time. I want to know who is at fault here, and that person needs to be standing in my office before 4:30 this afternoon.” What happens next? The blame game starts, and someone invariably is singled out to be the sacrificial lamb. They know that there are going to be harsh repercussions, and no one wants to be anywhere close to the boss’s office at 4:30.

Better Way – Entrepreneur says to the team, “We were just fired by a customer because the product he ordered wasn’t delivered on time. I have apologized to him on behalf of our organization and told him that not only is there no charge for his product, but to convince him to give us another chance, we’ll give him a 50% discount on his next order.”

Later in the day the customer agrees to give the company another chance at which point the entrepreneurial leader says to the team, “Congratulations! Our customer has agreed to give us another chance. Let’s meet at 4:30 to talk about how we can make sure that our systems and processes are modified to ensure that our products are always delivered on time.”

The team members at the first company are fearful and aren’t the least bit interested in dealing with the problem. The just want to avoid the wrath of the boss. The team members at the second company are focused on fixing the problem and then figuring out how to keep it from happening again. There is no fear because their leader subscribes to a no-fault, work-the-problem philosophy.

Our entrepreneurial endeavors are much more likely to flourish when our team members can focus on fixing problems that arise as opposed to being on the defensive and looking over their shoulders in fear. The premise is a simple yet powerful one.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.