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Why won't they let go? Fear in the Family Business

The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A Personal Confession

Rollercoasters evoke fear for me. There, I admitted it. It's not that the action of the rollercoaster—speed, erupt changes in direction or height—cause me fear, they don’t, it's the notion that these mechanical wonders . . . are mechanically complex machines . . . and complex machines . . . break.

Having admitted my fear, now, maybe, you will understand why the idea of “having a good time,” in my world, does not involve strapping myself to one of these mechanical devices; indeed, it would take just the right motivation (force?) to get me to risk of becoming a passenger. You may also, having realized the basis of my fear, be able to reason with me that my fear is irrational, and perhaps even in a way that gets me to reconsider my fear. After all, I do fly on airplanes. Oh, and yes, I have ridden rollercoasters in the past.

But, in the future? Probably not. For me a rollercoaster ride it is a waste of time and money. There is no “up-side” for me. I don’t get a thrill from riding. There is no “fun.” I’m long past the age of doing something I don’t like just to prove to others—or myself—that I’m not afraid. The motivator is going to have to be pretty good to get me to change.

Fear . . . and Holding on

If you got me on a rollercoaster and you were an astute observer, you might notice my discomfort. Nervous conversation, keen observation of the attendant locking the bar . . . subtle clues to my fear. Fear makes us want to “hold on” to what ever object seems to promise to save us from the feared outcome. A child will clutch to the seat or the safety bar or the parent,. an adult may simply hold on nonchalantly as possible but give away their fear when they “stiffen” with anxiety as the car moves over the course.

This fear and the natural tendency to “hold on”, reminds me of struggles I see in leadership transitions and particularly in Family Businesses—where the senior generation is holding on to the business and the younger generation is anxious to take over the controls.

So let's talk about the pertinent question from the younger generation's point of view . . . 

Why won't they let go?  

Ever had to "take the keys away" from an aging parent? Not so easy. For my family it was prompted by a few minor “accidents” over the course of one year followed by our local mechanic telling us that he intervened when one of my parents left the vehicle “in gear” and “bouncing against the concrete barrier” at a local store. He opened the car door, stepped on the brake, and put the car in “park.” Obviously, it was time.

So, why won't they give those keys up? Especially given all the alternatives for transportation? Family members reassure them that they will be taken wherever they want to go. There are offers to pay for assistance. Uber, Lyft, and other services are readily available in some cases. Still, they don’t want to hand over the keys.

Once the transition is accomplished—voluntarily or not—the senior often complains, repeatedly, about the inconvenience of not having their independent transportation and may have to be reminded about the reasons the keys were handed over . . . repeatedly. But, too often this difficult transition is made even more difficult because we think this should be a simple transition based on a logical analysis of the risks, right? Well, for many, it’s not.

Photo by  Laura Gariglio  on  Unsplash

It's a funny thing about humans . . . “Keys aren't just keys.” Those keys represent much more. The senior may see them as “my independence, my freedom, my way of not feeling like a burden to others, my way of helping” . . . there are deep emotional ties that make what seems like a simple exchange, become a complex path to navigate. John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington, coined the phrase “dreams within conflict” to describe how, at the root of conflict, there often is a dream that is being unrealized or threatened. Not realizing the threat to that dream makes the senior’s resistance irrational—and invites unfavorable judgements of “stubbornness, controlling, emotional, etc.”

For my mom, as an example, I think that giving up the keys meant that she would worry about being a “burden” to others—anathema to her self-sacrificing consideration of others—in depending on them for rides.

Turning over a business

Why won't the parent’s let go?  After more than two decades working intimately with families, I can sum it up in a word: Fear. (Leaders of all stripes are, too often, Managing by Fear . . . and family firms are no different. In fact, “close-systems”—such as family business where there are more emotional ties—are more likely to be affected by management by fear at critical points during their development!)

What fear? Fear that . . . 

  • the change/transition will make things worse

  • the transition will place a burden on their children

  • their own value and self-worth will be lost

  • spending more time with intimate relationships will make life more difficult

  • the business itself will struggle or fail

  • their departure as a leader will, some how, harm the family

  • fear that leaving will expose some personal weaknesses

One of the barriers to moving beyond this transition point, is that people are not very insightful about what is motivating their family member’s actions. The aging parent may think, "They are making too big a deal about this!" or "They just want my car!" . . . and their defensiveness, often becomes the excuse to redirect themselves from their own fear. The children do the same. “They won’t ever let go!” or “They want to keep control!” hides fears of not being trusted, anxieties about performance, and other issues. But back to the parents . . .

Find the Dream . . . and Address the Fear

Tied to each of these “fears” is a dream. The senior’s dreams that the change will not make things worse for the family, the employees, or the business. That there will still be a valuable role that the parent can occupy within the family or children’s lives. That family relationships will improve or at least not be damaged in the transition. That the business will continue to grow and succeed.

Helping the parent with the transition includes a couple of important steps.

First, they may need help in recognizing and stating their underlying dreams—taking care to both acknowledge the ones tied to the business role and not neglecting dreams that are not connected to the business**—and recognizing that there may be inherent conflicts within the dreams. For example, the senior may want to travel more, have less stress or responsibility and at the same time want to be present to make sure the burden on the younger generation is not too great to handle.

Second, they may need a well-defined process of addressing the fears and supporting movement toward making risk/reward decisions . . . normalizing and challenging the fears—that can help them get “unstuck” and make the transition move forward.

This is not an easy process. Often, it takes time, careful persistence to address the issues. Trust building (yes, even between parents and children!) and the slow process of addressing, and lowering, fears so that changes can proceed naturally. At times, families simply can’t, won’t, or will want to decrease the risks of a negative outcome by engaging an outside entity to guide the process.

However it gets approached, trying to force someone to get past their fears (i.e.: Fear Factor style) is fraught with risks. There is no doubt that it can make things change, if successful, but too often it will heighten fears, create more resistance, and worst of all, create a traumatic event that may harm the relationships necessary to make a transition good for everyone.

**Often the younger generation will over emphasize the dreams not tied to the business as a means to leverage change. This often backfires. The senior sees this as the younger generation trying to “force them out” or manipulate because the dreams and fears tied to the business are minimized instead of being addressed.

Available eBooks:

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

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Reclamation . . . Old Wood/New Wood; or Is that employee worth it?

I love the reclaimed depot wood we put on our cabinet ends. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

I love the reclaimed depot wood we put on our cabinet ends. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

Leaders, like a builder, can choose to get new employees or work with the old ones. Employees with issues can be seen as disposable—out with the old and in with the new—or as valuable resources worth working toward reclamation.

A Change

I have found a new joy in reclaimed old wood. Old redwood to be precise. Redwood salvaged from a deck that provided the framework for a porch that had deteriorated over time. It surprises me a little bit—this joy of working with tis old wood—because I’ve always been favorably predisposed toward “new.” Maybe it’s my history of allergies. Maybe it’s laziness. But I always enjoyed building with new wood—from scratch if you will—rather than recycling something old . . . and often not being happy with the result. But now that’s all changed.

The destruction phase. If you look closely, you will see our Melodrama sign (to the extreme left) later in our shelving picture on the—mostly—completed porch.

The destruction phase. If you look closely, you will see our Melodrama sign (to the extreme left) later in our shelving picture on the—mostly—completed porch.

The Wood

It started with a tear-down-and-rebuild project. We live in an old converted train deport. An amazing amalgam of construction. One hundred year old “bones” and newer additions make up the primary building. One of the features we loved was the “four-season porch” on the back. That porch, not in great shape when we bought the property—and poorly built originally—had deteriorated to the point that it needed to be torn off completely or rebuilt. Tear off and rebuilding . . . again not my favorite. But, it had to be done. The next couple of years, with the guidance and assistance of my contractor, consisted of working on weekends on this project, and after finishing the major work with the contractor, I am still working on the finishing touches as I write.

Redwood boards. Planed and ready to use for projects! You can see the discarded metal wagon box in the background. See the redwood wagon below!

Redwood boards. Planed and ready to use for projects! You can see the discarded metal wagon box in the background. See the redwood wagon below!

The porch was built on top of a redwood deck. Well, it was partially built on a redwood deck. The builders had cobbled together a porch stoop (by the door to the right) and a deck (covering the rest of the porch)—which allowed the whole structure to settle unevenly—there was even a metal stand probing up one part!—and helped the general deterioration. We tore out the whole underlying structure, including the redwood, as part of our rebuild.

Now, if you aren’t into wood, you should know that it is expensive to buy redwood today. When I started building shelving from this wood, I priced new redwood to see how much it would cost to build one of the shelves and found that the wood, alone, would cost me close to $500 to buy new. Now that gets a guy’s attention and makes him look at the reclaimed wood in a totally new light!!

Here are some of the shelves and other Christmas projects—vase stand, and guitar neck rests. Notice the same sign in the background that was in the earlier tear-off picture. No floor yet. Finishing the walls first.

Here are some of the shelves and other Christmas projects—vase stand, and guitar neck rests. Notice the same sign in the background that was in the earlier tear-off picture. No floor yet. Finishing the walls first.

From the salvaged redwood I have built a few sets of shelves, a child’s wagon, a dozen or so guitar head rests (for changing strings), a bunch of guitar picks, one flower-vase frame, and a conductor’s baton case. Mostly these are for gifts, partly for fun. I could show you lots of pictures . . . but I’ll limit myself to one more, that should make the point.

Some of the smaller projects. Mostly the redwood. Some ebony, maple, too.

Some of the smaller projects. Mostly the redwood. Some ebony, maple, too.

Leaders and People

All this . . . chaos? . . . effort? . . . history? . . . came to mind recently when a business owner, who was told about our process of helping organizations with their “people issues",” asked, “Why don’t they just fire them?” This sentiment, “just fire them,” sounded eerily like my attitude about wood. Just buy new wood! It’s easier. There are no problems to deal with . . . like there are with old wood. Old wood is too much trouble.

Some leaders see the world in much the same way. They would rather start over with a new employee than struggle to find a solution to their managerial problem. They minimize issues within their culture, system, or leadership that contribute to the problem. The propose superficial fixes and ultimately blame the employee for not changing. These decisions reveal the leader’s true values.

Yes, every leader has to face the fact that sometimes the only choice is to let someone go or do harm to the team or organization. But, as a leader, are you eager to adopt an “out with the old and in with the new” attitude?

I have worked with a few leaders who, a review of history or observation, revealed a pattern of employees passing through a “constant revolving door.” Rarely do these leaders see these decision as driven by their own ego or their behavior and that of the organization as the constant in this pattern. They don’t understand how lies that effect employees and leaders. Communication suffers along the way. They may struggle to see the value of mistakes in creating strong teams. They believe that failure is always bad. Other leaders see value in preserving the value of seasoned employees. They recognize that an investment in these employees may provide a superior long-term benefit.

Yes, working with the “old wood” means you have to engage with the wood in a more rigorous manner . . . trim some damaged wood away. You have to pull nails out of the boards so you don’t ruin a set of planing knives. You will make more cuts to find the solid, usable part of the boards and to reveal the pretty original grain. Finally, you will also have more cut-offs to discard.

Seven Reasons Leaders Should Focus on Retaining Employees

But there are good reasons not to start over with new wood . . . or a new employee.

  1. New wood isn’t the same as old wood. Anyone who has been building for more than 20 years knows that the wood you buy today at the big box stores isn’t the same quality as old wood. Fast-growth, sap-wood, poorly dried, cheap lumber dominate the industry. Old wood has dimensional stability, strong grain, color, hardness, and character.

    In most circumstances, employees also gain value over time. They have institutional knowledge, they have experience with the trials and errors of the past. They have awareness of what it was like before the product was available. They have relationships with coworkers, vendors, and customers. Finally, successfully “reclaimed” employees can become the biggest champions of the organization and leadership.

  2. There is a cost . . .to buying new. My father-in-law continues to “whittle-away” at a big block of Desert Ironwood from Mexico that he bought years ago for a little over $100. That one log has been part of projects for more than 20 years. Today, a 3/8" thick, 1.75" wide, 5" large stick will cost $12-15 plus shipping . . . if you can get it at all. A log like my father-in-law’s would run close to $1,000.

    Those who study business also talk about the high cost of employee turnover in organizations. The impact on “onboarding,” training, and other “real costs” may be secondary to the impact on the culture, morale, leadership trust, and other “soft factors” that, while critical to success, are less frequently measured. The big problem is, most leaders don’t have an easy cost comparison when deciding if firing an employee is in the best interests of the organization and many minimize the impact on the culture of the team—especially if this is perceived to be a pattern of the management.

  3. The old wood has a unique attractiveness —because it’s old wood. Part of the beauty of working with this old wood is the blemishes . . . the nail-holes, checked areas, and uneven coloring. It leeks “used,” but when the wood is cleaned up, trimmed, planed, sanded, and finished, it is more beautiful that a more “perfect” new board.

    “Reclaimed” employees can have this save value. When we do interviews in an organization we typically take a plant tour. We request a guide—an employee who is not a “company ‘Yes!’ person” but who is also not the company critic. When leaders guide us to the right employee for this guidance . . . often someone with a reclamation story about the company . . . other employees’ trust in that individual helps us get very honest information about whatever issues we are seeking. The “stability” of this employee (see below) promotes trust and creates the opportunity for an open dialogue that is priceless to the organization. Other employees see the value in this employee and trust their reliability, know their past history, and see the openness about the organizations past challenges . . . and their faith in the leadership.

  4. Old wood has known attributes where new wood has unknowns. Once again, old wood is far from perfect. But, you do know what you are likely to encounter in working with the wood. That’s worth something. New wood may have a high moisture content and tend to cup, warp, or crack. Old wood, once reclaimed will remain true to form, stable, and increase its value. New wood is an unknown. It may age and become cherished old wood or it may warp, crack, or fail.

    As we noted above, a reclaimed employee, in the same way is a “known” commodity. Other employees develop a respect for the employee that has come through challenges to remain a part of the organization. They trust someone who they know has not always “had it together” and see themselves in the real story of that employee. They note the optimism and faith the employee chooses to place in leadership despite the past. A new employee may have those traits, but it is an unknown risk at the time they are hired.

  5. There is a unique satisfaction to reclaiming old wood. Sustainabllity, history, value, reduction of waste, or character and beauty . . . there are many reasons that reclaiming old wood is satisfying. In the same way, there is nothing like developing, challenging, and supporting employees to be their very best . . . and then seeing that benefit the team or organization.

    Many leaders are, in fact, very open to the idea of trying to “reclaim” employees. There are several challenges however that can make this fail. This, in itself, could be it’s own post, for our purposes, suffice it to say that a poor understanding of human behavior, a weak commitment to reclamation, a lack of consistent attention over time, fear that it will fail, poor communication or planning . . . these are but a few reasons that it may not succeed without a clearly implemented and monitored plan.

  6. Developing a love of old wood opens up new possibilities. Living in an old Depot was daunting at first. The prospect of reclaiming a structure that had been turned into apartments—with it’s three kitchens and six bathrooms—did not sound like fun. But, tearing out the old porch, finding the redwood, and beginning to use this resource has created possibilities where none existed before. The cabinet ends pictured at the top for example. These boards were, in my estimation, a merely a nuisance, piled up in the attic . . . old, dusty brown boards that I was going to have to deal with at some point. Now, after several layers have been stripped, the boards planed down into quarter inch panels, the rotten parts cut away . . . they are a real center point of our remodel.

    In the same way, I have seen leaders that were burned out, dreading coming to work, contemplating leaving their position, who after working through a process of reclamation, were, once again, energized, excited about the next challenge, feeling more optimistic about their role and the organization. As the saying goes, “Success breeds success.”

  7. Working with old wood changes the woodworker. Maybe it’s obvious. The old wood/new wood dichotomy is not new. What has changed is me. Once the woodworker opens him or herself up to using old wood, the world begins to change. Board piles are interesting, seeking out businesses that reclaim wood becomes a passion, helping to tear-down old properties becomes a treasure-field to explore. One sees the cheap woods of modern building. There rekindles a joy in the old, the weathered, the sturdy.

    One of the best reasons to be inclined, first, toward reclamation when it comes to employees is that it changes the leader. (A good reason to try and “reclaim” leaders as well! Because they can be more valuable.) No, a desire to focus on reclamation will never preclude firing a bad employee. We have mentioned several times that not all the old wood was kept . . . the bad parts of the board were cut off and discarded . . . the point here is that by taking a positive view toward reclaiming the old many boards can be salvaged, materials have a longer sustainable life, and the leader becomes a more functional, well-rounded, and energized leader.

They put the wagon to immediate use! But it’s not about the wagon, is it? People . . . that’s what it is all about!

They put the wagon to immediate use! But it’s not about the wagon, is it? People . . . that’s what it is all about!

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Nine Signs You are a Normal Therapist . . . and encouragement to break the mold.

Image: villagehat.com

Image: villagehat.com

In the BBC hit series, Sherlock, the protagonist, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, characteristically known by his unusual double-billed hat called a “deerstalker,” given to him by his faithful Dr. Watson, describes himself as a “consulting detective.” Further, he also describes his nemesis, James Moriarty, in similar fashion, as a “consulting criminal.” This description, of an external expert as consultant, is something we need. In the profession of mental health, we need more “consulting experts” and fewer “normal therapists.” Consulting experts . . . ready to use their knowledge and skills to assist in all kinds of venues. Medical, legal, business, government, education. Here’s why.

I’ve been a professional therapist for over 35 years. I don’t consider my journey within the profession to be that remarkable or different from the “average” or “normal” therapist. Where it has been different, has been in the things I have done outside the “normal” parameters. In working with manufacturing companies, with family-businesses, non-profit organizations, and others.

Being a “normal therapist” myself, I’ve also supervised, administered, trained, and taught hundreds of other normal therapists over the years, and . . .

Let me be blunt . . . there are a lot of things about being “normal” that, over time, will drastically increase the risk—the risk of practicing in a manner that will undermine the therapist’s life and career. Over time, doing significant damage if not understood, addressed, and overcome.

What do I mean? Well, let me tell you. I mean that I have cringed as I have heard too many therapists, often nearing the end of their careers, that don’t have good retirement savings, do not take off quality time from their practices (some skip vacations and have not had a quality vacations for years), are not in a position to financially help their children or families and who are burned out, tired, and, sometimes, defeated by the very career they chose to support and sustain them and their families.

From a business/career stand point, the normal therapist is often their own worst problem. Let me lay it out for you . . .

Nine signs of the normal therapist:

  • Believes that working for an organization is safer than working for themselves. Ah the benefits! Salary, insurance, paid time off, training budget . . . there are several aspects of working for an organization that appear to make it the safe choice. But is it? It feels like it until the the layoffs, down-sizing, closings happen. Most businesses, even Fortune 500 firms, don’t last more than about a couple generations. It’s just not as safe as you think.

  • Thinks that the most reliable way to get paid is to be dependent upon insurance reimbursements. I hear many talking about wanting to get away from insurance but most, even the experienced, see insurance as a reliable source of revenue. Okay, sure, it is. But, organizations—who provide coverage for your clients— change insurance providers. Reimbursement rates are dropped. Getting paneled becomes more limited. You either spend time chasing the payments or pay someone to chase them for you. Is this really the most reliable form of income? For me, the answer is, “No!” Contracts, several that have laster more tan 12 years in my case are far more reliable. Negotiated rates with organizations that appreciate the value you offer is far different than the insurance panels trying to minimize costs.

  • Worries that peers, or others, may think they are driven by a desire for money. Occasionally I wonder if the worst thing you could say to a “helping professional” is that they seem to be “interested in being financially successful.” Most deny this by quickly pointing to other priorities for their work. But, just because it is not their primary goal, does it mean that they don’t want to be financially successful. In most cases, “No.” However, they are uncomfortable acknowledging this. They constantly make sure that peers know, and will not judge them, by downplaying and insisting their focus is not on money.

  • Are willing to trade time for vague benefits. They are wooed by vague benefits to their own career and live based on hopes reaping “marketing benefits,” unplanned “giving back” to the community or profession, and “just a good experience. They accepting being on call, providing free phone support, writing letters, and other tasks without much, if any, benefit to their business. I’m not suggesting that none of these things should happen—circumstance dependent, any and all of these may be appropriate or necessary; my point is, that the normal therapist simply does this, and accepts doing it, because it has been the standard practice historically.

  • Makes excuses about the unsavory elements of their career rather than working to change them. Long term complaints about hating paperwork, insurance, no shows, without taking assertive steps to remove those things from their business life. Most will simply accept these things as part of the profession rather than re-examining their utility in today’s environment or seek other forms of practice that minimize or eliminate some of these elements.

  • Constantly seeks to reassure themselves that they are competent. I hate to say it, but a majority of normal therapists have a lot of self-doubt. Just like the college student taking Psych 101 and wondering if the symptoms described in class men that they have a certain diagnosis, therapists, perhaps due to the personal intensity of their studies or primal interest, often give marquee attention to their weaknesses or deficits rather than their strengths. Few feel confident that they “know enough” or are an “expert” beyond a narrow and specifically trained knowledge base and skill-set. Yet, in truth, their life-experiences, knowledge, and training make their utility much more broad then they imagine.

  • Doesn’t take risks, even small ones, that could provide significant improvements in their career. You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?*” How about the correlary, “How many therapists . . . will change.” Therapists tend to play it safe. Leaps of faith for the sake of their career are rare. This includes wisely spending money to increase the likelihood of progressing in their careers. So, they go to mediocre trainings, don’t pay for supervision to gain expertise, do not spend money to learn new processes or products that could make their practice stand out and separate them from other providers.

  • Follows the rules. While their are pioneers in our field, out there breaking new ground, as a group, therapists are prone to follow the “tried and true” of that the profession has dictated health care “is.” There are few “disrupters” or “contrarians” as a rule in the group and thus not much innovation. Tendencies run more toward “am I doing it right?” and against, “could it be done better?”

  • Feels victimized by outside sources. Let’s face it colleagues. We often “play the victim.” Whether it is society, insurance companies, culture, history, etc. there is often a stain of helplessness norms in our thinking. These professionals, among the highest educated and trained people in the world, feel trapped and powerless by forces outside their control. We may seek to liberate others from the forces that we fear may be in fact constricting our own trajectory.

Professionals that stay trapped in this normative mindset may have an adequate, or even good, careers. Many do. They will, however, be subject to operating within the confines of the health care system and their own perceived limitation of their profession. The tragedy of this is that their are no “consulting therapists” in daycare centers, oncology offices, pediatrician practices, legal firms, or on family business boards—among many other places where they could provide significant benefits. More sadly, most professionals have never even asked themselves the question, “Could they benefit from my consulting?” Thus, the inquiry is never made. No discussions take place. No services are defined or contracts completed . . . and no help is available.

Do you see these signs in our profession? How does it affect the careers of your colleagues? How many of the nine traits influence your thinking?

As a profession, we need to focus on becoming more entreprenurial, taking a broad view of our capabilities, and turning those into non-traditional areas that could use our help. IN as sense, we need to see our selves as “consulting professionals” and not just therapists. Are you ready? If so, grab your “deerstalker” and let’s go. The game is afoot, dear Watson.

Ready to be abnormal? Share our post, make a comment, or more than one, and include in your comments how you shared the post, and you will be entered in a drawing for a digital copy of our book Beyond the Couch: Turning your behavioral health degree into cash without losing your soul and other prizes. To encourage comments, we will give away one copy of the book for every 10 comments. So, even if you already have it, or are not interested in the book for yourself, you can tell us who you’d like to give to or we will give it away for you!

*So, how many therapists does it take to change a light build? “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

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I'm a fanatic . . . about culture . . . but it better be real!

Yep, I could be  that guy!  I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Yep, I could be that guy! I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

I admit it. I’m a fanatic. No not a ranting, in your face, zealot. I’m from the midwest after all. Our zeal is a little more tempered. Stoic. Nice. That reminds me, our state once thought the best tourism tag line for our state was to promote this . . . “Nebraska, nice.” Ugh. Doubt it helped much. Anyway, back to me, the fanatic. I bear all the hallmarks of being a “true believer,” I have the gear, I study carefully everything about my passion, I’m drawn to others who share a similar love for the object of my obsession, I’ve done it all . . . except the tattoo. But then again, I’m from a different generation and, again, midwestern.

So, what is it that I am fanatical about? Well . . ., before I tell you and some of you sign off—concluding that your passion is not mine, and thus irrelevant—let me say, this post is not about the object of my fan-dom (fan-dumb?) but about the power of culture You see, the entity upon which my interest is focus is, right now, not worthy of such devotion. Ouch. It hurts to even admit that, I’m such a homer when it comes to college football.

The truth is the truth however and it is undeniable that my beloved team—the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, or “the Huskers” for short—has been awful. Last year? 4-8. The year before? 4-8. Dismal. Yet, this team has a top 15 recruiting class this year. They have been projected to finish in the top 20 by a number of prognosticians. Enthusiasm is high among the fans. Hope is abundant. What gives? Well a change in leadership but perhaps even more importantly the establishment of a new culture.

You can feel it. In the way the players talk, in the way they play, in their belief in the team and coaches and their willingness to voluntarily commit their discretionary effort to the team’s goals. Just watch their body language. A few years ago, under a different coaching regime . . . we won’t name names, I saw players on the side lines with their heads down, looking away or even pushing past . . . and thus avoiding . . . coaches who were trying to talk to them. It was not surprising when, over time, they began to look like they weren’t united in trying to win and the results began to mirror that disconnect. My observations were confirmed when a friend, and former division I quarterback, made the same observation, “You can tell they don’t want to play for this coach,” he said, “Just look at how they act when they come off the field.” Finally, someone close to the program also stated it. “They lost faith in the coach.”

So what has given this new culture its legs? Not success . . . not yet. Unless it’s the reputation of past success which these leaders have or the progress being made. But, success in the present? No. The team started out 0-6. The first time in the history of the program. Amazingly, the team continued to fight. They appeared to improve over the course of the season. They fought no matter what the circumstances and even looked better when they lost. It was clear that they “had each other’s back” and the team was, in fact, a Team. Having played both for teams that were not united or had a successful culture as well as teams that were very high functioning (including a national coach of the year) here are a few observations (from an outsider’s view) of what has made this work.

  1. The leaders have a deep understanding of—and deep connection with —the broader context of the program and how to utilize the context to promote success. The Coach grew up in Nebraska. Population 1,325. The “Walk On Program” here at Nebraska—the recruiting of local kids—is at least as important as the getting the “blue-chippers”—highly ranked recruits— in the context of Nebraska football. He gets this. He praises the fans and the culture as being “like no other” and highlights its strengths—joking about how “blue-chippers” think they’ll see a football stadium in the “middle of a corn field.” Early cohorts talked about valuing the walk on program but in practice . . . they didn’t get it.

  2. The leaders demonstrate a commitment to one thing—success. I hear statements like, “We are going to be good.” or “ We’ll see if he can contribute.” Even doubts, “Some may not be with the program” It’s clear that the goal is the focus and they believe reaching for that goal will help everyone who buys in. You could call it the “while no one is an ‘expendable crewman’ . . . some are more expendable than others.” But the message is clear. This is about being successful as a team. You can “get on board” or not but it is the single clear focus of the program.

  3. Hard work is the route to success. How do you go from 4-8 two years in a row to the 13th ranked recruiting class? Hard work. Weight training. Husker Power. Strength Coach Zach Duvall. The coaches have not shied away from saying that players were not where they needed to be. In fact after the final game to our Iowa neighbors, the coach said it hurt to see that they were bigger and stronger than we were. How’s that for honest clarity? Yes, the coaches are careful to allow that there are many paths to success (that other coaches may have tried) and that previous coaches may have had a different focus and emphasis, but it’s clear that the team did not meet their criteria for strength, speed, and commitment. It’s also clear that anyone wanting to be a part will dedicate themselves to these attributes.

  4. Finally, over everything else, the emphasis is on people. The clear message—and one that resonates as not just being "coach-speak”—is that this is about the players. Helping them become better men. Developing their potential. Becoming a close-knit group and having fun together. Yes, fun. In fused in everything is this belief that hard work, dedication, team chemistry, and success is fun and worth the effort. The mission is not just winning on the field it’s being successful as a person.

In Coach Frost’s own words . . .

As I was writing this blog, an Omaha World Herald article by Sam McKewon came out where Coach Frost talked about the importance of culture. Here’s part of what Frost was quoted as saying . . . “Culture eats scheme for breakfast . . . I can put the guys in the best scheme, the best offensive plays, the best defensive plays we can come up with. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have . . . people holding each other accountable, and we don’t have our team making smart decisions and grinding and working hard, [i.e.; the right culture] I’m not sure the best scheme in the world matters.”

Frost boils it down to two factors, 1. players making decisions in the best interests of their teammates, and 2. a desire to excel and no fear of failure.

Will this, ultimately, lead to the success the coaches want? If we’re talking wins . . . it’s unknown. In fact, due to the variables at play in such an endeavor it could be argued that their is no way to determine what causal factors lead to success on the field. Fair enough. But if you just look at the players behavior, other on and off the field, you can already see a clear and vital difference. It’s clear that this focus on culture has brought a new energy, a willingness to commit voluntary effort to succeeding, and cleared aways a number of hurdles that were detrimental to success. A strong culture, at the very least, increases the likelihood that success is possible—in athletics and in business.

P.S. I was told by someone who worked with transportation for recent Husker teams would leave the bus “trashed” when they got done with a trip. Not anymore. The Coaches, from the first, made players clean up after themselves and appreciate the service they were being given. Coaches talk about representing the state, university, and each other. The message is clear—even in this minor detail, “We will treat people, including ourselves, with respect.” Sometimes it starts that small to build a great culture.

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Mr. Rex and Ego?

Photo by  Vern Ooi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vern Ooi on Unsplash

The Best Team Players? They know It's not about them.

Those of you who participated in athletics know that, as an athlete, you get to experience a lot of real time "psychology on display through behavior" as player's egos become involved in competing. Hopefully, for most people, the need to "stroke one's ego" gets resolved by the time we reach adulthood . . . but not always.

A few yeas ago I was playing "noon basketball" with a cadre of guys at a local gym. One of the amazing things about this group was that two of the most talented players were over 70!  Yes, 70! By "most talented" I don't mean that they had the most stamina, speed, or leaping ability when compared to the younger players,  but boy did they have skills and the experience to be a great asset to whatever team they played for.!  Both still played on traveling teams against player across the nation. Very impressive.

One of the players, I particularly liked. He was very laid back, competitive, yet encouraging to other players--a guy who was confident enough to play well himself and encourage the best out of others, both those on his team and the opponents as well, a real team-player. The other? Let's just say . . . that it didn't take a Psychologist to tell that his game was a little bit more about stroking his ego than just having fun competing--not that ego doesn't play a role for most of us at some level, some people just hide it more reliably. :)  Anyway . . . let's talk about .

The Day The Ego Demanded "it's Due!"

We were playing one day, as usual, when a new player joined us. His assignment was to guard Rex. Now, a new player, especially a younger one, would have no reason to believe that this would be a difficult task. After all, this is your grandfather--someone your should be able to outmaneuver, out jump, and out hustle. But Rex was an athlete, with a capital A. He could make shots all over the floor and from "way downtown"--far distant from the basket.

His favorite shot was a hook-type delivery off a drive to his right. Those of us who had played with Rex for a long time knew that the best strategy was to overplay his right side, and force him to go left where, although still capable, he was far less dangerous and effective. It was common knowledge and everyone who defended him more than once knew this.

The new player who joined us that day, however, didn't know this. As he tried to guard Rex, this septuagenarian shark, repeatedly drove right and drained the basket . . . time after time . . . scoring easily and, I think, frustrating the younger man's increasingly strenuous attempts to stop his scoring. Finally, the younger man, once again, beaten to the delivery of the shot, exclaimed, "Rex, you are unstoppable!" Rex beamed. But, unfortunately for Rex, the moment didn't last. 

Another player, let's call him Doug, who was known for his less-than-sensitive-candor, impulsively reacted. "It's not hard to stop Rex," he commented dourly.  "That's easy. He can't go to his left."  A statement, that over-simplified guarding this athlete, but never-the-less did communicate the best approach to stopping Rex's game. An awkward silence hung in the air, as players absorbed this Doug's "attack" on Rex's abilities and demonstrated Doug's own need to stroke his ego "against" a player, in Rex, that definitely had superior skills. Some glancing at Rex, uncomfortably, and wondering how Rex would respond.

Well, Rex wasn't one to let such blatant disrespect to pass. He said nothing, at first. I was surprised, but remained watchful.  The next time Rex's team had the ball, Rex, playing point guard, took the ball, drove to his left, executed his signature hook shot, banking it into the basket off the backboard, the pointedly directed a comment to Doug, "So, I can't go left huh?"

Flashes of Junior High School

"What is this, Junior High School?" The thought flashed through my mind.

So, Rex proved he could go left. Doug was "put into his place," and Rex's ego could remain intact--although why it was threatened so much by the comment remains unknown. Or so it seemed for a moment. Doug, unfortunately, didn't have the wisdom to let it go either, and the rest of "noon ball" was marred by a general pensive, irritation punctuated with some general aggressive playing and "bad will."

The funny thing is, for all the posturing egos on display, that day . . . nothing had really changed. We all still knew that the best strategy, when guarding Rex, was to force Rex to go left. No one thought less of him as a player, since all players have strengths and weaknesses to their game. And we were all sure that Doug would continue to comment on things that others would think but definitely not say. While Doug would rush in to fill the void. We also knew that Doug, no matter how long he played--would he even be playing in another 30 years?--would never be as good as Rex.

What did change was that it was clear that Rex's ego was tied up in his ability as an athlete (and so was Doug's, but that's another story) and that Rex would get defensive, react with somewhat controlled anger, if challenged . . . and this trait, could be turned against him, by unscrupulous opponents. That Doug, or others, could easily "get under his skin" with just a comment despite the fact that he was a great player. I can imagine some competitors I have played against in competitive venues, making comments,  "What's the matter, can't you go left?" and goading him into "proving them wrong" ---thereby taking him out of his best game and using his emotion against him—and disadvantaging his team.

Ego vs. Team

When Doug made his comment, and Rex visibly reacted, my intuition and experience told me that Rex would have to prove himself by forcing the next shot . . . going left. He did, and it worked, he made the basket. But what if that had not been in a "pick up game" but in a game that counted for something. Was that the right time and place to take the shot?  Maybe. Would a defender, as I did, anticipate his need to go left and position himself to block or alter the shot.  Possibly. But ego doesn't consider what is best for the team only what is demanded to keep the ego intact. 

Rex, it appears, didn't trust the team. He didn't believe that that everyone already saw him as a superior player--even if they recognized that he preferred shooting going to his right. He probably was fearful that others would "believe" John's view or that perhaps it would make it harder if the young man guarding him forced him to operate going left. Some subconscious fear drove his need to respond. Ultimately, however it was driven by his own fears about himself and his ability.

Another ego and it's effect . . . a starter on one of my high school teams "lost it" when his shoe came untied and the coach didn't call a time out to let him fix the problem. He responded by kicking his shoe off, sending it flying over the bench, and starting to hack (foul) other players. He fouled out of the game in the first quarter. I have never seen such a ego-driven temper tantrum quite like it before or since. Playing the rest of the game without our number one point guard and a great shooter certainly did not help the team and we lost the game.  Those whose ego strength, to continue the use the Freudian term, isn't sufficiently strong will not be able to laugh at themselves, apologize, admit mistakes, or put the team first.  They may be very talent and accomplished but, in some fashion or another, they will always be a one man show.

Leaders, Employees and Ego

When consulting with organizations you inevitably will run into people whose ego is a barrier to them being the best leader they can be. Whether as an employee or a boss, their fragile self-worth will manifest itself in defensiveness, rejection of valid criticism, and a stubborn refusal to examine mistakes and learn from them.  Often, these are very bright and accomplished people who has skillfully found ways to mitigate some of the negative effects--perhaps they are superficially charming, or hard working, or they maintain and aloof distance--but, like Rex, everyone knows of the ego-weakness and how it effects their work and the organization as a whole.

Attempts to point out the weakness results, again like Rex in the story, in them proving (at least to themselves) that the have a strong ego and the problem is not them but is the problem of the person pointing out the impact of their behavior.  

You can spot this trait often when a person "flip-flops" on responsibility when they can no long dismiss it. So, if problems are pointed out by another colleague or employee this person may simply dismiss it, or aggressively refute it. But if the problems amplify to the point the behavior is threatening the organization and they are forced to face their behaviors . . . the "Ego-challenged" person will admit a problem, superficially take responsibility for it, perhaps even apologize (if necessary) and verbally agree to a need to change.

But watched closely, and over time, they will reverse course . . . reverting back to their baseline, ego-protecting view, that "the problem isn't me."  When this happens, you can be sure that you are dealing with someone who, to reach their full potential, has a need for significant work on the ability to take constructive criticism, be self-critical, and learn to grow.  In Patrick Lencioni's words They suffer a lack of humility . . . thinking, albeit somewhat subconsciously, more about themselves that the good of the organization. In those moments it is, once again, all about them.

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The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything . . .

 

Douglas Adam's fans who are familiar with The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy know that a group of hyper-intelligent beings demanded to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Through. It takes 7½ million years for Deep Thought to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be . . . 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless  . . . because the beings who provided the query never actually knew what the Question was.

But we do. The Questions is, What is meaning of 42?"  Well, it turns out that 42 is the approximate number of the beans it takes to make one shot of coffee. Thus the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything . . . is coffee.  Makes sense. At least to me.

So, fill up your cup and enjoy . . .

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The Neighbor, Grandpa's Gun, Reputation . . . and Authenticity?

Photo by  Lucas Minklein  on  Unsplash

The Neighbor, Grandpa's Gun, Reputation . . . and Authenticity?

A Boy Finds his Neighbor . . . and his Dad's gun.

My Dad was only 12 years old, when, on his way home he passed by the family's wood pile, and there, laying facedown on the ground, was his neighbor. It may be surprising to you, that "finding one's neighbor facedown on the ground" didn't exactly surprise him, but it didn't. In 1934, it wasn't entirely unexpected to find a neighbor drunk and passed out. After all, everyone knew about the "moonshiners" that lived down the hill in his small Arkansas town . . . and the fact that some neighbors, including this one, liked to "hit the sauce."

It also wasn't that odd to find this neighbor in that state. He was an occasional hunting-companion of my Grandfather's, and truth be told, was known for consistently, if not regularly, "tying one on." To my Dad, at that moment, the only odd thing about finding this neighbor, in this situation, was . . . that there was a gun lying next to him, and . . . that It was his Father's gun.

Authenticity. 

Authenticity is often cited as a characteristic for professional success. I confess, at times I feel quite confused about what writers in the fields of business, professional studies, or consulting mean as they tout this authenticity as a trait necessary for success. What does it mean? Is it "being a man, or woman, of your word?" Being honest or humble (in a Patrick Lencioni sense) in not thinking first of your own safety above the needs of the organization?  Does it mean just being a "good person?"  Is it as simple as what we used to call "guarding your reputation?"

I think of my father's story when, occasionally, I ask myself, "Does reputation really count for anything anymore?" To me, growing up in a small town in the midwest, reputation meant everything. As a kid, I knew, just by observing, who the adults considered  "good people" and who, well, were not--people in whom they placed their trust.

But, I no longer operate in a small village and the clear linkage from reputation to success is less apparent. So, is this need for authenticity even true in our new cosmopolitan world?

A couple of years ago, my wife brought me a book touting some new "revolutionary" ideas she had picked up at a used book sale. She said "this is kind of interesting, maybe you'd like to read it." I instantly recognized the name. It was a T.V. pitch-man that I had seen extolling many different products over the years. I told her I didn't think he was credible, then found--on the internet of course--articles that talked about his history as a con-man, his prison sentence for fraud, and on-going "business" propositions. We tossed the book. But, just as easily, I could have not heard about this promoter and the marketing certainly made it look legitimate.

Does it still matter?

So today, does your reputation really matter?  Stories abound, across industries, that seem to imply that many who abuse this "truism," that you authenticity is important, go on hiding their true nature, fooling people who come under their sway. With the advent of on-line business, new questioning old moral absolutes, and with an expanding population, it doesn't seem that there has ever been a time when it is easier to operate in anonymity--and without accountability. 

Yet, I still see business gurus talking about the importance of authenticity. So, does it matter or are they parroting values of another age?  I don't know.  What I do know is this; I don't want to operate with anything less than the belief . . . that it does matter. I've benefitted, and watched others benefit from, great acts of personal integrity and leadership. Even if one could "get away" with being less than authentic they would still have to look at themselves in the mirror. Oh I know, the con-man is not "troubled" by feeling bad about the harm he does to others. But, I still think, down deep he knows exactly who he is, and more importantly, who he is not.

I was entering a store today in "the city" as a woman exited. She was being followed by a couple of store employees--one, of whom, was filming her with his phone. A black truck waited her at the door. As she rushed to get in the truck, she was frustrated in her attempt by the locked door. Through the open window, she barked, "Let me the *&%# in!" Her companion complied, as the employee continued to film and, moving behind the truck, transferred the focus from the woman to the truck--a truck that I now noticed had no license plate. What had she done to warrant such surveillance? I don't know. But I suspect a visit with the police is eminent. 

Coming from the small-village that I do, it is hard sometimes to justify that "world" with what happens today. Store clerks tell me that it is company policy to not interfere with shoplifters and let them walk out the door with merchandise. Educated people advocate to not prosecute various people/groups that clearly have violated laws. Too often I have heard the phrase, "What's right for you?" in collegiate discussions about cultural problems as solutions, as if, all things are subjective to the individual whims and preferences of each individual person.

The psychiatric hospital was bought by a big corporation, staffing problems became an issue, accusations were made and the state came in to investigate. Colleague stated, "You know Bryan would be the first to report it if this was really happening."

The Court and the Outcome

What happened with the neighbor? My grandfather, probably sensing what had happened, told my father to go inside and wait. Presumably, he checked out the situation, then contacted the authorities. Later, there was an inquest to follow up on this "unexplained death."  My father, as the person who found the body, was called before the judge as a witness. He told me that afterwards he had no idea what his 12 year-old self had said on the stand because he was so afraid they were going to "lock up" his Dad.

They didn't.

The ruling from the court was that it was a suicide. The neighbor, knowing where Grandfather kept his guns had evidently gone into the house, took one of the rifles, and used the woodpile to help him discharge the gun. My grandfather's reputation, behavior, and actions on that day --and before that day--as well as the neighbor's reputation for inebriation, all protected Grandpa from the fears my father entertained.

Authenticity was not an option but an expectation in my home. Watching, my father, along side my mother, as they served a small midwestern college, in a small community, over the course of 51 years, it was a lesson he'd learned long ago. It served them well.

 

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Ten Reasons "Controllers" Don't Recognize their self-defeating patterns

thermostate.jpg

Photo by Moja Msanii on Unsplash

 

Ten Reasons "Controllers"* Don't Recognize their self-defeating patterns

You've seen it. The person who tries to control a situation when they ought to just leave it alone. The guy or gal who can't see that their actions are causing more harm than good. Why do they do it? Why can't they recognize their own fear? Is it "poor insight?" A lack of psychological sophistication? Poor people skills? A bad childhood? Perhaps. But here are some more pragmatic ways to look at it . . . 

  1. It has become a habit. Controlling people control. In their minds, they are helping and often they are. So, the success of "making things happen" creates a Pavlovian-conditioned state (perhaps more Skinnerian) where the behavior is likely to reoccur.

  2. Other people respond to it. Face it. A lot of people don't want to be in control. They don't want the responsibility for the outcomes and they are happy to give up that role to someone willing to step in and take it.

  3. It masquerades as knowledge and wisdom. Confidence, assertiveness, bold initiatives often give the impression that the person "must know" what they are talking about. Right or wrong the controller often is, defacto, given some credit for knowledge or wisdom by reason of their action.

  4. Controlling prevents facing internal pain. Control is a way of avoiding uncertainty, inefficiency, judgement . . . a host of states that may cause the controller to feel ways they do not want to feel. "Taking the reins" for the sake of preventing these bad outcomes is often done "for others" but really is the controllers way to avoid these emotional states themselves.

  5. It looks like confidence and leadership. Since controlling is an active process, others have to secumb or fight to take an opposing point of view. Controllers, over time, tend to win by attrition as others "give up the field" and simply choose not to fight. The controller "gains ground" simply be their natural tendency toward being on the offensive.

  6. Negative consequences are not immediate. The consequences of the controlling behavior is often accommodated, tolerated, or dismissed . . . in the early stages, especially if the desired outcomes are positive. The organization is growing, the business is making money, or the family is thriving. However, over time the impact of the control implodes. People begin to react to the control. As outcomes diminish people begin to question the controllers behavior, motives, and vision.

  7. It is often disguised in humility and openness. Controllers who don't have good people skills are simply bullies. Those who do have these skills often cloak their control in positive ways. "I only want to help." or "You can, of course, do whatever you want to do. But, I think . . ." implying often that their answer is best. One CEO, dealing with a benevolent controlling consultant told me, "She's so nice you almost don't mind the way she pushes you around."

  8. Criticism is not allowed. By "criticism" I mean the critical process of examining ideas thoroughly. Many controllers are good at making logically sound, quick decisions. They may under-value the process of allowing others to evaluate the decision-making process. This leads to unilateral decisions. Not fully getting other's on board and committed and when the outcomes turn negative leading to blaming the controller for their decisions and behavior.

  9. The motivation is to help. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the reasons controllers don't see themselves clearly is because when they look inwards they know that their motivation is good. They want to help. They clear away the confusion. They prevent inefficiency that is frustrating or hindering others. They get things done.

  10. It works. Bottom line. Controllers control because it works. It achieves the short-term needs of the individual, the team, or the organization. The question controllers fail to ask themselves however is, "Yes, it works, but at what cost?" Often it is at the cost of developing the leadership skills of people working for them, developing an achilles heel of a single vision, or in family business, trampling on relationships. Long-term what works maybe be antithetical to what works in the immediate moment.

Leaders, who tend toward control, need to find ways to check their natural instinct. This does not mean downplaying their strengths or abdicating the need for "controls" in their leadership. It means having good "checks and balances" on their natural tendency.  Develop ways to get feedback from other team members, take time to get an outside perspective, create habits to incorporate others into the decision-making process. See yourself as a resource, an encourager, an enabler . . . and less of a director, tactician or decision-maker. Recognize the leadership need others have for inclusion, affection, and their own control as you lead. Long-term the likelihood of success is greater.

Others working with controlling leaders need to firmly assert the need for the leader to develop a more rounded way of leading. This may not be easy for all the reasons cited above.  The controlling leader is not likely to "see" the need for changes. The appeal is often best couched in terms of the needs of the team or the organization. "We know that you have a lot of strengths. We need to you continue to build on those strengths to meet the future demands," is one way to approach this conversation. Don't wait for the crisis, where the deteriorating conditions force this leader to "admit" that something is wrong. Challenge them to grow and demonstrate a willingness to lead in a way that is often uncomfortable for them but of great value to those they are leading.

 

* "Controllers" in this context means, "minimally well-adjusted, mentally healthy" people who value control. Controllers here does describe sociopath control issues who control out of a need to dominate others, create win-lose scenarios, and/or who are mentally unhealthy.

Get more . . . Download an eBook from HSC!

Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

 

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Whole Foods . . . Amazon, my own "Order-to-shelf" experience . . . and "who has time to be inconvenienced?"

Photo by  jesse orrico  on  Unsplash

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

 

 

Whole Foods (WF) has been in the news a lot lately. After being purchased by Amazon, the challenges of adapting to a new corporate culture and system have been highlighted. Chief among the points of friction is the "order-to-shelf" system that attempts to reduce the inventory that is wasted throughout Whole Foods.

Now, I have no connection with either Whole Foods or Amazon . . . and only know what has been reported in the media. True, or not, the story has implications for the positive and negative outcomes of a modern inventory management system.

This public issue has brought me back to my education and experience on business trends, particularly trends that have lead to ideas like this "order-to-shelf" mentally. This trend of managing inventory comes out of manufacturing settings were it is often called "just-in-time," this philosophy is a means to reduce the cost of inventory and help the company be successful. I first encountered this in an agricultural manufacturing company in 1998. Does the idea work? Sure . . . at least in theory . . . and sometimes, if done well, in practice. However . . .

Here's why I typically say it works "in theory and often NOT in practice.." We have a local store that is part of a national chain in a small town near where we live. We go there for all kinds of "acreage-related" needs. Feed, electrical, plumbing, outdoor wear. But increasingly, we are by-passing this store to go to an even smaller town to make our purchases--many of which are at a higher price point. Why? Because of the failures of a poor "just-in-time" system.

You see, I have had too many experiences with making the journey to big chain store (24 miles round-trip) only to find that they do not have enough inventory to meet my need. I go to buy six hinges and they only have five. I plan on getting an item that I know they stock only to find the shelf empty. I need a specific size of bolt and they only carry the most common sizes and they do not cary any others.

Contrast this to the other store. This store was a curiosity from the time it opened. It is obvious that one of the business strategies this family-operated store had from the beginning was to have an extensive inventory. When it opened many of us wondered how a little store in a very small town could keep such a large inventory and not go broke. Would they last beyond the first year? Well they have and it has grown exponentially. Talking with customers, it is clear that they are traveling from several counties to this little store because of the confidence that they can get what they need.

They are getting more and more of my business as well. For me, the bottom line is I'd rather pay a little more . . . than being inconvenienced. Every time I "waste a trip" to the chain store, I vow to make the family store my preferred destination. Especially when I reflect that this inconvenience is not only a waste of my time, it's also expensive--it means I will actually have to make another trip--back to the chain on another day (hoping the truck came in) or more likely, right away to the family store . . . and pay more anyway.

Once again, I have no doubt that inventory management systems, such as what Amazon is trying to implement, are a beneficial to the business if done well. Given the enormous success of Amazon, perhaps they will iron out the problems and Whole Foods will benefit. So if you can do this so well that it doesn't inconvenience your loyal customers. Do it. However, done poorly, the impact on the customer experience, demonstrates that the cashflow and bottom line are more important than the customer . . . and even the most loyal will go elsewhere.

The news about Amazon/Whole Foods also makes me reflect on what these systems do to the culture and engagement of the workers. But that's a consideration for another day. The news reports say that stress is high and seeing an employe crying has "become normal."

 

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On Independence Day . . . Visiting relatives . . . at the family business!

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, Amboy, Minnesota (Photo from website)

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, Amboy, Minnesota (Photo from website)

So our family--or those of us still at home--just returned from our mid-summer vacation. We went a wandering to the north shore of Lake Superior and then on to Apostle Islands this time . . . and the experience was a good reminder of the value of family.

Later, I may tell you about the families that lived at the lighthouse for an entire season since the only way to access the spot was by boat, or of the Nebraska families that helped settle Madeline Island, or of going to school across the "ice road"--but today, I'll tell you about a part of our extended family and their business.

The historical stories of family and the time our "core family"  spent together were a good reminder of the value of the family--always easier to remember when away from the bustle of chores, work, and such--but an even more delightful reminder came when we visited relatives.

"Visiting relatives on vacation" always evokes a feeling of an ominous, discordant, chord in my head--I probably was too influenced by Disney as a kid. But the truth is, my family often visited extended family on vacation. Most of the time it was the vacation. So, I really only have good associations with the events . . . despite Walt's affects. This time would be no different . . . .

The last time we visited Lisa in Amboy, our cousin, on my wife's side of the family was on the roof. (After 36 year in the family, I claim them, and I guess, they claim me too), Why was Lisa on the roof? Because the roof needed shingles. So there was Lisa on the roof shingling this remodeled gas station in preparation for opening her own cafe. Now, many years later, the cafe is a full-fledged thriving operation and obviously, to an outsider's eye, a critical part of the community.

I'll spare you the details of setting up the visit but suffice it to say that both Lisa, and her mother, made concessions to allow the visit to occur--after much of the following: "exactly what day and time will you arrive?" And scheduling and rescheduling a round-trip drive to Amboy for our Aunt Maria who lives 45 minutes away but still bakes pies for the cafe.

The thing my "consulting mind" noticed right away--after our brief "hello" and settling into a table at the south end of the cafe while Lisa hurried back to the kitchen--was all the marks of a successful venture.

The Amboy Cottage Cafe us a very busy place for one thing. In a very, very small town. It was not early, most people would already be at work, yet there was a full house and a constant caravan on customers the entire time of our visit.

The customers going in and out of the cafe, I noticed, regularly go out of their way to connect with Lisa--sticking their heads through the swinging door into the kitchen, bantering about their last visit or preferences--lots of connecting and evidence of strong relationship-building in full view. This was verified by the rows and roes of special mugs (see photo) that line the wall--evidence of how many customers had taken advantage of, and paid the $100 fee, to join the life-time free first cup of coffee club. (I lost track somewhere around 125-ish)

Coffee club mugs. Each personally crafted for the customer. I think we we came away with 6 or 7 ourselves.

Coffee club mugs. Each personally crafted for the customer. I think we we came away with 6 or 7 ourselves.

I wasn't at all surprised to find evidence of success at "Lisa's shop"--despite the cafe being in a very tiny town (2010 census lists it at 525) with too few people to support a cafe. Lisa's family has always been high achievers with an amazing blend of intelligence, creativity, and insatiable curiousity--the kind that creates that feeling of  "they-can-do-everything-better-than-me" that would make you would want to avoid them just to protect your own sense of self-worth . . . if they weren't such great and personable people as well. (By the way, it's not just my assessment. Two of Lisa's brothers worked for NASA)

Finally, after waiting for Lisa to prepare breakfast for all her regulars and us as well, Lisa sat down to chat with us. Here are some of the things my consulting brain noticed:

1. This wasn't just a cafe . . . it was a community. The customers were there for the food and coffee no doubt. But they were really there because of Lisa. The plans of a recently result antique bridge were in display (Lisa headed up the push to get it restored). She was part of the fabric of the town and local area. (See a Star-Tribune article and picture of the bridge)

2. Lisa talked like a business owner. In our short visit she mentioned profit margin, her five year plan. Her eventual goals for the business and her life. She expressed a wish that my wife was closer so she could make use of her organic, sustainable produce and edible flowers.

3. She demonstrated that the business was about the people. Yes, it is great food. Yes, the decor is perfect. Yes the creativity is evident--where can you go that you can order your pancakes made into any shape you want? Or get Maria's homemade pies?

4. She works hard. i noticed the cafe is open seven days a week. Many days are long opening at 6 am and closing at 8. Lisa, of course, will be there earlier and later than the "official hours."

When we were done with our visit we drove out to see the reclaimed bridge. While we were there a car approached, stopped, and out jumped my wife's Aunt Maria. Had we forgotten something? No, She was bringing out the Fedora my 11 year old had admired in the local thrift shop. She thought he should have it, so . . . she bought it and set out to catch us before we left town.

I don't think Lisa's done. By that I mean that I don't think the cafe is her final goal. The cafe is a means to an end . . . to an independence to pursue her dreams. But in pursuing those dreams, she has created a successful family business

Hope you all enjoy your holiday . . . and the family.

Own or work for a family business? Check out our free eBook: Family Legacy: Protecting Family in Family Business.

Are you a social science professional? Are you interested in developing private contracts to provide services outside the insurance market? Dr. Miller has just formed a private Facebook group to provide a place for conversation and sharing our experiences and lessons learned. If you would like to be a part of this group, contact Bryan and he will send you an invitation to join. Limited to professionals or students in the social sciences only!

 

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Downtime

A favorite spot on the north island. Tauranga, New Zealand

A favorite spot on the north island. Tauranga, New Zealand

Balance? What Balance?

If you read much about being an effective leader you will undoubtably run across the siren's call to have balance in your work-life.  Many have ballyhooed the need for, and the benefits of, regular downtime . . . yes, regular, scheduled, time away from the frenetic activities of your business or career.

I must admit this goes against everything I have been conditioned to do.  You see I come from Northern European stock, I live in the agricultural midwest, from a small town, from parents who grew up on a farm and lived through the depression.  I was taught, although not explicitly, that you "work first then play."  I also learned to always ask myself the question, "Am I working hard enough?" The catch, of course, in this doctrine being that their is always more work that could be (should be?) done. In addition, I am an "overly-socialized" eldest son. I am inclined to, and in fact often relish, the practice of doing too much not doing too little.

I subject you to all this personal self-assessment to help you appreciate the impact of this next bit of news . . . . I am writing this while enjoying the sea-side pleasure of the Bay of Plenty in lovely, Tauranga, New Zealand.  Why is this relevant?  Well, first of all, I can tell you I haven't entirely escaped my conditioning. I am working.  Partially. Partially working that is. Oh, about half the time more or less. I'm here to teach--which I dutifully do each week. But, I am also here to be free from the demands of my average life and work.

I have noticed, maybe you can relate, that since I started this mini-sojourn into balance that many of the niggling "ailments" that are with me daily at home simply "did not make the trip" . . . those small physical maladies, anxious thoughts and worries, the daily irritations of pressing matters that are not getting resolved to my satisfaction or timetable.  It's a nice reminder, once again, that we need rest. Emotionally and physically.

Yes, soon I'll be back home and the toils of life will be resumed. Soon I may have some of those niggling ailments to battle. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that if I was "forever on holiday" I would somehow, step by step, turn it into the same "daily grind" from which I am currently sensing such relief.

But . . .

But for now, I have the pleasure of a walk on the beach, a nice supper, and good companionship to look forward to.   Tomorrow, it may be a trip to Hobbiton. Or a visit to Wairere Falls.  I can feel my creativity, my curiosity, my joy of life--all the "pleasant humors of my soul" stretching out, loosened from their bounds, and leaping into the vast blue sky.

So, yes, count me in . . . I guess downtime is a good thing.

Bryan

Available eBooks:

Private Practice through Contracting: Decreasing dependence on insurance.

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

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