Persistence, Patience, and Profits

Toyota Logo

The New York Times Magazine had a wonderful cover story yesterday about Toyota and their path to world dominance. This is a great read for most of corporate America, a modern day tale of the tortoise and the hare.

There are many interesting parts of this wonderful article, from the discussion about the creation of the new Tundra full-sized pickup to the parade of companies that try to learn from Toyota’s methods. But to me the most interesting part is the discussion of the company culture and how their consistent drive for improvement (kaizen) is pervasive.

It seems to me that most of the truly great stories of organizational success are not ones of meteoric rise, they are the result of long slow burns that finally pay off. As in the world of Hollywood, it seems to me that most “overnight successes” really have decades long histories of pain, tribulation, and persistence.

Even in the rocket-ship ride of the .com era, where most rockets tumbled into the sea, or exploded on the pad, and yet a few hung on to achieve greatness, I can’t think of a truly successful example that didn’t have a long, painful gestation. The two most oft cited examples of Amazon and Google in fact had their rough childhoods, and painful adolescences, and neither has yet existed long enough to know whether adulthood will suit them well.

We used to refer to ourselves as the world’s best “tail-light chasers”

In my own experience at Microsoft, the best and most venerable products were ones that were definitively not successes in their first iterations. Be it Windows, Excel, Word, Internet Explorer, or SQL Server, virtually all Microsoft products of any note were born of a desire to patiently chase down the competition and do what they did better. The dogged and relentless pursuit of the competition was a key aspect of the company culture, and resulted in version 3 (or 4, or 6…) eventually overtaking the rival. This happened so much that we used to refer to ourselves as the world’s best “tail-light chasers”.

Which gets me back to Toyota. The company recognizes, like few do, that developing and nurturing a culture is a key part of making an organization hum. I talk a lot about mission statements, and how valuable they (and visions) are to organizational success. Toyota sees that almost instinctively. To wit:

Toyota’s overarching principle, Press told me, is “to enrich society through the building of cars and trucks.” This phrase should be cause for skepticism, especially coming from a company so adept at marketing and public relations. I lost count of how many times Toyota executives, during the course of my reporting, repeated it and how often I had to keep from recoiling at its hollow peculiarity. And yet, the catch phrase — to enrich and serve society — was not intended, at least originally, to function as a P.R. motto. Historically the idea has meant offering car customers reliability and mobility while investing profits in new plants, technologies and employees. It has also captured an obsessive obligation to build better cars, which reflects the Toyota belief in kaizen, or continuous improvement. Finally, the phrase carries with it the responsibility to plan for the long term — financially, technically, imaginatively. “The company thinks in years and decades,” Michael Robinet, a vice president at CSM Worldwide, a consulting firm that focuses on the global auto industry, told me. “They don’t think in months or quarters.”

I love their mission statement (“to enrich society through the building of cars and trucks.”), and will discuss that more soon, but what strikes me most is that last part: “they don’t think in months or quarters”. Neither do most successful organizations. They think in terms of what’s right in the long term, and let the current quarter and stock price fall where it may.

“They don’t think in months or quarters”. Neither do most successful organizations.

When Microsoft was most successful (under Bill Gates and Frank Gaudette’s leadership) it did too, offering essentially no “guidance” to the market. It seems they may have strayed lately from this view, when a comment from Steve Ballmer sends the stock reeling, and that’s a shame.

The point here is that Toyota and most other great companies, didn’t get there overnight but over decades, don’t plan for tomorrow but forever, and don’t try to justify their actions but rather their philosophies. This seems to be an anachronism in this go-go, always rushing, instant gratification world. Bummer.

Mulally Has At Least One Better Idea

Alan Mulally
Alan Mulally

I asked the question back in September: Does Alan Mulally (the new Ford CEO) have a better idea? Recently, he has answered the question definitively, and the answer is a resounding yes.

I complained a while back that Ford had just given up, lost creativity, and was basically flailing. In that post (here), I pointed out that Ford had had blatantly stolen the name of the Five Hundred SEL from the Mercedes Benz 500 SEL. This kind of lack of creativity just eats away at companies.

I also suggested that Alan Mulally was a super choice for the CEO. He’s a man who turned around Boeing’s Commercial Airplane Group and could do wonders for Ford. In the post here, I noted how he had hit the ground running. Well just the other day he took another great step forward.

Ford Mustang
Ford Mustang

One of the things that has just gnawed at me about Ford is how they have simply killed off brands for no apparent reason. They stopped making the Mustang for about 20 minutes earlier this century. This is the car that had the biggest start of any car in history, had a great following among the now aging and wealthy baby boomers, and yet some genius wanted to kill it. Well someone got smart, they reintroduced the current retro model, and it’s one of their strongest selling cars. Duh…

They also killed the Taurus. In case you don’t remember, the Taurus was a truly ground breaking car in the 1980s. It was the first car of the “bar of soap” aerodynamic shape trend at the time. In an era where cars were quite angular and edgy (literally), the Taurus shocked the automotive world with its wind-tunnel smooth design. The car was a huge hit, and at one point was the top selling car in the world.

Ford Taurus
Ford Taurus

But… like so many things seem to at Ford, the car atrophied. By the mid-1990s they had let the car wallow, refusing to choose to make the occasional radical redesign car lines require. Few people wanted to own a car with a decade old design. It faded into the oblivion of the rental fleets. Eventually Ford, seemingly mystified by languishing sales, killed the car just a few months ago. No one inside the company knew what to do with it, and no one outside the company appeared to notice.

Well Alan Mulally knew better, and he just announced that they are renaming the Five Hundred to be the Taurus. From what I hear, this was Alan’s idea and he pushed it through. And what a marvelous idea: capitalize on a brand name that was very strong and at the same time right the heinous wrong of the obvious plagiarism of the Five Hundred SEL name.

This appears to be just the start of Alan Mulally’s better ideas. You go Alan!

Blue Light Special on Buzz Words

Kresge Foundation Logo

The Kresge Foundation is a great organization. They seek to strengthen other non-profit organizations by helping them to grow and improve their operations. It’s the philanthropic world’s version of the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is all very good stuff.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell with you, the Kresge Foundation grew from the wealth of the Kresge family, the “K” in KMart. Decades of hailing shoppers to blue light specials made the Kresge’s very rich. And the foundation is their way of paying the world back. Good for them.

But a bunch of this breaks down into a mish-mash when you hear their ads on National Public Radio:

The Kresge Foundation helps organizations to catalyze growth, connect with stakeholders, and challenge greater support.

Huh? Catalyze? Stakeholders? Buzzword Bingo!

I have talked about this before, but as soon as you start to over-think your mission statement, it’s broken. I constantly see organizations who have spent way too much time at an “executive offsite” stewing over their corporate vision or mission statement. There are even consultants who make most of their living from traveling the world helping people run these offsites.

As soon as you start to over-think your mission statement, it’s broken.

I’ve been to many of these things. They start out with the best of intentions, and then go down hill from there. The consultant usually whips out the same tired flip charts they’ve used 300 times before, leads the group through the same tired exercises, pushes them toward some conclusion without even understanding the organization, and moves on. The executives go into these meetings thinking they are changing the world, or at least their little corner of it. And they over-think the thing, and leave the meeting with a mushy, overwrought, jumble of buzzwords.

Even worse, they then call a huge corporate meeting and announce the thing like Moses coming down with the word of God. And the employees go insane. They marvel at the fact that the leadership of their organization has time to spend stewing over this stuff. They try to imagine what kind of people it takes to create this crap. They ask themselves how much money, at the exec’s obscene pay rates, it cost the company to come up with this thing. They wonder about the hundreds of better ways that money could have been spent, or the exec’s time could have been used. Then they go back to work.

Visions are best when they are simple, direct, and abundantly clear to everyone.

This might make you think I don’t find value in mission statements or corporate visions. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a huge fan of figuring out what your organization is trying to accomplish, writing that down, and making sure it’s widely known, well communicated, and referred to constantly. But like almost everything else in business, visions are best when they are simple, direct, and abundantly clear to everyone. If they are not, what you get is this drivel, that is often worse than having no vision at all.

The saddest part of the Kresge Foundation example, is that their web site has a super statement of their mission right at the top of the home page:

The Kresge Foundation’s mission is to strengthen nonprofit organizations that advance the well-being of humanity.

Simple, direct, and understood by everyone. And it is definitively NOT pompous or trying too hard. They should be using that instead of trying to catalyze their stakeholders into a catatonic state.

Who’s It All About?

There are a number of ways to detect the “soul” of an organization. I like to look at the obvious external signs.

There are a number of ways to detect the “soul” of an organization. Although it can be a lot of fun to get inside a company or group and understand the relationships, the culture, and the tone and tenor of the organization, I like to look at the obvious external signs. It is easier to see things that way to be sure, but you also know that, if it shows outside the organization, it certainly must be there on the inside — usually in spades.

That’s why, to see a company’s culture, I look so often to the things that are readily available to the general public. In looking throughout this site and in my upcoming book (Out of Control?!) you’ll see that I frequently refer to press releases, advertising, and signage as a ways to read an organization’s culture.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to notice another trend, and it speaks volumes as well. It’s only suitable for this internet era that the sign is the organization’s URL (uniform resource locator — web address). I’ve found that you can read a lot of what the organization is about by the URL they have chosen.

Jason and Nicole Wilson
Jason and Nicole Wilson

A week or two ago my family and I visited the new “hot” restaurant in Seattle: Crush. It has been getting a lot of press, and the young chef is even getting a stint on Martha Stewart’s show (is that an honor??). It’s an interesting little place, set in an old house in the Madison Park area of Seattle. The place is everything it’s supposed to be: it has no parking to speak of, and inside is a hip, trendy, minimalist decor with white plastic furniture that looks like leftovers from the Austin Powers set. The folks are all in black and the food is trying very hard to be great. It was good, but clearly not at or near the top of the excellent Seattle restaurant scene.

But, I digress. When I went to try to find the restaurant to make reservations I did the natural thing: I googled it (“crush restaurant seattle”). And much to my surprise, the URL wasn’t “crushrestaurant.com” (that’s in Calgary, Alberta) or even crushrestaurantseattle.com, or anything similar. No, it’s chefjasonwilson.com. Wow, that’s an interesting choice, I thought, and let it pass.

Casey and Wendy Treat
Casey and Wendy Treat

That was, I let it pass until last night. I couldn’t get to sleep so I turned on late night TV, and after midnight on Sunday is just a wasteland. But in between the infomercials was a show I’ve seen advertised quite a bit here, a religious broadcast from one of the local multi-branch mega-churches that have become so popular (why is a question for another blog). The church is called the Christian Faith Center, and the show is Living on Course. It is lead by an energetic and passionate young pastor Casey Treat and his wife, Wendy, who are both prominently featured in all the promotional material. And the URL is? No, not christianfaithcenter.org or christianfaithinternational.com (the apparent larger organization). Nope, it’s caseytreat.com. You’ll notice two things about that URL: 1) it’s a .com (commercial), not a .org (non-profit), and 2) it’s all about Casey.

So now you see the theme. Both of these organizations (Crush and the Christian Faith Center) are lead by charismatic young up-and-comers. They are trying to “make a name for themselves” and by gosh they have done it, especially with their web addresses. Instead of focusing on their organization, and putting the emphasis on that, they’ve chosen, quite explicitly to put the spotlight on them. In fact, from a web perspective, it’s all about them. That speaks volumes.

Now, before you go crying “hypocrite!” and telling me what a putz I am, complaining about focusing on the individual from a web site with my name (clwill.com), my picture on the front page, let me differentiate. This web site IS all about me. I am a one-man-band. Consultant, speaker, author, it’s all just me. There is no one else. By contrast, these folks (and I’m sure there are others) have chosen to make their public face of their organizations be all about them. I have problems with that.

It takes a pretty healthy ego to think the whole organization revolves around you.

Aside from the difficulties it raises in simply searching for these organizations on the internet, my first and foremost issue is the ego problem. It takes a pretty healthy ego to think the whole organization revolves around you. There’s something about this that reminds me of George Foreman and his five boys named George Foreman II, George Foreman III, etc. Beside the fact that George clearly doesn’t get the whole multi-generational thing, it’s just silly. And stunningly self-centered.

Second, and perhaps more important, is the effect this has on the psyche of the organization. What must the many other members of this organization feel like? They don’t work for the betterment of the organization. The organization doesn’t really have higher goals and aspirations. This isn’t about the best restaurant, or the finest food, or saving the most souls… nope, it’s all about Jason or Casey. How demeaning.

Also, notice that both of these guys have prominent photos on their site of them with their wives. They seem to want to make it seem like a team thing. Nicole Wilson is the first person listed in the “people” section of the Crush web site. But it sure is Jason’s URL. And Wendy Treat is all over their site: “Join Casey and Wendy Treat at…”. The Treat’s try to make it sound like it’s their ministry, but it clearly is Casey’s web address.

What does this say about the lifespan of the organization?

And finally, what does this say about the lifespan of the organization? Does the organization have any life without them? If they die or move on (or get caught in some rancid sex scandal), does the organization die? Restaurants come and go, so perhaps that’s just OK with Crush — without Jason, there is no Crush. I bet his sous chef would like it to be different, but that may be OK with Jason. However, I’m quite sure the many members of the Christian Faith Center don’t think their whole involvement with the organization is with Casey. I’m sure most of them would still like to have a place of worship when Casey Treat is caught with a gay prostitute snorting meth…

So you can tell a lot about an organization from the outside, even from Google. Best of all, you can tell who it’s all about. Is that why the stars of huge business are Exxon Mobil, General Electric, CitiGroup, Bank of America, Chevron, IBM, etc., etc. and companies like Ford, Dell, Gillette, and Sears have lost their luster? Hmmm… interesting…

Business Card Backup

I was reading a very interesting note from Robert Scoble’s blog about business cards (Business card best practices) and it made me think. Many of the things he talks about are great advice, and some of them are very cool.

A great example of “cool” is the famous card of Matt Mullenweg (founding developer of WordPress — the software that powers CLWill.com) that said simply: 1) Go to Google, 2) Type in Matt, 3) Press “I’m Feeling Lucky”. Very slick, and still works. [ed: try it with “clwill”, too]

Business cards say an amazing amount about you, and who you work for

Business cards are more than simply a way to communicate facts, they say an amazing amount about you, and the organization you work for. I think the Japanese and Koreans have it right in their rituals and reverence for the exchange of business cards. The guy who said on Scoble’s blog’s comments, “For an IT guy, business cards are strange relics of an analogue world” was simply wrong. Just as with titles (see my FAQ entry here), business cards aren’t a remnant of yesteryear, and you treat them as such at your peril. Even the most mole-like of dweebs meets people who want to know who they are.

CLWill's MS Card

This article made me think back about some of my business cards. At one point I had kept every one I ever had over my career. When I came across the three-ring binder of them a year or two ago, I realized it was time to move on. So I threw them out. All but my last one at MS. I worked so hard for that darn thing, I just couldn’t see throwing it out. So I saved a few.

That card was actually not bad, I think. Clean, simple, direct. Even though it violates Scoble’s rule #5, it doesn’t say what the company does, I think most people know Microsoft. And it leaves a lot of white space, I wrote a lot of notes on those cards.

Reading this article also made me shudder, and pull one of my current cards out of my wallet. Ouch… need to work on that. They look pretty, but they don’t say what I do, and they leave a vacant impression. And the back is empty — a terrible waste of space.

The thing I remember most about bad business cards is what people choose to put on the back. The front speaks loudly and clearly, but it is often the back that says the most. And here, people struggle, and often fail.

Of course, if you do business in a couple of languages regularly, you should have two-sided cards, one in each language. And if you work with the blind, braille cards are obvious. But beyond that, people just seem to have a lot of trouble.

I hope don’t need a checklist on the back of your business card to remind you.

Some of the worst examples of the back of business cards are the ones that trumpet something silly like their ISO 9002 compliance status. I am especially amused by ones that put the company’s vision or the company’s “values” on the back. Some HR person thought that would be a good thing, but most of these statements are meaningless drivel (see my post here) or are very internally focused (“treat every customer with respect”). I frankly hope you treat me with respect and don’t need to see a checklist on the back of your business card to remind you.

The back of some cards are actually useful for the recipient. Like one with a map to the store. Or a criminal lawyer’s card with your Miranda rights on it. Or a reminder of your appointment with your proctologist.

Some of the best card backs are ones that echo important messages for the company. Repeat marketing themes, or at least tell in clear, crisp terms what the company (and you) do. This is wasted space for which some bright marketer can surely find an excellent use.

So, I know I have lots of work to do with my cards. I’ll report back when I get my homework done. How about you?

Great Service Cures All Ills

Asiana Logo

I had the privilege joy chore of taking the flight from Seoul to Seattle a couple of days ago. If you haven’t had this fortune, it’s a 10 hour flight through 16 time zones where you arrive 6 hours before you left. I’m not a good sleeper on planes so any of these long-haul, multi-timezone flights are hard. This one was especially noteworthy, however.

We flew on Asiana Airlines, a Seoul based carrier that was a special treat. Unlike their state-owned competitor, Korean Air Lines, they focus on the long-haul traveller and do it very well. It is a formula that includes the latest planes (ours was a new Boeing 777-200), all the best amenities (like 110v and 220v outlets in each business-class seat), and very impressive service. There were 13 attendants, plus a flight crew, on a flight I’m sure a US carrier would have had 6 people working. At the start of the flight, the entire staff stands at the head of the aisle and bows to the passengers. In business-class, they pampered us constantly with two three course meals, constant checking on our welfare, and genuine smiles. You really got the impression they cared about you.

There were 13 attendants on a flight a US carrier would have had 6 people working.

Which gets me around to the point of all this. I really needed caring for on this flight. Everything that could go wrong did.

While in Korea, I found I really enjoyed the food. For some, kimchi and other native tastes require getting used to. For me, I took to them immediately. And Asiana offers two meal services: western and Korean. So on the way back I tried the Korean fare. Well my bibambop (sort of a rice and vegetable version of the Cold Stone “mix ins”) was stone cold. Normally it is served quite hot, and my most recent experience at a fine Seoul eatery was served in an iron bowl that had to be 1100 degrees. In this case it was not even warm. But did I care? How could I? The service was so good, the attendants were there with more champagne, taking away empties, adding treats, etc. that I forgot it wasn’t perfect.

Then, within an hour of the start of the flight, my fancy 777 “wonder-chair”, the seat with a half-dozen motors, lumbar adjustments, and a “bed mode” simply stopped working. Wouldn’t budge. It had worked for a while, but suddenly there I was in my full upright and locked position. Not the best way to spend 10 hours. So I inquired of some assistance.

I was swarmed with help. The head of cabin service eventually took my seat apart. She was unable to get it to work as intended, but found all the manual controls, and adjusted it to my liking. Throughout the balance of the flight I was checked on to be sure the seat was where I wanted it, and to apologize profusely for the failure. At one point the assistant purser insisted that I get a nap, and graciously turned it into “bed mode”. I actually slept on an airplane — a true feat for me.

Outstanding service can make up for any number of problems in the product.

My point in all this is that service really does matter. And more to the point, outstanding service can make up for any number of problems in the product. I’m sure that on a US carrier, I would have had someone who would have done something about my issues with the flight. But I’m also sure they would have done it grudgingly, with a tone of “oh, great, now what’s your problem?” On this flight, it was clear they really wanted to make me happy. And it made all the difference.

Think about it. Here I am, in a quite public forum, raving about an airline’s service. But I had a terrible flight: cold food, a broken seat, and a video system that couldn’t have been more jumpy/flaky/noisy. What do I remember? The service. The genuine kindness and concern of the employees.

I’m a customer of Asiana’s for life. Next time I’m headed to Korea, or anywhere in Asia, I’m going to see if they fly there.

People become customers-for-life because of other people.

What does this say about your organization? It says that service not only matters, is not only a good thing to have, but it may save you from a whole lot of other faults. It may be the thing that makes that missed deadline, that faulty part, that little mistake go away.

And great service is about the only thing that makes customers-for-life. People don’t become customers-for-life because of low prices. If someone comes along with a lower price, they’re gone. They don’t become customers-for-life because of a good product. As soon as someone offers that same product, they’re vulnerable to switching.

People become customers-for-life because of other people. They feel a connection, a relationship. And they want to continue that relationship. So do whatever it takes to make your organization care about its customers. You may keep them forever.

Spying, Who Me?

HP Logo

With all the noise about the Hewlett-Packard board room scandal, resulting in the removal of their Chairman, Patricia Dunn, I wonder if it is making managers thinking about the spying they do on their own employees.

HP's Patricia Dunn
Patricia Dunn

Let’s be clear, I think what Dunn did was wrong. She got upset at leaks around the removal of Carly Fiorina as CEO, and decided to hire a private investigator to find out who was talking to the press. The PI used “pretexting” (pretending to be an authorized person) to get access to a wide range of phone records. They looked at not only the board, but also reporters from BusinessWeek among other media outlets.

It’s not clear at this point whether this was a case of an overzealous PI, simply wanting to please a client, or an overzealous client pressuring a PI to “get me an answer, dammit”. Not to pre-judge, but from everything I hear about Ms. Dunn, I’m leaning to the latter.

Whichever it turns out to be, the local district attorney has said they they are still deciding whether to file charges. Ouch…

But this is an extreme case, and while I’m sure there are others many worse, I wonder how many cases like this there are routinely happening on a day-to-day basis. I believe that spying on employees in one form or another has grown from being something you might consider doing in the case of a crisis to being simply a matter of daily life for some executives.

It doesn’t help that technology now makes this easy, from email logs to text messages to phone records. This is, in fact, one place where the crime dramas on TV don’t exaggerate. I know from both personal experience and technical knowledge that getting more detail about your electronic life than you ever dreamed imaginable is incredibly easy. Again, no amount of hype can overstate the amount of data about you that lives on some server somewhere. So the info is there, ripe for the picking.

Often this is cloaked under the “trust, but verify” mindset.

I’ve worked with, around, and for some very driven people. And I know that it takes remarkably little to get these people to overreact and want to poke and pry into almost any one’s life, at scary depths. I’ve been in the position to tell these people “no”, or at least “you can’t be serious” more than a few times. And others have told me stories that still keep me up at night about executives demanding (and almost getting) bank records, trailing people, even digging in their trash. For their own employees for gosh sakes. It’s really just sick.

Often this is cloaked under the “trust, but verify” mindset. They think: “Sure I trust the people around me, but what harm is there in checking to make sure that trust is well placed?” The harm is that it’s offensive, degrading, and often illegal. It is not trust when you don’t trust the other person enough to believe them in the first place. It is a lie to think that you trust someone and then feel like you have to check up on them. If you don’t trust them, tell them your concerns. If you do trust them, really trust them.

This entire discussion is well above and beyond the question of whether or not you should look through the company phone or internet records to see what your people are doing. That’s a whole different kettle of fish, and one for another time. After all there may be legitimate performance or legal reasons to do that. And this also leaves out the complete question of external spying for corporate advantage — there definitely isn’t enough time for that topic.

If the activity is illegal let the police handle it, and if it’s not, find another way to solve the problem.

But, please, please, if you find yourself or a peer thinking about spying (something that would typically involve a private investigator) on someone in your company, for any reason at all, stop them or call the cops. If the activity is illegal let the police handle it, and if it’s not, find another way to solve the problem.

In the case of HP, I can’t help but thinking that if Dunn had simply sat down and had a 1-on-1 conversation with each of the board members, she wouldn’t have found her disgruntled one in a heartbeat. And saved her job, her reputation, and the “HP Way”.

Empty Glass Thinking Drains Everyone

Half-Full Glass of Water

I just returned from a board meeting that was challenging. It was challenging both in the issues that were being debated, but also in the behavior of one participant. I’ve been in hundreds of meetings like it, and it makes me want to scream.

I love challenging subject matter. Nothing is more fun than a group of bright people exploring complex issues and trying to come to a reasonable decision. Even when the momentum is going against my position, it’s a treat to have the insights of others, and to work with the group dynamics to make progress on tough issues. But the whole thing can go down the tubes through the efforts of just one person.

I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person. I tend to be optimistic about things, tend to try to find the best in others, and tend to think everything will work out for the best. But I have just as much respect for people who are “glass half-empty” kinds of people. They tend to think things won’t work and that everyone is out to screw you. Most of the ones I know are lawyers… Generally, these people make a great match for people like me. Together, we tend to find a reasonable middle groud — with the optimism to get it done, and the caution not to do something stupid in the process.

You know these people, they find fault in everything.

Then there are the “empty glass” people. You know these people, they can’t imagine how or why it will work, don’t understand why we’d even consider doing that, and generally find fault in everything. They want to think they are just cautious, glass half-empty people, but their glass is bone dry. I’m sure there are people at the other end of the spectrum, who are encouragably optimistic, I just don’t see them in business meetings that often.

When the empty glass people are in your meeting, you can spot them immediately. They second-guess everything, and nothing is ever right — even the coffee. Beyond being just being another person to sway in the meeting, these people are more incidious. They sap everyone’s energy, and end up sucking the life out of the group. The optimists have to fight against an unreasonable position, and the pessimists find themselves having to defend the reasonable glass half-empty perspective, lest it be sucked entirely down the drain.

In my board meeting, the empty glass person was relentless. She kept at it, with all her weapons. She countered every comment, saw nothing positive in anything, and scoffed at reasonable attempts at compromise. She, simply, made a fool of herself.

If you are leader, it’s simple: just don’t invite them.

So, what do you do about them? Well, if you are leader, it’s simple: just don’t invite them. Avoid the risk and pain of having these people torpedo your meeting, and keep them off the roster. Just like a bad employee, the whole organization will be better off if you just cut your losses early.

If you are unfortunate enough to merely be stuck in a meeting with one of these people, there’s little you can do. Try to make them see reason, toss up arguments to combat their negativism. But it usually doesn’t work.

So I go back to the lessons I learned from child-rearing. More often than not, I find that ignoring them works. If the rest of the meeting participants follow suit, they grow weary of pushing the rock up the hill, and stop. With any luck, they will get so tired of it, they will decline the next meeting invite, and everyone will be better off.

Exceeding Your Expectations

Marriott South Beach Logo

While on a plane for hours a few days ago, I found myself drawn into the inflight “entertainment”. Among some interesting fare (a classic Everybody Loves Raymond among other things) was the usual self-serving drivel from the airline, and a strange infomercial about a Marriott hotel in Florida.

It was a weird piece, several minutes long, devoid of any real information and filled with cliches. I had seen it on the outbound flight, and it struck me as unusually sappy. On the return I was overwhelmed.

As with any hotel propaganda, there were the required panning shots of the lobby, the pretty girl diving into the swimming pool, the enchanted couple gazing into each other’s eyes over plates of tiny morsels of food, and the family happier than any other you’ve ever seen after a long plane flight. And the interview with the manager was insipid, with so much for me to love: “our outstanding personnel” and other ridiculous HR miscues. But the thing that struck me the most was:

We pride ourselves in exceeding our customers’ expectations every day.

I’ve always had trouble with this whole concept of “exceeding your expectations”. It was obviously created by marketing people from words that seem to sound good, but what does it mean? Let’s examine it…

What are my expectations? When I go to a nice hotel, I expect a clean room, a nice bed, no bedbugs, and quiet. Hard to exceed those… Hermedically clean? Anechoically quiet? Less than zero bedbugs? OK, that’s simply being petty and splitting semantic hairs.

But, really, how do you consistently “exceed my expectations”? Only by me expecting to be disappointed in the first place, or by having your market placement so far off base that you trick people. Either of these are failures on the part of the company.

If I go to a Motel 6, I don’t expect Four Seasons level service. So if I get it at a Motel 6, something’s wrong. The Motel 6 is wasting money providing services to people who aren’t looking for them, and probably losing a boatload doing it. And it’s impossible for the Four Seasons to exceed my expectations, because I expect them to be the best. Anything less is a failure.

Surprise the heck out of our customers by being competent.

All of this plays hell with the employees. It’s like saying: “set a really low bar for our customers then surprise the heck out of them by being competent.” Expecting your employees to do daily slight of hand with their level service isn’t a good thing for business, it’s a sure path to frustrated and disgruntled people.

So, please, stop “exceeding my expectations”. Just set a really high bar, and meet it every time. Consistency is what matters, not the occasional random overshot.

Lack of Creativity Saps Corporate Energy

Ford 500 SEL
Ford Five Hundred SEL

It’s a topic I cover at length in my upcoming book. Sometimes you can tell a great deal about a company from distance, without even crossing the threshold. I find it often in advertisements, press releases, and especially in products. Today I found it in the total lack of creativity in the naming and design of a product. From a company that is losing market share hand over fist.

I pulled up behind a car today that made me do a double take. It was a large black four door sedan, with a strong hint of styling of the large Mercedes sedans. I saw the badging that said “SEL” on the right trunk. I thought… hmmm that’s one I hadn’t seen, seems like it’s off for MB. Actually kind of ugly. Wonder what it is?

To my complete shock, it was a “Ford Five Hundred SEL“. A Mercedes knock-off that Ford didn’t even have the creativity to name with some imagination. If you know Mercedes, you know that throughout the 80’s and 90’s their top of the line sedan was the 500 SEL. As if to avoid lawsuits, Ford decided not to call it the 500, but rather the “Five Hundred”. But I’m not fooled, and clearly calling the model the “SEL” was no accident.

Mercedes Benz S500
Mercedes Benz S500

Of course copying styles in the automotive world is nothing new, and one shouldn’t be surprised to see a million look-alike boxes wandering the highways these days. But this level of clear duplication is far beyond the norm. Not only does the car copy many of the styling cues, but they blatantly stole the name. If Daimler-Chrysler’s lawyers aren’t all over this, they should be.

But, legal issues aside, the part that is so depressing to me is the signal this sends to the world, and especially to the employees of Ford. It says, quite loudly and clearly: “we have run out of ideas, and we no longer really care enough to be creative”. This is a sad commentary for a company who’s marketing tag line is “Bold Moves”, and who’s young Chairman appears in their own ads stressing how hard they are working to be innovative.

It says, quite loudly and clearly: “we have run out of ideas”

Also sad is that this lack of creativity is from a company with a long heritage of innovation. From the early days and Henry’s clear vision for the Model T, to the exciting years of the Mustang, and even later with the original “slip-stream sedan” of the 80’s in the Taurus, the company has a history of leadership in many areas. And now this…

Perhaps the saddest part of this is that, from all accounts, the Five Hundred is a very good car. It got strong praise from the automotive press, car buyers liked it, and the ever hard to please Consumer Reports loved it. The engineers did a great job with this car, it was the product naming and marketing team that simply gave up. And the sales show it. One clear sign is that I first noticed this car almost two years after introduction. Another is that the car is selling so poorly that Ford has cut production of the car.

This all must just make everyone at Ford so depressed.

All of this must hit all parts of Ford. Think of the production team sitting there excitedly at the internal introduction of the car, and it rolls out as an exact duplicate of the world’s most prestigious brand’s flagship car. One can only imagine how depressed they would be, how demoralizing it would be to have the Chairman talking about “bold moves”, and then send you off to make copies. Exactly how hard would the sales force work to sell a car with the highlight being: “well, it looks and is named exactly like a car that costs twice as much”? And how much does the public believe in Ford when their flagship sedan is so much a contradiction from their loudly stated objective of “bold moves”?

This all must just make everyone at Ford so depressed. I know it did me, and I don’t even work there.