Sunday, January 26, 2014

Should Businesses Have A Philosophy?

While looking through some old files from my time at the NSC and how I was trying to reboot the whole scrip industry and get the NSC on a growth path. At the core was a need to rebuild a new way to look at the business, the team and the efforts. While it is a bit strange to think about “philosophy and business” in the same breath, the fact is that this place and this time needed just that.

NSC was a $350 million nonprofit public benefit corporation that had been around for over 15 years. It had started out as a part of the Catholic Church in one Diocesan and when I walked through the doors it had gone through a terrible break up with the Church, lost its CEO to a suspicious death (which I did not learn about until many months after being there) and was under attack from hostile players in the market. Its culture was one of division, in fighting and lack of trust. Every manager and unit of the company was divide and on their own “island” – which later I came to realize was totally on purpose. The less cohesion in the ranks and teams the more control and shadow games could be played at the top for self-gain.

I was hired by the board to turn the place around, get it focused on growth (which we did – going from $350 million to over $500 million in short order) and more importantly get the organization on solid thinking and understanding what the mission and focus should be.  For me a big part of this was reconnecting the different leaders and areas of the business, opening up the CEO (me) and board to the team and employees, making the place more transparent. Part of this for me was sharing my views and thinking on business and getting the team to open up and also push back when they felt they should.

So I would write, share, hold team lunches, walk around and sit with the employees (at our peak we would have around 300 employees in the mix). The following is an exert from one of these sharing’s, I thought it worth letting you all think from them as well.

**** From a memo to all NSC employees*****

While there are many projects, priorities and activities, the above buckets are the three key areas right here, today! It is also important that the team understand my core business beliefs and philosophies;

• Why We Exist: Never forget the customer. They should be in all we do, say, think and talk about. The start, the end and the finish to every day!

• Do Onto Others As You Would Want Them To Do Onto You. Treat each other with respect and common courtesy- even when you are at great odds and differences remember we are all different and we all bring different ideas, experiences and approaches. It is important not to talk ill or poorly of any of the team leaders or members. When you have a disagreement - either have the courage to talk one-on-one with the person about the concern, disagreement or difference of option face to face, or keep it to yourself. We all have bad days and moments (hey I do all the time) – just remember to loop back and say you’re sorry and set things straight. Attacking each other personally, whether in an “off the cuff” side comment in the hall way OR in a big group meeting accomplishes only one thing. It brings the leader down in competence and trust, and it hurts the goals of the group.

Remember, praise in public, correct and teach in private.

• Take The High Road. We all have one focus, helping more charities earn more funds. In all we do, keep the customer, the charity in mind and think "does this help them? Does this take away from them? If we take the high road, we will never make the wrong judgment call. I would rather our organization succeed via ideas, creativity, hard work, fast decision making, taking calculated risks than by being bullies!  Even when talking about or dealing with the competition, just be polite and move on – talk about our value, not about how stinky they are. By focusing on them and talking bad about them we bring ourselves down!

• Less To Do With Technology And More To Do With Communications. That most problems or issues or bad situations come from poor communications and poor listening skills. That in the end our success will have little to do with technology, or buildings, or stuff and it will be more about relationship building, communications and people leadership skills.

• Expect Challenges, Direct The Anger Towards Results. We must never look at each other in anger, instead when disagreement begins take a deep breathe, step away for a moment. Expect things will go wrong or not just as you had planned, be prepared and work it out - with grace, and confidence that we are one team. And again, we will get angry at each other – that is OK, just make sure you repair the moment – and instead of going on a “witch hunt” of who caused the problem – fix the issue and learn from it.

• As Strong As The Weakest Link. Look out for each other, make sure that when someone could be in harms way, or making them aware of something they might not know or be aware of. It is important that we give each other the benefit of the doubt. If some one can step up and help another in need, even if it is outside their area of reasonability – go for it!

• Assumptions Are A Failure Waiting To Happen. Assume nothing, whether working with a supplier or selling to the customer or turning over a project to someone on the team make sure everything is understood at the out set. Take nothing for granted, look at what has been done and why it has worked or failed, see what the competition is doing, look to other industries, other countries, others on the team. Learn from all that we know and apply it to action at hand.

• Adapt Or Die. Take action, try something, do anything. It is better to get 60 things a day done vs. one thing a month. The more we do the more we will learn, the more we will succeed. The greatest damage is in doing nothing. We should always ask everyday, what have I done lately, what can I complete and not let it hang out there? Try new ideas, new partnerships – talk to someone totally new every week, read something new everyday. Not everything will be perfect – that is OK – it is better to try, and learn – than to sit and wait!

• Be Honest – Not Rude! We all need a kick in the seat of the pants every so often, me included. It is important that we all feel comfortable to talk with each other – about concerns, ideas, points of view – and if we see someone doing something a bit off or just plain bad that we can tell them face-to-face without feelings being hurt. We shouldn’t take everything so personally. If someone says something about something, or has a different idea or approach – it is not saying, “you’re a bad person” it is more about the team working together to grow and become better.

• Everyone In A Business Is Selling All The Time. We all need to think and talk and understand our business inside and out. We need to sell the value and the benefits of NSC to everyone, everywhere all the time!

• Never Doubt That A Small Group Of People Can Change The World.  Because I have seen determined, bright, driven and caring teams move mountains with teaspoons. Each and every one of us matters and means the difference in us succeeding or not.

• Accountability Not Title. I hate titles, they drive me crazy! Some people hide behind them or use them as a weapon to beat others back and down. In the end we need to be accountable for our areas of responsibilities and jobs. We need to look at the results of what we are doing and get the job done. We all need to jump in and get the job done.

• Meeting Madness.  While I know meetings are needed and important, they can drive me crazy. At the same time, if there is a meeting scheduled and you need to be at that meeting do not be late. If ANYONE FROM THE OUTSIDE is in the meeting, whether via the phone or in person nothing makes us look bad, rude, and unprofessional than being late. Meetings should have agendas and owners driving them, and there should be clear action items and owners for the meeting.


While in the end the impact from outside issues knocked over this giant and we never were able to regain our footing, instead taking care of the charities and keeping the scrip industry going became the focus. I learned a ton about people wanting to make a difference. My belief in the people I was serving with and along side filled my heart and spirit with joy and pride. I would do it all over again, even knowing the fate and outcome.

On the day we finally shut down and everyone had to leave I remember all the leaders not wanting to go, not wanting to give up. The sense of leadership and care was so strong. While I thought the reason I was at the NSC was one thing, one reason - to grow the business, in the end was something else all together. I came to believe that I was the right person to do this difficult transition and build the right team and thinking that helped it as well.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Good Career Moves

The other day while talking with a few friends and we were sharing the best and the worst moves in our careers I remembered some early events in new jobs that made all the difference longer term.

1. Sucker Punched: Stay Calm No Matter What – So in my first three months at American Cyanamid, my first big corporate job out of college I was learning and being put into new situations everyday.  My first off site corporate meeting was in Chicago at the Hilton at O’Hare airport. A bunch of field sales people, corporate brand and marketing people (that’s the group I was in) and some senior regional executives.

You have to realize how big Cyanamid was in the early 1980’s – from Lederle Laboratories to Old Spice to Pine-Sol floor cleaner, even Formica. I was in the crop protection chemicals division. Bugs, weeds and animal health were our focus and Cyanamid was one of the first large US corporations in US history. We had in our one division over 300 sales people and another 1,500 employees from research to distribution to product management. I was very lucky and grateful to be on the team and learning every day.

So I flew to Chicago, checked in and the whole group was going to dinner at the restaurant at the hotel. Big steaks, cigars (yes you could smoke) and afterwards we were all going to the Gaslight Club in the back of the restaurant. You went through the telephone booth to get to the bar, like a hidden speak easy from the 1930’s. As I walked through to the very, very crowded bar with all the AmCy people and our advertising agency people I was greeted by a very drunk, older senior field executive “Red.” He was stumbling about and not making much sense. As I tried to get around him he grabbed my suit collar and said “I ain't taking no bull from a young puke like you” and he coldcocked punched me right in the face. I went down and out. A few minutes later someone poured a beer on me and I woke up. There I was crumbled on the floor out, knocked out cold.

Well my dear friend Tony, from the agency that supported me, picked me up and whisked me to my room. I was in a daze. He got me a bucket of ice and put a cold towel on my swelling face. He stayed by my side well until 3AM. At about 4 AM my hotel room phone rang, it was a call from Monty Summa the head of all sales in our division and Red’s boss’s boss. Monty wanted to make sure I was OK and that if I needed to I should get to the hospital ASAP. I assured him I was OK and that beyond my pride being a bit crumpled I would be fine. This is the moment he said, “now, you are not going to do anything legal or anything???” My response made all the difference, “no Monty my concern is for Red. What are you all doing to help him? He could do this to the wrong person and not just put you in harms way but he could end up in jail.” Monty was taken back and said we will talk later on, he was flying up that day to deal with Red.

Well it sure was tough walking into that sales meeting later that morning. Black eye and very tired. Red looked even worse and was way up front in the meeting. I went and grabbed two cups of coffee and as I walked up to the front of the room everyone became very quite. I went up and put one cup in front of Red and said, “bet you could use this?” and sat next to him. He put his arm on me and said, “I’m sorry…”

Later that day Monty, Red and I sat and talked. I stayed only for the first few minutes and said “Red while getting hit like that was no fun, the fact is please use this action as a way to get help. See a path to getting better not towards more anger. We will get over this, but you need real help.” Later I found out that the company sent him to a rehab program and Red stayed sober.

Months later I came to find out that Monty and my boss had talked with the division president Bill Griffith and said that I had done the department right and more importantly cared about getting help for Red. I was no longer the college kid, green behind the ears – but a trusted caring member of the team. They gave my broader opportunities, increasing responsibilities and more trust.  I eventually was responsibility for over $18 million in budgets a year in product promotion and public relations.  When the division was going after a major change effort (from chemical type to crop supported and they to a new dealer program) all the executives asked me to be on the rebranding and launch effort. Plus the field knew that while I was a corporate “puke” I was an “OK corporate puke…”

After that experience in my career I have always taken a step back in bad moments or challenging people situations. Never over reacting or shying away from the tough things that need to be said – yet doing it always based on care of the people impacted first and the business second.

2. Get Dirty - Understand The Customer Firsthand – So when I joined Air Products & Chemicals I was in the corporate affairs group. We were in the main building on the Allentown campus. It was a big company, thousands of employees and more clients and industries that I can even list. All these years later I’m still very proud of my time at Air Products and remember it with great joy (as I've told friends, if we hadn't moved I think I would still be at Air Products).

Within the first weeks of working I started thinking how the corporate staff was a bit removed from the operation and line businesses. We produced a ton of materials and support but I didn’t feel like we were really getting to meet the clients and understand how they looked at us, our products, etc. So I went to my boss, a great guy that was very smart and asked, “can I go to one of the field offices for a bit and see how they deliver product, interact with the customers?” I remember getting a head tilted response of “why?” After a few more times asking he finally gave in to get me off the requesting treadmill.

I spent a week delivering cylinder gases, and then bulk tanker gases. I went into 100 clients locations, went to the fill sites, the return sites. The great guys at the sites even taught me how to roll a 400 lbs. cylinder of gas. The best moments were just watching how the field delivery people interacted with the clients. From welding shops to hospitals, from plastic jug manufacturing plants to auto body shops. It was an amazing time. I really felt like I knew the markets and the value Air Products provided. It was so obvious that the gas was a part of the value – that it had to be quality, clean, etc. but the real difference was in the people. The knowledge they shared and the commitment to customer satisfaction was amazing.

Months later as we were looking at redoing all the materials for the wielding group as I was sitting in the brainstorm session I remembers something that was subtle but could mean something to the brand. When I was out with the delivery guys every time they would go into the shops to say hi to the owners or buyers they would bring the latest sales materials. As they would hand these beautiful brochures and flyers, the shop owners would almost be embarrassed. Their hands would be dirty and about 80% of all the Air Products stuff was printed on bright white paper. They would ask that we “put it on the desk, they were afraid to get it dirty…” So I shared this in the brainstorm session. The group was intrigued. This simple insight lead to us making the materials fit the industry and the client environments. We went in wielding from bright white to browns and darker colors, plus we added a protective coating to the materials allowing them to be wiped clean.

A long time later I received a hand written note from one of the field guys, stapled to one of the new, industry and environment correct designs and materials saying “thank you Dave, we no longer make the clients feel bad when touching our stuff…” Boy that put a smile on my face. In addition I was recognized as a creative person, willing to go the extra mile to make the difference. This gave me a strong reputation in the business units and opened up many doors and growth opportunities.

So I always encourage people on my teams, especially the newer members – to get out, meet clients, go on sales calls, walk and sit were your clients do. You will learn things that no one else will and bring value in simple and quite ways.  

3. Give Me Your Problem Accounts – I was hired into Maritz as a “Program Creative Director” but our real title was “Project Head" or affectionately "Pee-head.” That will give you a sense of where these worker bees in the creative organization stood. In my first weeks I was assigned a series of projects all over the place, different accounts, different industries, different support efforts. Being tested, watched and at the same time I was wondering, “what the heck is this all about?”

About three weeks in I went to my boss and asked, “so who is the most difficult client?” The word came back – Xerox. Not that they were bad or mean, just very demanding. Also they were active and they spread the love all around. So about 8 people on the team had one or two divisions of Xerox each. I asked my boss Steve “so what if we put all of Xerox under one person, me, and I took it all on. That way we would gain efficiency on branding use, clear picture of how the different areas work together or in competing, etc.?”

Steve liked the idea and within 30 days I was working 100% on Xerox. Early on I had a great learning event happen. So like any larger company there were client contacts that were fun, others that were all business and others yet pretty tough to deal with. One of the larger divisions, the copier equipment one, was the 800-pound gorilla of the bunch. The two people that had it before said, “be warned the guy in charge hates everything we do… tons of rework.” I was taking over for in midstream and had to write some copy for an incentive program mailer. After getting the rough from word processing I faxed it to Mr. Blackman at Xerox and asked for his comments.

Within 2 hours I had a response fax in my cube on my desk. In big, think magic marker it said at the top “THIS SUCKS!!!!!” My heart sank and I thought “oh no what have I done?” So I picked up the phone and called Mr. Blackman, when he picked up I said “Hello Mr. Blackman I wanted to introduce myself I will be supporting you and your programs, plus asked you specifically ‘what sucks?’” Silence on the phone. I went on, “Does the whole thing suck or only parts of the copy or me do I suck?” He burst out laughing, saying, “Oh it was the headlines I hated them.”

We talked for a while and I said, “no worries Mr. Blackman everyone’s creative style and preferences are subjective and differences are good. I want to learn what you like and what you think stinks so I can improve and get better.”

From that point on I was able to grow not just this Xerox account but also all of them and bring on 6 new areas. Because of turning a difficult client into a growing and award winning account I was given more and more responsibility. Eventually I was bringing in nearly 60% of the profit for our area and I was able to get the reputation as a program and account fixer. Xerox was a long-term great client and I supported some great people. In addition every time I was in Rochester Mr. Blackman would buy me a cup of coffee and catch up, give me input on the program and how it could improve.  On one of these visits Mr. Blackman said, “Your first call all those years back made the difference, it was welcomed to talk with someone who didn’t get defensive and you didn’t become a wet noodle either you showed you cared and that you wanted to improve.”

Since then I always ask for the most difficult accounts, regions, people, and relationships. I love the challenge and more important feel like I can bring real value. At Maritz it helped me quickly get a name as a person not afraid to take on the difficult situations and quickly get to the point of either turning them around or winding them down gracefully.  I loved every difficult client, every creative challenge, every day at Maritz.

The choices in our careers when we will either define us and our value may not be obvious or perfect – so do what you think makes best sense at that moment for the client, the company and the team.

Difficult things lead to better opportunities.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Three Development Ideas From Saving Mr. Banks

I am a bona fide “Disney Freak” – have been since I was little. At 10 years old I sent a series of letters to different executives at Disney trying to find out “how do you get a job at Disney?”   I must have sent out 50 letters, all typed on an old manual typewriter, slowly and painfully. Out of all of them I sent I received one personal letter back. The head of Disney talent based in NYC in 1972, it simply said “My only word of advice is time. We hire the best and they stay for a lifetime. It will take time kid, give it time.”

From that point on I have been reading, watching and exploring how Disney as a company does business, and how Walt Disney was as a leader. So when “Saving Mr. Bank’s” came out I was ready to head to the movie theater for the first showing. The movie was great; it was a wonderful story to watch unfold. I learned three business development ideas from watching the movie:

1. Patience – the fact that Walt Disney took 20 years to get Mary Poppins in the works. Through consistent effort and a vision of how great the movie could be Walt Disney kept at it with Ms. PT Travers. Finally getting her to OK the creation of the movie. He didn’t give up, didn’t decide that he should never do it – instead he just had to wait for the right time. He gave it time and patience.  

This is true in many things in business. While 20 years is an amazing level of patience most times it is just months or at worst a year that we might need to wait to make something happen. In our world today, of instant communications we some times in business want instant results. Greater things can take time.

Many times in development efforts we force a timeline on a project or effort that has no connection to reality. Just because we want something doesn’t mean it will happen. Just because we want something right now doesn’t mean it will happen right now. We need to set our understanding of timing and end results based on what we know and include all the facts. If there are players or forces out side our control then we need to be realistic. Many times in corporate settings the machine in place to development things becomes unrealistic in thinking to please those higher up on making things happen in the right quarter or in time for the next fiscal release. Setting expectations of the total picture and players is key.

2. You Never Know Where A Key Relationship Will Form – The driver Ralph, played by Paul Glamatti, is in the background at the start, while he is an interesting part of the introduction of California to Ms. Travers it is not obvious that later he makes the experience more real to her. The sharing Ralph does in the movie creates an emotional connection to the business, makes Ms. Travers stop and think. What the bigger opportunity to share the story of Mary Poppins and what it means to kids.  Ralphs sharing of his love of his handicapped daughter and how the story made his child happy makes Ms. Travers realize that thought Disney she can share with an even larger base of children and adults that may gain joy from her stories. She listens and opens up.

In addition in the movie when Walt Disney finally opens up to Ms. Travers about his own past and his childhood and he understands that the book and the story is about her father not Mary Poppins. He opens up and shares a personal view on his own father and childhood. He shifts from Walt Disney the TV and movie mogul to Walt Disney a human, it is at this point she listens, connects and signs.
How many times have we not made that leap in development, that effort to connect? Even take that risk of being personal and sharing on a level that shows we are human too. Not saying to be mushy or anything – more about putting the plan to the side, turn off the PowerPoint and getting away from the board room and really listening, really sharing, really connecting?

So it is not always the clear plan and path that you think will lead to the deal, it maybe the less clear, side trips that open the doors.

3. Don’t Force Culture – In the movie we see that Ms. Travers is very formal, that even with her long term publisher and publicist at the start, he calls her Pam and she rebuts him with “and when did we allow you to become so familiar with us, Ms. Travers please…” Then we see her arrival at Disney and she is told that everyone goes by first names and time and time again everyone try’s to force cultural norms on her and she pushes back.

We can all do a better job and thinking and learning about those we want to partner with. How do they see the world, act in the world? How do we? What are the differences? How much can we give and bend to allow things to open up?

I don’t know why but when thinking about this I remember a meeting many years ago between a big corporation and a local small avant-garde circus in Saint Louis. There we had 15 corporate guys dressed like bankers in a board room on the 9h floor talking with a women owner of this local circus and the only baby elephant in the area for rent and we needed it for an event. She had her new born baby with her, in a time when women were rare in the executive suite and her she was with a baby. The true test was when she started to breastfeed the baby in the meeting. Many of the men in the room almost passed out, but she keep on going and talking – never skipped a beat. The meeting went well for both parties – because both didn’t try and change the others. I remember after the meeting when we were talking just the corporate types on next steps, the corporate business owner said “now that was a first, and you know it was OK just want I would have expected from a very creative company.” We didn't over react and lose the deal. 

So when working on a development effort with different people, different companies and different belief systems it is key to understand how to respect these difference, while not losing sight of your own AND the goal of the effort. 

Saving Mr. Banks was a joy to watch and think about. I loved at the end hearing the actual tapes of P.L. Travers and the creative session, seeing Tom Hanks bring Walt Disney to life on the screen. 

There were many lessons in the movie and the story – at the core was the idea that one person, Walt Disney, really wanted to make this happen. Many times in life, truly creative and wonderful things are not by committee, not by statistics or data but the creative desire and passion of one person makes it real.

That is a powerful thought for any development effort.