The Numbers Are Wrong! Stop Freaking Out and Focus your energies here instead..

The reports were wrong, but the people who mattered didn’t know that. The people who matter? My customers. These executives represent some of the world’s largest companies and have entrusted my team to deliver an important service to thousands of their employees worldwide.

Every month my company proudly sends our customers a “usage dashboard” that summarizes the service’s performance within their organization. But this month, there was a glitch in our database and the reports mistakenly read ZERO. Zero as in their investment over the last month delivered absolutely no return whatsoever. Zero is a disaster. Zero means my customers (and I!) are going to be on the hot seat with their bosses.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “My phone is gonna blow up today with some angry customers.”
Our tech team sprang into action to fix the reports while I waited… and waited… until 24 hours later when still not a single client contacted me.

If I know anything about my clients, it’s that they’re a savvy group. They’re diligent and committed to success.
So why no response to a report that should have set off flashing alarms?
A little research taught me a lesson that’s poignant for us all..

Looking back through several years of correspondence, I saw a startling pattern:
Sharing numbers with our clients generates far fewer responses and sparks far fewer conversations than sharing stories with our clients.

Over the years, I’m guilty of bombarding my customers with tons of reports. Most of them are pure numbers: how many people are using the service, number of courses completed, attendance rates, etc.

On other occasions (though admittedly not as often as I should), I’ve shared stories. Stories about how their employees are using our products on the job, about how their employees accomplished something noteworthy as a result of our service, about best practices we’ve learned from other clients.

The numbers give the customer an idea of how their investment is doing, but the stories bring the program to life and give the customer an opportunity to learn something new. And looking back on it, doing the research to uncover those stories and sharing them with my customers has been among the most gratifying parts of my job.

A perfect illustration of an industry that, in my opinion, is too extreme with its numbers: banks. If your bank, mortgage company, or stock broker is like mine, every month you get a deluge of numbers. Page after page of miniscule details that illustrate your account’s performance.
Same with annual reports. Open up one of those and it’s jammed with charts, all of which seem desperate to portray an upward trajectory.

Now, perhaps you’re more attentive than I and you read every page of those reports. I give them a three second glance and toss right in the garbage what must have cost a lot of money to produce. The reality is that work, family, and health deserve my attention more than poring over a complicated report created by a financial wiz.

If you really want to capture my attention and build a brand, Mr. bank president or Annual Report author, toss the other 27 pages of charts and numbers (or at least add a few pages!) and include a story or a bit of advice. Tell me how your most accomplished executive uniquely manages her time. Three tips on how I can maximize performance. An inspiring story about how one of your clients overcame a major obstacle and what the takeaway is for the rest of us.

Think about your own business. Are you trying to impress your clients with numbers? Or are you making the extra time to add some color in the form of a story about the people you help?

In today’s world of big data, numbers are sooooo easy to report on. We can geek out for ages on numbers but honestly, how many numbers do you really need to get your point across? And how proud will your clients feel about their partnership with you if all they have to share and appreciate is a bunch of figures jammed into a spreadsheet?

Fortunately, my clients are patient and they quickly received revised reports that show their investments are delivering results well beyond zero. But a little lesson of what happened – or rather what didn’t – when our monthly data went haywire reminds me that the communications which prompt the most response tell a human story, not a numeric one.

Your 2014 Ladder of Success: Reverse It

I had every intention of blowing out the year with a message to you about MORE. How you can achieve more. Become more. Earn more.
What better way to launch into the New Year than a clear strategy to climb the ladder of success?

Well, I heard a story recently that messed all that up. Instead of reading about how you’re going to crush your 2014 goals, you’re going to read about ice cream.

Shane Claiborne is a brave guy. In college, he passed up spring breaks and internships in favor of volunteering alongside Mother Teresa. He scraped together enough money to travel to Calcutta, India where he served in a missionary that “gives wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”

Calcutta’s poverty is extreme and something I’ve seen firsthand during travels there. Homeless, orphaned children as young as five or six survive as street beggars. One of their few bright spots is an occasional meal at Mother Teresa’s missionary.

One day, Shane learned it was one of the boy’s birthday so he snuck the boy an ice cream cone – a treat so extravagant that the youngster had likely never before tasted it. “Happy Birthday, kid,” whispered Shane. “Now keep this quiet because I don’t have enough money to buy everybody else one.”

At that moment, what do you think Birthday Boy did?
“Hey gang!” he shouted, “We have ice cream!”
The ensuing stampede had Shane running for cover and dreading a sea of disappointed faces. But Birthday Boy’s next announcement turned the tide.
“Now listen up.. We have only one cone, so we all get one lick.”

The kids formed a line, at which point Birthday Boy proceeded to share his cone with the others. Last person to get a lick: Birthday Boy.

That boy’s ice cream cone was equivalent to the most lavish holiday gift you or I can imagine receiving. But when life showers us with blessings, what’s our first reaction as to how to enjoy them?

If we could rekindle just one instinct within ourselves, what better than the good will so purely displayed by one of the world’s neediest children?

I’m not proclaiming we denounce worldly possessions and dash off to Calcutta. But as Mother Teresa told Shane, “There are Calcuttas everywhere.”

Shane Claiborne’s story reminds me that the best things in life happen when we bring the best in life to others. I probably read this somewhere on a bumper sticker but the quote is apropos: The highest calling in life is not to lead but to serve.

Finding opportunities to serve others is easy, and therein lies my holiday wish for us all:
In 2014, let’s focus less on climbing the ladder of success and focus more on descending it. Serving your family, your community, and your customers reaps more rewards than anything that serves you.

Special thanks to Todd Durkin, whose recent blog included some terrific ideas on how you can serve others:

• Surprise your mail carrier/ salon stylist / housekeeper with a $20 Starbucks gift card in a thank you note.

• Write a positive Yelp review about a local business you appreciate.

• Donate blood. Remember: a pint of blood can save up to three lives.

• Get involved with a philanthropic activity your church is sponsoring in the community.

• Write an inspirational note to 10 friends or family members and thank them for what they do on a regular basis.

• Sponsor or “scholarship” a friend, family member, or co-worker for a conference, event, fitness class, certification or workshop this person really wants to participate in but can’t afford.

• Or, host a special class or workshop at your business and donate 100% of the proceeds to a charity of your choice.

• At least once a day compliment someone you know.

• Smile at every stranger you see. A smile can make someone’s day.

• Leave gratitude notes for your family / co-workers / friends to find when they would least expect it – inside a lunch box, taped to their computer screen, on the bathroom mirror, inside their luggage, in the pocket of a jacket, etc.

…and one of my favorites from Corporate Visions CEO and Ironman Triathlete Joe Terry.

Wishing you a Happy Holidays! May your 2014 be filled with opportunities to serve.

Profound Change & Bigger Profits: Closer than you think?

What do an economics professor and your company’s profits have in common? Not much, and that’s why your profits likely aren’t what they should be.

Ever hear of a guy named Steve Levitt? Dr. Levitt holds degrees from Harvard and MIT yet freely admits, “The only reason I made it through college is the schools didn’t want to hassle with flunking me.” Proof he isn’t joking: He holds the record at his high school for the lowest ever math score: 2%. Yet Steve Levitt found a way to work around his math struggles and has become one of the world’s most famous economists.

After graduating, Dr. Levitt took a job as a professor. There he lived in anonymity until he started experimenting. “What if I take a completely different approach to economics?” he asked himself. “Instead of living in a world of numbers, what if I applied my skills to the world of association?”

“For example, instead of writing papers about the possible impact of currency fluctuations in Timbuktu (boring!), what if I study the association between drug dealers and McDonald’s workers? Unique names and inner-city academic performance?” (strange but interesting!)

Taking a different track, something his fellow economists considered idiotic, Dr. Levitt is now a global celebrity. Perhaps you’re among the 4 million+ worldwide who’ve read the book that spawned his fame, Freakonomics.

Last month I attended a conference where Dr. Levitt spoke about the most ignored opportunity that businesses have to change their fortune: experimentation.

Dr. Levitt: “One area where the academic and scientific arenas excel is experimentation. Professionals in those fields are challenged to ask different questions and seek different solutions. In business, it’s the opposite! The business world is so resistant to change. But we’ve found that even the tiniest experiments within a business make profound differences in bottom line profits.”

Real life examples that prove Dr. Levitt’s statement:

• A bike share business in Denmark was suffering many thefts from its bike cages.
The experiment: Hang a big poster of an eye inside the cage. (Weird, right?)
The result: 62% decrease in thefts.

• Wal-Mart’s sales were falling despite massive increases in marketing.
The experiment: Increase the size of its shopping carts.
The result: 50% increase in sales.

• Target’s shipping costs were skyrocketing.
The experiment: Sell detergents in concentrated formulas, thereby reducing package sizes by 75%.
The result: 110,000 tons less plastic and cardboard waste, 400 Million fewer gallons of water shipped, 500,000 fewer gallons diesel fuel.

• My own problem from years ago:
No realtors referring me business even though our bank’s rates were the lowest in town.
The experiment: Stop advertising low rates and start educating realtors on how to sell more houses.
The result: Quick bounce from no results to leading mortgage provider in town.
(A special thanks to my #1 mentor, my dad, for that one but that’s a blog for another day!)

So here’s my challenge for you:
Immediately after reading this blog, take five minutes and brainstorm five low cost, simple experiments you can run in your organization. Not large scale changes that require massive planning, just small scale experiments you can run on the side.

Sample questions to ask yourself:
• How can you show more appreciation to your customers?
• What offers can you make that your customers will find compelling?
• What’s another way you can deliver your products to your customers?
• Whose business is a good complement to yours? How can you work together?
• What’s a problem your customers face that you can help them solve?

C’mon, kind reader, try something new! Prove to Dr. Levitt and to yourself that your business is not the norm, that you are willing to experiment your way to bigger profits.

Potato Farms and Glaciers: Alaska’s Unexpected Surprises

50 years ago my dad, Giff, and his friend, Bill, took a path less traveled. While their high school friends found summer jobs or went off to college, these two hopped on a bus and traveled 4,000 miles to the great wilderness of Alaska.

As the story goes, they ended up in a roadhouse bar on the outskirts of Anchorage with no job, no money, and no connections. (This was loooong before Facebook!) Miraculously, they found work on a potato farm and proceeded to have the summer of their lives.

For as long as I can remember, Giff and Bill vowed to return to Alaska. But as anyone with a job or family can appreciate, life gets busy and dreams fade. However, nothing slingshots a dream into reality like encouragement from your wife to “just do it”, and that’s exactly the green light Giff and Bill recently were granted. They quickly booked their trip and lucky for my brother and me, they invited us. (Four word instructions from our mom and Bill’s wife: “Bring them back alive.”)

Alaska is everything you imagine: breathtaking vistas, pristine wilderness, grizzlies roaming the mountains and salmon swarming the rivers. The two highlights for me, however, were nothing I anticipated.

Highlight #1 came in the form of an old, beat-up delivery truck.
Fortunately for my dad and Bill, Alaska’s landscape hasn’t changed much and they retraced their steps to the potato farm where they worked all those years ago. Parked (permanently) on the farm was an old delivery truck that was probably last road worthy when these guys were driving it in 1961. Upon seeing it you’d have though Giff and Bill had come upon the Holy Grail.

Watching these two celebrate their discovery and relive a great memory, I found myself asking questions: “What are you doing today that 50 years from now you’ll celebrate? What adventures are you living that will inspire you or your family to revisit them decades later?”

The potato farm reunion reminded me that a great life experience never gets old.

You know the expression “moving mountains”? Well, highlight #2 was witnessing exactly that. Taking a boat ride along the coast, our captain pointed out a glacier in the distance. From afar, the glacier was unimpressive. It looked like an ordinary pile of snow between two mountains. Up close, though, gazing upon that massive glacier proved our first impression was completely inaccurate.

If you’ve not seen a glacier creeping toward the sea, imagine an 800 feet high mass of ice that stretches for miles in all directions. Now imagine that huge mountain of ice acting as if it’s alive. It moves and you can hear the ground crunching underneath. It cracks so loudly the blasts echo like a cannon. And every few minutes, a chunk of ice weighing thousands of tons breaks from its face and crashes to the sea to create a massive tidal wave.

I used to think a bulldozer was a powerful machine. After paying homage to a glacier, I realize man made machines are tiny ants compared to the forces of nature.

Glaciers move at a snail’s pace but they’re living proof that slow, consistent, unrelenting pressure creates more long lasting change than anything else.

My two lessons from Alaska:
1. Live an adventurous life.
2. Respect slow, deliberate pressure akin to a glacier more than the promise of fast & easy.

Alaska truly is the final frontier. Go! Explore! Live!

A Note to Madeline, my 11 Year Old Champion

My heart broke for her. Remember the first time you were cut from a team? That painful moment when others were chosen but you weren’t? Our 11 year old daughter, Madeline, recently had her first Darwinian encounter at dance practice. Some kids were selected for a certain routine; Madeline was not.

My first reaction: “How dare they?? That’s ridiculous! Wait ‘til I give that dance teacher a piece of my mind…” In other words, angry at the outside forces who’d jilted my daughter from an event she so rightly deserved. (According to her completely biased dad, anyway.)

Madeline’s first reaction: “I hate dance. I’m no good at this. I want to quit.”

So there we were, father and daughter, wallowing in self pity and angry at the world.
After a while, though, we reconsidered the experience.

I did my best to explain to Madeline that her mom and I are more pleased when she’s doing her best and sticking with something that does not come easy than “winning” that comes easily and requires little effort.
Oh, you’re a gifted reader and got straight A’s this year in reading class? Ho hum.
You struggle mightily with math, give it your all, and end up with a C+? Hooray!

Madeline, your mom and I are most proud of the strength you and your sisters exude from your hearts, of the battles you win based on effort, of your courage to get back up when life knocks you down.
You are blessed with so many gifts! Please, continue to embrace those. Appreciate them and maximize their value. But don’t let disappointment discourage you from doing what you love.

Looking back on my own life, I see time and time again where initial flashes of brilliance fizzled into mediocrity. Kids who were exceptional athletes in high school faded away while smaller, weaker kids who were forced to try harder rocketed to the top. Well spoken extroverts who shone brightly in job interviews but were quickly outpaced by their shy, conscientious peers.

When it comes to family and business, I’m far more appreciative of how determined one is amidst formidable competition vs. how much one succeeds amidst toothless tigers.

Lucky for me, Madeline takes after my wife: minimal drama and good perspective. By the next morning she was her cheery self, bouncing around the dance studio as happily as ever.

Hopefully an 11 year old’s life lesson spurs questions for us all…
As adults, how quickly do we charge back from disappointment? Even more importantly, how often do we dare step in the ring with others who appear stronger?
When’s the last time you didn’t make the cut in something you really wanted, took a deep breath, and tried again?

Setbacks shrink our comfort zone. Failure scares us into “never doing that again!” Like Madeline, though, I hope the next time you miss the mark you bounce back and attack it again. Those in your life who matter the most will be more impressed with your second, third, even fourth attempt than they were with your first.

Nobody Listening to Your Presentation? Maybe This is Why…

OK, be honest. When there’s a break in your all day meeting and someone brings out a tray of brownies, do you eat them? I’ll admit I do!
Scott, on the other hand, doesn’t touch them. Who’s Scott? One of the sharpest, most articulate, and healthy looking executives I’ve seen in a long time.

A few months ago Scott led our executive team through a high energy, multi-day workshop. Long days. His energy seemed infinite even as the rest of us fought to stay awake. While we were gorging on brownies and the other junk one normally finds at company events, Scot was eating salt free nuts. Instead of a heavy lunch he opted for a protein shake.

I learned later that Scott is on the road 200 days a year. For him jet lag, erratic meals, and stressful business travel are a way of life. How can he perform better under those conditions than most of us can with a regular job? One secret is the way he chooses to fuel his body.

Think about the last off-site company meeting you attended, a meeting I’m sure was incredibly expensive. We pour massive time and money into these events and then we leave the food selection in the hands of a low level catering manager? Crazy.

An event planner recently told me how one company paid $10,000 for a keynote speaker and then scratched fresh fruit from the breakfast menu in favor of cheap pastries to save $300. Let’s see… $10,000 speaker sharing life changing advice with an alert audience fueled with power food or a comatose audience riding a post-pastry sugar crash… Which do you think delivers better business results?

It strikes me as ironic that we obsess over the latest productivity tools: smartphones, faster computers, etc. only to skimp on the areas that truly drive productivity: healthy body, sharp mind, focused effort.

Before your next important meeting, a few thoughts on how to maximize your performance in the same way Scott masters his:

Gut bombs kill your brain.
Fact: Loading your stomach with heavy food diverts blood from your brain to your stomach. Less blood to the brain = a more tired, slower thinking you. If you’re gonna pig out, do so on a day you can afford to be a slouch.

Embrace slight hunger pangs.
Didn’t get enough to eat at that business lunch? Good! Feeling a little hungry fine tunes one’s senses.

Event planners and executives: Stop obsessing over every detail of your off-site meeting agenda and start paying a lot more attention to the food the hotel has planned for your attendees.
I don’t care how dazzling your presentation is; it cannot compete with the afterglow of chicken nuggets and Twinkies.

So, kind reader, what’s your advice on super foods that keep you on task?
What about tips on how to persuade our employers to invest in proper nutrition?
Secrets to staying alert during all day meetings or lengthy business trips?

Thank you for sharing your comments!

Conquer Your Whispering Devil

There are mornings I wake up feeling awful. Sore, fatigued, jet lagged, anxious… It’s as if a devil is whispering in my ear, “Oh, you’re gonna have a bad day today. You have way too much work to do. You didn’t get enough sleep. That appointment is going to go badly. The airport is gonna be a mess. The kids are gonna fight all morning..”
Shaking that devil from my ear and replacing it with positivity can be a serious challenge.

Am I alone in my battle to fight back negative thoughts? Not according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), which reports more than 1 in 10 Americans are on anti-depressants. For middle aged women it’s even worse: nearly 1 in 4 are on this medication.

How did this happen? How has the whispering devil become so influential that we’re now a nation hooked on happy pills? Surely doctors can offer a scientific answer to why this happens but let me share my own secret formula for purging negative thoughts: Reset and Power Up.

We are fire hosed with information like never before: Emails, texts, TV, social media, cell phones.. The truth is, the default setting today is a constant barrage of messages from the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep. Is it healthy? Absolutely not!
How can we consume a non-stop flood of urgent work requests, social media postings reminding us how glamorous everyone else’s life is, news coverage trumpeting doom and gloom.. without feeling like crap?

As challenging as it is, make time every day to reset: No phone, no email, no news channels. Get as quiet as you can both on the inside (your head) and the outside (your surroundings) and let your mind reboot. For me, that means an early morning swim, bike, or run without the iPod.
For you, is it a walk? Yoga? Whatever it is, schedule it in your calendar no later than the day before and make it a top priority.

Power Up:
When most of us hear “power up” we think of turning on our computers, right? Eeeek! Don’t do that.
A challenge for you, something I often struggle with myself but never regret: In the morning power up your body before you power up your computer.
Do you think humans were designed to roll out of bed only to flop into a chair and stare at a screen? Ha! Our able-bodied ancestors are laughing at us.
Imagine describing the start of a modern day to your ancestors: “Well, first I wake up after 4-6 hours of fitful sleep.” [By the way: Before the advent of electricity people routinely slept 10 hours/night.] “Then I stumble to a desk, turn on this bright screen that’s bad for my eyes, and start reacting to a bunch of mail messages that piled up while I was trying to sleep. I do this until I have a headache, at which point I reach for a salty, sugary prepackaged snack with a shelf life of 5 years…”
And on and on it goes until we find ourselves at the pharmacy picking up a package of Xanax.

Listen, I’m not advocating we go off the grid and live in mud huts. And clearly some people truly need prescribed medicine because there’s no other answer.
What I’m suggesting is we reconsider how we begin our days.

Power Up your mind and body first. Get some physical activity. Eat a great breakfast. Welcome in a new day before you fill it with modern day work and family realities.
Reset occasionally throughout your day before the information onslaught becomes too overwhelming.

Ben’s unscientific yet effective tips for destroying the whispering devil:

1. Turn on your smartphone or computer only after you’ve checked the box on two critical items: physical activity and breakfast.

2. Schedule the important parts of your day – including your exercise break(s) – no later than the night before.

3. Turn off the email fire hose while you’re working on important projects. Check email 4-5 times/day and stay off it otherwise.

4. Early to bed, early to rise.
(“Yeah right, Ben. How can I possibly go to bed earlier?” Well, kind reader, move on to point #5…)

5. Kill your television.
Two things about TV: 1) Studies show that people are most miserable and feel worst about themselves while watching TV. 2) TV Prime Time, which begins at 8pm, is when most of us click on the TV and sink into brain drain mode. Replace late night TV with early morning Reset and Power Up time.

6. Focus on getting one thing done one at a time. Don’t kid yourself, multi-tasking doesn’t work. (At least for the male species!)

Power Up + Reset = A happier, healthier, more productive you.

Riding with a Legend: Thank you, Jürgen

The first time I saw Lance Armstrong race he was 16 years old and so was I. There, however, the similarities ended. I was simply a race spectator who’d come to see the era’s legendary triathletes battle for victory. Lance, on the other hand, was already among the USA’s strongest triathletes and competing at the sport’s highest levels. That day Lance took 2nd, only 90 seconds behind the winner.
That was the day I became a Lance fan and the day I decided to one day become a triathlete, too. Perhaps not at Lance’s level but at least a member of the triathlon community.

Fast forward 20+ years and Lance has had his ups and downs (a blog topic for another day!) but triathlon remains a sport I love. It’s given me every reason to live a healthy lifestyle and meet extraordinary people. This was especially true last week when I found myself exhausted, legs burning, dehydrated, nearing heat stroke, and loving every minute of it.

My triathlon hero in the ‘90’s was a German named Jürgen Zäck. Jürgen was different than the other pros. While most pros are wafer thin and under 5% body fat, Jürgen was powerful and muscular with (gasp!) 8-10% body fat. While most pros look like skeletons and run like deer, Jürgen’s strength was the bike. He’d power his enormous legs through a streaking bike split and then lumber through the run with (hopefully) enough of a lead that the Bambis couldn’t chase him down. His style was unconventional but his results indisputable. Several times he broke records and won titles. Now approaching 50 years old, Jürgen still races at elite levels.

Last week, I had the privilege of training with him.

Business travel took me to Thailand and I learned that Jürgen now directs a triathlon training academy in the area called Thanyapura. What luck! So after a week of meetings I registered myself for a weekend at his camp.

This camp attracts all kinds: Professional and Olympic athletes at the top of their game, people who’ve put their lives on hold to pursue the dream of becoming elites, and “normal” people who’ve checked themselves into Jürgen’s camp to lose weight and regain their health.

What made the experience so special was how everyone there shared a passion for the same tiny subculture, the world of triathlon. Together we enthusiastically chatted ad nauseam about all the things that make triathletes your most boring dinner guests: race wheels, aero helmets, VO2 max, blah blah blah. To an outsider this was the epitome of geekville; to us, it was nirvana.

One moment I really cherished was our morning bike ride, during which Jürgen and I broke off from the pack and rode together on backroads with sweeping vistas of the Indian Ocean. “Am I really riding with the legenday Jürgen? Awesome!”
Granted, Jürgen did most of the talking and I did most of the gasping but he was gracious enough to slow the pace and let me hang on.

To Jürgen Zack and my other new friends at Thanyapura, Thank You for the experience of a lifetime!

To everyone else a few questions:
What’s your passion?
Are you making time to enjoy it? To connect with others who share it?
Who are the legends in that world you’d most like to meet? How can you make that happen?
Even if it’s only for a day or two, meeting like-minded people and brushing elbows with the greats is among the most energizing experiences life offers.

Why the internet will never tell you all you need to know

If you’re in business, I’m sure you’ve attended countless business dinners. I recall dinner meetings along the beaches of Mexico, atop Vegas’ newest casinos, in Milan’s finest restaurants, even aboard cruise ships. But no dinner meeting I’ve ever attended compares to one I recently experienced in Denmark. In a customer’s home. With her family. Celebrating Christmas in October.

“Ben,” she asked. “Have you ever had a Danish Christmas dinner?”

“Why are you asking me this in September??” That’s what I wanted to say but instead replied, “No.”

“Well, then,” she continued, “that’s what we’re going to do. My family and I will see you at my house in two weeks.”

Preparing for this meeting was different. Instead of packing brochures, I packed a book entitled Awkward Family Photos. As opposed to a powerpoint presentation, I found myself practicing how to say Merry Christmas in Danish. (Spelled phonetically, in case you’re wondering, it’s something like Glady Yule.) And what to wear? I decided against the business suit and seriously considered a Santa Claus costume. Maybe next time.

The food was outstanding. In other words, not your standard Applebee’s menu. Roasted duck, candied potatoes, crushed almond pudding.

But the part I most appreciated was getting to know my customer the person:
How worried she gets when her happy go lucky teenage son misses his curfew.
How proud she is of her other son, a well spoken engineering student.
How delighted she becomes when her husband dashes around the kitchen.
How passionate she is about art.

Yes, we spoke a little of business but I was reminded that business is not about a brand or a stock price; those are simply outcomes. Business is about people. Specifically, our ability to connect with one another and solve one another’s problems.
What a gift this valued customer gave me. To her and her family, I say Thank You. Thank you for the great food, the wonderful company, and the lifelong memory.

To the rest of us, a question:
How well do you really know your customers? Not the business stats. That’s a given and frankly, surface level stuff that any buffoon with an internet connection can find. Knowing that is important but not enough. I’m talking the person behind the contract. Their family, their hobbies, their aspirations.

There’s no easy way to answer that question but I believe it comes back to one key principal: Becoming genuinely interested in the other person. In today’s world, where nearly every product and service can be purchased through the cold, disinterested click of a computer, the best in business are always looking for ways to know their people.

Ask yourself:
“When I visit my customers or colleagues, do I do most of the talking or most of the listening?”
“When preparing for a meeting, do I spend most of my time thinking about what I’m going to tell or what I’m going to ask?”
“Am I most concerned about getting my customers interested in me or learning something interesting about them?”

I got lucky. I was blessed with a customer generous enough to invite me to a family dinner. But even when that’s not possible, I’m reminded that we have every opportunity – no, make that every obligation – to connect with business partners on a personal level.

And if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen at 1:00am face to face with a smiling, carefree 18 year old kid, tell him to go home. His mom is waiting :)


My fellow Americans: Can we add a second bird?

The eagle: our nation’s emblem. It represents so many of the characteristics we Americans hold dear: independence, strength, and freedom. However, a presentation by world famous author and business consultant Don Tapscott at last week’s World Business Forum in New York City made a compelling case that future generations may not identify with the eagle in the same way we do today. At the least, tomorrow’s world should make room for two national birds: the powerful eagle and the lesser known, more ordinary starling.

A starling?? But wait, isn’t that a small bird, a common bird, hardly anything that instills fear and respect from atop mother nature’s food chain? Well, yes. One starling vs. one eagle and that starling is lunch. But starlings have sent eagles and every other bird of prey scurrying away with their talons between their legs.

How does the starling do it? As Tapscott explained, the starling wins in the same way that tomorrow’s strongest global businesses will: they work together. Thousands of starlings will gather in the evening sky and together they’ll form massive clouds of swirling birds, the airborne equivalent of a monstrous school of fish. Together they fly in perfect synchronization with the end result being a flock of birds so large, so impenetrable, that even the most daring birds of prey have no choice but to look elsewhere for their evening meal.

The videos are fascinating and I encourage you to watch them here:

Wow, I watch that video and I’m reminded of what a bad starling I would be! My wife, three kids, and I can hardly stumble through a parking lot without tripping over each other. Imagine how starlings must laugh when they fly over a big city traffic jam.

Clearly we humans have a long way to go before matching the grace of these simple birds. And while today’s uber-connected world gives us every opportunity to leverage collective intelligence and collaborate as a flock of birds, the reality is the newness of technology and the shock of globalization has us learning to crawl before we walk.

I believe that most of us (especially in the U.S.) grew up in a world where working across borders was rarely considered. Where working together for the good of the team was sometimes overshadowed by the pressure to achieve individual success. In other words, soaring like eagles was encouraged while serving one small role for the greater good was not as recognizable.

Eagle or starling? Which are you? Within your own organizations, are you making time to recognize both? Are you giving your global teams opportunities to fly together and synchronize their rhythm?
These swirling birds represent what Tapscott sees as the future of work. The technology is already there for us to collaborate more easily, it’s just we humans who need to learn how to leverage it.

Oh, and as for the starlings and their beautiful flock formations: Scientists have never documented an accident. A slightly more impressive track record than big city traffic formations.