How Mickey Mouse lost a sale and why smart businesses avoid encyclopedias

In the mid 1980’s my parents faced a tough decision: Do we give our kids fun or do we give them knowledge? I remember being about 12 years old, sitting in our dining room and watching them struggle with the choice.

They’d saved enough money for a Disney vacation but there was one major obstacle between me and a trip to sunny Florida: The door to door encyclopedia salesman sitting next to me. I wanted to throw him out a window as he went on and on about how “enlightened” my brother and I would become if my parents invested only $2,000 in his books. Unbeknownst to him, it was the same $2,000 earmarked for our trip.

Much to my chagrin, Mom and Dad opted that year for the encyclopedias. Remember those? A huge volume of leather bound books that contained the world’s knowledge. All these years later and I still feel a yearning for Mickey Mouse whenever I lay my eyes upon them.

In today’s world, the concept seems laughable, doesn’t it? Investing thousands of dollars in a heavy, soon outdated set of books? Encyclopedias and the salesmen who peddled them have gone the way of the dinosaur. Why, then, do so many of our training methods still follow this same archaic model?

For instance, take an industry related to my work: Foreign language development and support. Most organizations with overseas workers recognize that English skills are lacking, so they invest huge dollars sending a select few to expensive classroom programs. In a lot of ways, unplugging your workers from their jobs and relegating them to a classroom is akin to locking someone in a closet with a set of encyclopedias and telling them to learn as much as they can about language arts. An excellent strategy if you’re a game show contestant preparing for Jeopardy!, not so helpful if you’re looking for support that’s going to help you on the job.

My point is before jumping to the conclusion that our teams need knowledge to do their jobs, maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree. Is it knowledge that most of your employees need or is it real time, on the job support? Again using language training as an example, does your company benefit most if a select few spend hundreds of hours memorizing vocabulary terms or would your company benefit more if the masses were given instant access to powerful translation and social collaboration tools?

The best option for your company is debatable but there’s zero debate about which method is faster, less costly, and easier to manage.

Before you invest another dollar in formal, traditional training, as yourself if you’re buying encyclopedias in a world that now offers less expensive, more impactful options.

As for the thwarted Disney vacation, not to worry! This week my family, my brother’s family, and my parents (12 of us in all) will be storming the Magic Kingdom in matching “Lawrence Family Vacation” T-Shirts. Wish us luck ☺

Dear Mr. President: How to Watch the Super Bowl

Can a president’s success be traced back to how he watches the Super Bowl?  I recently heard an interview that convinced me there’s a correlation.

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times correspondent who has covered the Obamas since 2007.  Her book, The Obamas, details the private life of the presidential family.  In an interview about the book, she describes the scene at the White House for Super Bowl Sunday.  To paraphrase Ms. Kantor:

Barack Obama invited a huge crowd to the White House for the Super Bowl.  As is tradition, he invited not only political allies but also adversaries.  What better way to extend an olive branch, right?  Before the game started, Pres. Obama worked his way through the room and welcomed the crowd.  Yet just as the game began Obama took a seat at the front of the room, turned to the TV, and ignored the guests for the duration of the game.”

On the other hand, can you guess who this is?

This other president was an equally smooth communicator and at least as charismatic, yet handled social events very differently.  While the Obamas rarely hold social events in the White House’s private residence, this president had a reputation for all night bashes.  When he hosted social gatherings like Super Bowl parties he, too, invited political adversaries but lavished them with attention for the entire event.  Many who met this man have said, “No one’s ever made me feel so important.”  Granted, this president also had his challenges but he had a better reputation than most for finding ways to get deals done.

His name?  Bill Clinton.

My intent is not to disrespect our current president or give undo praise to a former one.  Rather, the distinct approach to social gatherings reminds me that even at the highest levels, connecting in a friendly way can temper even the greatest of rivalries.

Let’s ask ourselves at our next social gathering – especially those including people we don’t know or have battled with in the past – “Am I doing all I can to connect, befriend, and learn?”
As comfy as the front row Lay-Z-Boy may appear, the key to success requires that we pay less attention to the main event and more attention to those who are attending it.

Wishing you a great Super Bowl weekend!

How to inspire your team without saying a word

A million thoughts raced through my mind, and none of them good.  “Do I have hepatitis?  Malaria?  Some blood disorder that I picked up in a far away land?”  As I clutched the phone and awaited the news from this mystery caller, I braced myself for the worst.

“I’m calling about your recent blood donation to the American Red Cross,” said the caller.  “Do you have a minute to talk?  I have good news for you.”

“Wait,” I replied.  “Good news about my blood?  Now I’m confused.”

“Congratulations!” said the caller.  “You won the trip!”

“The trip?”

“Yep.  The American Red Cross and Penn State Sports partnered to offer an all expense paid trip for four to Penn State’s bowl game and you, sir, are the winner.”

And so began a three day adventure in Dallas, Texas with my dad, brother, and father-in-law.
The four of us joined Penn State’s Alumni Association, the world’s largest, for the trip of a lifetime: an end of season football game for one of the USA’s most powerful sports programs.  The game’s outcome was not what we hoped but it was the lessons off the field that really left an impression on me.  At the pre-game pep rally I saw firsthand how what we hear inspires even more than what we see.

About one hour before kickoff, Penn State’s Blue Band marched into the pep rally and fired up the crowd with a series of team fight songs.  Brass instruments blaring, drums pounding..  It was LOUD.  My eardrums felt like they were going to explode as the music pulsed through my body but the excitement around the music made the threat of permanent ear damage seem like a small sacrifice.

Scanning the crowd, I saw crazed fans ages 2 to 90 jumping, clapping, and totally engrossed in the glory of the moment.  This group wasn’t here to watch a game; they were here to live it.  And it was the band’s performance that made the whole experience come alive.

What’s your secret to inspiring a crowd?  Be it your work colleagues, family members, or customers, there are times when each of us is faced with the challenge of inspiring others to action.  Too often, though, we think we have to motivate others with words.  We ask ourselves, “What am I going to say that will inspire this group?”  But words are overrated.

Let’s face it.  Few of us have the oratory gifts of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or Tony Robbins.  Yet we address our colleagues and hope they’ll move mountains based on our inspiring prose.  Penn State’s Blue Band showed me that one secret to motivation is to replace words with music.

Limit your words.  Play great music.  Lead your own team forward to victory!

On another note, I want to thank Penn State Sports and the Red Cross for gifting my family and me with such an exciting trip.

And to YOU – yes, YOU reading this blog right now:  A friendly reminder to donate blood.  Plug in your headphones, crank up the music, and march into a Red Cross blood center to do your part.

Even Heroes Need a Mentor. Who’s Yours?

Some world regions we immediately associate with a man made structure: The Eiffel Tower with Paris.  The Christ the Redeemer Statue with Rio de Janeiro.  The Great Wall with China.  And in my small town, Beaver Stadium with State College, PA.

Beaver Stadium, with a crowd capacity near 110,000, is the second largest sports stadium in the western hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world.  On game days, our small town becomes the third most populated city in the state of Pennsylvania.  And over the last few weeks, our community has watched in horror as this beautiful stadium and its collegiate football program have crashed to the ground.  Well, not in a literal sense but figuratively speaking the stadium and all it represents is in ruin.

If you follow the news here in the USA, you already know what I mean.  If you don’t follow the news, google “Penn State Football” and see what comes up.  A travesty surrounding Penn State is being called the greatest scandal in the history of college sports.  Suffice to say there are horrid criminal allegations related to a Penn State football coach and the university’s attempts to cover it up.

To me, the most shocking part of the allegations isn’t that one sick and evil man abused children but rather that other men in senior leadership positions did nothing to stop it.  Men with roles including university president, senior vice president, head coach, and athletic director who for decades served as shining examples of high moral character.  These guys knew better.  The youngest of the bunch is 57.  The average age among this group?  67.  Since the scandal erupted, three are out of a job; two face criminal charges; all four have destroyed their personal legacies.

How could such accomplished and outwardly moral men stray so far from the ethical center?  I’ve asked myself that question many times and the best answer I can derive is it’s because they are too experienced.  Too experienced, you say?  Exactly.

Think about it.  Growing up and at least through our 30’s, most of us are surrounded by teachers, coaches, a senior colleague at work..  There’s almost always someone nearby with more experience and wisdom.  Sadly, though, by our 50’s these mentors begin to disappear and society sometimes views it as a weakness if we dare admit that as a senior leader we don’t know what to do or need to seek advice.

I believe that later in life, we begin telling ourselves, “I’ve been around the block enough times that I’m now qualified to go it alone.  I know exactly what to do, now’s my time to just do it.”

Ah, but is knowing what’s right the same as doing what’s right?  When we’re faced with tough decisions, are 50, 60, 70, even 80 year olds any better at taking the right action vs. someone who’s decades younger?  If we look to Penn State’s debacle, the answer is no.

Our moral compass might be better tuned when we reach our later years or by the time we earn a senior leadership position but our likelihood to choose the right path is not a guarantee.  Every one of us, regardless of age, needs a sounding board, a mentor we can look to during difficult times.

So I ask you, who is your mentor?  Not just a friend but someone you truly admire?  If you were to encounter a moral or ethical dilemma, who are you comfortable knowing you can approach without fear of judgment?  Whose moral compass do you consider to be even stronger than your own and how accessible is that person to you?

In our younger years these are easy questions for most of us to answer.  In our later years, these are far more difficult questions but as Penn State’s fumble proves, even more important for us to consider.

To quote some cheesy superhero movie, with great power comes great responsibility.  Part of being responsible is knowing that none of us have the ability to make the best decision every time.  Do great things.  Build your legacy.  And find a mentor who will help you preserve it.

Why Embarrassing Your Kids is Great for Your Career

Did you know that one of the world’s greatest business minds now aims to hire lunatics?  It certainly surprised me upon hearing it among an audience of 5,000 executives, 8 global media companies, and 50 business bloggers.  Quite the venue to share a declaration that could launch a global frenzy of shareholders screaming “Sell sell sell!” to their brokers.

This speaker, however, has a track record in business that speaks even louder than his words.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?  Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric.
Last month I was privileged to attend a business expo where Jack Welch was the keynote speaker.

“Lemme tell you,” said Jack.  “Most of you in this audience have it all wrong.  You think that to get ahead you need to come off as a level headed, steady, mature diplomat.  Mistake!  You’re totally blowing it!  If you really want to advance and develop a winning team, the best place you can live is on the fringe of lunacy.”

Jack went on to tell the audience if there’s one area where business professionals can improve, it’s to get out of our comfort zones and take risks.  Share your opinions, act instead of analyze, laugh like a child, challenge authority.

One audience member asked Jack, “What was a defining moment in your career, a time when you took a risk and it backfired on you?”

Jack’s response:  “When I was a young man working as a chemist and I literally blew the roof off our lab building.  Total destruction.”

As you can imagine, lots of laughter in the audience but Jack went on to explain how making such a big mistake became an unforgettable learning experience.  Before the dust even settled, Jack’s boss chose to console Jack him instead of fire him.  At that moment, Jack confided, he became a loyal GE employee for the rest of his career.  I don’t know how much GE had to pay for the roof repair but looking back on how this young man eventually grew their company to be the world’s largest and most valuable, I’d say the roof repair was one helluva deal.

 

The question I have for you is, when’s the last time you blew the roof?  The last time you dared yourself to skirt the edge of lunacy?   …Tell my boss I totally disagree with our new strategy?  Oh, no.  She might think I’m a trouble maker.  …Approach a high level prospect and ask for an appointment?  Yikes!  What if she yells at me?  …  Party like a rock star?  But I’ll mess up my hair.
And on and on it goes.

Another keynote speaker at this expo gave a wildly entertaining presentation that inspired 5,000 people to stand tall and sing a song in German.  I wish you could have been there but his message was similar to Jack Welch’s:  Don’t take yourself so seriously.

 

Speaking of comfort zones and taking ourselves too seriously, last Monday was Halloween here in USA.  Our neighborhood was swarming with kids dressed in wild costumes but as for the parents, costumes were sparse.  I counted only three parents who dressed up along with their kids.
Yes, parents, we have every excuse not to dress up but c’mon, live a little!  A perfect opportunity to expand our comfort zones and prove we’re right where the greatest business minds challenge us to go.

A little advice for all you recruiters and business leaders:  Skip the career fairs and next time you’re searching for your next superstar, cruise the streets on Halloween night.  The most outrageously dressed could very well be Jack Welch or his second coming.

 

So….   Who dressed up for Halloween this year?  Fresh off Jack Welch’s inspiring presentation, I succeeded in completely embarrassing my kids.  Amazing what sort of costume springs from a cowboy hat, mullet wig, wrestler’s belt, and Speedo.  And that’s all I’m gonna say about that :)

How Badly Do You Want It?

Are you claustrophobic?  I never thought I was until I found myself on my stomach 30 yards underground, inching through a tiny dirt tunnel void of light.  It was one of the most unsettling feelings imaginable yet a cakewalk compared to what men far braver than I experienced 40 years ago in these same dark, stifling, horrifying rat holes.  40 years ago, these tunnels were crawling (literally!) with soldiers locked in battle during the Vietnam War.

Quick history lesson:
During the Vietnam War, the Americans controlled the air.  The Viet Cong knew they couldn’t outgun the USA’s air superiority or bombing campaigns so they went underground, hand digging a complex network of tunnels that traveled hundreds of miles and was undetectable by the enemy.  The living conditions were so horrible I dare not even call them “living” conditions.  The battles that ensued were even worse.

My travels to Asia always leave me awe struck.  The unprecedented business growth in China, the clash of Eastern and Western culture in Singapore, the massive infrastructure that continues to sweep across the Asian landscape.  But a visit to this primitive war era tunnel system made the most impact on me.

As I wriggled though this tunnel, heart in my throat and stifling a scream, I began asking myself, “Have I ever wanted something so badly in life that I’d subject myself to this kind of torture to get it?”  Outside the well being of my children, the answer is absolutely no.  Yet for the soldiers who fought this war, be they the Viet Cong or the allied troops who burrowed after them, the answer is a resounding, unequivocal yes.

What is it in life that you want?  What do you want so badly that you’re practically willing to bury yourself alive to get it?

The lesson I learned crawling through those tunnels is that for many of us, that question is unanswered.  Through nothing but incredible fortune I was born in a country, to a family, and during a time that my day to day environment does not include similar wartime life or death scenarios.  But if we apply even a fraction of the courage and intensity that Vietnam’s tunnels represent, our everyday goals and aspirations are almost laughably attainable.  We’re just not digging deep enough to reach them.

 

PS on Vietnam:
Fast forward 40 years and Vietnam is a beautiful, friendly country and among my favorite to visit.  The people are warm, Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon) booming with international commerce, and a blend of ancient and modern that feels less disruptive than other regions.

If your business is looking to expand or outsource, this is a special market.  You gotta take a long, hard look at Vietnam!  I’m honored to have excellent business contacts in this region so if you’d like an introduction, feel free to contact me.

Disney’s Secret Weapon, and Golf’s Overrated One

Americans spend over $60 Billion/year on golf.  That’s $200/year for every man, woman, and child living in the world’s third largest nation.  More than the entire GDP of countries including Lebanon, Costa Rica, and North Korea.  And a good portion of that $60B goes toward new equipment.

So here’s an interesting fact:
Over the last several decades, how much do you think the average golf score (or in golf terms, handicap) has improved?
Answer:  ZERO.

In other words, the guy 40 years ago wearing tight polyester and swinging caveman clubs is no worse than today’s equivalent sporting moisture wicking fabric and high octane hardware.  (Other than style points, which frankly I give to the disco era.)

Personally, I’m not much of a golfer but I’m guilty of the same cash burn in another activity, cycling.  My friends and I will ditch our childrens’ college savings if it means shaving a few ounces or getting more aero on our road bikes.  But are we really any faster slogging up Pennsylvania’s mountains?  Doubtful.

Which got me to thinking:
In a business sense, how much money do we needlessly blow on gadgets instead of investing in ourselves and our people?

Twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to work for Disney World.  Not as any kind of executive, mind you, but as a parking lot attendant.  I was low, low, low on the food chain.  Yet before the other new hires and I spent one minute dodging Disney-crazed vacationers in rental cars, Disney put us all through over 40 hours of customer service training.  Not the technical part of my job, just the nuts and bolts of how to make sure every guest had the vacation of a lifetime.

Imagine!  A Fortune 500 investing 40 paid hours in a fresh, untested 19 year old kid who was strictly a summer hire. Disney could have spent those same dollars on space-age trams, better tracking software, automated toll machines, new computers.  But they chose to forgo the newer equipment in favor of a living, breathing, unpredictable human.

Fast forward to today’s world and we see ourselves investing heavily in things like automated phone trees, new smart phones, CRM systems.  Don’t get me wrong, all these items have a place in today’s global economy.  But are we throwing money at tools and systems at the cost of people?  Are today’s workers as well versed in key areas – attitude, market knowledge, service, confidence – as a Disney parking attendant in the early ’90’s?  Does today’s golfer have better technique, extra mental fortitude vs. our disco era caveman?  The scorecard tells us no.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other way, as companies such as Zappos and Southwest blow through their long-rooted competitors.  The question for you is, the next time you’re ready to throw down that credit card for the next best technology, are you better off investing those dollars in your own development? Instead of technology, are those dollars better directed toward coaching, education, customer appreciation..  even short-term teenage summer hires?