January 2010

Happy New Year to all! I hope for all our sakes that 2010 is a better year than ’09 was, and that our adjustment to the “New Normal” goes as smoothly as possible. It’s clear that we’re not going back to how things used to be or to business as usual. There seems to be an unspoken consensus emerging that the consumption of goods and services is slowly but surely returning, but at a rate of 70-75% of what it was pre-recession. It’s also becoming evident that the pressures of a contracting economy have forced organizations (both private and public sector), to assess and audit their workforce, and conclude that they could do more with less. This has put productivity and behavioral demands on executives, managers and workers that we haven’t seen in generations (if ever before). One of the most profound unintended consequences of the “Great Recession” has been a sea-changing redefinition of work and the concomitant expectations of the workplace. I saw a great t-shirt the other day-it said, “Genius by Birth, Slacker by Choice.” That could say it all!
Business Tips
The Value of Curiosity
Given what I’ve written above, I don’t feel compelled to write a lengthy section on business.

I do want to comment however, on the value and importance of curiosity. I have noticed over the years, a connection between curiosity-about people and things in general-and success in business and personal life. I’m not claiming a scientific correlation here; only a consistent observation. It certainly has been true of my clients and my friends. (I discovered, to my amazement a few weeks ago, that I have worked with almost a thousand organizations and individuals over the past thirty years. I was asked to join the adjunct faculty of an MBA program and I had to put together a resume – a weird experience at this point in my life – and a client list.)

I first discovered this connection, between curiosity and success (and I might add, liking one’s work and one’s life), through my years and miles of flying. Almost without exception, if the person sitting next to me was curious about who I was, what I did, where I lived, or some other aspect of my being, they were inevitably, successful at what they did and enthused about their life. Sometimes they initiated the conversation; sometimes I did. It really didn’t seem to matter.

My most recent experience with this connection occurred on a flight where I met Gene Robbins. Gene is a fascinating fellow who owns a construction company that, among other projects, secures military bases. Gene started out his life in law enforcement, transitioned into traditional construction work, and then created a specialized niche expertise in security construction. He is extraordinarily creative in his work and comes up with solutions to security challenges that none of his competitors have ever thought of. But what I found particularly intriguing was Gene’s interest in his people-what makes them tick, what makes them successful, what they struggled with, and how to help them grow. To say the least, we had a compelling and engaging conversation and decided to do some work together.

Curiosity is also a foundation element in building relationships-both work and personal. It is very difficult to connect with someone who has little or no interest in anything outside themselves. The successful salespeople I’ve worked with have all been information hounds – they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about people, relationships and the culture they live in. Similarly, the successful leaders I’ve worked with have a genuine, abiding interest in who their people are, not simply what they do for them.

In personal life, curiosity is inextricably linked to intimacy. Until I had met Arleah, I had never known anyone who was simultaneously intrigued by Ayn Rand, quantum physics, and the internal workings of machines. Her interests and curiosity were compelling and irresistibly attractive; and is still so to this day. Now that she has a Kindle, her access to new knowledge is almost infinite.

As we wrote in “Love in the Present Tense”, couples don’t fall out of love, they fall out of respect – respect for their partner’s lack of interest and curiosity about the world they live in.

So what’s my conclusion? In the workplace, look for people who are curious when you’re recruiting folks. How many questions do they ask you and how interested are they in you and your business? In terms of your colleagues, how often do they take the risk of going outside the nine dots and pursuing a new and different idea or behavior?

In your personal life, how curious are you? And how curious and interested are the significant people in your life? We talk a lot about our responsibilities in life? Perhaps one of the top ones is to cultivate our curiosity and that of those we care about. (I realize, as I look back on this section, that it isn’t very brief. Somehow brevity and this newsletter don’t seem to go together. I need to look at that).

Political and Cultural Observations
The Disabling State  
I am repeatedly struck by how seemingly pedestrian interactions can catalyze thinking about profound political and cultural phenomena. About a month ago, Arleah and I had done some work with a client in southern California, and were being driven to the airport by one of our client’s employees. The person driving us was a young, Hispanic fellow who did entry level work for our client. After a bit of chit-chat, I asked our driver how long he had worked for our client. He said that he had worked for the client for five years and added that he liked working for the company, a lot. (The driver had no idea of who I was or what work I did with the company). I asked him why he liked working there and his first response was that he worked with people from all over the world (the company is a veritable United Nations) and that they were very nice to him. The next thing he said blew me away – “I also like working here because they made me learn English”. I was stunned. I gathered my wits about me and asked why he though that having to learn English was a good thing. This led to a conversation about his goal to become a sales person, his wife learning English, and the opportunities he felt it created for his young children. He also talked about the sadness and puzzlement he felt because his parents decided that it would be easier for them if they returned to Mexico. This young man’s politically incorrect point of view got me thinking about what ultimately is at the core of my discomfort, concern and increasing distaste for the Obama administration.

I don’t know if Obama is a socialist at heart. The crazy-quilt of his economic policies is only rivaled by the wildly contradictory nature of his foreign policy. While he travels around the world apologizing, at every opportunity, for the seemingly endless misdeeds of our country, we are bombing villages senseless, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At one moment we are at war with Al Qaeda, but it is impermissible to call anyone terrorists or Islamo Fascists. (He has no problem, however, reciting the sins of Israelis).

One thing though is consistent and perfectly clear in the policies of his administration. They are fiercely intent and stubbornly insistent upon instituting caretaking as the sociopolitical underpinning of our culture. Every legislative initiative, executive order, and judicial determination has, at its core, the undermining of individual responsibility, the blocking of the natural consequences of poor decision-making (institutional and individual) and the protection of people from themselves. The focus of program after program is to do things for people that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, and to convince large segments of the population that they are helpless and incompetent, and cannot take care of themselves and succeed without help from the government. The latest absurdity put forth by the administration is a proposal to certify/license storefront tax form preparers so that “the public” is assured that these folks fully understand the tax code. This is to be administered by the IRS, which by its own admission (verified by many internal audits), can’t rely on its own personnel for consistent answers to tax questions. If you’re too gullible or too stupid to not question your tax advisor (whether they’re a CPA or an H&R Block franchisee) you deserve the results.

The worst thing about caretaking is not its wastefulness and squandering of resources that could be used productively; it is its demeaning of the recipients and the methodical undermining of their self-esteem and belief in their own capabilities. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the heyday of the Democratic machine in Chicago (and much of Cook County). If you wanted a job in the public sector (and often in many areas of the private sector), wanted your garbage picked up regularly, or wanted to make sure that your kids had summer jobs, you better have had a good relationship with your precinct captain, city councilman, or someone connected to one of them. (Your other option was to know someone in the Mafia). What was even more insidious and destructive was the Machine’s commitment to create make-work jobs for those people who had developed no discernable skills in their life and had been so infantilized by government caretaking that they were convinced that they had no value to bring to an employer.

Growing up, I knew about the Machine, but had had no direct contact with it until I was a young teenager. For some reason that escapes me now, I had to go down to the county building in the heart of the city. It was an impressive, ornate structure that had been refurbished in a number of ways. One of they changes involved the installation of automatic elevators. I remember walking into an elevator along with four or five other people and noticing a fellow in a very official uniform, standing in the corner, next to the panel of buttons that ran the elevator. I began to reach over toward the panel, to push the button for my floor, when the fellow in the uniform gave me one of those looks that said, unequivocally, I was about to commit a serious faux pas. What became instantaneously clear was that it was his job to push the buttons. He stood in that elevator all day, asking people what floor they wanted and pushed the requisite buttons. How demeaning, depreciating and dismissive can you get! At the time, I just thought it was weird. I did feel a certain sense of sadness, but I didn’t have the life experience or wherewithal to understand the truly tragic implications for that poor soul.

If the Obama administration continues to have its way, we will eventually have a government program for every person in the country who has made poor decisions in their life; who has not planned well for their future; or who grew up with people who couldn’t see beyond their own narcissism.

It seems to me that the fundamental challenge of our time is to see beyond the increasingly shrill argument over the CBO’s pricing strategies, the falling value of the dollar, or which political party is least irresponsible and petty. I think the real question we need to be asking and answering is – “What price are we willing to pay to live in a society that holds people accountable for their choices?”

Whether I end up rich or poor, struggling or comfortable, it means little to me, if I find myself living in a culture peopled with self-made victims and self-righteous parasites.

Personal Notes
The Face of an Angel  
I was in an airport the other day and had one of those emotional wake-up calls. I was standing in the gate area waiting to board my flight, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman going by me, pushing an unusual looking little wheelchair. Sitting in the wheelchair was a young girl, perhaps seven or eight years old. As they stopped at the check-in counter, I had the chance to focus on the little girl. If there are angels somewhere, they have the face of this little girl. She was the most beautiful child I have ever seen. But as my eyes traveled away from her face, I started to grasp why she was in the wheelchair. Her hands were bent awkwardly at the wrist, and her fingers were misshapen and out of her control. Her legs were pointed in an unnatural direction and they were clearly of no use to her.

As I continued to look at her, I felt my eyes beginning to well up with tears. It soon became difficult to maintain my composure, and I had to walk away to another part of the gate area. There was a part of me that wanted to go over to her mother and ask her if there was anything I could do to help her. There was a bigger part of me that wanted to gather that child up in my arms and make her whole. At that moment, I would have given anything to see her run around that gate area, laughing and giggling.

When we boarded the plane, her mother picked her up out of the wheelchair, and carried her on, placing her in the seat next to her. They sat right across the aisle from me and I regularly glanced over at her. I never saw her say anything – she looked blankly into space-and she eventually fell asleep against the window of the plane. When we landed at our destination, I left the plane, regretting that I couldn’t say anything to the little girl’s mother that would have made any sense, or would not have left me sobbing. I undoubtedly will never see that child again, but she irretrievably touched me. I have been remarkably calm since I encountered that little child and her mother. I still have my typically strong reactions to the challenges of this time in my life, but they subside very quickly and don’t feel like that big a deal.

These last few years have been brutal. Our financial situation has sucked, our boys have had their challenges, my mother’s physical and mental deterioration has been gut-wrenching and draining, and my own aging process has been sobering. The challenges, at times, have felt overwhelming, and I’ve had to battle to regain some perspective. That little child has given me a bunch of perspective.


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