Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Saturn Way

For a time I sold cars at Saturn.  For some people, those cars were absolutely perfect, reliable and the level of service we provided was exceptional. 

We had a General Manager, Rob, who used to admonish us to behave in "the Saturn way."  This unofficial and nebulous standard of professional behaviou referred to integrity, self-assurance, customer focus, teamwork and joy.  It was more often measurable by it's occasional absence.

If a salesperson ever was tempted to take advantage of a customer, Rob would ask "is that the Saturn way?"  The process demanded truth and full disclosure.  If one of us tried to sell a car without first listening to the customer's needs, Rob would remind us "that's not the Saturn way." The Saturn way was all about determining customer needs, not hastily acting on a hunch.  It wasn't about one sale, it was about a satisfied customer for life (many of whom remain friends to this day).  Heaven help us if we tried to cut corners, or if anyone gossiped behind a coworker's or customer's back.  That was definitely not "the Saturn way".  I'm not saying it didn't happen, I'm saying none of us wanted to be thought of doing things other than the Saturn way.

The car is gone from General Motors now and arguably so is the ideal, but from time to time in my current occupation I can hear a voice in my head asking me "is that the Saturn way?"  If the answer is yes, then I know we have ourselves a great deal and probably a lasting customer friendship.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Do it Like I'm Doing it for Free

"Is it ethical?"  It was a simple, complicated question.  My buddy had just accepted a position on a fundraising board and had all sorts of ideas, some of which he worried might be in conflict with his professional position.  In effect, his plan to raise money for his favourite charity would bring him into contact with a similar segment he professionally mines for business, albeit not likely the same customers.  He was on-fire, as they say.  He couldn't wait to tell me about it.

I was intrigued by the enthusiasm he was showing, essentially to use the same skills for which he gets paid "in real life"  but for free, on his own time and for a cause.  He has a very aggressive prospecting plan and a well considered fundraising strategy.  He has to; the goal is several million dollars.

I wondered, though.  If the skills are the same as the ones he uses every day, then why does he never appear to be this inspired by his job?

The talk turned to tough personal questions about our own careers.  The answers gave us a clearer picture of what we really have to work on this year; ourselves, our attitudes, our motivation.
  • "Am I still excited by my career?"  (like when I first started out)
  • "What could I accompish if I didn't know better?" (you know, like before "reality" set in)
  • "Do I have a strategy to increase sales that is imaginative, focused and benchmarked?"  (like my friend's fundraising campaign has to be)
  • "Do I have a challenging goal?"  (the Everest goal, I call it - a difficult, killer, inspiring and worthy goal that few will ever accomplish, maybe not even me)
  • "Do I believe so strongly in my product and service that it ain't about the money?" (so I'm not just working for a paycheque) 
How would our workday look if we did our jobs for a higher cause?  Don't we?  What are we waiting for?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012


When I write about leadership and management, I know that I have always tried my best, but for someone somewhere, probably more than someone, I have been what they might describe as "the worst boss, ever."

I recently had the chance to apologize to one such former employee.  No need to go into details, suffice to say I had behaved in a way that had caused me shame in hindsight, and cost him his livelihood while he had a young family to support.  I can, to this day, justify my actions.  HR backed me.  The law was on my side.  He was very clearly justifiably terminated.  Yet I believe I could have done more, tried just one more time.

On a chance encounter, after inquiring about his wife and kids, I brought it up.  He had already forgiven me long ago, which only goes to prove he really was the gentleman I had hired, but who had somehow gone astray.  Maybe just one more chance might have made the difference...and maybe not.  We have a responsibility to the entire team to address the problems within. 

Truth is, we who dare to lead sometimes fail and this is the burden we carry.  Truth is, if we don't risk neither will we know improvement, or the positive difference we may have had on others. 

Truth is, if we can't remember the names and faces and the lessons of the people we failed under our leadership, we do a great disservice to the people in our care today.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Team Dynamics - the Ghostbusters

Critics consider "Ghostbusters" to be one of the funniest and most quotable movies ever made.  I agree.  I also consider the movie to be full of lessons in how teamwork can defeat even the darkest villain - be it the threat of total annihilation or a looming project deadline.  Here are some examples from the movie, and a practical applications for a team.

Respect the Experts on Your Team
Peter Venkman:  "I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?"
Egon Spengler:  "Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light."
Ray Stantz:  "Total protonic reversal."
Peter Venkman:  "Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon."

We've got a team of three remarkable individuals, all with his own talent.  At various times one of them takes the lead.  Most of the time its the Bill Murray character, Peter Venkman, and probably only because of the force of his charisma and personality.  Yet when Spengler has something important to contribute, that is his invention could cause the end of the world if not handled properly, he doesn't stand quietly or back down.

Because they know and appreciate each other's strengths, they listen and modify a potentially disastrous course of action.  The lesson learned?  Sometimes the least likely guy has something valuable to contribute, and we'd be best to listen to him.  If you're that least likely guy, make like Spengler and press the issue.  The success of the team (and the fate of the world) may depend upon it.

Take a Chance, Celebrate Small Victories
Peter Venkman:  "the flowers are still standing!"

They've just finished destroying a ballroom just minutes before an important social event, plus several floors of a hotel.  They've captured a nasty and very messy ghost.  They haven't been paid yet, although in the midst of the mess they've discovered that their inventions work, and there is business to be had.  Venkman, perhaps sensing an opportunity to release some tension in the room, sees a fully set table undisturbed and decides to try the old trick of pulling out the tablecloth and leaving the table setting intact.  It mostly fails, china and cutlery flies...but the flowers are still standing.  I'm not sure Ray Stantz would have had the cojones to calculate the exhorbitant bill in front of the incredulous hotel manager if Venkman hadn't given him permission to be proud of what they had accomplished, albeit not exactly to expectations.

Sometimes our plans can go disastrously awry and lead to what appears to be a failure.  It's only a failure when we don't learn from it.  It's only a complete failure when we haven't given it our all.  It's a personal failure when we fail to take a minute to celebrate the small successes along the way, even if it's only a vase of flowers intact amongst the ruins.

Admit Your Screw-Ups, Don't Wait to Get Caught
Ray Stantz: "It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man."

Given a chance to avoid destruction, all they have to do is clear their minds.  The destructor will come in the form of whatever one of them imagines, and leave it to Dan Ackroyd's character Ray to completely mess up these simple instructions. 

When we blow it and things take a turn for the worse, it's a lot faster to own up to it and confess our error than to wait for the investigation that will eventually lead to the truth.  There can be serious consequences personally and professionally for being the guilty party, and even worse for the entire operation for holding out.  It can affect our credibility, our team, morale, and future business.  It hurts to admit that you're the one who let the team down, it hurts the team to deny it and let them come to that realization on their own.  Make like Ray - own up.
Loyalty to Our Customers
Peter Venkman:   "OK, so, she's a dog."

Sigourney Weaver's character has been transformed from a very beautiful lady to a creature that resembles a dog.  But she is, as Venkman puts it, the "nice lady who paid us in advance."  He stares down his team mates and shrugs off the unfortunate turn of events.  "So?" he dares them.  "She's a dog."  What of it?

We talk so much about customer loyalty to our product or business.  But what about our loyalty to the customer?  Someone on the team, hopefully everyone, has to keep the end user, the customer, front and centre in the decisions.  If we forget our customer along the way, whatever we produce will be unrecognizable to them and we've done them (and our company) a great disservice.  The customer is not the enemy, as much as she's been possessed by demons who are trying to kill us, turned into a smelly ugly dog-like creature and is very unlikely to ever be the nice lady we met at the start of the project or negotiations.

The customer may not always be right but she's still the customer, as my old boss used to remind me.

Stuff Happens, Plans Have to Change, Get Behind it!  100%
Egon Spengler:" "Not necessarily. There's definitely a very slim chance we'll survive." 
Peter Venkman:  (pauses) "I love this plan! I'm excited to be a part of it! LET'S DO IT!"

The Ghostbusters have their backs to the wall and they appear to be on the losing side of the battle.  It's all over, except by breaking the rules of physics they could turn the battle around, if they live.  Egon who first advised against crossing the streams (at the top of this article) now suggests that they should go ahead and do exactly that.  It makes no sense, and Bill Murray's character challenges him.  "You said it was bad!"

Spengler suggests a plan that is almost certain to fail, but it has "a very slim chance" at working.  It's all they've got.  It's not the original plan.  They could argue and negotiate and point fingers and push each other under the proverbial bus, but instead the one guy who arguably has more sway and carries a lot of influence over the others, Venkman, stops, considers and then enthuiastically endorses the change of direction.  There'll be no "I told you so's" after this.

How many times do we conditionally endorse a plan carefully logging proof of  our objections in case we're called to answer for it.  Any episode of The Celebrity Apprentice will show you how that works if you've never experienced it in person.  How often does it feel like the team backed us in principle, but in truth we know we're going down alone if the plan doesn't work.  These Ghostbusters under the quirkly leadership of Bill Murray's Venkman just don't work that way.  Neither should we.

False Humility is Really Annoying
Winston Zedemore: "Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"! "

Alright, nobody should claim (or admit, if delusion has already set in) to being a god, but we should learn to accept compliments graciously.  If you're the type who is humbly deflecting or refusing compliments, it's actually an insult to the giver.  Imagine refusing the gift of a bottle of wine, or a morning coffee.  "I'm not worthy, give it to someone else."  Right....  So if someone recognizes your brilliance, allow them the courtesy of a simple thank you.  That's it, just say "thank you."  It actually reflects well on the whole team.

Witness the violent reaction of Gozer when the answer to her question is negative.  The same sort of reaction happens to the giver of a compliment denied.  Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second, but with continued deflection and denial of praise, sooner or later lightning bolts will fly.  Or worse, you, and by association, your team will become inconsequential.

Ghostbusters II
Let's just agree that one successful project does not mean that you can venture into the next using a cookie-cutter approach.  We have to apply ourselves 100% every day, to each undertaking, as if it has to stand alone.

Because in fact, it does.  We're only as good as our last endeavour.