We once had a program at work dubbed the Indispensable Program. The idea behind it was to make our company so valuable to our key customers that it would cost too much to dump us as a supplier. It involved hyperaccurate forecasting, inventory management, precisely-timed deliveries, and dedicated customer service. It certainly wasn’t cheap, but the success of the program equated to business we could count on for a very long time. And it worked.

During the time this program was in place, my boss entered my office one day to find me working on something outside the scope of my normal duties. One of our salesmen had asked me for help, and since I had the time and knew where to find his answers, I tackled the project willingly. I would have been within my right to politely refuse since it technically “wasn’t my job,” but I didn’t. When my boss found out, he scowled and told me I should tell the salesman to do it himself. I gave him my reasons for helping and wryly added, “Besides, it’s part of my indispensable program.” His scowl turned to a chuckle, and my boss walked away nodding.

What good business practices can you apply to your own development? If nothing else, help others when you can. It might cost you some time, effort, or other resources, but you’ll reap the benefits in the long run. Make it your own indispensable program.

Toughen up

Years ago, I lobbied for a job that I already had been doing de facto. I presented my case to my boss in a well-reasoned memo and then sat down to discuss it with him. I thought it was a slam dunk.

He didn’t give me the job.

I was definitely frustrated, but the reason he gave left me completely floored. “Tammy, you’re just not enough of an a–hole.” Wow. That’s a detriment?

It turns out that what he really meant was that he wasn’t sure I had a thick enough skin to handle some of the tough situations. He didn’t, for example, think I could fire an employee who at that time was not performing. My response was this: “You don’t always have to be an a–hole to get the job done.”

Believe it or not, I did learn a lesson in this. People value backbone. They value stamina. If you want to be a leader, people need to be convinced that they can count on you when times are tough and the burden is great. Even though I still firmly believe that I didn’t need to be a–well, you know–I realized in hindsight that I had not done a good job showing my boss that I could walk through fire.

Although I had never buckled under pressure, I had also not sought out tough assignments. I had not volunteered to clean up sticky situations. I had not weathered a heavy storm. I had not had to rise from the ashes of a project failure.  Maybe I really wasn’t ready for that assignment.

A lot of time has passed since then and I’ve proven my mettle. I’ve done a lot of tough things, failed a few times, and even had to fire a couple of people. But do you know what? I still wasn’t an a–hole.

What color are your glasses?

Once upon a time, I did a lot of volunteer work with an international youth exchange organization. After a couple of stints as an exchange student myself, I worked with students coming to the US as well as US students (and their parents) preparing to go overseas. If ever there were an opportunity for a communication gap, cultural exchange is it.

Fortunately, people are more cognizant of the potential for miscommunication in cultural exchange, and this organization puts a lot of effort into building awareness as a weapon against it. In a nutshell, here’s how they introduce the topic to incoming students:

Say you come from Country A. Everyone in Country A is born with yellow glasses. Some people from Country A realize they are wearing these glasses and some don’t, but no one can take them off. Now suppose that one person from Country A visits Country Z, where everyone is born with non-removable blue glasses. A looks at Z through yellow lenses, and Z looks A through blue lenses. As A spends more time in blue land, she may assimilate into the culture and even be granted a pair of blue glasses. Remember, though, that A has to put the blue glasses on top of the yellow glasses. At best, A now sees through green lenses. If A doesn’t know she’s wearing glasses in the first place, she’s really going to be confused!

In case you haven’t figured it out, the glasses are the cultural influences that shape our individual perspectives. Even if we look at exactly the same scene as the person standing beside us, we’ll each view it differently. We can’t help it.

Here’s the bottom line. Our view of the rest of the world will ALWAYS be influenced by the experiences that have led us to today. Whether we are aware of it, our minds process new experiences by measuring them against the events in our past, searching for context. We can’t avoid it, but we are far better off when we recognize it. After all, how can you bridge a gap that you don’t know exists?

The next time you go into a meeting, ask yourself what color glasses you are wearing and how you would explain them to someone else. You’ll be amazed at how much more clearly you’ll see.

Why it matters

When I opened up an industry trade magazine today, I noticed an article titled Internet and Fax Scams. As I consider myself a fairly enlightened user of electronic media, I was in the process of flipping to the next page when a couple of bullet points caught my attention. Under the heading “More Clues of a Scam” I saw this:

  • Poor syntax, grammar and spelling
  • Use of all CAPITAL letters, odd spacing between words/sentences, lack of punctuation and run-on sentences, also no capitalization (Example: doesn’t capitalize “i”)

Hallelujah! If you don’t think these things are important, think again. The message in this article is that the details count, and that appropriate writing skills are a good measure of serious intent and/or validity. I couldn’t agree more.

I have long believed that if you don’t take something seriously enough to get it right, how can you expect your audience to take it seriously? Besides that, don’t you want to put yourself in the best light possible? You won’t look like an expert on anything if you don’t put the effort into communicating it properly.

Sloppy doesn’t win awards. Sloppy doesn’t attract customers. Sloppy doesn’t land jobs. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Handle with care

George Harrison. Tom Petty. Roy Orbison. Jeff Lynne. Bob Dylan. Sounds like a dream team of music, doesn’t it? It would really be something to hear if they all sang together. Oh wait–they did! For a brief interlude, on a whim and as a bit of a lark, they did. They were the Traveling Wilburys, and they were every bit as fabulous as you’d expect. They did, indeed, make beautiful music together. If you don’t believe me, watch this: Handle With Care.

Every one of these guys had made a name for himself independently. Each was an undisputed star in his own right. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself, not one of them hesitated to share the limelight with the others. They appreciated the respective talent of their peers and they embraced the notion of collaborating. No egos got in the way; they built on each other. Oh yeah–they had fun, too.

What could you do if you got together with others with similar talents? What kind of “music” would you make? What new heights would you reach?

Don’t be afraid to share the limelight. Chances are, you won’t be overshadowed; you’ll make a brighter light.

What keeps me up at night

I don’t think, as a society, that we are giving people the tools they need to become critical thinkers in precisely the time when they need this skill most. The world is becoming ever more complex, and the internet and globalization amplify even the smallest disturbance in the force field. People are becoming busier and busier, and demands on our time mean that we really have to learn to think clearly AND progressively; I don’t always have time to wait for someone to give me an answer, and that person probably doesn’t always have time to give it to me. If I make a decision in a vacuum, though, chances are at least 50/50 that I will win the battle but lose the war.

We need a society of thinkers, of problem solvers. I don’t care what a person’s job is, whether she is a CEO or a teacher or an assembly line worker. Critical thinking helps us perform better at everything, whether it’s a job, a hobby, parenting, or life in general. And it’s not hard; it just means asking questions and considering the big picture.

  • Why is this important?
  • If I do this, what else will happen?
  • What if I don’t do it?
  • Whom does this affect?

Although it may be very deliberate at first, practice makes this process become second nature. In most cases, we don’t learn this in school. We are taught to learn facts and regurgitate them as necessary. While I have a personal fondness for recalling random bits of obscure information, that proves more useful as a party trick than as a problem solving mechanism.

So how do we get there from here? How do we lead people, whether they are our children or our colleagues or anyone about whose success we care, to think critically and be engaged? I don’t know, but I’m passionate about figuring it out. Here are some things I think are important elements of the process:

  1. We have to set goals. If we aim toward something, we are setting a path, a trajectory. To get from point A to point Z, we have to go through B-Y, as well. That makes it important for us to think about more than the A-B path.
  2. We have to give people room to fail. If failure is not an option, of course we’ll want someone else to hand us the answer. I certainly don’t want to be responsible. If the price of failure is not death (real, virtual, professional, metaphorical, or otherwise), then I will be more likely to do more things and learn from them. This is really an issue of empowerment. Empowering someone means letting her do it her way, regardless of whether she succeeds or fails. If I want it done a certain way, I should probably do it myself.
  3. We have to be passionate. If I care about what I’m doing, then I will want to do it right. That usually means caring about its legacy, too. If I want something to last, I need to think ahead.

I have all kinds of ideas bouncing around in my head about this topic. It sometimes strikes fear in my heart, but it always energizes me. What keeps you up at night?

**This post is an excerpt from a piece I wrote some time ago. When I recently revisited it, my passion for it was rekindled. I thought it was worthy of putting it here.**

Language barrier

Today is Easter, and I went to church. It’s what I do. While I was listening to different people speak to the congregation, I heard a foreign language: church language. Listening for communication gaps–that’s also what I do.

Church language bothers me. It’s not the message behind it that makes me squirm; it is the exclusivity of the language. If you’re an outsider, you have no idea how to handle some of those high falutin’, faith-specific, laced-with-particular-meaning words. In fact, it can be extremely off-putting.

If you’re trying to reinforce membership in an exclusive club, you just might be getting the job done. If you want others to feel welcome, though, you’ll be much more effective if you embrace a common language. Speak words everyone knows and can understand without explanation and see how much easier it is to get people to listen.

If you’re put off by the Christian analogy, think of it this way. If you’re a doctor speaking to a medical conference about the dangers of smoking, you’ll probably use medical terms. You’ll speak in the context of physiology and cellular transformation. You’ll cite studies and medical evidence, and you’ll sound really smart. All the other doctors will nod and understand. However, if you take that same speech and give it at a community outreach presentation, people’s eyes will probably glaze over. Other medical professionals in the audience might get it, but no one else will. I doubt you’ll get many people to leave their Marlboros in the trash can by the door by using language that distances them from the topic.

So whether your message is about Easter or stopping smoking or wearing seatbelts or a critical project at work, remember this. How will you get people on board if no one understands you? If it’s that important, don’t make people translate. Most of the time, they won’t.

Know thyself (redux)

Recently, I learned a surprising twist to my family history that forced a shift in the way I think about my extended family and who we are. (Thankfully, it was a good twist.) However, it doesn’t really change my life at all and I have been struggling with this dichotomy. How can something so significant have so little effect on my daily routine? Does that mean it doesn’t really matter? I don’t think that’s the case.

The way I see it, a major life event can fall into one of three categories:

  • the kind that shakes your foundation and alters your worldview but doesn’t really change how you go about your daily business;
  • the kind that turns your everyday life upside down but doesn’t generally change who you are;
  • the kind that does both; it rocks your world now and forever.

I realize I’m the girl who can put the anal in analyze, but I think it helps to be able to identify and categorize life’s big deals. This helps us gain perspective so we can understand how to deal with these things. It helps us know when to ask for help or to share the news. We can learn how to move forward if we know what’s in front of us.

Think about it. A job change might alter your everyday life, but it probably won’t change the core of your being. Knowing that can help you get over the hump of a steep learning curve. The birth of a child will rock your world forever, so it wouldn’t make sense to expect things to get back to “normal.” You might as well get on with the business of finding your new normal.

The better you understand yourself, the better you’ll be able to relate to others. A little introspection can go a long way.

Adapt or die

I hate wearing the color pink, but it looks good on me.

I love to bake, but our family gatherings run short on side dishes and long on sweets.

I don’t like road trips, but I love to visit new places.

I love the sound of French, but it intimidates me.

How does someone avoid conflict in the face of paradox? You adapt. You get to know yourself, learning your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses. Dissect them and see what lies at their heart; chances are there is something more elemental that speaks to you. Once you figure it out, go after it. Then you can make those paradoxes work for you rather than against you. So…

French intimidates me because I don’t understand it. I feel like an outsider when I can’t communicate. So, I’m learning French.  I love the feeling of mastering a language.

When I’m stuck in a car, I feel as if I’m wasting time, missing more interesting things I could be doing. When there’s no other option but a long drive, I try to find interesting places to stop along the way, and I’ll bring an audio book to occupy my mind. I feed my curiosity about new places and the audio book makes the time go quickly. Sometimes I’ll even take a detour to listen to one more chapter.

It’s the artistic part of baking that I love, the part that allows me to take individual, unrelated elements and create something wonderful. The sensory gratification from the way my creation looks, feels, smells, and tastes provides me immense satisfaction. Once I figured this out, baking became irrelevant. I can achieve that same satisfaction by creating all kinds of foods, sweet or savory, inside an oven or atop a stove. Now I bring side dishes. I’m versatile like that.

I’m still not a big fan of pink; it makes me feel like a little girl. Oh well. You can’t win ’em all.

The power of customer service

Yesterday I had to do something I didn’t want to do. I had to terminate a service contract with a vendor for whom I have a great deal of respect. Even though it was the right thing to do and I didn’t arrive at the decision lightly, it was hard. Really hard.

Besides having good working relationships with several people at the company, I also enjoy being around them. We’re able to talk as openly as a vendor and customer possibly can. We’re honest with each other. We even know enough bits and pieces of each other’s personal lives that we can ask the right questions and are genuinely interested in the answers. In fact, it is this good relationship that led me to allow a bit more leeway and time to attempt to correct the problems that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the contract. I really wanted it to work.

Here’s the remarkable thing. After I made the necessary phone calls, I received a follow-up email from my account rep. It was filled with phrases such as “thank you” and “truly appreciate” and “we understand.” He also said he was sorry. That was a very powerful email, and the account rep proved what I already believed: he’s a class act.

That email went a long way with me. Not only did it underscore my belief in the power of sincere customer service, but it also ensured that if another opportunity arises where this company might be a good fit, I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sure, it would have been easy for either side to burn the bridge. I’m glad we didn’t, though; I already know their phone number by heart.