Weekend Quote

“You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system.”

Arlo Guthrie

I saw this the other day. After Anthony’s comments the other day this popped back into my head. Arlo would have problems with a factory mind-set as well I suppose.

For those of you not from Oklahoma, Arlo is the son of the great Oklahoma folk singer Woodie Guthrie and a talented musician in his own right.


Deal Breakers and In-spite of’s…

There are two restaurants in the big shopping plaza next to where we rent our office.  They both cost the same for a lunch buffet and the quality is roughly the same.  In the past we used to prefer eating at the Tairyu for the fun of a Japanese Buffet at lunch.  Unlimited sushi and beer at lunch.  Deal done.  Gradually over time the staff there, in order to cut corners, began to reduce the food you ordered hoping you fill up early on cheaper food.  This set of directions came from the management.  As a result we used to chase new restaurants when ever the chain would open up one because we knew the service would not have yet gone to crap.

In other words we loved the idea of the restaurant and when it ran smoothly we pegged it as a favorite.  As soon as they started trying to change our orders we took our business elsewhere.  So today we had lunch at the 四海一家 (four oceans one home) there is a mix of things to say about this place but the unlimited salad, free flow of beer and other food makes it an acceptable lunch buffet.  Today we were seated under the speaker which was pumping out the local piano player/ crooners off key warbling.  There is something about having an off key septuagenarian singing “I swear” at high volume that can turn you off food…

After some hunting I tracked down a manger who 1. moved us away from the speaker and 2. turned off the speakers.  The interesting thing about this place is that they succeed in keeping me as a customer in-spite of  the aged Don Lothario they have torturing their piano.   It got me thinking if I had access to the things I like about this place ie. salad, variety of food, reasonably peaceful dining, but without the crooner I would jump ship instantly.

I am fairly sure that the music has undoubtedly sent diners who were on the fence about coming back to other venues.  This got me thinking about all of the in-spite of’s I had seen in my work over the years.  At my former company we had a long term contract with a major German company to deliver their team leader development workshop.  There would be 8-10 workshops a year and it was a foundation of the company’s brand.  Toward the end of my time there I stepped in to deliver several of the workshops as the head trainer and in replacing the usual head-trainer found a basket of “in-spite of’s.”

We kept the program, or so I was told, in-spite of the previous trainer making comments that seemed to at least some of the trainees that they would get promoted, comments that made female trainees uncomfortable, and biased feedback that made participants feel like their personality type made them a worse person.  Wow.  I understand that not long after I left those long term contracts were given to someone else.  They apparently had found the training equivalent of a restaurant without the piano singer that irks me at 四海一家.  They like all customers knew what they liked about the course and knew that after I left the old of instead-of’s would be coming back and smartly changed providers.

This has me wondering today “what are my ‘in-spite of’s?'” Is there another version of me in the market place that can replace me because of something that I am unaware of?  This should not be confused with self-doubt, but it should be there to temper hubris.  None of us are so important that we can’t be replaced.  Part of bringing the outside in is facing the truth that we all have in-spite of’s and that we need to move to reduce their impact or we risk becoming obsolete.

To cap this story off I know that we informed my former colleague about all of the in-spite of’s that our client had voiced.  He had claimed that that was his style and he “would be damned” if he would change.  When someone, particularly your clients, hands you your in-spite of’s on a platter be thankful, it means they are trying to find a reason to stay.

Standardization versus Repitition

I wrote last time that I felt that it was important for anyone who wants to create a brand identity based around themselves to go through a process of education and developing skills as a journeyman/woman.  Let’s be clear though there is a HUGE difference between 9 years of experience and doing the same 1 year of experience nine times.  There is a fundamental difference between being very good at doing the basics and understanding how to cover the basics from a business perspective.

I know some people who can make phenomenal slide shows.  Other folks can write a particular strong of code better and faster than other designers.  I also know some gurus of spread sheet making who can do things with Excel that I can’t even fathom.  I have seen people run software that crunches statistical data in new and creative ways.  All of these skills overlap into my business field, but the danger that we face is finding ourselves sealed away in a cubicle mastering the tricks in our Office software and applying them over and over again without ever going out and bringing the outside in.  We become experts, valuable cogs in a factory model, but we miss making the step to see the whole picture and understand our true value to the market.

Did Ben Franklin drink the Kool-Aid, this historical rendering seems to indicate he did...

Ben Franklin is attributed with saying, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.”  I would go one step forward and say that it is even more insane to think that just because we know how to do one thing well and we have been doing it for years that we think the right new thing to do is to take that thing and keep doing just independently like we did in our old factory lifestyle.  In fact in this day and age the Factory model of thinking would very much look like insanity to Mr. Franklin.

Before you break away to be the Master of Your Destiny, and believe me I think you should, ask yourself these questions?

  1. Have I brought the outside in?  Do I have a complete picture for how to apply this skill to meet my clients’ needs rather than my employers’?
  2. Have I been doing the same thing over and over?  Do I have experience in doing business with my craft or am I experienced in only one aspect of my craft and not the business?
  3. Will I feel satisfied with my life and work ten years from now, or will it become routine?  Will I try to replicate a factory approach to what makes me special?

Let’s be clear factories are not inherently bad, but a factory lifestyle and way of thinking is.  A factory makes stuff, and stuff is not inherently bad.  Taking the people factor out creating or the creativity out of creativity though is what traditional factory thinking has mastered.  It creates repetition.  It asks us to stop looking for newer better ways.  It teaches us that change is bad and that adaptability is not an essential aspect of work.  People with factory thinking will always be left behind by people with an entrepreneurial mindset.  To quote Ricky Bobby, “It’s the fastest who get paid.” and agility and speed are not part of a factory mindset.

But anyone who wants to be great will tell you that Eli Whitney had a good idea when he brought about a revolution based on interchangeable mass produced parts.  He created a mind set of efficiency that was later co-opted by factory thinkers.  Be efficient, standardize the methods of production and practices that drive your economic engine to promote speed and adaptability.  Don’t stick your thinking in a cubicle and demand repetition that is the definition of insanity.

This came out of writing a training report today.  The definition of repetition and boredom in my job.  I like the direction my reports have gone over the years.  For a core leadership program I can generate a standard 1 page report in about 5-6 hours.  A lot of this is through standardization.  My reports or some of the best (to toot my own horn the best) I have seen in the China market, but one of the challenges was to figure out how to simplify the process while customizing the result.  The same with workbook creation.  Excellent results, highly flexible, almost fun to do.  The break through was understanding why reports mattered to a client and not just knowing how a report should look and feeling good about the product I give to my client…

What took so long or what was I afraid of?

Ego Alert! This entry is very self-centered.  You’ve been warned.


In looking over my calendar I realized today that it seems very likely that I will be booked all the way up to Christmas this year.  While I am sharing billing for a few of those programs with my friends at the German Chamber of Commerce they are entirely predicated on my getting out there and making the business happen.  It seems likely that being busy will continue into January and hopefully cap off with a trip to Uruguay in February, also for a work project.  I will in those five month generate more personal income than I earned working for someone else from 2004-2006 (to be fair I worked for peanuts in 2004) combined.  If we add up income generated from March 2010 through February of 2011 we can add 2007 to that figure.  So why on earth did I take so long to work for myself?

The first answer is the obvious one, skill set.  I made the choice that a lot of people should make early in their careers to invest in  jobs and training that help develop the skills needed to be good at a craft.  If we give room on my life’s timeline for a formal education and sometime in a journeyman system by the time I left full time employment (ie working for someone else) at the end of 2007 I had all the skills I would need to be my own production line , sales & marketing department, and R&D department.  So what happened?  Why did it take nearly two full years to stop committing the majority of my energy to other people’s tasks and focus on what mattered to me?

Rather than be direct let’s flashback to this weekend.

As I kicked off a two day workshop on leadership on Saturday I went through a traditional ritual of letting participants express their concerns and hopes for the workshop they were about to join.  Since we were conducting the workshop in Chinese I saw a fair amount of concerns about attending a two day lecture in Chinese conducted by an American.  To be fair I have a thick American accent when I speak mandarin and unless I have warmed up I am a little slow in mandarin the first morning.  So in essence what they are saying is “we have heard you talk and we aren’t sure this is going to go the way we would like it to.”  It’s easy to take that moment and feel like I am being criticized, because in that moment I am.  It is easy to take that moment and let it define your emotional state for the next two days and let it torpedo your chances of doing something great.

I would like to point out that at the end of the workshop the workshop evaluation scored me at a 4.38 out of 5.  In training terms this is a solid A, not quite an A+ but certainly better than an A-.

So why didn’t I let the moment when everyone in the group volunteered that they saw a significant chance of failure define my feelings?  In part because there is a mounting sea of evidence that my level of Chinese doesn’t change my ability to create successful training results.  In larger part because I have reframed one of my fundamental fears and concerns, the fear of criticism.

Reframing is a useful technique of actively looking for a new or different perspective.  Here is how I have reframed this fear, “people make these little critiques and express these concerns because, in some way, to them the results matter.”  So long as I continue to do things that are meaningful to people these sorts of “criticisms” are actually a sign that my work and the result it creates matters to the critic.  Once you begin to feel like what you are doing matters and is meaningful it makes taking the steps to ensure you continue working much easier to take.  It becomes a virtuous cycle of feeling engaged in your work, by being engaged creating more work, by creating more work that is meaningful staying engaged thus creating more work and so on.

So getting back to the original question… why did it take two years to get focused on my own tasks?  To be perfectly blunt there was a global economic crisis that threw a curve ball at me, but that was never really the cause.  After all we did not feel the impact of the crisis in China until October, but out the gates in 2008 I was trying to work with other people.  By March of 2009 when China was past the worst of the recession (yes it was that fast) I had already put my primary focus on working for someone and stayed focused there for another 6 months or more.

The thing about being afraid of criticism, is it is hard to hear that you are not as bright as you think you are.  After all if you fail there is an organization in place to absorb some of the worst shocks of your failure.  Unless you do something criminal odds are that failure will not result in dismissal and missing your next meal ticket.  If you carry the weight for yourself there is not an opportunity to hide from failure and criticism behind the walls of other people and an established organization.

It took a moment (two years) to get that what I was doing mattered and for that fear to supersede the fear of being criticized.  There were people out there that felt strongly enough about it to encourage or discourage my success.  I had as Seth Godin put it, found my tribe.  Once I knew my tribe was there it was a matter stepping on to the path of my choosing and accepting that people wanted to tell me that they cared about the results of my work.  The next time you find yourself distracting your self from doing what you need  to do (in my case working I kept trying to work for other people) look to see if it isn’t a fear of criticism holding you from making a full commitment to yourself and the people in your tribe who want you to succeed.

Philosophy vs. Science

I am back from the Chinese National Day holiday and preparing for a two-day Introduction to Leadership workshop I’ll be conducting on Saturday and Sunday.  Since February of this year I started include a new portion to this workshop about management science and management philosophy.  This is the background about how I began including this material…

At the beginning of this year I had an opportunity to take the train home from Guangzhou to Shenzhen with my friend Angelo Chiu.  Angelo is highly inquisitive and very much multicultural/lingual having been raised in Hong Kong, educated in the US (as a testament to what a nice guy he is I can even look past his undergraduate degree from UT), and has been running his own company out of Guangzhou.  I could spend a 1,000 words writing about what a good guy Angelo is, but let’s just use this intro to address a point that he introduced to me.  Our discussion focused on a book that Angelo had just picked up and read from a Chinese entrepreneur at the train station bookstore.  The gist, or at least the gist that stuck with him, was that management has two aspects: science which is largely immutable and philosophy which is can be impacted by factors too numerous to list.


"Chairman Mao is the everlasting red sun in our hearts". Can you spot the leadership philosophy?


Take that in for a moment.  Management (and leadership by extension) must have certain factors that persist across cultures the way that gravity does.  At the same time, like language, certain parts of management (and again leadership by extension) make absolutely little or no sense out of a cultural or philosophical context.  Most leaders working in cross cultural circumstances have at least once been frustrated by how what works at home doesn’t work abroad at the same time we have all noticed that certain actions always create results.

As Angelo and I were chatting we were talking about some of the parts of situational leadership.  We were discussing whether or not the model was based in management science or philosophy.  When we came to discussing the latter quarters of situational leadership we began to discuss some of Angelo’s angst with acting as a leader in China after having started his career in the United States.  One of the hardest stumbling blocks that he faced were in the supporting and empowering sections.  In the US it is a no-no to be more hands or actively discussing the details of a competent subordinates projects except at designated review and evaluation periods.  To do otherwise is to step on that person’s individual contribution and active free will.

What he had found over the years was that not only was it accepted by his subordinates to have informal and unscheduled check ins but it was actually desirable.  This was a source of angst because philosophically it flew in the face of what he had experienced in another context.  It took a bit of soul searching and self awareness for him to realize that there was a different set of expectations in the office culture he was facing.  These days he is better at balancing the science of situational leadership with the context of how empowerment is viewed in his work team in this part of China.

Not long ago I made a note on checking our egos when working across culture.  Leading across cultures is naturally no different at a certain point we have to ask ourselves, “am I creating an ‘us against them’ atmosphere by expecting people to create results based on management science or my personal (ethnocentric) management philosophy?”

This does not mean that we have to re-write ourselves and our philosophy in order to be a different kind of leader.  What we can do is be aware of the differences and be able to talk about them candidly.  The picture of Chairman Mao as the “everlasting red sun” earlier in this post would certainly be an anathema to most western educated business leaders.  Western, particularly US, business philosophy espouses that anyone can be a leader and that leadership can be like a relay race with each person shining and leading when it is both practical and necessary.   In other words we would expect a very different propaganda poster in other places, maybe something with a slogan like “Yes WE can.”

In Geert-Hoffstedde terms any of the key cultural dimensions can impact leadership philosophy.  Leaders from the US and Germany (two groups of leaders I work with most frequently) commonly feel philosophical friction based on the dimensions of Power Distance Indicator and Individualism.  In a recent corporate culture session with a German manufacturing company their CEO was confounded by the idea that leadership, as described by a sizable portion of his leadership team, came from a position of power.  From his perspective even a child who took charge of his/her group of friends in kindergarten could qualify as a leader.

From a practical training and coaching perspective this gives a lot of material to work with when we talk to leaders.  Being able to talk about certain elements of leadership as a universal science cancels critics who like to point out “that may be how you do things over there, but not over here” and at the same time gives plenty of room to create discussions of about the subjectivity of philosophy.