Beware of the Lime Juice Ship

If you want to join a merchant ship and sail the sea at large
You’ll not have any trouble if you have a good discharge
Signed by the Board of Trade with everything exact
And then you’ll get your months advance according to the Act.

So haul boys your weather mainbrace and ease away your lee
Hoist jib and topsails lads and let the ship go free
Shout boys shout I tell you it’s a fact
There’s nothing done in Lime Juice ship contrary to the Act
Now when you join the ship me boys you’ll hear your articles read
They’ll tell you of your pork and beef your butter and your bread
Your coffee, tea and sugar boys your peas and beans exact
Your lime juice and your vinegar according to the Act

These are lyrics from an old sailor song called the Lime Juice Ship. I know this is a departure from my typical use of modern music, but bear with me. As usual there is a method to my madness.
For Father’s Day my children gave me a book of “useless facts.” I assume because they know how much I love boring them with stories about supposed randomness. I took the book on a recent vacation flight, and quickly read it from cover to cover. While it was a purely pleasure trip, my mind couldn’t help but think about the world of business while I amused myself reading utterly random factoids.

One of the stories in this book of useless facts was answering the question: “Why are the British referred to as limeys?” According to this book (and I have not done any independent research on this to confirm), it all has to do with scurvy and the British Navy. Apparently in the 17th to 18th centuries the greatest killer at sea was scurvy which is caused by the lack of ascorbic acid in the diet of a sailor. In 1753, a Scottish naval doctor, James Lind, recommend adding lemon juice, which contains ascorbic acid, to the sailors diet to prevent scurvy. Initially the British navy ignored the recommendation due to cost concerns, but by the late 1700s lemon juice was compulsory aboard British navy ships and scurvy ceased to be an issue. However, at some point in the 1800s the British navy switched to lower cost lime juice, only to see outbreaks of scurvy return to their ships. Turns out that limes have a lower content of ascorbic acid than lemons and thus were not as effective at fending off scurvy. Other countries stuck with higher cost lemons or even oranges and did not see the return of scurvy. Sailors from other countries, particularly the Americans and the Australians, poked fun at the British sailors by calling them “limeys.”
Like most people who have held a position within companies for more years than you care to admit, I have seen my share of business downturns – either firsthand, through experiences with business partners, anecdotally through IT peers and acquaintances, or reading business-related articles. These downturns may be result of worldwide, national or local economic problems; product relevance or reliability; price pressures; the poor execution of business plans; or a host of other reasons. Regardless of the driver, one of the most common reactions taken by the management team of the business is to cut costs.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love an ongoing strong dose of expense management. Building in a recurring examination of your business’s cost basis is a good thing. Businesses are dynamic; and employees at all levels of an organization should be evaluating and challenging business processes and costs associated with the business all the time. This leads to a business where the right people are doing the right things, following the right processes at the right times. This results in an efficient business operation, something that is key attribute of high performing companies. I like to think of this as “natural” expense management that happens as part of following strong fundamental business practices.
However, during business downturns, what I have seen and heard from others so many times is what I call “unnatural acts” of cost cutting. Much like some Royal Navy admiral requiring the use of limes instead of lemons to save a few British Pounds, CEOs and CFOs go to department heads requiring an arbitrary and immediate cost basis sacrifice – especially from departments that are seen as support functions or ones oddly enough that are focused on driving sales. While these actions can prop up financial performance in the short-term, they can also cause longer-term harm (perhaps not death like the actions of the British navy) to the business.
Ring, ring….”Hey VP of HR, this is your CFO calling on a Monday morning. Look I know our overall employee count is forecasted to remain flat for the coming 12 months, but I need you to scale back your HR department cost basis by 10% to help make up for the recent 5% price decrease we did on our flagship product. No rush, just let me know Wednesday what steps you are going to execute on Friday to achieve the target.”
Knock, knock….”Hey CMO, this is your CEO stopping by to talk about a problem. As you know, our sales numbers are trending down and the full year forecast is bleak. We just can’t seem to get sustained traction with our new product line. Our customers just don’t seem to be aware of all the great features we introduced with it. Let me know by the end of the week how we take $2 million out of product marketing for the remainder of the year.”
These are completely made up interactions to make a point about the short-term decisions that occur all too often in businesses today. The focus on beating financial performance over an arbitrary 90 day reporting period compared to a year ago seems to be the norm in many companies today, especially those that are publicly traded. This can result in executing actions that are not in the best long-term interest of any business stakeholders. It seems the notion of focusing on long-term sustainability of a business that benefits all the stakeholders in a business – investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities and beyond – is a forgotten idea.

Call me crazy, but I for one think we need to resurface that idea.

Staying Safe on the Highway to the Danger Zone

 

Out along the edges

 Always where I burn to be

 The further on the edge

 The hotter the intensity

 

 Highway to the Danger Zone

 Gonna take it right into the Danger Zone

 Highway to the Danger Zone

 Ride into the Danger Zone

 

Back in 1986, Kenny Loggins belted out these lyrics on a song that became synonymous with the movie, Top Gun.  I am pretty sure I have visions of being Maverick and flying my F-14 through the skies like a wild naval aviator.  And I know that in the late 80’s I had no thought that there would be a different kind of “Danger Zone” that almost all of us encounter on a daily basis.  The Danger Zone we call the Internet.

The headlines about security vulnerabilities seem to be popping up at a faster pace than ever.  Issues with Adobe Flash, Internet Explorer, PayPal and eBay have made “front page” news in the mainstream media in recent weeks and Heartbleed Mania seemed to grip the world for several days back in early April.  All these reported dangers make you want to just go offline and avoid the Internet.  However, going offline is not an option for us in our work lives and for many is not an appealing option in our personal lives. 

Fortunately in our work lives we have IT departments that are focused on keeping us safe online while carrying out our daily work tasks.  Every day information technology professionals are making sure our anti-virus software is up-to-date; deploying security updates to web browsers and other software packages; forcing the change of passwords on a regular basis; monitoring network traffic and blocking that traffic when it looks suspicious; preventing access to websites that are known to be compromised or used as launch points for installing malicious software on your computer; and reviewing daily notices of potential security vulnerabilities.  Most of these activities happen behind the scenes without a need for any action on our part.

Unfortunately in our personal lives we do not have a corporate IT team to keep an eye on protecting us.  Each of us has to take actions to protect our own personal computing environment.  The actions you take help protect not only you but also your employer since in many cases we use personal devices for work purposes as well.  Here are 10 things basic things to do with your personal computing that will help protect you and potentially your employer and their customers:

  1. At a minimum, use separate usernames and passwords for work vs personal sites and applications
  2. Where possible, use a unique username and password for each site. A password manager such as Lastpass or Keypass can aide in securely keeping track of those accounts and passwords.
  3. Change your passwords on a regular basis.  A good guide is to change once every 90 days.
  4. Make sure your personal computers have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed and that updates are applied to the anti-virus software on a regular basis.  These updates can typically be set to happen automatically.
  5. Make sure to install operating system and application (like Microsoft Office) updates on a regular basis.  These updates can typically be set to happen automatically.
  6. Be aware of the websites you visit.  If you click on a link and end up someplace that does not look right, exit from your browser.
  7. Be extremely cautious when asked to input payment and personal information; make sure the URL matches the site you are using and the connection is secured.
  8. When clicking on links via email make sure the link matches the intended destination and does not include a hidden link. 
  9. Only download software/applications from the software publisher’s website or a site the software publisher directs you to for download.
  10. Install Pop up blocker and ad blocker plugins for your web browsers

 

While we can never be 100% secure when online, the steps taken by our own actions can reduce to chance of being impacted by the dangers that exists online.

Till Gabriel Blows His Horn

The eyes of Texas are upon you

All the live long days

The eyes of Texas are upon you

And you cannot get away

Do not think you can escape them

From night till early in the morn

The eyes of Texas are upon you

Till Gabriel blows his horn

Those are the lyrics to the alma mater for The University of Texas at Austin. As you may have figured out by now, I received degrees from there many years ago. For many this is just a song set to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, but for Texas Exes it serves as a reminder that what we do with our lives is seen and felt by many people – perhaps not the entire State of Texas or the world, but more people than one would imagine.

A friend and former business associate recently died as the result of a seemingly random traffic accident. He too was a proud graduate of The University of Teas at Austin. While we did not talk as often as we did when we worked at the same company, we exchanged texts throughout the year about the ups and downs of the various Longhorn athletic teams and how things were going in our professional careers.

When I attended his funeral in the small Texas town of Ballinger, it struck me just how many lives one person could touch in their lives. The church was overflowing with people wanting to take a part in honoring his life. As I listened to the eulogies, it also struck me that he was a person that truly lived his life knowing that the eyes of Texas were upon him. As the stories were told of his childhood and on through to his last day, it left no doubt that he had an eye for business from an early age, that community was important to him, and that love of family and God were at the center of every part of his life.

As many of us do, I find myself caught up all too often in the daily work grind. That grind seems to have the ability to consume all our energy, leaving very little for the other much more important things in our lives. The grind gets in the way our relationships with friends and family; it becomes the excuse to not be involved in activities to help those in our community; it even begins to interfere with our faith. In short we let work define our lives. We reach a point where we live to work. What we need to do is work to live.

My friend had it right; he strived for success in his career in order to be a better husband, father, and member of his community. He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives – and I think the evidence is there that he did. I can learn a lot from his short 35 years of life, and the last lesson is to remember what matters most, never lose sight of it and live every day like it is your last chance to impact a life.

Till Gabriel blows his horn…………

I Found Help (and Hope) in Orlando: And I Wasn’t Even Looking For It

Help, I need somebody

Help, not just anybody

Help, you know I need someone

Help

“Help” is one of my favorite songs from that lovable British boy band, The Beatles.  As you start reading this you will more than likely be thinking  “what do these lyrics have to do with these ramblings?”, but stick with me.

I had to attend a company conference this week in Orlando, Florida.  And quite frankly in the days leading up to the conference, I was less than 100% enthused to be attending.  I was going to miss several of my kid’s activities during the week; my wife was going to have to play single parent for most of the week; I was on the agenda to present; and overall I thought “been there, done that.  I’ve seen this show before.”

There is still one day left in the conference, but my attitude has changed.  The feel of the conference; the content of the conference; and what I am getting out of it is much more than I ever imagined.  But that doesn’t make a great story, nor is it what spurred me to write about it.

As part of the conference agenda, we had a social responsibility event.  But unlike some other charitable exercises at these types of events, this was not just going out and picking up trash, or working on a house, or beautifying a park.  Now don’t get me wrong, these are all fine things to do.  However, the event at this conference was geared around leveraging the collective marketing expertise that the employees of our company possess.  The event was to create marketing plans for 8 Orlando-area charities, and to then compete in a marketing strategy throw-down in an effort to win $10,000 in marketing services for one of the organizations.

I had the good fortune to be on a team working with Shepherds Hope, a faith-based organization running 5 medical clinics providing free medical services to the uninsured  – and yes despite ObamaCare and all it’s promises there is still and will continue to be a large population of people without medical insurance – in the Orlando area.  The story of the inspirational start of Shepherds Hope, the heart-wrenching stories of patients saved by the services provided, and the thousands of hours of service donated by area medical professionals were awe inspiring.  I think each of my colleagues on the team were brought to tears as we learned about what this organization does in the community.

What changed my attitude was the passion that was exhibited by my fellow co-workers as we in 2 short hours put together a marketing plan for this great organization.  Most of us on the team were not from Orlando, and several were not even from the United States, yet we all felt an immediate connection to this organization.  I was inspired by the collective talent of the group; each of bringing unique skills to the table in an effort to make a difference in the lives of people we will never even know.  To the last person on the team, we all wanted to help Shepherds Hope by providing them the seeds for a marketing plan to attract more medical professionals, attract more and larger monetary donations, and in the end to help them improve the lives of so many people.  This wasn’t about closing a sale for our company, or hitting some financial performance target; it was about using our special talents to help others.

Well it turns out that our team did not win the marketing pitch show-down, but our company graciously donated $7,000 in services to each of the 7 “losing” organizations and the members of my team (without provocation or threat from anyone) all committed to donate personal hours to supplement the $7,000 so that we can help make Shepherds Hope’s dreams for more medical professionals and more donors a reality.

What I thought was going to be just another charitable event where I and others without much effort, thought or connection to help a community, turned out to be so much more.  It turns out, I was the one helped.  I was helped by the dedicated staff of Shepherds Hope and the other charities that reminded me that there are measures of operational success much more important than revenue and OI.  I was helped by my fellow co-workers that reminded me of the passion that we all have within us and the immense amount of marketing talent we possess within our company.  This helped me realize, that while things may not be perfect in our company, we have the passion and the expertise to make it so much better.  I didn’t fly to Orlando thinking I needed help, but I did, and fortunately I found it.

If you would like additional information on Shepherds Hope, you can visit their website (hopefully soon it will be a better site) at www.shepherdshope.org and you can follow them on Twitter @shepherdshope

Weird Science: Your Business Might Just Need Some

From my heart and from my hand and
Why don’t people understand my intentions?

Weird science
Magic and technology
Voodoo dolls and chants
Weird science

It’s been several months since my last post, and I come back with some random lyrics from 80’s New Wave band Oingo Boingo.  In case you don’t recognize the song, it is Weird Science, a song that supposedly the members of the band did not care much for and rarely performed live.  The song was also the title song for the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie with the same name – and yes I had a celebrity crush on Kelly LeBrock back in the day.

Today the lyrics serve as an “answer” to something that has perplexed many a person over the years:  what makes a team (or organization) perform at a high level?

I know there have been many books, columns, and Phd. Dissertations written on the subject.  There are all sorts of ideas on how to formulate a high performance team that gives you synergy, i.e. the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements or contributions. I don’t think anyone is 100% sure how to achieve synergy in organizations, so I am just to chalk it up to a little bit of “weird science.”

I started thinking about this about 3 months ago when my daughter tried out for the junior high volleyball team.  She ended up on the mid-level squad with other girls that were deemed to be average players, but not one of the best 10 that made the top squad.  During early season practices the top-level and mid-level teams scrimmaged, and the mid-level team typically won set after set against the team with the more skilled players. My daughter’s team then went out and won the first game of the season, and then won the next one, and the next one, until we looked up and that group of average players had done something that no volleyball at that school had ever done – they had a perfect season.  11 matches, 11 victories.  Not bad for a group of girls that individually were not assessed as being the best players.  I guess you could called it an example of synergy, but I just called it fun.

Throughout the volleyball season, I kept thinking about what made that team successful.  Perhaps it was that during tryouts the coaches evaluating the players were wrong on all 10 players.  Or maybe it was the sheer coaching talent of volunteer parent coaches of the mid-level team. Or maybe it was just some “weird science” that somehow took a group of average players and turned them into a great team.    I did make some observations during the season that just might be factors in the team’s success:

1)    They did not get overly stressed about the games.  During pre-game warm-ups or time-outs you would see them dancing around sometimes even when no music was playing.  They looked like they actually enjoyed being together on the court.

2)    They did not get mad or angry when a teammate had a poor serve, shanked a return or watched a ball drop in front of them.  They simply chanted “shake it, shake it off” and went on to the next point.

3)    In matches where the team dropped a set, the team always came back the next set with a higher level of energy.  They did not let losing the first set, make them lose the next one.

4)    And before, during, and after each match; they prayed.

I am sure there were many other factors that went into this group having a great season.  Whatever all those things were, they had to come together in just the right levels to achieve the desired end result.  The interesting thing is that there was not a recipe that listed the exact amount of each thing and the order in which to add them and mix them together.  While there was some deliberate things done in order to position that team to excel, there was also a little bit of magic involved in having a perfect season.

Many years ago in the business school, I remember taking Marketing 101 where they taught the 4 P’s:  Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  The professors made it sound so simple:  all you needed was the right mix of those four things and you could have a highly successful business.  20 plus years later and I can tell you that it is not that simple.  Through the years, I have figured out that there may be just a few more factors involved in a successful business and that knowing exactly how to blend all those ingredients is far from easy.  I have also learned that while many people have written business cookbooks, there is no magic recipe that you can just follow and find success.   Yes there are some tried of true things you can do to position a business to succeed, but just like in volleyball, you gotta have a little “weird science” to bring it all together – but maybe without the voodoo dolls and chants.

Great American Hero: A Story of Courage and Heroism in Small Town Texas

Believe it or not,

I’m walking on air.

I never thought I could feel so free-.

Flying away on a wing and a prayer.

Who could it be?

Believe it or not it’s just me

These are lyrics from the chorus of the theme song from the Greatest American Hero, an early 1980’s television show about a high school teacher who receives a special red suit from space aliens that when worn gives him superhero powers.  He then teams up with a FBI agent to save the world time and time again.  A story about the average man turned superhero.  It’s not quite Batman or Superman but good enough to last 3 seasons on network television.

There are many types of people we hold up as heroes.  There are legendary historical figure; for some there are political heroes, and for others sports heroes. While you could make the case that some of these are not worthy of hero status, they have that status nonetheless.   We look up to them; we make movies about them; we idolize them and we place them on pedestals as these great humans that are somehow superior to the average person.

A little over 90 days ago, an explosion happened at a fertilizer facility in the small Texas town of West.  The night of the explosion and the subsequent days and weeks exposed us to a different kind of hero – the average everyday person that found themselves faced with unimaginable challenges.  The world heard about some of these heroes, mainly the first responders that lost their lives responding to the explosion, as there was extensive media coverage of the event.

We heard about the brave volunteer firefighters that perished at the scene.  Each one not hesitating to rush into danger – not because it was their job, but because they were protecting their community, their friends and their neighbors.  The nation and the world mourned the death of these first responders.  Arenas filled with people from all over to memorialize these brave men.  Reporters scurried about town to get the inside story.  The names of these fallen heroes will certainly not be forgotten for years to come.

But the story of heroes in West goes much deeper.  There were hundreds of people that carried out heroic actions that night and the subsequent days.  There were staff members of a local nursing home that ushered elderly residents to a safer part of the building in the minutes prior to the explosion. There were teenagers that wheeled and carried injured victims to a nearby makeshift triage center.  There were brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and parents that rushed to houses to pull out trapped family members in the darkness and chaos of the night.  There were firefighters, medics and police officers for miles around that responded to the aftermath of the explosion.  There were untold volunteers that flooded into town that night and the days following to offer aid and comfort to all those that were impacted by the explosion.  We will never hear or see the names of most of these people, but it will not change the fact that they are indeed heroes.

One of those unknown heroes has a special place in my heart.  She is my sister-in-law, Judy Knapek.  Judy is a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department – one of the few females that have ever been a member.  She was one of the numerous firefighters that responded to the emergency call about a fire at the fertilizer facility.  She was there at the facility when the fire triggered the deadly explosion.  By the Grace of God she was not physically injured by the explosion.  But she saw fellow injured firefighters stagger towards her and carried several out of harms way and got them to paramedics.  She spent endless days and nights at the fire station in the days and weeks after the explosion filling out the tons of paperwork that goes along with a disaster like this one, accepting donations from all over the world, and providing information to concerned citizens.  She did all this while knowing that many of her firefighting brothers, including two of her cousins, did not get to walk away from that deadly explosion.

The things these everyday people did are amazing to me.  But if you were to ask Judy or pretty much anyone else in West that responded in some way to the explosion, they would tell you that they were not heroes.  She and others would just say that they did what anyone would do in that situation, but I disagree.  I think Judy and many others in West fit the true definition of “Great American Hero.”

Buckle Up, Buttercup!

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-Changes

You should know by now that I like music, and this time I have turned to David Bowie to lead us in to this installment. I actually used this same lead in back in March 2012 when I penned Business Lesson from a Nurseryman: Change Can Come Up Roses. Back in March 2012, I was talking about changes in a “family” business. Today, the scope of discussion tackles a much larger business.

For the fourth time since I started at Harte-Hanks in 2001, a new CEO has been announced. That means I am faced with working under my fifth CEO in 12 years; so change in leadership is nothing new for me and nothing new for millions of other people working in companies, large and small, across the world. What is different for me is that this CEO, unlike the other ones in the past decade, is a complete outsider.

The day of the announcement I had several people come into my office and ask me if I knew anything about this new guy. While I had not met him nor spoken to him, I had done a quick Google search on him that scored a few interview clips. While I did not know much about him, I shared what little I did know while trying to not throw in any conjecture. I made sure to tell them that I liked his Irish accent, especially since I claim to be (if you trace back enough generations) part Irish and that I was hoping we might see St Patrick’s Day become a company holiday. Sadly our VP of People has since told me that offices will NOT be closing on March 17 each year.

It was the second question I was asked by those people that I knew probably a large majority of other people in the company wanted to also ask:

“Do you think things will change with the new CEO?”

Each time this question was asked of me, I provided the same initial answer:

“I certainly hope so, otherwise why would we make a CEO change.”

I am not sure that was the answer people wanted to hear, but it felt like the right answer to me. Yes, I expect there to be changes. I expect some of the changes will be ones I like, while others may not be to my liking. But driving change is part of what makes a successful leader, so I fully expect a new CEO to make changes. Organizations must change in order to stay competitive and succeed, and leaders, at all levels, must be the champions of change.

I am not sure what the coming months will bring as our new CEO takes the reigns, but I do know it will be different from what it is today. I also know, I will do my part to champion those changes because that is what leaders do.

I hope my fellow co-workers are ready to say “game on” and embrace the coming changes as well. Of course the transition will have its bumps but hopefully we can anticipate and brace for those challenges. In the words an old high school basketball teammate liked to say before the big games against our toughest competition: “Buckle Up, Buttercup!”


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