Ooh, That Smell!

Do you know what your organization smells like?


Alright, so I’m a biology major from wayback…and sometimes biological reality meshes with organizational reality far too easily.

It’s the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend.  As an encore to the festivities, we are having some family over for a holiday meal this afternoon.  I have spent this Sunday morning roasting a Wilson-family signature wet-brined turkey while simultaneously boiling the well-picked carcass of a Wilson-family signature cherry-wood smoked turkey that we consumed earlier in the holiday festivities.

Yes, that’s a bird in the oven and a pot of bird essence boiling on the stove.

My house smells exceptional.

Except, I only know that because my wife just returned from a brief outing and told me so.

The olfactory sense being what it is, I’ve lost all sensitivity to the ambient aromatic goodness that is in my house. My sense of smell is saturated. It took someone coming in from the outside to tell me how good it smelled in here.

And, there’s a lesson in that.

On getting stale…

You know what?  People become stultified. That is, they lose enthusiasm and initiative after too much of the same.  They do it in both good and bad circumstances.

In cultures where the air is heavy, people stop noticing.  I’ve been in places where the sword of Damocles hung over the head of every executive, casting a pall over the whole organization. They eventually stopped really noticing–until some outsiders forced a change and the more perceptive around them realized how much the prior regime really stunk!

Their sense of smell for the badness was saturated. They started focusing in on retirement, or the next job, and forgot how many years they sank in the stink.

Happens all the time.

The funny thing is, the same thing can happen in positive cultures.  People become desensitized to how good they actually have it and constantly yearn for the greener pasture next door.  I’ve been in one of the greatest organizations in the world and listened to grievances that would lead you to think it was a prison. People stopped noticing how brilliant their colleagues were and how interesting the work was.

During that time, I had a (very prescient, it turns out) mentor tell me that “people can’t ever tell how great it is here because we focus on improvement all the time. And, then they leave and it’s the best place they ever worked.”

He was right.  But, we were positively desensitized.  We had the organizational “smell” equivalent to a Thanksgiving feast, but couldn’t’ tell.

And, it leads to the question:  Do you know how your organization smells?

About the only way to tell is to have someone check it from the outside.  Unfortunately, as I’ve subtly noted, organizations full of stink rarely want to confront reality; and organizations reeking of positivity only focus on how to get better (which, in its own way, is a mild stench if used improperly).

So, who is your outsider, providing you with a fresh nose?  If you are an executive and you can’t answer that question, then how do you know what your organization smells like?

I’d be curious how you tackle this question. Please comment below. 

[and, yes, this was written between bastings spaced exactly 17 minutes apart]



Selfish Selflessness

Hard-nosed pride makes it all possible.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so how about a post on football?

I was an offensive lineman.  That fact has left physical and mental imprints on me that are hard to ignore.

The paradox of the great offensive lineman (and, to be clear, I make no claim of greatness…) is that he is able to take a fantastically selfless objective and make it selfish.

Yes, you heard that right. An offensive lineman, who toils ideally in anonymity (unless he’s doing it wrong), has to be at once selfless and selfish. He has to be able to work selfishly at a trade that is intensely individual–working for a win on every single play of a football game against another man–while at the same time doing all his work for the success of others and team.  He doesn’t carry the ball.  He doesn’t score.  He just puts in work in hopes that others will, too.

I played in 35 college football games and started 30 of them. In my college days, I officially touched a “live” football perhaps twice (on fumble recoveries), and never in a position other than on the ground.

That is twice that I actually had the football in my hands, out of perhaps 2200 total plays I was a part of in official collegiate football games.

Every single other play required absolute dedication to a job that resulted in somebody else’s ability to move the ball down the field.  It required dedication to playing within a unit of four other offensive linemen plying their trades at the same time, and dedication to doing whatever it took to help the ballcarrier get down the field.

The interesting reality of a lineman’s role is that the lineman can have a massive victory against his opponent on a play that goes nowhere, and he can get beaten on a play that results in a touchdown (ask me how I know). What matters is a commitment to the success of another person and an absolute commitment to getting the job done.  There is an odd sense of humility in knowing that you can be a dominant player and a failure at the same time.

There’s an odd selfishness that one must develop in the job. More importantly, there’s an odd selflessness that one must develop in the job.  It’s selfish selflessness, perhaps best described as pride.

It’s pride in doing what it takes to help the team.

The play called requires you to sprint on sprained ankles to hit a 320-pound defensive tackle with your left shoulder–the one you just sprained–to use your head (connected to your neck which has been sprained since that game three weeks ago) to cut off his path to the ballcarrier?

Get it done.  It’s your job.

It has been a long time since I’ve been on a football field as a player.  But, you know what?  I miss the simplicity of that sort of grinding pride.  The pride in being a key but anonymous part of moving the team forward.

And, I’ll tell you this: Finding people with the right combination of selfish selflessness is exceedingly difficult.

We live in a fantasy football age.  Everybody scores points. It just ain’t so in the real world.  When you find someone with a combination of true ability and pride in being able to help others that can be characterized as selfish selflessness, hold onto them.  Their less interesting counterparts–the ones more focused on their rights than their responsibilities–will pale in comparison to someone who can combine ability with personal pride.

As the proprietor of a now years old consulting firm, I get to apply my sense of selfish selflessness every day.  It’s embodied in the bar that I hold for myself and for my teams in delivering for clients.  We don’t carry the ball.  We don’t score touchdowns.  We work hard to prepare the ground and direction for the ballcarrier.

We hear words like “selfish” and “prideful” nowadays, and they sound very negative.  That’s because we impute some negative traits along with them like arrogance, stubbornness, and greed.

Those things don’t go along with the kind of selfish selflessness I’m writing about this morning.

I’m here to tell you that pride in a job well done, whether one is carrying the ball or wallowing in the mud in front of the ballcarrier, is one sports analogy that truly does convert to the business world.

Hard-nosed pride–combined with a selfless mindset of helping others–makes it all possible.

What do you think?

Mongolian Beef and the Moment of Truth

We all face moments of truth.  What do yours reveal about you?


This past Friday evening–at the end of what was a fantastic week–I decided to drop in on a local Chinese food restaurant for takeout before heading home to my family.

It was a regular drop in on a business I hadn’t been to in probably four months.  I placed a “robust” order to feed our family of 6, and then walked outside the restaurant to talk on the phone while my order was prepared.

When I walked back in, one earphone in my ear and the other dangling so that I could pick up my two sackfuls of Chinese goodness, the cook and proprietor of the restaurant pointed to the sacks and said “I made you a Mongolian Beef to make up for the one I missed last time.”

I was astounded.

“Last time,” as I noted above, had to have been four months ago.  I vaguely remembered, only after the cook pointed it out, that I had indeed arrived home one Mongolian Beef short of my full order on that trip.  I remember calling briefly and letting the shop know (without much fanfare…literally just “hey, wanted you to know we were short on this one…no big deal.”).

And the cook remembered better than me.

He, no doubt, had a moment of truth where his customer walked in, didn’t say a word about a past service miss, placed a big order, and then waited.  The moment of truth was that moment when he faced the choice of either to address a prior miss that hadn’t been remembered by the customer, or to just go with the flow and ignore it–banking on the customer’s ignorance.

On moments of truth

There’s a reality in customer service–all parts of business and life, really.  It’s that we all face moments of truth.  Moments of truth are moments that force us to reveal–at the very least to ourselves–who we really are.

It may be that moment when you ought to deliver hard feedback to a client but decide not to because it’s too, well, hard.

It may be that moment when you return that overpayment to your customer like it’s a hot potato because you are not about keeping your customers’ money.

And, yes, it may be that moment when you remember a customer issue from four months ago and go the extra mile to mitigate it when the chance, finally, arises again.

We all have moments of truth in our lives. Moments of truth are moments of truth because we quite often have discretion about which way we go.

We can choose.

We can hide from the truth and reveal that we are, in fact, cowardly (like in my feedback example above).  Or, we can face the music and see where it takes us.

The question we all should consider is this:  When faced with my moment of truth, what will it reveal about me?

We should all hope for the revelation of strength of character in such moments.

What do you think?

When Your Karma Runs Over Your Dogma

What goes around actually does come around every now and then. Choose your methods wisely.


The recent U.S. presidential election and the veritable smorgasbord of delicious irony–current and impending–has me thinking…

This is not a political blog.  But, it’s hard to ignore the very real strategic insights that come from an election that gives us:

  1. A winning candidate whose methods of winning have left a lot of scorched earth to recover–whether you think him a buffoon, a fighter, a genius, or simply a flawed person (like all of us).
  2. A media sector whose methods have demolished whatever trust remained in it for the time being, leading up to the New York Times editorial board needing to redouble its efforts on “reporting America and the world honestly” (an astounding non-admission if there ever was one).
  3. A set of supporters of the non-winning candidate who now realize that the methods of powers that were behind some of the biggest “wins” for their side (budget reconciliation, as a starter…) probably could be used against them once power passes to someone they simply don’t like.
  4. A vastly smaller set of people who have chosen to protest, riot, and in general cry foul while breaking things in response to what was a fair outcome (not policy outcomes…the person, mind you).

So, what’s the insight?

I’ll give it to you simply, and it’s nothing original.  It’s this:

If you live by the sword, be prepared to die by the sword.

If you live by bullying, shouting down, ignoring, and using unique devices to get your way, then just know that turnabout, while not always fair, is in play.  Yes, in this case I’m referring to the healthy proportion of Democrat Party supporters who have taken off their “open minded, tolerant” masks to show that actually, it was really just either “our way or broken glass.”

But, the truth is we all resort to such conveniences without thinking about it.

We all choose what our dogma says we should, and ignore the blow-back that is likely to come later.  in the 2000’s, U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from a neoconservative dogma that everybody, eventually, responds to the big stick.  That dogma is flawed (and, ironically enough, proven wrong by the very existence of the United States of America).  The blow-back the U.S. has experienced both internally and externally since deciding to prosecute those wars is instructive of the flawed dogma.

The same is true in the private sector.

I know of multiple executives–some of whom are recently “returned to the market”–whose own arrogance, conspiracies, and secrecy-driven styles ultimately boomeranged on them.

The blow-back was real, and easily foreseeable for anyone who knew the nitty-gritty details.

One in particular was so dogmatic about a social Darwinist approach (and their own superiority to others within that worldview) that, when faced with feedback about their own behaviors and how such behavior could get them figuratively offed from the organization, just cruised right on into oblivion perilously ensconced in the calm self-confidence that such dogma can bring.

One might, in fact, call it karmic justice that the individual faced a sudden and unceremonious ouster from a cold, unfeeling, and similarly dogmatic (about other important character traits) boss.

It’s kind of like what we have witnessed in the “how could we be so wrong” set of 2016 election pollsters who were, in fact, so wrong about the election. The pollsters couldn’t measure the number of people in their polls who, uncomfortable with being called deplorable or bigoted for voicing their support for President Elect Trump (it’s still a stunning reality to write that, by the way), simply didn’t answer the polls correctly. The pollsters’ dogma was in the numbers and not the very real human elements of strategic prognostication.  Human character traits matter.

Sometimes, character traits that can only be measured in actions or lack of actions–not numbers–are the ones that carry the day. Executives who perform beautifully on the financial numbers but who ignore their own character flaws and how those might be viewed by other powerful people are similar.

They succumb to blind spots.

But, they are blind spots only to those who don’t understand the notion of living and dying by the sword.

If you are a strategic jerk–pitting customers and employees against one other for constant gain–then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and beats you at your own game.

If you are an organizational jerk–saying you hire and fire people for their performance but really only when you like and dislike them–then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and simply…doesn’t like you.

If you are a political jerk, using false promises and propanda to fool and lie to people in order to get them to follow you, then don’t be shocked when someone comes along and appropriates your own emotion driving style, and beats you at your own game.

The incoming Trump administration and pretty much any of us presiding as executives ought to take heed:  When your dogma gets run over by your karma…it ain’t pretty.

If you find yourself in a position of believing there is no way you are wrong, then you probably are already wrong.

Choose your methods wisely.

You’ve just taken the time to read this…now take the time to comment.  What do you think? 


Talent or Motor?

Don’t underplay the intangibles–motor matters.

One of the more useful metaphors used in the American Football world is the concept of “motor.”

Anybody who has been inside of football at the highest levels has heard a very particular description of players that is, perhaps, the highest compliment there is to an individual’s character as a player… “He’s got a great motor.”

It’s actually kind of a funny phrase to think about, as if some guys have better engines inside their bodies than others. But, it’s one of the more honest assessments that can come out of a scout’s mouth.

Why?  Because it cuts through the crap.  A guy can be 6’6″, leap tall buildings and lift elephants; but if he plays with “no motor” he’ll be an also-ran.  Professional football’s history is littered with magnificent physical specimens who have been outplayed by shorter, fatter, weaker teammates with bad bodies, stiff joints, balding heads, and great motors.  In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of the National Football League is that for every “best athlete” on the field, there are probably a half dozen or more so-called “high motor” guys who couldn’t win a footrace.

Count on it.

High motor guys may not have the most talent, but they get the most out of what they have.  They are, in a broader vocabulary world, tenacious.  They are relentless.  They are dogged. They are aggressive, earnest, forceful, focused, incessant, persistent, ceaseless, and unremitting.

You get the picture.

Why this matters to you as an executive.

In forming highly executable strategic plans, we always end up in the discussion about talent.  A given organization having the talent to execute a given strategy is not…a given.  So, as practical practitioners, we focus in on the who once the what and when are coming into focus.

Unfortunately, talent discussions can focus in on tangible qualities of individuals and ignore intangibles.  In other words, talent discussions focus on a guy’s time in the footrace vs. productivity on the field.  Only, in a corporate environment, this looks like “where he went to school,” “what degree he has,” “who he has worked for,” and “what business he has been in.”  vs. “what he did to change things while there.”

People with motor in the business world make things happen as individuals.  They may be system players, but they rise above others and show what they can do through their tenacity and relentlessness.

And, you can see it from the earliest points in their career.  High motor professionals do things that others don’t.  They deliver work beyond their years.  They teach themselves.  They think about issues even when they are off the clock. They care about their work as a reflection of themselves. 

In your strategic planning, don’t forget the talent.  In your talent planning, don’t forget the intangibles.

Motor matters.

What do you think?