Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Folly of Wealth Envy

Emotions can change your life.  Properly applied, they can motivate a person to accomplish great things, to create and build and be a stunning success.  Emotions can also corrode a person’s character, however, and drag the soul into a pit of hatred and malice.  This is sadly obvious when someone drives an effort to punish other people for being successful, especially in terms of wealth.  A lot of folks miss that error, because frankly there are not a lot of rich people compared to most of us, and most of us have never even met a billionaire.  Even so, hating someone just because they are wealthy is morally wrong and a big strategic mistake.

Let’s start with the guy in the photo:  Warren Buffett.  I chose him as an example for the following reasons:  One, I disagree with some of his opinions on politics and business, which means I am not some devoted sycophant. Two, he’s one of the wealthiest men in the world, so he should be an obvious target for the people who hate the wealthy.  Three, he’s been remarkably candid about how he makes his money, and what he does with it.  Four, like almost every other billionaire, Buffett created his own wealth; he started his first business at the age of 13 (delivering newspapers and created a horse racing tip sheet), and worked his butt off from there.  You may also want to note that Mr. Buffett is nearly 85 years old.  Like most other billionaires, Mr. Buffett gradually built his fortune over a lifetime.  So let’s stop right there and consider that billionaires for the most part are people who have worked really hard for a very, very long time, and they were ordinary folks when they started their work.  So hating these kinds of people means hating hard work and being careful with your money.  If you want to argue that wealth represents evil, you’re already abandoning common sense.  

Other things about Mr. Buffett that should be observed, include the fact that he changed his jobs as he progressed, replacing the newspaper delivery and horse race paper with stock investments, then later buying pinball games.  Buffett also understood the value of education, attending Penn, then Nebraska, then Columbia to study business and increase the scope of his knowledge.  Finally, it should be noted that there is no exact number for how much Mr. Buffett is worth.  This is due to several factors, including the fact that much of his wealth is in stocks and businesses, and their fluctuations in value affect his own worth.   Which brings me to another point that the haters miss – most wealthy people do not have all that much cash on hand.  A ‘billionaire’ is called that because his total wealth crosses a target number, but most of the wealth is tied up in investments and businesses; the percentage of their wealth available to spend is usually rather small.  This is another thing about money – it is meant to be used, and can create wealth only if it is put into motion.  The people who are worth the most, are actually among the least likely to just sit on money.  The stereotype is grossly false.

Wealth is not a zero-sum competition.  Farmers are a good example of how things really work.  They plant some seed after plowing the fields, they irrigate the plants and protect them from birds and insects, and watch carefully over the fields until it is time to harvest, then many times the original seed is harvested in crops.  Sometimes crops fail, but other times you break records.  It’s a combination of planning, careful time management  and lots of hard work, with some good and bad luck along the way, finishing with a lot more work to bring in the results.  But work makes wealth if you are smart and careful and do the work.  Sad to say, too many people miss at least one of those three parts of the formula.  A billionaire never kept anyone from success, any more than Bill Gates’ success with Microsoft kept Warren Buffett from becoming a success, or Oprah Winfrey’s success in media kept Mark Cuban from being a success as well.  It’s far better to work to become a success, than to hate someone for enjoying the rewards of their own hard work.    

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Road to Success Does Not have to Be Boring

See that guy in the picture?  That’s how he dresses for work, I kid you not.  That guy, you see, works under the stage name of ‘Piff The Magic Dragon’, and he does a mixture of card tricks and dry comedy.  He just showed up last week on American television, but he’s been working in the UK for a while, and seems to be doing all right for himself.   It’s too early to know how well he will do on the TV show, but what I like about him, is that he’s found a way to make his mark in a truly individual manner.

It’s no surprise to see phenomenal athletes succeed, or anyone else with an obvious advantage in ability.  But for most of us, it may be difficult to find our unique qualities, but if you find yours, sometimes you can do amazing things.

Consider this guy:


Sure, everyone knows Bill Gates, right?  But back when he started, who knew what the home computer and small business computer could be?  Well, Bill did, and he acted on that unique perspective.

Or consider this guy:

In an age where everyone in music is expected to be slim, American, and, well, ahead of the culture curve, how is it that a pudgy Korean with a heavy accent becomes the first artist to have over a billion YouTube views of a song which criticizes the pursuit of material consumption?  Psy knew his unique talent, and he played it to his advantage.

OK, so I’m pointing to obvious success stories, with names and faces everyone knows now.  Have you seen this guy?

Know this man?  Give up?  That’s Sean Connolly, and he is the CEO of ConAgra.   Never heard of ConAgra?  OK, how about Slim Jims, Health Choice, Swiss Miss, Hebrew National, Marie Calender’s, Bertolli, Chef Boyardee, Crunch & Munch, Pam cooking spray, Peter Pan peanut butter, Libby’s fruits, or any of more than forty-five brands of food products?  Yep, Mr. Connolly heads up a company that sold almost eighteen billion dollars worth of food last year, and is worth even more.  Impressed yet?

Mr. Connolly earned a BA from Vanderbilt, then an MBA from the University of Texas.  He’s worked his way up through Proctor & Gamble, Campbell’s Soup, then Sara Lee and the Hillshire Brands company, and now manages a global company which employs thousands of people and feeds hundreds of millions.  When the scope of his accomplishments is understood, Mr. Connolly becomes anything but boring.

Work can be boring, but your road to success does not have to be boring.  Dream big, then plan on how you will get there.  The suit you wear may vary

But your success depends mostly on believing in your purpose and acting on it.

Good luck.


Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Value In Discrimination

One annoying trend I see in modern Society, is how few people have a properly comprehensive vocabulary.  Words are precise, specific tools, and can convey a very detailed and exact message if you take the time to use them correctly, and if you know their meaning in the first place.  All too often, people take offense by the fact that other people have different preferences.  This outrage leads to a movement to eradicate Discrimination (Big D), but in the end it amounts to a fury born of ignorance and arrogance.  People have always found different styles, foods, music, art, work, and friends to be appealing, and this is also discrimination.  The simple fact is that we excel when we properly discriminate.   The wrong done in discrimination happens when someone discriminates on the basis of superficial details which have no relation to the person’s quality.

Discrimination is also one of the chief virtues of Commerce.  People stop and eat at certain restaurants because they believe that restaurant has food that is better-tasting than they could get elsewhere.  People shop at certain stores because they believe those stores offer better prices, convenience, and/or quality than can be had elsewhere.  People choose specific professionals for their doctors, insurance agents, lawyers, baby sitters, tutors, and so on because they believe those specific individuals are better at their profession than anyone else they might consult.  

It’s high time to slap down the whiners who complain about personal choice and freedom of association.     

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Schick's Depressing Lesson In Conformity

The Schick company spends a lot of money on their commercials, so I expect a lot of folks have seen the commercial where the razor appears to win a job for a young man. The scene opens with a young man sitting in a waiting room with a number of other men. They are all of similar age, all male, and all dressed in similar suits. The young featured is a bit nervous; obviously he's worried about his chances.

The men across from him seem a little nervous, but generally confident.

Suddenly, the young man jumps up and runs from the waiting room. Has he panicked and given up? For some reason, he feels the need to shave!

But he's not settling for getting rid of the goatee, he shaves off all the hair on his head. Apparently, it was really itchy?

For whatever reason, the young man is now confident. As the camera pulls back, we see for the first time a row of paintings of - apparently - current and past CEOs, all of whom are bald.

The young man is now confident that he has a decisive advantage.
After a few airings, I began to be annoyed by the commercial. At first it was because I don't know many companies with razors and shaving cream for sale in the lobby. Also, I seriously doubt you can use a.razor to shave off your hair without the help of scissors and a second mirror to make sure you don't miss some of the back and top of your head. I also can't imagine anyone shaving while wearing a suit, without getting any hair, water, or shaving cream on their clothes.
But the really big problem I have with the commercial, is the message that this guy had to shave off his beard and hair in order to fit in. That the business sells razors to help applicants shave off their hair only reinforces that rather dismal message. Seriously, I know it's just a commercial but I'd be a very poor professional if I judged an applicant for a position by how much they looked like the head of my company .. or how much they looked like me. Also, if the message is fitting into a culture, that too only goes so far. Frankly, I look for different skills, experience and personality for different roles, and in my opinion so long as someone is courteous and cordial, a perspective a bit different from mine is a plus. I would be more than a little uneasy with someone so lemming-like that they would drastically alter their appearance to look like me or my boss, in hopes of getting hired. I'd much prefer to see an individual, not a clone wanna-be.
We live in a world which demands we fit into molds and boxes. Sometimes that is necessary, but it's not the road to success, much less happiness. Know yourself, and learn to like that person. That's my suggestion.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Noticing Essentials

I love to read articles in LinkedIn, with special interest in learning new and interesting details.  It occurred to me this morning, however, that we sometimes need to focus on basics, and make sure we cover the essentials of a plan before we move on to details.

Early in my career, I was a manager for a movie theater chain.  Our little chain was acquired by a huge international corporation, which then set out on an ambitious expansion plan.  Accordingly, the company built a new flagship theater, spending millions of dollars on a location which, over the next decade, lost millions of dollars.  Managers had tried to warn the head office that the location chosen was not suited to an upscale location, but we were ignored.  No demographic studies were done to confirm assumptions regarding market share or growth potential.  The new location was beautiful and impressive, but was also built in a declining neighborhood where crime was becoming a problem and away from most of the people who would be interested in a new movie theater.  The new location also failed to offer any of the amenities that Houstonians wanted in their movie experience.  The location started with limited customer interest and declined from there.

The same chain opened another location, which I managed, also a flagship project.  This one was much more successful, since it was near upscale shopping and close to Westheimer, one of Houston’s busiest roads.  We were profitable from day one, with large crowds and lots of support even in the slow months.  But the chain made mistakes again, starting with a corporate decision to replace senior managers with younger, cheaper managers.  This led to mistakes by inexperienced managers who did not know how to prepare for crisis or plan beyond the immediate future.  Simple projection of concession stock to avoid running out or losing stock to spoilage was not done, because the old managers were replaced before they could train the new managers in even these simple practices, which damaged customer satisfaction and chased away patrons. 

And then there was the foundation problem.  To save money, the chain had refused to use a Houston architect, choosing instead to use the same guys who designed their Canada locations.  Unfortunately, the ground in Houston is very different from the ground in, say, Toronto, and weight load distribution and weathering were not properly considered.  This led to immediate problems with basement flooding, and eventually resulted in the building failure as the foundation cracked along the east wall … all the way from the front to the back.   The foundation problem was first denied, then ignored, then forced the building to be condemned.

I can’t say how much the failure to plan for these two locations had to do with the eventual collapse of the business, but I can say that from my vantage point I observed that the company put a lot of effort into details while ignoring basic, fundamental needs and priorities.  Those years taught me about the critical importance of making sure I start with what I need, only adding extra expense and complexity where it helps my team be more effective and achieve our goals.

It’s easy to read articles like this and tell yourself you won’t make those foolish assumptions and focus on image rather than substance.  But what started me thinking about the need to watch out for glitter and gloss, was the fact that so many of the photos that show up in The Pulse, show attractive models more than real employees, and ideals more than the nitty-gritty of real-world work.  That’s why I have a photo of a pair of sensible shoes.  No one gets excited over a pair of plain work shoes, but it’s very important to make sure you have a good solid grip on things.  It may not wow anyone that you first pay attention to stability and good sense, but it may well prevent you having to explain a fall from wearing something silly.  In the same way, no one is likely to hand out awards for testing assumptions and making sure you cover the essentials first and surest … but you are performing a vital service to your company by doing that work.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Kill Your Company: Peavey’s Appalling Performance on National TV

My wife is a big fan of the TV show ‘Undercover Boss’.  This is because the show generally portrays the human side of executives, who work in disguise alongside regular employees and later praise and reward their people with bonuses, promotions, and process improvements.  Sometimes the show strains to present the business in a favorable light, but at least the owners and bosses understand that the show is a great opportunity to build the brand and improve the health of their company culture.

Until last night.

Last night’s episode focused on Courtland Gray, Chief Operating Officer and heir-to-the-throne of Peavey Electronics.   It started off with the nominal premise – Courtland was being groomed to take over the top job from Hartley Peavey, who planned to retire, and he wanted to get a sense of how things were really going in his company.  Courtland put on a disguise and took a fake name, and visited several locations to check his employees’ work quality and morale.

There were warning signs early on, that Courtland was not the right guy for the job.  Courtland enjoys hobbies in his free time which include beekeeping.  This was telling, since Courtland remarked to the crew filming him how much better he thought things would be, if his company ran like a beehive, not realizing the elitist and condescending arrogance his comment displayed.  Sadly, by the time the show ended that remark would be reinforced by Courtland’s other statements and actions.   He really is that arrogant.

At Courtland’s first stop, he discovered that Peavey equipment – pretty much all of it – had quality issues.  He was offended by the crowd’s consensus that Peavey products were shoddy, but he made no note to establish better Quality Control.  Since the introduction noted that Peavey was suffering in the market, the discovery of his brand’s unpopularity could have been an opportunity to regain market share and customer support by focusing on better quality, but Courtland paid no attention at all to this possibility.  He focused only on marketing the brand, not improving the product.
At his next stop, Teresa - a veteran employee with over two decades with excellent skills and whose work is praised by Courtland - complained about worries about job security and the fact that she had not received a raise in eight years.   Michael, another employee whose work Courtland praised noted that he had turned in two-week notice because he had received a better offer – he loved working at Peavey but needed more money to take care of his family.  Courtland made sympathetic noises to the employees, but to the camera complained that the employees ‘did not see the big picture’.  It should also be noted that manufacturing resources and processes were far behind the times and insufficient to the targeted goals.  Even a casual observation showed that Peavey was not providing the necessary tools and resources for employees to accomplish the work targets set for them.  Even in 2015, Peavey had employees hand-soldering circuit boards and manually building boxes made from cheap particle board.  

There is a point in every episode of ‘Undercover Boss’, where the boss reveals his identity to the employees and rewards the good guys.  Courtland certainly goes through the motions, promising raises and money to help the family and vacation time.  But CBS revealed that this episode was different.  In the follow-up section, the show notes that Courtland is ‘trying’ to get the bonuses and rewards he promised … meaning he has not kept his promise for four months and may never come through on his word.  Worse, more layoffs have been made, including Teresa and Michael.   Courtland actually smiles about giving 60 days to the employees, as if he had not assured the employees that this would not happen.  Teresa coldly observes that when the layoff notices came, Courtland and Hartley were nowhere to be found – it was just someone sent down from HR.  While layoffs are a sad fact of life in the modern world, the manner and timing of this one suggests that the executives at Peavey have no real sympathy for the pain caused by their decision, and what’s more they are too cowardly to at least deliver that bad news in person.  The episode reeked of executive arrogance, incompetence, cowardice, and greed, especially since Hartley’s comments and appearances indicated he fully supported Courtland’s behavior. 
Any one element of this episode would have been bad enough.   But the total episode was practically a guide of things to avoid in running a business:

  •         Executives had no interest in improving quality issues;
  •         Executives did not value the individual skills and experience of their employees;
  •         Executives would not provide adequate resources, even when doing so would increase both productivity and morale;
  •         Executives made promises they did not keep;
  •         Executives made assurances knowing layoffs were coming;
  •         Executives went into hiding when bad news was delivered; and
  •         Executives displayed all of these faults on national television.

There were, I suspect, some people who greatly enjoyed this episode of ‘Undercover Boss’.  Namely, the competitors of Peavey Electronics, who should expect a benefit as potential customers flee the disgraced Peavey name.  Skimming through the Internet this morning, I found several forums where outrage among guitar, microphone, and electronic accessories users is already strong.  It almost seems as if Courtland was trying to tank the company, since every statement and behavior seemed to be the worst choice when selling the brand.  Sadly, I believe he was simply that far from reality.  

There is a grim lesson there for any boss who believes he or she knows everything necessary to make their company succeed, and it starts with the need to be humble and respect the people who make the actual product.  One final comment I have about Courtland, is that he showed no aptitude whatsoever in actually making the product.  He can’t make the product, he can’t improve the product, and he can’t take care of the people who do make and improve the product.  Courtland Gray is worse than useless, and we should all seek to avoid that fate by making sure we learn from, listen to, and respect the people in our teams. 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Need for Critical Thought

We live in an age of social media.  Literally hundreds of millions of people read and share thoughts in a myriad ocean of online communities.  To a degree, that's great; information is a resource which can be multiplied and built into greater concepts, but there is a problem - too many people take statements at face value and trust outright lies.  This dilutes the information's value and effectiveness, and can cause conversations to collapse into useless bickering.  What's missing, I submit, is the ability for readers to critically evaluate claims and statements, to remove the dross and make sure they accept only valid assertions.

Critical thinking is not simple pessimism, or a cynical attitude.  You need to be able to know that your information is reliable and trustworthy.  You need to know that your conclusions are more than assumptions which sound good to you.  After all, your own reputation wil rise or fall on the value of information you pass along as your own claims.

When you read something online, consider whether it is an assumption by the author, compare it to your own knowledge and experience, and test it with logic.