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Archive for March, 2015

cmsimg_1357331247Have you been watching the US college basketball playoff tournament? I have. And I’ve noticed in almost every game I’ve watched this week there will come a moment when a player will make incidental contact with a defender who will promptly fall backward as though hit by the force of a nuclear bomb. As Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst, puts it, “I’ve had countless games this year where you say, ‘That’s a flop.’ There’s no way that amount of force caused that amount of physical reaction from the defender. You’d have to be shot in the chest with a bazooka to fall like that.” (WSJ, March 17, 2015)

So, flopping can be defined as an intentional fall by a player after little or no contact by an opposing player in order to draw a personal foul from an official against an opponent.

I first became aware of this phenomenon watching the World Cup last summer. I don’t know much about international soccer, but I noticed flopping was being prominently covered in the sports press. One of the favored teams last year was Brazil. Apparently the Brazilians have raised flopping to an art form. A June 15, 2014 article in the NY Times by Sam Borden, titled “Where Dishonesty Is Best Policy, US Soccer Falls Short,” caught my eye. Apparently the US team is simply too honest. Borden states, “For better or worse, gamesmanship and embellishment–or, depending on your sensibilities, cheating–are part of high-level soccer. Players exaggerate contact. They amplify the mundane. They turn niggling knocks into something closer to grim death.”

Jay_Bilas_(cropped)Assistant US coach Tab Ramos says American players tend to be culturally very straight, forthright people. That is not the way the international soccer world generally thinks. Ramos says, “I don’t know if you call it a problem or a weakness, but it’s clear that the American nature is to try and make everything fair to the game. That’s just how Americans are.”

All this gets me to thinking about my American self and “winning” at small business. Karmically speaking, I believe that being straight is the selfish way to be. It seems to work for me, though admittedly, my business life is as much incentivized by making my personal life whole as by making money. My motto continues to be “Good Is Greed.” I have always tried to follow the admonition of Peter Drucker to “make your life your [business] endgame.” Am I a foolish naif like some say the US soccer team is?

Well, perhaps. I am certainly expected to be a salesman, a prime job for every business owner. Salesmen are often portrayed as liars, thieves, scoundrels, scofflaws. I don’t think lying to people works, but it does seem to work as a base assumption of sports “floppers.” So must I become at least a partial flopper to win? Coach Red Sanders of UCLA famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

And what exactly is business flopping (lying, exaggeration)? Look at Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. He was notorious for informing investors and clients that a new product was soon to be available even though it was barely a gleam in the eye of one of his engineers, if that. Or how ’bout ur-entrepreneur Steve Jobs who was mesmerizing as he wove his hypothetical dreams and visions into his listeners as a compelling reality? Admittedly, both these men made good on their existential exaggerations. So were they liars or visionaries? Most of us would surely say the latter. And yet….

I suppose you come down to an “ends justifying the means” conundrum. If we are fiercely committed entrepreneurs, does that mean kicking, biting, lying, and cheating our way to success, even if we have a great product or service? And if we opt for this, is it OK if “everyone is doing it?”

All of us lie fairly harmlessly in our everyday lives. We do it so as not to hurt people’s feelings, to be polite, to smooth our quotidian life process. As a salesman and chief voice of my own firm Corporate Rain, it is my job to present the most glowing, piquant image possible for customers. But am I flopping to Gomorrah when I create an eloquent, perhaps exaggerated metaphor for my company’s work? Am I ultimately sacrificing my entrepreneurial soul to what William James calls “the bitch goddess of success?” Is a right livelihood only made possible by leaping into the rancid fog of a moral and mental abyss?

Cousins-angry-Cp3-flop-As an act of faith and formal strategy, I choose (try?) to walk a fulgently moral path. My faith is that I will win that way. Good Is Greed. Yet, as in this column, my questions about myself and everybody else never cease. Or am I simply asking a revised version of the ridiculous medieval question, “How many angels can flop on the head of pin?”

Well, I shall leave off this excessive moral navel-gazing and go back to enjoying my March Madness. Perhaps we are all floppers to one extent or another–excessive emoters, serial exaggerators, closet conmen. Christians call it sin.

I like what Aldous Huxley said: “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.” Thank you, Aldous.

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God, that word sounds pathetic.  It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when pondering the entrepreneur.  In fact, I don’t believe I’ve read any articles specific to loneliness and the entrepreneur, yet I believe it’s a reality that exists ubiquitously.  I know it certainly exists for me.

Most folks think of owners and CEOs as hard driving, autonomous, tough and energetic.  Kind of mini-masters of the universe.  And most of my successful business peers are that, in their very different ways.  However, I believe there is a closeted yearning in most of us to connect communally, safely, discretely.  Vulnerably.

Friendships, for entrepreneurs, are hard.  We’re busy.  Most of us have primary commitments to our families and homes in our little free time and we can’t even keep up current friendships.  Most of our human contact is within our own firms and it is simply not practicable to have real, open, intimate friendships with employees, even your top executives.  Being a boss requires a certain distance.

One of my all-time favorite TV series was HBO’s “The Sopranos”. Tony Soprano is a kind of an entrepreneur when you think about it.  I remember an early episode where Tony is worried about being yessed to death by his gang.  He asks his wife Carmela what she thinks.  JamesGandolfiniSept11TIFFShe replies, “[Your subordinates] go around complementing you on your new shoes, telling you you’re not going bald, not getting fat.  Do you think they really care?  You’re the boss!  They’re scared of you.  They have to kiss your ass and laugh at your stupid jokes.”  Unfortunately Carmela is utterly right.

Furthermore, you often cannot really talk honestly about your business even to your wife, lover, or significant other.  They truly cannot understand the unique frisson of terror that many of us wake to every day as we rise to try to methodically slay our individual business dragons.  And even if they could understand, is it really fair to burden them with our existential anxiety?  Each of us faces the prospect of possibly failing every day, but most of the time it would cause useless anxiety to share that with our familial intimates.

In his excellent book “The Middle Class Millionaire”, Lewis Schiff’s research shows that middle-class millionaires (net worth between one and ten million dollars, according to Schiff) choose to let friendship to be crowded out of their lives by their maxed-out work and home commitments.  Yet there remains a need for a place of safety to discuss and share specific personal business conundrums, as well as triumphs.

I have personally found some solace from business loneliness for six years through my affiliation with the Inc. Business Owners Council, which is a membership community of Inc. 5000 company owners.  I almost didn’t join for reasons of time, but it has been well worth the commitment. MotherTeresa_090 For me the reward has been a growing concatenation of peer friendship, humor, and allayed loneliness.  I know there are other organizations, like EO and Vistage among others, that attempt to fill this business dearth.  I have found a safe business intimacy with my peers healthful and whole-making.

An easeful peer community of shared assumptions and base experience is increasingly rare in our balkanized society. Yet the soulful amelioration of business aloneness is not a need that any owner should repress or shove aside lightly.  It shouldn’t be ignored.

To quote Mother Theresa, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness.”  Thank you Mother Theresa

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I recently wrote an essay on my thinking on and discomfort with networking.  The following short film speaks to what constitutes real one-on-one business communication and connection with eloquence, passion, and generosity.

The video is by Nic Askew.  (Notice the sameness of our last names.  We both trace our antecedents back to 11th century Normandy.)  Nic is a poet and exquisite film-maker of what he calls “Soul Biographies.”  His subjects often are small businessmen and business wise men.  Nic recently shared with me his soul biography of Jenny Garrett.  Jenny is the APCTC Women’s Coach of the Year. I heartily recommend her thoughts as an addendum to my recent piece, Networking For People Who Hate Networking.

Nic calls this brief film Unprotected Conversation.  His presentation of Ms. Garrett’s thoughts are a gift to any thoughtful entrepreneurial leader.  Try to watch it with full attention and mindfulness.  It’s quite short.  Nic’s artistry deserves it.

Nic’s film is prefaced with his poem, Unprotected Conversation.

Unprotected Conversation

 ‘How brazen’ they said.

“How threatening’ they thought.

She’d talk with anyone.
With everyone.

Without cautions, or regard
to who and how they were.

Or to where such
conversation might lead.

Slaying make-beliefs and
catching uneasy truths
along the way.

Such is the consequence of
unprotected conversation.

‘How irresponsible’ they said.

‘How courageous’ they thought.

Thank you Nic Askew and Jenny Garrett.

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jeffrey-mcdanielPoet Jeffrey McDaniel once wrote, “I realize there’s something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they’re expert at letting things go.”

Sometimes you need to fire your customer.  It’s not easy because it means loss of income, implication of someone’s failure (your or theirs), or can even result in making a business enemy.  After 19 years at the helm of my company Corporate Rain International, I’ve only  given a client the pink slip six times (and once it was simply for their sake because they were really too busy and successful to use what my company was doing  for them.)  However, in terms of long-term branding and business reputation, it is a road that must be anticipated and prepared for consciously, and, hopefully, well before the event.

Four years ago I remember reading a report called The Guardian Life Index:  What Matters Most to America’s Small Business Owners which reported that customers are priority numero uno for the vast majority of entrepreneurs.  Makes sense given the cost and time commitment that goes into generating each piece of new business.  And I personally strive mightily to maintain a servant’s heart in all things business.  Nevertheless, there does occasionally come a time to give certain clients the old heave-ho.

I think the most important reason to leave a client behind is a clash of cultures.  My most important assets are my employees.  Abuse of my associates by a client is a game-ender for me.

I’m very proud of my team’s consistent, seamless representation of my company’s ethos, culture, and tone. It is hard won. It creates a business world I want to live in.  My brand reputability depends on it.  I suppose my feeling is that I can always get new clients, but maintaining a culturally consistent cadre of employees is much more important to the long-term health  of my firm.

8020_RuleIn fact, the customer is not “always right,” particularly when a basic incongruity crops up in corporate culture between your client and your company.  That is the time to gently disengage.

This is not to say there are not a litany of other annoying offenses like late payments, nickel-and-diming small matters clearly stipulated by contract, excessive non-productive client neediness, etc.  (Pareto’s Principle states that 20% of your clients make up 80% of the workload.)

Nevertheless, breaking up is hard to do.  Here’s how I try to do it.

  1. Don’t make it personal.  Don’t justify yourself. Don’t get your rocks off by articulating clearly your client’s character flaws, no matter how delicious the temptation to excoriate might be.
  2.  Do it face-to-face, if possible.  Don’t be a coward.  It might be uncomfortable but it’s just the honorable thing to do.  It shows respect for yourself and your client.
  3. Fulfill your contract and even give extra.  Do this for yourself—Again, simply because it is the right thing to do.  Even if you get no credit for it, it will leaven the innate tensions of the situation.  It’s worth it.
  4.  Be simple and to the point.  No reason to tell the departing client how wonderful you are.
  5.  Generously help the client to adjust.  Facilitate the hand-off.

1af65edOne of the chief reasons I love entrepreneurship is simply that it is a vehicle for personal freedom.  Anything that adumbrates that ain’t worth it.  Know who you are—where you can compromise and where you can’t.  It’s different for all of us.

Osayi Osar-Emokpae says in her 2011 book, Impossible is Stupid,  “Quitting is not giving up, it’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important.  Quitting is not losing confidence, it’s realizing that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time.  Quitting is not making excuses, it’s learning to be more productive, efficient and effective instead.  Quitting is letting go of things (or people) that are sucking the life out of you so you can do more things that bring you strength.”

Well said, Osayi.

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Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie_VelpeauAlfred Montapert, in his book The Supreme Philosophy of Man, states, “Do not confuse motion and progress.  A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make progress.”

I am a huge believer in stillness and it’s close cousin solitude, both as a writer and as an entrepreneur.  It is a huge danger for the creative entrepreneur to short herself on this resource.  After all, the very word “business” incorporates the word “busy.”  Hardly the soul of simplicity and solitude.

Writing in the NY Times January 15, 2012, Susan Cain, author of the best-seller Quiet, wrote the following:

“Solitude is out of fashion.  Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place.  Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all….Collaboration is in.  But there’s a problem with this view.  Research strangely suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

So how does the conscious entrepreneur create this space?  The first thing that comes to mind for me is a disciplined daily course of meditation and prayer.  I certainly try to do both when I awake each morning.  But I find it is not enough amidst the frenetic and overwhelming celerity of my business and personal life.

Mohandas Ghandi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to do today that I must meditate two hours instead of one.”  Well, bully for  Mohandas.  That may be possible for a secular saint like Gandhi.  Not so much for an ordinary businessman like me.  It’s really hard just to stop and be still when your hair is on fire and you’re up to your ass in alligators like most of us are most of our days.  Where is the time for esoterics and spirituality when you have to meet payroll, huh?  (Not to mention dealing with children and ex-wives.)

RilkeThe impulse is to stay in frantic motion, to rapidly respond to a myriad of crises, not to mention the demands of simple, quotidian entrepreneurial process.  (Even in writing this column for Making Rain, I want to speed it up.  It’s like there is a gerbil on a wheel inside me.  My impulse, even as I write this is to cut things short with unseemly glibness, so as to get back to the feverish pinging demands of my 400 emails.)

Yet, my most seminal personal well of meaning, ideation, and renewal comes out of aloneness and quietude.  (German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said simply, “The only journey is the one within.”)  Furthermore, without frequent stops to renew our personal centers, it is so very easy to accede, lemming-like, to popular tropes and fads—to vitiate our own originality.

For example, Susan Cain rails against what she calls “the collaborative tyranny of the New Groupthink.”  She notes the work of Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who recently has found that when we take an original stance or a position different from the group’s, we activate something called the amygdala, which is a tiny organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.  Dr. Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”  In other words, business creativity and original thinking also necessitates a frequent and disciplined being with ourselves.

So, what to do with this conundrum?  Well, there are often opportunities for palliative and meditative grace in our daily lives.   I try to see and grab them.  For example, I was stuck in my dentist’s chair for two hours last Tuesday.  After hearing Dr. Marv’s usual homily on my dental sins (poor brushing, insufficient flossing, erratic checkups, etc.), I was able to accept my captive stillness as a blessing of solitude and personal revery.  Likewise, a train ride to work can be an invaluable opportunity for meditation, particularly when there is an unexpected problem or stoppage.  Lots better than teeth-grinding, silent cussing.  Or, for more serious opportunity with stillness, look no further than the dreaded two weeks of jury duty.  (“No cellphones allowed here, Sir!”)  Though I only had to serve two days recently, I made it a refreshing respite of quietude and reflection.

picasso7Such moments, and many more like them, are gifts, if properly embraced by the “hair on fire” entrepreneur.  (Or anyone else for that matter.)  By looking for these obvious moments we can create extra time for self-centering and restorative personal grace.

Indeed, Pablo Picasso said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”  Or, to quote Rilke again, “Love your solitude and bear with sweet lamentation the suffering it causes you….Rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind.”  (Letters to a Young Poet, 1908)

Thank you Pablo and Rainer Maria.

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