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Russian playwright Mikhail Bolkakov once said “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”

I’m a member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (That’s only one of my eccentric personal hobbies.) I’ve been a huge fan of the Oz books since my mother read many of them to me when I was a boy. (Most people know only L. Frank Baum’s first book, “The Wizard of Oz”, but there are actually 40 marvelous, magical, beautiful books in this series.)

I love the Cowardly Lion. He reminds me so much of me. In the movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy confronts the Cowardly Lion and tells him he is nothing but a great big coward. The Lion’s reply is:

“You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all! I even scare myself. Look at the circles under my eyes! I haven’t slept in weeks!”
Me too. To be an effective executive for my company Corporate Rain International I have needed to slay this “fear” dragon each day for many years. One of the things I do to cope with this fear I learned many years ago from a fantastic acting teacher I had in New York named Michael Howard.

Michael Howard spoke to my acting class one day about how to begin rehearsing a new scene. What he said was to go immediately to the most risky, scary, personal place in the scene: that place that made us feel most fearful and exposed. This might be a spot that involved physical intimacy, like kissing, violence, or nudity. Or jealousy, rage, or cowardice. By facing the most dangerous part of the scene immediately, the rest of the scene became more accessible, less fraught. As Joseph Campbell puts it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

How do I apply this lesson to entrepreneurship? By each day immediately doing that thing I most want not to do–by immediately making that call where I have the greatest fear of rejection, where my own feelings of cosmic inadequacy might be most called out and exposed–and taking this sweaty-palmed action the first thing in the day. I act as if I had courage and confidence and thereby have it in reality. I guess it’s kind of a business version of your inner mother telling you to eat your vegetables first. For me, it works to go daily and immediately toward my most fearful task.

So go to the danger first. As the Cowardly Lion so insightfully sings: “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” A sage observation indeed. As science-fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Thanks Kurt.

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anger_controlls_himThe Bible’s Book of Proverbs 16:32 says this: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

I’ve been thinking again about business and anger this week. (Note my Inc. column of ApriI 25th, “Anger, Forgiveness, and Entrepreneurship.”) It has been important for me to learn to deal with anger over the years. It’s never pleasant.

I try to be aware of the challenges of usefully managing my anger. Of course, not always with success. The entrepreneur is faced with a plethora of responsibilities and pressures that can make it difficult to handle strong emotions such as anger. They may not teach this skill in business school, but it seems to me fundamental for the small businessman or woman. Useful anger is practical, creative, and centering. Unuseful anger is immolating, destructive, and overpowering. It reduces one to impotence and stuttering incoherence.

george_costanza029Let’s consider unuseful anger. Italian novelist Pietro Aretino wrote in 1537, “Angry men are blind and foolish, for reason at such a time takes flight and, in her absence, wrath plunders all the riches of the intellect, while the judgment remains the prisoner of its own pride.” Indeed.

There is an episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Comeback” in which George Constanza finds himself at the end of a zinger by a co-worker while gobbling shrimp at a company meeting. (“Hey, George. The ocean just called….They’re running out of shrimp.”). An enraged and humiliated George obsesses about finding the proper rejoinder. Despite the protests of his friends Jerry and Elaine, he settles on this ungainly comeback to his tormentors. “The Jerk Store called….They’re running out of you.” The worst sort of anger just makes you stupid.

For sure, the business world is often a cauldron of personal animosity. Just look at Silicon Valley. The list of bilious exchanges there is legendary. I can certainly recall several stupid moments early in my business life in which unnecessarily venting my spleen cost my company, Corporate Rain International, money and business.

220px-aristotle_altemps_inv8575On the other hand, focused anger is constructive when your true intent is to clear the air and maintain an honest, appropriate relationship. When done properly, constructive confrontation assures future harmony and better performance and productivity. For me constructive confrontation works best when I can couch my ire in courtesy, expressing my feelings in a calm, reasonable, and controlled way-when I can also empathize with the object of my anger, when I can focus on the behavior and action of an asshole-I mean associate-and not on the person. A dollop of humor doesn’t hurt either. Easier said than done.

Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., said this: “It is easy to fly into a passion–anybody can do that–but to be angry with the right person to the right extent and at the right time and with the right object and in the right way–that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it.” Thank you, Aristotle.

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4863121221_cff7356354_b“Give me your wackos.” Those were Jeff Bezos’s reported instruction to his original executive search firm when starting Amazon.)

In his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, Dr. Sydney Finkelstein doesn’t speak specifically about Jeff Bezos, but I suspect he would well understand and approve of Bezos’s sentiments. Finkelstein states,

“In any industry, superbosses seek out unusual qualities most bosses don’t even think about. Superbosses don’t want just the candidates whose skills enabled them to score high on some test; they want candidates whose abilities are so special, no one would think to test them. If a candidate seems to have what the superboss is after, he won’t hesitate to overrule human-resources specialists. The superboss‘ quest for superstars will override everything else.”

Sydney is the Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. His book Superbosses is a good read, though I do have a couple of cavils.

Finkelstein defines a superboss as “a leader who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.” They are leaders who delegate and place faith in their hires, even when the projects assigned are mission critical to their firms. They aggressively delegate meaningful and important work to their reports, their junior executives, and their employees. They know their hires will fail occasionally and they accept that. Furthermore, they create a nurturing cultural ambience that is supportive of managerial courage and thoughtful, creative risk. Superbosses put time into interaction with their employees–often working with them on the job and mentoring directly on projects, as well as giving direct feedback. They know their proteges first hand. He cites the old Reagan dictum: “Trust, but verify.” Finkelstein’s revision for superbosses is “Observe, coach, and trust. And then verify.”

Untitled-1The idea for Superbosses came out of Finkelstein’s avocation as a gourmet and foodie. He noticed that his friend Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, seemed to generate an exceptionally large group of successful acolytes. He started to research this and found that, indeed, the people who worked for Waters, including sous chefs, waiters, bakers and even busboys, went on to enormous independent success as chef/entrepreneur/owners.

From there Sydney interviewed hundreds of business leaders over a ten year period, looking for those who personally and culturally generated what he calls “trees of talent.” He focuses on 18 of these business leaders. These really marvelous examples are of people like Larry Ellison, John Stewart, Lorne Michaels, Ralph Lauren, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, and even Miles Davis, to mention a few.

Two of my favorite models of Finkelstein’s superbosses are Norman Brinker of Brinker International and Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team. Brinker was what Finkelstein calls a “hands on delegator.” He notes Brinker often would show up at his restaurants and bus tables with his employees He didn’t hesitate to share stories about his own mistakes and failures with his associates, helping create a fearless, through-branded culture. In the case of Bill Walsh, while he retired in 1989, the coaches trained by him still led 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL last year! Pretty amazing.

My favorite insight from Sydney is that the exceptional leaders he documents–leaders who create “trees of talent”–are confident enough to hire subordinates who are better than their bosses are. He says, “Superbosses take chances on people, and tolerate more churn if it means finding the right people later.”

I could not agree more. Though I do not consider myself a superboss, my own philosophy is to hire only people better than myself at my firm Corporate Rain International and turn ’em loose. Within the context of a deeply imbued service culture, I only want “bosses” working for me–bosses who can efficiently bring their best talents and full passion to their job without micromanagement. And that includes the receptionist. (If you want to read more on this subject, try my Inc. column of August 29, 2016. [“Why Giving Your Employees Autonomy is Crucial to Business Success”]

walsh-050736_original_crop_northSo bravo to Sydney Finkelstein. His book Superbosses is an impeccably researched, truly useful and actionable guide for leaders wanting to create “trees of talent.” While I do have a minor quibble or two (Sydney can be a bit didactically repetitive with some of his writing), this book offers an original, accessible, and learnable new way to approach HR and leadership development.

I like what Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatich & Saatchi Worldwide, says on the back of Superbosses. To wit, “This book could make some bosses angry–and that’s a good thing. Finkelstein’s examination of what actually makes a legendary leader goes against the grain of much standard management ‘best practice’ and offers a whole new way to think about talent.” Well said, Kevin. Thank you.

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maxresdefaultVoltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

I hope Voltaire is right, because a lot of my experience of what little success I have had as an entrepreneur has come out of my supreme ignorance and inexpert background in my business.

I founded an elite executive sales outsourcing company called Corporate Rain International over 20 years ago without a priori experience in sales or any education in business—not even a basic college course in economics.  My company is an accidental creation.  I just made the thing up.  I have a business and a life based on “I don’t know,” a business of improvisations.  As to having any formal qualifications to lead a company, I have none.  In that sense I am a fake and a fraud.  Yet my firm has lasted and succeeded.

I’ve been thinking about this since I published my book The Poetry of Small Business:  An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search For Meaning last year.  I’ve done a number of interviews about the book and invariably I’m introduced as an “expert” which fills me with unease.

Actually, what I am is a guy who has responded continually, day-after-day and year-after-year, to constant quotidian business conundrums with the simple response of “I don’t know.”  Let’s figure it out.”  Kinda like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland suddenly saying, “Hey, gang.  I know what we’ll do.  Let’s put on a show.”

God, I wish I was an expert.  A knower.  What I am is an unsystematic autodidact.

1941-Babes-On-Broadway-Judy-Garland-and-Mickey-Rooney1Responding to questions with “I don’t know” is often taken as a sign of incompetence. People want to know the secret sauce, a certainty they can take into their own lives and leadership, dammit.  Yet leading from ambiguity and personal uncertainty has some real advantages in a business world that increasingly values the strengths of empathetic leadership over command-and-control absolutes.  And this applies in spades to creating a robust entrepreneurial culture.

So, can a whole company, a whole culture, a whole career, a whole life be based on the vulnerability implicit in frequently admitting “I don’t know”?  Well, in my case, yes.

Here are some advantages of leading from uncertainty.

  1. It creates community.  Nothing binds a group more certainly than admitting common frailty and the need for others.   It is a basis for most religions.  It is the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous.  To say, “I don’t know” is admitting we are not and will never be God.
  2. It encourages creativity.  If the boss shares her honesty and uncertainty, it gives courage and permission to everyone to be imperfect, to fail, to be wrong—and also to succeed with the outrageous new.
  3. It creates leadership credibility.  If a leader can sometimes admit “I don’t know,” it creates trust in that leader and encourages honesty for all corporate associates.
  4. It reduces corporate fear.  If the boss leads from admitted uncertainty, it frees employees to concentrate more fully on their work, on bringing their “A” game and their whole non-rational intuition to solving communal puzzles.
  5. It helps personal development.  An “I don’t know” culture opens all corporate citizens to honestly ask for help.  People actually like to help.   They actually often feel honored to be asked to teach something or guide an uncertain colleague.  It builds relationships.  It builds personal honesty.
  6. It encourages humility.  Humility is a real business skill.  A salubrious quality.  It saves us from smug overconfidence and opens our heart to the new.
  7. It encourages a culture of ethics and truth.
  8. It creates meaning.  It takes effort to go beyond the immediate and the obvious. Leadership’s sincere and open search for integrated solutions, based in mission and culture, gives permission for every corporate citizen to look to deeper long-term truth, both personally and corporately.

All this is not to say that ignorance is bliss.  Ignorance is to be assiduously remediated and overcome.  Obviously.  But ultimately admitting “I don’t know” when appropriate is really a statement of power and centered leadership.

As Greek historian and general Thucydides put it,  “Ignorance is bold.  Knowledge reserved.”  Thanks Thucydides.

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Nat_King_Cole_1958Nat King Cole had a hit song in 1954 called “Smile.”  The first verse goes like this:

“Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though its breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.”

Sentimental perhaps, but the Harvard Business Review has noted some substantive research that may validate the feeling of the song.  HBR recently printed an interesting small item summing up an article by Tara Kraft Feil and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas titled, “Grin and Bear It:  The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expressions on the Stress Response.”

Feil states, “Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it,’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important non-verbal indicator of happiness, but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events.”

That may be overstating it a bit.  However, without going into the technical details of their study, Feil and Pressman show that smiling during periods of tension and fear actually reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy.  Says Pressman, “The next time you are stuck in traffic or experiencing some other type of stress,  you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment.  Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ but it might actually help your heart health as well.”

6eb886a190509381d237a228ec1fc5a6Also, note the insights of Dr Amy Cuddy of Harvard.  Cuddy posits that tiny tweaks to our physicality can lead to mighty changes in our life and leadership. She believes that non-verbals govern the way we think about ourselves and the larger world.  For example, you can hold a pencil in your mouth in a way that artificially recreates a genuine smile. Odd as it my seem, forcing your face into a gesture of happiness actually makes you feel happy.

Of course, this does not mean we should all be walking around staring at each other with death’s head rictus of smiling inanity.  But growing scientific evidence suggests we can control and manipulate our feeling and mood—that we are not simply at the mercy of our circumstances or genetic inclinations.  (Other people respond to smiles, too.  My friend Carol Kinsey Goman, a leading body language expert,  tells me that, if you ever go to court, it has been observed that  judges tend to give smilers lighter penalties, a phenomenon called the “smile-leniency effect.”)

So how does this data speak to the entrepreneurial salesman?

Well, for me, just this.  I can report that, as the chief rainmaker for my firm Corporate Rain International, I face lots of rejection on many days.  That’s stressful.  However, even though most of my initial conversations with potential clients are by phone, I often find that smiling and other affects of happiness and prosperity actually do keep my attitude and mien happy.  For example, if I’m having a less than salutary week, I will sometimes break my morose feelings by dressing in my best suit and brightest tie for a day, even if my day is only conference calls and desk work where no one can see me.  I’ve found such seemingly superficial changes can make for a better day.  The wise people of Alchoholics Annonymous have had this  piece of intuitive knowledge for many years. They call it “acting as if.”

hero-02b86cf363f4136ec8a326d4cd903abc-mediumSelling is innately stressful because it is full of rejection.  And any business owner is constantly selling where her activity involves the formal act of selling or not.  She embodies the trope of her company.  I personally look for little tricks to keep my personal projection prosperous and robust.  “Smiling though my heart is breaking” is a useful one.

American patriot, philosopher, and political pamphleteer Thomas Paine said, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.  ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles to the death.”  Thanks, Thomas.

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