I only follow a couple blogs but my favorite is Leadership Freak by Dan Rockwell. The site focuses on leadership and culture in organizations. Recently, Dan had two blogs that dealt with working with imperfect organizations and imperfect people.

In the organization one, he emphasized the distinction and importance of the concept of acceptance. His point was that you first need to accept the limitations or constraints of your firm in order to have any influence or chance to improve it. And that by accepting the way things were, was not approval; just a place to start working from.

One of my jobs as CFO was with a firm going through a ton of change. The Chairman/CEO was new as were most of the top C level jobs–HR, Legal and me as CFO. It only took me a short time to realize that the place was a mess. What to do? My old mentor, Frank, said I could not quit as this was a public company with shareholders and debtors counting on the new CFO! So I tried to do what I always did: rebuild my own financial team, forge strong relationships with the other senior people and try to relink the parts of the organization that had come undone. Often I would seek out and work with the second in command of an area when I sensed they were the key to some positive change. All this takes a lot more time and energy but you can improve anything if you really try.

On the idea of imperfect people, Dan’s blog emphasized that you need to take the weak or quirky sides of people as well as their strengths. In staff roles, I saw this a lot. You could have a tax person who knew all the critical parts of the the IRS Code which impacted your firm but could not, to save their own life, try to explain any of this to others who needed to know. A good leader tries to bridge these gaps initially, with the hope that eventually the people will find a way to work together. And sometimes it really works.

The main point here is not a new revelation but maybe a new way to look at things.  Imperfections are a big part of organizational life. In fact, imperfections are a big part of most personal lives and relationships as well. But, the important takeaway is that you can still make improvements if you learn to accept and move forward versus becoming so frustrated that you do nothing. After all, none of us are perfect!

What possible link is there to help people succeed in diverse activities such as the USA Women’s World Cup Soccer,  the great Roger Federer in tennis and managers in business?

After the United States passed Title IX, schools and colleges were required to provide more sports for women, not just for men. Many young women took advantage of this and participated in a number of sports. Team USA Co-Captain Alex Morgan played volleyball, softball, basketball and track before finding her passion in soccer. Her teammate Christen Press played tennis and track before focusing on soccer. A number of articles have been written recently about how these other sports may have improved the overall performance of our Women’s World Cup team.

Roger Federer, who at 37, is once again in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, is truly one of the greatest tennis players of all time with 20 major Grand Slam titles and still counting! But as a young man, besides learning to speak five languages, he also played in a wide range of sports from squash to wrestling and skateboarding! Fortunately, he eventually found tennis.

A new book called Range by David Epstein talks about the idea that late bloomers and generalists, often succeed more than those who focused on just one special skill or interest. For example, Vincent van Gogh taught at a boarding school before he found painting. The premise is, that by first learning other skills, an individual extends themselves, broadens their base or range and can then perform better in the one area they finally focus on or all the areas they may encounter in complex roles.

So this got me thinking about people I have known in business. I have worked with some experts in specific financial areas be that taxes, insurance, investor relations or treasury. Many of these were very skilled at that one area where they often spent their entire work career. But then, there were other people who were either lucky enough or had sponsors who were willing to moving them from one area to another. When faced with a new and difficult crisis, this latter group often proved to be a more valuable part of the team. They somehow brought more diverse views, background or flexibility to the issues.

And then all this brought me back to my own career (my wife, Tricia, says, everything brings me back to myself!). As many readers know, I was lucky to have spent time in both small, private and large, public firms. I also personally managed, at one time or another, every area of finance and a bunch of non financial areas like human resources, legal and even general management.

When I interviewed for my last CFO role, the Chairman/President of the firm, asked me in what area of financial management did I consider myself strongest or best. A very good and first-time ever question. I immediately responded, no one area, rather I replied that my real strength was that I knew quite a bit about every area of finance and accounting, but that I did not consider myself an expert in any one activity. I got the job.

I was a Generalist before it became popular!

For those of you moving up in your profession or career, it is tempting and comfortable to stay or specialize in one area. But if given the chance to move into something new, think very hard about it. Some Generalists have done very well!

 

Dealing with Larger than Life People

This is the title for one of the Chapters in my forthcoming second book, The People Zoo. I have had both the pleasure and, at times, the frustration of dealing with some fascinating people. These ranged from my private company Donn Corporation’s founder and owner Don Brown, to my boss and mentor Gene Connolly in the public firm of USG Corporation. Some of the stories in this Chapter will illustrate what I learned from these people.  Some lessons were good and others, not so good, but all were unforgettable and valuable to my development.

But larger than life people have been around a long time. So, I start this Chapter with a link to those who came before us; the First People of our nation.

The First Peoples’ Cultural Heroes

Professor Larry Zimmerman is an author, anthropologist and a leading expert on Native Americans. He writes about how, after the Great Spirit created the world, other powerful figures described as cultural heroes gave people the objects and skills needed for survival. They transformed their surroundings and themselves, sometimes in human or animal form. The Raven gave light; the Spider fire.

These types of myths or folklore can be found in every culture over time, not just our First People. From Aesop’s Fables to Beowulf there is a long history of heroes.

In our time, Joseph Campbell explored heroes and myths in several fine books.

These cultural heroes of our First People were thought of as being above normal humans and often having a supernatural ability. My grandson Connor, who knows all the Marvel and DC Comics heroes, would have appreciated these century old, first edition ones! And just like some of our modern superheroes, the ancient ones often had flaws.  In fact, a First People hero like the Raven, might exhibit a dark side and use deception or evil to get things done! This caused them to be more like the rascal Tricksters who usually acted solely for their own benefit. But this dual nature of good and evil also made the heroes more relatable to their human First People counterparts. After all, even Batman crossed the line when confronted with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight!

So, our First People’s heroes were not always perfect either but were always really interesting.

And, hopefully, you will find the larger than life characters in my new book interesting and entertaining as well!

My father, who never attended college read two publications to which I still subscribe. One was the Wall Street Journal even though the only stocks he ever owned were utility companies. The other was a little known newsletter called The Kiplinger Washington Letter. At the time he read them, both were standalone firms.

For the last ten years,  the Wall Street Journal has been owned by Rupert Murdoch’s New Corp. which owns Fox News, the London Times,  and like half the media in the free world.  I have been concerned about the WSJ ever since, but somehow, to date, it seems that both its news and editorial work has managed to remain independent from its parent company. This is what was “promised” when that merger occurred. There have been complaints by now former employees and negative articles written by competitors, like the U.K. Guardian, but no Congressional committee meetings!

Now, today, in my re-titled The Kiplinger Letter, as a P.S. at the end, next to the fine print, I am told their 99 year, several generation ownership is no more. It was been sold to a U.K. media firm called Dennis Publishing which is owned by a U.K. private equity firm. And in that brief announcement it says “no changes here, same talented staff and the same mission…”. Of course, when I look on line, the last Kiplinger family editor has been replaced but will remain as editor emeritus, which means basically no title or duties.

Why am I upset? After all, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos purchased the family owned Washington Post. And the long-time business magazine, Forbes, owned and run by the Forbes family for three generations was also acquired. In all cases, the world did not end.

I am upset because, like my father, I viewed the four page Kiplinger Letter as very straight forward, well-researched and with limited bias. I have given subscriptions to a number of family, friends and mentees over the years. In a quick read, you could get caught up on where the world was and where things were trending. Now I don’t know.

Fake News in my headline is there not just to get possible new readers but because every time someone is acquired or merged, the press announcement always says the same thing. No changes, everything and everyone will stay on. But this is not the real world And things Always change especially the leadership and eventually the culture.

Is the media world better off with unique and maybe quirky people like the Forbes or Kiplinger families or is it better owned by much bigger corporate owners? As some of you know, I have worked and prospered in both small, private firms and much larger public ones. Give me the private family owners anytime!

And good luck to the small staff of Kiplinger; I do provide references.

In my forthcoming book, The People Zoo, there is a major section dealing with Mentoring. Some of the stories deal with people who mentored or assisted me at critical times in my career. Some of the stories are about how I mentored others. What follows is one of those. With the start of a new year and a world filled with uncertainty, I thought a fun story, with a message, might be perfect. As always, this is a true story, from my days in public accounting, which I call:

Saving Smelly Harvey’s Career

Well that is quite a title even for a book called The People Zoo!

This may be a story of extreme mentoring but maybe it is just an excellent example of how open, honest discussion with a young person can sometimes really help.

Harvey, not his real name, was a young audit assistant in the Cleveland office of Arthur Andersen, a fine firm that had somehow just promoted me to Senior Auditor. Harvey was one of forty young assistants hoping to work hard for a dozen or more years and climb the ladder with hopes of someday becoming one of the select, very well-paid Partners.

Young assistant auditors like Harvey worked in a range of industries and audit engagements reporting to up to as many as a dozen senior auditors over the course of a year. These senior auditors, of which I was now one, were only a couple years older but we had power since we evaluated, promoted and recommended that an assistant “pursue other interests” outside of AA&Co. A big deal at age 25!

One day a bunch of us Senior Auditors are in the office and we are comparing notes on this year’s crop of assistants. This same conversation occurs in every service organization-law firms, hospitals, and especially on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy! This type of constant evaluation and ranking also occurs throughout nature. The alpha wolves watch the younger ones and decide who can stay in their pack and who gets sent away. And just like on TV or in a wolf pack, some of the younger assistants are coming out better than others.

The conversation eventually turns to Harvey who had worked for me and several other seniors. On the positive side Harvey is considered bright, likable and a very hard and effective worker.

But there is a negative. One of the other seniors, not delicately, suggests that at the end of a long work day, Harvey smells! Even I agree with this analysis.  And this was a real problem; no one gets to Partner if they smell! It just doesn’t happen.

I nobly say that one of us must talk to Harvey!

Everyone says at once: Right, you do it, Brad!

As it turned out the next week, Harvey and I were traveling out of town together to work on a bank audit. One of the other seniors knew this and once this fact came out I was really stuck! I had to talk to Harvey while we were alone a hundred miles from our Cleveland office.

We would be by ourselves at dinner often that week, so this would be the ideal time, I concluded. But how exactly to bring the subject up? This is not taught in any accounting program at college or even at AA&Co.’s extensive training center.

I decide that at the end of dinner our last evening out of town I will just bring it up. The conversation goes like this:

Brad: Harvey, the other senior auditors and I were talking about you last week and you received high marks on all the critical technical and work areas!

Harvey: Wow! That is great. I really appreciate you telling me. Were there any areas for me to improve?

Brad: Yes, and it was a bit awkward but an issue. At the end of the workday someone suggested you smell. So, I have to ask, do you shower daily?

Harvey: Yes, I do and it’s not always easy since I live with my two brothers.

Brad: Wow. Ok. Here is a thought. Do you use deodorant every day?

Harvey (looking down, never good in a wolf pack): No actually I don’t. My family just never did.

Brad: Why don’t you try it! I use Right Guard!

Harvey: I will get some right away and thanks again for taking the time and being so honest with me!

Brad: It’s a senior job and you are a great guy with what everyone agrees is a lot of potential!

Epilogue part one: Harvey corrected the issue. We became very good friends. I was at his wedding to Sue (her real name), a wonderful woman.

Epilogue part two: A dozen years later, Harvey became a Partner in AA&Co. They moved to Cincinnati, and we sadly lost touch. Maybe he will read this story and call! Maybe even take his old mentor and his wife out to dinner! And I assume he is still using Right Guard!

When I retired from USG Corp., my friend, Frank, gave me a gift of a plaque with an Ancient Chinese text called: Master in the Art of Living, which had these thoughts:

-A Master in the art of living makes little distinction between work and play, labor and leisure, education and recreation, and love and religion

-He hardly knows which is which but pursues his own vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing

My friend, Frank, was an executive coach for individuals and teams at large companies. He wrote me a note with the plaque that he tries to get all his clients to reach this goal. In his mind, somehow I had done so.

Another management consultant I knew once phrased this differently. When you are in a job or career where you are excited about getting up and going to work and don’t worry how long you work and whether its a work day or weekend, you are doing what you should be doing. You are self driven. You are in the right place.

When I was luckily able to fully retire at 55, I spent some time thinking about my work years in light of these two thoughts. I looked back at my four years in public accounting, my dozen or so years each with Donn Corp. and USG Corp. and my last few years at IMC Global. I calculated that probably two thirds of my career, I was truly looking forward to work. I was self motivated and charged up for 21 out of 33 years.

In talking to a lot of people over the years, I have concluded that I was lucky to have had that many really good years. So many people, from staff to line and from secretaries to executives do not feel that blessed in their work lives. Some are OK or satisfied with their work time but this is not the same thing, in my mind.

People ask me how do you achieve this concept of joy and enthusiasm in work? I don’t know. I know that you do know when you have it. But how to get there is very complicated. I was lucky, again, to often be put in complex and challenging situations where I ended up with a lot of control of the outcomes. I also got to work with, be mentored by, and to mentor some great people. These things I know helped me and greatly influenced how I felt about work. I wrote about some of these in my first book, The Business Zoo.

Three thoughts as we end the year:

First, look at your job or career and think about how you really feel about it. If you are not really excited about your work and are able to make a change, consider doing so.

Second, in 2019 I hope to publish my second book which will go into a much more personal level of my work, some of the unique people I encountered, those who mentored me and those I mentored. We will touch on stories from the book along the way in this blog and maybe some of these will be helpful.

Third, that’s for reading, have a wonderful Holiday Season and a great 2019!

 

We recently visited the beautiful South Carolina City of Charleston. While our wives shopped, my friend, Nat, and I visited historical sites of which Charleston has plenty.

Many people recall that our American Civil War started in this City. The State of South Carolina decided to withdraw from the Union. The U.S. Army tried to maintain control of the strategic port entrance by taking over Fort Sumter. The battle that ensued was brief,  the U.S. Army surrendered and our nation began its bloody four year Civil War.

Today, the National Park Service has a great narrated boat ride and tour of the Fort. We were fortunate to be on the last tour of the day and watched them lower the flag. The tour and the story it tells is a must for anyone interested in our country’s history. Friends know I have been a Civil War buff my whole life, so this was great!

But even more impressive and much more educational, for me, was our tour of the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street. We all think we know the story of slavery in our country,  the terrible injustices that it brought and its role in the Civil War. The Slave Mart Museum focuses on the part Charleston played in this and looks at the slave trade as a business. It covers the human tragedies, the splitting of families and babies from their mothers, many of which we have read about or seen in movies or on television. It was a number of the other lesser known facts that I found equally compelling, such as:

-10% of African slaves were transported to the U.S.; the rest to Central and S. America

-40% of slaves entering the U.S. came through Charleston

-In 1860, before the Civil War, over 60% of S, Carolina residents were enslaved blacks

-Crops produced by slaves were sold to Europe which sold guns to Africa for slaves

-By 1808 foreign slave trade was abolished in S. Carolina in favor of the domestic trade

-On the slave market, a young male or female might bring $1,000 ($30,000 today) and someone my age would $50! Values were based on life expectancy and ability to work.

Overall, an incredible learning experience that everyone who is interested in black studies, the Civil War or understanding the whole history and impact of slavery would benefit from visiting. The Slave Mart Museum covers the human side but also the immense business that was slavery.

 

On my Apple calendar, I was told that October 8 is Indigenous People Day. Although the day is still called Columbus Day, the new term is meant to honor those people who were in North America long before our European ancestors.

In fact, historians now believe that there were several million native people here which were part of up to a thousand separate nations that ranged from Alaska, throughout the U.S. and into Mexico.

I became interested in this at a series of museums we visited in Canada and Alaska. I came to both appreciate and admire these First People. So, as I tend to do, I have now read parts of five books on the subject.

These nations or tribes often had diverse lifestyles based on the land area they occupied and their unique history and cultures. Yet all these native people, regardless of where they lived, had similar stories about the world’s creation, natural phenomena and good versus evil. Some very geographically separated groups, like our Southwest Apaches, even have a similar language to the Alaskan Athabaskan tribes.

And all these Indigenous or First People had issues establishing and transferring leadership and maintaining and spreading their culture. Just like our organizations do today. Only this was way before computers and even the written word.

Because of this, I am using stories about the First Peoples to help me illustrate points in my second book. It only seems fitting to reach back over the past millennia to seek guidance and explanations from those who came before us.

So here is a sample of how I will tie this all in. This provides a lead story in the chapter on Mentoring.

Honor Your Elders who Show the Way

In the far north of Alaska is the Inupiat nation. In the winter, there is no light for 67 days. In the summer, there are 84 days of only daylight. If you lived to become an Elder, you earned it and thus should be honored. The First People all over North America shared that same belief. The young were trained or mentored by the old. And the wisest elders were usually elected the leaders of their tribes.

The Iroquois Council, at its peak, consisted of six tribes, that working together, controlled our entire Northeast and part of the Midwest. The Council had devised a unique set of rules to govern both their overall territory and their individual tribes. Their system of government was studied by Benjamin Franklin and became the general framework for our emerging nation. And, although the Council Elders were all men, they were chosen, and could be removed, by the women of each tribe.

Fascinating and true. But I could not help but notice that old Ben did not include the part about the women in each tribe have the final power!

So think about our nation’s real First People as we honor them with a long overdue holiday in their name.

The Wall Street Journal editorial a while back,  made an interesting observation about our President and his style of leadership and negotiating. The article was primarily focused  on how Mr. Trump is approaching trade issues with China, and the rest of the world and specifically his emphasis on protecting domestic car production. But, I believe this can be applied to much of how our President approaches issues from foreign policy to healthcare etc. The article, by Holman Jenkins, Jr., states that President Trump is playing checkers while the rest of the world is playing chess. He relies on his gut and ignores briefing materials, etc..

Long time readers may guess that I have my own story about this type of game theory.  I learned about chess vs. checkers during my work on USG Corporation’s financial restructuring.

It was early in USG’s three year financial crisis, I was alone in New York having lunch with our newest financial advisor, Lazard. I was with David Supino, one of Lazard’s senior Partners and the head of their debt/bankruptcy advisory practice. An appropriate title as USG Corporation had accumulated massive debt in fighting a hostile takeover and was struggling to stay out of bankruptcy!   

We were at the famous Sea Grill restaurant in Lazard’s office building at 30 Rock (called that before the Tina Fey TV show). As USG’s newly named CFO, I was trying to understand this bizarre restructuring process from David who had done this for decades. USG, you see, had all these multiple groups and levels of creditors we had to satisfy to avoid a forced in-court bankruptcy. I was explaining, to David, my thoughts about how to negotiate with all these parties at the same time. 

My approach was this. On Star Trek’s Enterprise they had a three dimensional Chess set; when you moved a piece at one level it affected pieces at the other two levels. I asked David if this was a good way to look at our situation, like a Three D Chess game.

David stopped eating, spit out a piece of food, and started to shake, laugh and cry all at once. At first I thought it might be a heart attack until David screamed at me, “James, This is your problem! You think you are playing Chess! It’s more like Checkers but half the pieces are missing or broken! There is no Board and no Rules! Now do you understand what it means to be in Financial Restructuring!”

And, as our three year journey continued, I realized that my friendly advisor, David, was exactly correct. As detailed in the Crisis Management chapter of my book, The Business Zoo, any major crisis brings its own terminology, its own rules (or lack of them) and an often unclear path and timetable to ever get out of the crisis. This can apply not only to a financial or business crisis but a personal one as well.

So, what I learned then, and perhaps what leaders around the world need to learn about dealing with President Trump, is that you really need to understand what game you and your opponent think you are playing. And maybe the condition of the pieces and the shape of the board!

Usually business, life and even politics can be pretty straight forward. So, I would choose a really good checker player over a weak chess player any day!

 

Barnes and Noble, the bookstore chain, has experienced more than its share of trouble. They are hurt by Amazon, by the rise of e-books, the lack of book reading by younger people, too much debt, and excessive turnover in the management ranks, to name a few. Now, their third CEO, in two years was just fired by the Board. According to the Wall Street Journal, here are some of the details: the CEO violated Company policy (not specifically named), this was not due to any SEC type financial reporting or potential fraud, he was removed from the Board immediately, and he will receive No Severance!

This is what should happen but rarely does. If you Google severance pay, the stories never end. From media people like Harvey Weinstein collecting $25 million to Fox’s Roger Ailes receiving $40 million both leaving in sexual harassment scandals. United’s former CEO left in a corruption scandal and received $29 million. All this makes the misconduct departure of Lululemon’s CEO, who only received about $5 million, sound like a real bargain.

The only other recent and well-known example I could find of a CEO leaving for cause and getting no severance was the Vegas mogul, Steve Wynn and his ex-wife was a still a major shareholder in his company.

Why don’t more companies and their Board of Directors do the proper thing and not pay severance for executives who were fired for cause?  One obvious issue is the legal definition of  “cause”. When it involves violation of a company’s policies or code of ethics, this should not be an issue, but it is still usually not followed. If it involves a legal action, such as a lawsuit to establish “cause”, public firms usually run or at least look the other way!

Why? The real reason is that large public firms are afraid. Afraid of having to give depositions; afraid to go to court and mostly afraid the company will look stupid or mean or bad or worst yet, wrong! I know this because, as a CFO, I have been in more than one meeting that involved terminating another senior executive for cause and I am the only one suggesting no severance and that our company should pursue legal action.

In the case of a fallen CEO, it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors to take action whether that is to pursue criminal or civil actions and/or to withhold any severance. Too many Boards are weak. They take the easy way out, pay some hush money, sign a nondisclosure agreement and find a new CEO.

So let’s congratulate the Boards of Barnes and Noble and even Wynn Casinos for taking the first hard step and not further enriching a discredited CEO with any severance package! Most people distrust large firms and their executives. When people read about these undeserved and unexplainable severance payoffs, it only adds to that distrust.