leadership dot #2815: human touch

A bank in town just decommissioned its last manual elevator that had been in service for 98 years. Five elevator operators were out of jobs, the vestiges of a profession that has all but disappeared.

The loss of the elevator positions caused me to think about all the opportunities for human connection that we have forgone in exchange for technological efficiencies. I used to have “my” travel agent that provided great conversations as well as airline tickets. There are barely any retail cashiers to chit-chat with anymore, with most larger stores moving almost exclusively to self-serve kiosks. I do my banking on my phone, pump my own gas and can do about anything from my computer without any need for personal interaction.

I wonder if the unintended consequences of all this isolation aren’t contributing to the incivility that we are experiencing. If we operate via machine and don’t recognize our interconnectedness with other people, it’s easier to dismiss or vilify them. Having those few minutes of small talk with a clerk about the weather reminds us that we have things in common and we’re all just trying to do our best. Talking with the elevator operator on the way to the top floor allows us to have a moment of community instead of just an express ride.

As you go about accomplishing your list of errands today, make sure at least one of them includes a human-to-human exchange. Say more to the cashier than “no bags, please.”


leadership dot #2814: magic

There are many magicians out there who can dazzle the audience with their sleight of hand, but few who are able to let others create the magic themselves. One exception is Justin Flom who talked James Corden’s audience – and the masses watching on television – through a trick with cards that allowed them to be the ones doing the dazzling.

Flom shared the instructions with the audience but allowed them to have control over the decisions. He never touched their cards and, in the end, the vast majority of the audience amazed themselves at what they did. It was even more impressive than watching someone perform a trick on stage.

I think this is what good supervision is like. You may have to set the parameters or give the instructions, but ultimately you allow others to create the magic on their own. You need to give up control and assume the risk that it may not work, but more often than not, it’s amazing.

Stop trying to be the one on the stage and instead empower those around you. Your ability to awe will multiply faster than rabbits can.


To do the trick, you need 4 cards per person that you will tear and render useless in the future. His whole segment is 10 minutes, but the audience-generated trick is at 6:08. Enjoy!



leadership dot #2813: limit

On this day in 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified — but it stopped short of doing the most good. Number 22 limits the tenure of the presidential office to two terms but allows members of Congress to serve indefinitely if re-elected. I believe the country would have been better off if there were term limits for those members as well as for the president.

It becomes a vicious cycle in politics as well as organizations that the more people stay, the more power they amass and, all too frequently, the less in tune they become with what is really happening on the front lines. People who are in leadership roles for too long naturally become comfortable with the perks and privileges that power provides and, even if subconsciously, become invested in preserving that status for themselves.

It’s hard for a president, elected official, board member or officer of an organization to step down from their role. If things are going well, there is no incentive to leave. If things are going poorly, it feels like jumping ship. And, especially if it’s your full-time job, it is even more difficult to voluntarily forfeit a paycheck and benefits and cast yourself into transition — which is exactly why policies should be in place to remove the decision-making from the equation.

Do your organization a favor and set the parameters now for the future and support those attempting to create term limits for Congress. The system works better if, after X years, a term ends, and the service is finished without a debate.

leadership dot #2812: assistant

One of the consequences of budget reductions and automation is the elimination of layers of middle management. Many places have tightened operations by squeezing out the “assistant” director roles, leaving a “director” with no one to direct.

A challenge for those whose organization still has junior-level positions is the willingness of younger people to take the roles. The stereotypes would suggest that Gen Z and Millennials want a title and autonomy from the start without working their way up the ladder.

Both scenarios converge to create negative implications down the road. Middle management serves as a hands-on training ground for people to become senior leaders. Assistant roles provide opportunities for “grasshoppers” (see dot 377) to become masters themselves. Deputy positions allow a buffer zone for people to make mistakes before they have wider ramifications and allow people to serve as professional apprentices, able to be groomed by mentors.

Organizations may be saving money in the short run by reducing “number twos” but I believe they will pay more for their choice in the long run. Whether you create the organizational chart or are the one looking for a position to take, embrace the learning that assistant roles provide. Direct experience is an amazing teacher.



leadership dot #2811: end of the story

I frequently receive calls from colleagues wanting advice on how to handle a crisis, prepare for an interview, address a sticky staff problem, etc. I am happy to counsel them and share any words of wisdom I have accumulated over the years…

…and, it would be nice to know the end of the story. I get the calls in distress and I hear about the urgent situation, but never the resolution. Did you get the job? Did you have to fire the staff member? How did your boss react when she learned of your mistake?

Yes, there is a part of me that is curious, but I also see it as a learning opportunity that can improve my advice in the future. What portion of what I told you did you use? What worked? What backfired?

Time is precious, so if you ask someone to share theirs with you, help them benefit as well.


leadership dot #2810: capture

A treasure trove of glass plate images was found in a storage room, netting over 500 pictures of life in our city in 1912. Most of the photos were taken by entrepreneurial out-of-town photographers, seeking to earn 35 cents from the businesses which were documented in the shoots.

The glass plates were castaways, abandoned for lack of sales. They were not labeled or in order, necessitating copious hours of research to match architectural elements with known buildings, scouring city directories to align office numbers with tenants and researching history through zooming in on the most minute of details to provide clues as to the identity of the subjects. The result provided a fascinating overview of commercial life at the start of the new century.

The Atlantic reports that 1.8 billion photos are uploaded every day, but I wonder about the historical intentionality from any of these shutterbugs. People take pictures of food and silliness, but who is documenting an overview of business as we know it today? Things we take for granted in our organizations – the people, the layout, the equipment, the norms – often fade into oblivion because they were too obvious to capture at the time. We memorialize our friends and family in photos, but allow organizational history to disappear, or, at best, be captured only on our phones and not in an archival way.

Today, instead of taking pictures just to post on Instagram, be intentional about capturing a snapshot of your organization for future generations. The ordinary will someday become fascinating.

A City at Work Dubuque 1912 – Tim Olson & Mike Gibson    

leadership dot #2809: caution

The Dominican Republic is known for its gorgeous beaches, luxury resorts and abundant sunshine. My trip to Punta Cana from years ago was dreamy and I can see why it’s a destination for thousands of U.S. travelers, brides and tour groups.

But after a series of well-publicized deaths and mysterious ailments, the new Punta Cana ads focus on something besides the ocean: safety.

The Punta Cana Promise proclaims “Safe Dominican Republic Hotels” – saying that they strive to ensure safety and service standards are not only met but exceeded.

Safety is a precarious claim to make – I’m sure that the hotels where the illnesses occurred would have also said that they tried to ensure it. So much about safety is out of the hotel owners’ hands, such as weather calamities, terror, coronavirus, or theft. Hotels fall down, catch fire or become home base for active shooters – none of which were easily preventable.

The more you promise, the higher the expectations are that you will deliver. I think the Dominican would be safer sticking with its beautiful ocean message and your organization should use caution before promising things you cannot control.

leadership dot #2808: obfuscate

Printed on the bottom of my two-foot long receipt from Best Buy was the following:

Cell phones, cellular tablets, and cellular wearables have a 14-day return policy year-round for all customers. Major appliances have a 15-day return policy year-round for all customers. 15-day return policy on almost everything else.

 I wonder if the person who wrote that was paid by the word!

Wouldn’t it have been much clearer for everyone if they said: “Best Buy has a 15-day return policy.”?

Don’t obfuscate the message when it can be said with elegant simplicity.


leadership dot #2807: step up

It makes me crazy when someone (often with “director” in their title, no less) claims that they are not empowered to do something. I wonder what they are waiting for: someone to describe the task that is to be done, explicit permission to begin, or maybe they want an up-front guarantee that they won’t be reprimanded if the project doesn’t go as planned. Unfortunately for them, none of those options are likely to happen.

In Moments of Truth, Scandinavian Airlines president Jan Carlzon put it this way: “Nobody puts a proposal for a new comprehensive strategy on your desk and asks you to make a decision about it. You have to put it there yourself.”

Leadership is a verb, not a position. Leadership requires claiming empowerment, whether you believe you have a position that corresponds to your initiative or not. It is having the courage to risk saying or doing what you believe is in the best interest of the organization, even when the idea is unpopular. It means using your voice and experience to define what needs to happen, not just implementing what others have crafted.

The problem in most organizations isn’t that people are overstepping their bounds, it’s that they aren’t stepping up at all.

leadership dot #2806: overlooked

At the end of my marketing communication class, a student asked me to share the one thing I would want them to remember from this term. My answer: the target market drives everything.

I reminded them of the case study about Dove. Cosmetic and personal products had been almost exclusively marketed featuring beautiful models until market research revealed that 98% of women did not characterize themselves as beautiful. As a result, Unilever launched the Real Beauty Campaign featuring ordinary women, targeting those who did not see themselves as beautiful. The viral video Evolution – debunking the beauty myths – was viewed 20 million times and sales of the beauty bars jumped from $2.5 billion to $4 billion in the campaign’s first ten years.

McDonald’s research revealed that their primary customer was blue-collar males who ate at the restaurant several times a week. Have you seen that demographic featured in McDonald’s ads? No, because instead, they chose to target children (who were not eating there at the time), knowing that kids, in turn, would bring in parents and open up a lucrative new market for them.

Bernie Sanders’ popularity is due in large part because he focused on the younger generations in ways no other candidate has by targeting them hard via social media with messages that appeal to their demographic.

The secret sauce of marketing is appealing to those who have been overlooked by others. Instead of spending all of your time chasing after the customers everyone else is, think about who is not currently your client and figure out what message may resonate with them.