leadership dot #2169: the pits

When it was suggested that we visit tar pits when we were in Los Angeles, I thought that they were joking. It turned out to be a fascinating lesson in understanding the Ice Age and how it impacted our ecosystem today.

The La Brea Tar Pits are an archeological wonder in central Los Angeles. Both in controlled excavating and even in spots in the parking lot, pools of oily tar are visible, just as they have been for centuries. Bones of thousands of plants and animals have been preserved in this tar and reclaimed for public display.

The Tar Pits Museum demonstrates how during the Ice Age the Wooly Mammoths would wade into the pits attempting to eat plants but become trapped in the sticky tar. Subsequently, wolves and other predators would see a vulnerable mammoth and move in close to eat it, thus becoming trapped as well. This continued throughout the food chain with more and more animals becoming victims of the tar pit pool.

Without the context at the museum it is hard to imagine how giant mammoths could disappear but seeing their exhibits makes the behavior logical if not inevitable. One thing led to another and to another and soon the whole ecosystem was mired in a gooey mess. Tens of thousands of years later archeologists are still excavating bones that recreate the disastrous path.

Think of what is the equivalent of a tar pit in your organization. Where do your employees continually get tripped up on policies or procedures that cause them to be stuck? What behaviors create complications that have a ripple effect throughout the organization? What conditions paralyze your staff and leave them vulnerable to outside forces? It may not be a literal tar pit, but there may be something toxic in your environment that mires the best of intentions. It’s time to do some organizational excavating!

leadership dot #2168: stars

Like all good tourists, when I was in Hollywood I strolled Hollywood Boulevard and looked at the Walk of Fame. I thought about the thrill that must have been for those whose name is permanently engraved on the sidewalk and how for many it would represent a highlight of their career.

We reveled in seeing the stars – as if it were the star themselves. Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Alex Trebek, Bob Hope, Harrison Ford, Walt Disney, Matt Damon, Amy Grant, Michael Jackson – blocks and blocks of the biggest names in entertainment and we were standing where we know they once were.

But we also traversed over dozens of stars whose names we did not recognize at all – Viola Dana, Clyde Cook, Gabby Hays, Faye Emerson, Madge Bellamy, Barbara Whiting, Meriam C Cooper, Eerlin Husky, Yma Sumac – all famous enough to be immortalized on the Walk of Fame, but not enduring enough to become household names (at least in our circle).

Your organization likely does not have a literal walk of fame but think about the people who would be on it. What are you doing to keep their legacy alive? How do you tell the story of your founders or legends in your industry so that the subsequent generations would at least recognize their name? It’s nice to do recognition in the moment, but even better if you allow the star to keep shining over the long term.

leadership dot #2167: running out

As part of our “California Adventure”, we rented a house so the family could stay together instead of in multiple hotel rooms. The agreement was for the home to come fully equipped with all we would need for our stay.

The gray area came about with consumables. Who was responsible for providing trash bags, dishwasher soap, laundry detergent, napkins, shampoo, paper towels, tissues or even propane for the grill? We found ourselves making daily trips to the local grocery store because we needed something that was always on hand in our own home environment.

Renting a house highlighted the number of disposables or consumables that a family uses in a given week, but it also made me more aware of the items that are staples for routine functioning. Think about what is on your “list of essentials” for your home or office. Do you have a checklist or way to monitor inventory so that you are not making multiple trips to the store? Can you automate the ordering of certain items to make it even easier? Can you get more clarity on things you feel are optional that another in your home or organization would classify as essential?

A lot of time is wasted when the basic resources are unavailable. Don’t be running out to get what you ran out of.

our temporary home!

leadership dot #2166: ending

My sister was one of the 17,823 students to graduate from the University of Southern California this year and I was one of her several family members present for the festivities. We attended the School of Education doctoral ceremony – only for those receiving an Ed.D. – and yet there were still over 300 candidates to be hooded. Even without speeches, the program lasted over two hours.

Commencements are tricky business for event planners because people only truly care about 30 seconds of the program, but for those fleeting moments to be meaningful they must be embedded in pomp and circumstance and combined with hundreds of others having their fame.

At USC, they held 33 separate ceremonies in addition to the main graduation and baccalaureate. Over 60,000 guests passed through campus to see their friend or family member celebrate their accomplishment. And while program-specific recognitions make the experience more personal, the multitude of events require extra steps to pull off. For example, thousands of chairs were set up on every quad, and all were individually clipped together with zip ties to avoid having to do a realignment. The ceremony was live streamed to accommodate overflow crowds. Campus maps were printed on giant vinyl banners and hung in strategic locations. An Office of University Events was created to orchestrate the logistics.

The Power of Moments and other research has shown that the ending makes a disproportionately high impact on people’s feelings about the overall experience. If you are involved in commencements, retirement parties, hospital discharges or any event planning, dedicate the extra attention to the details of the farewell.

leadership dot #2165: intruder

I have always been curious about the origins of vehicle names. I wonder why some companies label their cars as a numbered series, others use just letters, some adopt common words as their names and others create their own words for naming. (Think of the BMW 700 series, the Acura TLX, the Ford Focus or the Dodge Caravan.)

Once you start paying attention you will quickly realize that there is no similar platform for what vehicles are named but I wish I could have eavesdropped on the discussions when the protocol was determined. I am sure the first time someone said “Dakota” people thought of the states, but now they see a vehicle image in their mind. Accord used to mean agreement or conjure up images of a Peace Accord, but now it’s a Honda. I’m sure that in their own way, all of the decisions made logical sense.

What I don’t understand, though, is who thought it was a good idea to name an RV “Intruder.” While some words like sierra, excursion or escape may have a dual meaning, none of them had a negative connotation before they were branded as vehicles. It reminded me of the infamous Nova debacle – with No va meaning “no go” in the Spanish market that was targeted for the vehicle. At least that wasn’t as blatantly obvious as the Intruder!

Bottom line: take great care when choosing a name. Whether it be the moniker for your product, service or child, it’s hard to change or live down a bad one. Don’t let a poor branding decision intrude on your messaging.


leadership dot #2164: signatory

I recently became an officer on our local non-profit board and thus was required to visit four area financial institutions to be added as a signatory. While I sought to complete the same task at the different places, I was amazed at the variance in their procedures to do so.

I was at one place for 45 grueling minutes while a manager and clerk tried to figure out the “new federal regulations.” They required not only my license and paperwork but the driver’s license, social security number and signatures of someone who was already on the account. More disturbing, they took two former officers off the account based on my word alone – no verification or review of the minutes required.

Institution #2 required one of the current signers to call in and verify a security question before they allowed me to access the paperwork. They gave me an envelope for the current person to re-sign but required nothing else from him. I was in and out in 10 minutes.

The clerk at my third stop looked at the Minutes listing me as an officer – a Word document that anyone could have forged – and added me to the account without further question. I left there as well with paperwork and an envelope to gather signatures from those currently on the account.

At institution #4, they wouldn’t even entertain talking to me unless someone currently on the account could come in person to re-sign and add me. I left the account to stand as it was.

It is rare that someone attempts to do the same task in a condensed timeframe at four different institutions, but it was incredibly telling. I know which bank places a higher value on “policy and regulations”, which takes security more seriously and which institution places service at a premium.

If you truly want to get a read on how your customers feel, have someone act as a secret shopper. There is nothing like actually trying to do something to learn how a process really works – and, mostly, how it feels to be in your customer’s shoes.


leadership dot #2163: non-question

It is mostly a waste of time when the manager at a restaurant goes between tables and asks diners: “How is your meal?” I’ll be that they most frequently hear “fine” or something similar. It is a non-question — just something to say rather than a request for a real answer. It interrupts the diner’s meal and I would venture to bet that it pays a little dividend for the restaurants.

Such a lost opportunity!

What if instead, the manager asked: “What is one thing we could do to become better?” or “If you were the manager, what is something you would change?” or even “What was the worst part of your experience today?” These types of questions would force the diners to give more substantive answers and a savvy manager could track (literally or intuitively) the frequency of responses. It would allow them to take action in a way that was meaningful.

Instead of a token public relations sweep through the restaurant, managers would be well served to use the time to truly learn something from those who know them best. Whether of your diners, employees, donors or clients, make it a point to ask real questions, not those which elicit an automatic, generic (non-) response.