leadership dot #2286: backroom

I am fascinated by the Uline catalog – a monstrous collection of items that businesses need to function: carpet mats, cardboard boxes, shrink wrap, strapping kits, pallet racks, stair treads, labels, rolling ladders, utility jugs, safety goggles and no parking signs – just to name a few. Not only do they carry thousands of items, but they also have seemingly infinite variations on the items they do carry. (For example, they stock over 220 sizes of gusseted poly bags!) In short, Uline carries all the non-sexy but essential items for shipping, packaging and industrial use – things that are taken for granted when they are in stock but cause operations to cease when inventory has run out.

Sometimes I think that the backroom employees are the Uline of personnel staffing. Operational staff often accomplish their work in anonymity and few understand their role. They deal with a level of complexity that outsiders don’t (and don’t need to) understand but it would baffle others that so many nuances even exist.

So often the focus is on those who deal directly with the customers, but without the work of those in support functions, service would be detrimentally impacted and it couldn’t be business as usual. We may not see those who pay the bills, ensure that taxes are submitted, change the air filters or buy the printer paper, but if they failed to do their job it would cause a commotion for everyone else.

Uline has found a niche by being in the business of helping businesses be able to run their business. Your backroom staff is doing the same for you. You may have no desire to understand their work but acknowledge that it is critical in order for you to do yours.

leadership dot #2285: Swiss cheese

I spent some time this weekend reading one of Sandra Brown’s suspense novels that involved a scene where an airplane pilot is describing the near-miss he had earlier in his career. He termed it “The Swiss Cheese Model.”

“In order for a catastrophic event, such as a plane crash, to occur, a sequence of events precedes it, Think of these separate factors as slices of Swiss cheese lined up one behind the other. If any one of the holes in them doesn’t align with the others, the series of events is changed or curtailed, and a catastrophe is prevented. But if all the holes line up –”

 The character went on to describe the scenario from his past: the first officer spilling his coffee, the mechanic who failed to notice the coffee had shorted out a wire, the false alarm the short triggered, the pilot being short on sleep, the lightning storm, etc. It was not one factor that nearly caused a crash, rather the (mis)alignment of many events in a row.

Think of how you can install warning signals in your organization that could alert you when a few pieces of “cheese” are beginning to assemble. Are there trigger events that should signal a management review or certain actions that should require more than one person to be involved in the decision making? Many organizations monitor key performance indicators, but do you pay attention to sequencing, not just the data itself? And when something does go wrong, do you review the “pieces of cheese” that led up to the problem rather than just examining the ultimate outcome?

Every strategy has holes in it. Your job as a leader is to ensure that the holes don’t line up in a way to create a disaster.

Source: Low Pressure by Sandra Brown, 2012, pp. 269-270.

leadership dot #2284: sign off

As the midterm elections near, homes all over town have a crop of campaign signs sprouting up on their lawns. What I have noticed is that very few homes feature signs from both parties. You either support all Republicans or you are promoting just Democrats.

Campaign signs are expensive, unsightly and non-recyclable. Why don’t candidates simplify the process for everyone and create “I support Democrats” or “I’m for Republicans” signs and minimize all the individual posturing? I suppose candidates could have a limited supply of individual signs in case a mixed-affiliation home really wanted them, but for the majority of locations, just a red or blue sign would accomplish the same thing as multiple signs do now.

It’s bad enough that the airwaves and social media are filled with a multi-month assault of advertising. Let’s protect the lawns from the onslaught with some advance party cooperation and environmental consciousness.

leadership dot #2283: prize

In its literal form, “crackerjack” means exceptionally good, but most people think of the snack product when they hear that term. I wanted some Cracker Jack for a baseball-themed meeting and had to resort to ordering it online since I could not find it in a store. Cracker Jack – a staple of every Christmas stocking, camping trip and of course baseball game of my childhood, has become very difficult to find.

It may not be prevalent in stores, but it’s still available, as it has been since 1896. Some consider it to be the original junk food! What has kept Cracker Jack around this long, in my opinion, is the famous line in the “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” song that first came out in 1908. For over a decade, this immortal tune has kept Cracker Jack in the public consciousness.

When I was a frequent consumer, Cracker Jack consisted of “candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize” (sung to a catchy jingle), but today it is caramel-coated popcorn and a download to a free game. Since 2016, there has been no prize inside. Maybe it isn’t nostalgia or its links to baseball that have created its longevity, rather a willingness to evolve with the times.

A plastic ring used to be coveted, but now would be tossed aside as trivial. Better to engage consumers with a link to a digital experience and foster ongoing engagement with the brand. So today, after finishing your snack, you can “blipp a surprise” and play any of several augmented reality games that appear in the app after you scan the Cracker Jack icon.

How can you take a lesson from Cracker Jack and keep your eye on the real prize? Their aim is 120 more years of making popcorn snacks, not of distributing plastic tokens. You can let go of anything, even something as integral to your product as the “prize inside.” Don’t let the past prevent you from having a future.


leadership dot #2282: far away

The International Space Station has allowed scientists to see images of Earth in a manner that highlights significant events in ways that no camera on the ground can do. The Space Station shared photos of smoke coming from the World Trade Center on 9-11 and this week shared images of Hurricane Florence approaching the coast.

The view from the Space Station is a marvel on its own, even without the addition of specific events to add even more dramatic effect. The photographs capture our environment in ways that are overshadowed from a normal perspective. Yes, we know Central Park is large, but its enormity is readily apparent when you can see it from space. We know that the California wildfires are massive, but they look even larger when scaled from the sky.

Leaders become so immersed in the daily operations that it is difficult to stand back and see the organization from 30,000 feet (or a higher level), yet taking the broad view is an essential skill. You may not have a Space Station photo of your organization but pretend that you do. Develop ways and illustrations to help yourself and your staff internalize scale. Where are your light clusters”? What does a Category 4 storm look like for your organization vs. a Category 2? How can you see the impact that you are having vs. what you could be having?

Back up and assess your organization from far away. You may have a whole new perspective on what is really happening.





leadership dot #2281: high

I recently read a fascinating article that highlighted the evolving marketing of the marijuana industry. Now that it is at least partially legal in 30 states, the businesses behind cannabis are attempting to mainstream their product and remove some of the “stoner” stigma that surrounds it.

MedMen, one of the leading distributors, has launched a $2 million dollar advertising campaign featuring unlikely users of the drug: a nurse, teacher, athlete, executive and even a grandmother. Cannabis is being promoted in edible form and being touted as a natural and socially acceptable way to relieve some stress.

Other owners such as Judd Weiss, the founder of Lit.Club is going even further and positioning marijuana as “the herbal equivalent of a fine bourbon or scotch.”

I am fascinated by minds that can see the unusual suspects as their advertising spokespeople or take a once illegal product used by Cheech and Chong and think of crafting a role for it in the upper echelons of society.

Without resorting to the use of mind-altering drugs, how can you expand your thinking about who your product serves? Think of the most unlikely person to use it and force yourself to create a message for them. Turn your market upside down and craft a new campaign aimed at the opposite audience that you attract now. Even if you don’t go forward in implementing them, the exercise might create a new high for your organization.

Source: “Pot industry: ‘Stoner’ stereotype should go up in smoke” by John Rogers and Krysta Fauria for the Associated Press in the Telegraph Herald, September 2, 2018, p. 11A + 13A.



leadership dot #2280: elusive

I was staring at a plethora of options at the paint store and quickly became overwhelmed with the number of choices and the nuances between shades. I could tell that one sample was different than another but have no real understanding as to the impact that the gradation has. Will I prefer swatch one when it is on my wall or would I be happier with choice number two (or 32 or 222)?

In the scheme of life, paint is an insignificant and minor decision but the lack of a “right” answer reminded me of an article I just read in Sports Illustrated*. Bryce Love shared his thinking that surrounded his decision to play football his senior year at Stanford University instead of participating in the NFL draft. He weighed the pros and cons – to continue his education toward his goal of becoming a pediatrician – or to capitalize on another dream while he has the stats and health to make millions. It is a predicament for anyone, let alone a 21-year old.

In the end, after speaking with his inner circle as well as players who stayed in college and others who entered the draft, he opted to return to Stanford. “No one pushed me in any direction, but they all said the same thing,” wrote Love, “that I can’t make a wrong decision as long as I follow my heart.”

It is a fallacy to believe that a “right” decision exists. In so many cases, from paint selection to career plans, there will be pros and cons on the path that comes after either choice. Don’t waste too much of your energy searching for that elusive false hope of certainty. Make your best call and move onward.

*”Sundays Can Wait: Why I turned down the NFL for one more season of college ball,” Point After section by Bryce Love, Sports Illustrated, August 27-September 3, 2018, p. 116.