leadership dot #3622: courier

Over the weekend, I watched the movie The Courier, a true-story drama about the smuggling of Soviet Union secrets during the Cold War. A senior Russian official, Oleg Penkovsky, had grave concerns about Chairman Khrushchev’s stability and intent, so he volunteered to leak nuclear secrets to the West. Greville Wynne, a British businessman, was recruited for the spy effort to avoid the suspicion which naturally enveloped any government personnel. Wynne could frequently travel to the USSR under the guise of doing business and couriered over 5000 top-secret military documents before being discovered.

The film centers around the bravery of the two men who valued avoiding nuclear annihilation ahead of their personal risk. Ultimately, Penkovsky paid with his life and Wynne endured years in a Russian isolation cell but they are credited with avoiding a 1962 nuclear showdown in Cuba.

The sacrifice of the two men can serve as a reminder to all of us to put the interests of the whole above our own comfort. Would you be brave enough to help avoid a catastrophe by committing international espionage? I doubt I would. But we can be brave without fearing our lives — and with that luxury comes the obligation to do so. Speak up when someone is facing isolation. Step in when you see aggression. Apologize. Define and hold people to organizational values. Question things that don’t seem right. Contribute to causes that advocate for human dignity. Volunteer to help others.

And work for peace. The next nuclear showdown may not have a Penkovsky and Wynne to avert it.

leadership dot #3621: café

Capital One may be best known for their “what’s in your wallet?” commercials, but in Harvard Square, they are also known for their coffee. In an effort to reach consumers where they are, the banking giant runs a community space and café where people are able to use wi-fi, get coffee, and relax. It has an ATM but is not a traditional bank branch (although there are Capital One ambassadors available to answer banking or financial literacy questions). And while non-customers are welcome, Capital One account holders receive 50% off café purchases — quite the incentive for regulars.

When Starbucks envisioned a “third space” between home and work, I don’t think they expected competition from Capital One. But a wise marketer realized Harvard Square was a mecca for young customers-to-be who like coffee and need a place to hang out and suddenly banking via a café setting emerged.

Think about where prospective clients of yours may be and consider whether there is an innovative way to reach them through an intermediary environment. If your audience doesn’t come to you directly, maybe you’d be wiser to go to them.

leadership dot #3620: smart cookie

Crumbl, a cookie and ice cream chain, recently opened in our town. The response has been crazy, with people waiting in lines outside the building to pay almost $5 per cookie. At first, I couldn’t understand it, but I succumbed and tried one and can now understand much of the buzz.

Some lessons I learned from my visit (besides the fact that their cookies are de-licious):

  • Quality matters. People are willing to pay more if they feel the product or service has value. Even though the cookies are expensive, they are also huge. The cookies also come heated or chilled as appropriate — a real bonus.
  • Presentation matters. The cookies come in a signature pink box, making them feel more special than eating them from a generic box or paper bag.
  • Focus matters. Each week, the store sells a collection of six cookie flavors and six flavored pints of ice cream. That’s it. They concentrate on what they do and do it well. They aren’t trying to be a bakery or even dessert capital — just cookies and cream.
  • Uniqueness matters. The standard chocolate chip version is the only staple on their menu. The other five flavors rotate weekly with flavors such as passion fruit, New York cheesecake, key lime pie, Kentucky butter cake, and piña colada. This isn’t “just another cookie,” but rather something you can’t get most places.

Crumbl is carry-out only so they aren’t trying to cultivate a “third place” as Starbucks did but they have followed much of the same business model as the beverage giant. Instead of trying to cut corners or make the cheapest product around, maybe you’d be one smart cookie to pursue the premium route instead.

leadership dot #3619: thirteen

When I was in college, I was randomly assigned to room 1313 Washington Hall. It worked out fine for me, but even being on the 13th floor bothers some people so much that many hotels and skyscrapers skip the number 13 when designating spaces. The elevator is marked from 12 to 14, thus reducing the fears of those who are superstitious or feel that the number is somehow unlucky.

But think about this for a moment. Just because you skipped 13 on the elevator button does not mean that there isn’t a thirteenth floor. Of course, there is. It’s purely a mind game but easier for the owner to play than dealing with pushback or undesirable real estate. The trepidation may not be logical or warranted but it is still real for people.

Is there a “13” in your organization where through a simple renaming you can avoid angst or anger? How you label something can make all the difference.

An elevator panel that skips the number 13 (Source: Wikipedia)

leadership dot #3618: imposter

A client lamented that they had imposter syndrome — that self-imposed feeling that you’re not qualified to do what you are doing — because there was a new element to their position that they had yet to master. I tried to explain that there was no expectation on anyone else’s part that they know everything — and that needing to learn something did not make them unfit for their current role.

The negative voice in our head too often jumps to generalizations — “if I don’t know one thing then I must not be qualified overall.” Quell that defeating self-talk by reframing your lack of knowledge as just that — something you need to learn — rather than incompetence. And don’t lose sight of the fact that you likely have a whole spectrum of skills and abilities where you do have confidence — keep things in perspective.

The next time you find yourself with a dilemma or scenario that’s new to you, rather than see yourself as an imposter, treat yourself as a learner who can take in new information, solve problems, and grow.

leadership dot #3617: reflect

In a podcast, culture expert Daniel Coyle proclaimed that “reflection is the most underused power source of any group.” I agree!

He noted how the world is constructed to put things in front of us for either action or reaction, and as a result, too often reflection doesn’t happen. People don’t pause, he notes, so questions such as what the organization is about or what your personal purpose is are left unconsidered — and the culture suffers.

Coyle advocates for the power of pausing — to learn from what went wrong, to remember what went well, to align the organization’s purpose in concrete ways that help people know what is best to do, and to create relationships that foster a sense of belonging and vulnerability. One of his Playbook exercises is to define your “True South” — what you are not going to do — as a way to gain clarity on your True North and guiding principles.

As the workforce shrinks, culture becomes a distinguishing factor that determines which organizations are able to succeed. You can spend your time recruiting and training new employees — or invest that time in reflecting on what is/is not working in your organization. I hope you take a timeout to invest in the latter.

Learner Lab podcast with Daniel Coyle and Trevor Ragan (41:04) April 2022. Coyle is the author of the best-selling The Culture Code and the brand new The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed.

leadership dot #3616: mining

I received an offer from my internet provider to receive a free year of a new streaming service. I would have just deleted the pitch but something caught my eye: no payment information is required and the subscription will expire after a year unless I renew it. What a refreshing twist — normally, you have to wait on hold and hassle with an automated message to cancel anything.

I appreciated the automatic cancellation and it enticed me to sign up. The registration asked which streaming services I already have (“so it can tailor my preferences”) and it is available to link to my computer, television, or tablet. In other words, so they can monitor and track all of my entertainment viewing as they mine data to strengthen their own market position. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free streaming service for a year. I know the company is trading its content in exchange for my data.

Be judicious in what “free” things you accept and keep the ulterior motives in mind as you share information and link to your platforms. As Richard Serra reminds us: “If something is free, YOU are the product.”

leadership dot #3615: long shot

Even if you didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby over the weekend, you need to see the replay to watch Rich Strike, the colt with 80-1 odds, come from the back of the field to capture the roses. To make it even more like Hollywood, the horse wasn’t even entered in the race until another horse scratched on Friday, the day before the Derby. Rich Strike was purchased in the fall for $30,000 and this win — only its third ever! — earned the owner $1.86 million. Not a bad return on investment.

If you listen to the announcers, they don’t even mention Rich Strike until the final seconds when they are literally at the wire. Before that, all the focus was on the two favorites as they battled it out. It’s a scenario that plays out too often in real life, where all the attention is on the presumed leader, leaving an opening for an underdog (or underling) to successfully slide in.

Many were surprised that Rich Strike was even in the race, and even more shocked that such a long shot won it. But I’m pinning a picture of this beautiful colt in my office to remind me to persevere despite what others’ expectations may be. Even if your odds are 80-1, keep running.

leadership dot #3616: mothers

I’m a “mom” to two four-legged kids and they always recognize Mother’s Day by treating me to something I pick out myself! I guess that American Greetings realizes I’m not the only one with furry children who acknowledges the holiday. They have created an entire line of “pet parent” cards to allow all manner of pets to send their appreciation to their “mom” (with a little bit of help, of course!).

If you’re not a pet lover as I am perhaps you are rolling your eyes at the absurdity of this. Instead, maybe it’s a sign that your organization should consider how to capitalize on the $260 billion pet industry. Those pet “moms” are a huge audience all year long, not just on Mother’s Day.

leadership dot #3613: relegated

I always feel a twinge of sadness when I walk by the bargain book section in a bookstore or, worse, see titles on the shelf at the dollar store. I can only imagine what went into publishing that content — and the thrill of the author to see the finished product — just to have it remanded and sent to where unpopular books go to die.

I’ve noticed a similar trend with obscure movies that now occupy the catalogs on streaming services. The delight of all those involved in the production has been forgotten as have their dreams of fame and fortune that existed when the film was made. Now the shows are relegated to the furthest pages of the scroll, allowing the host to proclaim “hundreds of movies” even though you have never heard of most of them.

These books and movies were not an early commercial success and it is doubtful they will find glory via their current distribution vehicle. But I am still glad that they were made. These were stories that made the creator better off by telling them, providing an outlet for expression, and giving a forum to their voice. Sharing yourself through creative content is a risky, mostly unrewarding, time-consuming effort — yet in its purest form, it truly is about the process, not the outcome. Keep contributing!