What Happened at Ralph’s

This tale begins at a ranch-style home in a suburb of Minneapolis not far from a lake. Heck nothing in Minneapolis is far from a lake. Seven key employees were attending the session. We were sitting around Ralph’s, the CEO’s living room and were hammering out what mattered to them as a company. We were specifically working on the mission and reason for being for the firm. One of the things we discovered was that the whole decision to get into the Workman’s Compensation insurance business was because it gave leverage to the ability of this business to transform that industry. This was an exciting possibility to Ralph. He had experience with a disability and was passionate about helping companies and workers deal with health and safety issues. The “Reason for Being” of this company became the transformation of the workman’s compensation insurance industry. This meant something to the whole group. To support the Reason for Being, it was decided that this company was going to organize itself into real work teams. This was, at the time, a radical design and construct for the insurance industry. The “work team” design supported and leveraged the company’s ability to transform and impact their industry. It brought underwriters, nurses and sales people together working to impact the cost and quality of their workman’s compensation insurance. The design was chosen specifically to improve the service delivered to injured workers and their companies. At the time, this company was in the forefront of their industry. Offering work to injured workers they could actually do so that they could get back to work as soon...

That Dog Don’t Hunt

Or how to successfully transition generational leadership in family business   Charisma is what makes Charlie so appealing. At, 72, with a full head of black hair; he is healthy and hale to say the least.  At work, Charlie goes by his first name. He is friendly and familiar.  He is loved; you can tell that by the interactions between him and the many front line employees.  When I met Charlie last year his title was CEO though he supposedly worked half time (not really) and he did not own the company anymore (an interesting point). Norman, Charlie’s son, a serious and well put together man, actually owned the company.  His title was Vice President (also an interesting point).  Norman was running the place (not really) from behind the scenes (not really). At the time I met Charlie and Norman, Norman was determined to make the company successful but it was not.  Sales were problematic and non-existent.  Customers were quitting and reporting that the service was bad; employees were not responding to calls and not solving problems. Something at this company was amiss.  The company, like a stricken battleship, was taking in water and sinking. Julia was the final member of this trio.  What Charlie has in charisma Julia has in charm.  In addition, Julia is polite.  Appearing somewhat wan, she has a history of health issues. At the time I showed up she was on the mend and getting stronger.  Julia was the general manager with years of experience in a large national company.  All of the leadership team reported to her.  Therein lay the issue. On a...

Building a G.R.E.A.T. Company

For the past 30 years, I have worked with CEO’s, business owners and senior executive teams to help them design and grow great companies. During that time, I have learned a few things about the components that make up a great company. In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins defined a great company in the following manner: “The good-to-great examples that made the final cut into the study attained extraordinary results; averaging cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the general market in the fifteen years following their transition points. These are remarkable numbers, made all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that they came from companies that had previously been so utterly unremarkable.” This is a fine definition for companies which are large enough for you and me to know about and be their customers; but what about small- to mid-size companies? For this market, I would add to Collins’ definition by saying that great small to mid-size companies are also defined by love, a term I do not use lightly. In small to mid-size companies, the primary stakeholders love a great company. The owners love the company because of superior financial performance and because they see their firms as their life’s work. The CEO’s love the company because it enables them to make a difference in the world and leave a powerful and potent legacy. The vast majority of the customers love a great company because it provides superior service. And the employees love a great company, as demonstrated by the performance of the company and employee retention. Components of Great Companies Now that we have defined a...

Making Green From Green

Let’s start this article with a disclaimer: I do not consider myself an expert in business sustainability. However, I probably know enough to be dangerous. In my view, sustainability means your business is conducted in such a way that it can exist without being environmentally destructive. At the very least, environmental neutrality is what your company wants to achieve. An even better aspiration is to positively impact the environment. There are dozens, hundreds of ideas, large and small, that organizations can implement to positively impact the environment.  Additionally, your company can make money as you create a green reason for customers to buy from your organization. When real dollars can be made from environmentalism, then environmentalism is good for you and good for business.  This epitomizes “making green from green.” The Field is Yours to take Two of our clients have earned the position of being the environmental leaders of their industries. They were not particularly looking for this distinction; it was thrust upon them by the inertia of their industry and competition. It helped that they were proactive and up to date with the best environmental practices. When one of these clients, an asphalt contracting company, modernized its existing facility, the organization paved the parking lot with water permeable asphalt. Because water runs through the pavement, there is no need for drainage, sewers, or a retention pond. With permeable asphalt no additional land is needed for runoff and drainage from the parking lot. Additionally, the company does not need to deal with pollutants that collect in retention pond water.  Adding permeable asphalt was only one of the changes...

Front Line Heroes – Chapter Thirteen/Go Live with the Whales…Part Two

Who knew Patagonia had Pink Flamingos? Prior to this trip, I thought flamingos only came in plastic.  Turns out they grace the lakes and blue lagoons of Patagonia.  We saw hundreds. In Chicago, both at work and in my personal life, my life is planned out. It is controlled, or at least that is the illusion.  I wake up and stumble to make the coffee and feed the dog.  Off to exercise and then back to the house.  Breakfast, shower, and go to the office.  I make calls, go to meetings, and drive around.  Then I come home and run the dog.  Dinner with my wife, Leslie, after which comes an hour or work and maybe even focusing on this book.  So it goes in different variations day after day. During the Patagonia trip, a valuable lesson was that there was no controlling things – and certainly not by me.  What happened just happened.  Forty mile-per-hour winds were routine, but the winds came on some days and not on others.  In Patagonia, the most powerful thing to do was choose your reactions to events, not try to control the events themselves.  That is an insight worthy of taking into my life.  How about yours? Who knew I can milk cows better than a Gaucho? The gauchos were impressed. But then, what does a gaucho know about milking anyway?  Gauchos are Argentinean cowboys, and they wear Wyatt Earp hats and serapes.  My grip on the cow’s udder so impressed these gauchos that they made my Apprentice Gaucho Level Uno.  This was the high point of my trip. Another profound benefit...

Front Line Heroes – Chapter Thirteen/Go Live with the Whales, Part One

“We tend to be blind to our own assumptions when we are locked inside them.”    – Richard Tanner Pascale and Anthony G. Athos, Warner Books Go climb Mount Rainier. Go organize an expedition to the North Pole. Go build a house for Haitian refugees living in New Orleans. Go have a big adventure. It is not an option or a good idea.  It is a must. Your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being is critical to growing your business.  This business growth game is not for sissies.  In fact, for me, growing and developing an organization is like racing in the Olympics:  it is the ultimate business challenge, and it attracts the best of the best. As the source of your business career, recognize that you are an instrument that needs tuning and care. You are the center.  View yourself as a tree with roots that needs water and nutrients, as a baby bird in the nest that needs worms brought to it, or as a colt in a beautiful pasture – do I need to continue in this vein? The message here is that getting away – really getting away – is good for you and good for your business.  If you understand this point and are actively getting away in your life, rock on.  If you are doing this intellectually, but not physically (or if you are not doing this in any sense), read on.  You might learn a few things. Who knew Chile had Earthquakes? When I went to Chile via hiking in Patagonia, I never even imagined that an earthquake or tsunami was a possibility.  But I...

Front Line Heroes – Chapter Twelve/The Missing Link: Addressing the Four Enigmas

When it comes to building high-performance organizations, I have long been haunted and vexed by four enigmas.  (God, I love the sound of the word enigmas.)  Can you even imagine me “vexed” or visualize me as haunted?  Imagine my cheeks are hollow and that I dream dark dreams.  My eyes flit hither and yonder, and I pace in the middle of the night in my sweat-soaked white nightshirt. Now that you have the visual, I’ll explain.  For the most part, what has eluded me is a process that supports the implementation of the strategic plan. A lot of time and energy goes into yearly planning, but keeping a leadership team and an entire company focused on execution becomes the challenge, given the day-to-day fires.  This issue breaks down into four enigmas that, until recently, my work has not been able to solve.  However – fortunately for you – a recent breakthrough has allowed me to uncover components that, together, make up the previously missing link needed to solve these four enigmas. Enigma #1 So, how do you ensure follow-through and implementation of the strategic plan?  A company and its leadership team can spend a lot of time and effort creating a strategic plan.  They may even spend money on the process and bring in a consultant like me to facilitate.  Creating the plan, however, is the easy part.  Implementation and execution of the plan is the real challenge. How do you support real action through the year and prevent the syndrome that results from a beautiful plan in a beautiful binder sitting with all the other similar binders in...

Front Line Heroes – Chapter Eleven/Books as Compost

“Knowledge is produced in response to questions.  And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions.” – Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner I used to be an organic farmer, so I appreciate how compost works.  You take the “raw ingredients” fresh from the horse and let them develop in what is referred to as a “compost pile”.  After a year, you put that compost stuff on your seeds and young plants.  Behold how it makes the veggies and fruits sprout and mightily grow.   When the plants mature and produce, you get to eat succulent tomatoes and cucumbers.  Yum! Like compost, books allow good things to grow in organizations.  Throughout my years of coaching and annoying companies, it has become clear that books have the power to change beliefs and behavior.  In an organizational setting, reading specific and specially selected books can create an environment conducive to organizational change and development. Why is that, you ask?  Well, it’s because these books become a topic of conversation within the leadership group, and that is where the action and activity begins.  When a management group reads the same book, they can talk about a common experience with a common language and communicate with one another more effectively.  So, what does that get you? Generate Alignment the Easy Way Reading the same book gets company executives on the same page when talking about a topic.  Readers now share a common vocabulary.  Groups reading together enhance understanding and acceptance of new ideas.  It is important to assign a time when everyone will engage in dialogue about...

Front Line Heroes -Chapter Ten….Why Stoopid Games?

Before I answer this question, let’s define what a “Stoopid Game” is.  First of all, the “stoopid” part is spelled the way it should be, like it sounds.  Secondly, a Stoopid Game is any physical team-building activity that can be used to teach business principles and ideas.  I don’t want to admit this, but I am not good at these games, nor do I particularly like them.  (I want to be truthful given our relationship.  How is that for being vulnerable?  Can I have a hug?) Stoopid Games are invaluable in producing results for business groups that are interested in improving performance.  For the past 20 years, I have used Stoopid Games as a modality for teaching and developing our clients.  In corporate training and development, the games are typically called “experiential education”.  Wow, does that sound highfalutin and fancy.  These activities are useful because they give groups a practice field where they can develop their skills and improve their performance.  (There’s more on this idea of a practice field for business groups in Chapter 6, “High-Performance Work Teams.”) Time for Tent Poles Here’s an example of the usefulness of Stoopid Games.  I was working with a client that was focused on improving its customer service.  This company has hired a firm to survey its customers.  What the firm’s research found was that the company’s customer service was below their industry average.  This was unacceptable, so the company put focus and attention on improving its service and its relationships with customers.  Three task forces were formed, and I joined them in their training room to help develop actions for...

Front Line Heroes – Chapter Nine….Making Green from Green

“In the long run, the race belongs not merely to the swift, but to the farseeing, to those who anticipate change.” –  Lykes Lines Let’s start this chapter with a disclaimer:  I do not consider myself an expert in business sustainability.  However, I probably know enough to be dangerous. Consider this chapter my hunch about where business is heading – that is, becoming at least partially tied to the impact it makes on the environment. Sustainability is an important concept for small-to-medium sized businesses.  In my view, sustainability means your business is conducted in such a way that it can exist without being environmentally destructive.  At the very least, environmental neutrality is what your company wants to achieve.  An even better aspiration is to positively impact the environment.  There are dozens – hundreds – of ideas, large and small, that organizations can implement to positively impact the environment. There is opportunity for you and your company to make money as you create a green reason for customers to buy from your organization.  When real dollars can be made from environmentalism, then environmentalism is good for you and good for business.  The sweet smell of profit and differentiation wafts through the air.  This epitomizes “making green from green”. The Field is Yours to Take Two of our clients have earned the position of being the environmental leaders of their industries.  They were not particularly looking for this distinction; it was thrust upon them by the inertia of their industry and competition.  It helped that they were proactive and up to date with the best environmental practices. When one of these clients,...