One question you should never ask your mother

My mom and dad have spent their lives reinforcing their kids’ self-esteem.  Let me first say “thank you” to them.  Secondly, because of this, there is one question that they can’t or won’t answer honestly.  The question is, “What do I need to improve about myself?”  Asking your mom, dad, spouse, or kids this question is pointless.  Either they will tell you that you have no faults or hurt your feelings – neither of which is helpful.  Take for example Paul Sr. and his son Paul Jr. on American Choppers.  Senior thinks Junior is a total d-bag because of their on-going feud regarding the value of Junior’s 20% stake in Orange County Choppers.

It is imperative that business leaders continually improve their interpersonal skills, because, face it – people do business with people they like.  The more likable you are, the larger your network becomes.  So if not your mother, whom do you ask about your image?  I offer the following random suggestions.

1)   A retired fighter pilot – Retired fighter pilots are trained to evaluate their surroundings, make split second decisions, and react decisively.  As such, they are able to assess expeditiously and respond succinctly.  I recently verified this hypothesis.  I asked a former fighter pilot, a man I barely know, how others perceive me and what interpersonal skills I need to work on.  He nailed me.  And it was entirely helpful. (If a fighter pilot is unavailable, other high-ranking retired military officers will suffice.)  The point is, rely on someone with high emotional intelligence, forthright communication, and a proactive disposition to jumpstart your journey of self-correction.

2)   Your boss – Bosses don’t generally like to give bad performance reviews.  So, they use the sandwich approach – two big positives and slight negative squeezed in between.  Pay very close attention to that negative.  Don’t assume it’s minor.  Treat the negative aspects of performance reviews as the most critical part of the feedback process.  These “opportunities for improvement” either tell you something you don’t already know or shed light on something you’ve been ignoring.  Either way, it is in your best interest to absorb the criticism, learn from it, and do something about it.

3)   Yourself – Listen to yourself sometime.

  1. Do you preface every conversation with a history of your qualifications?  [Perception:  You are presupposing that your opinions have no credibility with your audience.  You are probably right, therefore, don’t say anything and just listen.  See also “blowhard.”]
  2. Do you excuse your rudeness by announcing “I just tell it like it is”?  [Perception: I’m telling you like it is, others think you are obnoxious.  Rather, focus on listening, measure your responses, and speak diplomatically.]
  3. Do you use technical jargon when you talk to people outside of your specialized discipline? [Perception: You are alienating yourself from those around you.  You come across as a disconnected academic.  See also, “loquacious.”]

Continual pursuit of excellence is not just about achieving operational efficiency.  It includes learning about your annoying interpersonal glitches and disciplining yourself to minimize them, or better yet, overcoming them altogether.  We our all born with certain and varied tendencies over which we have little control.  Fortunately, we are also born with a filter between our brain and our mouth.  Learning to use that filter is totally within your control.


Are You Ready…for Success?

In Chapter 1 of my book, The Elegant Process, I recount my frustration and ultimate triumph in developing a green lawn.  It is now September, my yard has survived, and I still have green grass.  There was one unforeseen consequence of my process improvement effort – an unexpected level of increased yard work. In the 100 plus degree heat, while everyone else’s yard was crispy-fried, I spent my Saturdays cutting grass!  Each weekend, I had to sharpen the lawnmower blade, rake bushels of grass clippings, and weed-eat like it was 1999.

One hot day, this question came to my mind:  Why was I not ready for success? Take one moment, ask yourself, “Am I ready for success?” How you will handle an unexpected level of customer demand? Consider these key points and see if you are ready for success.


1) Customers calling – Do you have people trained and in place to receive calls and close the deal with prospective customers? Being able to quickly respond to your customers’ changing demands sends a clear signal that your business means business. Coach your staff to treat each customer professionally and politely and to proactively anticipate your customers’ needs.

2) Best or bust – Bob Knight, the [in]famous Indiana University basketball coach said, “Everyone has the will to win, but few have the will to prepare to win.”  Is your company focused on being the biggest or is it focused on being the best.  Don’t say “both” – that is the wrong answer.  General Motors has long been focused on being the biggest and best car company in the world.  They succeeded in only one and are now preparing to declare their independence from the US government.  Focus resources on being the best because quality never goes out of style.

3) Dream On – What will you dream about once you reach the next level of success? Will you continue to push your organization into a new, uncharted, and profitable direction? A leader cannot allow success to stifle his or her vision for the future.  The dreaming must continue because there will inevitably be a 20-something-entrepeneur nipping at your heels for a piece of the pie.  Keep dreaming with the same desperation as when you were just starting out, broke, and eating Ramen noodles and drinking Kool-aid for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

A friend of mine needed some major repair work done on one of his houses.  He called 14 contractors.  Only six called him back.  Four made appointments to give him an estimate.  Two actually showed up at the appointed time and delivered an estimate.  The one he picked to do the work?  The company whose representative wore a clean shirt. Out of 14 companies, only one was fully prepared.

Be ready!  Don’t let success catch you off guard.

It’s not THE economy. It’s YOUR economy that matters!

I’m not an economist.  If I were, I would make bold predictions about the economy – predictions having a 50/50 shot of coming true.  But, I am not. I’m just a guy who spends my days observing the inefficiencies in business and my nights dreaming about how to fix them.  I watch the talking heads argue about the unemployment rate.  Is it Bush’s fault or Obama’s?  Does it really matter?  What does matter is what you are doing to improve your own economy.  Trying to decipher the uncontrollable only distracts us from seizing control of the controllable.  Take charge of your business!  Here are four things you can control:

#1 PITA Processes – PITA processes are the annoying speed bumps in your business – glitches in your workflows that slow you down, rattle your nerves, and stifle productivity.  Find a PITA process, map it out, and focus on the solution for one week or one month – whatever it takes, bust the barrier.  Don’t waver, don’t get distracted – wipe it out!

#2 Customer Gripes – Develop a system to quantify, track, and actively correct those mistakes that lead to customer complaints.  “Pareto and prevent.” Pareto analysis is a simple tool used for counting and prioritizing causes of problems.  Proactively attack the causes of those complaints and install safeguards to prevent their reoccurrence.

#3 Loose Cannons – Ready.  Aim. Fire your worst employee.  You’ve been wrestling with this decision for weeks. Now is the time.  You’ve coached, mentored, advised, disciplined, and followed every other inspirational Maxwell principle.  Sometimes, there just isn’t a better solution.  Rather than continue to allow morale to sink and attitudes to sour, just do it. You’ll feel better in the morning.

#4 New Ideas – Find and utilize resources on how to improve your business (such as The Elegant Process by Jason Kilgore).  The best ideas come when we can escape the firefighting and reflect on new and fresh ideas.  The guy who invented the parachute didn’t think of it during a sky dive (or if he did, he was likely not given credit for it).

Your personal economy depends on you, the decisions you make, and the success or failure of those decisions.  While we may never know for sure the cause or see the end of the economic downturn, we can only move forward.  Create your own success, fix your own problems, innovate new solutions.  In the end, it’s only your economy that matters.