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Pride, Professionalism and the Shoe Shine Guy

It really is amazing what we can learn from the people around us. From those close to us, those who teach, mentor and mold us. From family and friends, associates and co-workers, supervisors and subordinates, peers and colleagues. And yes, sometimes from those random strangers who briefly pass through our life and leave us better for the time and wisdom they shared.  Met a guy the other day who did just that…it was 15 minutes of wisdom and the reminder of fundamentals I needed to hear.

Though I am a pretty loyal DIY sort, one thing on which I do splurge is a shoe shine.  If there are two things I took from my Naval Service, it is a strong aversion to cruise ships and a healthy bias against shining my own dress shoes.  I do shine my shoes, but I know a professional blows away my feeble skills.  While between meetings, I spied the shoe shine stand and decided to stroll by.  I was a potential customer, but I was not necessarily going specifically to get a shine.  I would see what happened.

What happened was I got one heck of a shoe shine and one hell of a reminder of what really matters in business and in life.  All this from a 15 minute chat with the shoe shine guy.  What seemed to be general banter was really great insight and wisdom.

Here are a few things the shoe shine guy taught me about business:

1 – Ask for the Business.  He asked for my business.  He saw me in a suit, with shoes that needed attention.  I was a potential client.  He made the pitch.  Business 101…cannot make a sale without asking the question.

1A – Identify the need…to the client.  He saw my shoes needed attention and he pointed it out to me.  Did I want to hear the message – no.  I did however need to hear the message.  I had a deficiency that needed addressed.

2 – The initial “no” might not be the final answer.  He acknowledged my decline of service, but then he politely reminded me again that in fact I had a need that should be addressed.  No one likes to hear bad news, but sometimes we have to hear it.

3 – Close the deal.  Gaining interest is not closing the deal.  He ensured I did not slip away.  He quickly and skillfully built what we had rapidly established:  an identified need and the prospects acknowledgement that the need requied action.  He then gained my committment to buy.

4 – Service after the sale.  Not only did he do good work, he did it with pride and enthusiasm.  He made me feel special, as if I was the only reason his business existed.

Then there were the Life Lessons courtesy of the shoe shine guy:

1 – The Little Things Matter.  It is the little things that set us apart.  They are the differentiator.

2 – Attention to Detail…it tells you a lot about a person.

3 – Take Care of Things…they last longer.

4 – Appearances Matter.  It is not about being attractive, it is about wearing clean clothes, brushing your teeth, combing your hair and yes, shining your shoes.

5 – Values.  People will spend hundreds if not thousands on suits and ties, time pieces and jewelry yet will not take the time to polish their shoes?  As the man said, “what are they thinking?  If I notice it, what do their clients think?  Their boss?”  Guy was right.

I failed to get the gentleman’s name, but I will never forget him.  What really stuck with me is that he was not particularly old.  Actually he was 34, married with a young daughter.  He was clearly proud of his family and is striving to provide for them on a material level.  Shining shoes is a tough way to make a go of things.  Especially so in a city like Chicago.  However tight it might be for them on the material front, I am absolutely positive his family has an abundance of wisdom, pride and love.

Though he taught me so much, it was the fundamentals that really linger.  Strip all the above away, and the man was nice, warm and engaging.  On the business front, he was a professional.  He took pride in his work and he treated his craft, his clients and himself with respect and dignity.  I saw a ton of business people around me those two days in Chicago, most of whom I am sure are making much more than the guy at the shoe shine stand.  However, precious few were as polished and professional, or took the pride in their work, as the guy working the shoe shine stand at the Palmer House.

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If You Build It (and advertise it)…

…they will come, or so goes the line from that classic movie Field of Dreams.  The actual quote is “if you build it, he will come”, but for many of us it is often quoted as “they”.  It is something we hear quite often in business, someone, some company, some product, or some service is absolutely perfect, yet the desired end result is unfortunately never reached.  The person does not find the job, the company does not find the right candidate, the product or service does not sell.  The issue is not that it was built, the issue is that no one came.

The closing scene of Field of Dreams shows cars lined up to the horizon, coming to the baseball diamond in the corn fields of Iowa.  Not only did “he come”, but “they came”.  The main character and his father are re-united for that game of catch, and the struggling farm is saved thanks to all the people coming to visit what was built.  It is pure hollywood and pure fantasy.  A great movie, but pure fiction.  Yet we have all heard “if you build it, they will come” not just as a cliché, but pointed to as a strategy for success.

Creating something is half the battle, the other half is advertising and marketing, sales and messaging.  The world’s greatest mouse trap is useless if no one knows of it.  Yet, so often all the efforts are placed on the front end, the creation phase.  Though some businesses drop the ball on the marketing front, where we do see the disconnect quite often is with those folks who are in transition.

“My LinkedIn profile is updated”, “I have applied online”, “I created an online profile”, “I have a great social media page”, “I am on The Ladders”, or whatever the website du jour might be, are refrains we hear often.  Are those actions appropriate – sure.  However, they are all, to one degree or another, passive behaviors.  Real success is much more likely if one actively markets what they have created.  Relying on the fortunes of luck, of someone “finding you” is completely passive and completely arbitrary.  Yes, it can work, but the odds are certainly improved if one is actively promoting what they have created.

Opening Day, well at this point Opening Week, always has my mind turning back to baseball.  It is another of those baseball related sayings “hope springs eternal” that tends to get batted around during this week.  It is ironic in a way, the classic baseball related quotes: “if you build it, he/they will come” and “hope springs eternal” are both passive phrases.  They are wonderful and make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but they are completely built on faith and hope of what might happen to or for you.  They do not reflect the reality – playoff baseball teams and World Series winners are not created by hope, they are created through work, planning, practice and grinding through the season, along with a bit of luck.  Just like successful business and just like successfully finding opportunities.

Bull Durham, Major League and Field of Dreams.  Three movies I can, and certainly have, watched over and over.  With it being opening week, or weekend, I can hope they will be on TV at some point, or I can take positive action and ensure I see them.

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The Katie Principle

Having spent quite a bit of time on travel the last several months, I have had the unique opportunity to see more than my share of daytime television.  I am far from a “regular” TV person, but I am somewhat aware of the major personalities and stories of the infotainment world.  Well, I know of Oprah, Katie, Regis, Matt, Meredith and the usual “one name only” crowd.  What I did learn is that Katie Couric has a daytime talk show…last I knew there was a kerfuffle about her being an evening news anchor…shows how up I am on things.  Point being, it might be time to add to the Dilbert Principle and Peter Principle; might I suggest the Katie Principle.

After a little google research and reflecting on what I had seen over the last decade of infotainment and evening news, the Katie Couric career arch serves as a great lesson.  By every standard, she was excellent on the Today Show.  She was the gold standard of morning TV journalists and “soft news”.  She had crossed into doing a bit of everything; journalism, entertainment, hosting, and was to a degree a pop culture icon.  Katie Couric had become just Katie.  When you can go by one name, you have made it.

Yet, in light of all the success, Katie Couric wanted to go one step further.  She wanted to anchor the evening news. She wanted to do “hard news”.  In television journalism, anchoring the evening news for one of the Big 3 networks is the pinnacle of the profession.  Credit to her, she went for it.  By all accounts and by any matrix of evaluation, it was a bad move for all.   In the end it was a classic case of poor job matching.  She was not right for the job, and the job was certainly not right for her.

All of this leads me to flipping through channels or wandering airports, and there she was, back on daytime television.  I have no idea what the ratings are or what the dollars are, but I do know that what I saw was someone in their element.  It was immediately clear, Katie is great in that environment.  I saw enough of the CBS Evening News over those two years to know she was not in the right spot.  But her new show – it works.

Realizing and embracing what it is you do really well is the key to success. Simple really, know what you are good at and do it to the best of your ability. However, the issue comes when our ego drives us to overreach. Absolutely we should all be driven to reach our fullest potential, but we should also have a sense of what that potential is.  It is a delicate balance, stretching vice over extending. And that is what I learned from flipping on the TV in one too many hotels over the last three months…I saw someone back to doing what they do best.  Well done Katie.

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Resolutionites and the Fiscal Cliff

The start of a new year, a time when we are encouraged to look both forward and back.  To reflect on what was and to embrace what could be, to wipe the slate clean and start anew.  Or, for those of us who find ourselves going to a gym occasionally, to wade through the herd of “resolutionites”.  It is that timeless January story – the locker room overrun, the fitness classes packed, lines for the cardio machines, and the weight room echoing with the sound of crashing plates and stacks.  Yep, it is a new year at the gym.  As hectic and frenzied as it is now, by early March it will be back to normal.

Not to get all political, but it was impossible to escape the “Fiscal Cliff” news over the holidays.  And with the start of the new year came the message that the crisis had been averted, an agreement reached, and action taken.  Yet, less than a week later, we hear more chatter of how politicians “kicked the can down the road”, that while a crisis was averted, massive issues remain.  As hectic and frenzied as things were, for all the drama and tension, we find ourselves right back where we were.  Nothing has really changed.

What the resolutionites at the gym and our political “leaders” have done is remind us that nothing really changes unless fundamental, underlying, core issues are truly addressed.  Going to a gym or working out are great behaviours, yet the real goal of fitness, weight loss or improved mental and physical health will not be achieved unless the underlying reasons behind an unhealthy lifestyle are addressed.  Similarly, the underlying reasons for the “Fiscal Cliff” were not addressed.  Some of the immediate symptoms were sort of addressed, but the reasons and behaviours that lead to this crisis remain.  In the end, the majority of New Year’s Resolutions fail because they target behaviours, not causes.

Thanks to the drone of the news and the lines in the gym, we are reminded that lasting change only comes when foundational causes are addressed.  It is true for the resolutionites in the gym, for political leaders, and for all of us.  A new year is a convenient, but an entirely arbitrary moment in time, but it is as good a time as any to really make a change…if you really want to.

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Lance, George and Being Nice

Confession – I have always carried a quiet fear of the “day”.  I knew the moment would come, but had hoped it would not be until I was well into my 50’s.  A point when the physical similarities would be long past, that memories would have faded and rancor would be forgotten.  No such luck.  Those that know me know the issue…I am a Lance Armstrong doppelganger.  It has been funny over the years, photo and autograph requests, tons of glances or stares, pointed out in crowds, approached in awkward conversation, yet from time-to-time cluelessly embracing what I thought was just a random act of kindness until my wife would point out “it is the Lance thing dummy”.  Now I carry the mantel of “hey, you look like that dude that cheated”.

Due to the combination of my doppleganger issue and my own love affair with cycling, I get asked about the whole Lance/doping/cycling thing quite often.  I have even written about it occasionally.  However, what I find most important is the reinforcement of that age-old adage of “just be nice“.

What we have seen over the last few weeks is the complete undoing of the “Lance Armstrong” brand.  It is a reasonably safe assumption to say no brand has collapsed as quickly or completely. The last 10 days: epic.  What is interesting is that he is not alone in what he did.  He is however, the literal face of the issue.  His record of denial, counter accusations, law suits, personal attacks, and just general reputation as, well to put it mildly, a real jerk, has only feed into the collapse.  Lance not only cheated, he was self-righteous about it.

And then there is George Hincapie.  Faithful Lieutenant.  Trusted teammate.  Quiet, resolute, reserved.  A strong, tireless, hard worker, and just all around nice guy.  Respected by peers and fans, teammates and managers; the man who is resoundingly held up as a guy who did it right.  Well, come to find out he, along with almost every other American cyclist who rode with Lance on the US Postal/Discovery Teams, were neck-deep in the doping culture.  Yet, as vilified, hated and pilloried as Lance is, barely a word about George.  Yes, Lance was the leader, but George was right there with him the whole way.  Yet barely a word.

One thing all of this has been is a lesson in relationships, in how one treats others.  How one conducts themselves is part of your personal and professional brand.  Lance had an incredible professional brand, but also a very well known personal brand.  George also had an incredible professional brand as well as a very well liked and respected personal brand.  Each have seen their professional brand clobbered, but the impact on their personal brand has been completely different.

In the end, George is seen as just a flat-out great guy…nice, respectful, genuine and sincere.  That fact has and will enable him to weather the storm.  He will be thought of fondly.  His clothing company will survive and more than likely thrive.  Lance…well his reputation has all but sealed his fate.  He will reside alongside that other poster child of sport shame, Pete Rose.

Just be nice.  It never hurts.

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A Highschool Writing Assignment

It seemed such an easy request – share a card or letter for a soon to be high school graduate.  We soon came to the harsh realization that this was no easy assignment.  Over the last 7-8 years we have quite literally watched a young girl mature into a fine young woman, but to have a teenager willingly and positively acknowledge the presence of any adult is such a wonderful exception.  Adults that are nothing more than friends of her parents, well one could say flattering even.  Of course we would oblige – it was a special honor.  And there the easy, flattering part ended and the real weight of what we were asked began to sink in…writing for a teenager.

We debated how to approach this and quickly realized there were basically two paths – the easy and the hard.  We could just buy a card, compose a quick “congratulations on your accomplishment/good luck on your journey/you are a wonderful person” note, or we could actually take some time and really capture the moment.  We could honestly and openly share of ourselves, maybe include a few lessons learned, thank a teen for opening up to us, share how special it is to give of oneself, and above all encourage her to look forward and embrace the life that lies ahead.  Of course, neither of us wanted to come off as “preachy”.  The last thing we wanted to have happen was the venerable “teen eye roll”.

It was an interesting and rewarding task, looking back and thinking about what really mattered.  What things you wish somebody would have told you.  Let’s be honest, we were told all of these things, but we did not listen – we were all teens once, and damn if we did not know everything at 17.   In the end, it seemed to boil down to a couple of simple things…go to class, visit every professor during office hours at least once, always embrace the moment – good or bad – embrace it all, surround yourself with positive people, and simply ignore all the extraneous noise and just live your life.

So it has been a year since we wrote our letters.  Who knows if any of it really mattered, but I do know that someone has thrived their first year of college; their first year away from home.  Grades are good (going to class really works), they know their professors (yes, it has helped making a point to see them during office hours), they are doing all that college has to offer (campus life, philanthropy, intramural sports, part-time jobs, and dare I say the “social scene”).  But above all they are realizing what real, lifelong friendship really means, how special it is to meet people who care about you, your dreams, your goals.  Who actually encourage and help you in those pursuits.

So who knows, maybe we wrote something of value.  What we did realize pretty quickly last year as we were writing is that most of the lessons learned, short of “take a road trip”, is actually still very applicable to our current life.  Surround ourselves with positive people, ignore the extraneous noise and live your life, always get up and go to work, see the boss now and again, and above all embrace all that life offers – good and bad.  Yea, we need to stop and realize in some ways life really is pretty simple.

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Appearances, Bull Durham and the Dallas Cowboys

In the spirit of the new year, might as well aggravate Legal, Human Resources, and everyone who believe in what should be vice what really is.  Here it is…appearances matter.  Of course there are exceptions and “yea but” retorts, but let’s live in the world of reality.  In business and life, how you carry yourself, how you present yourself, and frankly how you appear both matters and has very real impact on you and those around you.

Slobs do not nor ever have effectively led elite anythings. Ever.  It is more than a hypothesis…it might not be an absolute law of nature like gravity, but it is awfully close.  Look around you, successful people carry themselves with a degree of polish and poise, they are clean and well-kept, articulate and to some degree smart.  Maybe not formally educated, but they are certainly bright.  It is not just a mode of dress, grooming or physical looks thing, it is a state of mind thing.  Folks who are successful over the long haul, not flash in the pan types, but truly successful and typically happy people, look, act and frankly dress a certain way.  Not uniform, but certainly to a socially accepted, or rather expected standard.

Albert Einstein was dishevelled and was clearly not the epitome of good grooming, but he was no slob.  There are countless entertainers, artists and true geniuses who were at a minimum one or two deviations to the right or left of “normal” when it comes to appearances, but they were in an environment and sector of society where it was much more “normal” and thus accepted if not actually expected.  Andy Warhol was not CEO material, but he was wildly successful and fit in the world of art and entertainment.  Albert Einstein – he fit in a lab and academia.  Though their appearances were interesting, they were not slobs.

Though I am not a huge watcher of NFL games, I do enjoy Sunday Night Football.  As it worked out this year, I have been able to see the Dallas Cowboys several times on Sunday evening.  What a lesson I have learned thanks to their Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.  You see, the Cowboys blew multiple leads throughout the season and found themselves out of the playoffs.  As is always the case, there are various reasons for loosing, but it seems all the experts agree that the defense contributed to many a loss…5 or 6 4th quarter leads blow this year.  They were, in the words of many, inconsistent at a minimum, if not just flat-out bad.

And this is where appearances and the theorem of life comes in…Rob Ryan is a slob.  Google any picture – he is by any standard of appearances a slob.  Disheveled, unkept, ungroomed, and generally just a mess.  None of the other coaches look like him, and certainly not the players.  The people who worked for him have talent, skills and abilities, but they seem unable to maintain effort.  It is clearly a leadership issue, and the leader looks like a slob.  Sorry HR and everyone else in our over regulated and litigious world, but appearances matter.  Rob Ryan is an excellent example.

Are there others in the NFL that are less than coiffed – of course.  Bill Belichick has made the cut up sweat shirt his trademark.  However, Bill Belichick has won 3 Super Bowls and a ton of games with the Patriots.  He and that team are considered by many the class of the league.  He can dress, look, and frankly act how he wants – he has earned that right.  However, take him off the sidelines and he is as polished as anyone in any environment.  The man runs a billion dollar business and he knows it.  He respects it and thus his players, coworkers and peers respect him.  Think about it for a moment – successful coaches in sports are not slobs.  They all share similar appearances – they are sharp, polished, disciplined professionals.

So yes, appearance, at least in the context of the real world, matter.  It is not what we are told to believe, and not what we are told to consider when hiring or being interviewed, but it is a reality.  To think otherwise is just foolish.  Shoot, I really wish Santa was real, but it just is not so.  Besides, Crash Davis knew what he was talking about…

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