Posts tagged: Leadership

Click (not the one you think) to success

Click book coverIn my experience, the most important factor for success in business is the ability to interact well with other people. Leadership skills, financial skills and technical skills all matter a lot, but they don’t amount to a hill of beans without solid people skills.

The reality is none of us can be successful completely on our own. We need the help of other people — be they peers, staff, managers, vendors or business partners — to successfully accomplish our tasks and goals.

Human relationships are more complicated than Wall Street financial schemes, but we often take interpersonal skills for granted. We rarely study them to the degree we study financial or technical skills. After all, we’ve been talking to people all our lives. We’re experienced. But I’ll argue there are subtleties that make all the difference, and they’re worth studying.

In my opinion, the best business book ever written is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie — and it’s actually not even classified as a business book. I’ve never read a better guide to the basics of interacting effectively with people.

But I just finished a book that will take its place nicely alongside the Carnegie classic on my bookshelf.

Click: The Magic of Instant Connections by Ori and Rom Brafman (authors of Sway, one of my favorite books from last year) explores the factors or “accelerators” that exist when people “click” with each other. We’ve all had those instant connections with people in our lives, and those types of connections generally lead to powerful and productive relationships. While the Brafmans dig into both the personal and business nature of those connections, for purposes of this post I’ll focus on the business benefits of understanding and fostering such connections.

The book covers a wide range of connection accelerators, more than I could ever cover in this space, so I’ll just address a few that really stood out to me:

Simple physical proximity can make a huge difference in our ability to connect with others. A study of a large number of military cadets found that 9 of 10 cadets formed close relationships with the cadets seated directly next to them in alphabetical seat assignments. Another study found that 40% of students living in randomly assigned dorms named their next-door neighbor as the person they most clicked with, but that percentage dropped in half when considering the student just two doors away. Maybe more startling, the students who lived in the middle of a hall were considerably more likely to be popular than those living at the end of a hall.


The authors explain that these connections are often driven by “spontaneous conversation…Over time, these seemingly casual interactions with people can have long-term consequences.”

I think many of us have instinctively understood the value of placing working teams in close proximity to each other. I’ve personally always attributed that value to the working conversations that are overheard and allow various member of the team to better understand and communicate issues about the work. But maybe that close proximity is also allowing people to better connect with each other. Maybe those connections allow us to better relate to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Looking back at my career, I can think of many instances where office moves have coincided with strengthening or straining my working relationships with people.

Proximity is more important than I ever thought. We should carefully consider office layouts to foster the right types of connections. If close proximity is not possible for certain teams or people, we should understand the negative effects of separation and look for other ways to foster the connection.

Resonance “results from an overwhelming sense of connection to our environment that deepens the quality of our interactions.” Huh? For example, the book reports that we’re 30 times more likely to laugh at a joke in the presence of others than if we hear it alone. My friend and colleague Jeff Dwoskin moonlights as a stand-up comedian, and he once explained to me that the difference between a good comedy club and a bad comedy club is the arrangement of audience seating. When tables are close together, people laugh more. When there are lots of booths that separate the audience into tiny groups, it’s much harder to get a laugh and keep the funny going.

Many companies swear by their open seating arrangements. Rich Sheridan, founder of Ann Arbor-based Menlo Innovations, seats his agile development teams on open tables together. No cubes. No walls. He says it’s a huge key to their success. Does that work for everyone working team in all situations? I doubt it. But certainly working environments have impact on working relationships and their resulting productivity, and resonance is a concept worth considering.

“No matter what form it takes, similarity leads to greater likability…Once we accept people into our in-group, we start seeing them in a different light: we’re kinder to them, more generous.”

Kinder. More generous. Those sound like good bases for effective working relationships. It’s amazing how finding common ground can bring teams closer and help them work more effectively together. Sure, those of us working for the same company in the same industry all have industry and company in common, but it seems like the more personal similarities are more likely to bring people together. For that reason, we should encourage water cooler chats and other personal interactions in the work place. Everything in moderation, for sure, but a little personal time can actually end up improving productivity by reducing stress and misinterpretations that lead to unproductive miscommunications. The book reports that a “Finnish health survey conducted on thousands of employees between 2000 and 2003 revealed that those employees who had experienced a genuine sense of community at work were healthier psychologically.”


“Common bonds and that sense of community don’t just foster instant connections — they help to make happier individuals.” The Brofmans provide numerous examples of teams that performed significantly better than others primarily due to the interpersonal dynamics of their members. We simply cannot succeed in life without the support of other people. It’s worth taking the time to understand how to improve those relationships for the betterment of all parties. And pick up Click, it’s well worth the read.

What do you think? Is this all hogwash? Do you have stories of how personal relationships have led to success in your life?

Inspiration (a life changing day)

As anyone familiar with my endless supply of analogies and metaphors knows, I’m capable of gaining inspiration from almost anything. But last Wednesday I was lucky enough to attend TEDxDetroit, where inspiration was the order of the day, and the event did not disappoint. Because the TED theme is “ideas worth spreading,” I’m going to use this space to highlight my inspirations and learnings from the day. I hope you’ll find my thoughts worthwhile.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, “TED is an annual event where the top minds in the world share, connect and inspire. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — three subjects that, collectively, shape our future. The event draws CEOs, scientists, creatives, philanthropists and extraordinary speakers.” This year, the TED organizers decided to open up the concept to local organizers through the TEDx concept, and several Detroiters, led by Charlie Wollberg, produced the inaugural TEDxDetroit.

While there was much inspiration to be gained from each of the 15 speakers of the day, three had a particularly strong effect on me.

Chazz Miller is the founder and muralist at Public Art Workz in Detroit, an organization that creates “bold, innovative community redevelopment projects that use the arts, culture, creativity and innovation as a catalyst for reinventing and revitalizing the communities of Old Redford and Northwest Detroit, Michigan, into a multi-discipline, arts, education, entertainment and cultural community.” Chazz described with passion and affection some of the community art he has developed in the form of wall murals, “mood swings” and “poet trees.”

What struck me most during Chazz’s talk was his specific involvement of the community in his art. He actively recruited members of the local community to help complete his park wall murals, and he found that the community then maintained those parks better than ever. As he said, if you truly and honestly involve more people in the effort, they’ll care more about what’s been accomplished.

I realized that there’s strong business value in Chazz’s philosophy. While a top-down command culture may be able to achieve results, a truly participatory culture breeds ownership. And with ownership comes the type of pride and attention to details that enhances the nuances that can make the difference between good and great. How can we as leaders bring an overall vision to our businesses but allow our teams the freedom to actively participate and bring their strengths and ideas to the details we cannot possibly see?


Lee Thomas, anchor and entertainment reporter on FOX Detroit and author of Turning White, discussed his story of living with the skin disorder vitiligo — an affliction that is literally turning him white. He recalled a turning point in his life when the disease affected his face to the point that a young girl screamed in fright at the sight of him. The very thought of scaring young children confined him to his home for weeks. It wasn’t until another young girl saw him the supermarket and, instead of screaming, asked him if he had a boo-boo and if it hurt. He realized the dichotomy of the two reactions were driven by perception. The girl who thought he had a boo-boo offered compassion, while the girl who didn’t know what it was reacted with fear. A subsequent conversation with a 15-year-old boy also afflicted with vitiligo, who prodded him to go public because public knowledge and understanding could help all those afflicted with the disorder, finally prompted Thomas to appear live on TV without make-up covering the affects of the disease.

And his life took on new meaning. He talked of never knowing where your success will come from. You could, as he said, “find your weakness may be your greatest strength.” Although, I personally don’t see vitiligo as a weakness for him. It’s simply skin color. The fact that he perceived it as a weakness sapped his confidence and that lack of confidence was truly the weakness he overcame. And his resulting public awareness campaign is helping turn fear to compassion.

From Lee Thomas I was inspired to find ways to turn my personal shortcomings into opportunities to help myself and to help others.


As powerful and inspiring as Chazz and Lee were, it may be the poetry of Blair that had the most immediate impact on me. Just before Blair’s time slot, I received a call from the editor of a trade publication that was running an opinion piece I’d written. He informed me, minutes before their deadline, that they decided to remove a part of my article that they felt was too controversial for them to print. I was still stewing with outrage, feeling censored and violated, when I returned to my seat as Blair took the stage to perform his poem, “Detroit (While I Was Away).”

Before starting the poem, he briefly described the genesis of the piece. He was traveling in Texas and missed all of Detroit — the good, the bad and the ugly. He then launched into his piece, and he almost instantly quelled my anger and stirred my passions in an entirely different direction. I was blown away by his ability to find beauty in the blight and the good in the bad and ugly.

Not only did he cause me to see Detroit in an entirely different light, but he made me realize the importance of finding the positives in our lives, not dwelling on the disappointments. I instantly became pleased with the two-thirds of my article that did make it to print in the trade magazine rather than angered by the one-third that didn’t. And every day since then I’ve strived to find the positives in all situations. And you know what, finding positives is a lot more fun than stewing on negatives.


While no single speaker at TEDxDetroit instantly changed the whole of my life, I was able to gather a piece of inspiration from just about all of them. For me, that’s living. I’m always in search of personal improvement wherever I can find it, and I’m grateful to the organizers and speakers at TEDxDetroit for bringing so much together in one convenient spot. While I certainly can’t do these extraordinary people justice with my recounting of their tales, I hope I’ve done my small part to help spread the positivity and perseverance they bring to the world on a daily basis.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Where do you find inspiration?

The Communication Illusion

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw

I read that quote the other day, and it kind of blew me away. How often, as managers, executives, marketers and team members do we send forth messages and assume effective communication has taken place? I know that I personally have been guilty of spewing forth my thoughts and directives in ways that were clear to me but were not nearly clear enough to my audience. In the information age in which we live, it seems communication is the majority of what we do on a daily basis, so I thought I would take this space to explore my thoughts on the topic. I hope to learn from your thoughts, as well.

Over the weekend, I did a bit of reading on communication. As I read Wikipedia’s article on communication, I was reminded of the technical breakdown of communication I learned in my college Organizational Behavior class (see image to the right). While those explanations are useful, I really wanted to think about communication in more practical terms. While communication between individuals is very important in business, effective one-to-many communication can often be extremely challenging.

Technology may impede quality

Ironically, while communications technology advances have improved the speed, frequency and reach of our communications, they may have effectively reduced the quality of our communications because communication via phone, IM, Twitter, texting, etc. takes out so much subtlety, nuance, and context.

Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris performed a famous study to determine the proportion of the three major parts of human face-to-face communication: content, tone, and body language. According to the research:

  • 55% of impact is determined by body language—postures, gestures, and eye contact,
  • 38% by the tone of voice
  • 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process.

Although there is some controversy surrounding the exact numbers because of the scope of their research,  clearly communication is significantly aided by elements like body language and tone of voice that are not present in the forms of written communication that have become dominant because of technology innovations. Even phone conversations are missing the all important body language component.

But it’s not practical to communicate with everyone one-on-one, in person. So, how do we communicate more effectively and avoid the illusion that communication has taken place when it hasn’t?

“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

That is the subtitle of Words That Work by Frank Luntz, and those words are an important reminder of both the meaning of effective communication and the inherent challenges of achieving it. Our audiences bring with them their own unique past experiences, biases, cultures and perceptions (and frankly, so do we). When you think about it, it’s amazing we’re ever able to communicate anything at all. Because Luntz is a well-known Republican pollster and a somewhat controversial figure, I hesitated to reference him for fear politics would get in the way of my message here. But many of his communication tips transcend politics and make good sense for business communications, so I wanted to share some of his tips that I find very helpful (and decidedly non-partisan):

  • Simplicity: Use Small Words
  • Brevity: Use Short Sentences
  • Consistency Matters
  • Sound and Texture Matter
  • Provide Context and Explain Relevance

I would add two things to this list of communication tips: repetition and listening.

In my experience, repetition is critically important in any managerial or executive communication. Sometimes repetition means saying the same thing over and over, and sometimes it means slightly altering the core message to ensure the message is cutting through the biases, perspectives, etc. Either way, the key is understanding that saying something once is simply not enough given all the previously mentioned obstacles each message must hurdle.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Just as great leaders are also great followers, I believe the best communicators are also the best listeners. By truly dedicating ourselves to listening to our audiences, whether they are staff, peers, bosses or customers, we can better understand their perspectives, biases and cultural influences. We can learn to tailor our message so that it is heard as we meant it. I believe great communication takes great listening, and great listening takes conscious effort and a huge amount of discipline, but I also believe the return on the listening investment is the ability to communicate more effectively. And the ability to communicate more effectively is priceless.

Man, it’s not easy. But the more ways we find to ensure what our audiences hear is what we intended to say, the more effectively we will communicate and eliminate the communication illusion.

I really want to learn from you. What communications lessons have you learned? What tips do you have to share?

The immense value of “slop time”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. We spend such a large portion of our days reacting to issues flying at us from all directions that we can easily lose sight of where we’re headed and why we’re going there. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to think, and failing to allot time to think is ultimately counterproductive. Taking time (and even scheduling time) to reflect on past actions and consider future courses of action is more important than we often realize.

Consider this quote from former Intel exec Dov Frohman in his book Leadership the Hard Way and also discussed on this Practice of Leadership blog posting:

“Every leader should routinely keep a substantial portion of his or her time—I would say as much as 50 percent—unscheduled. Until you do so, you will never be able to develop the detachment required to identify long-term threats to the organization or the flexibility to move quickly to take advantage of random opportunities as they emerge. Only when you
have substantial ’slop’ in your schedule—unscheduled time—will you have the space to reflect on what  you are doing, learn from experience, and recover from your inevitable mistakes. Leaders without such  free time end up tackling issues only when there is an immediate or visible problem.”

Frohman makes some excellent points about the need to learn from experience and pull the value from the mistakes we make. Truly understanding the pros and cons of past decisions, ideally with the benefit that hindsight and new learning gives us, helps us better prepare for future decisions.

But there’s so much going on every day, and with staff cuts we have more work than ever. How can we possibly afford to time to think?
Well, Frohman has a ready answer:

“Managers’ typical response to my argument about free time is, ‘That’s all well and good, but there are  things I have to do.’ Yet we waste so much time in unproductive activity—it takes an enormous effort on  the part of the leader to keep free time for the truly important things.”

Of course, that’s easy to say and considerably harder to do. But it’s so important. Without taking the time to focus on the most important issues, tactics and strategies, we end up constantly fighting fires and ultimately working our way into a death spiral.

I find that if I give my think time enough priority, I can find a way to get it in. For me, actually scheduling time on my calendar makes all the difference. It also forces me to put some of the daily issues into perspective and postpone or even cancel meetings that don’t rate highly enough on the prioritization scale.

So, what do we do with this newly scheduled time to think?

Reflect on past decisions
I’ve recently started spending some time actively thinking through the decisions I made during the previous week or so. It’s amazing how hard it was at first to think of many decisions I made, particularly the numerous small decisions that happen every day. They came and went so fast that I didn’t really immediately retain them and their effects. Where they good decisions or bad decisions? It made me wonder if I could make better decisions in the future just by doing a better job of examining past decisions.

Open up to new ideas and learn something new
I am constantly hungry for new ideas. I love to read interesting new books, and I try to read as many blogs as I can. Of course, all of that reading takes time, so I look for my opportunities wherever I can. I try to read for at least a half hour every night, and I’m always looking for books that will expand my thinking.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s essentially about behavioral economics (a fascinating field with all sorts of retail implications) but the twist is that he actually examines the inner mechanics of the brain to explain why we do what we do. He’s a good story teller and it doesn’t get to “scienc-y.” (Is that a word?)

Fooled by randomness Another book that has me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a very long time is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How much time have we mis-spent reacting to data that lacks statistical significance? Could some focused learning on the events that fool us time and again prevent us from making bad decisions in the future?

I use Google Reader to follow many thought provoking blogs, including those listed on the right column here. I also use the Newsstand application on my iPhone, which syncs with Google Reader and allows me to take in a blog or two at all sorts of random moments when I have a little bit of time on my hands. In fact, during my blog reading recently I even came upon a list of new an “out-of-the-box” ways to inject thinking in your business from Mitch Joel.

Anticipate the future
After analyzing past decisions and opening up my mind to new ideas, I try taking some time to start anticipating the future. Here, I think it’s definitely important to imagine large strategic shifts in the marketplace, but it’s also important to consider daily issues that come up with staff, marketing tactics, etc. as well. How are different types of decisions made in the organization, and who makes them? Is decision making authority matched with accountability? Are decision makers aware of their boundaries? Are the boundaries appropriate? Is the business strategy correct and clearly communicated? Are we working towards the right objectives? Should I consider a different approach when working with a particular person? Should I go with the ham or the turkey for lunch. 🙂


You’re clearly reading at least one blog today, so it’s good that you’ve already made some time in your day. Good news! I hope you’ll be back, and I hope you’re also taking some time to read more of the really great content that’s available out there in both book and blog form. I hope you’ll come across something so mind-blowingly thought provoking that it changes the way you think about something. I hope you’ll be so open to new ideas that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about past decisions and direction. (Side note pet peeve of mine: Why do we criticize leaders and politicians who change their minds? Would you rather work with someone who can change his or her mind in the face of new information or someone who stubbornly sticks to convictions no matter what?)

And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider adding some “slop time” to your schedule to allow you to reflect on past decisions, open up to new ideas and new learning, and anticipate the future.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you find time to think. What are your sources of expanded thinking? Will you share any great books or blogs that you’ve read? What’s changed your thinking recently?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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