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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 126: February 2010)

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Techniques for Balance

  • You can find any executive by name and company address on the web. If you’re outraged, calm down, make a logical, reasoned, and supported case, and send them a note (I prefer Fedex). They may respond (a catalog company president did for me) or, more likely, one of their direct staff will (as recently happened when I wrote CEO Ken Chenault at American Express). Then go about your business. You’ll get a response 75 percent of the time, and you’ll lower your blood pressure.

  • Bring a pie or cookies for the staff at the post office you frequent, or the bank. You’ll find that the incorrect postage won’t always bounce the package back, and if you fill out a form incorrectly, someone will take care of it for you.

  • Don’t laugh, but Slingbox, which enables you to view and manage  your cable box from nearly anyplace, and the DirecTV application on your iPhone, will provide for tremendous flexibility, liven up a dull night on the road, and/or enable you to see the program that you forgot to record or was hastily scheduled.

  • If the market in the U.S. performs the same way in 2010 as it did in 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average will be where it was prior to the financial collapse, but with stronger, leaner organizations represented. I’m just saying….

  • If you’re in New York City, and want to experience cabaret as it was in the 1950s when every hotel had a room for top artists, go to the Café Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel. The magnificent Bobby Short played there for 50 years, and it’s now the excellent Steve Tyrell, but guest stars appear regularly. Second choice: Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel.

  • No matter where you are, you can feed the birds. We’ve counted 44 types on our property, from barn swallow to eagle. They’re great to watch, especially if you don’t get paranoid about the squirrels stealing some food (they have to eat, too). Bird watching is the number one participative sport in the United States, I kid you not.

  • I won’t deal through a virtual assistant, and have a virtual conversation, that is virtually meaningless. If I can answer my own phone and personally place a call to you, then you can pay me the same respect.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to stop hitting “reply all” on committee reports, minutes, meeting advisories, and so on. I don’t need to hear from someone on a 40-person board that, “I’ll be there, but five minutes late.” One person in ten objects when I point out they shouldn’t reply this way, and I do my best to educate them. (“Thank you.” “No, thank you.” “No, really, thank YOU!”)

  • A condolence letter, RSVP to a written invitation, congratulations for an outstanding achievement, and other such personal communications should really be written not, not in an email. Texting “I feel 4 U” is not the same, somehow, as writing four sentences of sympathy and support. We can all afford the ten minutes.

  • No one is too big to fail or too smart to fail. If you don’t believe that, just look at the horrible hash that NBC leadership has made of a once-outstanding, number one network. As you’ll read below, just because someone is wearing a white coat with their name on it doesn’t mean they’re a doctor (or if they really are, a good one).

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I know some very strong, assertive people who are afraid to ask their doctor a question. The doctor is often making less money than they are, is hassled by reimbursement problems and rising costs, and may even be rude or inattentive.

But, still, they hesitate to question. They are cowed and subordinated by the other’s professional lineage, or arcane knowledge, or perhaps white smock. The results is that they don’t become partners in their own good health and healing. They are foot soldiers slogging along under orders from an officer they don’t comprehend and fear.

I recall a school psychologist once who observed my wife and I with our children. “My goodness,” he exclaimed, “you actually run a democratic family!” At first I expected to be arrested for apostasy or jailed for child abuse. But then I realized that our philosophy of wanting more than simply blind obedience from our children (which I don’t even get from Buddy Beagle) was completely alien to his frame of reference.

My kids are certainly not afraid to ask questions. I’m sure that would obtain even if I were to don a white smock and spice my speech with strange Latin phrases.

Similarly, a client of mine who was stunned speechless when I suggested he choose an option of several I had offered, finally found the breath to utter, “But you’re the consultant. You’re the expert here!”

“Well, in some regards, yes,” I agreed, “but you know the culture, the politics, and the people, and you are the one who is going to have to sustain the change, even if I were to create it with a magic wand, which would cost you much more, by the way. All the alternatives make sense, so choose the one that you think you can most readily support.”

I don’t want clients afraid of my “expertise,” I want them to tell me if it hurts when I do this, it’s better when I do that, they’re having trouble with the cure, or….wait a minute, I’m sounding like the doctor.

The physician needs to hear from patients (they ask questions such as “how long has this been going on,” “does this hurt,” “when did it begin,” is it better at some times than others,” and so on). They also need commitment, not merely compliance, to the solution. If a regular physical workout, or cessation of smoking, or avoidance of certain foods is important, then the patient had better buy into the regimen.

We can’t be afraid because we think the other person is more learned, or has specialized knowledge, or is chartered by the state, or can understand how to use Vista. Airline pilots have overshot their landing cities, surgeons have operated on the wrong organs, musicians have hit sour notes, scientists have blown up spacecraft. We all belong to the same race: human.

Don’t be afraid to question. It’s not an act of impertinence, but an act that’s highly pertinent. Those degrees on the wall are impressive, but I sat next to too many people who cheated their way through school.

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I’m writing today about “return on courtesy,” or ROC.

I’ve just departed from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, where I held one of my “Mentor Summits.” About 70 people attended my three-day event, which required continental breakfasts, cocktail party, various amplification needs, projection, and so forth. It is one of the very finest properties I’ve ever used, and I hold a dozen meetings a year in top-flight locations.

When you arrive at the Mandarin Oriental, the doorman greets you, takes your bags, and another employee opens the main doors. Every staff member who sees you says “Hello,” whether they are the one helping at the moment or not. Once they learn your name, you are addressed only by your name, never a generic “sir” or “madam.”

Aside from the emoluments you would expect for someone organizing such a revenue-producer for the hotel (escorted to the room, daily gifts, proactive management always present at key junctures), every guest is provided special treatment: the hotel car can be reserved at no charge for local transportation; dining reservations aren’t just arranged, they are obtained at difficult restaurants and with superb tables therein; the cocktail servers remember your favorite drink; requests for special services (massage, Fedex, boarding passes) are almost instantly attended to.

I’m telling you all about this and I’m returning. This is going to be my personal and professional hotel of preference in San Francisco. What I’m describing can be done at virtually any property (in proportion) but seldom is. That’s because you need enlightened management and enthusiastic employees. (I’ve never seen a place with unhappy employees and happy customers.) So it’s not merely about incentive plans (which are never real motivators) but really about hiring the right attitudes and reinforcing them. (Enthusiasm is not a learned skill, but a behavior that is usually contagious when encountered.)

Every employee would stop what they were doing to try to help (unless they were already helping someone else), and a gratuity was accepted with sincere and genuine appreciation, never a bored entitlement. Everyone was, well, cheerful! They all improved my day.

At 6:15 in the morning, our car arrived to take us to San Francisco Airport. At curbside check-in, two red caps, alone at that hour, hustled over to get our bags out of the trunk, also carried our hand luggage, joked with my wife and me, offered us some insights about baggage (first class is entitled to two big checked bags), and talked to us about our Hawaiian destination.

I gave them a $20 tip. They had added to a wonderful start to the day. They were so appreciative, I thought for a moment they were going to return the gratuity. Fortunately, common sense prevailed!

Are you getting your ROC? More importantly, are you providing it?

(If you take my tip and stay at the Mandarin Oriental, and you’re feeling expansive, take the Dynasty Suite, and you’ll have a view from the Oakland Bay Bridge all the way around to the Golden Gate.)

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I get perhaps unduly annoyed when one of my wife’s friends calls on my business line. I’m occasionally, ah, abrupt.

Walking around with the wireless handset, I curtly told a woman that she was calling on my business line. She apologized. Later that same day, she called again on the same line and I was very curt.

Somewhat later still, my wife came to me, saw the phone, told me she had been searching for it, and asked why I was carrying around the mobile phone connected to the house line, not my business line, with me all day.

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