The best coaching is sublime coaching

 

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I came of age in the ’70s during a time of nuclear proliferation, the tail-end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, hyper-inflation that hit 20%, high unemployment in the double-digits, Soap (the TV show), drug culture, Three Mile Island, Johnny Rotten, and Watergate. These were just a few of the anxieties of my parents’ generation but they were nothing but noise to my friends and I. What we cared about were girls and sports.

All that other stuff, we optimistically figured, would get sorted out by people in some distant place and since girls were mysteriously beyond our abilities to comprehend or approach we latched on to sports as something to obsess about. It’s why we became such experts at analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various teams and leagues, both professional and college in both the US and in Canada, and why we dissected games on the following day. (Thankfully, for our future partners in life, most of us eventually grew up and developed more balanced pursuits) How else could we spend our time back then? Yes, school was important to us and we worked at it sufficiently well to smoothly sail through. But school was simply a vehicle that provided a way to put into action the fantasies of our minds, fantasies that our idols of the sports world ignited there. Being on our school’s sports teams was our way of conjoining ourselves with the larger world. And, although we didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, we benefited from good coaching. We just did what they said and tried to perform to their expectations. What we lived for though was the excitement of the games, the crowds, the noise, the pressure. It wasn’t until later, after college, that I really understood that the coach is the most critical element of the team.

Here’s what I learned from a couple of the coaches I had back then.

They:

  • conducted all their most important work in the days before the game, considering ways to leverage the individual strengths of each player by designing or choosing plays to accentuate during the game
  • forced us to practice, and practice, and get fitter, and fitter, and fitter….each and every (bloody) week. They say a near death experience makes you appreciate life and nothing in my life has brought me closer to that than running agility drills for 60 minutes.
  • supported the team during the game but never sought the spotlight for themselves. They stayed on the sidelines and never showed up the refs. If they had a beef they would, with composure, trot over and express their opinion. By preserving the dignity of the officials they played a long game that worked out better in the end.
  • protected the team by looking ahead at the schedule and planning a strategy for getting over and around obstacles. They were students of the game and students of strategy. They knew their players and they wanted to know the opposing ones as well.
  • screamed and yelled in the privacy of the dressing room but never called out any team member in public. Déclassé and disrespectful, otherwise.
  • always took the time to congratulate meaningful performance that made a positive difference to the outcome of the game. In the dressing room, in front of the team, called out the person by name, described what they did well, and why the performance mattered.
  • always privately consoled someone suffering from anguish about some performance glitch that had an equal but negative effect (I once missed two free throws with no time left in the championship game of a basketball tournament, a game in which we were down by one…. arghh, it still hurts to replay it in my mind)

Since I joined the business world I’ve had exactly one boss who reminds me of those coaches of my youth. One boss out of countless bosses spread over a 36 year career. Don’t you think that as business leaders we should all aspire to be the kind of leader who reminds our team members of the best coach they’ve ever had? Maybe though the secret to good coaching is that it probably isn’t found in a book. More likely it’s found in a person’s character and inner fortitude.

I’ll close by saying this. He wasn’t my coach but John Wooden made a large imprint on me by superbly and sublimely coaching the UCLA Bruins basketball team in the early 70s. His players (Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Marcus Johnson) inspired and awed me but it was Wooden’s style, intelligence, respectfulness, and grace that impressed me most of all.

Build the team of today and tomorrow

 

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What do you do during the week you’re not attending your company’s user conference?

Catch up on reading?

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Exercise?

Ali

Hang with the dog?

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Yes, yes, and yes.

I wasn’t in attendance at this week’s Oracle’s Modern Marketing Experience (MME) conference in Las Vegas (long story) but I was still busy researching, writing, and having conversations with people like any other week. I also made the time to watch the live-stream of the MME keynote sessions from 3124 kilometers (or 1941 miles) away. This post will not be a summary of the event so change the channel if that’s what you expected. Instead, I want to pull out a couple of threads from those keynotes and weave them into a theme I’ve been discussing in recent posts.

Still with me? Okay, let’s see how this goes.

First, Steve Krause, Group VP of Product Management for Oracle Marketing Cloud (OMC), shared how the company is introducing artificial intelligence (AI) into the OMC platform. It’s exciting news but hardly surprising. Oracle is not alone in pursuing AI as a tool to augment its solutions and to improve the experience it delivers to customers. AI is seeing an industry explosion of investment and in growth in the sheer number of ideas for its application. In commercial business alone AI is taking on greater relevance because it is seen as an accelerant for future growth as is explained in this report  by Accenture. The flip-side of AI’s promise of more intelligent and responsive products is that it will improve internal efficiency too. Transformation in multiple dimensions that benefits customers and employees. How? By offering up exponential opportunities to innovate through the leveraging of new ideas that result from AI. It can be difficult to imagine the unknown but simply put, that’s what we have with AI in the business world. We’re seeing it in its infancy and the unknown of artificial intelligence will become known and in the process create new roles and new paths to solutions that we haven’t yet imagined. And through all that will be a requirement for the right kind of attitude (people) on the team.

That idea of having the right people on the team is something my boss, Catherine Blackmore, picked up on in her inspirational talk (I think she called it, What is your superman?) on day 3 of the conference.  She was speaking directly to marketers in the audience but her role as Global VP of Customer Success, and as one of the most prominent Customer Success thought leaders around, means she was also speaking to her own team and the Customer Success industry at large.

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“Build the team of today and tomorrow”. Build the team with people who embrace openness, innovation, partnering, and collaboration. Her talk and those characteristics she called out are interestingly supported by research for two specific generational groups.

Nielsen Norman Group researched the topic of millennials as digital natives. In the report you will see uncanny resemblance of the characteristics they list of millennials and the attributes that Catherine called out in her talk. Also, this was interesting too… “Many Millennials were in grade school or college when Google first rose to popularity, and it was a critical influence in setting the level of simplicity and directness that Millennials have come to expect from interfaces. They don’t care if (for example) your enterprise application has significantly more complex features to consider. When interfaces fail to live up to those unrealistic standards of simplicity, Millennials rarely blame themselves — unlike older users. Millennials are quick to criticize the interface, its organization, or its designers.” 

That is the indigenous (i.e. naturally occurring) behavior/attitude of a digital native.

And it calls to mind something I said in a recent interview with the online magazine, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. In the interview I said, “Here’s something to think about: if you ask a young millennial what the word “digital” means, more often than not you will be met with a blank stare. All they know is digital. So much so that they don’t even call it that.”

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While the millennial cohort has largely been absorbed into the workforce and is applying its own unconscious biases just as every generation has done before them, the next generation (Gen Z) is the one that will truly wipe things clean making business look and behave completely differently than it does today. Sorry Boomers, we’re almost through.

An article by Pew Research called, digital natives are born global citizens, elaborates on the characteristics of Generation Z. It’s the generation that follows Millennials and was born (approx) around the year 2000. They aren’t ready for the workforce just yet but soon they will be. If you really want to go deep on this topic, download the PDF from that Pew site and discover some interesting bits of information. It may disturb some preconceived notions you have of young people the world over. One stat that jumped out for me is this one:

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It jumped out not because it surprised me that young people are tight with technology. Everyone can see that. Why it jumped out is because of the faith they have that technology is so consequential to the hopefulness of their future. It’s sweet and it should cause us (older generations) to pause in contemplation. Young people are not misguided to believe that technology can be a force of good. Let’s make sure we deliver on our part of the bargain. Let’s be open, let’s embrace change, let’s innovate, and let’s do it together.

 

 

 

 

Blockchain and my dad

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My father first taught me about the physics that underpins a chain. He was no craftsman but he could manage his way around most small projects involving hammers, saws, and screwdrivers. Because of our humble situation though, he ended up having my brother and I do all larger home repairs with him, everything except repairing the roof of the house two stories above the ground. But that was only because he didn’t want to buy a 28-foot ladder. One time he had us loop one end of a large 30-foot chain around the car trailer hitch and loop the other end around the corner post of our old dilapidated garage that he wanted pulled down and demolished. It was before demolition permits were required and before anyone had awareness of the need for safety glasses or even steel toe boots. It was that kind of time and no one blinked an eye that two boys in shorts and running shoes were given the task to climb all over a crumbling garage. But one thing my dad did for safety reasons is explain how chains work. We were about 13 and 14 years old at the time and despite the fact we knew everything there was to know about the world we still paid attention as he explained that the health of each link is critical to the overall strength of the chain. One weak link compromises the whole and so with decapitation on our minds we checked each link for the smallest evidence of weakness. Since we didn’t possess an electron microscope we had to put a bit of faith in dumb luck too. Cutting to the chase, the chain was sound, the garage collapsed when the car gently pulled the chain that pulled the post, my mother didn’t speak to my father for a day or so, the neighbors were unhappy with the dust, our two younger sisters cheered from the porch, my father saved a few bucks, and my brother and I lived another day. Lessons learned? Motion, force, energy… you know, physics. Oh, and teamwork of the links-in-a-chain kind.

Baffled as to what this has to do with business? Maybe this will help.  I was reminded of that long-ago story when I read this article from MIT Sloan about how Blockchain technology will transform how businesses are organized and managed. The message of the piece… that the strength of a chain, with verifiable and trust-worthy links, and the fact that each link is dependent on the other, is a perfect analog for how business processes can be improved. Think of the links as your current internal organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, etc.)  They can be connected to provide a more seamless and reliable process flow and experience for the customer. In short, they can be made to improve your business.

The Blockchain value proposition dovetails nicely with a message I conveyed in this recent talk at Totango’s Customer Success Summit 2017. In that talk I made a statement that businesses need to re-imagine their processes so that the customer is represented horizontally rather than be dealt with in the conventional vertical organizational fashion that exists today and has existed for a hundred years or so. Why change? Because the customer is not efficiently served via the conventional approach, and you’re losing business as a result. The experience the customer has is disjointed, being touched as they are by different people from different teams with different agendas, and the overall messaging they receive and the impression they have of your brand is often incoherent, at best.

Today’s organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer, Success) hobble themselves with too many barriers that prevent them from collecting and sharing critical customer-relevant data, or from holding each other accountable for the delivery of some aspect of the customer’s experience, and from having visibility into whether the customer is achieving the outcomes they expected, and hoped for, when they purchased the solution in the first place. My colleague, Chloe Basterfield, touches on this from a marketing challenge perspective in this blog post.

Even before Blockchain invades the business world, smart executives can begin to build that horizontal flow with the organizations they have now. Encourage the breaking down of silos by organizing the leaders and rallying their teams and missions around the need to improve the process through which the customer is dealt with by your company. Conceptualize the flow as linked tasks that together form a rolling chain that pulls the customer smoothly through their journey with your firm.

You too can do this without safety glasses and steel toe boots.

A Pattern Language

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My wife gave me a book way back in the late 1980s when she realized I had a strong interest in buildings and architecture. A blog I wrote for Eloqua back in 2012 called, The Thoreau Guide to Marketing Automation, touches on that particular, and amateur, passion of mine. As an aside, the blog post was re-branded when Oracle acquired the company and soon after that event came erasure of my authorship. 🙂

The book, written in 1977, is called, A Pattern Language. It discusses societies’ building of their physical structures and the impact that collective and independent decisions have on fundamental needs of the human psyche. It was, and apparently still is, considered a bit of a bible by people who look at the bigger picture of how the most people-oriented communities function and are organically built, of how design and choice of construction materials can promote healthy minds, bodies, and relationships. The relevance for this post is that A Pattern Language was influenced by the then-emerging language to describe computer programming and design. One of the authors, Christopher Alexander, said, “A pattern language has the structure of a network. It’s an idea that comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.” In other words, the best ideas are community-generated, and even though that might intuitively suggest there is no overall design, there actually is. Collectively, we’ve mostly built what we need by following an unconscious pattern of (building) evolution based on need, utility, and personal preference. A pattern language, if you will. Peril comes when organic need is superseded by abstraction, when there is too much form and not enough function, or when the well-being of humans is a lower ranked factor in design. The language breaks. It breaks because it no longer serves.

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I was reminded of this book recently when I observed our dog during one of our walks. Watch your own dog and the way they relate to the physical environment that is external to their home. They expect the familiar because they associate people and places with indelible imprints those things have made in their memory stores. The world works for them because our buildings, streets, garbage receptacles, trees, and people have helped our dog build a wealth of pattern-generated memories that enable him to conduct himself in the world without having full accessibility to our human language. He knows where he lives, he knows where he should and shouldn’t toilet, he knows about cars and trucks and skateboards, and based on their demeanor he even knows what type of person would most likely respond well to his greetings. He’s the recipient of a language that humans have physically built with their surroundings and in the way they individually present themselves to him on a daily basis through their unconscious behaviors. You might think your daily walk from the parking lot to the subway goes unnoticed but it isn’t. He’s expecting you. You might think your stumble at the curb went unnoticed. It wasn’t; it made him stop and stare. You broke the pattern. Your zigzag walk out of the pub at midnight may have seemed straight as an arrow to you but it made him stop and tilt his head as he tried to understand why you’re behaving differently than others. Patterns are rules (scientifically referred to as behaviorism) for dogs. They adapt but only when new patterns emerge. So if you continue to teeter towards your Uber ride night after night your doctor will take notice from the results of your next blood test but my dog won’t because that’s what he expects of you now.

Here’s where I bridge this blog to business.

Over centuries commerce developed organically from small transactions between a shopkeeper who had something of value that someone else (the customer) felt they needed to much more complex arrangements in which a company organized itself to sell more of a product to a broader market of customers. Sales became an occupation and these people sold through a small number of direct channels to prospects who were reliant on the salesperson for information and for all other aspects of the transaction, save for the actual decision to buy. Once they made the purchase it was up to the customer to figure out how to derive value from the thing they bought. A pattern had developed over a couple hundred years from the belief (and proof) that that’s how business is done and that’s how money was supposed to be made. It had become what we had all expected it should be. Until the pattern was broken.

Software as a Service (SaaS) turned that paradigm on its head and we see now that customers have taken control. Through the exponential power of the Internet they educate themselves and through the simplicity of the subscription model they can make easier choices to move from one company to another. Customers expect superior service and superior ease of use. Quickness to value is the new rule and software companies are now the dog tilting its head as it tries to understand why the old pattern has been broken. Patterns form a language that allows us to function, until the pattern breaks. Take it from Blackjack.
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Of half-skinned steers and moonshots

In this summer of the soak, this reign of rain, and with the sun’s kiss so rarely offered, my mind wanders to reading. Perhaps it’s also because of the perceptibly slower pace of the city. Business loosens its grip enough to notice a few less cars on the street, a few less frowned and earnest foreheads in suits walking against the traffic lights. Summer is 30 on the speedometer of life. Reading in this time of the year further calms the heart and nudges the mind.

Interested readers of this blog will know I have my favorites.  For fiction these days, I cannot get enough of Cormac McCarthy. Everywhere there is sadness and hope, there you will find his characters, fascinating, awful, and proud. His work is weighty and light, easy to read and difficult to accept. Sometimes I read one of his sentences and I pause to stare at its brilliance. How is it possible for a writer to describe a scene of such vividness in so few words? Annie Proulx is another.  Her depiction of the beauty and danger of place and people rivets me. I have read no other who can give me the perspective of a half-skinned steer  as it exacts its revenge on a mean farmer. Who else? Alice Munro. Around 80, she can still write a short story that runs gently over the surface of normalcy then turns a corner and confronts some sort of dread of physicality or spirit. I am glad I’ve read their body of work before the imaginations of these giants go silent.

But I also read non-fiction and I’m particularly attracted to writing that timelessly speaks of universal truths. Often such pieces are in the political realm and I will end this post with something I came across today. Remember Apollo 11? Its mission was the first manned moon landing. I was 10 when it took place and I distinctly recall thinking, “What happens if something goes wrong and they can’t get back?” What I don’t remember is anyone asking the same question out loud, on TV, on radio, or among the people who populated my little life. Well, apparently, I was not a unique thinker. As it turns out, it was a thoroughly thought out scenario to the extent that William Safire, President Nixon’s speech writer, wrote a speech in the event the President would need to bid farewell to the astronauts. I close with the link to the letter. Enjoy your summer reading.

In the event of a moon disaster

Pursuit

It was the headline that caught my eye in my Twitter stream among all the self-inflating and self-congratulatory proclamations that are increasingly causing me to turn away from the platform. Every so often I trip across a tiny gem buried in all that blandness and hyperbole and it reminds me of Twitter’s real power, which is self-curation. I can control what I want to see.

The headline was simply, The Coffin Maker.  Quality like this will drive my curation from now on.

Watch the video of a man who conducts himself in his work with a poetry of purpose, precision, and thought. These are traits, I can argue, that are transferable to any occupation. And yet these traits seem rarely to be consistently evident in our working world. Is it because he works in solitary? Or is it because of this?… “The first coffin I ever built was for my child.” A more painful sentence has likely never been uttered in the English language. Is that why he is so committed and thoughtful in his pursuit of the craft? I could almost imagine him an invention of Hemingway, but he isn’t. Cormac McCarthy could have cast him in one of his stark and raw perfections, but he didn’t. This guy is real and he may make you pause and begin to look differently at the things you do each day. 

Customer Service coaching moments

Bad days have a ripple effect in our world in uncountable ways. But good days can sometimes provide significant counterweight. The tension between those opposing viewpoints is as old as humanity and maybe that’s why the world is an interesting place. Can you imagine a world where everyone was having a good day? How would you know?

I’ll describe what I would imagine is someone who was having a bad day. Mamie (read my other posts to find out who she is) needed to head to a part of Toronto that required her to take a different transit line than she is familiar with. I have to tell you first of all that Toronto is undergoing a construction frenzy of biblical proportions, and taking as long a time as the pyramids to complete. So, our major hub of transit, Union Station (finished renovation project depicted below) is in the midst of chaos, teeming with commuters from every mode of transportation converging in a single place amid debris, hoarding, and closures.

She saw a sign saying that the streetcar line she expected to use was out of service due to construction and so she approached a uniformed transit employee for guidance.

She asked him how she could get to Spadina Avenue if the underground streetcar line was shut for construction, to which he replied, “Bay Street.” Toronto is the third largest city in all of North America and Mamie was standing in the heart of it. To her, “Bay Street” was like saying “Get Lost”.  She was not impressed.

She stood up to Mr. Grumpy and asked him again for more clarity to which he replied by silently pointing to a stairwell to the street.  Mamie is not one to back down and she cornered Mr Bad Day and said, “What I want to know is this. What’s the location of the stop and the vehicle number? Can you tell me?”  Here’s what he said, “Do you know how many times I get asked that question every single day?”

Here comes the coaching moment that Mamie so thoughtfully provided to this poor soul at that moment. “Then why are you doing this job if you don’t like it?” She turned on her heels and walked away.

My hope is he then took a breath, took a break, and went home at the end of the day in a better mood, maybe he resolved to take control of what he may normally feel are daily situations that are out of his control.