Choose Your Battles

Choose your battles

As a young lad of 16-years, with long hair and a loud car – I was a natural target for the police officer.  Driving by, minding my own business and breaking no laws, the State Police Trooper nonetheless pulled me over.  After going through my license, registration, and finding no violations he said, “your mufflers are too loud-replace them!”  To which I responded, “They are legal, cherry bomb mufflers, I just put them on my car.”  He paused for a moment and said, “I said they are too loud and replace them!” “Yes sir, I’ll take care of that right away,” was my Eddie Haskell response.

This was a silly argument for me to engage and it could have only caused me problems.  This officer pulled me over and come hell or high water, he was going to come up with something with which he could slap my hands.  Why argue with him?  What did I have to gain? There are arguments or disagreements that don’t amount to a hill of beans, yet we pursue them as if our lives depended on them.  When pride gets in the way it can ultimately end up sabotaging the harmony of the office, the projects on which you are working, and your relationships with your clients.

For example, on a few occasions I have shown up for an appointment with a client or a prospect only to find that they were not there.  When I follow up with them, I typically will say, “I must have written the wrong time in my planner.”

Now, I can honestly say that maybe once in my many years in meeting with clients has it ever been my fault.  But do I want to get in to an argument over this?  Of course not, I’ll take the heat and reschedule.  Ultimately, the purpose of this is to establish or further the relationship.  Usually, the client is very apologetic and very accommodating in rescheduling the meeting because they typically know that they dropped the ball even if they choose to defer the blame my way.

The same principle applies in the office.  Why cause a big argument over small issues that don’t affect either the quality or timeliness of the product?  A pretty good litmus test is this: Are you standing up for the integrity of your work product or are you trying to show someone how right you are and how wrong they are?

I never did replace those mufflers; in fact, they were on the car when I sold it a few years later.  I was right and the officer was wrong, but to argue the point would have been foolish and would not help me achieve my goal, which was to get out of there without a ticket – keep your goal in mind before you engage in a verbal battle.


Get a “Big Dog Attitude”

One evening I was in my family room and heard a commotion in my back yard, so walked outside and stood on my deck to see what the fuss was.  I looked in my neighbor’s yard and saw a little “hot dog-dog” barking at my neighbor’s house, there was no one there; he was just barking at the house, odd behavior from the funny little mutt.

Then the little dog ran across my yard – right in front of me, within a couple feet of me – still barking mind you, and started towards my other neighbor’s house.  I then yelled at the dog to hush up and would you believe this little near-sighted dog that was no bigger than a loaf of bread, made a bee line toward me in an attempt to stake his territory?

I stared at the dog with amazement.  His brazen attitude defied his limited stature.  He didn’t care one iota about how much bigger I was than him, he was serving notice, “I’m here, stand up and take notice!”

While this little dog got on my nerves and I wanted to give him “what for,” I had to admire his confidence. This dog’s attitude was not that of 12 pound dog, it was that of a Big Dog. There are times, especially if you are the underdog or part of a smaller company that a Big Dog attitude is exactly what you need.

I’m not suggesting that you go around barking in the neighborhood…

…but passively sitting by while the competition, whose  only selling point is, “We’re really big!” cleans your proverbial clock or runs rough shod over you, well, that just ain’t right.  This is the time to get your hackles up, show your teeth, and assume the Big Dog stance.

Throughout my career, I have spent nearly all my time with smaller companies.  These companies though smaller, were (are) well-respected and in many cases leaders in their respective fields.  On more than one occasion, my colleagues and I have gone head-to-head with much larger companies.  These firms love to taut the size of their company – ignoring the issue, notably; can you solve the client’s pain?  We can. And we’re not afraid to say as much.

Just because you are not the biggest company or you don’t have offices throughout the solar system, don’t back down and don’t be intimidated!  Be confident in your knowledge, your experience, and the support of the colleagues in your office.

You know your business and you know that you are part of a great team, don’t act sheepish (or sheep dogish), don’t back down; hell, get an attitude, a big dog attitude!

Advice for Dancing Angels

Price of this car with these features…got it

Mutual funds that invest in precious metals…yep, right here

Copies of the most recent requirement for permitting this process…all three volumes are downloaded

Ask a question, find an answer.   When you want to find the name of the girl who played Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (it was Karolyn Grimes), you have it in seconds.  Is it cement or concrete? (cement is actually an ingredient of concrete) “What am I supposed to do with all this Paella?” (It’s fine reheated).

We are swimming in a sea of information. We are bombarded by “news,” and if you like data, you can find data…lots of data!

But information and data are not advice.

Telling me that the regulation requires me to do something isn’t advice; it’s information.  Showing me the data or test results are meaningless, what does it mean to me?

Valuable providers of advice don’t regurgitate, they assimilate the information and consider you, your company, your goals, what you are trying to achieve and then advise you.

You might be able to find out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – but the real question is, should they consider this endeavor in the first place?

Distinguish yourself – be an advisor.

Rats, cockroaches, and poo…oh my!

Environmental laboratory and field assistantooh, this job sounded perfect for a hopeful young scientist!  And the job sounds impressive, right?  Well, as it turns out, not so much.  But I wasn’t in a position to be too picky, after all it was a job in my profession and I needed this job desperately to fund my college education.  And so I began my new job with great anticipation.

One of the services I soon learned that we offered was “effluent water quality monitoring and flow measurements.” Translation: We will battle the cockroaches and other vermin in your sewers, stick our hands in water from flushed toilets & industrial waste water, and wade through sewers full of petrified poo and collect samples…

While I’m sure it sounds very glamorous, believe it or not, even this exciting job got to be mundane.

  • Oh, gee another giant cockroach.
  • Hey, here comes another rat toward us.
  • Oh no, you stay behind and let me crawl on my hands and knees through methane filled, crumbling sewers.

And some days I just had a hard time getting excited about exposing my body to toxic wastes — wimp!

But in those times of weakness when I felt like this wasn’t exactly why I was attending the university, my fellow sewer rat and recent college graduate himself, would remind me how important our job was.  He was right.

All kidding aside, our work was the first step in collecting meaningful data.  These data would allow others to make potentially significant decisions about how best to operate their plant and comply with complex environmental regulations.

We were young men and didn’t realize it then, but we were selling our company and ourselves.  We took our job very seriously and there were few challenges we were not able to overcome.  And when our sales team was selling the expensive laboratory analysis, they would add, “…and let me tell you about our exceptional field services team that will collect those samples.”

There are many less than desirable jobs – but there is no job that does not deserve our best effort.  The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were quite appropriate for this chapter in my life,

“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music … Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

Street sweeper, salesman, cook, administrative assistant, accountant, or even sewer rat – it deserves our best effort!

Something Service Providers Must Never Forget

Ask most service professionals (I happen to work in the environmental consulting world) why you should part with your hard earned money and you’re likely to get a litany of (lame) reasons

  • Our prices are really competitive (wow, that’s unique)
  • We’re really good (whatever that means)
  • Excellence is what we are all about (see above snide remark)
  • I have a Masters!
  • I have a Ph.D.!!
  • We’re experts!!!

Not one reason why someone should hire you.

But wait, I went to school and have all these degrees and have written all these books, they don’t count for anything? 

Not unless you can translate it into some tangible benefit for my business.

Never forget this basic principle: People buy for one of two reasons, 1. Avoid Pain or 2. Gain Pleasure.  Service providers are likely helping to avoid pain, our task is to understand their pain and show how we can help provide pain relief.



There might be a better way

Do it this way

But it’s not effective

Do it this way

It’s not helping us achieve our goals

Do it this way

But we could be more efficient and more profitable if we change

…do it this way!

Sometimes we continue to do it this way regardless of logic and reason – we will not change even to the detriment and demise of the company.

So what gets in the way? Pride, stubbornness, pigheadedness, the inability to recognize things have changed?

Don’t ever change for the sake of change, but don’t ever not change for the sake of not changing (yes, I know, a double negative).



Bringing Value to the Marketplace

Being smart isn’t enough; not today, not in this economy.  Now more than ever, you have to translate your smarts into a tangible benefit.  And whether you are personally looking for a job, or looking to sell you and your company, you have to look beyond your knowledge and skills.

There are a lot of people that can solve complex technical problems –

You need to translate that skill into solving business problems.

Everyone wants to tell you everything they have learned –

You need to respond to what people want and need to know.

While you may have built a better mousetrap –

You have to make sure people with a mouse problem can find you.

It’s great to be able to explain –

Where the true value comes is being able to listen.

You can impress by knowing your stuff –

You can eat when you can sell the stuff you know.

What you have to say may be important –

But it’s imperative to realize that what others have to say is even more important.


Job Security

If we have learned one thing in this current economic downturn it’s that you can’t count on big companies for job security – they too fail and leave employees without a job.

But look, this isn’t exactly the first time big companies have failed. Chicago Gas, Tennessee Coal and Iron, American Cotton Oil, Distilling & Cattle Feeding, and American Tobacco were five of the original twelve companies that made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1898.  Where are they today?  Bought out, broken up, and dissolved. There is only one that remains on the Dow of the original twelve; General Electric.

So where do you turn for employment security?  Take a look in the mirror!  You are your best source of job security.  When you expect much of yourself, when you never stop learning, when you consistently exceed the customers’ expectations you are securing your future.

The little extra steps that you take to ensure a job well done are in essence steps to secure your future in a two-fold manner.  First, you are giving the customer every reason to give your company repeat business and you also provide a basis for possible future referrals, both make the company for which you work stronger.

Second, as you consistently do a good job, you are building a solid professional reputation for yourself.  Every person you positively impress is a possible future professional reference. So even if you work for a big national company like American Cotton Oil and they merge with one of the other big cotton oil companies and eliminate your job, you have a solid reputation that will help you find work.

Daily excellence is the best long-term investment for your career.


The Perfect Day?

I woke up five minutes before the alarm clock sounded and I felt great, a full eight hours of restful sleep.  The morning paper arrived on time on my front doorstep and my wife had the day off so she got up early and prepared my breakfast.   

On the way into work, it was nothing but green lights as my favorite music played on the radio, a fresh summer breeze flowed through my open windows, and my car hummed along running smoothly.  My arrival at work was greeted with a full pot of just-right brewed coffee.  As I sat down, I saw sitting on my desk a small note of thanks from a colleague whom I recently assisted on a project.  I checked my email and I was pleasantly surprised with a message from a client, whom I had recently contacted; they were giving me the thumbs up on a nice project.  Just as I thought things couldn’t go any better, I was told by a colleague that one of our long-standing clients had just referred a new prospect our way and their company’s motto is, “price is no object.” 

Unfortunately, the real alarm clock now sounded.  My eyes were swollen and I was groggy with another restless night of sleep.  I stumbled down the stairs, and the dang cat kept bugging me until I fed the little monster.  As I stood in the bathroom trying to get ready for work, frustration mounted as I couldn’t get my left contact lens in my eye, and now the sink was clogged.  As I walked out to get the newspaper, I walked straight into some cobwebs on the porch only to find the newspaper wasn’t in the box. 

On the way into work, I got behind one person that wouldn’t go faster than 30 mph and the person behind me felt compelled to drive within six inches of my rear bumper.  And every time I looked at my speed, I was reminded that the check engine light stayed on so I adjusted my view so I wouldn’t see the annoying light.  And what was that smell, another dead skunk?  When I walked in the office, it is ice cold and so is the coffee…from the night before.

I checked my email and voice mail, neither person that needed that proposal IMMEDIATELY had responded.  My knees hurt from my exercise yesterday and now my right contact was now fogging up.  Oh, and someone dumped some “stuff” on my desk after I left; no note or anything.  I am just supposed to figure out who the heck dumped it on MY DESK and figure what exactly they want done with it.  Ugh, I need coffee, hot coffee!

Life is RARELY if ever one of those “perfect days” we have pictured in our mind.  It is an imperfect world in which we live and we have to deal with aggravating issues from home life to work life every day; that’s life.  That’s why there are so many self help books ranging from how to deal with angry customers, to avoiding road rage and coping with your kids from terrible twos to the rebellious teens. 

But we tend to bring on more aggravation ourselves by somehow being delusional and thinking we should not have troubles or trials.  We overreact when a client complains or a project doesn’t go smoothly.  We need to learn to deal with situations as they arise. Don’t get upset when things don’t go perfectly, it is the norm!  By increasing our blood pressure over these normal events of life, we only punish ourselves and those around us, who likely did nothing to cause the current situation.

So if the project does not go just as planned, if you don’t get along with everyone perfectly all the time and agree with everything that everyone says, and you get your share, (and sometimes more than your share) of trouble, in a given day, congratulations; you are wide awake and participating in the day.

 As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes,”…there is nothing new under the sun…” Our trials are not all that unique; really they aren’t.  If we are to grow and move to the “next level,” whatever that next level is, we need to effectively learn how to deal with the issues that confront us.  That next level for which we are striving has even more difficult issues.   Bottom line: Success results in effectively dealing with these difficult situations, not in spite of them.

The Peanut Principle

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were dozens of kids.  We never had any difficulty finding 15 or 16 guys to play baseball in the summer; I have wonderful memories about my childhood and all my friends. 

There was one kid in our neighborhood that pretty much everyone considered as “cool,” his name was Peanut.  Peanut was the embodiment of cool and everyone wanted to be his friend.  My brother and I were part of Peanut’s “inner circle” for a long time.  My brother was even honored to spend the night at his house, well, he tried to but called home and asked my dad to pick him up because “Mr. Peanut got mad and was yelling at Peanut,” and my brother said he was “a scared.”

But then one summer something happened.  A rumor had begun to circulate that we were no longer considered one of Peanut’s friends.  We knew this was a mistake; Peanut was a good friend and so we called him and said, “Meet us on the hill, behind Kenny’s garage so we can ask you something.”  My brother and I made our way over to the designated rendezvous location and found Peanut and Kenny standing there waiting for us.  Peanut had a long piece of straw in his mouth, and was looking his typical cool self.  We asked him point blank, “Are we still your friends?”  Without hesitation, he said, “I say-a nay.”  What?!  I say-a nay?!   My brother and I just looked at each other astonished.  Peanut just turned and walked away, Kenny looked at us in disgust and walked away too.

We had no idea what happened, we had done nothing that was uncool that would cause Peanut to boot us out of the exclusive friendship.  We could do wheelies on our bikes, we spit a lot, and we were both considered two of the fastest kids in the neighborhood…it just didn’t make sense.  Over the next several weeks, we would meet Peanut in the same location and ask the same question, again and again he would say the same thing, “I say-a nay.”  Then one day we were standing on the hill behind Kenny’s garage and we asked the question and Peanut said, “I say-a yea.”  Oh, joy of joys, the words we had waited for so long.  My brother and I were so happy, we went home grabbed our coffee can of marbles and proceeded to spend the next several hours playing marbles in Peanut’s front yard.

Recalling this memory, I realized that my brother and I applied some good business principles to the situation.  When we heard the rumor, we didn’t lollygag, we called for a meeting with the top nut.  We didn’t beat around the bush either; we asked him just exactly what was on our mind.  While it wasn’t the answer we were hoping for, we knew where we stood.  We didn’t get into name calling when things didn’t go our way either (okay that was probably because Peanut could kick our butt).  The point is we didn’t burn any bridges with the neighborhood king.  Finally, we understood the importance of persistence, but more importantly, persistence with the decision maker.  We could have focused our attention on his lackey, Kenny who may or may not have transferred the correct information to Peanut. 

We all get bad news in business, but how it is handled is important.  You can let the rumors continue to circulate and take on a life of their own or you can go directly to the source immediately and break bread.  Many times people will get angry when they get bad news from their client or prospect and say something stupid to them like, “oh yea” or something equally profound, but angry outbursts will sabotage your long-term objectives.  A cool head must prevail, understand both the perception and facts regarding the situation, and then deal with it professionally.  Never burn your bridges in business because you never know when you will get a new and perhaps better opportunity with that prospect.

We never did find out why Peanut gave us the cold shoulder that summer, it may have been an unfounded rumor.  What he saw in us perhaps dispelled those rumors when he saw two brothers that were committed to the neighborhood and continued to show genuine interest in the friendship we once enjoyed.

Have you fallen out of favor with a client?  Did you not get a project that you thought you were going to get?  It is important to stay in front of them and ask them how you can improve so when the next project opportunity comes along you will be able to again work together.