Strangers in the Workplace

Greetings. Most of us enter the workplace as strangers, unless we were one of the founders of a brand new company or we joined an established organization where we already had a number of friends. As strangers we faced the challenge of getting comfortable, fitting in, and, we hope, making a difference. And our organizations faced the challenge of helping us to get comfortable, fit in, and, they hope, make a difference. But they also face the opportunity of quickly creating involved and committed team members. And if they understood the real power of strangers, they would be way more successful.

I remember the first day when I arrived to start a strategic planning project with a brand-new customer who was trying to figure out how to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. I was certainly a stranger there, except to the people who had interviewed and hire me. But as a consultant, I typically begin every assignment as a stranger, and one of my initial goals is to quickly understand the customer’s world as I build a set of meaningful relationships. I have a real advantage because my role gives me access to almost everyone, which isn’t the case for most new employees.

While I was waiting in the reception area prior to my first set of meetings, I met a young man named Jeff who was there on his first day to start a new job. After signing in, he was met by someone from human resources who gave him his employee badge and laptop and took him to his full-day new employee orientation—the first stop in what he hoped would be a long and successful career. And maybe it will be. But I recall seeing him several times in the weeks that followed—passing by his workspace, or running into him in the break room, on the elevator, heading out to lunch, or sitting at the back of the room during an “all-hands” meeting. Each time I asked him how things were going, and each time he gave me the same answer: “Okay, I guess, but I don’t feel very connected here. Maybe it’s just something that will take a while.”

“Kind of strange,” I thought to myself. I had found him, in our brief conversations, to be friendly and interesting, if somewhat reserved. But he had apparently been left on his own to accomplish the work he’d been hired to do—work that he might be uniquely qualified for but that certainly did not get at the heart of who he was and his full potential to make a difference. And I started wondering a few months later if he and his company had missed the chance to connect in some meaningful way, and whether we allow too many of our colleagues to become strangers in our companies and organizations. Strangers because we choose to treat them that way. This may not happen in every workplace, but it does in many of them, and especially in larger organizations where it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle.

I also thought about the reality that we don’t always find the time to let everyone know that they really matter. That we will never reach our full potential without them. That everyone’s job is just as vital to our success—no matter how long they’ve been here or what they do. And that everyone has a lot more to contribute to our success than simply going through all of the awesome stuff in their in-boxes.

And that in order to build organizations and cultures that can consistently innovate, collaborate, and bring real excitement to the customers we have the privilege to serve, we must find better ways to engage and inspire all of our people from the moment they arrive. And better ways to discover their real gifts and passions.

Corporate employee

We win in business and in life when we make the effort to welcome and connect with, and learn from, all of the strangers who enter our lives on the lonely and awkward day when they arrive.

Cheers!

How Amazing is That?

Greetings. On a recent visit to a veterinarian’s office a bright red brochure caught my eye. A brochure that promised to solve one of the most important challenges of dog ownership…keeping Fido’s, or in our case Vincent’s, teeth as clean and healthy as possible. For while we have taught Vincent to sit, stay, lie down, be gentle, pick up the Wall Street Journal from curb, stay off of the furniture, watch English Premier League soccer games with focus and passion, and remain calm when the mailman or UPS driver knock on the door, we have somehow failed to teach him how to brush his own teeth. And, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure that this skill was within his grasp.

How to Teach Your Dog

So when the folks at Milk Bone promised to solve this problem for us, my ears jumped straight up as though someone had just offered me a peanut butter-coated biscuit or the world’s largest squirrel had just appeared outside the back door. And I quickly imagined placing a new soft bristle brush in his furry little paw and then demonstrating the proper technique for keeping his adorable canines all pearly white. (Yes dogs and humans have “canine” teeth!…but I digress.) I also imagined taking Vincent to CVS where he could pick out his favorite brand of salmon-flavored toothpaste along with a spool of rabbit-flavored floss. That is until I actually opened the brochure and discovered that the innovative folks at Milk Bone were simply being clever marketers of a clever new dog treat designed to remove tartar, plaque, and halitosis (a.k.a., dog breath). Simply by chewing on. And that these benefits had somewhat miraculously been “proven in clinical trials.”

Not quite as impressive as teaching a world of dogs to actually brush their teeth. But it got my attention.

And it struck me that all of us, and all of the companies and organizations we work for, have the same ability to make remarkable promises that we could keep in slightly less remarkable but “clinically proven” ways.

So why not spend a few moments thinking about a new and bold promise that would really matter to the customers you have the privilege to serve. Then follow it up with a very creative and engaging way to solve it that gets their attention and inspires them to want to know more. After all, a big part of marketing and business success is the act of starting a conversation.

We win in business and in life when we get the attention of others. And when we use that attention to deliver on a promise that really matters.

Cheers!

A Surprising Lesson From Apple

Greetings. Apple is in the news again with two new iPhones and the long-awaited Apple Watch. In today’s world, “long-awaited” seems to mean something that has been imagined about for a year or two. Talk about resetting our notion of time and the speed at which all of us need to bring new ideas to market. In any event, the early buzz for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and the Apple Watch seems pretty positive, though it is hard to sort out whether these new products…and the watch in particular…will be the next game changers for this remarkable company.

Apple Watch

But there is an important lesson to learn from innovative companies like Apple that flies in the face of conventional wisdom about how the most successful companies innovate. The notion that they are filled with exceedingly clever people who, in the confines of their exceedingly well-designed workplaces, figure everything out by themselves. In fact, Apple owes much of its success to the ideas and insights of total strangers.

Think about what makes the iPod media player, with its dominant market share, so ubiquitous and successful. Certainly cool design, ease of use, and simple and elegant functionality have a lot to do with it. But Apple didn’t invent the concept of personalized music…that was Sony way back in 1979 with its then-revolutionary Walkman. And Apple didn’t invent the technology platform the iPod relies on…that was audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg and a German company named Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft, which developed the MP3 standard and received a patent for it in 1989. Ten years later, the first portable MP3 players hit the market, two years before the first iPod. And Apple, with its wildly successful iTunes store, certainly didn’t invent the notion of creating the greatest single source of content in the world: that was the Egyptians, who roughly 2,300 years ago built the Great Library of Alexandria…a library that contained more than four hundred thousand documents long before there were printing presses. Though its music and video collections left a lot to be desired.

Sony Walkman

What Apple did was combine its own brilliance with these inputs from strangers, along with the skills of a number of equally clever outside partners, to create the most compelling offering and product ecosystem available.

And the story is the same with the latest iPhones and iWatch.

Which suggests that all of us, and all of our companies and organizations, would benefit greatly from creating stronger connections with a network of very creative strangers who might provide a powerful foundation for our newest and best ideas.

We win in business and in life when we come to appreciate the brilliance of those who have come before us and those around us today whose ideas provide an essential piece to the puzzle of our success.

Cheers!

Learning from Trolls

Greetings. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author, artist, and creator of the wonderful and popular Moomin books. Books that have delighted children and adults in Europe and around the world with their whimsical and profound tales of a family of hippopotamus-looking creatures (a.k.a., Moominmamma, Moominpappa, and Moomintroll) whose lives are filled with remarkable adventures and quirky and colorful friends like Snufkin, Snork Maiden, Sniff, Too-Ticky, and Little My. Adventures and quirks that in their fantasy world turn out to be spot on in giving us a window to our own very human inclinations and the keys to unlocking our full potential.

While her books never received as much attention here in the U.S., Tove Jansson has created a real gift for kids and adults of all ages. And they are a joyful and powerful resource in our efforts to grow as individuals and even organizations. (Not that most of you would consider reading a children’s book at work.)

At the heart of her stories is an abiding belief in the importance of family, the value of friendship and friends who are different than us, the necessity of being yourself in a world that too often rewards conformity, and the simple joy and value of being adventurous. Ideas and themes that have great meaning for all of us. And I might suggest that you find the time to read at least one of her books with your own family or co-workers then challenge yourself to think about how you might create even more compelling results by:

  • Building stronger relationships…
  • Broadening your circle of quirky friends and colleagues…
  • Inspiring those around you to be themselves…and
  • Stepping outside your comfort zones to seek adventure…

 

Moomin_kuva

We win in business and in life when we find wisdom in the world of fantasy. And when we take the time to appreciate the things that matter most.

Cheers!

The Tastes of Sweden

Greetings. For many of us, food is an important part of travel and a great way to get a deeper understanding of different cultures. And it is safe to say that Swedish cuisine has had a real renaissance in the last ten or fifteen years as innovative chefs have taken remarkable local ingredients and turned them into novel and award-winning creations. Gone are the days when Swedish cuisine could be summed up by Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, herring, gravlax or anything to do with a salmon, fresh strawberries and ice cream, lutfisk…a weird Nordic recipe of gelatinous fish soaked in  lye and surstromming…a fermented herring that was once described by a Japanese researcher as the worst-smelling (i.e., “putrid”) food on the planet. And that is saying a lot! In concert with the new Swedish cuisine, the Swedish spice cabinet has also expanded beyond salt, pepper, and dill, to include a vibrant mix of the world’s most engaging flavors.

Lax Tallrik

But let me take a few moments to scratch beneath the surface of Swedish cuisine to give you a sense of some of the country’s more interesting offerings.

Let me begin with sauce. Swedes love sauce. And it is safe to say that most meals would not be complete without the appropriate sauce. There are sauces for different types of fish dishes, sauces for different types of meat and game dishes, sauces for different types of potato dishes, and even a wide array of sauces for many of the most popular desserts including vanilla sauce, chocolate sauce, and even salt licorice sauce that can be used to top off your favorite treats. As someone who is not particularly keen on licorice I find this to be amazing at best and scary at worst.

Licorice Sauce

And Swedes are also crazy about aioli, which is kind of a sauce too.

Swedes also love food that comes in tubes. The most popular of these staples of the Swedish kitchen table is something called Kalles Caviar, a bright blue tube filled with creamy fish roe that Swedes put on sandwiches of eggs, cheese, or simply butter. It is kind of like peanut butter for Swedish children. And this delicacy has morphed into an ever growing collection of taste sensations that include caviar and cream cheese. Now Swedish engineers just have to figure out how to get a decent bagel in a tube. But that’s not all, you can buy mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, soft cheese and shrimp, and even herring and mackerel (yes, that’s right, herring and mackerel) in a tube. And, of course, you can also buy sauce in a tube.

Kalles

Swedes also adore candy (or “godis”) and the typical Swedish grocery store devotes a disproportionately large amount of space (by American standards at least) to a wide assortment of loose candy to be filled into handy little bags, packages of chewy candies like the especially popular Bilar (“Cars”), and candy bars. And even the world-renowned “Swedish Fish” which are made in both Sweden and Canada. I must admit that Swedish chocolate is delicious. And you can even mail candy bars to friends through the Swedish postal service (or “Posten”) simply by putting their address and a stamp on the bar itself.

Candy by Mail

Now I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about Swedes based on their food, because as French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is credited with saying:

“You are what you eat.”

Though I think he said it a bit more cleverly.

Cheers! Or should I say “Skol!”