The Amazon Choice: CX vs. Talent-First Culture?

By now you’ve likely read the NY Times article on Amazon’s controversial internal culture, and perhaps even CEO Bezos’ response to the reports and allegations. There’s a lot to discuss there but what I see now buzzing in the heads of current and would-be CEOs is the new choice they have, namely that in today’s economy should the ultimate priority be the big CX: customer experience (even at the expense of your employees’ well being) vs. Talent (and the winning the talent war).

With a small presence in California now, my business and I have been exposed to a Silicon Valley talent war which has apparently been raging since ~2012, with Google’s “death benefits” dueling with dogs in the office, Bruce Willis’ chef, and “cash for babies” from Zynga and Facebook. In this “war,” leading and aspiring new economy companies are prioritizing the attraction, development and retention of top talent with a bevy of incentives, seemingly bizarre perks and rewards, and culture-focused initiatives to stand out from the competition. I’ve seen creative, new “we care about you and your family” perks seemingly every week. Based on the success of these companies, some of this has even seeped east to Silicon Alley where ca$h had previously been king.

The premise is simple: get the best, make them happy and keep them, and they’ll help you attract, delight and retain customers. Shiny happy (and healthy) people begat customer and company success and happiness – R.E.M. and Kate would approve. Win-win-win for all involved, right?

Well, now there is a seemingly very different (and successful), model on display from Jeff Bezos and Amazon. This very non-California model is one that prioritizes customer experience (CX) over everything else, including employee health and well-being (and employee retention). While many workers cringed at the NY Times’ latest and earlier allegations, I personally know CEOs and executives who now feel vindicated regarding criticism of their relatively scorched-earth HR policies and see Bezos as having the best new “model for success.”

My question to you and to my young, aspiring CxOs at NYU: If you had to pick one over the other, would it be CX or would it be talent as your ultimate #1?

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Adverb-gate: A Cold War Rages

schoolhouse-rock1The quiet passing of another “National Grammar Day” this month got me thinking. When did the nation stop using adverbs (not to mention grammar and punctuation), correctly?

I have noticed an alarming trend in the application of adverbs within our language. I am sure you have noticed it too… the dropping of the “-ly” from the descriptive word qualifying an adjective, verb or other adverb. For someone who grew up with “Lolly, Lolly,Lolly get your adverbs here” it’s like a slap in the face.

One of the biggest public offenders is the infamous Subway sandwich establishment with their tag lines “Eat Fresh” and “Baked Fresh.” I cringe every time I see their ads. To the wily marketing execs who green lit that phrase: IT IS GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT! The journalism and English degrees of your team members signify time not well spent. subway-logo-eat-fresh-2

We can also rightly gripe about traffic signs directing us to “Drive Slow” or to “Please Drive Careful.” I’d actually prefer a sign written by Homer Simpson with something like, “Safen up!” written on it when I see those other highway signs that do exist on the roads today.

think-different-appleNow one must admit that Apple just may be quite clever in putting forth their “Think Different” tag line and ads. They either fail or pass grammar depending on whether “different” is supposed to be qualifying the verb “think” or is supposed to be functioning as a destination (a noun) to which we are supposed to convert our thoughts.

Regardless, these examples (seen by millions each day), just cause confusion and set a precedent of bad grammar for new English speakers and generations to come. You don’t need a degree from Carnegie Mellon to get this right, so please tell your children, any immigrants you meet, and everyone else to put back the “-ly” and write smartly; grammar does not have to be executed so crappily.

punctuation-saves-livesOh, and the next front in this cold war? Punctuation!

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Orifices, Politenessman and the Train

As someone who commutes and often travels via train, I feel I must speak. Much like a certain human orifice, the train doorway is not meant for simultaneous entry and exit.

When a large group of people need to exit the train to create the room for new passengers to enter, you should let them exit. It is the most efficient, most polite, and most appropriate approach. And yes, politeness matters.

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In fact it’s in your best interest to also ensure there is a path for them to get clear of the train entirely if you actually want to get on. It’s also in the best interest of our society and mankind, and I know that Politenessman would agree.

The idiocy of a few (or just one), causes a problem at every station, numerous times everyday. Polite people colliding and stuck as they try to get out, because one inconsiderate idiot has to get on immediately. Since I no longer have my Politenessman steel hanky to inflict appropriate justice to the worst offenders, I vow to continue to serve as an example to all – a forceful example in fact.

I get to the front of the crowd, spread my arms wide and pivot as the doors open, so as to act as human windshield wiper and both clear a proper exit path, and prevent the rude and the uneducated from entering until all have exited.

Now, back to the aforementioned orifice; anyone who’s tried to simultaneously to ingest water while either sneezing or vomiting can attest to it just not working. -Of course that’s what orafice you were thinking of too, right?

Politenessman knows (and you may have a steel hanky coming your way if you don’t clean up your act).

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Visiting Family and In-Laws During the Holidays

It’s that magical time of year when many of us drive to visit our families for the holidays. Some of us get to visit multiple families, namely our own kin and our in-laws during these wonderful days.

We endure traffic, snow and rain, mountain roads, and having to wear “itchy church clothes” so we can get to our destinations and look our best as we say our “Hello and Merry Christmas!” and peruse the cookie table at each relative’s home.

Our trip this year takes us to northern Connecticut, then to the Poconos, and then finally back to NYC. 4 days, 3 destinations and unlimited possibilities for family fun, awkward moments, sibling drama and in-law shenanigans. The stories of our family’s most colorful “Christmas Past” moments are retold often and remain cringeworthy and/or funny no matter many times they’re told.

What awaits us this year? Of course we don’t know yet, but as I mapped this year’s journey on Google maps I noticed that the plotted points felt strangely familiar. Not the towns, but their relationship to each other. After consulting some world maps and charts for patterns, it hit me like a bolt of lightning from a freak storm. Take a look and you tell me if I should be afraid.

The TriangleO

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The Interview: How Much Should It Matter?

I’m frustrated and getting (or is it going), mad about “the interview” and what led up to it. No, I’m not mad about the movie (but we’ll get to that later).

Resumes (or LinkedIn profiles) along with personal connections are the key factors in getting to the interview phase for many “knowledge worker” jobs today. Essentially, whether you know someone there or whether you had a virtually identical job elsewhere determines if you get on the short list to be interviewed. A 3rd related screening factor is how close your current compensation is to the budgeted number. If you’re 10% too high or low, you must be over or under-qualified. Aptitude for the day-to-day activities of the role at this company and specific relevant skill sets typically aren’t factored in.

If you “pass” this gate then the all-important interview occurs and the candidate explains the resume in more detail and gets to use salesmanship to puff up achievements and explain away gaps and other questionable entries. If it is a sales job. you may also get some form of a “Sell me this pencil!” exercise as well. Are those really the best we can do?

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How the candidate dresses, their height and weight, and how they are groomed and speak are also at least subliminally factored in by the interviewers. Yeah, those factors make a huge difference when there’s a deadline, right?

How much of all of that resume and interview stuff is relevant to doing the actual job? From my experience, very little to none.

What matters more? Well, the ability to run and efficiently participate in a meeting for one. Another would be the ability to make a decision and rally others around that decision to drive the project or initiative quickly to success. Yet another would be deeply understanding the target audience.

Yet I’ve never heard of anyone even trying to gauge a candidate’s ability to do those things. The amount of time wasted because of people hired without those skills and aptitudes is staggering. Does LinkedIn even try to highlight those? Do interviewers “test” for them? They damn well should because I’m hopping mad at all the time wasted and momentum lost today.

As with the Sony Pictures fiasco involving “the interview” of the leader of North Korea, yes, it can be difficult to know what will be the result, post-interview, for all parties involved. I’ll bet you’ve all got a favorite “bad result” interview story; I sure do.

My advice is this:
To the hirers, really think about what you want things to be like a few weeks and months from now and do your candidate screening work with that top of mind. What will matter on the job day-to-day and especially when things get stressed or “weird” at your firm? Which candidates seem most likely to shine then should be the thought. Consider de-emphasizing the job title match and ignoring their current compensation because they may be underpaid or under-titled right now (or want to get out of a higher paying job that may have been an anomaly or one they despise).

To the candidates, include references to skills and expertise in the above referenced scenarios and areas and if you do get interviewed, find a way to bring them into the discussion and explain why they are important.

If after all that the result is still bad, well, you went the extra mile (and you can always blame North Korea).

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The “Dewarding” of Ideas & Extra Effort

“Coming up with a great idea or new innovation to help the business/organization is a great thing for all.”

“Driving an under-resourced or otherwise daunting project to on-time success through grit, determination, and superhuman effort is even better.”

The above 2 statements are both correct and at the same time, untrue in most businesses. They are misnomers (if not outright lies) if management speaks them to employees. Think of them as the Shroedinger’s Cats of business behavior. Dead and alive, true and false, at the same time.

Despite all the evidence that encouraging and rewarding those behaviors will drive success, the norm today is to 1) spurn new ideas and innovation (because staying the same is seemingly easier and less risky), and 2) rather than recognize and reward a herculean effort from an individual (with time off or other perks and accolades), to raise the bar and make that level of effort the new minimum standard of effort and/or replicate the project across other areas (effectively giving the person exponentially more work as their “deward”).

Based on these common practices, only new hires (who only do it once btw), and self-motivated, deadline obsessed gluttons for punishment are idea-generators who give extreme effort to ensure daunting projects are on-time and successful.

There are exceptions to this sad reality however, so that’s where we should look now:

-Exception 1 – Most Non-profits: These organizations have an actionable, non greed-based mission statements. Through their training, positive reinforcement motivational practices, and passionate management (including activist Board members), they each typically have an army of extra effort, innovation-generating brand evangelists (whereas most companies have rank and file employees and managers).

IMG_8395.JPGException 2 – Peter Drucker-ian Businesses: These are the rare businesses that live the teachings of history’s greatest expert on management (and marketing for that matter), rather than just hanging his quotes on the wall with a picture of the Harvard rowing team.

Embedding in their company Drucker’s teachings on the role of the Board, mission statements, managing and motivating “knowledge workers,” and truly understanding both your target customer’s problems/needs and “what business you’re in” (from the perspective of the customer) make the first two statements the norm for these exceptional businesses and organizations.

peter-drucker-quote-how-can-we-overcome-the-resistance-to-innovationThink about your organization and how it really acts on a regular basis. Odds are that in real practice, you’re the norm, not an exception.

If you and your management team haven’t read “The Essential Drucker” in the past year, it will be the best 4 hours and $20 you’ve ever invested.

Interesting note, “The Essential Drucker” book has a section on what business can learn from non-profits, so the 2 categories of exception are really closer to 1.

Finally, to quote Larry Wilson on giving extra effort on every project at work to get ahead, “My old man worked hard. All they did was give him more work.”

Yes, that quote was from “Weekend at Bernie’s” but that doesn’t make it less true. Make it not true at your organization and have a REwarding 2015.

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Why Don’t They Make More Movies Like That?

Upon seeing a TV ad for the film “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” which appears
charming and includes numerous stars (albeit older ones) btw, the question raised by
my spouse was, “Why don’t they make more movies like that?

A charming film with award-winning actors
A charming film with award-winning actors

I pondered the question briefly and responded with a line about how maybe the target audience [of spry and not-so-spry oldsters] don’t go to the movies as often as teens and millenials, so that’s why not. It was quick work for me – question answered, mystery solved.

The retort came right back, “That’s all they do down there in Florida is go to the movies! Think about our retired friends… all they talk about are movies they’ve just seen and are going to see tomorrow after breakfast.

Consumers with time with watch
Consumers with time to watch many movies

Hmmmm… I thought. She’s exactly right, there are tons of seniors with time on their hands and these are movies with award-winning folks they remember, shown at a giant scale and volume (to compensate for vision and hearing loss). Castmember Rita Moreno has a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy, AND a friggin’ Oscar, so this movie (and others like it), have no shortage of award-winning talent so Yes, it makes sense from the demand side to make more of them. Having eliminated “lack of demand” I next did some research and found that the typical budget for these geriatric-casted movies is generally pretty low by Hollywood standards, so that’s not it. High demand for a quality product combined low cost… “Why don’t they make more movies like that?,” I now thought.

I thought about it awhile more, applied all my knowledge and experiences, and was prepared later when she asked the question again – This time I replied, “2 fig newtons in a baggie, that’s why they don’t make more of those movies.”

In response to her puzzled look I went on to explain, “Theaters make their money on tickets and concessions and many seniors choose the 1/2 price matinee showings, also show their AARP card for an additional discount, and then skip the concession stand because they brought 2 fig newtons in a ziplock bag.

This brilliant deduction and statement was followed by a long silence and a stare I’ve seen before. Despite the look I received I was quite content that I had expertly solved this Hollywood mystery and could move on to the next challenge (whatever it may be). Sometimes, it seems, it’s not rewarding to solve life’s mysteries, but someone’s got to do it, right?

Enemy of quality cinema?
Enemy of quality cinema?

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The 7 Habits of Corporate Executives

I’ve read and listened to a good number of books on business, marketing, management, etc. which offer many excellent approaches, techniques and tips to run a successful, innovative, motivated team and organization. These books were/are best-sellers.

7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_PeopleI know that the senior management of virtually every organization reads them and that many assign them to their teams and the next generation of leaders. “Long-term thinking,” “train, nurture and retain staff,” “always look at things from the perspective of your customers and prospects,” “treat everyone with respect and assume positive intent,” etc.

So my question is, “Why is it so rare that senior management actually follows any of that advice?”

Why do its readers go from "Good to Ghastly?"
Why do its readers go from “Good to Ghastly?”
Are they just not bright enough? Weak minded? Unable to change bad habits? Prefer “politics” to actual achievement as a strategy to advance? I mean really, WTF?

Did they mean well but revert to “Lord of the Flies” behavior after one bad quarter? Or are they just hiding their “crazy” in public most of the time? I’m asking because now that I’m back on positive side of the ledger I’m horrified at how bad it had been so often at so many places for me, my family and my friends. I had a chat with my first real business “mentor” the other night regarding helping his daughter get started in her chosen field and I was reminded how shocking it was when I first worked with him and was truly trusted, supported and empowered by him and the entire management team when we worked together in the 90’s.

We were all “jazzed up” to go to work every day, weren’t afraid to take calculated risks, and achieved great success with a small team and virtually no budget. Motivated, smart people we were and we innovated virtually every day to make the place better. Did I find a great leadership through my own research? LinkedIn? FuckedCompany.com? No, it was pure luck for me (and for them), that we “found” each other and were able to do great things and enjoy the process.

Why is that so rare today? Are 70% of Americans just idiots (as one of my best friends continually points out)? Do people really just not listen and comprehend good advice anymore? Are all “organizations” above a certain size just destined to go horribly dysfunctional because of their size? Is even the best corporate culture guaranteed to dissolve above 100 employees?

Soooo many "leaders" need to really read this book.
Soooo many “leaders” need to really read this book.
I don’t know the answer and believe me, I’m not complaining – I love competing against badly managed companies with toxic management styles and dysfunctional cultures. The bigger and better resourced they are, the better; it makes for greater satisfaction when you beat them and have your pick of their customers and their best employees.

I still would like to know the answer but until then I’ll just enjoy the fact that the competition is not going from “Good to Great,” doesn’t live by the “No Asshole Rule” and clearly hasn’t adopted “7 (or even 1), Habit of Highly Effective People.”

p.s.: When asked what my favorite “business” books are, the response is simple: “The Essential Drucker” and “The No Asshole Rule.” Great advice to work and live by everyday-

Best. Business. Book. Ever.
Best. Business. Book. Ever.

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Tide and the Choices “We” Make

I chose aeronautical engineering as my major in college despite it being brutally difficult and not having the recommended prerequisites in high school.

I left it after two years.

I chose to get into marketing for a technology company; I did well but switched to Sales to make more money (and did).

I wasn’t a natural at Sales (and didn’t love it), but was a grinder and used my skills learned behind the bar at the family’s and other saloons to have success.

I hated the taste of liquor but fairly quickly learned to like drinking it “neat.”

I grew up thinking guys who used “grease” in their hair looked odd and made a mental note to never do it. I have used “grease” or gel for decades.

All of the above are true of my Dad. And of me.

Highest price; still most popular with all classes
Highest price; still most popular with all classes
My mother used strange “home remedies” and I felt like we were primitive “mountain people” every time she cured a sty by cutting a potato in half and rubbing half on my eye and burying the other half where water drips.

It worked and all manner of “poultice” and home remedy became staples in my home.

I noticed in college how much more expensive Tide is than the other laundry detergents and I knew that Cheer and All were just as good.

My household only buys Tide (just as my parents did). Every semester I poll my larely international NYU grad class (who often complain about their finances), as to what detergent they buy, and then which detergent their parents bought – the results are 75-80% “Tide” for both answers… every time.

When in doubt, we emulate our parents behavior – even if we don’t get along with them or feel they were good decision-makers.  Even when they told us they made a wrong decision about something AND we quietly said to ourselves “Well, I’ll never make that mistake!”

We often do it without realizing that we’re doing it.  Like an unconscious inner guide, Dad and Mom are still making many of our decisions for us, not all of them of course but many more than we’d like to admit.  Hopefully they made good choices, and their parents did as well, because most of them are, and will, be ours too.

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Brady, Belichick and the Patriots: Facts and Non-Fiction

As the NFL playoff frenzy continues to build approaching conference championship weekend, all eyes and ears seemingly turn to the Patriots and their coach and quarterback. A little Fact and Non-Fiction for consideration:

Brady and Belichick
Brady and Belichick
Fact: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had an amazing and perhaps unparalleled run, winning 3 Super Bowls (without a loss), and following it up with an undefeated regular season.

Fact: The fact is that the previously unbeatable Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 0-fer in Superbowls since they were caught cheating and the “When given 2 weeks to prepare, no one will out prepare Bill Belichick!” statement sounds lazy and uninformed today.

Non-Fiction: With media darling Peyton Manning out early in yet another highly anticipated playoff run, the beautiful and talented Tom Brady will now get the lion’s share of attention as the young whippersnappers Flacco, Ryan and Copernicus will be grouped together.

Vince Ferragamo: Hopeful heartthrob coming back from Canada
Vince Ferragamo: Hopeful heartthrob coming back from Canada
Fact: While the NFL’s leading supermodel impregnator has lost the Prince Valiant haircut, he’s also trying to prove he hasn’t lost his on-field big game mojo. Since his coaches were caught cheating (to give him and his teammates an unfair advantage), this “Guaranteed first ballot HOFer” with “the clutch gene” has reminded us more of Dan Pastorini or even Vince Ferragamo than Joe Montana. Barely over .500.

Non-Fiction: Pastorini, Ferragamo and post-Spygate Brady are all Good looking, physically talented QBs from unusual pre-NFL glory situations who had great regular season success and were average to slightly above average in the playoffs.

Fact: Brady and Belichick have proven to be above average at their craft since the cheating scandal and associated sanctions for said cheating.

Non-Fiction: There’s no shame in just being above average in crunch time, but please… Vince Lombardi should never again be invoked when talking about Belichick and Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw should never again be invoked when talking about Tom Brady.

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