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Business culture: Reflected by daily conversation

There are a few commonly-used phrases in business conversation that raise the hair on my neck.

Here are three of my favorites, along with one (‘innovation’) that we hear bandied about in the tech press on what seems like an hourly basis.

  • Industry Norms
  • Best Practices
  • Human Capital
  • Innovation

They sound like such good things, so you may wonder why they’re so hair-raising.

You might be thinking that they’re just words, but they could be the lexicon of your business culture. The problem with these phrases is that they sound like one thing but they usually mean something entirely different.

Does it matter? I think so. Employees and even contractors look to the leader of a business for signals that they walk their talk. Words that undermine the stated business culture can do a lot of integrity damage.

Dictionary Man

Let’s review the phrases I mentioned.

Industry Norms

This one is a little sneaky because it seems to convey that you are doing as well as those in your industry who are normal.

What is “normal”, exactly?

In this context, I think of it as average. That means if you are meeting industry norms, you are right smack in the middle. Not doing poorly, but not leading the industry.

I wouldn’t consider that a goal unless you are currently below average – and even then, it should be a pit stop rather than a destination.

When your staff sees industry norm statistics in trade publications, I’m thinking you would want them to consider those as something they’d want to see in the rear view mirror, rather than something to aspire to.

Best Practices

This one is similar to “industry norms” because it conveys the average, or perhaps a little history lesson.

To me, “Best Practices” are those things that are considered the least common denominator of business practice in your industry.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be performing them – it means that the businesses leading your market no longer sees them as something to start doing or strive for. Instead, they consider them assumptions of how to do business, rather than something done only by the best businesses.

If you’re the leader in your market, you know that you can look back at things you started doing two or three (or ten) years ago and find that the average or lower-tier businesses are just now catching on to them.

Human Capital

I see Temple Grandin watching over a feedlot. She observes people’s behavior as they are herded through a Dodge City feedlot’s gates, chutes and ramps. Occasionally, she makes suggestions for how to adjust things so people are less likely to become upset as they mindlessly parade along.

If you’re in the financial industry, “human capital” might be a more positive term, but in that context is still feels a bit like something to consume, spend or exhaust in order to achieve a goal. Like firewood.

If you use it in the context of investment and improvement, I can see a positive, but the word choice is something to be very careful with.


Let me redefine it for you: Innovation lights up the face of a customer.

Is that what happens when they see your latest new feature?

This doesn’t really matter does it?

Your staff makes that decision about you and your leadership team. I suspect you make it about those you consider leaders.

When you listen to a local, state or national leader speak – do you dissect their comments and make any judgments based on the words they use?

When viewed through that lens, do your words seem more important?

Another angle: If your employees rolled their eyes every time you spoke, how would that make you feel? I suspect it would tick you off if you were face to face.

Now imagine them rolling their eyes because of something you said in an email, on a conference call or perhaps to a customer while that employee is within earshot.

What words reflect your business culture?

The culture of your business is reflected in the words you and your leaders use every day to describe your business, your people, your products and your prospects in the marketplace.

Are they leading your staff & your business culture in the wrong direction?

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Do you manage perception or reality?

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 10.55.46 AM

This “Sorry” image is what you see on YouTube when you’re prevented from viewing a video because the uploader decided not to make their content available in your country.

In this case, the video was a seven minute news clip from 1970.


I understand how allowing a viewer in another country to see 43 year old content of historical interest would seriously undermine that organization’s ability to sell advertising, much less how it would damage their credibility in the news market.

I wonder if the decision to limit this company’s news footage to their home country was considered long and hard in policy meetings and with legal. Was much discussion dedicated to finding reasons to limit access? How about efforts to find reasons to not to?

Was the cost of making that decision higher than the cost of letting anyone in any country view the video?

It reminds me of people who put more effort into controlling the public’s perception of their company than they do into taking actions that actually impact the company’s public image. The irony is that attempts at perception control tend to damage their employer’s image more than the truth would have.

We often ask the wrong questions.

Every day that you look the other way in your business when faced with perception vs. reality issues, your business becomes less personal, easier to hate and easier to replace.

Is that really what you want?

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Are you using your white hair too?

In the days before 9/11, our local airport (Glacier International aka FCA) had a mix of mostly Boeing 737/727, prop and regional jet traffic.

Since 9/11, most of our traffic other than flights to Minneapolis are regional jets or props. When I fly Delta to Salt Lake, for example, I’m usually flying some Delta Skywest regional jet (typically a Canadair model) that is codeshared with Delta.

Before much of the economy cratered over the last year, it wasn’t unusual to see two pilots in the cockpit of these regional jets that looked young enough to have just finished Rush Week at a local university.

Now, I don’t mean to put them down – after all, we always flew safely, never had an unprofessional effort by the pilots and the overall quality of the flight itself appeared no different than any other trip with more experienced pilots – still, there was always a comment or two by passengers when they saw a flight crew that looked like they had been shaving for less than 10 years (in the case of a male crewmembers).

With all the shakeup in the economy and airline industry, these regional jets are now being captained by what appear to be very experienced, mostly white-haired guys who are probably old enough to have flown combat in Vietnam.  As the airlines downsize the number of flights, experienced pilots get pushed down the system to the regional jets.

The smart thing that the airlines are doing – at least SkyWest – is pairing these experienced pilots with the younger pilots who were already flying with them. The ability to let these experienced folks mentor the younger pilots is huge – and it wasn’t something the airlines appeared to be doing prior to changes in the economy.

I talked with several passengers about this during my recent trip to Vegas and all of them found it not only smart business – but comforting to have 30+ years of experience in the cockpit instead of the assumption of 5 or 10 years – even if the younger pilot was doing the flying.

How does this relate to your business?

  • How are your new staff members learning the ropes? How are they getting “co-pilot” experience with the equivalent of your white-haired, experienced pilots?
  • Looking up into the cockpit and seeing a 50-ish white-haired guy brings confidence in the delivery of air travel without saying a word. For all we know, that guy had no more experience than the co-pilot, or came out of a 20 year retirement due to losses in the stock market and might have fewer regional jet flight hours than the young co-pilot. Didn’t matter, at least until we had the chance to find out more. What gives your customers’ confidence about your business’ ability to deliver with safety and high quality? What are you doing to show them the “white hair” or whatever it takes in your line of work?
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Smart companies and the post-crisis consumer

What if you did the right things and the smart things years before most of your competitors did? Wouldn’t that make life easier?

John Gerzema talks at TEDxKC about the post-crisis consumer (16m 34s), but there are some interesting business nuggets in here as well.

Smart companies, smart consumers

Gerzema talks about a lot of things that make the video interesting from a consumer and business perspective, but 2 things stuck out for me:

1) Some of the discussion is about all the changes that big companies are making to take advantage of the post-crisis consumer’s mindset, even though much of what they are doing are the things that *smart companies* have been doing for years.

They’ve been watching their expenses, tracking their advertising, spending money on investments they can measure, hiring smarter – and they’ve been doing this for years – just like the frugal consumers Gerzema talks about.

2) I found it interesting, and at times mildly amusing, that many of the “new” consumer trends that Gerzema’s team is discovering (presumably in urban areas) have been part and parcel of rural living for as long as anyone can remember. Emphasis on community, volunteering, ethics, “durable living”, not flaunting your bling (had to be said), and the like.

Most small town folks didn’t need the economy to crater to start doing those things.

Those 2 things aside, the 16 minutes is definitely worthwhile, so grab a cuppa joe and enjoy.

What to do next

Now that these things have reached beyond little towns like the ones around me and are reaching deep into urban areas, how can you adjust what your business is doing to get in step with the consumers where you live?

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Earn trust or destroy it? Your choice

Creative Commons License photo credit: aturkus

Millions of people depend on Gmail.

Sometimes it goes down unexpectedly.

Not long ago, people all over the world were “freaking out” and saying the F word (“Fail”) because Gmail was down.

In addition to numerous posts via Twitter and other social media, here’s how Google communicated a problem when they had a major downtime (their description – the downtime was not quite 2 hours).

Think about how your business responds when there’s a problem.

Do you keep it under your hat?

Do you update your clientele frequently so they remain calm, even if things aren’t going so well.

When things aren’t going so hot, it quite often ends up being more important how you communicate with your clientele when there’s a problem.

Here’s an example that’s a bit more serious.

It got worse for the business because they handled communication poorly.


A few months back, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) suddenly started buying (or trying to buy) pieces of track-side real estate in Whitefish MT (a resort/ski community in Northwest Montana) and Somers, MT (a lakeside resort area not far south of Whitefish).

No reason was given for the sudden interest in track-side land but people started talking. Conspiracy theories were abundant.

Here’s an excerpt from an early newspaper column about BNSF’s behavior:

Burlington Northern Sante Fe is up to something. The railroad giant has approached property owners in Whitefish and Somers, offering to buy their land. No one knows why, exactly, not even those who have been asked to sell. And BNSF isnâ??t talking â?? leaving entire neighborhoods apprehensive…

Eventually, residents got wind of BNSF approaching their neighbors and started asking questions. BNSF was mum about it, not even talking details with those they offered to buy out.

As a result, the residents made the natural move – they got attorneys.

Feeling the heat, BNSF decided to admit what was going on, albeit a bit too late to avoid looking a bit slimy.

By then, the tone had been set. Lying until you get caught is how things were gonna work, even if they were “only” lies of omission.

Coming clean only works in your favor when you do it upfront.

Without Grace

Not unlike W.R. Grace’s behavior in Libby MT (which echoed its earlier behavior in Woburn MA including lying to the EPA about their chemical use), BNSF had set the stage such that nothing they said was going to be trusted.

Before long, the EPA got involved and now BNSF has to do things the hard and likely more expensive way. Just like Grace, at least in Woburn.

While the BNSF and Grace situations are substantially more serious than a mere 100 minutes of Gmail downtime, that really isn’t the point.


The point is that there are two choices: Communicate in a manner that generates trust, or communicate in a manner that destroys it.

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Looking up at an ugly linebacker

Competition. It isn’t good or bad, it just is.

You either are or you aren’t competitive. Thankfully, it’s something you might even be able to learn, at least somewhat.

On the other hand, it’s hard to teach the desire to drive the QB into the dirt and then stand over him. You just gotta.

Anyhow, on that theme, today’s guest post comes from a rather unusual place – a sports blog. More specifically, Dan Shanoff’s discussion about ESPN’s next entry into local sports coverage.

Filter all the sportiness out of it after reading it once and think about a similar entity entering your local market.

A big, powerful, deep pocketed player. In your market. In your town.

Whaddaya gonna do now?

Shanoff lays it out nicely for a paper. How about your business?

Are you going to wait till they arrive to take the next step? Not a good idea.

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Is it the recession or is it you?

Normally I don’t do two guest posts in the same weekend from the same person, but Lisa Barone’s “It’s not the recession, you just suck” resonates with a number of things I’ve been passing along to you over the last few months.

As such, I thought I’d let someone else in the PickYourselfUp Choir sing the lead this time.

Here she is.

Look at it this way… if McDonald’s closed, you wouldn’t starve to death. Why would allow a business closure or layoff to starve your career?


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Wonder if the coffin hinges squeaked?

Creative Commons License photo credit: mhoey

Wednesday, MSNBC reported that John Barry, the former CEO of WD-40 company had recently passed on.

Normally, I don’t spend a lot of time reading obits, but something made me consume this one.

Perhaps it is because WD-40’s branding penetrated our culture so well. Just one indication: when my not so mechanically inclined wife wants something oiled, she says put some WD-40 on it.  Just yesterday, in fact.

Anyhow, I’m reading down through the article about his domain over this product and his company and more and more little signals stick out about how this guy truly understood his focus.

He knew he wasn’t in the oil business. A lot of folks wouldn’t get that. Too many, in fact.

You’ve had some good examples. You wont catch Starbucks management telling people they’re in the coffee business. That’s just one.

As I went down through the article, it just got better and better…. and then the quote:

â??We may appear to be a manufacturing company,â? Mr. Barry said to Forbes, â??but in fact we are a marketing company.â?

That is Mr. Barry’s parting gift to you. This is how you have to think of your business and now here’s a very successful CEO opening the curtain and confirming it.

The news piece is here.

I strongly suggest taking a few moments to read it and then consider what business you’re in.

Tech folks (programmers and the like): If this is where you start feeling slimy, get over it. Get way over it.

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Starbucks strikes back against “theft”

It’s a nicely done video with just a small rough spot here and there. I like how Howard thanks his staff.

It’s certainly a good example of communicating your company’s values in ways other than organically.

It’s not theft when you give it away

Most interesting is the claim that that indie coffee shops (perhaps more accurately: McDonald’s) are stealing Starbucks’ story. You know, the story about the indie, perhaps even quirky, coffee shop that does it all while you watch.

The story Starbucks gave away in exchange for stock certificates, warehouses and cookie cutter stores.

Back in prehistoric times before there were 4 bazillion Starbucks stores, before conference calls with Wall Street, they did the things that indies have always done.

Now, they compete with McDonald’s for the McCoffee market and they buy, roast and ship prefab coffee around like McDonald’s ships prefab burgers. To their credit, it got a little better when they went to Pike Place Roast, but it still isn’t like fresh roasted indie coffee.

Coffee should be roasted in your shop for consumption that day (OK, I’ll give you a week or so), not in a warehouse in (among other places) New Jersey.

What’s that smell?

To reclaim the indie story, you have to do the things an indie coffee shop lives for (and their clientele depends on):

  • roast your beans in the store, in small quantities.
  • serve ground-that-moment coffee, not ground-last-month-in-New-Jersey coffee.
  • roast coffee till it’s just right (rather than burn it)

The air in a community coffee shop should smell like fine coffee, rather than carry the aroma of stale french fry grease.

Congruence. Do you have it?