Do Something

The business world right now is a pretty scary place. It has probably always been a pretty scary place but I just may have been blissfully, no, euphorically unaware of it. Either that or I was just too dumb to realize how scared I should have been about the things I was doing.  On the other hand, that may have been the unintentional contributing factor to some of the successes I was having. It also explains to some extent all the resistance that I had met along the way. I was doing something.

I think we have all been party to those conversations where we as minions of those that inhabit the uppermost floors of our corporate buildings were discussing what we consider to be the oh so apparent solutions to the myriad of problems our business is facing. Words like “management” and “should do” and “ought to do” are thrown around like a baseball around the infield after a strikeout. Agreement is usually unanimous that management should do something. Imagine that.

I am going to give a little attribution to my dad here. He told me:

“Engineers solve problems. Lawyers dwell on them.”

I don’t know if he stole that from someone or if it was one of his own. He does have a PhD. In physics and is a really smart cookie in my book, so I prefer to think of it is one of his own comments. Way to go dad.

Now I am not going to get into lawyer bashing, although I do agree with about ninety percent of the quotes in existence as they pertain to lawyers. If you want to know what that means, just Google “lawyer quotes” and start reading. Now there are some creative writers.

My final comment here is that currently 60% of the members of the US senate and almost 40% of the members of the US House of Representatives are lawyers, and we all know how well those institutions are performing in the solving of our problems. Enough said.

Where I am going to go with this is to focus on solving problems. This is a dangerous road for many of us in business to take because it involves assuming responsibility, taking action, sometimes without even being told to, and doing something. And when you do something like that you will invariable make some people happy, and you will also make some other people unhappy. The hope is that you please the proper people. The objective is to make you happy. Regardless, taking a considered action is always the first step in solving a problem. Without action you don’t solve a problem, you just continue to cope with it.

I like to work on generating quantitative (measurable) improvements in businesses and solving problems. I guess I got this from my dad. I also have a degree in physics, just not a PhD. I like making visible progress. I like learning new things. I think many people do. I like to work with and associate with people who operate in this way as well. I also think that there are many who are not comfortable in that change oriented environment. These events can entail significant changes and certain amounts of discomfort for not just me, but for everyone else as well. Not everyone understands or agrees with the fact that every job description and every job function should entail a certain amount of discomfort. 

People like to be comfortable. When people get comfortable at what they are doing, they tend to want to stay comfortable. As they stay comfortable, the groove they are in gets ever deeper and soon little change and no improvement is possible. If everything else in the business world would now just cooperate and never change, these comfortable people could stay comfortable. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

There also seems to be plenty of people who could be described as problem dwellers in business. These are the people that seem to exist for the sole purpose of dealing with a known problem. You would think that with this sort of focus on a problem that it would be eventually solved. If that were the case, then there would no longer be a need for the problem dweller. What normally happens is that like your home dwelling that periodically needs updating and improvement, the problem dwelling at the office will be periodically updated and improved. And like you comfortably living in your home, the business problem dweller will go on somewhat comfortably working on the updated problem.

There are also those that either do not want the responsibility for doing something, or do not want to have to face those that will resist the change associated with doing something. These people are relatively easy to spot because they have a tendency to identify themselves as people who are not doing something. They call themselves “enablers” and “facilitators” and other such descriptors. What is an enabler or a facilitator? In today’s scary business world I would say that an enabler or a facilitator is someone who enables or facilitates someone else being able to do something.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes time for my annual reviews I like to be able to point to specific actions and say I did X, Y and Z, not I enabled someone else to do X, Y, and Z.

When you do something in business, such as solve a problem, it now means that everyone will now have to do something else. If they were working, or dwelling on that problem, they will now have to find another problem to work on. They can no longer be comfortable doing what they were doing.

This is called progress.

It may be a little disconcerting to associate discomfort with progress in business. I don’t think this should be the case. Progress, even incremental progress will require change of some sort.
In physics, a force is said to do work when it acts on a body so that there is a displacement of the point of application, however small, in the direction of the force. Thus a force does work when it results in movement. In physics changing a system requires that you apply a force or impart some work into the system. To do that you have to do something.

If you don’t, in business as in physics the system will not change. And as I said before, change is usually not comfortable, but I am not going to dwell on it.

Good Advice

The topic for this blog was suggested to me by my good friend Chris D. I thought it was a great suggestion since I think we have all been through and around the “advice” circle in one direction or the other. Thanks Chris.

Advice is a funny thing. Almost everything about it seems to fall into one of two categories.  There are those people that ask for advice and those that don’t. Those that ask for it can either use it or not. There are those people that offer advice and those that don’t. There are those that only offer advice when asked, and then there are those that offer advice even when they are not asked. People who fall into that last group are usually referred to as “annoyances”.

I once heard it said that there are two types of people: Those that divide people into two types and those that don’t. I think we can all safely say that we fall into one of those categories. I have also heard it said that there are actually three types of people: Those that know how to count and those that don’t, but I have digressed a little here. I think there are also two types of people that ask for advice: Those that are genuinely asking for help with a topic or issue, and those that are not.

I am willing to help just about anybody in business. I am a big believer in Karma. What goes around, does usually in some way come back around, and I never want to miss an opportunity to try and put the Karma universe in my debt. That being said there is also a physical limit to the number of things that I can do or help with at the same time. What that means is that I don’t like to be exercised unnecessarily on business topics. If someone is going to ask me for advice and I am going to put in the effort to try and generate a reasonable and workable response on their behalf, I would like to see at least some of my “advice” effort implemented. Otherwise, why have they bothered to ask me, and why have I bothered to respond.

Usually when someone asks for advice they are indeed looking for help on how to execute one of their responsibilities or assignments. Their requests are usually reflexive in nature and pertain to how they should complete their tasks. You are asking someone “what should I do?” Some may see asking for advice as a weakness. It’s not. If you know someone that has experience or expertise in a function you need to perform, it would be foolish not to ask their advice.

Advice also comes with a couple of strings attached and they involve feedback. If you ask for advice, it is usually assumed that you will use at least some of it. You need to let the provider know what you used, and it is normally good for to say “thank you”. By the way, saying thank you seems to be a lost art. If you did not use the advice there is an implied obligation and you owe the provider an explanation of why you didn’t use it. This is a common courtesy. It is particularly important if you ever want to ask for that person’s advice again.  

If you get in the habit of asking for advice and then either ignoring it or choosing to not implement it, people will stop providing it. This is similar to the story about the boy that cried “wolf”. Eventually there really was a wolf, and after so many false alarms, no one came to help. Sometime in their business careers, everyone could use some advice. If you have the reputation for asking for advice and then ignoring it, don’t be surprised if it is not available when you really need it.

The idea here is to not unnecessarily ask for advice. It communicates that you may not know which course to take and vests the person you are asking in the outcome you choose. If you think you have a potential solution in mind but may want a little more information, or perhaps some suggestions on a topic then don’t ask for advice. Ask for an opinion. Everybody has an opinion on everything. I heard a friend once say that they had an opinion and that everyone else was entitled to it. When you ask for an opinion you are essentially asking “what would you do?” You are not directly investing them in the success of the effort, and are not usually expecting the same depth of response.

Asking for an opinion doesn’t seem to invest people in the solution the way asking for advice does. I don’t know why this is. I would guess that requested advice is deemed valuable where a requested opinion is just that; an opinion. People who ask for advice are saying that they need help. People who ask for help usually receive it. People who provide help usually like to see it received and utilized. People who are asked for and provide an opinion usually assume that you probably have some clue as to what you need to do and will not be as put off if and when you ignore their opinion.

At least in my opinion.


When I was a kid I used to like to stay up late and watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. I think it was on either at 10:30 or 11:00 PM, which was really late for those days, at least for me. It was my first introduction to humor from the UK. Monty Python was all about the absurd, delivered with a straight face. It was timely. It was topical. At times it was even considered racy, for its time. I thought it was hysterical. It engendered in me an appreciation for the seemingly crazy things that people can say and do, with an earnest expression. As I have continued on in business, and in life for that matter, business events and actions continually remind me of the need for a good sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd.

I suppose that Monty Python imbued in me the ability to see the humor in some of the most arcane or improbable situations. The problem with this capability is that it seems that nature did not equip me with a very large buffer between my brain and my mouth where my comments could be reviewed before being released to the general public. Hence I have allowed many comments to escape that upon reflection might have been better retained for only internal consumption only. When I see something that I think is incongruous with the situation I have a tendency to immediately point it out. I think I am pointing out the humor in the situation. Other people have a tendency to think that I am pointing out how funny, or foolish I think they are. It’s possible that there might be a little bit of that going on as well.

I remember reading that no one actually sees themselves as evil, even when they are committing some of the most evil acts in history. It is interesting to me how few if any people in business see themselves as humorous or dumb, even when you see them saying or doing what appears to be some of the funniest or dumbest things possible in business. That is too bad as there are plenty of seemingly foolish things that go on in business. If there wasn’t where would Scott Adams get all his great and scarily accurate ideas for his Dilbert cartoons?

We have all been guilty of saying or doing something that at the time seemed very logical to us, but in hindsight we question just exactly what we were thinking at the time. I have kept several pictures of myself and my friends from earlier days just to remind myself that sometimes even my judgment can and should be called into question. Where did I ever get the idea in college that long hair and bell-bottom jeans were a good look for me? Some of my so called friends have some even better pictures of me, but I go ahead and pay the extortion price to keep those out of the public eye.

Business can be challenging, intense, stressful, uncomfortable, and rewarding and any number of other high energy adjectives to define it. But above all, it needs to be fun. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, you had better find something else to do. Humor for me is the weapon of choice when I have to deal with issues and situations that are in no ways any fun. And even that sometimes is not enough. Despite my best efforts, I have found no humor or anything that can even remotely be described as fun or enjoyable when I have had to tell someone that their job is going away and that they will have to leave the company to look for a new one. However, that too is part of business.

The key is to not unleash your humor fully in the public forum. Regardless of how obviously absurd or funny a manager’s antics may seem there will always be someone who does not find it as funny as you did. There will always be those around who are taking themselves and their work far too seriously. Business is important. Paying attention and providing value is key. There will always be those who will associate a sense of humor or a less than morose attitude as the traits of someone who is not fully engaged or serious in the business.

Since we now live in the age where political correctness is all the rage, I think we must now refer to these types of people as “intellectually challenged”, instead of any other more direct moniker. And like drones in a bee hive, there will always be certain number of them hanging around the boss.

Humor not only relieves and avoids stress; it slaps stress in the face, brings it to its knees in a wrist lock and makes it whine and beg for mercy like a professional wrestler who has just been smacked with the ever handy folding chair. I am not sure where that came from but you get the idea.

If a little bit of humor is good, then a whole lot more humor would be better, right? Not a chance. Humor is best applied in the office in smaller doses. It is not a big step to go from a person with a sense of humor to a person who is regarded as a smart-ass. I seem to have the uncanny ability to not only carefully approach the razor thin border between humor and smart ass, but with no malice of forethought to effortlessly leap across it with the grace and intent of an Olympic broad jump champion. I have been known to end up so far into the smart ass territory that it would appear to the casual observer that I am trying to sneak up on humor from the other side.

This is one of the places where I learned that too much of a good thing can indeed be bad. Once you have been christened a smart ass it is incredibly difficult to get rid of that tag. Regardless of what insight or intelligence you may bring to a situation, your opinion will be discounted to some extent because you are considered a smart ass. It will happen.

Find an outlet for your humor. A few close friends are good. I started writing about it – far too late in my career but I found it a great outlet. Only provide it in small doses in public. Let people know that you have a sense of humor by only providing glimpses of it. By channeling your humor and insight appropriately people will appreciate that there is more to you than just a business persona. This is also a really good idea if it turns out that you really don’t have a sense of humor to begin with. That way you will fail to be funny only occasionally instead of more frequently.

While you are supposed to be having fun in business, you are not supposed to be a comedian, or providing everyone else’s comedic relief. In school we could all recognize who the class clown was. In business you don’t want to be that person. After all, to use the Monty Python allegory just a little more, you may find yourself having to deal with the minister of funny walks, and he will take his job seriously. And he may not find it funny when you make fun of either his job, or the way he walks.


Boredom, the very thought of it makes me cringe. It also makes me yawn. You know what they say;

         “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

I got in some of the deepest trouble that I could get in when I was a kid just because I got bored. When you don’t have anything to do, doing just about anything seems like a good idea, regardless of how bad an idea it really is. This concept has really been brought home to me when I have watched the things that my kids are prone to do when they are bored.

But that’s not the type of boredom I am going to discuss here.

In physics there is a concept called Entropy. It is a crucial concept associated with the second law of thermodynamics. It governs which processes can spontaneously occur and which can’t. In layman’s terms entropy is the universe’s tendency to maximum disorder. As an example, a box of marbles that is overturned on the floor will tend to disperse across the floor (disorder), rather than stay stacked up on top of each other in the form of a box (order). All actions and functions increase the entropy or disorder of the universe, from a physics point of view.

Are you bored yet?

When I was in graduate school, I used to think that in business the accounting equivalent to entropy was boredom. That means that anything that anybody ever did in accounting added to the boredom of the universe. There were several accounting majors who didn’t seem to see the humor in this entropy – boredom comparison, but this was to be expected since they were already in accounting and had obviously already undergone a borg-like assimilation.

This is not the type of boredom that I am going to discuss here either.

My inspiration for this discussion of boredom comes from of all places a book I recently read: “The Adventures of Augie March”, by Saul Bellow. In case you are not familiar with it, it is number 81 on the Modern Library’s editor’s list of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century. It also has nothing to do with business. I find that I read many different books that have nothing to do with business directly, but that regardless of that, provide me with some insights that do help me with business. This is one of those instances.

In this book, Augie March says:

         “Boredom starts with useless effort.”

Now this is coming from a character that actually goes to the mountain desert of Mexico to train bald eagles to hunt giant iguanas. I couldn’t make that up. I am not that good a writer. Saul Bellow made that up. He is that good a writer. He has many awards to prove it.

Now I don’t know if Augie did that because he was bored, or did that to avoid becoming bored. I guess it doesn’t matter.

We have all at one time or another felt like we have been compelled to perform some task or do some work that we felt was useless. It is normally called busy work, or scut work, or any number of other names. It all comes down to we felt as if we were doing something that did not add value, that wasted both out talents and our efforts. It may have actually had a value, we just might not have been aware of it at the time. However, I think we all know when we are doing something useful, and when we are not.

The point I would make here is that if we as leaders have gone through the boredom associated with useless effort, are there people in our organizations and on our teams that are feeling the same way about their assignments? Assignments that may initially have seemed logical and useful by the leaders when they were requested, that may no longer seem that way to the team members responsible for fulfilling the requirements now.

In other words, are you sure that everyone in the organization feels that no part of the work they are doing in their opinion is useless? If you are not sure, then how do you find out? I have gotten my best results and responses to this question by asking it of team members in real-time exchanges, either face to face or over the phone. Sending an email or asking them to fill out a survey or questionnaire means you really don’t care.

That sort of behavior will only increase their boredom by requiring them to respond to another useless email or survey.

There is only benefit to be gained from this approach to communications with team members. At the worst you may have to explain what the value is (if there indeed is any value) in the work you have assigned them. They may not like what they have to do, but they will at least understand that it is not useless effort. At the best you may find that you have incremental capacity on the team because they were in fact engaged in efforts with minimal value. That useless effort can be stopped and the resulting functional capacity can be applied to more valuable projects and efforts.

No one wants to be bored due to the lack of things to do. I think in today’s business environment we can safely say that this is not a high probability issue. I also think that no one wants to be bored because they have to do accounting. That’s why we have accountants. Let them be bored. And no one wants to be bored because they feel they are engaged in a useless effort. If the effort has value there is benefit in explaining it and further aligning the team. If it turns out that there is no value in it, I am sure that there are a myriad of other things with definable value that the business needs to get done with that newly available resource.

Sales Experience

It has been said experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. That may or may not actually also apply to sales experience. If you go into sales and find you like it or are good at it, you probably won’t want to leave sales. In this instance you can get both what you want and experience. It has the potential to be lucrative with its commissions and compensation structures. Sales is the most quantitative of the business disciplines, meaning you know and everyone else knows when you have done well. Even if you decide that sales is not your preferred discipline, spending some time in sales and getting that experience can take your career in a number of different directions, and I think all of them are good.

Good sales people are a rare and valuable commodity. It is the sales team that starts the business process by getting an order for a good or service. A sales vice-president in one of my earlier business assignments had a plaque outside his office door. At the time I thought it was interesting. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was truly accurate. It read:

         “Nothing happens until something gets sold.”

Some of the other business disciplines may have some issues with the sales team. There will be those functions that will be at odds with sales. The finance team will be forever contending with sales over prices and margins associated with the sale. The legal and contracts teams will never be satisfied with the conditions of the sale. Operations will have to deal with delivery and implementation schedules that will be difficult to meet. It is a rare event when sales consummates a deal where everyone is happy with the margins, terms and schedules of the deal.

There will also be those functions that will state that it was their contributions to the sales process that were the true reason for the success. The support functions will say that without their groundwork and efforts sales would not have been able to get the order. Marketing will posit that it is in no small part attributable to their research, positioning and programs that there was any sales success. The development and engineering organizations will always state that it is due to the quality and elegance of the product design and function that sales is successful since the product is so good it almost sells itself. It is not a rare event, in fact it is a very common occurrence for any number of different non-sales groups to step forward and congratulate each other for their roles in a successful sale.

The first question to ask is why do you want to get into sales? There are those who consider sales the home of the peddlers and politicians of the business world.  Those peddlers and politicians are the types of people who do not rapidly garner the respect of many of the other business disciplines. There are also those that consider sales the engine of the organization and recognize its role in driving the organization forward. It has been my experience that there are usually more detractors of sales than there are proponents of sales. You need to get used to that idea.

Spending time in sales will provide you with the perspective of what it actually takes to deal head up with the competition in an effort to get a customer to give you money. Too many times there have been senior management who matriculate to the top of the organization from a financial or engineering or product oriented experience set. You can usually tell these types of senior managers because they will usually do one of two things when it comes to sales: They will fully turn sales loose to manage their own business because they don’t understand the sales process, or they will try to fully or overly control sales because they feel they do fully understand sales (without having had sales experience) and hence want to dictate the sales process for the organization. Neither of these approaches usually works very well.

Getting into sales may not be an easy objective to accomplish. I am not aware of any undergraduate or graduate business degrees that are available in “Sales”. There is marketing, finance, etcetera, even human resources, but not sales. I think that fact in itself, that you cannot get a business degree in sales speaks volumes about the relative view of sales in the pantheon of business disciplines. So knowing this, how do you get into sales?

I don’t think there is any specific or defined method to getting into sales, other than setting sales as your goal and looking at how others have gotten into sales. Depending on the type of business, there will usually be a location or discipline within the organization that sales goes to recruit new sales team members. It may have been the support group, the operations team or even the training organization, but there will usually be a team that is considered the sales training ground. While you may not be able to get directly into sales from wherever you are, you should be able to make the step into the interim group that then enables the next step into sales.

Once into sales, how long do you stay there? If you are good at it you may want to focus your career on sales. The money can be great and the responsibilities will be well defined. While it may be possible to be a leader in the sales organization, there are relatively few business leaders who have come from the sales discipline. While good customer skills are a requisite for both sales and senior management positions, the incremental financial, product and business functional knowledge required to lead a business are not usually associated with sales team members.

So if you are not going to remain in sales, and you also know that it is difficult to become a business leader from the sales discipline, why am I recommending getting some sales experience? Sales is the recognized front end of the business process. It is crucial to generating the top line revenue for the business. The best way to generate a good bottom line is to generate a healthy top line. Experiencing sales from the sales side of the equation will help the business leader understand what sales must contend with from forces both internal and external to the organization. It will also help the leader to understand that sales people are not just peddlers and politicians, selling products that are already so good that they almost sell themselves.