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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

People You Can Count On


It's the Holiday season...and that makes it the season of funerals.  I'm not sure why, but more people die around the Holidays than any other time during the year.  A friend of mine who's Mom had been ill for many months, died on Thanksgiving Day a few years ago.  She believes it was her Mom's way of making sure the family remembered exactly when she died.  

I've been to 4 funerals since Thanksgiving and it reinforces for me that funerals are for the living.  The deceased certainly doesn't know you showed up to celebrate their life (unless you channel them later through the Long Island Medium).  The timing of each one of the funerals was inconvenient because it was during the Holiday season - people have plans and are trying to get ready for Christmas, some are traveling, etc.  And at each one, there were people  who flew in or drove for hours to support the family of the deceased.

Most recently, my ex-partner Karen's Dad passed away.  He was a Chicago fire fighter retired for many years, yet many of his former co-workers showed up and shared great stories with the family.  I flew into Midway just for the afternoon viewing and flew out of O'Hare.  Our retired Office Manager (now friend) and her husband who had already driven an hour and a half to get there  picked me up, drove me out to the funeral home in the suburbs and then dropped me off at O'Hare - way out of their way in the scheme of their day.  Another couple who are close to Karen flew in from HAWAII just for the 24 hour period of the viewing and the funeral.  When I suggested to Karen that they really went above and beyond, she said, "those are the kinds of people that we gravitate to". 

That comment really struck something in me because it's so true.  In Design Incentives, those were the types of employees that we attracted, or that gravitated to us.  Our outstanding customer service was the thing most often mentioned as the reason people worked with us and our unofficial mantra (not really appropriate for an official company tag line) was, "we give a shit".   The PG version:  "if it was easy, everyone would be doing it".  We cared enough to do the hard stuff.  Customer calls and needs something overnight and UPS has picked up for the day?  An employee would drive it over to the FedEx hub on their way home from work.  You catch a mistake after something is all packaged up and ready to ship?  You unpack it, fix the mistake and re-pack.  Customer changes the day the bid is due?  You work through the weekend and drive it 3 hours to the customer on Monday morning.  Even now, an ex-employee with whom I still work on a contract basis, helped me by buying a gift going to her side of the state - and then delivered it for me!

The older I get, the more grateful I am for these types of people in my life.   And I'm noticing more and more the people that cannot be counted on.  You make plans with them and and they cancel at the last minute; they commit to performing a task or taking on a project and then have a million excuses as to why it didn't get done; I'm over these people.  

In business, it's suggested that it's beneficial to periodically fire some of your customers - those who don't pay on time, don't appreciate the value of your product or service or are not respectful to your employees.  It makes sense to "un-friend" as well, and not just on Facebook.  In the coming year, I'll be making an even greater effort to be the kind of friend/Service Provider/Board/Committee/Family member who gives a shit, and am not going to feel bad about purposely losing touch with those who don't.    Happy New Year!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Biz Tips for Girl Scouts!

I recently had the opportunity to literally provide business tips to girls - in a 2-part session that I facilitated for Junior Girl Scouts (9 and 10-year olds), helping them to earn their Business Owner badge.  The 10 girls that participated give me great hope for the future.  As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, they said things like, "I'm Amy and I'm Fabulous!" and "I'm Susan and I have "shareholds" in several companies" (she used the wrong term but had a very accurate grasp on what it meant to own stock).  As in any group, some were talkers and some were more reserved, but I saw no self-esteem issues there!  The mission of the Girl Scouts has been refined slightly over 100 years as our culture has changed, but Girl Scouting has always been about leadership.  The current message is:  Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place.  I certainly saw that on these two Tuesday evenings in November.

While obviously rambunctious 9 and 10-year old girls, they were thoughtful and serious about planning their businesses.  We walked through a business plan and they were surprised to learn how much is involved in starting a business. Many decided that the funding to start their businesses would come from their parents;  I suggested a Plan B.  When my friend Nancy came in to talk about banking, and Melanie came in to talk about SBA resources, the girls were also surprised to learn that you actually had to apply for a loan and overcome objections or concerns that the banker or SBA loan officer might have about their business. (They thought the bank was just a money store where you go and and withdraw what you need).  Finally, they drew a picture of their businesses and presented that along with their business plan to the group.

Sometimes I use this as one of my "two truths and a lie" when that game is played at networking events:  I was a Girl Scout from Brownies through Seniors - and then I was a troop co-leader for a mentally impaired troop in Kalamazoo while at Western Michigan University studying Psychology.  It was not particularly cool or un-cool to be a Girl Scout even back when I was in school, but we were lucky to have terrific leaders who made it interesting and rewarding and I remain friends with many of those girls today.  We volunteered at several places including the Detroit Historical Museum (if I survive an apocalypse and we have to start society over from scratch, I can spin wool into yarn on a spinning wheel...I'm just saying).  We took trips to Mystic Connecticut to learn to sail; we traveled to Toronto and Washington, D.C.  Of course, camping is a big part of Girls Scouting.  Some might be surprised to learn that I didn't just participate in pre-primitive camping, but full-out primitive:  digging a hole for the latrine and to wash dishes (different holes of course), pitching a tent and cooking over camp fires built with matches and kindling.  (To be fair, I was younger then and not yet addicted to my curling iron).

My Girl Scout background doesn't often come up in conversation, so I found it curious when I was looking for a place to hold these sessions and reached out to my Posse sister, Tyla, to see if I could use one of her Montessori School classrooms.  Not only did she generously offer her classroom, but helped me moderate the first session - and told me that she was also a Girl Scout for many years.  Then when I asked two more very accomplished friends, Nancy and Melanie, to speak to the girls about business and banking at the second session, I learned that they had also been Girl Scouts.

As a thank-you for doing these sessions, the Volunteer Specialist from the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan gave me a book written by the CEO, Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts.  It's a fascinating look at how Girl Scouts have impacted society over the years and how the organization is evolving to remain relevant today.  The author and CEO, Kathy Cloninger, shares statistics that we already know:  only 3% of Fortune 500 CEO's are women, women hold just 17% of congressional seats in government and make up only 15% of corporate board directors.  Then she shared a statistic that I did not know:  though only 10% of American girls have been Girl Scouts at any one time, 80% of female senior executives and business owners are former Girl Scouts.  Coincidence?  I think not.

As Tyla was looking around the room, she said she could see all of our other Posse sisters as 9-year old girls (you'll recall from past posts that my Posse is a group of women who seceded from the Woman President's Organization and continue to stay in touch as an informal advisory group for each other - and serve as drinking partners). Almost all of our personalities were in that room.

Now that I'm thinking about it, while I also belong to several "mixed" business groups, I have a long history of joining girl-groups:  Girl Scouts, Executive Women's Golf League, National Association of Women Business Owners, Smart Girls Book Club, Women President's Organization - these associations have provided a strong foundation and an invaluable source of support, guidance, information and resources.  (I can only assume that the Red Hat Society is the logical next step!)

Most people associate Girl Scouts with cookie sales without being aware that the annual cookie sale is a powerful $700 million educational program that underscores their  brand:  developing leadership in girls.  This is not the giant commercial for Girl Scouting that it sounds like, but it IS about the importance of encouraging girls to develop their leadership potential. We have a leadership crisis in this country and until women are involved at a higher percentage, we're only tapping the potential of half of our population.

So as Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book, Lean In, when your daughter/niece/student starts to sound "bossy", please do not use that B-word:  tell her you're excited to see that she's exhibiting leadership potential.  Maybe we'll see her in the future as the CEO of a Fortune 100 company that she founded - or (if she sets her sights lower) as President of the United States!


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Odd Jobs

I'm at the age now where our kids and their cousins are all graduating from college and moving out into the workforce to get "real" jobs (different than their jobs during high school and college).  They seem to be very determined to find the perfect job, and they're a little disturbed that the jobs in their major field of study no longer seem to appeal to them, or are not as they expected.  Just when you think you know what you want to be when you grow up - not so much.  Some of us are STILL trying to figure that out.

I have been doing my best to share these truths with the youngsters:

1) your first job will probably suck
2) few people are working in their major field of study (Doctors and Attorneys aside...and even some of them have changed careers....)

Here are a couple of my first jobs after college:  (by the way - Behavioral Psych major / Business Management minor.  I intended to be an administrator at a group home or sheltered workshop for mentally impaired...until I discovered how little that paid.  Business Management to the top of the resume!)

Record Copy Services:  It was just that.  They copied records for attorneys.  (Think before the internet, before email, before computers, before fax machines.  There were IBM Selectric typewriters and copy machines.)  I was hired as one of 4 department managers on Monday; I was the only one left on Friday (and that was my last day).  Department 1:  Research.  They verified the addresses of the parties involved, the attorneys, the judges, the courts.  By phone or yellow pages.  Department 2:  Copy Services.  Put the pages of the documents one by one into the copy machine and push the button. Seriously.  Department 3:  Binding.  Yes, literally put the plastic binding on the copied documents.  Department 4:  Sales.  Sit in rows and rows of school-type desks in a room with a phone and a list of attorneys and try to sell the documents to the other side.  Sound like Hell?  It was.  Aside from the less-than-interesting duties, the owners were two horrible sisters who mostly communicated with employees by scolding.  I was the last one to give my notice at the end of the week (I was still trying to make the best of it).  I tried to give 2 weeks notice but they said, no problem, that could be my last day.  Whew.  From there to:

Gould Electrical Systems:  I was older and wiser now!  I asked questions like, "What would my specific duties be?  What would an average day look like?  Why did the person before me leave?".  What I DIDN'T ask my immediate boss was, "Are you retiring in 6 months and therefore a lame duck with very little to do?  Can all of those duties you outlined be accomplished in approximately 2 hours per week?  Did the 2 ladies that I supervise both want this job and now hate me?  Are electrical systems mind-numbingly boring?"  Also my boss' name was Dick Heck (I can't make this stuff up), and it was very difficult for me to address him with a straight face.

Still determined to make the best of it, I noticed that Gould had an college-reimbursement program.  Since I had already read through all of the literature on electrical systems, I decided I'd go back to school on their dime.  I would have 4 days a week basically to do homework (the 2 ladies I supervised were reading 3 novels a week).  I had a math class to take before I could apply for the MBA program, so I signed up at Henry Ford Community College, bought the books and entered the class.  The "review" of Algebra II on the board as I walked in looked like hieroglyphics to me (problem:  classic math anxiety).  I got up, sold my books, dropped out of the class and started another job search in earnest.  That brought me to:

Watrous Associates.  My entree into the incentive world.  Third time is a charm apparently.  Had a great boss, worked there for 11 years until joining Design Incentives as a partner and found a real live career, not even remotely related to my major.  Back before Monster.com or LinkedIn, I actually answered an ad in the newspaper. I didn't even know there WAS an incentive industry.

The moral is:  do not be discouraged with your first jobs.  Finding out what you don't want is just as valuable as discovering what you DO want.  You can't say no until you get an offer, so go into every interview behaving as though you want that job - but if you see giant red flags, don't ignore them.  Don't be afraid to ask your contacts for introductions - as an employer, I'd much rather hire someone that has been recommended to me.  Ask good questions about your responsibilities.  Here's another little-known fact:  employers who have trouble keeping employees may misrepresent the position (?!).

Got a great story about your first job out of college?  I'd love to share it!



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Smart Girls Book Club

After working with primarily men for 30 years, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time with women.  That could be because as we get older, women are infinitely more interesting, or it could be that I'm  subconsciously positioning myself with an alternative to the Red Hat Society once all our husbands are dead.

At any rate, I've always been a big reader, but have never been in a book club - until now:  The Smart Girls Book Club (for women with passion and purpose) meets once a quarter.  This time, we read "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg.

The room of about 30 women were accomplished and interesting - every one of us recognized ourselves in Sheryl's book and I found myself sitting in a room with some great material.  Some of the main points:
  • almost every woman in the room had been called "bossy" growing up.  (After I read that chapter in the book I called my Mom to tell her she shouldn't have called me "bossy" - she should have said "I detect leadership potential in you!")
  • Sheryl quotes a statistic that men feel they have to meet about 60% of the parameters to do a new job; women feel that they must meet or exceed every single requirement - that was consistent with most everyone's experience in the room
  • Sandberg suggests that women "leave before they leave".  Men would never consider not going after a promotion because they might want kids some day; women do it when they're just thinking about thinking about it.  (Hopefully Marissa Meyer and others are showing better examples)
Some of the other stories in the room were:

-the woman who was performing well at an accounting firm, hating it every day for 2 years.  Finally she spoke to her boss to give notice.  He said this was a mistake, the best job she was every going to have.  She said she didn't think they were a good fit; she has asked for a raise a couple of times, she knew her under-performing male counterparts were paid more, yada yada.  He asked what she was going to do - she said she didn't have anything lined up but was confident.  Two weeks later at the going-away party that they threw for her, she was holding a piece of cake when one of the under-performing male colleagues approached her to ask what she was going to do.  She said, in fact, she had a job offer in the last 2 weeks and was going to a rival firm and would be working less and making 3 times as much as she was here.  He looked at her and said, that's great, now you'll have more time to make cakes like this (pointing to her piece of cake).  She had no words, but was confident that she made the right decision to leave!

-another woman just made partner in her accounting firm earlier this year.  On April 16th, they celebrate the end of tax season with a Partners dinner.  There are 8 male partners and this woman made the 3rd female partner.  After dinner, the male managing partner announced, "great job - let's all hit the cigar bar".  This woman said, "Seriously?" - yes, seriously.  (I'm guessing that even when the managing partner is a woman, she would be too considerate of her male/female audience to announce, "great job - let's all go get pedicures!")

-a woman working for an automotive company back in the day had similar experiences to mine:  at lunch, every one of the guys had a scotch in front of them.  She regularly chose to accompany customers and male co-workers to the topless bars, since that's where her company entertained customers.

-several of us who came of age in the 70's, tell stories to younger women who have never experienced anything like we did.  They're incredulous that there was a time when a woman who was gainfully employed and wanted to buy a car had to have her husband or father co-sign for her.  

A couple of the women in the group attributed their current success to their fathers, who regularly told them they could do anything they wanted, provided that they worked hard at it.  My Dad was in the girls-don't-need-to-go-to-college-they-just-need-to-know-how-to-type camp.  (As it happens, I DO have mad typing skills, which have come in quite handy in the computer age.)  I'm embarrassed to admit college didn't even occur to me until the middle of my senior year - I was on a secretarial track and college was never discussed.  Since there was no money for a university, the deal was that if I went to community college for 2 years, I could have the Process Blue Ford Maverick with the basketball-sized rust holes in the fenders.  Not pretty but it got me back and forth from school in Dearborn and Mama Mia's restaurant.  It's probably not even possible to finance a college education with a waitress job today.  But I digress....

The point is that even though none of us in the room have a job similar to the COO of Facebook, we all shared the same journey as Sheryl Sandberg.  The goal now is to share this information with younger women AND men so that the next generation doesn't need to learn all of this the hard way.  Here's hoping that the young women coming up are confident enough to Lean In to all of the exciting opportunities available to them.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sales is like Dating

Have you ever thought about how sales can be like dating?  Here are some comparison's that are coming to mind...

Blind Date:  The Referral.  Just like your friends who love you and continually fix you up, so will customers who like you fix you up with others they think would be good business partners for you.  And that first meeting can be just as awkward - or it can be love at first sight.

Flirting:  you're attracted to a particular customer and begin "courting" them.  Flirting includes arranging to be at events where you might run into them, sending little gifts or tidbits of information you know are relevant to them, etc.

It's Just Lunch:  Like the "just lunch" dating site where fix-ups only meet for lunch so that they can easily detach if it's not going well, some first client meetings are also just for coffee so that they can extricate themselves quickly if possible.

The Third Date:  Time to decide if you're going to get serious.  Maybe a test project or two; you can't put it off much longer if you're going to keep the supplier's interest.  The expression, "they're in bed with that customer/supplier" starts here.

The Jerk:  As we know from life, all dates don't turn out well. You'll know if you've found a jerk because they never follow through and clearly demonstrate that their time is more valuable than yours. They ask for time-consuming proposals and then never review them.  They set meetings and don't even cancel - they're just not there when you show up.  They ask for free products or services but won't commit to a project and dodge your email/phone calls/texts.  Jerks don't get better; believe the warning signs.  Lose this one and move on.

End of Party manners:  While dating, it can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for the party manners to end.  In real life it's when men burp and fart in front of you, he's seen you without makeup, you've got a sense of the real person now.  In business, this translates to low introductory pricing returning to "regular" rates, they may start to feel like one of your customers vs. your ONLY customer, etc.

Living Together:  You've got projects but they don't have you under contract yet.  This is where you both see if you can get along for the long term but aren't yet ready to make a firm commitment.

Marriage:  Honeymoon phase.  A long-term contract is signed, rules relax and you can possibly entertain the execs, meet spouses, socialize and solidify the union.  Everyone is happy and basking in the glow of the new relationship.

Marriage:  We're Comfortable.  The honeymoon is over, you're comfortable with each other and can pretty much predict actions and reactions now.  The supplier gets a little lax, lulled by the security of the long-term contract.  The customer no longer closely monitors this any may assign the relationship to a subordinate.  This is risky behavior and the perfect time for a new supplier to make a move.

Infidelity:  We're comfortable, hanging around in sweatpants, not paying a whole lot of attention to the relationship - it's functional but not especially exciting.  But wait: there's a new supplier flirting with you.  They are shiny and new and wear suits and dresses.  They are spending a lot of energy trying to get to know you, what interests you, what you'd like.  Your flattered and decide it might be fun to "just have lunch" and test the waters....

And around and around it goes.  Beware the Comfortable Marriage phase.  As a potential new supplier, that was my favorite phase and the signal to start flirting - many new accounts have been gained by taking advantage of the complacency of the current supplier.  If you ARE the current supplier, don't take that customer for granted - keep that relationship exciting!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Incentive Program

When I joined my partner Karen in business in the late 1980's, there were few women principals in manufacturers rep firms like ours.  We were building our brand (although it wasn't necessarily called that then), and while this was the era of women wearing business suits with socks and gym shoes, that wasn't us.  Always a professional dress or suit, with heels - even at trade shows.  In fact, while our Office Manager, Linda, was soaking her feet at the end of a day having worn flat shoes around the trade show, she said she could always count on me to shove my bloody stumps back into my pumps to walk the trade show the next day.  (Nice mental picture.)  I can't wear them 14 hours a day anymore, but I still love heels.

Anyway.  We were the new kids on the block, we were working hard to acquire prime lines and were getting business with new accounts. In those days, the only possible explanation for women taking business from male competitors was that we were sleeping with our customers.  (I know, very Mad Men.)  I'm not sure how they thought we did it when the buyer was also a woman....

So over post-trade show drinks one night at the bar after we had won an industry award, a competitor/friend kind-of-jokingly said, "well, we all know how you two are getting all that business".  I'll admit that I had had a few cocktails and decided to address this issue head-on.  I said, "well, it's not random you know - we ARE in the incentive industry.  We have our customers on an incentive program".  I proceeded to outline a structure whereby Karen and I would trade various sexual favors in various locations based on the amount of business we were awarded.  IT WAS A JOKE, the guys I was talking to also knew that I was joking and had some very creative suggestions as to how we could improve the program.

Karen was at a different party the night before, and was not with me at the bar.  In the cab on the way to the show the next morning, I told Karen the story.  She looked to see if I was serious and then said, "You told them WHAT?!"  She was not amused.  I reminded her of our mantra, F___ 'em if they can't take a joke, and convinced her that this would be okay.  Karen eventually had some fun with that story over the years herself.

Of course, the comment was intended to acknowledge our accomplishments while minimizing them (I know, a little militant).  Rather than get defensive or embarrassed or insulted, this response completely diffused the situation and they moved on.  Business Girls can't have thin skins.

That was about 20 years ago and we don't see much of this old-school attitude anymore, and why should we? When is the last time you heard about a woman business leader or politician involved in a sex scandal?  As more men have mothers/daughters/wives/sisters in the workforce as co-workers and as bosses, we can all look forward to the end of even a hint of this old hold-over.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Girls Playing Business

When I started calling on corporate clients in the late 70's and early 80's, in some aspects, it was fun being a woman in a man's world - primarily automotive.  Few vendor contacts were women, fewer customer contacts were women so it was easy to capture attention.  In some cases, easier to get in the door but much harder to be taken seriously.

Back then, it really was the big boys club stereotype.  People still had 3-martini lunches.  Dinners, followed by a full night of drinking was routine.  As you might imagine, this was risky behavior for a female sales rep even if she wanted to participate in such activities.

I had one Distributor who was at times both a client and a competitor - we had a cordial relationship and would meet once every 6 months or so for lunch.  He was much older than me and I think saw himself as a sort of mentor (let's call him Morrie).  Morrie was doing tons of automotive business and had the whole entertainment thing down.  He had lots of fun stories that included drunken trips to exotic locations, suites at the Palace, tickets to any sporting event, and my personal favorite:  hookers.  This was his routine every Tuesday for one very large-volume client:  Morrie would check into a high-end hotel in downtown Birmingham and let the call girl into the room and pay her.  Morrie would sit in the lobby reading a newspaper with the key on the table next to him (that was back in the day when this hotel had actual room numbers on actual keys - not the electronic cards that are used today).  The client would walk through the lobby at noon, pick up the key and go up to the room.  Morrie would read the paper until the client came back down, left the key on the table and went on his way.  Words were rarely spoken.

Morrie cracked me up because he was quite self-righteous about this, explaining that this was an acceptable service to perform for a client, but he drew the line at drugs; he would NOT get drugs for a client.  I always left those lunches feeling like a little girl "playing" business - I would have no idea how to obtain a hooker for a client - and no guarantee as to how I might react to being asked for one!  I decided to believe that I must have looked like the type of vendor that had no triple-secret hooker connections.  (I could live with that!)

As companies began to be sued for sexual harassment, more women entered the workforce at upper levels and companies began to crack down on what were considered reimbursable expenses, this behavior eventually diminished.  A few male colleagues were actually relieved - they never enjoyed this activity but it was the way that business was done.  My first boss in the industry who was best described as a "gentleman"  said he never felt sleazier than he did walking out of an adult movie theatre at 2:00 on a sunny weekday  afternoon.

The economy played a part as well as business got tough and people had to actually perform their job responsibilities and didn't have all afternoon to hang out in strip clubs - but I'm giving the majority of the credit to the entrance of more women into the workforce who brought a culture of civility with them!






Saturday, June 15, 2013

Golf for Girls

Every corporation that I called on had a golf tournament of some kind, most of my customers played golf, every conference I attended had a golf outing - and I was by the pool.  Reading by the pool is still my first love, but when I was 35, I decided that the single best thing I could do to improve my business was to learn to play golf.

I attended a golf clinic for executive women and met golf pro Bob Moss.  He asked why I had attended the clinic and I told him that I needed to learn to play.  I didn't have to be great, but I needed to look like I knew what I was doing, needed to understand the etiquette, basic rules and the lingo.  He said, "we can work with this!"  He signed me up for lessons and husband Dave came along for the ride.  (Dave turned out to be a real golf nut, has become much too familiar with the Rules of Golf and marshaled several tournaments over the years; I accomplished the basic goals I set for myself).

If you are in an industry where golf plays a role, get yourself to a professional for some lessons (do NOT let your boyfriend/husband/girlfriend teach you).  If you have a decent swing, can play on pace and understand the etiquette - it doesn't matter what you score, you'll be ahead of most amateur golfers (including men) and will be able to hold your own in a scramble or golf outing.  I've played with many men over the years who brag that they are self-taught, "never took a lesson in my life"...and its obvious.  In my experience, only Bubba Watson can back up this statement.  Take some lessons.

Here is a basic rule of golf (and life):  men exaggerate their prowess.  I'm amused that almost every time I play golf with men, some seem to be having an unusually "bad day" and spend quite a bit of time rattling off low scores from previous rounds.  Girls:  spend absolutely no time being intimidated by what you THINK it will be like to play golf with men - you'll be fine.

It's much harder to get people out of their offices today - we have a 24/7 work day/week now - but if you have a customer or prospect who is a real golf enthusiast, you may find it much easier to get them to play golf than book a meeting.  Find a charity scramble at a great course and invite customers/prospects to play.  That may be a little easier to sell to their bosses, or they may even choose to take a personal day to play.  And if you have connections and can play at an exclusive country club that they haven't played, they will probably prefer to play their own round vs. a scramble.  If there is an opportunity to put together a foursome and play business matchmaker at the same time, even better.  Finding others who your customer might like to know will be a bonus. The more you talk to and research your customer, the better you'll be able to determine what might appeal to them.  And if playing isn't your thing, contract with a local golf pro to host a clinic with a complimentary swing analysis for your customers - it's very hard for a real golf freak to resist free advice from a Pro.

If your customers hold their own golf outing, find out how to participate - as a golfer, as a sponsor, whatever you can do.  You'll find that whether or not you have current business to discuss, you'll always have golf as a conversation starter.

Now that I've established that one should be professional, respectful and follow the rules of the game and the course, let me tell you about my 40th birthday....(this is a little bit "you had to be there" so I'll just review the highlights):

My ex-partner, Karen and I have birthdays 2 weeks apart.  For our 40th, we decided to have a company golf outing.  Unfortunately, not many of our employees played golf.  Eight women started drinking vodka and lemonade at lunch and then went out to play.  (For the record, husbands/boyfriends were playing behind us and were there to drive us home - we maybe should have had them driving our carts also.)  Our HR manager was acting as our private drink cart, shuttling back and forth to the clubhouse for drinks.  We did not think to review course etiquette with her and found her driving over tees and greens as she took the shortest route back to the clubhouse.

We were 4 to a cart (there were bag extenders on the carts), so 2 were in the seats and 2 were balanced precariously on the side fenders of the golf carts.  As you might imagine, there were a few spills and a few broken clubs that didn't make it back into the bags and got dragged around - but only one pants-wetting as we laughed until one of us peed.  Come to think of it, I believe the laughing was caused by the Office Manager talking about sex with our Salesperson who was her niece (while one was talking, one had her fingers in her ears humming Mary Had a Little Lamb).  And I think it was the vodka talking.

One of the participants was headed to her grandmother's funeral after the outing.  She had a long drive after the event and really had trouble tearing herself away from us.  She finally left but had no time to go home and change, so went directly to the funeral.  She served as one of the pall-bearers in her grandmother's funeral in her golf clothes, smelling of vodka and lemonade.  (At least she wasn't the one that peed her pants - that would have been awkward.)

Ultimately, we found that it speeded up play if we refrained from putting.  We decided that once we got to the green, we were done.  Ladies - I can tell you that this also significantly improves your score (although it might not fly in a tournament or outing situation.)  This also debunks the myth that women are the cause of slow play.  If you have ever watched a foursome of men examine putts from at least 12 angles before they miss it, you would understand the reason for slow play. Skip putting - food for thought, guys.

There are LOTS of stories about women entering the oldest boys club of golf.  Here's one of my favorites regarding equality on the course that ties in nicely with my birthday story:

A country club didn't allow women on the golf course.  Eventually, there was enough pressure that they decided to allow women to play during the week.

The ladies were satisfied with this arrangement, formed a women's club and became active.  After about 6 months, the club board received a letter from the women's club complaining about the men urinating on the golf course. Naturally, they just ignored the matter.  After another 6 months, they received another letter reminding them of the previous letter and demanding action.  After due deliberation, the Board sent the women a letter advising them that they had been granted equal urinating privileges!







Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fantasy Fulfillment

When my partner Karen and I had the opportunity to bid on a large automotive project that would involve fulfillment, we decided that if we were awarded the project, we'd set up our own fulfillment company.  We would stock the merchandise and then pick, pack and ship assembled kits to vehicle owners.

Karen was working with the customer and I was flying around visiting other rep firms who ran fulfillment companies so that we could learn from other's mistakes.  We did get the program, set up our fulfillment business and decided to call it Fulfillment Force.  Our attorney thought a better name for the company that two 30-something women were running would be Fantasy Fulfillment - he had no idea how prophetic that would be (and he never referred to that company by any other name...).

After the automotive program ended (I'll circle back to this in another post), Karen retired and I had 30,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space to fill.   At the time, we were doing national fulfillment for World Kitchen (Pyrex, Corningware and similar brands) and handled customer service in addition to shipping the product.

Our Operations Manager, bless his heart (isn't that what people say when efforts are just a little misguided?), was very ambitious and to his credit, always looking for new fulfillment projects.  One day he brought me a company that sold, um, recreational products for consenting adults (okay, sex toys).  Naturally, I was apprehensive - this was a little outside of the premium brands that we were currently carrying for corporate incentive program use.  The Ops Manager assured me that we would only be doing picking and shipping for their internet business - no customer service.  (I could not have the phone operators talking about Corningware on one line and features and benefits of dildos on the other....)

One of my picker/packers was a southern bible-carrying grandmother.  She pulled me aside one day in the warehouse and said in her Tennessee drawl, "Now Barb, you know I love my job but I just can't touch that stuff".  (She got a pass and we moved her to World Kitchen only).

As it turns out, this company had no marketing plan whatsoever and apparently believed that if you build it, they will come (I'm so very sorry for that one).  Eventually, orders trailed off and the company stopped paying their bill.  We were left with pallets full of sex toys that made for very interesting bachelor and bachelorette party gifts for many years.

This is a cautionary tale about letting desperation be the boss of you - it's better in the long run to pass on customers that aren't a good match for your business - even if you need the revenue at the time and it's tempting. Our sex toy experience taught us a valuable lesson about being true to our brand and also caused us to step back and define the types of clients that made sense for us:  those with marketing plans! (If there is no marketing, there are no sales and nothing to fulfill.)  I've made many more mistakes that I'll be sharing along the way, but none as fun as this one.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lessons from my Mommy


It's Mother's Day this Sunday and the blogosphere is full of inspiring stories from prominent people telling how their Mothers encouraged them.  Evidently most high-achievers had Moms who told them they could be anything they wanted, gave them pearls of wisdom to guide them through relationships, handling money, negotiating corporate politics, raising children and much more.

Fortunately, my Mom is still with me; here are the messages I remember most over the years:

-If you don't have something nice to say...come sit next to me.

-If there are two of you in a situation and a resolution means that one of you has to be unhappy...it should be the other one.

-There is no such thing as a non-returnable item from a store.  (WAY back before accommodating warehouse clubs and Nordstrom customer service, my Mom was returning underwear, bathing suits, opened packages of anything and my personal favorite:  wigs).  Which leads into the family favorite:

-Exchanging in the bedroom.  (If my Mom is conflicted about a gift, she buys a small and a medium, in blue and in brown, wraps up one and when you open it, lets you know that you can exchange it in the bedroom.  Then she returns the other 3 to the store after the birthday).

Not really life-changing advice, yet my Mom has certainly changed lives.  When I was 19, she and my Dad divorced.  When I was 26, she remarried my step-Dad who has 6 kids.  I have a brother so that made 8 kids ranging from 26 to 15.  Some of us were in various stages of marriage, school or work; 5 remained at home.

My step-brothers and sisters lost their Mom right after the youngest child was born (breast cancer was discovered right after she became pregnant).  So all 6 kids were raised by a very busy Dad and a series of housekeepers and one step-Mom that only lasted a short time ( imagine the von Trapp children in a small ranch in Garden City). 

Not really known for her sports prowess, Mom joined a bowling league to spend more time with the girls, attended all of the high school sports activities, made cupcakes and cookies for school events, drove friends around, hosted parties and made a big deal out of birthdays and Christmas for kids who did not grow up with this, all while working full time.  I'm not telling tales out of school when I say that my step-Dad lacked the feminine touch with the girls.  The grade-school pictures reveal  identical crewcuts for the boys and lovely bowl haircuts for the girls, so  they did not quite know what to make of Mom's ratted hair, hair spray, make-up and shoulder pads (it was the 80's!).  One of Mom's biggest strengths is that she knows exactly who she is and makes no apologies.

She is an unabashed Red Hat lady and like everything she does, she goes big or she goes home.  We're talking big feathered hats, boas, long red gloves, flowing purple dresses.  She is a great friend and the ring-leader in arranging events (not usually running it - just telling the one who's running it what to do!)  She's generous to a fault and can't stand to see someone without a friend, without a present or without someone to spend a Holiday with.  She stops what she's doing and gives full attention when we are in the mood to talk; she is a grandma on steroids (or as she likes to say, on Demerol).  The grandkids have great memories of spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa's house, and going on the many adventures that involved all 10 of her grandkids.  She's in the process of spoiling the first great-grand.

My Mom grew up with a younger brother with Down's syndrome who no doubt got most of the attention and family resources.  She got married and had me when she was 19, and if she had big dreams of a different future, I don't know about them.  After my grandparents died, she worked tirelessly to find the best group home facility for my Uncle and then drove 4 hours every month to take him to a hotel for the weekend, which always included dinner out, and a movie or visit to the zoo or park.  She continues to struggle with severe rheumatoid arthritis for the past several years yet never complains or talks about the pain that is obviously with her every day.

Of course, she's not totally perfect.  The family has many stories of Mom finding the long way around a problem and her temper is legendary when she's arguing with a clerk at a store (probably trying to return that wig!) or with a referee (she doesn't get physical but she HAS been the source of a technical foul or two at the kids games).  And she MIGHT tend to dwell on an issue for longer than necessary.  There is a line from Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood that Ellen Burstyn uses to describe her character that I think perfectly captures my Mom:  "I take a problem, chew on it until all the flavor is gone, and then I stick it in my hair".

My Mom doesn't quote platitudes or push us to excel or ask what we're doing to make the world a better place at the dinner table.  She just shows us every day by example what it is to be a caring Mom and friend and I can't imagine a better role model.  Happy Mother's Day to my non-famous yet very special life-changing Mom.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mildly Militant

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has recently written a book entitled, Lean In, which is generating some discussion.  Sheryl suggests that women may be holding themselves back from career advancement and I don't disagree. She is also hoping to reboot the women's movement with this book and the Lean In Foundation.  (Great info here on navigating corporate politics, finding a mentor and other tips for young women entering the workforce).

Sometimes, women are too polite - we don't want to offend, we don't want to interrupt, we're happy to take our turn and above all, we go to extremes to avoid being called the dreaded B-word.

I wear the Bitch label as a badge of honor because I know what it means:  you have strong ideas and opinions, you're decisive and results-oriented.  (There's a difference between being a bitch and being bitchy - for the record, I'm guilty of both.)  Even if you don't interrupt, you make your point known and have the audacity to expect and insist that the people around you to do what they say they'll do.

Sheryl gives some great insights on negotiating corporate politics, which dovetails nicely with a another movement to increase the percentage of women on corporate boards.  This only makes sense since women represent 51% of the population, and women make 90% of the buying decisions for most households, so why wouldn't you want that point of view represented on your board?  We've come a long way but like many "good girls", we haven't gone all the way.

Women make great leaders - we can manage all kinds of personalities, we are more concerned about results than taking credit (sometimes to our detriment) and we're good at building consensus.  Imagine what we could accomplish if more women were in government!  Here in Michigan, our first female Secretary of State streamlined processes, initiated on-line renewals and registrations and significantly improved service. Regardless of your politics or personal feelings about Hillary - put her in the White House and that bitch will get some shit done!

I'm concerned that young women who have never experienced discrimination on the basis of gender do not fully appreciate the history.  Let's not even go back as far as the Vote or Title IX  - you could just watch an episode of Mad Men to get the idea.  The year that I graduated from high school, if a woman wanted to buy a car, she needed her husband or her father to co-sign, regardless of her employment situation or income.  I'm trying to imagine the incredulous look on my niece's face today if a creditor were to suggest that her father co-sign for her.  Young women today think that "feminism" is an antiquated term and they give no thought at all to inequalities based on gender - thankfully, they haven't experienced any and just aren't aware of what was true less than a generation ago.

The reality is that we have made very little progress.  The number of women in government and corporate C-level positions has not grown in the last 10 years.  Is this because we're taking the short-cut by starting our own companies, we're not interested in making the sacrifices required to reach the C-Suite or we're not confident enough to put our own hat in the ring?

On the other hand, this could be the normal rebellious backlash that comes with every generation.  Our mothers were frustrated stay-at-home Moms; we didn't like the look of that so we went into the workforce with a vengeance.  Our daughters may not like the look of THAT and so many daughters of baby boomers are college educated, but choose to stay home and raise a family.  (And by the way, that's exactly what the women's movement was about:  choices.)

If you get a chance, look up this documentary:  MissRepresentation (.org)  It's a surprisingly shocking look at how women of power and influence are still portrayed in the media. I hope that Sheryl Sandberg and many like her are successful in the quest to reignite attention to this issue - we cannot afford any more backsliding.

Girls today really can grow up to do anything they want; let's encourage them to be all that they aspire to be without censoring themselves.






Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Wrong with this Picture? Part 2


This post may sound like I'm hating on automotive employees and truly, that is not the case.  (I am hating a little bit on auto executives....)  With only a few exceptions, the people I've worked with just want to do a good job and feel like they make a difference - to the company and to their customers.  Somehow, the corporate machine gets in the way and they get managed to death until they can't think outside of that culture anymore.  This is an example.

When we last left off, we saw automotive employees concentrating more on self-preservation than getting the job done efficiently.  In this post, we see them so intent on pleasing and impressing their superiors that they completely lose sight of the customer.

Pop Quiz on two real scenarios:

1) An auto parts manufacturer and their Distributors are hosting a customer appreciation event for the Installers who buy their parts. Who would you expect to see inside of the roped-off VIP area at this event?
a) the Installers
b) the Distributor principals who were hosting the event
c) head honchos from the parts manufacturer flown into town for the event

2) An auto company is taking a group of their top customers on an incentive trip.  Who would you expect to see in the first class section on the plane?
a) the customers who won the trip
b) executives from the company hosting the trip
c) executives from supplier companies exhibiting at the event

In my small business world, the correct answer to both is A) the customer.  In the automotive world, the answers to both were B and C.  I did not see any interaction at all between the "VIPs" and the customers.  Exactly how appreciated were those customers supposed to feel?

When I mentioned this to some of the people hosting the event, they looked at me sadly as if to say, "Poor misguided Barb, there you go again applying logic and real-world rules to the auto industry."  They would never hear the end of it if their boss didn't have a first class seat or wasn't met by a chauffeur, or wasn't otherwise treated like a VIP.

And by the way, if two auto execs are arriving within 20 minutes of each other at the airport, we cannot ask one of them to wait 20 minutes for the other - two cars and two drivers must be sent to meet these executives and take them to the same hotel.  Are the auto execs really that entitled and just don't get it, or could it be that no employee has ever dared to ask them to wait 20 minutes in the name of efficiency?

This is exactly the thought that crossed my mind when the 3 auto CEO's were sitting in front of Congress taking a beating for flying there separately in private jets while asking for loans.  Set aside the rationale that their time is valuable and better spent working on the plane than cooling their heels at DTW waiting for a commercial flight blah blah blah.  I'm guessing that someone on their staff knew this was a bad idea and didn't have the balls to suggest that the CEO think about the message that flying separately on corporate jets to this particular meeting would send.

A culture where your staff can't tell truth to power:  that is what's wrong with this picture.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What's Wrong with this Picture? Part 1

It's not going to sound like it from this post, but I love cars and am fascinated by the auto industry.  I've read almost every book written about the men who built the industry and they read like a real-life soap opera.  I love the drama that is Detroit.

I have never worked for a major corporation, but have worked with many companies in different industries as a supplier. There are some aspects that appear to be common to all major corporations, and others that are unique to the automotive industry.  Auto companies are well-known for being insular (no one from any other industry could possibly apply successful processes to the making and selling of cars - Alan Mulally is in the process of debunking this one) and bureaucratic (there is a definite hierarchy that dictates who may or may not talk directly to whom).  In larger corporations, people spend a great deal of time guessing what it is that their boss wants - for reasons unknown to me, it's not acceptable to ask. Better to go all the way down a particular road and then find out you need to start over in another direction.  (This is especially fun if you're a supplier that is not being paid for the time it takes to go on this road rally...)

One of my contacts, we'll call her Kathy, was new to the auto company.  Budget approval for a project was needed 3 levels up (from Mr. Important).  Kathy went over to Mr. Important's office, saw that his door was open, walked in and handed him the form for signature.  He looked at her kind of funny but signed the form.  When Kathy put the form back on her bosses desk, he said, "How did you get this approved so quickly?" She explained what she had done.  Her boss freaked - "no, no, no - here's the process:  You put the form in Admin #1's in-box, and she gives it to her boss.  Admin #1 puts it in Admin #2's in-box for her boss to look at, then Admin #2 gives it to Admin #3, who puts it in Mr. Important's in-box to sign, usually once a week.  The process can take 2-4 weeks, based on travel schedules."  (Seriously, you can't make this stuff up).  Kathy was never that efficient again.

Another marketing contact, we'll call him Sam, tells me that they are told not to make eye contact with his immediate boss (I thought he was kidding.  How on earth do you get anything done when you can't look at your boss?)  Sam tells a story of being in a meeting where several levels of bosses were making a presentation to the CEO (these are high-stress situations and the only times I saw men wear a jacket and tie).  There were probably 20 people (including support people like Sam) in the meeting.  The CEO asked a question about how they had come up with a particular statistic.  Sam knew the answer but didn't dare say anything.  I asked why he wouldn't speak up if he was confident about the figure.  Sam said that if he were to answer a question that his boss couldn't answer - in front of the CEO - that would be the end of his career at the company.

What?  Wouldn't that look like the boss had good people in his/her department?  Surely the CEO doesn't think each of these bosses did all of the support work on the presentation - why else are the other 19 people in the room?  Wouldn't it be better to answer the question than have the boss say s/he doesn't know and have to get back to the CEO?  No.  Sam said that would be the kiss of death.  That boss would shut him out of everything and make his life miserable until he left or was transferred - if he could even find another position in the company.

Aren't corporate politics fun?!  They don't tell you this stuff in all those business books that talk about efficiency and empowerment.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we'll talk about customer appreciation!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Politically Incorrect

As I've mentioned, there wasn't much emphasis on political correctness in the 80's - sexual harassment was a new term and people were still discovering boundaries.  Many companies didn't even have policies in place yet.

One of my customers was an automotive aftermarket manufacturer; the sales force that I called on were all male, some former professional athletes - it was the quintessential boys club.

This was a perfect account for my company and I was trying everything I knew to get in the door.  The guy who was in charge of the promotional merchandise catalog (we'll call him Harry) was not interested in seeing me, but I had managed some small projects for one of his co-workers and he put in a good word for me.  Harry absolutely hated the merchandise suggestions I made.  He would go through page by page saying, "hate it, done it, boring, stupid, no, no, no, hate it"...you get the idea.  He finally threw down my whole presentation binder and said, "find me the one thing that will make automotive mechanics say, "I've got to sell more of these parts so that I can get me one of those" - then I'll think about working with your company."

A challenge!

So I wracked my brain and thought about what on earth would make any guy sell a particular brand of auto parts to earn it.

I called Harry, told him I had found the item and set the appointment.  I walked into his office with a blow-up doll with their company logo drawn on the doll's posterior region.

Harry burst out laughing, said that anyone that had the balls to bring that into his office was fit to be one of their vendors.  He never used the inflatable doll in their catalog of course, but I hear that she was quite popular in the office (to the point where HR paid a visit to Marketing to confiscate it - all the guys escaped without consequences).

At the time, most of the marketing guys at this company were within 10 years of my age (over and under), and although it doesn't sound like it from this story, I was always professional, respected their time and always understood that if I did my job well, their sales would increase.  Never did one of those guys ever make a pass or an inappropriate remark - and it was great fun to work with them. Harry became a great client for many years because I was willing to push the boundaries and (thankfully), accurately read that prospect's personality.  That move with the wrong guy or in today's politically correct climate could have been disastrous.  (Let's consider this what-not-to-do in this decade.)

Sometimes taking a calculated risk when there's nothing to lose just works.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Business Lunch

In the early 80's I called on a major automotive company (which shall be nameless) that was headquartered in Highland Park, Michigan.  I was in promotional marketing, calling on automotive brand managers.  One in particular (we'll call him Mr. Man) was a good ol' Texan that would only set a meeting at 11:30.  I would arrive at his office and he would invariably be on the phone.  He would motion for me to sit down, and I patiently waited while he finished his conversation.  One in particular sticks in my mind and gives you a peek into his personality:  he was on the phone with his wife, who had brought home yet another stray animal - this time a dog who needed an operation of some sort.  Mr. Man asked how much was the operation and when she responded he said, "well, Darlin', let me ask you this - how much is a gun?".  (Oops, she hung up.  But I digress....)

Once off the phone he would say, "I'm starving, Doll.  Let's go to lunch and talk".  (I don't think men are encouraged to call women Doll today, but I'm quite sure he considered it a compliment).  He would then gather 8-9 of his best buddies on our way out the door, and off we would go to Joe Muer's restaurant in Detroit.  (This is what the boys like to call "paying your dues"....)  By magic, Mr. Man's glass of wine would be on the table when we arrived.  For all I know that table was perpetually set for 9 people and the poor unfortunate vendor who was going to pay the bill that day....

Mr. Man had a favorite waiter who took excellent care of him.  Appetizers and plates of food were brought, often without ordering - bottles of wine, etc. (people were still drinking at lunch in those days), and the bill was always presented to me.  Now, if you've ever used a credit card, you know that the name of the person paying the bill is ON the credit card.

I never got out of that restaurant for under $300 and always left at least a 20% tip.  Here's where that old-school older-male waiter screwed up:  He always thanked Mr. Man but never once said "thank you" to me or called me by name. (Guess he knew where his bread was buttered).   By writing off the 20-something girl paying the bill as inconsequential, he missed an opportunity to make ME feel like a "regular" and perhaps bring other customers in as well.  Instead, I NEVER would choose to go there without Mr. Man.

Karma took hold when the company relocated North and Joe Muer's closed after 50-some years as a Detroit institution, and this Doll was happy to see them go.  

(They've since re-opened in the RenCen downtown under new ownership).