Monday, May 25, 2015

When Harry Met Bec

We had the chance, as a family, to see a living piece of history last week.  That piece of history arrived in the form of 89-year-old Harry Ettlinger, the last surviving member of the 345 people that made up the Monuments Men.  In the movie, Ettlinger was renamed Pvt. Sam Epstein, played by British actor Dimitri Leonidas.  For about an hour, we heard his story, from the rise of Hitler, restriction on being Jewish, having his family’s application for immigration to the US on the last day allowed before the war, to joining the army and being a part of the U.S. Military program known as Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA).  It ends up that Hitler pillaged all works of art / culture to put into one of his own museums, but kept them safe from bombings by storing them 700 feet below ground in salt mines. Harry Ettlinger pointed out that the commission was unusual in that it was the first time that a group of nations got together, not to pillage the spoils of war, but to return them.

“You have to respect other people and their cultures as they should respect yours,” Mr. Ettlinger said, at least twice.  These were, to me, the most powerful words spoken, as they underlie a power truth that many people seem to forget or do not think applies to them.  Look at ISIS, they do not respect neither valuable treasures nor human life, and have sought to eliminate both.  You can turn on the news, listen on the radio, engage in meetings, and in some cases, have conversations where respect for others is overlooked, sometimes in action and sometime in word.  While it is easier to address person-to-person, when larger groups / nations are involved, this becomes more difficult and could lead to a less than desirable outcome (i.e., war).  The credo of the MMFA to respect other people is lacking with some of the people in our world today.

“One of the first tasks,” Mr. Ettlinger was explaining, ”was finding and sending back the stained glass windows that belonged to the Cathedral  in Strasbourg, not far from where I grew up.”  Bec sat up at this point. “I was there last year,” she proudly told us.  It’s a small world - Bec spent time in Karlsruhe last summer, as part of a German exchange program, the same German city that Mr. Ettlinger grew up in, before his family fled to the United States.  After the presentation, an excited Bec went up to talk to Mr. Ettlinger and to share some of her pictures.  When she showed the picture of the train station, Mr. Ettlinger’s eyes lit up and he proceeded to share some childhood memories of going to the train station with his family.  All of a sudden, the generations between them disappeared as they talked about Karlsruhe and made the presentation more real and personal to Bec.  It was truly a unique experience.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Oh, Dear! Does the Past Predict The Future?

“I think that I have an idea…” someone in the group excitedly chimed in.  Everyone sat around in anticipation, as a new idea to help would be extremely beneficial.  It took only a minute to lay out the thought, nothing earth shattering, nothing innovative, yet a good solution to the issue at hand.  “Won’t work,” someone responded before we had a chance to vet out the proposal. 

“What do you mean?” someone asked. 

“Last time we did this, it failed miserably,” was the response. 

I scratched my head, in the couple of years I had been involved, I do not remember this attempt.  I asked, “How long ago was that?”

“Oh, 15, 20 years ago.”

I remember as a kid riding my bicycle and one time the chain detached.  This caused me to pedal furiously with no results.  My brain made that detached popping sound and my mind raced widely trying to understand.

And then came the reasons why today this would not work.  I looked around at the group and they all looked like deer caught in the headlights.

I related this story to someone else.  To paraphrase her response, sometimes it is good to understand the history and the reasons why something happened to gain perspective.  However, that does not mean it applies to today.  As I thought about it, this is not an isolated experience.  I have heard this before.  Why is it that we base potential future results on prior failures?  Are we in the identical situation with exactly the same players?  Have we not learned anything in the time that has passed?  What happened to the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”?  I realize that W.C. Fields restated the quote, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit.  There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”  After a certain amount of time, revisiting a potential solution, taking the time to understand why it failed, especially when that was 15 – 20 years ago, is prudent.

In his book “Think, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman points out that we quickly align situations presented to us with past experiences that are similar to draw quick conclusions.  Because the situation and our prior experiences are similar, but not exactly the same, the conclusions we come to might not be correct.  Eckhart Tolle, in “The Power of NOW” talks about how, as humans, we spend most of our time thinking about past experiences (i.e., mentally reliving the past) and projecting into the future (i.e., in terms of hope, fears, worries, anxieties).  In both examples, there is the lack of looking at our current situation and looking at what is occurring at this moment.

I did realize afterwards, that I too joined The Deer in the Headlights Club.  The answer shocked me, and I know that I repeated it in my head a few times.  Next time, I will be prepared to reply, “That is unfortunate that it did not work in the past.  Today is a new day, different people and situations.  Let’s discuss how we can make it work today.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Debbie, Bec and I went out to eat with my brother Brian and his son Aaron this past weekend at a place none of had eaten at.  It was a local bar and grill that we had heard good things about, but never went to.  I ordered one of the specials off the blackboard, a jumbo eggplant parmesan hero.  As we sat waiting for the food, the table next to us received their order, a couple of oversized cheese steaks and a very tall hamburger.  Like a bunch of cartoon characters, we all did a group double-take and laughed at their portions, while they sat there in shock.  Then, our food arrived and we were now the ones in shock and they were laughing at us.  My “jumbo” sandwich was enough to feed a family of four.   In my head, this was not “Man versus Food”, but “Wayne versus Food.”

Have you ever bit off more than you can chew?  I do not necessarily mean directly to a gluttonous portion of food sitting on the table, but either taken on a task that was too large or taken on too many different tasks at the same time.  Like the dinner before, it looks tasty, smells good and makes you feel like you are up for the challenge.  I have worked with people, interviewed potential candidates and scoped out projects, where the person in front of me is excited about the opportunity before them.  In the case of an interview, you can see what they have done in the past and compare it to what you expect them to be able to do to evaluate if they can handle the job.  Yes, in some cases, you can spend the time to train them; while in some cases you do need the expertise and want them to hit the ground running.  There are cases where the person wants to prove him or herself.  As leaders / managers, we need to make sure that not only the projects succeed, but that the each person involved succeeds as well.  Stretching one’s ability is important, when there is success, it brings with it the confidence and the desire to tackle newer, bigger solutions.

Look, sometimes, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.  Sometimes, we find that need a balance by taking on those challenges.  Sometimes, we fail, which is OK, provided that we learn something from the experience and learn how to tackle the situation better the next time.  Sometimes, we succeed beyond our own expectation.  

My brother ordered the cheese steak.  He cut off a section, about a quarter of the sandwich, and slowly ate that.  He knew up front that he was going to take this home and enjoy it a few more times.  In my mind, there was no way this meal was going to get the better of me. The hero and I had a staring contest, similar to two pugilists in the ring before a fight.  The bell sounded (in my head) and I opened with a jab.  Like a cartoon brawl, everyone at the table tried to see how the battle was raging and when the cloud dispersed, Wayne was victorious!  My brother was in shock, my nephew was laughing at me and Debbie and Bec knew what they were in for later.  Yes, I had done this “brave” thing before and overeaten, so a night of complain, unremitted moaning and bad sleep due to uncomfortable “bloating” was ahead.  I smiled, for the moment.  I had climbed the food version of Mount Everest, then “rolled” out of the building. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Working 9 to 5

Where I work, we generally start at 9:00am and end at 5:00pm.  Most companies I have been at, whether as an employee or a consultant, started at 9:00am and ended at 5:00pm.  There were a few that started at 8:30am and ended at 4:30pm.  For me, personally, while I like to head home at 5:00pm, there are times where I have started earlier and/or worked later, depending on what I was doing.  It is amazing how stringent most people are for leaving when the “end time” comes around.  When I was consulting at a company in the food industry, there were times that I had questions for the people that I was working with.  If I went to their offices at 4:31pm (quitting time was 4:30pm), I was greeted by an empty room.  Many nights it was just the director I was working for and myself.  It was reminiscent of quitting time depicted on “The Flintstones”; the whistle blows and off the dinosaur we go.

Earlier in my career, when I was still doing accounting, I worked for a company that was in hyper-growth.  The revenues and the size of the company were growing in leaps and bounds.  Finance, though, was told that we could not hire anyone else – “Work Smarter” was the motto the CFO / Controller told us, it did not matter that there was more work to do.  In those days, I used to come in at 7:30am / 8:00am during the month end close to prepare and distribute the financial statements for the day.  This was before printing to a pdf and emailing.  I used to take the green bar paper from our mainframe, enter the information into Lotus 1-2-3, printed the reports using WYSYWYG (formatted the reports), then place the Financials on everyone’s desk.  Why did I come in early?  It was part of my job, so I did what was expected.  Funny thing is that no one told me that I had to do this, I undertook this task on my own – I knew what was needed and that I could fill that space.  Recently, my current team shrank by someone that moved on to a better opportunity.  We are still down a person, but we have all picked up the additional tasks in the interim.

How many of us know people that use the phrase, “It is not part of my job?”, yet they always seem to have spare time?  Sometimes, there is a clear confusion for employees to mistake activity for productivity.  Darren Hardy has given the example of where early in his career (when he was in real estate) he hung a stopwatch around his neck and recorded the time he did real productive work (i.e., sales related).  At the end of a long, active day, he was shocked to find he had only 40 minutes of productivity.  Though I think of myself as productive, I would be afraid to take on the same test.

The perception of our own performance versus how others see us can be very different.  When you look in a mirror, do you see what other people see?  Is the reflection that comes back at you representative of what people see when they look straight at you?  Same goes for our work performance.  It is hard to take a step back to put ourselves in other people’s shoes to self evaluate.  Sometimes, being able to do so, can make a big difference in the jobs we do.  Here’s to a productive day!