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Review: Good People – The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters by Anthony Tjan

good peopleThis review first ran in the July 17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters

By Anthony Tjan

Portfolio / Penguin


People aren’t our organizations’ greatest asset.

It’s actually good people who make the difference.

Great things happen when we’re in the company of good people. They lead with humility, honesty and integrity. They’re generous, empathetic and compassionate. They’re also wise, respectful and grateful.

Good people inspire us to perform at our best. And being at our collective best is good for our organizations’ bottom lines and long-term financial health.

Author, entrepreneur and strategic advisor Anthony Tjan says good people are “committed to continuously cultivating the values that help them and others become the fullest possible versions of who they are. Good people purposely and proactively put people first in their decision-making.”

So why do smart leaders sometimes make dumb decisions when it comes to hiring and promoting? Why do they bring not-so-good people into our organizations who put themselves first and make the rest of us bitter instead of better?

Tjan says we’re conditioned to put credentials and competencies ahead of a job candidate’s character and values.

“Defining goodness and good people, especially in business, is challenging. Goodness is something we all intuitively sense but nonetheless have trouble describing clearly or tangibly.”

How many all-staff announcements have you read that introduce new senior leaders as good people? We’re told about where our newest executive worked, the projects she led, the schools she attended, the awards she won, what she does outside of work and the names of her kids and the family dog. Yet little to nothing is said about her values and beliefs and how they match up with those of our organization.

To improve your odds of hiring a good person, Tjan has 10 questions to consider before making a job offer.

  1. Is this job candidate self-aware? “Is the person intellectually honest about who she is, about her strengths and weaknesses? Is she actively curious about learning new things? Is she humble? Are her thoughts, words and actions consistent?”
  2. Is this person authentic or obsequious? “There are few things worse than phony praise. Good people do not feel compelled to tie themselves into knots in order to impress you.”
  3. What’s the talk-to-listen ratio? If the ratio’s skews heavily to talking, the candidate could suffer from self-importance or indifference to what you and others have to say.
  4. Is this person an energy giver or taker? Good people are optimists who give off energy. Takers are cynical emotional vampires.
  5. Is this person likely to act or react to a task? When asked to do something, good people jump in and get it done.
  6. How does this person treat people she doesn’t know? Good people believe we’re all equal. There’s no condescension, brusqueness, rudeness or snobbery.
  7. What is the spouse or partner like? “We are known by the company we keep, especially the people we keep closest to us.”
  8. Is there an element of struggle in the person’s history? “Early setbacks tend to shape character more than early successes and developing resilience in response to adversity is a key predictor of success later in life.”
  9. What has this person been reading? “Reading frames ideas, ignites new thoughts and adds complexity and nuance to familiar perspectives.”
  10. Would you want to go on a long car ride with this person? Tjan says this question reminds us to think about the “who” rather than the “what” of a person.
  11. Is this person comfortable with idiosyncrasies? “Our most unusual traits make us who we are. In some cases, simply being true to ourselves – to our own idiosyncrasies – can make us good.”
  12. Is the person multidimensional or multidisciplinary? “People who can’t navigate between, around and across diverse fields of learning and experience have drastically limited horizons of possibility.”

Tjan says we should also ask ourselves these 10 questions. Our answers will show where to get better at being good and helping the people around us do the same.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.



Review: Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Eric Barker

barkingThis review first ran in the July 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong

By Eric Barker


Your son wasn’t named class valedictorian.

Your daughter didn’t get straight As on her report card.

Don’t panic. This actually bodes well for their future success and happiness.

A researcher at Boston College tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians.  Nearly all went to college and graduated into high-paying professional careers.

They’ve proven to be reliable, consistent and well-adjusted.

But according to the researcher, none of these academic all-stars have gone on to change, run or impress the world.

“Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitters outside the classroom,” says Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog and book.

“Schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Grades are an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules,” says Barker.

Conformists don’t change the world. They play by the rules. They pay their dues and rise up through the ranks. They don’t rock the boat.

Yet sometimes boats need rocking and organizations need steering into uncharted waters by transformational, rule-breaking leaders.

“School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down,” says Barker.

Along with rewarding conformity, schools train our kids to be generalists. Your daughter or son may have a passion for math or the creative arts but they’re spending most of their year tackling other subjects.

The Boston College researcher found that smart students with a love of learning struggle in high school and find it stifling. Valedictorians see it as their job to get good grades and give teachers what they want.

Yet a career where you’re great at doing one thing will be more rewarding and satisfying than a job where you’re as good as everyone else at doing many things.

“This generalist approach doesn’t lead to expertise,” says Barker. “Yet eventually we almost all go on to careers in which one skill is highly rewarded and other skills aren’t that important.”

So a report card with straight As offers no clues about your kids’ signature strengths. A range of grades would help reveal where they shine and should invest more of their time.

“Consider the people we’re all envious of who can confidently pick something, say they’re going to be awesome at it, and then calmly go and actually be awesome at it.  This is their secret: they’re not good at everything, but they know their strengths and choose things that are a good fit.”

Know thyself is one of the keys to success and happiness, says Barker. The other is to pick the right pond.

“Context is everything. If you follow rules well, find an organization aligned with your signature strengths and go full steam ahead. Society clearly rewards those who can comply, and these people keep the world an orderly place,” says Barker.

“If you’re more of an unfiltered type, be ready to blaze your own path. It’s risky, but that’s what you were built for.”

Along with questioning the wisdom of playing it safe and doing what we’re told, Barker dives into the research to discover if nice guys finish first or last, if quitters never win and winners never quit and if who we know matters more than what know. He also explores the thin line between self-confidence and self-delusion and how to strike the right work-life balance.

“Much of what we’ve told about the qualities that lead to achievement is logical, earnest and downright wrong. Sometimes what produces success is raw talent, sometimes it’s the nice things our moms told us to do, and other times it’s the exact opposite.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review – White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan Williams

whiteThis review first ran in the June 19 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America

By Joan C. Williams

Harvard Business Review Press


“Although its steel and manufacturing-based economy gave Hamilton its ‘Steeltown’ moniker, students need not be deterred by images of an industrial wasteland.”

This is how Maclean’s kicks off McMaster’s profile in its 2017 Canadian Universities Guidebook.

I’m a university grad who was lucky to spend part of my career in Steeltown’s “industrial wasteland.”

I worked with good people who took real pride in their work, the company and our community.

They made steel and built strong and stable middle class lives for their families. They also made Hamilton better for everyone by donating more money than any other local employer and volunteering countless hours to community groups and local causes.

Respect was the company’s core value. None of us in the main office were under any illusion that we were better than the people in the plant. Everyone worked hard and shared in the success.

That mindset is getting harder to find among professional and managerial elites and it’s fuelling populist movements, warns Joan Williams, author of White Working Class and a distinguished professor of law and Hastings Foundation chair at the University of California.

“Over the past 40-odd years, elites stopped connecting with the working class, whom prior generations had given a place of honor,” says Williams. “Class consciousness has been replaced by class cluelessness and in some cases, even class callousness.

“During an era when wealthy white Americans have learned to sympathetically imagine the lives of the poor, people of color, and LGBTQ people, the white working class has been insulted or ignored during precisely the period when their economic fortunes tanked.”

Hamilton’s not immune to this trend. When we convene summits and conferences to dream up ways of recruiting and retaining 20-somethings, we’re not talking about millennials who work in skilled trades. And the claim that professionals hate riding buses but love taking trains wins the prize for dumbest argument yet made in support of spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money on Hamilton’s LRT project.

Williams considers the working class and the middle class to be one and the same. They’re neither poor nor rich, with family incomes ranging from $41,000 to just over $130,000 with a median income of $75,144.

“When progressive policymakers talk about guaranteeing things like paid sick leave or a higher minimum wage, they often frame them as issues that would help working families,” says Williams. “But neither offers what my father-in-law had: a steady job that yielded his vision of a middle-class life. That’s what the working class still wants.”

Williams does a masterful job of responding to the clueless and callous questions that professional and managerial elites like ask themselves when diagnosing what’s wrong with the working class.

Why do they resent the poor and professionals yet admire the rich?

Why doesn’t the working class move to where the jobs are, go to college and push their kids harder to succeed?

Is the working class just racist and sexist?

Why don’t they understand that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back?

Why don’t working class men take pink collar jobs?

And why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it?

“The working class doesn’t want to be examined like some tribe in a faraway land,” says Williams. “They don’t want the kind of pious solicitude the wealthy offer the poor. They want respect for the lives they’ve built through unrelenting hard work. They want recognition for their contributions and their way of life. They keep our power lines repaired, our sewers functioning, our trains running. They give the mammograms that save our lives and pick us up off the street when we’ve been injured. They demand dignity – and they deserve it.”

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton, serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Power of Positive Leadership by Jon Gordon

powerThis review first ran in the June 5th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Positive Leadership

By Jon Gordon



Average organizations have mission statements.

Great organizations have people who are on a mission.

The difference comes down to culture and positive leaders.

“Your most important job as a leader is to drive the culture,” says Jon Gordon, author of The Power of Positive Leadership and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies. Building a culture is not a job you delegate.

“You must create a positive culture that energizes and encourages people, fosters connected relationships and great teamwork, empowers and enables people to do their best work.”

You build a great culture by answering two questions.

What do we stand for?

What do we want to be known for?

Your actions will answer both questions. What you do will matter far more than what you say in memos, meetings and speeches.

“As a positive leader, you can’t just show the way and talk about the way. You must also lead the way. If you don’t set the example and live the values – if you aren’t on a mission – your culture won’t come to life,” says Gordon.

Positive leaders build positive cultures and organizations loaded with people on a mission.

They also do eight other things that transform average organizations into great places to work.

They create and share a positive vision for a brighter and better future that keeps everyone moving in the right direction.

They lead with optimism, positivity and belief.

Positive leaders confront, transform and remove negativity. “One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is that they ignore the negativity within their team and organization. They allow it to breed and grow and it eventually sabotages the team and organization.”

They create united and connected teams. “Unity is the difference between a great team and an average team.”

They build strong relationships. “People follow the leader first and their vision second. What you say is important but who you are is even more important.” Invest in relationships, bring out the best in others, coach, encourage, serve, care and be someone that others can trust.

Positive leaders pursue excellence. “They are always looking for ways to transform what is into what could be,” says Gordon.

They lead with purpose. “Purpose is why you wake up and want to transform your team and organization and change the world.”

And they have grit. “Positive leaders find a way to navigate the roadblocks or run through them to move closer to their vision and goal.”

Gordon shows how even the most pessimistic among us can become a more positive person and effective leader.

He confesses to once being a fearful, negative, stressed-out and miserable husband and father. An ultimatum from his wife forced Gordon to change his ways.

“When I was young my dad struggled with himself,” Gordon’s daughter wrote in her college admission essay. “But over the years, I watched my dad work to become a more positive person. Then he started writing and speaking about it and sharing his message with others. I saw people change for the better and I know that if he can change, and they can change, the world can change.”

Would the people you lead and live with say the same thing?

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton and serves as director of communications for Mohawk College.


Review: A Leadership Kick in the Ass by Bill Treasurer

leadership kick in the assThis review first ran in the May 23rd edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

A Leadership Kick in the Ass: How to Learn From Rough Landings, Blunders and Missteps

By Bill Treasurer



You did a truly dumb thing.

Yes, you stayed within the letter of the law. But you will be found guilty in the court of public opinion and possibly crucified.

Your judgment, character and integrity will be questioned.

You will test the loyalty and faith of the people you lead.

This will rank among the worst of times for you. Yet it could also prove to be the best time to become a better leader if you respond in the right way.

“A kick in the tuckus can be the moment where everything changes for you as a leader,” says Bill Treasurer, chief encouragement officer at Giant Leap Consulting and author of A Leadership Kick in the Ass.

“These stark and startling moments can rattle your confidence to the core. But these moments can also be the starting point where you assess your strengths, clarify your values and develop an authentic and true leadership voice and style.”

According to Treasurer, embarrassing butt kicks can lead to transformative humiliation and positive change.

“You’ll stop overcompensating for your weaknesses by being falsely confident and over-dominant, and instead, will gain strength in the humble recognition that leading and influencing others is a privilege to be honored and treasured. Your kick will ultimately teach you that the only way to bring out the best in those you’re leading is to lead with the best of yourself.”

It takes real courage to see yourself as you really are, says Treasurer. It’s easy to dig in, push back and lash out. Admitting that you’re the source of your problems and ineffectiveness is hard and humbling. Yet it’s the only way you’ll face reality and be a better leader.

Getting your butt kicked injects a healthy dose of humility. “Strengths are good things. Until they aren’t,” says Treasurer.

Your mastery at public speaking can lead you to fall in love with the sound of your own voice and have you seeking the limelight. Your off-the-chart critical thinking skills can fool you into believing and acting as though you’re the smartest person in the room. Your strength of confidence can quickly turn into a weakness of arrogance.

A lack of confidence is also a weakness. Butt kicks loom for leaders who are preoccupied with the potential for failure and who hyper-focus on risk mitigation. They don’t trust, or fight, for their ideas. Timid and hesitant leaders are unoriginal, uninspiring, ineffective and eventually unfollowed and unemployed.

“Every leader is made up of sunshine and shadows. Paying attention only to the shiny parts of your leadership causes your shadow to grow, practically ensuring a kick in the saltshaker.”

So how do you make the most out of your kick in the butt? How do you achieve the confident humility that’s the hallmark of great leaders?

Treasurer recommends that you:

  • Focus on the long game. “A kick is just a momentary speed bump on your longer leadership career.” Focus on where you want your career to end up, not on the detour you’re taking.
  • Learn from your feelings.
  • Remember that discomfort equals growth. “You don’t grow in a zone of comfort. You grow, progress and evolve in a zone of discomfort.”
  • Broaden your view of courage to include being vulnerable, open and receptive to change.
  • Don’t be oblivious to yourself. “How much might it be costing you to remain loyal to your ignorance?”
  • Be your own project. “Lots of people lead projects better than they lead themselves. Treat your butt kick recovery like a project with outcomes, timelines and milestones.
  • Stay present. Fully immerse yourself in the experience.

“A humiliating kick can be the entry point for a richer, fuller and more complete understanding of yourself, as a leader and as a human being. You’ll be better able to use your strengths – and actively mitigate the shadows your strengths sometimes cause – so they better serve you and others.”

It’s a not question of whether you’ll get your butt kicked as a leader. It’s just a matter of when and how hard.

The real question is whether you’ll use this teachable moment to reset and right-size your confidence and humility.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College,  lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Speed – How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution by John Zenger & Joseph Folkman

speedThis review first ran in the May 8 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution

By John Zenger and Joseph Folkman

McGraw Hill


Sitting through marathon meetings irritates you.

Pursuing perfection at the expense of making progress frustrates you.

And dealing with people who can’t cut to the chase exhausts you.

Patience is not your virtue.

We could punish you. Remind you to go along to get along. Tell you to work on your poker face. Ship you off for remedial training.

But if we’re smart, we’ll promote you.

Organizations need to pick up the pace, say John Zenger and Joseph Folkman.

“The survival of organizations depends on their ability to move quickly,” say the authors of Speed and CEO and president of a firm that delivers leadership development programs to organizations worldwide.

“We live in a world where the pace at which an organization moves and its ability to adapt and change can lead to dramatic success or failure.”

One of the keys to organizational success is leadership speed.  “Agile organizations are full of speedy leaders,” say Zenger and Folkman.

“Organizations can only move as fast as their employees do. The pace of employees will impact the pace of the organization. Even more important is the pace of the leader. Leaders who resist a brisk pace can be a major source of a company’s problems and ultimately its failure.”

Zenger and Folkman say we need more leaders who excel at doing things well and doing them quickly. Pacesetting leaders are adept at spotting problems and trends early and then wasting no time in making course corrections.

These quick-off-the-mark leaders inspire the rest of us to pick up our game and keep us motivated to go the extra mile.

To move your organization from sluggish to speedy, leaders can set an example by holding shorter meetings and having briefer interactions. Become a master at gently guiding others’ conversations.  “Help others get to the heart of the matter and let them know you respect their time and you want them to respect yours.”

Based on 360-degree feedback results on 52,000 leaders, Zenger and Folkman have identified eight companion behaviors that will dial up your leadership speed:

  • be innovative with a willingness to change
  • exhibit strategic perspective
  • display courage
  • set stretch goals
  • communicate powerfully
  • bring an external focus
  • take initiative, and
  • possess knowledge and expertise

“The pendulum defining most organizations’ behavior is currently not in the middle, but on the slow, ponderous side,” say Zenger and Folkman. “There is an urgent need and huge benefit to attaining what we have defined as true leadership speed.”

The authors make a convincing case for why organizations and leaders need to swing the pendulum to the speedy side.

@jayrobb serves as communications director for Mohawk College and lives in Hamilton.




Review: Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott

radicalThis review first ran in the April 24th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

By Kim Scott

St. Martin’s Press


If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Unless you’re a boss. And then it’s your job and moral obligation to say things that aren’t nice but necessary.

Bosses get paid to guide teams to achieve results, says Radical Candor author Kim Scott, who’s been a boss at Apple and Google and an advisor to Silicon Valley companies.

When results aren’t achieved, people need to know they’re treading water, doing subpar work and dragging down the team.

The best way to do this is with radical candor. Scott says this management philosophy combines caring personally and challenging directly.

Start by treating the people who work for you as human beings. “It’s not just business; it is personal and deeply personal,” says Scott.

And one way to show you care is by telling them when their work isn’t up to their standards or yours. You challenge directly by delivering hard feedback, making tough calls and holding a high bar for results.

“When people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to accept and act on your praise and criticism,” says Scott.

The alternatives to radical candor are obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity and ruinous empathy. All three can lead you and your team to ruin.

radical 2

When you challenge directly but don’t care personally, you come across as an aggressive and obnoxious jerk. Bosses do this when they belittle and berate, publicly embarrass and humiliate and freeze out members of their team.

When you don’t challenge directly and don’t care personally, you’re manipulative and insincere. “People give praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake – or when they are just too tired to care or argue any more.”

And when you care personally but don’t challenge directly, you’re practicing ruinous empathy. It’s responsible for most of the management mistakes Scott has seen in her career. “Most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. They are like the well-meaning parent who cannot bear to discipline their kids. They create the kind of work environment where being nice is prioritized at the expense of critiquing, and therefore, improving actual performance.”

Imagine a colleague comes back from lunch with spinach in her teeth. Radical candor is you whispering to her “there’s spinach in your teeth.” Obnoxious aggression is shouting “look at her, she has spinach in her teeth.” Manipulative insincerity is saying nothing because you need to be liked above all else and don’t want to risk having your co-worker be mad at you. Ruinous empathy is saying nothing because you’re worried about hurting your co-worker’s feelings even though she’ll wonder why you didn’t care enough to save her from embarrassment.

Radical candor is the key to building trusting relationships with each person who reports directly to you. Scott says these core relationships will decide your fate as a boss and whether your team delivers results or comes up short.

“Your relationships and your responsibilities reinforce each other positively or negatively, and this dynamic is what drives you forward as a manager – or leaves you dead in the water. Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows.”

The best way to give radical candor is to first welcome it from your team. Prove you can take it before dishing it out. “Soliciting guidance, especially criticism, is not something you do once and check off your list – this will now be something you do daily. But it’ll happen in little one to two-minute conversations, not in meetings you have to add to your calendar.”

Radical Candor should be mandatory reading for everyone in a leadership role. Scott makes the case for caring personally and challenging directly and shows how to say things that aren’t nice yet absolutely necessary for getting the best out of the people you lead.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Death of Expertise – The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols

deathThis review first ran in the April 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

By Tom Nichols

Oxford University Press


We get to watch the death of expertise play itself out in real time with Hamilton’s light rail transit project.

Despite what experts tell us about the downtown renewing, sewer and sidewalk replacing and city-building benefits of our billion dollar infrastructure project, not everyone’s a believer. City council appears divided and public support seems underwhelming nine years into the project. We shouldn’t bank on another study, report, op-ed or endorsement by experts, elites and the professional class to win over skeptics and silence critics.

“While expertise isn’t dead, it’s in trouble,” says Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, a professor at the US Naval War College and five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion

“Something is going terribly wrong. It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography; they don’t but that’s an old problem. The bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things.”

We’re sliding from uninformed to misinformed and aggressively wrong, warns Nichols. Feelings now matter more than facts. Our guesses are as good as anyone else’s, even if we know little or nothing about the matter at hand.

Nichols believes we’ve adopted a new Declaration of Independence. “No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident. We hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”

A toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism and cynicism is being levelled with self-righteous fury at experts and professionals and that should concern us all says Nicols. “When resentful laypeople demand that all marks of achievement, including expertise, be levelled and equalized in the name of democracy and fairness there is no hope for either democracy or fairness.”

What’s put expertise in a death spiral?  Nichols pins blame on the Internet, higher education and the media.

We’re less social and more confrontational online. We cluster in echo chambers and associate only with people who share and confirm our view of the world. The vitriol on comment sections and discussion boards proves we can’t tolerate challenges to our beliefs and ideas.

And who needs experts when we all hold advanced degrees from the University of Google?

“In the various skirmishes in the campaign against established knowledge, the Internet is like artillery support: a constant bombardment of random, disconnected information that rains down on experts and ordinary citizens alike, deafening all of us while blowing up attempts at reasonable discussion.”

Nichols gives colleges and universities a failing grade when it comes to developing critical thinking skills in students. “Higher education is supposed to cure us of the false belief that everyone is as smart as everyone else. They are failing to provide the ability to recognize expertise and to engage productively with experts and other professionals in daily life. Students are learning that emotion and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert or intellectual will ever be able to breach. When students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”

Much of the news media has devolved into partisan infotainment and personality journalism with its focus on form over content, says Nichols. Instead of giving us what we need, the media is giving us the clickbait and hot takes that we seem to crave.  And what we want most from our news is confirmation instead of information. “Much of what passes for news in the 21st century often leaves laypeople – and sometimes experts – even more confused and ornery.”

Nichols says experts aren’t doing themselves any favours when they wander into the prediction business or make the dangerous assumption that they’re smarter at everything because they’re smarter at a few things. Nichols says experts should instead stay in their lane, resist the urge to offer up opinions and stick to explaining rather than predicting.

The Death of Expertise is a sobering read and you don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of it happening close to home. All of us need to wander out of our echo chambers and safe spaces, start varying our news diets and reminding ourselves daily that we’re not as smart as everyone else.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: This I Know – Marketing Lessons From Under The Influence by Terry O’Reilly

this i knowThis review first ran in the March 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

This I Know: Marketing Lessons From Under The Influence

By Terry O’Reilly

Alfred A. Knopf Canada


It’s not my fault but it is my problem.

This Disney World mantra is worth adopting if you’re serious about delivering superior service.

When customers come to you with a complaint, don’t duck or dodge. Don’t transfer their call, forward their email or tell them to talk to someone else. Don’t pass the buck, say your hands are tied and tell them nothing can do done.

Instead, clean up the mess even if you didn’t make it.  Own the problem and stay with your customer until she gets a solution or resolution.

“Obsessive customer service is one of the best ways to trump the competition,” says Terry O’Reilly, author of This I Know, co-founder of Pirate Radio and Television and a CBC radio host of Under the Influence. “Your competitor’s lack of obsessive customer service is your opportunity. Delivering consistent, superlative, standout customer service is one of the best ways to cause your competitors to find you really, completely irritating.”

Yes, customer service costs money. But you’ll make far more money than you spend, says O’Reilly. “Memorable, outstanding, go-the-extra-mile, I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-that-for-me customer service is as rare as a winning lottery ticket. But if played daily, it is a winning lottery ticket for the company. The return on investment is ten-fold.”

That’s because great customer service fuels word of mouth which O’Reilly calls the most powerful advertising of all. Happy customers rave, dissatisfied customers rant and social media amplifies both.

One way to earn those rave reviews is to go the extra inch. “Smart businesses search for ways to deliver the smallest touches to make an experience memorable. The smaller the detail, the more intrigued and impressed I am,” says O’Reilly.

Along with being a game of inches, marketing starts by answering a fundamental question.

What business are we really in?

“Don’t answer that question too quickly. Most people get it wrong. Yet it’s the most important marketing question you can ask yourself. Until you answer it correctly, your marketing will always lack focus,” says O’Reilly. “If you truly know what business you’re in, you will be selling the right thing and solving the right problems.”

What you’re selling and what we’re buying can be two very different things. You sell products and services while we buy solutions. “Customers don’t want your product,” says O’Reilly. “They want the benefit of the product. People buy benefits. Not products. Not features. And they buy these solutions from companies they can relate to.”

Molson isn’t in the beer business, says O’Reilly. They’re in the party business with beer as the social lubricant.

Michelin doesn’t sell tires. They sell safety.

Starbucks is in the coffee theatre business. Nike is in the motivation business. Apple sells personal empowerment while Coke sells happiness.

“You have to quietly observe what customers are really buying from you. They will tell you, but you have to listen carefully. The best marketers are the best listeners.”

Having won hundreds of international advertising awards, O’Reilly is well worth listening to. His book should be required reading for entrepreneurs, small business owners and leaders of non-profit who don’t have monster marketing budgets and ad agencies on retainer.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: The Difference – When Good Enough Isn’t Enough by Subir Chowdhury

the differenceThis review first ran in the March 13th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough

By Subir Chowdhury

Crown Business


You tell us three things about yourself every time you dump dirty dishes in the lunchroom sink.

Expecting someone else to clean up your mess tells us you’re lazy and entitled. It also shows us that you just don’t care.

And that’s a big problem because caring is the difference between good and great organizations.

So says author and management consultant Subir Chowdhury who works with Fortune 500 companies.

Chowdhury was stumped by why organizations of similar sizes from the same industries achieved markedly different results after working with his consulting team. “It didn’t make sense to me,” says Chowdhury.  “One company achieved a return of five times their investment – adequate to me but hardly spectacular – while the other saw a return of 100 times their investment.”

Chowdhury found that an organization-wide caring mindset explained the difference. “When a caring mindset prevails, truth is valued, people strive to understand one another, concessions are resisted in favour of seeking the best possible result or outcome, and people recognize that quality is everyone’s business.

“We have to do better than good enough. We have to strive for excellence. And that process and way of thinking all begins with developing a caring mindset.”

It’s a mindset defined by four must-have principles.  To be caring, you need to be straightforward, thoughtful, accountable and demonstrate a steady resolve.

“Practice them until your caring mindset has no off-switch,” says Chowdhury about the four principles. “Own them. Make them yours. When you do, you will inspire everyone around you to do the same. The principles are contagious. You can be the difference.”

Being honest, direct, open, candid, transparent and fair with others makes us straightforward. It also guards against lying and deceit and prevents organizational problems from being ignored, downplayed or dismissed.

Being attentive, considerate, unselfish and helpful makes us thoughtful.

“When  we place ourselves in another person’s shoes, or see things from another’s point of view, and then act for their benefit – when we are being empathetic – we are practicing what it means to be thoughtful.”

Taking responsibility makes us accountable. We don’t say something should be done by someone at some point. Instead, we step up and take ownership for getting it done even if we didn’t make the mess or cause the problem.

And we show our resolve by having the passion, determination and perseverance to stay the course when solving tough problems or improving situations. We keep going long after others have packed it in.

What’s our best strategy for developing a caring mindset? Be in the company of people who already have one, says Chowdhury.

Adopt a caring mindset and we’ll follow you as a leader and work with you as a peer. “Anyone can make a difference and inspire others if they adopt a caring mindset. Having a caring mindset has nothing to do with where you were born or how much money you make. You do don’t need to be anything other than who you are.”

So the next time you bring a coffee mug or plate to the lunchroom, don’t dump and run. Wash and dry instead. It’s a small step on a longer journey from good to great.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.