Review: Six ideas worth considering for your career, company and community in 2017

This review first ran in the Jan. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Here are six ideas worth considering in the new year, pulled from some my favourite business book reviews in 2016.

deep workTake an unannounced social media sabbatical.  You won’t miss much. And we really won’t miss your daily musings, deep thoughts, witty observations and running social commentary. Once free of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you’ll suddenly have more time to focus on what’s actually important. “A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World. “It is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.  Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.”

hug-your-hatersWhile taking a break from oversharing on social media, start paying attention to what’s being said online about your business. Customer service is now a spectator sport thanks to review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor. We’re watching to see how you respond to complaints posted online. And we’re blown away when a company responds to our complaints and goes above and beyond what we expected. “In today’s world, meaningful differences between businesses are rarely rooted in price or product, but instead in customer experience,” says Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. “Hugging your haters gives you the chance to turn lemons into lemonade, morph bad news into good and keep the customers you already have. So few companies hug their haters that those that make the commitment are almost automatically differentiated and noteworthy when compared to their competitors.”

snowblowersIf you’re in a leadership role, try talking less amongst yourselves behind closed doors and start listening more to your frontline staff. They likely know the solutions to whatever problems you’re wrestling with and other issues that aren’t even on your radar yet. They have a very clear sense of what’s working, what’s not and how things could work even better. “The answer to unleashing the power of your team – and to delighting your customers – lies outside the conference room,” says Steven Goldstein, author of Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using The Five Principles of Engagement. “It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the everyday inner workings of the company.”

no fearStart encouraging your children to follow their passion even if it doesn’t lead into law or medicine. And never tell your kids to quit dreaming, get practical and settle for a real career that they may eventually learn to like. Even telling your kids to have a plan B in case their big dreams doen’t pan out is not helpful advice.“Since we are protective of our children, why would we send them on a blood-sucking and soul-destroying path?” asks Larry Smith, a University of Waterloo professor and author of No Fears, No Excuses.  “The grown-up world is where talent goes to die. The rules are clear: do what you are told and you get paid; work to live on the weekend and dread Monday; look forward to retirement and hope you do not end up dreading that as well; expect that pleasure or satisfaction in the work is an uncommon bonus.”

work rulesTake a good chunk of your training budget and spend it instead on recruitment. Run your own in-house search firm, give bonuses to employees who make successful referrals and pay a premium for top talent. When you hire the right people, you don’t need to invest as much in soft skill training and development. “The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people,” says Google VP Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules. “It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with. Refocusing your resources on hiring better will have a higher return than almost any training program you can develop.”

human-city-1Start loving the suburbs. To sustain Hamilton’s momentum, we need densification downtown and growth on our suburban boundaries. Like every generation before them, many of the young professionals we’re courting will eventually outgrow their one-bedroom condos in the heart of the city and dream of single family homes with front porches, back decks and driveways. They’ll look elsewhere if they can’t find, or afford, a home to raise their kids in Hamilton. “In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Joel Kotkin, author of The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces. Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using the Five Principles of Engagement

snowblowers

This review was first published in the Dec. 4 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using The Five Principles of Engagement

By Steven Goldstein

Greenleaf Book Group Press

$28.95

If I was president of the Niagara Health System, I’d invite Edna out for lunch.

Edna was the best of a pretty remarkable group of nurses and health professionals who looked after my mom last week at the St. Catharines General Hospital.

Edna didn’t just provide exemplary care. She genuinely cared about my mom and provided real comfort to our family. While her Sunday shift ended at 7 p.m., Edna stuck around until my mom got out of surgery nearly two hours later. They were still talking when my brother-in-law and I called it a night.

And although she was caring for other patients on the ward three days later, Edna dropped by to offer some last minute encouragement as my mom headed home.

So if I was a senior executive wanting to make a great hospital even better for patients and families, I’d go to the frontlines and look to standout staff like Edna for ideas on what to start, stop and continue doing.

“Interacting with employees and customers on a regular basis is the key to success,” says Steven Goldstein, past chairman and CEO of American Express Bank and author of Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami?

“The answer to unleashing the power of your team – and to delighting your customers – lies outside the conference room. It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the everyday inner workings of the company.”

Goldstein did exactly that while working for American Express in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That’s where he met John, a window washer who was ignored by every other executive in the building. Goldstein turned an impromptu 45-minute conversation with John into regular coffee breaks and end-of-day pints at a pub.

“I learned more in my first meeting with John than I could have ever learned reviewing reports or even talking to my team. He was extremely perceptive about what was going on in the business.”

So why aren’t leaders routinely connecting with frontline staff? Goldstein says it’s more a matter of will than skill. Yes, all senior executives are extremely busy with meetings. Some are introverts who aren’t blessed with the gift of gab. Others are insecure and believe they should already have all the answers. And more than a few leaders have developed over-inflated egos and take themselves a little too seriously.

Goldstein encourages senior executives to park their egos and venture alone and unannounced to the frontlines.  Don’t bring along an entourage or send in an advance team to stage manage a royal visit.

Take notes so the people you’re talking with know that you’re sincere and serious about their ideas and opinions. Report back to your team and make sure follow-up items are implemented.

“The best way to convince people that you are listening is for them to see clear changes resulting from their feedback. They will connect the dots.”

Be yourself and be natural in your conversations. Avoid being stiff, officious or contrived.

“Most important, have fun and enjoy this,” says Goldstein. “It is really great to get to know the people in your organization, especially the ones who really care about their customers and their jobs. Visit people and talk to them; make this a priority.”

Connecting with employees and customers is one of Goldstein’s five principles of engagement.  You also need to start looking at your organization with an outsider’s perspective, focus everyone’s attention on just two or three key metrics, be transparent with information and instill a bias for action. “Whatever speed you are going is too slow. Companies cannot assume they have endless time to evaluate, plan and launch new initiatives.”

When you have a highly engaged workforce, you don’t wind up doing dumb things like selling snowblowers at a Sears store in Miami. It’s one of many personal stories Goldstein tells from his 35-year career dedicated to helping leaders cure organizational dysfunction.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and is grateful to the health care team at St. Catharines General Hospital.