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Grass-Cutting Contemplations …


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Contemplations may be the issue of the contemplative, those given to time alone and solitary activity. For these the imagination grows with available time. Most have their place—the shower, a comfortable chair, the “hours after the hours,” walks to nowhere, the littoral gazing across the sea. For others, it may be the opportunity in a singular chore or enchantment that works to separate us from the rest of everything for those moments of reflection, imagining, and the forecasts that raise the spirit. They are the times when plans form, or the anxiety that attends them wafts away as perspective grows; even routines—cooking, cleaning house, washing the car, or painting a fence—that ask only our time and little thought to achieve it.

Not unlike so many that find their way to a place untouched by others, in stolen moments, I am at peace riding a mower. The practice is an imperative for any with property to mend and care for, listening for the cadence that makes measured turns and speeds second nature, until contemplations take the wheel. The activity is at once mindless and mindful, its near-naked cousin able to occupy time, space, and matter simultaneously. Einstein and Rosenthal made math of the artifice, while the rest have simply fallen into its gravitational sleep without thinking.

This gait has no equal; it is mine alone—the same, I imagine, for you. I see new ventures, alternative social solutions, a greater sense of my investment in others, the unique ways the creator has knit me, the model of construction or repair that has needed more skill than I own. Time for all things is suddenly available to me. I consider song, literature—largely my own—kitchen creations, the God of our world, how to do the impossible like bringing two parties together. All things may come into view—TV series, high school memories, mother’s words, gravity, ways to encourage new customers to local shops and craftsmen.

It’s summer, the season of growth—a warning for some to take stock, for others a time to consider the simple world around us. These are the common things—the gratification in a freshly cut, lush lawn, the character of breezes, warm, moist, even warning of storms ahead, and homegrown tomatoes. No other season can produce them, not even Amazon can cause them to appear at your doorstep. Little else is so cherished than a gift of them to neighbors yet unfolded to seasonal joys.

Kierkegaard claimed “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Rousseau asserted “my mind works only with my legs.” Thoreau called walking “a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us,” to reclaim the holy land of deliberation and imagination. Eric Klinger, and other psychologists, suggest that this “daydreaming and fantasizing” is a “reminder mechanism” that helps to separate oneself from busyness, thus keeping “larger agenda fresher in mind.” It’s a time to let the “adaptive unconscious” take control of the wheel, when “feeling” becomes the only form of self-reliance.

Today I’ll take a swim in a nearby lake, listen for the sounds and song of it, and try to be still for the longest time busyness allows. I hope to see you there.

July 21, 2017 |

Greatness: Is It In You?


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Some years ago I was introduced to a thinking model that presumed something very unusual. It was that the world we generally perceive is not at all the one that delivers the happiness we seek. Some of you might shrug at the notion with a knowing twist of the head. “Of course,” you might say; “this world is no paradise.” The proposition, according to this model, was to see the world for the opportunity in it, and to celebrate what’s right about it.

A common expression of the model was to say: “If you spot it, you got it,” when asked about the special way in which its followers viewed things. The parallel to business (of this model) was striking, at least in my mind. Our striving after greatness, I wondered, may be no more than a point of view. Or, alternatively, was it simply born in some and not in others? So, which is it?

Are we but the unsuspecting product of natural selection, or a work of purpose in our lives? There is no denying that some are so naturally inclined to achievement that it’s easy to just assume “they’ve got it and others don’t.” Others, no less successful at their attempts, seem to bear fruit by the sheer force of their labors. What does it take, then, to achieve greatness— is it inheritance or inspiration?

Solomon may have been the son of David, a king among kings, but he amassed a wealth greater than any single man in history. His achievements are legend. But how did he accomplish them? Francis Ouimet may have been the greatest golfer to seldom play the game. Was he a natural, or a product of the effort he put into it? Tiger Woods, no less, appeared to be unstoppable as the greatest golfer alive—not a bad result for someone who had been playing the game daily for 29 of his 31 years. Did Kobe Bryant just ooze talent, or were his basketball skills the effluence of hard work and extraordinary discipline? Was Steve Jobs just blessed of good timing to find himself back at the helm of Apple, and doing extremely well, or was the road back marked by obstacles and overcoming?

Research has demonstrated that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret: arduous and demanding practice and hard work. Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway) may have an extraordinary knack for making the right investment moves, but his success in market matters is more likely the result of his legendary discipline and long hours spent studying the financials of investment targets. Contrary to his own view, research suggests that he was not “wired at birth to allocate capital.”

Frankly, we do not possess a natural gift for a particular job. And while it is true that our so-called natural gifts do incline us toward greater performance at some things more than others, job-specific natural gifts do not exist. We are not born publishers, CEOs, or enforcement officers, though some things unique to us do prepare us better for some jobs over others. The conclusion is that we will achieve greatness only by hard work over much time.

Jim Rohn, management and motivational guru, claims that the answer lies not in what we do but in what we don’t do. “The things I found to be easy to do, others found to be easy not to do. I found it easy to set the goals that could change my life. They found it easy not to do it. I found it easy to read the books that could affect my thinking and my ideas. They found that easy not to do. I found it easy to attend the classes and the seminars, and to get around other successful people. They said it probably really wouldn’t matter. If I had to sum it up, I would say what I found to be easy to do, they found to be easy not to do. Years later, I’m a multi-millionaire and they are all still blaming the economy, the government, and company policies, yet they neglected to do the basic, easy things. In fact, the primary reason most people are not doing as well as they could and should, can be summed up in a single word: neglect.”

Experts are remarkably consistent in their findings—talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. The irresistible question—the “fundamental challenge” for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is— “Why”? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.

ex nihilo, nihil fit

Nothing comes from nothing! Nobody is great without work. In other words, there is no substitute for hard work. It is nice to believe that if you find the field that uses your natural gifts, you’ll be great from day one, but it doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

Reinforcing this “no-free-lunch” finding is vast evidence confirming that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

What about Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster at 16? Turns out the rule holds: he’d had nine years of intensive study. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.

Greatness then, isn’t just handed over to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet, even this isn’t enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What’s missing?

The Practice in Potential

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results, and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day—that’s deliberate practice.

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”

Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn’t do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you’d expect—Ericsson notes, “Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s.” The more research that’s done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.

Just Folks … like you and me

All this research is evidence of what great performers have been showing us for years. Winston Churchill, among the greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz is credited with saying: “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.” He was certainly driven, but the same can be said for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took six Mr. Olympia medals, Tiger Woods, or Peter Drucker, who learned enough new to write a management book at age 95, the year before he died.

Successful CEOs read an average of four business related books a month. The reading habit of most Americans is to read one book a year. In football, all-time-great receiver Jerry Rice—passed up by 15 teams because they considered him too slow—practiced so hard that other players would get sick trying to keep up.

Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age—18 months—and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that’s what it took to get even better.

The Workplace

The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? You guessed it. Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, and decoding financial statements—you can practice them all.

Still, they aren’t the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information. These, too, can be practiced. It’s all about how you do what you’re already doing, how you imagine the work, and yourself doing it.

Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it–each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company’s strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of market changes and setting the tone for discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.

A Mind That Matters

Armed with the mindset of performance improvement, people go at a job in a new way. According to research, they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they’re doing and seek other perspectives—the very definition of growth. This difference in mental approach is vital—mindset is the key.

Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business, or so you’d think. Yet most people don’t seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won’t come. Without it, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, “it’s as if you’re bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don’t know how successful you are, two things happen: one, you don’t get any better, and two, you stop caring.” In some companies, like General Electric, frequent feedback is part of the culture. If you aren’t lucky enough to get it, seek it out.

Be The Ball

It’s common advice from tennis instructors, but just as useful in business. Build “mental models of your business”—pictures of how the pieces fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models grow and the better your performance.

Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, had the same knack. He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.

It’s a lot to hold on to, but not as valuable without one more thing—deliberate practice. Do it, and with regularity. Simply, it’s about being what you hope to become.

The Existential “Why”

For most people, work is hard enough without pushing any more. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. But, that’s the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be great but ordinary, which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.

This is where research loses its way, because observable behavior may not reveal the heart, and it is here that we find the motivation to carry on … often to greatness. My own experience suggests that high performers are believers in the value of the “thing they do.”

I often ask clients if they believe in what they’re doing. “If they stutter when they talk,” I suggest to them, “it might be why they stumble when they walk.” Greatness is no existential catwalk in which the delicate balance of life is at issue. The fact is that we can make ourselves what we will. But that requires that we first abandon the idea that our “hidden talent” will appear at the precise moment when the balance of our lives is perfect, a view that is tragically self-limiting and leads to self-defeat. Rather, the liberating news is that greatness is not reserved for the “gifted” few, but is available to you and me.


July 14, 2017 |

Crazy …?


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



The opportunity in most things is hidden treasure. We seldom see what’s in plain view until another has made great use of it. Think Play-Doh, smelly insulation in its original guise and Silly Putty, the accidental combining of boric acid and castor oil. Though many come to mind, few were apparent at first glance. Why would anyone build a new mobile phone in the midst of a dozen competitors having trouble growing a 20 percent share of market? Clearly, all could do the math—(100/12 = 8.3%). That notwithstanding, while others were building mobile phones, Apple Computer designed and delivered a new use model for the ubiquitous “hip cricket.” The rest is history, as they say.

So, what is Amazon management thinking in buying Whole Foods? While many are scratching their heads over its recent bid for the landmark quality organics-bred and “brick- and-mortar” food chain, the reasons are both apparent and jointly held. It’s Amazon’s data strategy that is at the root of the offer and one that may transform retail as we know it. Oddly, there’s nothing new or strange about the idea that getting to know one’s customer leads to greater sales and a secure “retention revenue model.” From the use of POS (Point of Sale) systems in the seventies, retailers understood the potential in “data collection and use” as they began to track inventory to grow operational efficiencies and move a little closer to the needs of customers. Fast forward to “the consumer” and big data looms as the way to spike retail sales by the very principles that have existed since the first exchange of goods and services in kind.

In tomorrow’s (Amazon’s) model, every transaction is recorded, every buyer is known, every inventory change recorded, and every possible next order can be suggested based on what visitors buy and browse.  It is the secure belief that all data must be collected, analyzed and used—a very different model than the practice of most retailers today. It may also be the reinvention of retail’s future. A majority of major retail brands list data mining and analysis as the largest of their investments. Not coincidentally, they share another view— the belief that their industry is at risk of falling prey to creative destruction, that which transformed the media advertising industry since 1995.

The signature idea is to enhance the customer experience by warming to their needs and presenting the choices that encourage the freedom to uniquely qualify all in the process. Individuals are made of their choices, unique and fulfilling. Retail has always succeeded when sensitive to this fundamental insight. The net—if you don’t have a big data strategy that includes multichannel marketing, you will fall victim to the destructive innovation that is building steam in the marketplace. Its root motivation is a shift in consumer spending away from products and toward experiences. Of course! A good customer experience is the holy grail of retail. What each retailer does to enhance this vital relationship will determine whether they sink or float atop the wave of destructive innovation that is rising in the marketplace.

Successful retailers find ways to expand relationships with their customers which are fueled by exceptional “customer service, creative loyalty programs, and unique, authentic in-store and online experiences.” Finally, retailers will need to leverage technology to maximize their multichannel efforts and to better understand customers and the consumer at large. Millennials for example, wield purchasing power in excess of $200 billion annually. As always, our youth distinguishes themselves by their approaches and attitudes to form their unique profile. Those that have resisted multichannel operations are on a short rope. A narrow focus on a particular channel will fail in the long run for most, since only a multichannel approach will succeed in time. All retailers must move to it to maintain market share.

A recent retail sales marketing survey suggests that “… retailers successfully leveraging multichannel marketing realized a 36 percent increase in sales in the past 12 months and are expecting a 27 percent increase in the next 12 months. More importantly, survey respondents indicated they’ve seen a 40 percent increase in new customers in the past 12 months.” Those that fail to embrace multichannel marketing will continue to lose market share.

Finally, a strong workforce, one that’s trained and conversant in products and brand, particularly for local retailers, is fundamental to overall customer service.  Rising labor costs, scarcity, and employee retention are key to building a skilled workforce, dedicated to its brand and core philosophy—a critical cog in the wheel of retail success. Consumers want access to products on their terms and will develop lasting relationships with those who meet these expectations. The workforce must rise to the demand for knowledgeable, helpful, convenient, and goal-directed assistance.

July 7, 2017 |

Real Growth


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Despite economic growth over the past 4 to 5 years, the consensus view is of an underperforming economic sector worldwide. Our tendency toward quick results—The MacDonalds Syndrome”—opens wounds impatient with the oft misunderstood model of real growth. This is a model of fundamental shifts to adjust the long-term elements that produce desired growth.

 A country’s gross domestic product grows with investment and productivity, and an expanding labor force. Consumption does not drive growth, but is the result of it — the conventional wisdom among those who practice the dismal science of economics. We can be lucky or wrong in our forecasting of economic outcomes, but seldom patient enough to wait for our economy (or our children) to grow out of their bad habits. The hope is that this past recession helped clear the view that fundamental changes in the ways we think and do were necessary.

Households’ share of an economy is typically 40 to 50%, which partly explains why the U.S. economy has grown despite a lackluster retail sector. It is, rather, the maximization of consumption that matters more than consumption itself. The key question is, “Are increased productivity and the rising wages that result, boosting consumption?” Such efficiency insinuates a positive long-term view of growth that consumption alone cannot.

This “inside the belly” view is applicable to local small business that mistakenly narrows its focus on marketing efforts to drive deal buyers to the checkout counter — the folly in the Groupon phenomenon.

Instead, small business would do well to identify with product needs “under ever changing circumstances,” such as school days, holidays, traffic highs and lows, convenience products, and shifting marketing efforts, applying the creative use of traditional media while adding new media access systems, and not least, the customer service that informs a good customer experience. “Delivery,” as an added value is a good example. Think Amazon.

Recent performance in the auto segment suggests consumers may have shaken off the “China worries the stock market faltered over. Increased car sales is good news because most are financed; so Americans are showing confidence in their ability to meet payments over time. However, if the sell-off in stocks worries the Fed, interest rates may remain low, encouraging further gains that spell economic growth.

The big picture aside, every small business must see clearly the “market influencers” and the ways to affect local markets with their unique approaches to winning customers.


June 30, 2017 |

It’s Personal


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich


We are seldom made of the clay that repels insensitivity. In a world that pursues individual rights as though the elixir for fulfillment, we are near desperate for the comfort of an understanding voice—the philter in the art of customer service.

Why does Amazon guarantee satisfaction with products purchased on its site, even though from another vendor? Why has Google inserted itself into the buying chain with an offer to do the same? Why did Progressive Insurance break the “buyer beware” shackles by allowing easy online changes to policies and a list of competitors rates? Why have L.L. Bean, Lands’ End and so many others prepared a buying public for a “good customer experience,” with a 100% guarantee on all products sold, one of the keys to a successful revenue retention model? Why indeed? Because “business is personal,” and those who treat their customers with this in mind do best. 

This column spends more ink on customer service issues because it matters more than anything else. Its underpinnings are as applicable to any area of human exchange. Even Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith in their recent book, Most Likely to Succeed , find in the roots of failure (in the American educational system) the need for a more personal approach in matching skills and motivations to curriculum. I worked briefly with both as a member of the Boston-based group The Massachusetts Redevelopment Institute (MRDI), whose purpose was to rebuild the elements of the technology machine known as The Massachusetts Miracle. They were then, as now, astute observers of their surroundings.

In a visit some years ago to the Zuni reservation in southwest Arizona I was struck by the farm scenery on the reservation. The plants were plentiful though small. In researching the agricultural model of Zuni farms I came upon a revealing story. It tells of a man, like me, who paused over a similar curiosity. When he asked a local Zuni farmer why so many of their stories have to do with water, the farmer answered, “It’s because we have so little of it. I guess, it’s the same reason so many of yours have to do with love.” The small plants mystery, and the Zuni’s irrigation model were revealed.

In a sense this column may have co-opted the farmer’s sentiment. Customer service needs more airing for its lack of it. Buyers are people, and though we may experience those who appear without much credential, business is also personal.

June 23, 2017 |

Side Ways to Siena


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



It is said that (often) we find our destiny on the road we take to avoid it. Famed development guru Brian Tracy began his journey in efforts to do nothing of importance until he came upon the significance in all things and the meaning in choice. So too Jesse Ventura, whose “cut through” approach to most things led to the elected position of governor (Minnesota) through an early career in professional wrestling. For so many others the story is the same. We come upon our passions or the desire or meaning in things when, incidentally or by purpose, we are on the road to someplace else. Along the way we come upon that identity with a certain destiny.

Clearly, choices that lead us to it (our destiny), made earlier, tend to enrich the experience and provide the requisite ten-years or 10,000 hours it usually takes to mature the expertise in it. Even if by casual chance, were the choice merely the allowance of risk, we come upon the tastiest of outcomes. Though at times not so apparent, destiny has a way of proving itself, no matter how freighted the journey. To welcome the experience or to be welcomed into it helps ease one’s trepidations. Risk-taking may comfort the bold after practice, but a securing tether often gives rappelling a second chance for the rest of us.

Italians (in country) have the well-worn habit of impressing a greeting on passersby and those with intention to meet. The bounce in the words may presage the energy so easily transferred in them, but one seems always more glad in the hearing of an ever present buon giorno when they meet. Perhaps the risk in engaging others, even one’s own destiny, gains impetus by their penchant for communications so well formed that its complementary hand and body aids have become legend.

It seems that whenever we join with another in common interest something good happens. It’s a simple matter of making oneself available to the opportunity in things, though “trust and verify” is the caution. Notwithstanding, reasonable risks deliver us to the greatest rewards, as ventures prove. Had Winston Churchill accepted his many reversals the greatness in modern day England might not have been known. Not least, the work we do, by design or chance, gives choice its opportunity for heroism. We can either see our deli as the best in deli offerings and service, anticipating the needs of customers large and small, or the organic restaurant of our dreams as something other than the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) of a healthy existence, and enjoy the ride to a happy destiny.

By any measure the most casual circumstances may lead to destinations unimagined, even the glorious inexpendable beauty of Montefioralle, San Gimignano, and the extraordinary fattorias along the Strada di Greve … on the “side ways” to Siena.

June 16, 2017 |

Warming the Trade


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Nothing encourages like encouragement. Extend a helping hand and you hear a blessing in some terms. Appear happy to have someone walk into the shop and you have a willing buyer. Just give them something to buy and youre on your way to commercial success. What do customers buy? It’s the question too little answered. They buy what they need most in the moment — a friendly voice, a listening ear, an understanding heart, a desire for identity, the simple product in their goal. Shop owners have these in stock at all times. But will they be prepared to take them off the shelf to offer the customer? That is the question.

We are seldom what we appear to be — just customers is the shield that carries the words “just looking.” But we are in need of something that is more easily understood by the willing. They are the few among vendors who reap the greatest rewards, but all can practice their way if they choose.

Tourists shopping the world over demonstrate the point. There are just two ways we respond to customers — we warm to them or we warn them away. Warming requires the best in us, that “always on” attitude that encourages the best in others. It reaches in, not out, confirming the person in each, and not just his buying power. This kind of customer will always find the money to have lobster and pappardelle in cream sauce, even when his mind is set on entrecôte and parsnips.

The offer to consider a different choice comes from one whose description “of his experience” is both a story and his passion. Hard to refuse.

Then there are those who warn customers away, giving them scant information, no alternatives, and the informal relationship with only what’s in stock. This vendor has only a few days like the first, and spends most others convincing the customer to go elsewhere.

Today’s efforts at using technology to characterize the customer’s mindset need only pause long enough to “see” the person before them. And the seeing needs only a willing heart. So much for technology!




June 9, 2017 |
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