Contribution is Key

A plant supervisor I coach told me about something that solidified his belief in his company.

And it’s a great lesson for leaders everywhere.

This supervisor’s work occasionally took him on location with their customers in other parts of the country. And seeing the huge benefit local communities get from his company’s product, gave him a sense of pride in the business.

We then talked about his team, who didn’t have that same opportunity to visit customers, and thus didn’t get to see the product in action. We talked about how important it is for a leader to connect the work of the people he supervises to the difference that work makes in the real world.

It’s the concept of contribution. It’s something I’ve written about here before and this supervisor got it right away. He talked about how his team shares Facebook posts from a customer who uses their product and a recent newspaper article that mentioned the use of their product in disaster recovery.

It’s an especially important topic in a manufacturing facility like the one this supervisor works in. Most of the people who work in manufacturing don’t have the opportunity to see the difference their work makes for the end customer.

It’s the job of the leader to connect individual contributions to real world impact. That’s how you connect people to the mission of the company and make them understand that their work is making a difference in the lives of real people.

It’s what makes work meaningful and it hardly needs to be said that people are more likely to stay in meaningful jobs.

So, if you lead people, be sure to let them know the contribution their work makes to the lives of their fellow humans.

Learn from experience… of others

There’s an old saying that you’ve probably heard.

It’s, “Pride comes before the fall,” and it’s one that I think of often. 

The saying originates with the Bible. Proverbs 16:18 states: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 

It’s a reminder that wisdom is eternal – and universal. 

I see that lesson played out in many aspects of life, but I was thinking about it in context to business and how sometimes our pride gets in the way of seeking and receiving good advice. 

It’s so important to learn from those who went before you. 

Contrary to what you may have heard, experience is not the best teacher. Those lessons can be painful.

OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPERIENCE is the best teacher. Learning from the mistakes of those who went before you is much less painful than making those mistakes on your own.

Often when we get into business leadership we start to think we need to have all the answers. Successful people figure out that’s not true. Nobody has all the answers. We can learn them from each other. That requires humility, and an openness to listen and learn. 

That’s why I have hired business coaches. So I can learn from their experience.

A few verses later in that same chapter of Proverbs is a related piece of advice applicable to our business life and leadership” “Wisdom is a fountain of life to one who has it, but folly is the punishment of fools.”

If you’re trying to grow your service business, reach out to see if I can help you learn from the experience of all the other companies I have worked with.

The five traits of high-performing teams

Humans are adaptable.  

We’ve survived all manner of calamity to get where we are today. So it should be no surprise then that we’ve found ways to make work “work” in a post-pandemic age. 

That’s what I took from recent research into the common characteristics of high-performing teams in the workplace. An article on the research was published in the Harvard Business Review.

The authors found five areas of commonality. High-performing teams: 

  • Are not afraid to pick up the phone. 
  • Are more strategic with their meetings. 
  • Invest time bonding over non-work topics. 
  • Give and receive appreciation more frequently. 
  • Are more authentic at work. 

Some of this affirms what you might expect as a business leader. Essentially, good people get along with other good people and so they are more productive. And the authors acknowledge that. 

“When it comes to building extraordinary workplaces and high-performing teams, researchers have long appreciated that three psychological needs are essential: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. … Of those three essential needs, relatedness, or the desire to feel connected to others, has always been the trickiest for organizations to cultivate.” 

The question is, how do you find and hire people who fit with the culture of your company – who can relate – so that they are part of the high-performing team that you want to build. 

Good question. 

I practice and teach a four-step hiring system that, while rigorous, produces team members who are more likely to be a long-term fit. The hiring process is so rigorous because nothing impacts culture more than hiring – more than who you decide to put on the bus.

One of those four steps is an interview to assess their cultural fit by getting at those five traits listed above and other traits important to the specific culture a company is trying to foster.

If you want to learn more about my hiring system, just reach out.

Betty White’s secret to success: Authenticity

Betty White’s star just kept rising as she grew older.

The iconic television star died on New Year’s Eve, just shy of her 100th birthday. Though she appeared in many successful television shows and films – including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls” – White became a cultural hero beginning in the 2000’s.

She was featured in Super Bowl ads, wrote a book, produced a show which pulled practical jokes on young people and even hosted “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 88.

Betty White

White was smart and worked hard to build a career that lasted seven decades. But that doesn’t explain why she attained what became a kind of mythical status in American culture.

That was something else, which I think is best described as authenticity, and from which we can draw lessons from her.

She attracted people because they believed what she said. More specifically, they thought she believed what she was saying. That’s hard to find in today’s culture but it’s an important characteristic when you think about leadership and success in business.

We’re drawn to authentic people. Those are the bosses we want to work for.

We crave authentic experiences. Those are the activities that we will pay more for.

We want authentic lives. The ones that people will remember.

Betty White was one of those people. Or was she?

She was a performer, an actor. She brought authenticity to the role.

Playing a role is the essence of staging memorable customer experiences. Think of Disneyland.

Your business isn’t a fairytale world of heroes and villains. But in a real sense, we are all acting.

Just like Betty White. The question is do your customers believe what you say? Are you authentic in the role?

How to Transform Your Clients

I had the pleasure of hosting Joe Pine, author of The Experience Economy, on a quarterly webinar for clients of FiveFour. Joe talked about the next level of economic offering above experiences: transformations.

What customers want is not our products and services, or even our experiences. What they really want is for us to use those products, services and experiences to transform them into a better version of themselves.

Getting Pushed is How we Learn

Any business can grow from the inside out.

I start with that fundamental belief. The journey to that goal is seldom easy or obvious.

That was certainly the case when I first started working with RHB, a higher education consultant based in Indianapolis, Ind. There were early doubts that it was a good fit.

I quickly learned that the RHB team was incredibly talented and committed. They were not going to take what I said at face value. New concepts needed to be deconstructed and redeveloped.

I needed to be at the top of my game to earn their trust.

They needed to be open to new ideas.

It worked.

“What FiveFour has done for us in the past year is remarkable,” says Richard H. Bailey, co-founder and principal of RHB.

Bailey admits that, early on, he was openly skeptical that FiveFour could deliver on the promise of helping their firm.

“I was resistant to messing around with our mission, but as we are starting to use that new language, it really is at the heart of what we are talking about – our ‘why,’” Bailey says. “I’m really grateful for the help.”

Growing businesses face a common problem. The vision of the leaders gets blurred by the distance from the center of the organization. Bailey was looking forward to transitioning out of day-to-day leadership of the company he founded with his wife Tamara, RHB’s chief executive officer. But he’s confident that the work they’ve done with FiveFour will cement the core values of the firm, creating “virtual hallways and watercoolers.”

“We don’t have the opportunity to let osmosis do its thing,” he says of the modern, increasingly remote workplace. “There’s no shoulder rubbing.”

It’s not just a reshaping of language. RHB is growing fast, attracting some of the top professionals in higher education. Expanding the team brings a new set of challenges, but Bailey notes that the foundational work they’ve done to define the RHB culture has assisted the firm’s growth.

“That momentum is in part due to the way FiveFour helped us rethink who we are, what we’re doing and what we’re all about,” he said. “I was skeptical at the beginning of this. Nathan and his team have done a great job of turning me around on a lot of things.”

It’s a wonderful experience when professionals challenge each other to be better.

I’ve learned so much as this relationship has developed.

How exactly?

First, that what we believe about company culture, what it is, how it looks and works, and the long-term benefits of putting in the work, are true.

Second, that listening is the first step toward learning. Our work with RHB led us to create a completely new structure for one of the foundational parts of our process. It’s not done yet, but we can’t wait to unveil it!

Third, that challenging yourself every day is necessary. Any of the people involved in this venture could have said, “It’s not working,” at any time and we’d have gone our separate ways.

I’m sure thankful we didn’t.

What I believe now, more than ever, is that we can help businesses leaders who want to grow, who are committed to their teams and their purpose.

If that sounds like you, and we’re not yet working together, let’s talk about how we might challenge each other. Connect with me and we’ll figure out how to grow together.

My Prayer for Ukraine

This past week has been tough. Sleep inconsistent. Anxiety and distraction higher than usual.

Why? Because I’ve had one eye on the other side of the world.

That’s because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not abstract to me and my family. It’s threatening the lives and livelihoods of many people we love.

The five of us first visited Ukraine in 2016 and then again in 2018. We went to small towns near Kyiv to help start and run a week-long camp for kids. A camp like the ones I grew up attending in my home state of South Dakota but was new to them.

My family and friends in Kyiv

Those two visits were enough to fall in love with Ukraine and the people. The countryside of grain fields looked very similar to the American Midwest. And we came to find them as some of the most peaceful and hospitable people we’ve ever met.

But it’s also a country with a very difficult past. Standing between empires and now eastern and western Europe, Ukraine has borne the brunt of many conflicts before today. And in the past century, it has been bullied relentlessly by Russia.

When we first visited in 2016, we saw bullet holes and posters of students who were killed in the center of Kyiv in Euromaidan two years earlier. They died in protests of President Viktor Yanukovych, who chose to suspend the signing of the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, in favor of closer ties to Russia. Yanukovych was labeled one of the most corrupt government leaders in the world and after being chased out of office, fled to exile in Russia.

You can also see it in the museums of Kyiv. The World War II museum is very different from American shrines to war. This museum was more memorial to the (at least) 7 million Ukrainians who lost their lives in the war, the 2nd or 3rd largest percentage of population of any country.

Then there’s the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide, which was constructed in memory of the famine caused by the government of Stalin in 1932-3 that killed millions of Ukrainians.

My point is that Russia is not a new threat to the Ukrainian people. Both times we visited, Russian interference in the Crimea was simmering enough to make us slightly nervous. And some of the kids at our camp were refugees from that part of Ukraine.

So far, all of our friends, many of whom are cabinet makers and other tradesmen, are physically safe, but afraid for their lives. Some have fled to surrounding countries, others to the countryside. Access to money, gas and food isn’t guaranteed.

The world must make clear to Russia that their unprovoked invasion of a peaceful democracy won’t be tolerated. I’m sure that many of the Russian people, like the Ukrainian people, don’t want this war. It’s unfortunate that sanctions will negatively impact them, but they are a must.

We know that one of Russia’s favorite tactics is digital misinformation so it’s important that we all continue to counter that by sharing the truth and challenging the big tech companies who are enabling the misinformation.

Beyond that, I am in favor of whatever support we can give Ukraine. If it means that we pay higher gas prices, that’s a much smaller price that what my friends and the millions of Ukrainians are facing.

My prayer is that global pressure on Russia, American support and Ukrainian resistance brings a swift end to the conflict and sends Russian military home. My prayer is that my friends get to go back to their homes and their lives.

The deterioration of customer experience has a new name

Here’s a new word for your business dictionary: Skimpflation. 

At first glance you might think it’s something to do with the effect of cheapskates on the economy. It’s not, but it’s an interesting concept that I’m sure there’s a word for. 

Skimpflation was coined on the NPR program “Planet Money” and was the focus of this Forbes article.

The word describes the deterioration of customer service in our society.  

No doubt, you’ve noticed this trend in your own lives. It didn’t start with Covid, but the pandemic caused real labor shortages that have since caused many service-based businesses to reduce offerings. 

You don’t have to go far to see it. Where I live there are Starbuck’s that are drive-up only. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Starbuck’s is continually innovating, citing the coffee giant’s new mega-store in downtown Chicago. But today, in some locations, you can’t even sit down to drink your coffee and surf the internet.  

Plenty of other businesses have reduced the hours, or even days, they are open. Many have fewer staff when they are open. 

What does that mean for us as business leaders? 

Customer experience is more important than ever. Skimpflation irritates customers because they are getting less than they expected.  

They will go elsewhere… eventually. 

The writer in Forbes points out that simple inertia keeps consumers going back to the same companies over and over, even as the quality of the experience slides.  

“Companies that routinely engage in skimpflation count on that inertia, because instead of seeking to maximize customer loyalty, they focus on minimizing customer defections,” he wrote. “And when defection-avoidance is your goal, customer inertia is your friend. A good customer experience is no longer necessary; you just need one that isn’t so awful that it eclipses the inertia and motivates a switch to a competitor.” 

Be the business that gives customers a reason to leave your competitor and come to you. The market is just waiting for you to make the invitation. 

How do you do that? There’s an investment, to be sure. But it’s more than money. It’s mindset. It’s leadership.  

What’s the employee experience at your company? 

A big part of Skimpflation is attitude. How are you and your team approaching the challenges of the day? Are you bemoaning the lack of qualified job candidates and the laziness of the ones you have? 

That surely isn’t the path to a remarkable experience that develops customer loyalty.  

Now’s the time to examine your company culture, your development systems and how you will ensure customer success.

Reach out or book a time to chat and I’ll help grow your business from the inside out.

How To Recruit from Jay Abraham

The Great Resignation has not made hiring any easier, but it has made it far more important. Almost every business I work with is spending more time, energy and money on hiring than they were last year at this time.

One was paying $22 per hour for summer workers in 2019 and struggled to fill those same positions at $35 this year. Another hired a technical manager away from one company only to have that same company recruit them back by bumping the annual salary by $25,000.

But escalating the pay race only gets you mercenaries, that’s why I loved this email I received from Jay Abraham. Jay is trying to recruit believers in his cause and the opportunity he has for them. Not just those in search of a bigger paycheck. Here’s the email:


If you aren’t “a flake” read on.

If you are an unproven aspirant who’s never made any significant deals happen – NOR EVER MONETIZED ANYTHING MEANINGFULLY – stop reading!

I’m searching for someone to structure JV deals for me.

We’re talking about finding influencers to promote programs for me.

We’re talking about structuring co-branded mastermind groups for me.

We’re talking about persuading different media sources and online platforms to run rev-share ads for me seeking six-seven figure clients.

And a lot more.

You need to be truly adroit at connecting with decision makers of every type – influencers, authors, CEOs, consultants and the like.

You need a monster-impressive history of success, selling high ticket intangibles.

You MUST have made a minimum of $250,000 a year doing it – heavily based on commissions or profit shares (and be able to prove it!)

You must have at least ten great and appropriate references I can check.

You must be exceptionally resourceful and exceedingly self-motivated; because, I’m not going to provide the databases – you have to source them, though I’ll pay to acquire them for you – once you do.

This is either a turn on OR turn OFF!

I tried attracting pure performance based people six months ago from my list and got 100 people, most who were either flakes, misrepresented their abilities or just plain were “play acting” at making big things happen.

I wasted tens of thousands of dollars trying to nurture these “inauthentic actors” and worse, I wasted HUGE opportunity cost in the time and energy I had my team devote to people who did not perform!

So I’m offering to write a check every month to give you a very comfortable base.

I’m offering to lay out opportunities EACH potentially worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit shares to you.

I’m offering the ability to interact, learn and develop unimaginable deal-making abilities to add to your current impressive skill sets.

But I WILL NOT waste my time or energy on ANYONE replying who is either NOT well-suited or who cannot produce verification they satisfy my rigid criteria.

If I hate anything it’s people who waste my, my team, or sales staff’s time or opportunity cost.

So please DO NOT do that to me.

Anyone unqualified who does waste my time will be immediately and permanently removed from my database!

Qualified and seriously interested candidates feel free to apply c/o:

Use subject line: I’m NOT a flake!

Deserving applicants will be contacted IMMEDIATELY.

Undeserving responders will have their email deleted.


The Will to Rise Again

I grew up with the Fresh Prince – the TV show, the music, the movies, all of it. I’d heard good things about, Will, Will Smith’s autobiography and I wasn’t disappointed. There were lots of great stories and lessons from his life. I was ready to give this five stars until a disappointing ending. More on that in a minute.

But first, two thoughts on the two most interesting aspects of the book (to me).

One. I was fascinated by his implosion following his first album which generated a Grammy award for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. They squandered their fame and the follow-up album was a bomb that had Smith broke and out of work. Ultimately, he got a second shot at stardom with the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire and the rest is history (biography).

My first thought about that rise, fall, and rise, was that I didn’t know about that despite the fact that I was a consumer of his music, TV, and film career. Which prompted the second thought: what if that fall had happened today? The only thing the media – especially celebrity gossip media – loves more than a fast rise to fame is a precipitous fall. If Smith’s fall had come 20 years later like, say, oh, I don’t know, Wesley Snipes, would there have been a quick return to fame or would Smith’s reputation have spent a decade or more to recover?

The second was the constant back-and-forth in his life between pushing himself and everyone around him (including his family) to success and being satisfied with where he was in life. Ed Mylett calls this “blissful dissatisfaction” and it’s followed me my entire life. Behind Smith’s fame was a constant striving for more, a trait that he was likely born with (he’s got to be an Enneagram three) and was definitely cultivated by his intense (tyrannical) father.

I was constantly enjoying this book, even in the presence of a consistent stream of F bombs (an search came up with 63), which might reveal as much the influence of his co-author Mark Manson, best know for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.

Then, we got to the end. After all the fascinating steps in his life and career, the emptiness at the top and bottom of fame, he finds redemption in maybe the most stereotypical modern Hollywood star “soul-searching.” It would be like me writing this breathless history of the twists and turns in my life only to end with finding truth in the Bible (as someone who reads the Bible nearly every day of my life). It just fell a little flat for me.

But that doesn’t erase the many life lessons and interesting stories in the book. I still recommend the 16 hours of listening. Just don’t hold your breath for a plot twist at the end.