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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:

Nathan,

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: Desiree@abraham.com

Use subject line: I’m NOT a flake!

Deserving applicants will be contacted IMMEDIATELY.

Undeserving responders will have their email deleted.

Jay

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 Amazon.com 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.

No win without a Winning culture

On the road from a few bucks to a few billion, every company creates the same problems for itself. One of those must be solved in order to achieve lasting success:

Preventing growth from destroying culture.

You see, every successful startup has a special culture – whatever it is – that propels it to those early successes. Most don’t think much of it. It’s just “the way we do things around here.”

But something happens when most companies start growing; that culture that everyone felt in their bones starts to slowly leak away.

I read another of the many examples of this in Play Nice But Win, an autobiographical account by Michael Dell of the early years and recent transformation of Dell Technologies.

From its start in Dell’s University of Texas dorm room to #28 on the Fortune 500, the company knows a thing or two about growth. One of the topics Dell covers is the challenge of creating a healthy culture in a company with explosive growth. He writes:

Back in the beginning, when the company was just me, I had this set of values that I knew were important, but I didn’t have to communicate them with anybody. But as more and more people came on board, things got more complicated. As a company grows it becomes compartmentalized. Our salespeople understood our values because they were interfacing with the customer all the time. As were the technical support people. But our manufacturing and supply chain team members were a little farther away from the voice of the customer. We battled this by going out of our way to have customers visit our manufacturing sites. What we learned was that the best way to tell the story of our company was through their stories. What were our customers trying to accomplish? What were their challenges? Especially the new and unsolved challenges? Understanding these new and unsolved challenges is at the core of what we must continue to do as a company to succeed. Why was what they were doing important in the world – and how were we helping them to do it?

Michael Dell, Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader

Out of that challenge came one of the five key tenets of Dell’s values: “We believe in creating loyal customers by providing a superior experience at a great value.” Some of the new people who had joined Dell were more motivated by a big financial payout than they were by Dell’s set of values.

The answer was that Dell had to get really clear about what was important to them. They had to define their values and repeatedly communicate them so that they would attract people who were committed to upholding those same values.

Defining the culture is the first step in our proprietary 4 step process at FiveFour to get companies growing from the inside out. It’s a necessary first step in order to cope with the growth that success brings.

And the best cultures call people to some kind of larger purpose, like Dell was talking about in the quote above. If you don’t do that, you’ll likely end up with a team of mercenaries who are motivated by a paycheck.

Could an undefined culture be what’s holding you back from future growth? Maybe even from a future spot on the fortune 500? Read Dell’s book to learn more and reach out to me for a conversation. I would love to help you define your culture and start you growing from the inside out.

What I learned from Cancer.

The day before Thanksgiving 2021, I was diagnosed Cancer.

It shook me, as you can imagine.

Upon processing this – emotionally, mentally, physically – I took action, almost immediately.

I help people solve problems for a living.

Now, I had the biggest problem of my life intruding my body. My tongue, to be exact.

So, I dug in and researched.

I read five books in two weeks.

I changed my diet from already healthy to everything being natural foods, as I had learned that cancer primarily feeds off of sugar. I added several healthy foods, spices and supplements to that healthy diet.

The actual PET scan that was given to me weeks after my surgery is, in simple terms, this:

Step 1 – pour a solution filled with glucose into your body.
Step 2 – wait to see if it binds to any cancer cells.
Step 3 – wait.

I was CLEARED.

Me and my beautiful girls

For now, I am cancer free.

I can’t control as much as I would like in this life, but I can control what goes on between my ears, what goes into my body, and how I choose to live every day.

Today, I’m reading again.

Today, it is not about cancer.

Today, it’s about the Experience Economy, a book that changed my life and drove me and my partners to start FiveFour.

For a short time after the surgery – my first ever – I learned what it’s like to live with chronic pain. That gave me a new empathy for people that live that way all the time.

It made me realize what a blessing my health has been.

Life is a beautiful thing.

My wish is for the experiences ahead to be breath taking, as I’m now acutely aware just how special those breaths are.

Consistent & Deep

In 2021, my One Word was CONSISTENT. I knew how important it was to be consistent – in schedule, in how I showed up in every life role, in results.

That word served me well. I had consistency gains in my morning and evening routines, my reading and learning, and the results for my business and clients.

As always, I see the ways it could be better: consistent time with the people who matter most to me, more consistent exercise, consistent leadership, the usual things.

But when I thought about how I could build on my consistency gains, it led to my One Word for 2022:

DEEP

One way to define deep is:

“Extending far beyond the surface, to a great depth, not superficial.

I want to go deep in 2022. I want to deepen my important relationships, my marriage, my business partnerships, my faith.

I want to make a deeper investment in the few things that make a difference in my life and not force them to fight for my attention with the trivial many.

What’s your One Word for 2022?

What parts of your life need your deeper involvement?

How can we go deep together?

Let’s make 2022 the year we all make a deep, meaningful difference where it’s most needed.

“Intensity is the price of excellence”

– Warren Buffett

I’m about a quarter of the way through Alice Schroeder’s excellent 1,000 page biography of Warren Buffett and I’m struck by two things, both of which are summarized by this quote that she attributes to him.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

First, was his voracious appetite for learning. He devoured everything he could get his hands on: newspapers, magazines, industry publications, books, and much more. He streamlined his life to devote as much of his time as possible to learning. He eschewed possessions, depended almost completely on his wife to run the household, set up his business so that he could devote time to this.

Early in his career, he took jobs based on what they could teach him, he applied for schools based on the professors he wanted to learn from, he took classes from Dale Carnegie. He ran his life in such a way as to find the information he needed to succeed.

The second was how focused his learning was. He wasn’t learning for the sake of learning. He had an almost single-minded pursuit of capital management. He read stock tip sheets, company reports, and whatever else he could get his hands on in order to learn.

I am already learning from Buffett. I’m already a dedicated learner, reading more than 100 books a year. But I love to learn about a wide variety of topics and could be more focused on the things that really move the needle for me.

What have you learned from the Oracle of Omaha? How intense is your learning?

The Airport Shuttle Ride that was an Amazing Experience

If you fly into Cleveland and need to rent a car…. 

OK, that’s an unlikely scenario, but for the sake of today’s story, imagine that it’s possible. 

If you fly into Cleveland and need to rent a car, I hope you get to ride the shuttle with Felicia.  

It’s not that Felicia is a particularly adept shuttle bus driver. She clipped a curb or two in the ten-minute ride from the airport to the rental car center.  

That’s the “what you do” bit of this story. Our takeaway today is all about the “how.” 

Felicia’s got a pretty good “how.” 

Cleveland Hopkins International is a fine airport. It’s not huge but it has a quirk of geography that requires a shuttle from the terminal to the spot where all the rental car agencies are located. There’s no option. You have to get on the shuttle.   

Felicia probably makes that drive about 40 times a day. Maybe more.  

This is a repetitive task. Same route. Same bleary-eyed set of travelers, only with different T-shirts.  

It would be easy to stare off into the distance watching jets drop on the landing strip and wonder what to make for dinner. 

Or, you could personalize the journey like Felicia and make it memorable, at least for the kids and parents on board. 

Felicia talked about her kids, grandkids and her first great grandkid. She asked questions of the kiddos. And then she did her song. 

“The wheels on the bus go round and round…” 

You know the tune. But then it became more theatrical.  

“The wipers on the bus go slap, slap, slap,” with an accompanying squirt of washer fluid.  

“The horn on the bus goes, beep, beep, beep.” Three toots of the horn. 

“The seat on the bus goes up, up, up.” And this is where it got a little concerning as she bumped up three notches, but still, it was good.  

The kids loved it. The parents were happy for the diversion.  

And you couldn’t help but jump in with, “all around the town” at the end of each verse.  

It was a memorable little moment in a long day of travel. 

It’s also a great example of “How You Do What You Do,” one of the central themes of OnStage, the customer experience training we teach at FiveFour.  

There are opportunities at every step of the customer journey where, with intention and creativity, the routine or mundane tasks can be turned into memorable experiences.  

Book a time with me and we’ll discuss where to find those moments in your business.  

Talk soon.