A “Collection of Opportunities”

Greetings. It’s the end of August and the start of a new school year. While I’m not sure where the summer went, I am very excited about the year ahead as our middle daughter Carly has started her freshman year at Beloit College in Wisconsin and our son Noah is starting 10th grade at a new high school that should be a better fit for his talents and approach to learning. And while I can think of many lessons from the first few days of school, I keep coming back to five words the President of Beloit said in welcoming the first-year students and their parents to campus a little more than a week ago…

Colleges are collections of opportunities.”

A simple and important notion about all of the possibilities that await students, faculty, staff, (and even families) in an environment filled with so many opportunities to explore, connect, learn, and grow. Some of those opportunities and possibilities are clear the moment you arrive on campus…a fun and engaging freshman seminar on a new and inspiring subject, a first meeting with your academic advisor, a poster in the atrium of the new science center announcing an awesome upcoming event, a chance to audition for the Fall musical, the prospect of making new friends from almost every corner of the U.S. and the world, work study postings that align with a possible major or a personal interest, a visit to the local farmer’s market, and the start to becoming a more independent person 800 miles away from constant guidance (or input) of well-intentioned parents.

There are also opportunities and possibilities that will become clearer as the semester and four years unfold…new and surprising relationships, favorite professors, the most awesome places to study or hang out, sparks generated by reading a new book or wrestling with a compelling question, a world of options for study abroad, and volunteer positions in the community that provide a chance to make a difference and even a bit of a reality check on an envisioned career.

beloit college-photo_17455.

Yes, colleges are “collections of opportunities,” and the young people who approach their time on and off campus with a sense of curiosity, wonder, openness, and humility are likely to be the beneficiaries of a remarkable gift.

But I would be remiss if I failed to suggest that colleges are not the only collections of opportunities we are fortunate enough to encounter. Or that our best chances to be inspired and stretch beyond our comfort zones can’t occur in our work and the rest of our lives. In fact, all of our companies and organizations would also be much more successful if they viewed their mission as providing a “collection of opportunities” for all of their customers and employees. Opportunities to explore, connect, learn, and grow. Opportunities to ask and answer important questions, take greater initiative, create and gain greater value, make more of a contribution, and even re-imagine what is possible. Opportunities to innovate and collaborate in new ways. Opportunities to be different and to make a compelling difference.

But in order to realize this mission we have to believe that, just like college students, all of us and all of our organizations are continually a work in progress in a world filled with opportunities. So why not think about how to bring the spirit and sense of possibilities of starting college into your workplace. It might be a great way to unlock the real genius in all of your colleagues.

We win in business and in life when we see the opportunities around us as a remarkable gift and college as simply one of the best starting points for capturing them.


Strangers in the Workplace

Greetings. Most of us enter the workplace as strangers, unless we were one of the founders of a brand new company or we joined an established organization where we already had a number of friends. As strangers we faced the challenge of getting comfortable, fitting in, and, we hope, making a difference. And our organizations faced the challenge of helping us to get comfortable, fit in, and, they hope, make a difference. But they also face the opportunity of quickly creating involved and committed team members. And if they understood the real power of strangers, they would be way more successful.

I remember the first day when I arrived to start a strategic planning project with a brand-new customer who was trying to figure out how to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. I was certainly a stranger there, except to the people who had interviewed and hire me. But as a consultant, I typically begin every assignment as a stranger, and one of my initial goals is to quickly understand the customer’s world as I build a set of meaningful relationships. I have a real advantage because my role gives me access to almost everyone, which isn’t the case for most new employees.

While I was waiting in the reception area prior to my first set of meetings, I met a young man named Jeff who was there on his first day to start a new job. After signing in, he was met by someone from human resources who gave him his employee badge and laptop and took him to his full-day new employee orientation—the first stop in what he hoped would be a long and successful career. And maybe it will be. But I recall seeing him several times in the weeks that followed—passing by his workspace, or running into him in the break room, on the elevator, heading out to lunch, or sitting at the back of the room during an “all-hands” meeting. Each time I asked him how things were going, and each time he gave me the same answer: “Okay, I guess, but I don’t feel very connected here. Maybe it’s just something that will take a while.”

“Kind of strange,” I thought to myself. I had found him, in our brief conversations, to be friendly and interesting, if somewhat reserved. But he had apparently been left on his own to accomplish the work he’d been hired to do—work that he might be uniquely qualified for but that certainly did not get at the heart of who he was and his full potential to make a difference. And I started wondering a few months later if he and his company had missed the chance to connect in some meaningful way, and whether we allow too many of our colleagues to become strangers in our companies and organizations. Strangers because we choose to treat them that way. This may not happen in every workplace, but it does in many of them, and especially in larger organizations where it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle.

I also thought about the reality that we don’t always find the time to let everyone know that they really matter. That we will never reach our full potential without them. That everyone’s job is just as vital to our success—no matter how long they’ve been here or what they do. And that everyone has a lot more to contribute to our success than simply going through all of the awesome stuff in their in-boxes.

And that in order to build organizations and cultures that can consistently innovate, collaborate, and bring real excitement to the customers we have the privilege to serve, we must find better ways to engage and inspire all of our people from the moment they arrive. And better ways to discover their real gifts and passions.

Corporate employee

We win in business and in life when we make the effort to welcome and connect with, and learn from, all of the strangers who enter our lives on the lonely and awkward day when they arrive.


To a New Year Filled With Possibilities

A few years ago as I was wandering through the “Self-Help” section of a well-known local bookstore I noticed a young woman who seemed more than a bit perplexed. Catching my glance, she smiled and said: “I know that one of these books could change my life. I just don’t know which one it is.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. So I smiled back, buying a bit of time to think through her predicament. And then I said, with the half-baked logic of an amateur sage: “You know, we’re all in that situation. Only you’re smart enough to realize it.” A response that was more thoughtful in retrospect than it seemed at the time.  “Thanks,” she replied, “I don’t feel quite so foolish now.”

I haven’t seen her again and can only hope that she found what she was searching for. Maybe it was a book on one of those shelves. Or an idea, or another person to connect with, or a story, or a quote, or a lesson from another culture, or a spark of inspiration from an unknown source that gave her the right direction to follow. Or maybe she ended up discovering it somewhere other than the bookstore. On a journey halfway around the world or on a walk through a familiar park. During an episode of a popular TV show or a day spent at an art museum. In the words of a favorite song or the experience of a concert held in a grand orchestra hall. In a lecture on a subject she knew very little about, or a familiar sign posted along a busy neighborhood street. In the mysterious ritual of someone else’s religion, the best practice of a renowned corporation, or the daily life of a creature from another species.

The fact that she was looking curiously to fill a gap in what she knew—to find her own missing piece—was the essential first step. It’s a step that too few of us ever take as individuals, companies, and organizations, or even as communities and nations. But a step that reminded me of just how close we all are to unlocking our real potential. If only we dared to be curious and open to the world around us and all of the strangers in it—in order to find something that could make the essential difference.

Woman reading in books in a bookshop

Each day we pass by literally hundreds of people, places, and things that could change our lives, but we never take the time to notice them.  In our rush to get from Point A to Point B, we walk past strangers who know things we’ve yet to discover. We walk past stores, offices, galleries, libraries, and even billboards with powerful insight to share. We observe or ignore holidays and events filled with meaning. We stroll through new or familiar places failing to look below the surface to figure out what makes them remarkable. We watch movies, listen to the radio, read a newspaper or a blog, or search the web without seeing the real brilliance in an idea that could matter to our life or the success of our workplace or the place we call home. All because we have forgotten how to be curious and open and, lacking confidence in this innate human talent, we are unable to believe that important ideas abound and that we can be more remarkable simply by connecting with them, understanding them, and combining them with what we already know so well. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

January is a perfect time, despite the unseasonably cold weather, to make a fresh start. Our chance to reengage with the world around us in a brand new way. Our chance to understand not only the necessity of strangers but the power in all of us to do work and live lives that are filled with even greater meaning—and to become more remarkable at the things that matter most.

As humans we have the amazing abilities to be more open and to dream, imagine, learn, share, collaborate, innovate, and grow. And together we can reinvent our companies, organizations, markets, communities, relationships, and ourselves. Simply by finding our missing pieces.

So commit to making 2014 a year when you and your colleagues get out there and find the idea or the stranger that could change your lives.

I’m certain that you can.


This post was adapted from The Necessity of Strangers.

Face Time

Greetings.  Saddled with debt from going to university, two enterprising British students decided to start a new venture as a way to pay off their loans.  The result was Buy My Face, a company that literally sells advertising space on their faces.

If you think this sounds like a crazy idea you're probably right.  But it often takes a crazy idea to stand out from the herd.  And in an era being driven by the power of social media and the energy of young, creative and slightly crazy people, this idea is capturing a lot of attention as a wide variety of companies are competing to buy face time on the faces of Ross Harper and Ed Moyse, the "Supreme Chancellor" and "Executive Titan" of the business.  Face time that they hope will go viral on the web and possibly catch a bit of attention as the two travel around town as walking billboards for news channels, radio stations, potato chips (or "crisps" as they are called in the UK), tech companies and even the accounting firm Ernst & Young. 

It's a fascinating idea that has powerful implications for you and your company or organization–implications that stretch way beyond simply advertising on faces.  Because it suggests the real power of all of our faces in influencing the markets and customers we hope to serve.  And the power of all of our faces when we seek to innovate, collaborate and build the most successful organizations.  So try to imagine what you would say if you had the chance to write something on your face.  Or on the faces of all of your colleagues or employees.  What message would you write on this small and compelling billboard that would quickly create a meaningful impression?  An impression that might inspire someone to connect with you as a customer or a co-worker.  An impression that might demonstrate that you were the perfect partner.  

And then imagine the power of our own expressions to make a connection when they aren't painted with logos or tag lines.  Do we signal our clear intention to learn, share, serve and work together in order to make a difference.  As walking advertisements for why anyone would want to do business or team up with us.

Buy my face

We win in business and in life when we unlock the power of our faces. After all, we are always walking billboards for the products, services and solutions we offer, the way we engage…and the things that we hold dear.


Accentuating the Negative

Greetings.  I don't watch a lot of television–except for sports, the news, and an occasional show about music, history, or geography.  But when I do turn the TV on, I'm often amused by commercials for products designed to help regular people cope with the very difficult challenges they face.  Products designed to resolve our most "debilitating" personal problems.  You know, the problems that cause us so much personal discomfort and embarrassment.  The ones that subject us to daily, if not hourly, scorn and humiliation…often forcing us to hide or live a public life of shame.  Problems which condemn tens of millions of semi-normal people from all walks of life to live in fear as they search desperately for a solution.

No, I'm not talking about the most serious and life threatening diseases.  Diseases for which we can only hope there will someday be a cure.  Or hunger, poverty, or homelessness.  Those are problems that are also searching for a solution that no one is selling on television.  What they are selling are solutions for dandruff–that scourge on modern civilization, and one of the greatest barriers to self-esteem and personal and business success.  Or so the ads would make it seem.  Because it's hard to imagine, after watching a dizzying array of commercials, that anyone with this dreaded condition could ever make a good first impression, have a successful job interview, enjoy a party or other social gathering, or ever find the one person of their dreams–especially if he or she is an Italian supermodel.

And because we're all on the lookout for dandruff, we have little time left to notice how remarkable people are and what they could add to our lives, our companies, and our community initiatives.  Unable to get beyond the flakes to see everyone's real skills and the possibilities that they bring.

As crazy as it sounds, we live in a dandruff-centric world…too often focusing on the insignificant "defects" in people at the expense of appreciating their special gifts and all the stuff that really matters.  Conditioned by commercials to believe that hair, or weight, or the way someone dresses or speaks, or the music they listen to or the food they eat, or the part of the world they come from, is the best surrogate for their worth and ability to be brilliant.  


We win in business and in life when we focus on the things that really matter.  On the magic and potential for genius in everyone.  Maybe it's time to get beyond the superficial to the real heart of what it takes to innovate, collaborate, and grow.

Cheers and enjoy the weekend and the World Cup!