The Power of Similarities and Differences

Greetings. In the two years since “The Necessity of Strangers” was published, I have been struck by the willingness of audiences around the U.S. and the world to embrace a simple and (I believe) important idea…

That our similarities are the glue that should bring us together, and our differences are the raw materials that should enable us to learn, grow, innovate, and do remarkable things.

But recent news, and the responses of some politicians to it, suggests that we still struggle to value and appreciate people who are different than us. People with different religions. People of different colors. People from different parts of the world. People of different generations. People with difference sexual orientations. People with different knowledge and training. People who look at the world, or at least some important aspect of it, with different understanding. Even though almost all of them wake up each day with same hopes, dreams, and fears that we have.

We seem programmed to hone in on differences as though they are way more essential or predictive of someone’s worth than our similarities.

But what if we were to focus on the essence of what makes others who they are? People who care deeply about family and community. People who are working hard to create a better life for their children and themselves. People who desire to make a positive difference and live lives of meaning. People who find joy in simple and important things. People who believe in finding the goodness in others. People who believe in a god (or gods) that is (are) just. The overwhelming majority of people who are a lot like us when we dare to be at our best.

So I was struck by the following video that our daughter Carly shared today titled “Meet a Muslim.” A video that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. A video that is really about all of us and what is possible if we choose to look at others based first on what we have in common.

It turns out the biggest challenge facing all of our companies, organizations, and societies is not a lack of knowledge or expertise. It is a lack of openness to other people, their ideas, and their humanity. And a lack of appreciation for the necessity of strangers and the power of what we can accomplish together when we dare to think differently.

Cheers!

Notes From Malaysia

Greetings. Back from Malaysia just in time for the latest big DC snowstorm. Quite a contrast with the nearly consistent 92 degree temperatures for eleven straight days in Kuala Lumpur. And just like the weather, I went on my first visit to “KL” with a sense that many things would be very different from home only to discover a lot of very interesting similarities. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, people are people and we have a lot more in common with the residents of a Muslim and developing country halfway around the world than most of us ever choose to imagine.

So here are a few impressions from my trip to Malaysia with more ideas (and hopefully a few insights) to follow. And given that I am a geographer by training, I will begin with an old map to give you a bit of context for its location in southeast Asia…

Malaysia Map

KL is a very modern and fast-growing city which means that the roads are great but the traffic is crazy. To give you a sense of the pace of growth, think about this… In 2010 the city had a population of about 4.5 million people. Today the number is roughly 7.5 million. And the projection for 2020 is over 10.0 million. And it seems everyone (or practically everyone) in KL has a car or a motorcycle that they drive really quickly on increasingly congested roads. Their cars of choice are Protons and Peroduas, especially the nearly ubiquitous and modestly adorable Myvi, which are manufactured in Malaysia and not subject to the high taxes imposed on imported vehicles. Not that there aren’t a lot of Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, minivans, and occasional Bentleys and Ferraris on the road, but local cars are everywhere. And for those of us who think that traffic in Washington, L.A., New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is impossible, KL’s complex network of highways, toll roads, and daring motorcyclists all driving on the wrong side of the road is a sight to behold.

Malaysia Myvi 3

Walking is not the most popular way to get around even though it is typically much faster than being in a car. Granted, it is very hot and humid in KL and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a matter of moments. But almost every time I asked someone for walking directions I was quickly asked if I “really wanted to walk there.” “Oh, I think it’s only about a mile away” I would reply. “Exactly. Wouldn’t you prefer to take a taxi?” And when I asked the concierge at my hotel for the best walking directions to the National Museum (a distance of about four miles), he shared that he had never known anyone who had walked there citing the distance, heat, and the danger of crossing several major roads in a place where pedestrians don’t exactly have the right of way. It is also interesting to note that people in KL seem to walk very slowly.

There are about a zillion shopping malls in KL and almost everyone loves going to them. Okay, there aren’t really a “zillion” shopping malls, but there are more shopping malls in KL than any other place I have visited and they are very popular. And they even include pyramids and concert halls. I’m not sure if most of the locals actually go to the malls to buy things, given that the nicest ones are filled with very expensive designer stores, but they certainly enjoy the experience of looking in all of the stores, being in air conditioning, and walking slowly.

The food in Malaysia is absolutely delicious…assuming you enjoy Asian food. Malaysia, and KL in particular, is a real melting pot of many cultures with the three biggest groups being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. As a result it is easy to find great Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian food along with some delightful fusions among them. My favorite dish, recommended by many of the locals, was fish head curry…an addictive blend of fish heads, eggplant, okra, peppers, tamarind, laksa leaves, sugar, mint, and a bunch of other stuff that was awesome on blue rice. But I also enjoyed other wonderful coconut-based curries, chapatis filled with the most amazing cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, chickpeas, beans, and lentils, dim sum, Cantonese specialties, and lots of spicy and not-so spicy noodle dishes. And while I found the local food to be remarkable, I must also share that McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, and especially KFC are super popular with Malaysians who seem to have a real passion for fast food and fried chicken.

Malaysia Fish Head Curry

People are really friendly. Not in a super outgoing way, but I consistently found that people in KL were courteous and eager to be helpful whenever I approached them. And most were quite curious about me, where I came from, and why I was there. Granted, I have almost always found that people are nice when we are nice to them. But that should be obvious to anyone who travels far from home. And while most people in Malaysia speak English, even folks who didn’t speak English were glad to help. On one of my many walks through the city I happened to get lost or should I say very lost…which is something that is difficult for a man, and especially a man trained as a geographer to admit. (If I have an excuse, or rather an explanation, it is that I kept discovering fascinating places that took me farther from my destination and my map). In any event, I found myself in a place that very few tourists have ever found themselves in only to be aided by a very kind shopkeeper who motioned me to his car in a crowded back alley and eagerly drove me several miles across town to my intended destination.

Malaysia Friendly

You can actually get a fish massage. You can also get a blind massage and a “super blind” massage. But I will have to try those on my next visit. Though my 15-minute foot massage, done in a pool filled with overly-enthusiastic fish, was definitely a unique and ticklish experience. I will spare you the pictures here as some readers might already be “grossed out” by the fish head curry, but feel free to email if you would like to see the video.

Malaysia Street Scene

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the privilege of travel. And by the chance to see the similarities and differences in people who live around the corner and around the world. As I have come to understand more clearly all the time, our similarities are the glue that connects us and our differences are the raw materials that allow us to stretch, grow, and innovate together.

Cheers!

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.

Cheers!

Finding Insight from “Random” Events

Greetings. Two noteworthy events occurred this week that should cause us to think in new ways about our work, our companies and organizations, and what it means to innovate and make a real difference in the lives of those around us.

The first was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Jonas Salk, medical researcher and virologist, who created the first vaccine against polio in 1954. Within a few years his genius would come close to eliminating the spread of this disease in the U.S. The son of Russian immigrants, he was the first member of his family to go to college. Salk initially worked as part of a team developing a vaccine against influenza, but in 1947 turned his attention to the fight against polio. Though unlike other researchers who used “live” and weakened forms of the virus, Salk took a controversial approach using a “killed” or inactivated form of the virus. His vaccine would be replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s “live-virus” vaccine which was cheaper and easier to use, but in 2000 a new, improved, and safer version of Salk’s vaccine would become the only one used in the U.S. to prevent polio.

jonas salk

The second event was the final concert of the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater in New York City. This classic American band, started in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, won a worldwide following and is credited with inventing “Southern Rock” and bringing to its music a unique and powerful blend of rock, jazz, blues, and country music. In the course of their forty-five year history, the Allman Brothers also showed us how enduring bands (and enduring entities in all walks of life) must continually adapt to difficulties and change in order to survive and remain relevant. Beginning with the death of Duane Allman, the group’s first leader, in a motorcycle accident only two years after the band formed, the group kept evolving, coping, bringing on new members, breaking up, re-forming, breaking up again, and then starting over again. And through it all they kept making meaningful music. Though they will be best remembered for many of their early songs including “Ramblin’ Man,” “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.”

allman-brothers-capricorn-a

Two very different events from two very different walks of life, yet each begs a vital question…

The work of Jonas Salk suggests that all of us have the potential to (a) figure out how to stand conventional wisdom on its head and (b) how to “inoculate” those we serve against the dangers they face in their business, social, or personal lives.

The music and life of the Allman Brothers band suggests that all of us have the potential to adapt and reinvent the work we do, and the people we do it with, in order to continue providing meaning and value for those we serve.

Two big possibilities that might be the key to your personal and business success, sparked by people and events from the past that might resonate with your future.

We win in business and in life when we look for inspiration all around us. And when we dare, if only on occasion, to be controversial and ramblin’ men and women who aren’t afraid to step out of our comfort zones.

Cheers!

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.

Cheers!