Sergeant Major Grandaddy

Grandaddy with his Sgt Majors

Grandaddy (front) with his Sergeant Majors

My Grandfather didn’t join the Army to start a career. As one of thirteen siblings during the Great Depression, he faked his papers at 13 and had deployed to Nicaragua before his cover was blown. After getting shipped back to the States, he got a job at a movie theater and tapped out on school after 6th grade. When he turned 18, he re-enlisted in the Army. He started in the 82nd Airborne Division and rose through the ranks of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) up to a Command Sergeant Major.

Achieving the rank of Command Sergeant Major is the epitome of success for an enlisted soldier, and a great honor. Except for Sergeant Major of the Army, there is no higher grade. If you ask him the secret to his climb through the ranks, he’ll tell you, “I was born in July. We’re natural-born leaders. I guess they just looked at my birth certificate and promoted me. No one ever questioned my background.”

But when you ask him about his time as a Sergeant Major, he beams with pride. A man who regularly forgets the word “vitamin” and often loses his train of thought mid-sentence quickly rattles off 40 different kinds of artillery and explains what it means to resection a map. He was an expert in his field. But knowing your stuff doesn’t get you a leadership position. Even though he claims he has no idea how a guy like him with a 6th grade education earned the respect and trust of his soldiers, his secret becomes crystal clear when he talks about his role as a teacher. He said it best:

What I taught or didn’t teach these guys was life and death. If I didn’t teach someone something they needed to know in combat, they could get killed or get someone else killed. So if I ever saw a guy who was struggling with a subject, I’d spend time with him at night working on it with him til he got it right. If I fell, a thousand guys would fall like dominoes.

He never saw this as a “path to the top,” he was just doing his job to the best of his abilities and making sure those under his charge could too. One trait that seems common across all the leaders I’ve examined as role models is a genuine interest in the success (or in this case, survival) of their people and a willingness to work with them to develop their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. It’s not a life and death situation for most of us, but real leaders always put forth the effort to teach and to mold, and those are the types of leaders we are drawn to.

I could go on for pages about what has made him a role model for me over the last 26 years. His success in the Army is miniscule compared to his success in life. His caring extends beyond teaching, to things like mowing his neighbors’ lawns when they no longer could or taking care of his brother-in-law on his deathbed, even though his brother-in-law never kept it a secret that he didn’t care for him. He never thought of himself as a leader, but I don’t think he ever realized how closely we were watching him, and how little things he did for other people inspired us to do the same.

Instead of ending this post with an introspective thought on how I could apply these lessons in my life, I’d rather simply say: I’m proud of my Grandfather.


Lessons in Leadership from Laser Quest #1

I love alliteration! As I mentioned in my “About Me” page, one of my first jobs was at Laser Quest. I started at age 16 and was a crew member there before being promoted to Assistant Manager shortly after my 18th birthday. I learned a lot from this job as it pertains to leadership, and I’m going to try to take on this story chronologically.

In my first year there, we went through General Managers like tissues at a screening of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. Because of the frequency of management changes, I didn’t get my first performance review (ever) until about 9 months into the job, on July 10, 2002. How do I know it was July 10, 2002? Because I still have it. It’s the only one I ever kept, and I don’t know why I kept it because I certainly didn’t post it proudly on the fridge. I’ll share with you the performance summary my manager, Tracey Roberts, wrote. Compliment sandwich in 3, 2, 1…

Tiffany is a solid, steady performer. She is loyal and dependable, with a good work ethic. Tiffany has mastered many areas of her position as a crew member at Richmond II. I would like to see Tiffany improve dramatically in her customer service and self-motivational skills. While she performs basic functions well, Tiffany does not usually offer enthusiastic, outgoing service. She is not a gregarious person by nature, and can sound quite harsh and authoritative when speaking with customers. However, I do believe that with attentive coaching and practice, Tiffany can improve in her communication skills. Furthermore, although Tiffany is very attentive in completing tasks directed toward her, she rarely jumps to schmooze our customers with PA Announcements, FOH Fun [Editor’s Note: LQ term for “games to keep kids occupied while they wait], and scorecard explanations. In the next several weeks, I would like Tiffany to pay particular attention to these areas as we prepare for our busier Fall season.

There were also 62 questions that were basically Pass/Fail, of which I failed 17. Overall, not a great showing for my first performance appraisal!

Now for a little more backstory. Anyone who worked with me at Laser Quest can tell you I despised people for their first few months on the job (eventually we’d be BFFs…if you lasted), and Tracey was no different. We’d gone through so many General Managers that we were used to our chaotic way of running the show and weren’t used to people pushing the rules on us. So when Tracey came in and threw the book at us in our performance reviews, it didn’t settle well. We all figured Tracey was just the next in a long line of fired managers, so for the most part we all ignored the feedback and went on about our business. After a record breaking 3 months as our GM, we figured out Tracey was staying.

Three months, coincidentally, is also the exact threshold of time during which I’m told I hated new LQ employees. It was around this time that I started to warm up to Tracey, and expressed an interest in advancing to a Birthday Party Coordinator with an eventual step into management. Now, with the hell I (as one of the ringleaders of the crew) and others put Tracey through as she proved herself worthy for three months, you could imagine why Tracey would want to tell me to get the hell out of her office and go clean the bathrooms. But, Tracey knew exactly what it meant to treat your employees like your children. She absolutely could have fired me — Virginia is an at-will employment state, after all; or she could have ignored my request to be groomed to advance in my job out of resentment for me. By doing exactly the opposite, Tracey taught me a very important lesson in leadership and coaching. I may not have recognized it at 16, but I do now and hope to do the same for someone else someday.

Unfortunately, Tracey did eventually go the way of the LQ General Manager and she was fired a few months later over a disagreement with the District Manager over office furniture (as I’m told). Even though it wasn’t Tracey who eventually promoted me, she put in a heavy part of the groundwork that made me an eventual candidate to become Assistant Manager as soon as I turned 18. And, 6 months after she was fired, she wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation that played a part in earning me a college scholarship. I even ran into her on campus at VCU one day, as she had taken the unexpected career change as an opportunity to go back to school to become a teacher. I’m sure she’s a great teacher, and her students are lucky to have a teacher who won’t give up on them, no matter how much hell they give her!

(PS: Yes, that is me circa 2002 in the banner photo. Before I knew about things like makeup and hair dye…But you can tell I’m having fun, because I’m holding a balloon!! Or many balloons. Whatever.)

Confessions of an Orioles Fan

As if my admissions of being a business nerd and a Disney nerd weren’t embarrassing enough, I’m also a Baltimore Orioles fan. While this has been an embarrassing fact for the greater part of my life (the last time the O’s won a World Series was in 1983, one year before I was born), it’s been significantly less embarrassing since Buck Showalter took the reins. Since his takeover on August 2nd, 2010, the Orioles managed the best record in the AL East with 34 wins and 24 losses until the end of the season – and that’s a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox, the two highest payrolls in baseball. Prior to his takeover, the Orioles had the worst record in the MLB at 32-73. So, what makes Buck Showalter a successful leader?

Buck breathes new life into the teams he takes over. He’s credited as a turnaround manager. He laid a lot of the groundwork for the New York Yankees’ 1996 World Series win and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2001 World Series championship in just their third year of existence. He’s credited for his keen attention to the details and his ability to recruit talented players, two important qualities of a leader.

But, Buck didn’t stick around to see the Yankees’ and Diamondbacks’ championship runs. He was allowed to leave the Yankees at the end of the ’96 season and was fired from the D-Backs in 2000. Here’s what keeps Buck from being a leader: Buck doesn’t know he needs players to win.

For all his ability to spot talent, Buck doesn’t trust his players. He’s accused of micromanaging to the highest degree, calling every pitch from the dugout. Within the first year or so, his much praised attention to detail turns into an annoyance, overwhelming his players with information about what a twitch in A-Rod’s leg as he bats might mean or what a glance into the dugout from Mariano Rivera foreshadows. At a certain point, Buck starts to wear on his players and they stop listening to him and their results start to decline. This is what makes Buck not a leader. Leaders focus on the long term, not short term, results.

Now, don’t get me wrong, as an Orioles fan I think nothing but good can come from Showalter’s reign. All I have to do is sit on my couch or in a bleacher seat and watch them reel it in. But Buck will be working hard for a winning season. He’s brought both proven and raw talent to the lineup and has the Orioles off to a great start in the 2011 season. Given his history, it’s almost guaranteed they’re on their way to at least a season above .500 in the next two years (Editor’s Note: This post was written prior to the road trip that started a 7 game losing streak), maybe even with a playoff run. But the question remains, will Buck be around to see it?

Ever had a manager who thought they could do it all? Maybe someone who focused on the short term results and what they could present to Senior Management without regard for the morale of their team? Leaders understand they’re nothing without their team, and that they can’t propel upward in their career unless someone is groomed to replace them. Leaders who ignore the morale and development needs of their team may produce good short term results; but, like Buck, they may not be around to reap the benefits. Remember, leadership isn’t about managing direct reports. In any team, we have the ability to influence others, whether they are peers or our managers. Think about the impact your drive for short term bullet points will have on your long term team morale and whether or not you’ll be able to continue to produce those results without the full support of your teammates.

Treat People Like Children

A friend of mine from high school has a daily blog about love in its many various forms (The Lovely Year), and one of her musings one day was a quote from Yo Gabba Gabba: “‎Don’t say mean things to your friends. It’s not nice.” So simple, so much common sense! Yet how many people actually follow that advice in adulthood? It’s amazing how many common sense things we forget when we grow up and become focused on ourselves. When you’re five years old, that sentence makes so much sense – why would you want to be mean to a friend? But when you’re 13 and your best friend Kate TOTALLY just wrote a note to YOUR CRUSH and asked if he liked her (circle yes or no) and he writes back “maybe,” you start to forget that advice. And it only gets worse in adulthood.

So why would you want to treat people like children? Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to that time that we now refer to as our “naive” childhood and see the world without prejudices or jaded slants — probably discovered during our teenage years when we decided we needed to find fault with others to feel better about ourselves. Think about treating people like children from a couple of different perspectives:

1. Treat People Like You’re a Child

Put on your childhood rose-colored glasses for a second. Remember your first best friend? Neither of you knew what popular meant. They probably weren’t rich – and if they were, you didn’t know or care. Maybe they even ate paste! But they were your best friend, dammit, and you loved them! Can you overlook all the little things society has taught you about the kinds of people you should want to associate with and treat everyone like they were your paste-eating best friend? Yes, even the guy who clips his fingernails at his desk. You don’t have to like that he clips his fingernails at his desk, but maybe even the fingernail guy has some redeeming qualities. When you’re interacting with people, try and pretend you’re back in Kindergarten and look past all that superficial “adult wisdom” you’ve gained through your years and get to know someone beyond their bad habits – whether it’s paste eating or fingernail clipping in public.

2. Treat People Like They’re Your Children

You can’t fire your kids. You can’t hope that maybe one day you’ll get that big promotion and you’ll be reassigned to new kids and never have to work with yours again. I’ve worked with a lot of managers who were great parents, but their leadership skills at work just didn’t measure up. Why? Because they didn’t apply their parenting skills to the job. They wrote off employees they deemed difficult or unworthy of their time, and in some cases employees who they felt had the potential to steal their spotlight. Parents are supposed to develop their kids and prepare them for the real world; managers are supposed to develop their employees to prepare them to meet the challenges of the organization. If either of them take the approach of writing off someone who they believe has no potential or someone they believe has too much potential and may overshadow them, the real world suffers and the organization suffers. Treat friends, direct reports, managers, peers, and others as you would your children (or your imaginary/future children). Parents feel a great sense of pride when their kids achieve feats greater than theirs. Whether you’re helping mold a current underperformer in a superstar or just giving a current superstar room to grow rather than keeping them in their shadow, you’ll feel like a proud parent when they achieve their goals. And if you’re one of those “What’s in it for me?” types, don’t forget that you can’t get promoted unless someone’s been groomed to replace you. If you don’t have someone who can do your job as well as you can or better, how can you expect to be able to move to that next level?

Treating people like you’re a child is almost common sense. It means treating people like you would have treated anyone before the world taught you otherwise. Using this approach, you can make friends and put smiles on people’s faces wherever you go. But if you really want to nurture and build a relationship, whether it’s a work relationship or a personal relationship, treat people like they’re your children and help them grow in whatever way you can. Share your expertise or provide opportunities for them to show off theirs. They’ll thank you for it, and probably return the favor when you could use a boost — and at some point, we can all use a boost.

What do IV Bags and Reeboks Have in Common?

Remember when Reebok came out with Pump basketball shoes? If you’re my age, this was the coolest thing to hit your elementary school since LA Gear’s lightup sneakers or British Knights! You could inflate your shoes by continuously pressing on the little basketball in the tongue of your shoe for a better fit. I never actually knew back then that the pump had a functional purpose, I just thought it was fun. When Reebok was struggling to compete with Nike’s Air, they needed a game changer. The concept for the Pump came from several team members at an “innovation brokerage” firm who had worked on medical supplies in a previous project. One had designed splints and recognized the potential for splints to provide ankle support in a shoe, while another had worked on IV bags (which eventually became the technology that inflated to become the splint), while yet another had worked with pumps. Three unassuming, fairly dissimilar medical devices came together to develop a component for a basketball shoe that would yield $1 billion in revenue in its first year.

Have you ever had an “aha!” moment about something in your life while doing something completely unrelated? Ever notice how Dr. House always realizes what’s wrong with his patient at the end of an episode because someone says something completely off topic that sparks his brain? Convenient fictional example, I know, but that’s what defines innovation: taking something existing and making it better with something else existing. For another example, take the quartz watch. A commonly found rock solved the problem of inaccurate portable timepieces by vibrating at a constant frequency. The quartz technology was originally developed to be used to detect enemy submarines by transmitting sound underwater (sonar) during World War I. Later used to solve radio frequency problems, it was eventually identified as the perfect constant frequency regulator that could drive accuracy in clocks and watches. No one looked at a rock in the ground and said “Maybe we can use this rock to make our clocks accurate” or even “I bet this thing can tell me where submarines are.” Each discovery came from seemingly unrelated discoveries that built and built into the modern innovations we know them as today.

My takeaway from these examples and my own “aha!” moments is that the best way to be innovative is to cast a wide net of knowledge. Continuously learning is critical, and not just about the things that are immediately related to your job or your interests. Following only your interests means, at best, you’re going to adhere to the best practices in your field. But to create a true game changer, you’ve got to look in unexpected places. I’m going to sneak Disney into this post and suggest this exercise written by Disney Imagineer and Principal Engineer for Ride Mechanical Systems from The Imagineering Workout:

Combining ideas develops new ones and strengthens concepts, stories, or creative solutions. It can be very effective in brainstorming when unrelated ideas are put together. The following method is a fast way to combine seemingly different ideas into new ones.

On one sheet of paper, list in a single column all your ideas of interest…Make a copy of the list. Place each list side by side and then slide them up and down with respect to one another until interesting, plausible, or useful combinations start popping up. Once you select a combination, start exploring the relationship between the two elements. What might they have in common? Why are they so popular? Why would they never get along?

The method can be automated, of course, but it is much more fun when you slide the sheets of paper by hand.”

Happy innovating!

Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch had some pretty “out there” childhood dreams. If achieving one of your childhood dreams seems tough, try achieving these six:

  • Being in zero gravity
  • Playing in the NFL
  • Authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia
  • Being Captain Kirk
  • Winning stuffed animals
  • Being a Disney Imagineer

He never made it to the NFL and had to settle for “meeting Captain Kirk” as a replacement dream, but he made the other four dreams come true. Randy didn’t achieve his dreams out of luck. My choice of words was very deliberate: he made the other four dreams come true. In fact, luck would’ve been the last thing Randy had. He died on July 25, 2008 at age 47 from pancreatic cancer. If you have 75 minutes of free time (and let’s face it, your next 75 minutes are likely to be spent lurking around facebook or twitter anyway), do yourself a favor and watch Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University and get some insights on how he made his dreams come true and how you can too.

Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture