2 May 2008

Donkey-Chickens Roosting

2 May 2008,

Who knew the Democratic primaries would be like a book of small-business lessons? The latest: Business leaders do well to treat employees with respect, during and even after their tenure, the better to avoid chickens coming home to roost. At Tires Plus we worked hard to build a culture that honored our “teammates.” When they left, we called them alumnae; they often came back to visit and were always in our thoughts and prayers.

The roosting-chickens lesson came up this week via the state of Indiana, where I grew up. In what has to feel like water-torture to Camp Clinton, superdelegates have been consistently dripping from Sen. Clinton’s side into Sen. Obama’s side. A few days ago when superdelegate and Indiana native Joe Andrew switched his vote from Clinton to Obama, it had to feel like getting dumped on by a cold bucket of water for Sen. Clinton.

The problem for Sen. Clinton is that Joe, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, appointed by Bill Clinton, wasn’t the first Clintonista to jump ship. Others include New Mexico Gov. Bill “Judas” Richardson; former Clinton labor secretary Bob Reich; and attorney Greg Craig, defender of Bill Clinton during impeachment. According to Clinton super-surrogates Paul Begala, James Carville and Lanny Davis, the problem is that Joe and the rest didn’t duly genuflect in appreciation for what Bill Clinton did for them. Ergo, they’re traitors.

According to this logic, leaders should think that our employees are lucky to have jobs with us. I feel just the opposite. A leader should actually feel fortunate that people give themselves over to the pursuit of his company’s mission and vision. You’d think that would be especially true of government. I saw Richardson, then energy secretary, in Minnesota the day he faced unmerciful heckling as the Clinton Administration bombed Iraq during Ramadan (and during the Lewinsky scandal). It’s so easy for leaders to underestimate the challenges their people face day after day. Generally they don’t merchandise it to us. They just get the job done.

Which brings us back to Joe Andrew and the office he occupied. DNC chair is a thankless job, somewhat like a referee (ask Howard Dean). Notice comes only when there’s a problem. Yet Clinton enforcer Terry McAuliffe unceremoniously dumped Joe. No thank you, no party.

Ironically, I happened to have an appointment with Joe the day McAuliffe canned him. Joe still took the meeting and didn’t complain, didn’t blame. Lawyer, entrepreneur, author, Joe didn’t hold anything against the Clintons and even endorsed Sen. Clinton for president. Then he watched this dreadful campaign deteriorate. Evidently there weren’t enough warm feelings left to overcome the pandering of gun-toting, shot-pounding, gas-tax holiday-supporting Sen. Clinton.

That’s the constant drip-drip message for the Clinton camp (and small business) during this campaign: Treat your people well, now and once they move on. Otherwise, watch out for those darn chickens.

18 April 2008

Know How to Play Political Spin

18 April 2008,

I can’t be the only one who follows every beat and machination of this year’s presidential campaign. Mostly it’s fun to watch both Dems and Republicans spin the words of their rivals — or their rivals’ supporters — to their own advantage. What’s this got to do with small business? Generally it has no effect. But in the last week, a couple of spin shots could affect small business.

Let me explain. First, Obama supporter Oprah Winfrey has come under heavy fire from some Evangelicals who’ve put out a popular viral video denouncing “the church of Oprah.” (It’s been viewed more than 4 million times on youtube.)

The two primary complaints about Oprah are:
1) She supports Obama
2) She has said that she believes there are many paths to eternal life, Christianity being one among many (Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims also have a shot)

To many, this is heresy.

Again, what does any of this have to do with business? There’s a connection. First, an ever-increasing percentage of small- and medium-size businesses compete globally. Since Christianity is one-third of the world population, it’s probably not be a good idea to believe, even subconsciously, let alone broadcast, that two-thirds of your market is headed in the wrong direction (down) eternally speaking.

Second, it’s a pretty exclusive, anti-client/customer frame of mind to feel more spiritually enlightened than people who think differently than you. There’s a lot of people out there in the global village who feel that our Judeo-Christian texts shouldn’t trump their founders’ teachings.

If you’re still with me … the second political issue on my mind relates to how we eat. “And what does this have to do with small business, or politics?” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently ridiculed Obama for quizzing chocolate workers about why they might enjoy the sugary items they make and for talking about Whole Foods markets in Iowa.

One might reasonably conclude that Dowd doesn’t get the connection between disease and what we put into our bodies and rising health-care costs. Rather than knocking a candidate who emphasizes doing your part to stay healthy (last month Obama also implored a mostly African-American audience to quit feeding junk to their kids), people who say what they think about health should be applauded. Cracks like Dowd’s cause us to take our eyes off the health-care ball, for ourselves, our families and our employees. Costs associated with all three are nothing to ridicule.

So, whether religion, food or myriad other issues, follow the campaign but don’t let others interpret what is happening for you. You know what’s best.

7 April 2008

Business and Battle

7 April 2008,

War planning is like a business initiative writ large (really, really large). Poorly done, the consequences of inferior planning can be disastrous. As in business, war demands leaders who listen to a variety of opinions, dig down, manage from afar, and, when times demand, dive in and go to the source.

Moreover, good leaders do not underestimate costs, time and the difficulty of the goal. They lay out missions that are clear and serve the greater good.

This came to mind as I was reading a review of a new documentary film called “Body of War,” co-directed by Phil Donahue. According to “Variety,” the human and political tragedy comes home in a way that nobody has captured in a film about the Iraq war. I thought the timing was good since concern about the war seems to be waning a bit as war fatigue sets in.

I’m afraid most people are losing touch with the basic facts of the war. We just passed the 4,000 mark for U.S. service members killed in Iraq. But that’s just the iceberg’s tip: 50,000 have been wounded, 30,000 severely, and credible estimates of dead Iraqis range up to a half million. This film will reconnect people with the defining event of a generation. Check out the trailer, and tell your friends in the following cities where the film is showing: April 9, IFC Center in New York City; April 18 at the Shattuck theater in Berkeley; May 9 at the KEN Theatre in San Diego; and May 16 at the Lagoon theater in Minneapolis. Films like these with small budgets need grassroots help. Thanks.

2 April 2008

A Little Common Sense on Health Care

2 April 2008,

I’m sure you’ve heard all the health-care talk coming from the presidential candidates. It’s no wonder. Health care is eating up more and more of everyone’s money. Corporations pay more to provide employee benefits. Private people like us are hit with higher copays and payments into our company plans. We’re all paying more taxes to support Medicare.

Senators Clinton and Obama generally focus their health-care rhetoric on who their plans cover (and don’t cover), care-giver choices, who should pay for what, and how. Both candidates have some great proposals that will help in important ways. But enlightened small business owners know that these issues only touch the surface of a deep-rooted problem.

Fortunately, a few people are digging down. Best known, if not a little controversial, is Michael Moore, director of “Sicko.” The most impressive common sense I’ve heard on the subject came from a pretty reliable source: Denis Cortese, head of the renowned Mayo Clinic. Mr. Cortese recently made his case at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., and in an interview with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

The first big problem Mr. Cortese outlined is that efficient health care is an oxymoron. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the five years I’ve been in Mayo’s Annual Executive Health Physical Program I’ve seen efficiency and effectiveness of the highest order, from their technology to their minimization of the number of “touches” a patient goes through before seeing a doctor. Reminds me of a few years back, when I took my partner Mary to another hospital’s emergency room and counted 14 touches before the doctor showed up. Not at Mayo. I’d guess the average number of touches before I see a doctor is two or three.

The second big problem, Mr. Cortese points out, is that the health insurance companies show little interest in disease prevention. You’d think they only focus on treating disease, which they hope you don’t get till you’re 65 years old when they get to pass you off their books and onto Medicare. The dirty little secret is that health insurers have no incentive to pay for wellness and prevention programs because they know that more than likely they won’t get to reap the benefits.

To some degree I can’t fault the insurers any more than I can your employees who don’t spend money on preventative measures because they aren’t covered. Most people know that if they abuse themselves (eat poorly, exercise rarely) their diseases will still be covered by the pool of the insured, albeit under a burden of ever-escalating premiums. This spells out a fundamental problem: Mixing private and public health care systems.

Obviously, health care is a complex issue. But if we are going to find answers—for the nation and for our businesses—we may have to scrap the whole health care system and start over. Tweaks here and there are probably just Band-Aids that will fall off soon enough. We need to make sure that whether the changes are big or small we avoid the old folly of rewarding A while hoping for B. If we do that, we’ll reduce stress on our economy, on our own bodies and on our businesses.

6 March 2008

Openness: Lessons From My Swiss Great-Grandmother

6 March 2008,

Did you read Daisy Nguyen’s fascinating Associated Press article on McDonald’s incorporating ancient Chinese feng shui principles into their restaurants? It’s exciting to see a U.S. corporation open itself to ideas that weren’t necessarily invented on these shores and that aren’t exactly Mayberry mainstream.

Some 12 years ago my company Tires Plus incorporated feng shui elements into the design of our stores and our new Team Support Center in suburban Minneapolis. It was funny. The design shop we had hired, Dayton’s Home Interiors, was offended when I told them that before we could go forward with their layouts and furnishings we needed approval from my feng shui consultant. After some teeth-gnashing, they complied. A few years later they teamed up with my consultant and began incorporating feng shui into designs they sold to clients.

Lesson: Openness to unfamiliar ideas outside our way of thinking is critical for entrepreneurs. My father’s Swiss grandmother who raised him liked to tell him when he got a little too big for his britches, “Bill, it’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.” Call it a beginner’s mind, or whatever you prefer. It allows you to differentiate from others. I applaud McDonald’s for their openness. I also hope their new frame of mind carries over to their menu. They could take on the likes of Whole Foods, the fastest growing U.S. grocer, by including healthier fare like grains, beans, fruits and vegetables while cutting back on offerings filled with fat, sugar and trans fat. Less super-size, more super-openness.