Just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred

I work in a world where organizations are obligated to send written communication materials to its employees. Many of these communiques are government required and some government written. Some of the communiques are well intended, but are so poorly written, the Average Joe and Josephine have a very hard time understanding the well-intended message. Yet, too many times, the organization just sends out the material with no attempt to summarize knowing they are masking any real communications. Hence, the title of this post – just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred – came to mind.

The other day I was facilitating a discussion with employers on communicating better with employees on a subject, in this case how to participate and invest better in employer sponsored retirement plans (or schemes for any in the UK). As a participant in another employer’s plan where I used to work, I received a good (or bad in this case) example of poor communication in the mail the day before. I held it up as my prop while speaking the next day stating this is not worth the paper it is written on and a tree was killed for this garbage. I commented I know what the communique is intending to say and even still it is hard to comprehend.

In the US last summer, plan sponsors of an US retirement savings plan called a 401(k) plan were obligated to send out two sets of communication, both of which were well intended. The purpose was to define better the underlying fees paid by the plans imbedded in the mutual fund investment fees. These services are needed, but few people understand the fees needed to pay for the services. The intent was to improve the transparency of the process. While well intended, most of these communications fell flat or were merely tossed in a file or the trash can. Unless the employer took the time to improve the required portion of the communication, then the goal of transparency was not accomplished.

Yet, this is a metaphor for a lot of communications in life, even if well intended. People send emails and texts all the time. The large majority of senders believe once they hit send, communication has occurred. But, think of all of the emails and texts you receive. On an average day, many people get over 100 or more emails and the same number of texts. Some are set aside unopened and some get deleted. If you think in these terms as a receiver of email or texts, think how many of your communications may be treated in the same manner.

The other issue is communication needs to be about something relevant and understandable to be valued.  Many of the first set of communications noted above did have a good message, but were so poorly conveyed that few understood them. The key is to make it worth reading and make it understandable. The reader has to own the knowledge to remember it. At this moment I am thinking of two very smart people who have written and spoken often – William Buckley (who has passed away) and George Will (who is omnipresent). Yet, I find neither to be a great communicator as each tried to show how smart they were when they write. Yet, hearing Will speak is a much different experience as he speaks to the audience in a more understandable manner. He is equal parts articulate, comprehensible and funny. Yet, when he writes, he tends to write over the audience’s head, as did Buckley before him.

As with many others,  I am guilty of being misunderstood – just ask my wife. Each of us has our imperfections and individual contexts. Some people with whom we communicate often know these imperfections and contexts and it is not unusual for them to read other messages into certain statements, body language or perceived emotions that were not intended. This is one reason I like to be present when a conference call is occurring, so that I may read the body language and make sure people on the phone understand what is not being comprehended on this side of the phone conversation.

Effective communication is an admirable goal, but you have to work hard to close in on reaching the goal. You should understand your audience, consider your media, consider your message and consider the context and other issues. This message may be the most important thing in your day, but it may be issue number fourteen of the intended recipient. So, you need to set the stage for the communication. Or, there may be other more important messages hitting the audience at the same time, so your message might be dwarfed. A small event on a slow news day will get more press than a bigger event on a busy day, e.g. For your communication to be understood, it may be better if you wait until after the other issues run their course.

Finally, consider how you normally communicate. If you tend to be an alarmist, your crying wolf too many times may dilute your message when it is most important. If you are a parent who ends up yelling too much at your teenager, the more effective way to communicate might be calm, firm, straight talk. I have found my kids listen better the calmer I am. I often find it is good to have informal conversations in the car, when some important questions can be leaked into the conversation.

Please remember, just because you communicate doesn’t mean communication has occurred. We should each work on improving our track records in this communication process. We might understand each other a little better.

The used and abused

There are several random events happening around the world that repaint an old picture that there has always been and will always be groups of people who are exploited for gain. Some of these events may not appear connected toward that purpose, but let me highlight a few, as we need to bang the drum and shout out to others, that this is not right and we need leaders to be more responsible stewards. As an old fart, I also have witnessed and grow weary of excuses that companies and governments give that try to mask helping out people with the real problems.

Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse

This story is prima facies evidence of a much bigger problem that is not restricted to Bangladesh. After being told by the police to shut down, the factory leaders said to continue to come to work and now after the building has collapsed, there are hundreds dead or still unaccounted for. I heard a report that said there are likey 5,000 of these buildings in the area. At the heart of the problem is business tends to chase cheap labor, especially the textile business. It moved from England, to New England, to the Carolinas, to China, to Vietnam and to areas like Bangladesh with the purpose of getting very low labor costs. With that movement comes not only cheap labor, but cheap working conditions. The exploitation is pervasive and these people have no voice or few options to say I refuse to work in this hell hole that is about to fall down.

The sellers of cheap clothing and other products here in the US and other first world places have purposefully distanced themselves from this economic slavery. They do not want to be held accountable. They do not want to know how corners are cut by their suppliers. The only way to stop this is for the buyers to tell the sellers that this cannot be tolerated. We customers need to say we are not going to buy your cheap stuff until you clean up your supply chain and stop preying on people. We need to vote with our feet.

West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

This is another horrible tragedy and I feel for the community and the EMTs who were on site after the first explosion, only to lose their lives. Two major points are needed to be made. First, this is a key reason we have regulations. Yet, we need inspectors who need to be staffed and funded to do their jobs. We need people who are trained to go to places where accidents could cause fatalities. The problem is the inspectors get cut when budgets are cut and the small towns like this suffer. The plant had well beyond the acceptable limits of ammonium nitrate, which is explosive. The modus operandi is it is OK to cut the number of inspections of these small towns because their voice is not loud enough to be heard. These small towns have a high prevalence of low-income workers and not people who will make waves.

Second, I have not seen any discussion of this next point. Why did the town build a hospital, nursing home and a school so close to a fertilizer plant? Especially after the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990’s where the damage was done using products that are held in the West fertilizer plant such as ammonium nitrate. To me, leaders were shortsighted. They should have laid out new development to be more distant from the plant, not so close. Maybe I am making too much out of this last issue, but we need leaders to be responsible planners. When they are not, people can be in harms’ way and not know it for years until it is too late.

Medicaid Expansion Issue

This issue shifts from the above paradigm, but only a little. There are numbers of conservatively led states in the US who have not agreed to accept federal money to expand Medicaid in their states. This is a part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that is designed to help the less fortunate in each state. The economics of the deal are very good and several other conservatively red states recognize this and are taking the federal money and expanding Medicaid. The others are states that actually need it the most – Mississippi, SC, NC , etc. – yet, the decision is a political pawn in a game with the President. The problem is the pawns get screwed in this, not the politicians.

In NC, over 500,000 people are impacted by this decision, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Their politics matter not as poverty knows no political affiliation. Well, what does this have to do with poverty? Plenty. The number one reason for personal bankruptcy is the absence of (or limited) healthcare. A key reason to homelessness is the absence of healthcare. Many employees of restaurants and retailers, due to the near-minimum or minimum wage, cannot afford healthcare, so they opt-out of their employer’s coverage. I am sitting ten miles from headquarters of two retailers who both have less than 30% of employees enrolled in their healthcare plans. The Medicaid expansion would help many people in or near poverty, so when it is turned down, my question to those state legislatures is “what do you plan to do for these folks?”

Airline Furlough Reversal

Since the sequester was done, the first major impact felt by people was on delays in airline flights. Apparently, air traffic controllers and other personnel were told to be away from work one day a week (or furloughed) to save on budget costs. The goal was to do most of these furloughs before the heavier summer travel season. Note, there are many other cuts that have and are occurring in other service agencies that are designed to help people in poverty or who are elderly. Unfortunately, these are people lower on the totem pole and their voice is not heard.

Yet, our upper middle-income and above class were impacted by delayed flights. People who could afford to travel were delayed. Note, they did not lose services, they were just inconvenienced. The tragedy is these folks complained and action was taken.  We cannot help out a child in poverty whose Head Start dollars are being slashed, but we need to make sure a person in a suit and tie does not miss a flight. I am not the only one who has highlighted this – David Brooks, the conservative columnist made the same lament on PBS Newshour on Friday night. The “haves” are protected. The “have-nots” do not have a voice. It is OK to use and abuse these folks.

Concluding Remarks

Poverty is a global problem that exists even in the US. We have 50 million here in poverty. The world-wide problem is in the billions. Yet, we ignore the problem for the most part, unless it is so severe that it warrants what little attention we can afford it. Usually, money is used to band-aid situations to make us feel better. Yet, we have systemic problems that cause poverty which need to be addressed. One clear way is to make better avenues for women. I just started reading “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and, per their findings, clearly there is evidence that if women can be given opportunities, poverty for both genders can be limited. They argue you can turn oppression of women into opportunity that will help a society flourish. Per a Chinese proverb, women hold up “half the sky.” If you ignore half the sky, then you are short-changing everyone.

Yet, we need to insist on fair wages and working conditions for all. We cannot tolerate the exploitation of workers, even in the US. We need to be more knowledgable of where we buy our clothes and where they get their supplies. We need to tell retailers, we will be willing to pay more to assure better wages and conditions will occur around the globe. At the very minimum, we need to insist working conditions are better and the places are inspected. And, we need to start with places in the US. We need better wages, too, but we also need regulations to make sure employers toe the line and do their part.

I heard a story about the BP Horizon Oil derrick that exploded in the gulf. People in the industry knew that BP was a poor operator and it was only a matter of time. The inspectors were also overworked and under trained and companies like BP funded boondoggles to befriend the higher up regulators. Yet, it was put simply the other day by a scientist on why we must be vigilant. An oil company is only as good as its worst operator.  There are so many along the Gulf of Mexico’s whose lives were forever changed by the oil spill. The “haves” made it through, while the “have-nots” suffered more. We owe it to people and our environment that we hold industry accountable. The same could be said for employers who get their supplies from people working in bad conditions. What happened in Bangladesh will happen again there and in other places.

Gandhi said a society’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. I believe this to be true. I am not asking for handouts for these folks. I am asking we treat them with dignity and respect, provide fair wages in safe conditions and let them flourish. They do not need to be kings and queens to make society better, but if more people are living with a higher standard of living, all of society benefits. The used and abused need not be commodities. They can become assets for us all. And, if we leverage those assets, then all of us will reap the reward.

Becoming a man is a lifelong journey

“He finally came into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain…” said Mama said to her daughter-in-law (and friend) Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” This is one of the true American plays and its primary theme is to share with others that African-American families belong. These families have the same hope, dreams and aspirations as all other families and deserve the same opportunities. This is one of the final lines of the play, but it is key as Walter, the oldest child of Mama and is Ruth’s husband, finally realizes that he should not be bought off. His family has every right to be in a neighborhood as white families and will honor that right by being a good neighbor just as is expected of others.

“Becoming a man is a lifelong journey” I heard recently in a movie. We never stop learning and we never cease to have opportunities to do what is required of us. The same could be said for all adults, but I think women are growing up much faster than men do. It is my observation women always have as a rule, but the age disparity seems greater now. I recall the line from “Casablanca” which was filmed in 1939 where the young lady looking to escape with her husband from Casablanca by sleeping with the Prefect tells Rick that in some ways, she is so much older than her young husband. There are some psychologists who note that boys are not finally maturing until around age 29. Girls may be maturing later, as well, but they are definitely exposed to far more worldly things at a young age.

Some speculate the later maturing for boys is due to the less socialization outside of a group setting. What I mean by that is guys hang out in groups, but the one-on-one dating interactions with females seem to be fewer in number. A mom explained this to me about her teenage son saying it is like group dating now, where groups of people go do things. Females may be present, but they are more friends than dates. Another reason is the greater amount of communication by technological device rather than by voice or in person. Like anything, the more you practice the better you will be at it. The converse is also true.

Yet, even with the social delays, the opportunities for making life event decisions seem fewer, at least in first world countries like the US. We parents are likely to blame, rather than letting kids fail, we make sure they don’t. As a parent, I have been guilty of this as well. However, the older we have gotten, we know that failure is a much better teacher than success ever could be. So, it behooves us to give opportunities to our kids, but let them succeed or fail on their own, which is hard to do.

I have shared with my boys that being macho or aggressive has very little to do with being a man. It is all about accountability and responsibility. Doing what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. And, then doing it again the next day. It means when you do screw up (and you will), you should say it is my fault. I am responsible for this mistake and will try to learn from it. It means trying to do the right thing, even if it is unpopular. It means your name is your most important asset.

Sometimes, like in Walter’s case, the life event may occur late. He was a grown man and the head of household with a wife, son, mother and sister. Yet, in his mother’s eyes, he did not grow up fully until the moment he declined to take the bribe not to move into the white neighborhood. Like life, becoming an adult or man is a journey. I see that in my growing boys who are becoming men. There are times when they make huge strides toward manhood. Then there are times when the adolescent brain takes hold and let’s the young man do something terribly foolish. I know I had those moments, where I look back now at some of the things I did and “say that was an incredibly stupid thing to do.”

The older we get, we still make mistakes and always will. I guess that is why the line above in the title resonates – it is a journey. We are imperfect. We still have that little boy in us that cries out from time to time. Yet, we keep him in a corner for the most part, as we know we cannot afford to let him play too much. Unfortunately, some men never fully realize that and are just grown up boys with more money and bigger toys. Yes, they may be more responsible, but they are also still foolish.

So, as an old fart, let me just conclude with the following comments. I have made many mistakes in my life and will likely make a few more. I hope to have learned from the earlier ones and won’t be inclined to do those again. If I make mistakes, I need to own them. It is not someone’s else fault – it is mine. I know what is expected of me and I try to do it again and again. I know that I am accountable when I say I will do things or people have come to expect me to do things. I also know that helping others is a gift to them and to me. And, as I have noted in an earlier post quoting Rob Roy, “your honor is a gift you give yourself.” My name is the most important asset I have. So, is yours to you. Please treat it that way. It will make our journey better.

Never be surprised where a good idea comes from

In my years of consulting with all kinds of clients, managing people and working for a large employer with multiple divisions, one of the most off-putting things I witness is when people treat perceived lower strata of people with disdain. I use the word “perceived” in that the lens is through the purveyor of disdain rather than the eyes of others or the targets themselves. The person who is most short-changed in these interactions is the person who looks down on others. Yet, they fail to realize this transactional loss has occurred at their expense.

To begin with we should treat everyone like we want to be treated. For men or women who are dating, observe how the person you are getting to know treats the wait staff. If he or she treats them poorly, my strong advice is for you to consider that in your relationship decision-making about this person. Yet, if we set that aside, you should treat people with respect and dignity, as you truly never know how decisions are made that might impact you. I recognize this makes the Golden Rule seem self-serving, but I wanted to appeal to those who may be less altruistic to say it is to your advantage to treat people well. Your name is the most important asset you have. If you are known as a jerk by more than a few, then it will impact you at some point.

The other reason I mention this context is in any team or service environment, ideas can come from the most interesting places. If you close out chances to glean these ideas from sources you perceive beneath you, then you are acting very foolishly. That is my nice way of saying you are a “damn fool.” In my experience and from books I have read, the better ideas tend to come from those closest to the action. These are the ones serving customers or clients, or who serve those who serve those clients. The same holds true for manufacturing improvements. The better ideas come from those on the line or floor.

On the latter, I wrote recently how Paul O’Neill helped transformed Alcoa by empowering manufacturing workers to share their process improvement ideas upstream. He also made sure the managers were listening through a push to become a safer organization. In Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book “That Used to be Us” they noted that R&D and management needs to be in close proximity to some manufacturing for this very purpose. Before O’Neill changed it, the Alcoa managers were not listening to their workers and the workers knew this. Some of the ideas that were freed up after he arrived had been festering for ten years, but the workers saw no value in sharing them.

From a customer, client or patient perspective, the better customer service people may not be the higher paid talent. For example, it is proven time and time again through data and anecdote that nurses are much better patient centered professionals than most doctors. Of course doctors care-oriented as well, but nurses seem to have more skill in this area. Or, they at least see its importance and devote more time to it. It should not be surprising that some very effective patient centered 24×7 teams are being led by nurses as the first point of contact.

In a client setting, my administrative assistant is an extension of me. She has superb customer service skills, better than many very good consultants. I never hesitate to let her reach out on my behalf as she will make things happen and get things done. And, she does not hesitate to mention a better way to do something. She will bring up a recent client situation that is similar and we will use that template for our report on a new client. Or, she will feel comfortable in pushing back with a better way. I have had many consultants, who were traveling to our city, say that my administrative assistant saved their bacon when some last-minute changes were needed or errors were found.

There are countless other examples. Yet, my main point is these lower paid employees are every bit as valuable as some higher priced employees. They have good ideas to improve production, service or a specific effort or product. If a condescending person closes off that valve of creativity, it would be everyone’s loss and would leave the purveyor of disdain in a lesser position. And, by shunning the input from others, it may put that person in a worse economic position.

So, treat others like you want to be treated, no matter who they are. It is the right thing to do. And, they just may be able to help you. You should never be surprised where good ideas come from.

A Few Earth Day Observations

Today is a good day to reflect on what more we can do to protect our planet and make it a life-sustaining environment for eons to come. I would encourage you to spend a few minutes perusing my friend Z’s blog at www.playamart.wordpress.com and check out her Earth Day post of yesterday. She has captured in her photos and quotes a very meaningful journey on this Earth Day, as she often does with other topics of import. Below are a few odds and ends for your review as well.

It is all about water and air

These are our dearest resources. We must be vigilant on how we use and impact these resources. I have written recently about “water is the new oil.” We can not only avoid polluting our precious resource, we have to be very thoughtful about its overall supply. Do not let anyone tell you this is not a major issue.

On the air side, we must guard against the emissions that come from the mining, collection, use and disposal of fossils fuels and petro-chemicals. For those who want to protect our kids from future debt problems, this will impact their health and the debt in far greater way, with the high cost of fixing problems and tending to those impacted mentally and physically.

Some skeptics will see the word “mentally” and say that is overblown. Yet, one of the key tenets of Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s books “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah” is most environmental models look at the impact of pollution on a 50-year-old man. The models need to look at the impact on children who are of lesser weight, closer to the ground, mouth breathe more, put hand to mouth more, and have developing brains. The data are showing the impact of various chemical pollutants heightens the propensity to certain mental and physical challenges such as autism and its various manifestations, asthma and other breathing disorders and more premature births which creates a vicious cycle for future health issues. Her data are very compelling and her voice needs to be heard.

Global warming will accelerate many bad things

In her books, Dr. Steingraber, who is an ecologist, biologist, and bladder cancer survivor, also notes that a problem we do not talk enough about in the discussion of global warming is its impact on the toxins that are in our air, water and environment. She says it is like a chemical crockpot. As the earth warms, so will these toxins and our ability to reduce them will be challenged. She highlights her bladder cancer as a bellweather cancer, as it is typically caused by environmental issues. She had other relatives nearby who also had bladder cancer – the key is she was adopted, so it was environmental not hereditary.

We are already seeing worse things in the global warming models than forecasted, so as one of the US’s political parties is fiddling, Rome is burning. Last year at this time, I read a report that showed hurricanes will more significantly impact the coastal regions with the higher sea levels. The analogy used is it is easier to dunk a basketball when the court is raised. This was before Hurricane Sandy which many scientists note was heightened by the raised sea levels. In addition to lives, livelihoods, and homes, the cost to fix is at least the $50 billion the federal government provided in January.

The other predictions in the model are heightened forest fire prevalence and intensity, worsened droughts in the drier areas along with more stalled weather systems. So some areas get way too much precipitation, while others get way too little. The human and economic cost of these worsening conditions is huge says Mercer Investment Consulting and major pension trust sponsors around the globe. This study done in 2011 talked of these increasing forest fires, worsening droughts, and intensifying hurricanes, which had already been occurring and are now more prevalent around the globe.

Already too much carbon in the air

People like to talk about global warming as a future event, yet as noted above, it is already impacting our lives. We have too much carbon in the air today and it will only get worse. China is firing up more coal plants and Beijing is coming closer to being an inhabitable city. If you do not believe this, then ask why it is getting harder for companies to get their ex pats to move and stay there.

There are solutions in addition to moving more quickly away from fossil fuels. We need to adopt older ways of grazing cattle that will let the grasslands flourish. We need to plant even more trees than we are doing now and stop taking them down at such an accelerated rate. And, we need to move more food growth and distribution closer to the sale and consumption of food. The greener areas will absorb more carbon at of the atmosphere and coupled with more renewable energy sources, will move us down the right path.

And it is not just humans

Finally, our ability to survive on this planet is not just in human hands. We are seeing the impact of global warming and environmental toxins on animals, fish and insects that matter to us. The honey bee population continues to fall and the culprit is most likely the pesticides sprayed on adjacent crops. These bees cross-pollinate a non-inconsequential percentage of our food and farmers and beekeepers are worried.

Our coral reefs are dying off in greater numbers. The Great Barrier Reef outside of Australia is shrinking for example. This is of vital importance due to the numbers of fish and other species that swim and grow there. And, species we do not eat are eaten by species we do. So, it is a major concern. And, closer to home the populations of cod are much smaller in Cape Cod, so the fishermen have to go further out to sea.  The US Fisheries Department has been tracking the impact of global warming on fish populations for over ten years, while the fiddlers still fiddle.

And, in the animal species, it is not just polar bears who are being impacted. The huge amount of fracking going on in our national parklands is impacting animals there. In Pennsylvania, small animals and birds are impacted by drinking the chemically laden water that cannot be kept out of the water supply. There is a domino effect that will impact us humans at some point, either directly, or through the animals, fish and insects we come in contact with.

Conserve and advocate

Now that I have scared the crap out of you, what can we do? Continue to conserve, compost and reuse. Do small things and big things. I wrote a post on last year’s Earth Day about conservation. But, also advocate. Change the conversation with others and leaders. Write them and be matter of fact. If someone starts a conversation about their doubts over global warming, say “that train has left the station, we need to talk about what to do about it.” If they insist, say “97% of scientists believe it to be so and only 26% of Republican Congresspeople. I choose to believe the 97% of scientists.” My advice is to not to debate the obvious, but discuss what to do about it. It will change the tenor of the conversation to be action-oriented.

And, that is precisely what is needed – action. We really do not have any time or resources to waste. Happy Earth Day.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

One of my favorite columnists, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, was on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” last night. Kristof has co-authored a book with Sheryl WuDunn, which I have yet to read, but will put it on list to do so. The book’s title is indicated above – “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” In short, when women are oppressed, it is like trying to survive with half the sky. I have written about this in earlier posts, but merely from an economic growth standpoint, if a country or region oppresses women, they are competing with the rest of the world with only 1/2 of their intellectual capital. But, it obviously goes far deeper and broader than that.

A society that treats women as lesser citizens will not flourish long term. If you oppress women, you are relegating them to a subservient role, and through your teachings, make more women less inclined to “lean in” as Sheryl Sandberg is suggesting. Last night Kristof observed that the better educated a group of people are, both men and women tolerate far less the abuse and oppression of women. Just as bigotry has to be carefully taught per the song from “South Pacific,” the mal-treatment of women must be taught as well.

Kristof noted that it is not just the gang rapes in India that are now getting more attention and must stop, it is the mal-treatment by male family members of girls that needs to cease as well. To this point, I have seen data which suggests that when boys and girls witness or are victimized by domestic violence, they show a greater propensity as adults than others to either conduct such violence (if male) or associate with someone who is more controlling and could be violent toward them (if female). In other words, the boys are taught by example that it is OK to do this and women are taught they must allow it.

But, this extends beyond the borders of India into many places, especially in several African nations where rivals will rape, maim and abuse women and children. It extends to nations where certain religions make women subservient, where the rape of a wife by a husband is not a crime, e.g. It extends to nations where these same religions do not want to educate young girls as they may get ideas they can better themselves. This denial of education as a means to oppress a group of people is as old as any sin that exists today.

Kristof is optimistic about change. There is a movement that has education, games, film and advocates galore. Please check it out at www.halftheskymovement.org . I made the comment this week, that one of the best things that Hillary Clinton did as Secretary of State, was be a very visible and loud voice for women around the world. I posted last summer that one of the best ambassadors for the US were its female naval officers of very big ships. When Iraqi soldiers wanted to speak with the person in charge to a woman officer, she would respond, “I am in charge” and it made a huge impression.

This week a significant leader died – Margaret Thatcher. If you have not seen “Iron Lady” you must. Whether you agreed with all of her politics or not, she made a huge step forward for women and is to be commended. The fact people can openly disagree with her is evidence that she made a difference in moving the ball forward. And, like Jackie Robinson, she had to be tough as nails and not show weakness. The same is true for other great leaders such as Clinton, Golda Meir, Aung San Suu Kyi, Angela Merkel, Christine LaGarde, Nancy Pelosi, Condaleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright to name only a few. In the future, we need to have much longer lists to choose from.

Let me close with a different thought. We need to treat women fairly, just as we would anyone else. I often paraphrase the Golden Rule as they are words to live by – “treat others like you want to be treated.” There are no caveats to this rule. There are no race, sexual preference, ethinicity and especially gender caveats. If we do this simple task that Jesus implored us to do, we will pay it forward. If we teach our kids to do this, they will pay it forward. Just as bigotry has to be carefully taught, so should the Golden Rule. If we do, our world will be different. And, in many more places, the other half of the sky will be engaged, educated and valued trying to make it so.

This Rush is worth listening to

One of the unfortunate Google search results occurs when you want to do a search to find out information on a legendary Canadian rock band that has a lasting appeal called Rush. The unfortunate part is the name is associated with a bombastic provocateur in the US who stirs up radio ratings by stirring up his loyal fan base. I have listened to the latter on enough occasions to know his opinions do not often coincide with the facts, but that is not his intent. The former is someone worth listening to as the music and lyrics have a wonderful nexus with Rush’s three outstanding performers – Neil Peart (the drummer and significant songwriter), Alex Lifeson (the terrific lead guitarist) and Geddy Lee (the lead singer, bassist and keyboardist).

This Rush had a hard time gaining popularity which is part of their lasting appeal. Neil Peart, who may be the finest living drummer, was not even the band’s original drummer, who was John Rutsey through the first album. Two things stood out at first. Geddy Lee’s unusually high voice caught many off guard and he was subject to some very unfair criticism early on. The other is how three people can make so much powerful music by themselves. When I see them in concert, I have to step back and say this is coming from only three people. They have to be wearing themselves out. Especially, when they play a large part of their body of work in concert. It wears everyone out and you leave the concert totally spent, not unlike you do at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Those who have read my earlier posts on music know I have affinity for meaningful lyrics. The music has to be good as well, but I truly appreciate words that live when the music is not being played. Rush does not disappoint you when you read their words. As before, I won’t necessarily highlight the songs that get the most airplay, although some of the ones I note below were hits. My thrust is to give you a taste of a few lyrics that resonate with me and set you on a journey of your own reflections or fact-finding.

Just today I was thinking of a Rush song when my Aussie friend Judy wrote on her blog http://www.raisingthecurtain.net about not conforming and appreciating the ability to accessorize life. “Subdivisions” speaks to this, especially to teens in high school who have not learned to deal as well with the eclectic. My favorite lyric from the song is, as follows, as Lee sings of the pressure to conform.

“In the high school halls. In the shopping malls. Conform or be cast out.”

In the song “Closer to the Heart,” the words do not reflect your initial thoughts about what the song is all about. The song is chastising governments for not being better examples of promoting harmony as do countless numbers of workers who find ways to work together. This seems to hold true still today. A key lyric to me is:

“And men who hold high places must be the ones to start to mold a new reality.”

Saying it another way, we need our leaders to lead. Yet, the workers get it when Lee sings about dividing up roles:

“You can be the captain, I will draw the chart, sailing into destiny, closer to the heart.”

Another song my daughter and I like together is “The Trees.” This one did not get as much airplay, but its words are symbolic to us. To many, the song is a metaphor of how we/ they-ism can destroy the world, in this case the forest. A few lyrics might help:

“There is unrest in the forest. There is trouble with the trees. For the Maples want more sunlight. And the Oaks ignore their pleas.”

Let the conservative radio jockey chew on this one for a while as you think about our global and US poverty situation.

One of their lesser out front rock tunes is called “New World Man.” I like the lyrics of this song a great deal as the new world man cares more about money and self than doing the right thing. To me, this ties into the above lyrics about “The Trees.” Here are two examples:

“He’s noble enough to know what’s right. But weak enough not to choose it.”

“He’s noble enough to win the world. But weak enough to lose it.”

The next to last song I will highlight, my daughter did a project on in middle school. The teacher was very impressed with her work on “Limelight.” To me, this song starts out talking about the desire of being in the limelight, but it ends with lyrics that reference how each of us play a role to various people we encounter on a daily basis. To illustrate:

“All the world’s indeed a stage. And we are merely players. Performers and portrayer. Each another’s audience outside the gilded cage.”

Rush’s body of work is very impressive and if you ask Rush fans their favorite songs, you will get a wide list of responses. Most people would include “Freewill,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Working Man,” “Spirit of Radio,” “Fly by Night,” and “Time Stand Still” to name only a few. You will also find passion behind people’s choices which is great. And, on this issue of choice, I will close with one of their most famous lines from “Freewill.”

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

This lyric speaks volumes to me and many others. Sometimes we take what life hands us. We make a choice to not do something to alter that occurrence. To me, we should make more conscious choices and either succeed or fail trying. The old line is “It is better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all” seems to compare favorably with this line.

So, if you have never given this Rush a good listen, I would encourage you to choose to do so. If you have, please share your favorites and why. I am eager to hear your thoughts.

We are solving for the wrong problems

One of the many frustrations of the independent minded bloggers I respectfully associate myself with, is the focus of our leaders on solving the wrong problems. When that is done, the debate is off-centered and results in solutions which are off the mark. Some solutions, in fact, are adding fuel to a fire and will not only be ineffective, but will actually make things worse. So, my purpose is to highlight areas where debate is occurring around solving problems or, in some cases not occurring at all, which means politicians are not even addressing some of the real issues facing our states, country and planet.

Voter Fraud

There is a state by state conservative movement to address a perceived, rampant voter fraud issue. I am quite certain there is some voter fraud, but it is not material, in spite of representations it is with proponents being very loose with the facts. The sad part of the proponents’ arguments is it has a “Jim Crow like” voter suppressing feel to it, so says this 54-year-old, white male. Yet, what is the real problem? The real problem is not enough Americans voting. We need do whatever we can to make it easier for people to vote, not harder to vote. Other countries exercise this privilege at a far greater rate than Americans do.

Expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act

There are some states led by conservatives who have decided to use this issue as a means to defeat the effectiveness of Obamacare. The math works in the state’s favor as figured out by some conservative state leaders who are now allowing the expansion, but it is a pawn in a political game for others who won’t. Yet, what is the real problem? The real problem is we have millions of Americans who cannot afford healthcare and the expansion of Medicaid along with the governmental subsidy is a good way to get them coverage and using preventive services. Ironically, the states who are still holding out, are the very states who need it the most. For example, Mississippi, is last in health quality, first in obesity, and first in poverty. And, poverty is linked with absence of healthcare as it is the number one reason for personal bankruptcy and precipitates losing your home when a crisis occurs. In NC, where the conservative leadership has decided not to expand Medicaid is leaving over 500,000 North Carolinians high and dry. My question is what do you propose to do to help these people, many of whom are Republican?

Gun Control

First, if nothing is passed in Washington, ever legislator needs to be relieved of their duties. The American people overwhelming want at least a background check. The NRA does not speak for Americans, nor most gun owners. Their opinion is noted, but we need to now have the adult conversation that is needed. Unfortunately, the debate is only focusing on mass shootings and that is only a small part of the problem. Yet, what is the real problem? The real problem is what happens everyday in our country. Pick up any paper on any day and count the number of news stories where a gun crime is committed. The US leads the civilized world by far on gun deaths and children gun deaths. We need thorough background checks on all gun sales and training before a gun can be possessed. And, I am sorry to report, but if you own an assault weapon, I am going to consider you as up to no good, no matter how many times you quote the Second Amendment without knowing its context.

Jobs and Infrastructure

We slowly have been coming out of the recession now for over two years. This has been a positive. Housing prices and sales are returning, the stock market is at all time highs, small business performance was very good in the first quarter and unemployment has declined some. Yet, we still have too many Americans out of work. And, our infrastructure is crumbling. Our solution has to been to focus on the debt and deficit looking at only half our tools. We need to increase revenue and cut some spending, so we can reduce the deficit. Yet, what is the real problem? We need to also invest in our infrastructure, which will improve our assets and create jobs. This infrastructure includes becoming more innovative, which is critical to job creation. Some would say, you cannot spend while you cut, but that is what corporations have done over their history and our doing right now. They cut some areas that are not value enhancing and invest in others that are. That is precisely what we need to do. And, being one of the least taxed countries in the world (32nd out of 34 in Taxes per GDP according to the Paris based Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development), we have room to increase taxes to pay for these investments and deficit reduction irrespective of what certain folks may say.

Global warming and moving away from fossil fuels

This is one of the biggest problems facing our planet and we do not talk openly about solutions. The President and many states have taken steps to move the ball forward, but one of the parties refuses to come to the table and actually refutes what the rest of the world is dealing with. We need them at the table, but unfortunately, our conservative friends want to listen to their fossil fuel funders who have a huge vested interest in decisions. So, we are fracking away making the problem worse and two of the leading climate scientists, James Hansen and Bill McKibben, have noted if we increase the harvesting of the oil sands from Canada due to the Keystone Pipeline, that is “game over.” We are already have too much carbon in the air and these actions and what is happening with coal in China may be sealing our fate. And, we have not started talking about the chemical release into the environment and using our water judiciously. The real problem is we are not even talking openly about these issues. We must move in a concerted way toward alternative energy and conservation. We must talk about ways to stop putting so much carbon into the air and actually start pulling more carbon from the air – there is a way and we have millions of years of data. We need to return to more natural grasslands for raising cattle, sheep, etc. Apparently, this will actually absorb more carbon and is a very reasonable solution, yet we need to be talking openly about this with other nations like China. By the way, expats and nationals are leaving Beijing in droves because the air is so polluted.

Poverty is a huge problem

This is a huge global problem as well as in the US. The middle class went somewhere and very few of them became upper-middle class. Over 50 million Americans are in poverty and many are near that level. Almost half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. In the work I do with homeless families as a volunteer, 84% of the homeless families we help have jobs. Yet, the median wage is only $9 per hour for a family. A living wage for one person is $9.67 in our area and is $17.62 for a one adult, one child family. The real problem is we do not even talk about this issue. The Democratic Party does not even bring it up as the major issue it is and the GOP basically thinks these folks are all lazy and undeserving and makes changes and recommendations that basically kick these people in the groin, as evidenced by the above Medicaid expansion issue. The President did recommend an increase in the minimum wage, but it will likely get nowhere given the above framing. I have observed before, the minimum or near-minimum wage jobs in our country actually perpetuate poverty as the jobs are as close to slave labor as you legally can come to in the US.

I recognize I left off some other issues, but space was limited. Same sex marriage to me is a no-brainer and hopefully the Supreme Court will resolve this issue. If they do not, then we need to legislatively make it so. I also want us to stop emulating our enemies and treat prisoners as how we would want to be treated and have a serious review of how we use the drone program. America has to stand for more than it is doing right now. Our government has seem to forgotten this. America is those helpers rallying to help the victims at the Boston Marathon. We need to focus more on that and our real problems. We stand a better chance of resolving them if we do.

My heart is out to our Boston friends and visitors

The tragic events of today in Boston have led me to write some thoughts down which I am sure others are doing as well. My wife’s brother was supposed to run today, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For marathon runners, the Boston Marathon is like one of the Kentucky Derby races, as it is difficult to get into. He made the grade, but had a business opportunity arise that negated his plans. The personal side of this is my wife would have gone with their sister to pull for him near the finish line. And, that is precisely where the first two bombs went off.

This is a horrible tragedy that we are still trying to figure out what happened. I think most everyone detests the loss of innocent life just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only ones who do not are those less than humane perpetrators of this and other crimes against humanity. I personally find the actions of terrorists (big or small) to be detestable and should not be condoned or supported by any regime. If your regime supports terrorism, then your regime is not worthy of recognition. If your hate group acts on its hate, then you are a group of criminals. If you are trying to make a statement, then you did. You made the statement that you should be arrested and tried for your heinous acts. I hope they find the perpetrators and not give them any publicity. They should just have a brief press release saying we got the bastards.

However, that is for the future. For the now, let’s say a prayer for the families of the loved ones lost. Let’s say a prayer for those injured in the explosion and hope they can survive their wounds. Let’s say a prayer for those wonderful police, firefighters, EMTs, nurses, doctors and other medical practitioners who have done and will do their best to save lives. Let’s say a prayer for the friends and family to be strong and soothe their loved ones in pain, from loss and their injuries. If you are not religious, please think good thoughts for those in need akin to the above.

The day was supposed to be a day of celebration in Boston. It still can be a memorable Patriots Day for better reasons than this tragedy. So, let’s remember our fellow patriots in Boston and say we are with you. You led us down a path of revolution that gained us our freedom in America. We are free to worship any religion. We are free to speak our mind. We are free to tell a Congressperson we disagree with his or her views. We are free to live where we want and try to make a decent living for our families. We are free to form groups that believe in causes, even if we do not agree with them. We are free to do many things in our great country, provided we do not harm others.

To our friends and visitors in Boston. We are free because of what you started for all of us. I am saddened that your day has been filled with tragedy. I am saddened that people lost their lives and are harmed. We will be sad with you and be beside you in your time of need. May God grant you peace and comfort.

The Power of Habit

I recently completed a book by Charles Duhigg called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in LIfe and Business.” I have referenced a few of the themes in an earlier post called “Who is Paul O’Neill  and why should his opinion matter?” on March 20. My niece thought I might like this and she was correct. I would encourage you to read it as well, as it articulates how much of what we do each day is based more on habit that is ingrained in each of us or in our organizations.

My friend Hugh Curtler (www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com) noted a few weeks ago that Aristotle felt habits reigned supreme. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” as referenced in Duhiggs’ book, Aristotle said:

“…just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”

A few examples from “The Power of Habit” might help reveal further Aristotle’s belief. The earlier post on Paul O’Neill is a great example. In short, he came in and transformed Alcoa as its CEO in a very unheard of way. It unnerved so many financial experts, they told people to sell the stock once the heard O’Neill’s first speech. One analyst later said “it was the worst piece of advice I have ever given,” as under O’Neill, Alcoa’s earnings and stock price soared for many years. What did he do that was so unusual and successful? His first focus was to make Alcoa the safest company it could be, as its safety record was atrocious. In other words, he wanted to change Alcoa’s bad safety habits.

He consciously picked this as he explained later, as it was the one thing we could get management and labor to agree on – a safer workplace. So, what happened? Communication between the line workers and management improved as accidents and how to prevent them had to be reported within 24 hours. He showed by example, after a tragic death, that this mattered to him and was not window-dressing. He changed the habits of executives, managers and line workers by insisting that we cannot condone safety problems and must avoid them at all costs. Through the improved communication, other benefits occurred – processes had to be improved to make them safer, the workers were empowered to share ideas on how to improve processes, and management’s goals could be communicated more readily. By emphasizing the importance of safety habits, the company got better. And, so did results.

Another good example about habits is regarding Starbucks. There is a moving story about how a young man had fallen into bad and even criminal habits. HIs drug problem caused him to lose everything time and time again. Then, someone suggested he try to get a job at Starbucks. Someone gave him a chance and mentored him. But, it was really the Starbucks training that transformed him. The training told him how to serve customers well. It told him how to address situations with an irate customer. It taught him the need to be organized, as if you were not, the customer would be ill-served. This consistent training replaced his bad habits with new habits. He built on his success by first building his self-esteem through better habit. And, it spilled over into his personal life. Now, he is managing a Starbucks and improving his education.

There are numerous examples in the book, but one my niece and I both found interesting is about the fabric freshening product called Febreze. Now, you may not know that Febreze was almost pulled from the market as its sales were almost non-existent. It was a flop. Febreze’s inventor had found a way to chemically remove bad odors from fabrics. When it was first marketed, the elimination of bad odors was the pitch. Yet, that pitch only sold to people whose houses were a total wreck and reeked. The average homeowner did not buy it, at least buy enough of it. Before Proctor and Gamble (P&G) pulled it, they did more research of their target buyers.

Through this research, they discovered a habit in housewives (please forgive the gender reference), who after they made their beds with new linens, they purposefully inhaled the crisp, clean laundered smell. In fact, after they did any cleaning, the desire for a clean-smelling house was habitual. P&G realized people did not crave scentlessness, instead they crave a nice clean smell after they’ve spent 30 minutes cleaning. With this focus, a new marketing effort was launched and within two months sales doubled and then took off, spawning dozens of spin-off products. P&G’s Febreze provided the reward of a clean-smelling house to someone who cleaned it, which was the cue for the reward.

I use cue and reward, as these are two of the tenets of understanding and changing habits, whether they be smoking, nail-biting, eating bad snacks, drinking, etc. In short, Duhigg articulates:

1) Identify the routine (what leads to the habit and why, when and how does it occur?)

2) Experiment with rewards (to change a habit, a new reward has to be substituted, but it has to be fulfilling, so experimentation is needed)

3) Isolate the cue (what is truly the cue; what more than any other thing is causing the habit?)

4) Have a plan (this is what am I going to do about it, this is in my control to change and if I write down my plan, I will have a better chance of success).

One example was an office worker and his craving for a mid-afternoon donut, muffin or unhealthy snack. The routine was the person would leave his desk from boredom, being tired, just to get up, etc. and would go to the vending machine for a snack. The reward was the snack. The cue was harder to find, as various paths led to the reward. It turned out the cue was the time. Invariably, between 3 and 3:30 pm, the person would get the unhealthy snack. So, he noted this in a plan to do something differently. He experimented and felt if he purposefully socialized with others for ten minutes instead of getting a snack, the new reward would satisfy him. So, he planned and executed the plan by getting away from his desk at the same tim each day, forming a new habit. Instead of eating, he would talk with colleagues.

There are other habits noted that have been replaced by new rewards.  The key is to find a new reward. If you drink, substituting something that takes the place of the drink will make it a new habit. It could be drinking fruit juices, hot tea, coffee, etc. or it could be taking a walk after dinner, when your old habit of drinking most occurred. The same would hold true with smoking. You have to find a new reward to replace the smoking reward. Otherwise, the old habit will have a better chance of returning.

Let me close how Duhigg did referencing a passage from William James’ book “The Principle of Psychology.” Note William’s brother Henry is an author of some renown.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and is bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Habits can be good or bad. If they are the latter and you want to change, the above steps are worth considering. The book is a good read, with many understandable examples. I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.