Friday, December 26, 2014

The Search for Creme Brulee

First, an aside – I only had my first crème brulee about 7-8 years ago. I was visiting Chicago on business, and – in the mood for good Italian food – went online for reviews. Found a great review of a place near where I was staying; so I walked over.

It was actually in an indoor mall; and as I went up the escalator, I was nervous that it wouldn’t be any good. Instead, it was awesome. A free sample of “Baked Spaghetti” while ordering; then Chicken Parmigiana and Chocolate Crème Brulee for dessert. Instead of it being chocolate custard though; they essentially coated the dish with semi-sweet chocolate; to make a shell in which the crème brulee was placed. It was amazing.

I had a trip planned to Chicago again a year later, and as I was setting up a meeting, decided to hold it at that location. When I checked the online menu, though; the chocolate crème brulee was no longer available! I emailed the restaurant – told them how much I’d enjoyed my visit; and expressed my dismay at the dessert no longer being available, and in the span of three hours, the email had gone to four different people, before the head chef wrote me back – and told me to let him know when I was coming and it would be on the menu that evening.

I did; and it was spectacular. The maitre d' knew who I was; I was treated like royalty. After dessert, the manager came out to tell me the chef was so touched by what I’d said, that desserts were on the house that evening. It was an amazing display of customer service.

A year later, they were out of business; but I hope that was in no way related!

On to this year’s story:
Each year, I have a list of exceptionally designed houses for the Christmas season (ironically, everyone makes fun of me, until they want to go see these incredible houses) – but, I’ve broken these houses down into four quadrants of locations – and, over four separate nights, we visit each quadrant, plotting out the route through online software. In better times, we also head into Manhattan (although, we’re not crazy enough to do that with a three-year-old); and – the past few years, we’ve trekked out to Dyker Heights, in Brooklyn, to see the houses there.

This year, we spent the first two nights doing the houses in the northern sections of Long Island (and, as a showing to how long it had been since we visited those areas, we eliminated at least half of the houses, since the previous owners were no longer there).

Then, last Saturday, we headed to Brooklyn. We had a full day, visiting my mother's grave first, stopping at Roosevelt Field Mall (just because) and then heading out to Dyker Heights. I had looked online for some exceptional places to eat; and we decided to eat at La Sorrentina; then do the walking; then head to Gino's for dessert and coffee (most notably, because the top-listed item on the dessert menu was -- yes -- creme brulee).

After the walk (where we had met up with a friend), we hopped in the car to drive to Gino's. As we drove by, I remarked that it looked really crowded for 9:15pm at night. We called and we were told there would be a 45-minute wait. My wife -- not wanting to wait that long, said we should head elsewhere.

First, we looked up some places on Yelp. We decided on Audrey's Concerto, since it also listed creme brulee; but it was about 25 minutes away. Still, 25 is less than 45, so we headed over there. However, when we drove by the place we noticed 1) there was limited seating; and 2) it looked like it might be in a less-than-savory part of town. We decided to head back to Mona Lisa's (which had been recommended).

Walked in there, and looked at the varied pastries, etc. they had available. Then, I noticed that there was a sign saying the 'cafe' was closed. Upon asking, I was told they had no place to sit, because they were doing construction. My wife, resigned, said we could eat in the car. I asked for the bathroom and headed there -- and saw the cafe had about 20 people sitting there! I asked and was told "they" were allowed, since they were on a bus tour. I asked why we couldn't sit there; got no real answer.

Still, undeterred, we starting deciding what to eat -- and then, when my wife ordered coffee, we were told, "We don't have coffee anymore." Really? And, back on the road we went .

By now, however; there was no wait at Gino's, so we headed back there (of course, it was now 10:15pm)! Got seated, and looked at menus - and I ordered the creme brulee. The waiter just laughed and shook his head -- "No more left!" he cackled. "Look at this place, it's been this busy all day?" 

I'm not sure what that meant; I think if you're that profitable, you can afford to have more of your hottest item available, no? Nonetheless, I settled for some chocolate mousse; disappointed; and we finally got on the road; promptly got lost; and got home around 1am.

The following evening, we headed to the south-west corner of Suffolk County -- the "quadrant" with the most houses (and, evidently, a place where no one moves away from, because easily 80 percent of the houses remained on our list). It was cold and rainy, and my wife asked for a coffee. We passed by numerous Dunkin Donuts, but she had her heart set on a Caramel Brulee Latte from Starbucks (a holiday flavor).

It was late - around 9:45pm - so we intended to get the coffee and head home. We pulled in (the parking lot had spaces opposite the entry way, facing the street) and I walked in to get the coffees. When I came out, there was a giant 18-wheeler turning around in the parking lot. I got in the car, and waited for the trailer to pass me.

But he didn't. Instead, he stopped right behind us. I said to my wife, "I don't think we can get out!" Tried backing up; definitely couldn't (there were two cars on either side of me, so I couldn't even three-point-turn into an adjacent space.

She got out and told the guy (now in the back of the cab); and he looked over at my SUV and said, "Oh, he can get out" dismissively. She got back in and I said, "I'm pretty sure I can't." I backed up as much as I could, until I bumped into his truck.

By now, my son - already tired from the evening before - started to cry. My wife got back out and asked him - again - to move his truck up. He said, the driver had gone into Starbucks and he was unloading and we'd have to wait. I began honking my horn loudly; and there was no impact. She wasn't moving though; and she kept asking him; finally saying something like, "I don't give a s**t about you unloading." He began yelling back at her, "Don't be rude to me! I have a job to do!" His tone began to sound menacing to me, so I hopped out of the car, slamming my door behind me (sadly, my wife had lay her latte on the console; so slamming the door dislodged it, and it fell over ... )

Now irritated, I asked, "What is so hard to understand? You cannot willingly block in an entire row of cars that are trying to get out?" He just started yelling back at me, as well. I responded finally, "Let me call the police. I'm sure that when they hear that you are not allowing us to move, things will start happening." That seemed to work - and begrudgingly, the driver elected to move his truck.

It was, apparently, a bad week to be a "brulee."

Shockingly, I called the following day -- first the trucking company, Bartlett Dairy. After being passed around to 4-5 different people, I finally spoke to someone who listened to my story; apologized, but said she had to pass my info along to her manager. I never heard back.

I then called Starbucks (because, sadly, in today's world, when you're a brand as large as Starbucks, even your suppliers' actions reflect upon you). There, I didn't even get an apology; just a "oh well" basically from the customer service representative. I was a little shocked by that; but not tremendously shocked. I've learned, long ago, customer service isn't held in high regard; even by those companies that say they do in fact, value it.

Maybe I'm just ranting; but if so, it's understandable. It's now the day after Christmas, and I still haven't had creme brulee.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: Connected Culture

If you missed it, I've been putting most of my "professional" writings over on LinkedIn; but I'll still keep this blog for more personal stories (and things that don't fit with my publishing strategy on LinkedIn). Here's one such post, although I’ve been meaning to write this review for a few months now.

Jerry Allocca’s “Connected Culture: The Art of Communicatingwith the Digital Generation” is a fantastic read. It’s accessible, easily understood by laypeople, and – perhaps most importantly – isn’t so wrapped up in specific functions and processes that are easily rendered obsolete in a few months. In fact, it’s safe to say the book is both theoretical (focusing on best practices) and tactical (where those best practices are shown using today’s technology). But, as I said earlier, it’s important to realize the accessibility of the book enables those techniques to be usable with any technology – even that which hasn’t been invented yet!

Social media (and digital communications) is a lot more than “knowing how to use Facebook.” There’s a definite approach that must be adopted to truly master social media (and, in fact, most people say you cannot “master” social media, since it’s always changing). In many ways, it’s the same premise that many other professions believe: To be a truly great graphic designer requires an artist’s eye; not just knowledge about how to use Photoshop and Adobe Creative Suite; to be a great video game designer requires an understanding of game theory; not just knowledge of how to code.

The same is true with social media – knowing the tricks of Facebook is effective; but you need to start with an understanding of why social media is different; and Jerry’s book outlines that most effectively (and, without a lot of emphasis on the technology – the way it should be explained!)

The book includes a number of worksheets and exercises to help the reader get a clearer understanding behind the hows and whys of social media; and – as a gift for the reader – Jerry includes a free download of a more comprehensive workbook, keyed to each chapter in the book.

The organization of the book provides scaffolding to the reader, enabling both experienced communications professionals and newcomers to be on the same page. While I read the book from start to finish, I suspect it would be nearly as useful to use the book as a reference, referring back to the salient points as needed.

I heartily recommend the book, as it provides a great framework for understanding social media; and – most importantly – isn’t tied to a specific technology (try reading a “Best Way to Use Facebook” book from 5-6 years ago; it’s a futile attempt!). While “Connected Culture” isn’t quite as visionary as “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” it isn’t trying to be (and, frankly, what else is?). But, it holds a spot on my bookshelf, and will – for the foreseeable future!

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Change to the Blog (and Where You'll Find Me)

As many of you know, I've struggled with what this blog should be. It's changed over the years, from being an outlet for my thoughts; to being one focused on supreme customer service (or the lack of); to an update on job search techniques.

I've done book reviews, run some pop culture tournaments, and spoken about my hobbies.

Ten years ago, this might've been fine; but today, successful blogs have more singular focuses.

So, starting in a week or two, I'll be posting most of my "professional-type" posts to LinkedIn. I was approved to be a publisher on the site (which means a *whole* lot of people will be able to read me in the future). I'm looking forward to some great conversations.

I'll focus on internal communications, customer service and -- for now -- the job search.

This blog won't go away; from time-to-time I'll be cross-posting stuff, and I actually have a few blog posts in the hopper; but it will definitely be less 'professional' and more pop culture. I'll keep the professional stuff on the LinkedIn page; and the more fun stuff here. Don't worry, it won't turn into a ghost town (inside joke).

Starting in July, I'll also be upping my use of Twitter and Google+ (and, most likely, by default, Hootsuite), as I have loads of interesting content I've accumulated that I'd love to share, once I get a system and process in place.

Obviously, I'll keep you all posted -- along with new links to my LinkedIn author page and my other social media channels.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Chris' Rules of Business

From a communications perspective, the past half-decade has been quite the whirlwind. Employee engagement, an area in which I specialize, sometimes took a backseat to dealing with the economic fallout.

In the past year, employee engagement has become more important (a recent poll estimated that roughly 85 percent of all workers are disengaged to some level – that should be *extremely* troubling for businesses).

Through my experiences, I came up with a number of “Rules of Business” – tips I consider to be business truisms. Six of them are listed here. They’re not all entirely mine; but I’ve made them mine, as much as possible.

The first is an individual rule (one I try to follow, myself). In your communications – with employees, co-workers, supervisors and even externally with customers – you will often have to make a decision.

1. Is it better to be “right” or to be “productive”?

We’ve all been there. We’ve listened as someone speaks and we’ve heard them say something we *knew* was incorrect. At that moment, we’ve had to decide – is it important to be “right” (showcasing ourselves as the more knowledgeable party) or is the better option to be “productive” and keep our mouth shut?

That sort of decision-making can be vital in terms of personal growth. It’s a variant on the old “Pick your battles” mantra; but there is a difference. It’s important to consider the way you are perceived by your audience. A client could easily be turned off by someone who continually corrects information in a meeting. Sometimes, the more productive approach in many situations is to not say anything (as much as it pains us) until we have a less-public forum.

Heck, even if your CEO says something wrong in a meeting, he (or she) will probably be far more grateful if you point it out in private after the fact, and then he can address it more gracefully. Plus, it’s rare that anything said *immediately* becomes unchangeable. There’s always a better way to handle something than to correct or point something out in public (especially when an outcome is to diminish someone else).

2. There is no such thing as a “One Size Fits All” policy.

The Cincinnati Reds of the mid-1970s were a dominant team, with four perennial All-Stars (Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan). The manager, Sparky Anderson, realized his best players deserved to be treated differently. Each year, in Spring Training, he delivered a speech, where he let *everyone* know he had different rules for his star players.

I’m not endorsing that sort of thinking – where companies line up everyone who works for them and state, explicitly, some workers are going to be treated differently than others. However, the inverse is also true. Too often, I’ve seen companies writing employee handbooks that create a zero-tolerance policy with no exceptions. In its zeal for creating an airtight, legally binding document, that spells out every nuance of expected employee behavior, the company paints itself into a corner and – worse– begins to chip away at employee morale.

At one company, employees were forbidden from having any food at their desks. Why? Because, in the past, some employees hadn’t been the most meticulous in cleaning things up; and there had been issues. So, yes, that’s a great reason; but it’s insulting to those who already have that level of conscientiousness. And, moreover, it breaks Rule #3.

3. Treat people like adults; hold them accountable as adults.

Talented employees – who have graduated college and are looking to make a difference – really enjoy being treated as adults.

At one job, I was making a case for communicating the company’s sales numbers in the internal publication. I heard the expected objections – “What if someone inadvertently shares the information?” “Aren’t we giving them too much information?” I answered each objection successfully. Then, someone asked, “What if someone shares the information intentionally?” I immediately asked, “Why would you have someone working at this company that you feared would do that?”

Is it a risk? Sure – but anecdotal evidence greatly supports the concept that treating your workforce like mature adults pays off far more than spoon-feeding them. A bigger risk is seeing your best workers walk out the door.

4. Life is a bell curve (the 10-80-10 rule)

When you look at most data (or human behavior), clusters begin to emerge. The vast majority tends to bunch up in the  middle.

When I moved into the world of communications, I had the pleasure of attending a conference with Steve Crescenzo as a presenter, and he outlined his version of the 10-80-10 rule, where (as he says), 10 percent of the people in your organization *love* you – you can do no wrong in their eyes; they bleed the company colors. 10 percent hate you, and they hate everything about you. They’re psychopaths, and they hate their lives, their wives and their dogs. Nothing you can do will be good enough for them. And, effectively, both camps are influencing that middle 80 percent (and, this is where a good communications director is vital!)

At my last company, I created an employee engagement survey – the first of its kind for the company. When you first administer a survey, unless something dramatic appears, those results serve as benchmarks. As I analyzed the results, I noticed “employee trust in senior leadership” qualified as dramatic.

I tell people to initially expect 10 percent negative feedback, since this fits into the 10-80-10/bell curve theory. When “trust in senior leadership” exceeds 40 percent negative, there’s a definite problem. Thankfully, we do surveys to learn about these problems, and – one year later, when we redid the survey, we reduced that number by more than two-thirds.

5. Good managers tell the “what” and “why” and listen for their workers to tell them the “how”

No one likes to be micromanaged. The younger generation of workers is even less inclined to be interested in that (remember, these newer GenY and Millennials – in many cases – grew up with both parents working. They didn’t necessarily work harder than their previous generations; but they certainly worked with less guidance.

You may be noticing a trend in these “rules” – treat people like adults. Moreover, there’s a definite need for managers to take a step back from looking to control everything. Hire good, quality workers and reap the benefits.

At my last company, the CEO had moved up to the role from an earlier position as director of sales. One day, we were walking by the Sales “inbox” and he took out a few orders and started looking them over. Wistfully, he said to me, “I used to do this every day. I used to look at every order that came in. I don’t get to do that anymore.” I replied, “Good! It’s not your job anymore! You’ve hired a great director of sales; let her do her job, and you do the CEO’s job!”

6. Just because someone is good at their job, doesn’t make them a manager

And, this certainly ties in to the previous  point. This is a pretty common occurrence in America. You’ll have a front-line worker who is absolutely phenomenal at their job (maybe something like data entry or order processing ... even a sales rep), and – eventually – they’ll want more – more pay, more responsibility, some combination of both.

Now, they’re *great* at their job – the tactical part of it – and the company doesn’t want to lose them; but, unfortunately, they’ve already moved up the ladder as high as possible in terms of salary bands. They’ve reached the top salary for whatever position they’re in.

And, rather than raising the salary band, most companies will do the worst possible thing: promote the worker to a manager level.

Now – I’m breaking my own rule. There *is* no one size fits all; and I don’t mean to generalize. On occasion, some workers get promoted to a manager level and they thrive. But, most of the time, the company hasn’t properly developed them to take on a managerial role; and it’s even less likely the company has even evaluated the colleague to determine if he or she is even suitable for a managerial role.

So, in the cases where it’s not a success, what happens It’s a failure. The colleagues resent the new manager, who loses their support. They are unable to strategize or lead or motivate, and now the company has a choice – do they demote the worker back to his earlier role (which is awful, obviously); or do they let the worker go – and, in doing so, they’ve lost that phenomenal tactician they were so happy with, earlier.

I’m certainly not saying no workers should ever be promoted – far from it. But, companies will do far better by investing in their colleagues and developing their colleagues; setting up personal development plans that start to get both the colleague *and* the company, thinking about a career path; and *then* considering whether to promote the colleague to a leadership level.

That is true engagement.

Obviously, none of these tips can stave off the catastrophic impact of an economic recession, which is what led to the universal abandonment of employee engagement in the mid-2000s. But, as we continue to recover, a greater risk may be emerging – the exodus of workers due to a lack of engagement.

True employee engagement is far more strategic (and complex) than what I’ve outlined here; but these first steps are a necessary foundation of beginning to create a more engaging workplace.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why I'm Happy My Favoite Team Lost in March Madness

It's no secret my favorite sport in the world is college basketball; which makes this time of year (the NCAA tournament) easily my favorite time for spectator sports.

I'm also a big fan of college football; but I like the setup of college basketball better -- too often, by the time Bowl Week is wrapping up, I'm burned out from watching games that don't really have a meaning. With college basketball, *every* game matters -- from the conference tournaments (the two weeks preceding) through the NCAA tournament. Win and continue; lose and go home.

I've been watching the NCAA tournament -- basically *every* moment of it -- for the past 30 years. I've taken vacation time to ensure I don't miss any of the games in the past. And, I still have great memories of some of the fantastic teams and tournaments I've seen in the past.

My favorite team, year-in, year-out has been Duke University. I became a fan back in 1986, when they lost to Louisville -- they had a great team of Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker (now the coach at Harvard), Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas (an analyst on ESPN). Since then, I've rooted for Duke in every tournament (even when I haven't filled out my bracket to have the win).

So, today, Duke lost to Mercer 78-71. With four-and-a-half minutes to go, Duke led 63-58. Most smaller schools would wilt -- they would see Mighty Duke, with its multiple McDonalds All-Americans and future NBA players and they'd simply shudder. Instead, Mercer - the *only* school to start five seniors every game this year - did just the opposite, going on a 20-8 run to end the game, fully in control.

It's always sad, for me when Duke loses, because I have such respect for Mike Kryzewski (who, even after this loss, was incredibly gracious to the opposing coach ... he realized his team had been out-played and he was modest (and confident) enough to admit it). But, I have to admit, today; if Duke *had* to lose, I'm glad it was to a team like Mercer.

One of the biggest changes in the NCAA tournament (and college basketball, in general) has been the growing trend of players spending fewer than four years in college. For a while, several players jumped right to the NBA from high school (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, among *many* others) -- and recently, that changed to mandate players *must* spend one year in college (or, more accurately, *out* of high school) before they're eligible to be drafted -- and many players have excelled in the NBA after spending only one year in college.

But, when I look back at the iconic figures in the history of the NCAA tournament, they all have something in common:

Ralph Sampson
Clyde Drexler
Hakeem Olajuwon
Patrick Ewing
Chris Mullin
Steve Alford
Danny Manning
Christian Laettner
Bobby Hurley
Grant Hill
Bo Kimble
Corliss Williamson
Mateen Cleaves

All of them played a MINIMUM of three years in college - with most playing four years.

Now, look at the NBA draft today ... for the most part, you'll see 2-5 seniors drafted in the first round. The last senior drafted in the NBA draft that is an impact player today (and we'll use "impact" liberally): Kenneth Faried and Chandler Parsons -- both drafted in 2011.

The last senior drafted that became an all-star? Roy Hibbert, drafted in 2008.  

And, if you want to go back to the last player drafted, as a senior, that has even a *remote* chance of
ending in the Hall of Fame one day, you're probably going back to Shane Battier, drafted in 2001; Andre Miller/Jason Terry, drafted in 1999 ... or, more realistically, Tim Duncan, drafted in 1997.

Think about that. It's been 17 years since a probable Hall-of-Famer was drafted as a senior.

I'm not saying it's a bad decision for players to go to the NBA -- money is money; and why would you want to wait? But, for the purposes of *this* article, I'm lamenting the change in the NCAA tournament, which is *directly* attributable to the lack of seniors. When you spend four years in a program, with other players who have spent four years in the program, then you build up an amount of confidence and camaraderie.

It's that confidence that led a team of five seniors to look at the scoreboard, see themselves down by 5 with fewer than five minutes in the game, against Mighty Duke, and -- instead of wilting, somehow went on an offensive spurt (scoring 20 points) while holding a team comprised of former All-Americans to only 8 points.

I don't think today's loss will change anything. It proves that players need more time in college to win a championship (or, in some cases, get out of the first round); but -- ultimately, do I look at someone like Jabari Parker and think this loss will humble him? Or, will he bolt for the NBA and millions of dollars, looking back at Duke as nothing more than a one-year stop en route to potential fame and fortune? It's a shame -- he's 19 years old, and instead of getting to live like a god (like the people above, enjoyed, through their college careers), he has to miss out on that great experience so he can make his money (and, more importantly, probably, so the people who have *invested* in him can make their money, as well).

I'm sad Duke lost; but I'm happy it was to a team with five seniors. As someone who truly loves the NCAA tournament, and longs for the fantastic storylines (and rivalries!) of the past, I hope it does make a difference. I can dream.