October 2011

By now, I wonder if there’s any point in explaining why the newsletter is so late, since it almost always is. But I will, anyway. First reason: It’s an agony writing them, but I really like the finished product. It helps me articulate all the ideas and stuff rolling around in my head, constantly; and I do mean constantly! Second reason: I’ve gotten busier than I’ve been in probably four years. Main Street has definitely come alive again. I don’t know what in the world is happening on Wall Street. They seem to be experiencing, at best, severe ADHD; and at worst, an ongoing psychotic episode. Wall Street’s reactions, these days, seem to perfectly fit Freud’s original definition of a “hysterical reaction.” The increase in business is both the good news and the challenging news. I feel a lot more productive and impactful, but also, at times, overwhelmed with everything there is to attend to. We continue to get rave reviews for “Picking Winners and Keepers,” our elearning, multi-media program on selecting great people, without ambivalence, regrets, and costly mistakes. For all the details and the program schedule, go to: http://www.performancecounts.com/Picking_Winners.htm We’ve set the dates for the next Executive Education Seminar. It’ll be held June 22 – 24, 2012, at the School of Business at the University of Montana, in Missoula. We’ve gotten great feedback about doing the Seminar at the Business School, and also about incorporating a visit to Dunrovin Ranch. The unique environment that Suzanne Miller has created at the Ranch was a huge hit with past participants. We’ll keep you updated on the specifics of the Seminar. For now, reserve those dates. Business:

“The New Normal – Unending Unpredictability” For a number of years now, I’ve heard people talking about how unpredictable business has become; with the implied assumption that one of these days, the unpredictability will finally end, or at least, level off, and we’ll return to a generally predictable environment. Well, from everything I see and experience, that ain’t ever going to happen. Unpredictability is here to stay, and the implications are sobering. First and foremost, is the fact that we have unequivocally entered the Age of Self-Doubt. I have never, in my professional life, worked with and encountered so many talented, highly skilled, and successful people, who are haunted by self-doubt. People, who prior to these times, made one decision after another, with a great sense of clarity and certainty, now second-guessing almost everything they do. Everyone, at times, has some doubts; but now the experience seems to have become endemic and epidemic. It has become a part of our daily lives and our ongoing personal and professional experiences. So how do we deal with and come to terms with it? First, we need to realize that we are not alone with this feeling. It is shared by all of us, and has become a part of the global consciousness. Second, we need to look at and assess our inventory of life skills to determine what personal assets we have that will help us do well and flourish in this environment, and what deficits we’re going to have to work on. In terms of the skills, here are some of the most important: We need (and we need to surround ourselves with) people who can live in and perform in, the moment. We can no longer accommodate colleagues who live in the past, or are always anticipating the future. This requires the ability to grieve well – to be able to say goodbye to what we used to do, and who we used to be – and the ability to realistically assess the present and come to terms with what it is, not what we’d like it to be. In other words, we need to give up our “hope trips.” We need to be life-long learners and come to terms with the fact that we’ll never be “finished’ with working on ourselves. To be able to do this, we need to be open to feedback, and open to constantly increasing our self-information. One of the things we need to stop doing is to defend our position, and act like we’re on trial. We need to get a lot better at listening to the feedback we get about who we are; and to ask ourselves if what we’re hearing makes sense, and how we can use it to improve ourselves. We need to develop an emotional compass that allows us to stay centered and focused, in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and unpredictability. That is, the ability to stay with the task at hand, knowing that there are no guarantees in the near or distant future. We need to look at our need for control, and our level of trust; and work to establish the best ratio between the two. In an Age of Self-Doubt, the temptation to increase control is heightened, and the tendency to lower one’s trust is increased. What we need, however, is just the opposite. High control and low trust dramatically inhibits our ability to grow and increases anxiety and tension. Low control and high trust allows us to mediate in this “new normal,” without driving ourselves crazy. We need to be able to talk about our feelings, in real time. Especially when those feelings are about our worries and concerns. It’s hard to convince people (especially business people) that talking about things that worry us, or situations that suck, helps us get through them, and defuses the anxiety associated with them. We don’t need to always fix or change things that bother us; but we do need to talk about them, in order to feel better and get things done again. Complaining is fine; as long as that’s not all you do. Arleah has a saying in her practice: “You don’t need to always get your way; but you do need to always get your say.” We need to talk about and face, with the people closest to us, our doomsday scenarios. Businesses would get through a lot more of their problems if they trusted themselves, when they’re facing hard times, to talk about the worst case outcomes. Verbalizing the worst possible outcomes, dramatically decreases the anxiety and tension surrounding them, and frees up an amazing amount of energy tied up in circular worrying. It allows you to identify the really important things in your life, and put the worries in perspective. A number of years ago, I was talking with a client in southern California, about the challenges he faced in the work he did. We were driving around (in his Rolls Royce) looking at some of the shopping centers he was involved with. What he did, was guarantee, through surety bonds, that immense construction projects would be finished by a date certain. If they were not, he would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. I asked him if he had any trouble sleeping at night, knowing how much he was on the line for. He responded, without any hesitation: “I sleep like a baby. I’m worth close to a hundred million. After that, there’s no more to get out of me. The worst thing that can happen is that I end up poor. I’ll live through it.” I have never forgotten his words. Arleah and I often talk about where we started our journey together. We still remember that we got our first TV by selling the puppies from one of our dogs first litters. It gives us some perspective when we get caught up in worrying.Political/Cultural:

“The Wall Street Occupiers: Les Miserables Without The Music” A number of years ago, Arleah and I walked out of the Broadway production of Les Miserables. Our feeling was that if we wanted to watch a group of people bemoan their plight and idealize their helplessness, we didn’t need to go to the theater – we could just find the closest union meeting. What we’re witnessing now, in a number of American cities, is an amateur reproduction of Les Mis – a blatant distortion of our core values and our bedrock beliefs. I just got back from Chicago, where I saw interview after interview with a handpicked sample of professional victims (interviewed by reporters from the local NBC affiliate – not exactly a right-wing mouthpiece). The content of the interviews was amazingly consistent: “We don’t have jobs because of evil, greedy people on Wall Street. We can’t achieve the ‘American Dream,’ because rich people own everything and won’t share it with us. And lastly, we’re getting the short end of the stick, because our economic system (i.e. capitalism) is inherently unfair.” Before I saw all these interviews, I was just irritated by the news reports chronicling the spreading of this “movement.” I had grown up with card-carrying Communists in my extended family and had heard every Marxist-Leninist slogan, ad nauseum. I had lived through the peace movement of the sixties, and knew, by heart, every cliché about the “military-industrial complex.” And, in my current life, I get to regularly visit the Peoples Republics of San Francisco and Madison. But this current distillation more than irritates me. It infuriates me. The sense of entitlement, the arrogance and self-righteousness, and the ignorance of core American values, is more than I can stomach. Consequently, I have a message for the demonstrators – 1. You wouldn’t know a value if it fell on you. Our country is based on individual responsibility, not blaming others. You own 50% of the situation you’re in. Go home and work on your half. 2. We reward risk-taking in America, not security and guarantees. If you want a piece of the pie, decide what you’re willing to put on the line, and stop whining. 3. If you really want a job, pack up your backpack, and go where they’re readily available. You can start with the Bakken Shale oilfields in North Dakota. There are lots and lots of jobs there, and more are being created daily. (The field is estimated to contain 4.3 billion barrels of oil – a resource only recently tappable because of technological innovations made possible through the genius of our evil capitalist system.) The unemployment rate in North Dakota is 3.5%, a bit over a third of the national average. Millions of Americans, throughout the history of this country, have picked up their lives and moved to where the work is. 4. If moving for work is beneath you, then apply for a job in one of the industries that always has openings, like insurance/financial services, automobile sales, information technology, and, particularly these days, healthcare (one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy). 5. Regardless of what hard skills you may or may not have, do a self-audit of your soft skills and see if you have the four prerequisites for finding and maintaining employment:

  • Can you make decisions quickly and without regret; or does it take you forever and paralyze you with doubt and unending angst?
  • Can you build relationships quickly and deeply, and emotionally connect with people? I regularly run into people who complain about how difficult it is to find work, and who have the people skills of artichokes. They talk at me, instead of with me, and they don’t listen to a word that anyone else says. I call them “mutual monologuers.” They simply wait until you’re done talking, so that they can grab the floor. I can’t wait to get away from them – and they wonder why they can’t get a job.
  • Can you engage in conflict and use it to resolve differences and build intimacy in your important relationships? If you’re a conflict avoider, at best, you’ll always have low paying jobs; and, at worst, you’ll be chronically unemployable.
  • Can you take the risk of initiating constructive confrontation? In other words, do you tell people the truth, and give them feedback that they need to hear, not that they’d like to hear. Or are you painfully polite and so excruciatingly tactful, that no one knows what you’re talking about? Information is rapidly and steadily pushing our culture toward honest and direct communication, and rewarding those who know how to get to the point, quickly.

So, what is this “movement” really about? Well, we know from one inarticulate interview after another, that it’s not about finding any resolution to our economic meltdown. What it is about, is a concerted attempt to avoid the pain of looking at, and taking ownership of, all of our culpability in self-indulgently spending ourselves into communal bankruptcy. No one sector, no one group, no one financial practice, no one piece of legislation, created our economic nightmare. It was massive, collective greed. As a society, we methodically turned luxuries into necessities, privileges into rights, and rewards into entitlements. We have no one to blame for this disaster, other than ourselves. We lost track of what is really important in our lives, and we’re paying the price for it. Instead of scapegoating a group or an economic philosophy, we’d all be well served to start figuring out how we’re going to deal with this global contraction and individual re-orientation of our lives.Personal:

“The Strange Experience Of Death: My Mother’s Passing”

Note: This was written the day after my mother died – Sept. 26th My mother died yesterday. I got a call at 5:30 in the morning telling me that she died in her sleep. Her heart just stopped beating. It was a call I had been expecting for at least the last two years, but I was still surprised and stunned. I wasn’t shocked – we had been told innumerable times that given her medical problems, it was a certainty that her heart would eventually stop. I don’t think there’s any way to reconcile the factual knowledge with the feelings; no way to prepare oneself for the actual news. I sat on the side of our bed, in a kind of fog. I didn’t quite know what to do next, or even how I was feeling. Arleah sat down next to me and held my hand. I tried to remember what the person at the nursing home had said – something about taking our time and that she would be in her room. When we got to the home, I was very aware of being scared to see her dead. I have dealt a lot with death in my professional life, but not much with dead bodies. When we walked into her room, she was laying in her bed, hands folded over her stomach, covered with a blanket up to her shoulders. Her mouth was wide open, like it usually was when she was asleep. There was no doubt, however, that she was not asleep. A grayish pallor had already consumed her head. The staff at the facility, who were extraordinarily kind and sensitive, asked us to remove things of value from her and her room. I can’t tell you, in words, how strange a feeling it was to be opening drawers and cabinets, going through little boxes of trinkets and costume jewelry; doing all this, two or three feet from her dead body. I opened one drawer to find three unused cans of root beer – winnings from bingo. The cans had been there for at least a year and a half. It’s funny what we value and keep around. At one point, Arleah and I realized that we had been whispering to each other while we were looking through things obviously, afraid of waking her up. I became aware of having regressed back to childhood, watching those primitively done horror films where dead people suddenly popped up from their beds or coffins, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in the room (and in the audience). It was particularly weird and disturbing when it came to retrieving her wedding ring. It is a unique and classy ring and my mother always wanted Arleah to have it. It was, however, still on her hand; and it seemed kind of ghoulish to be trying to take her ring off of her lifeless and limp hand. I felt, for a moment, like one of those grave robbers, featured in those “B” movies about Egyptian pyramids. Thankfully, we were rescued by a nurse’s aide who put some lotion on my mother’s hand, and slipped the ring right off. I did a pretty good job of holding myself together until a few staff members, one at a time, came into the room and told us what a pleasure it had been to take care of, and to know my mother. For some reason, that touched me more than anything else that day. I also lost it when the fellow from the funeral home came to take her body away. He was extraordinarily sensitive, but it felt so crass and mechanistic to put her into a bag, zip it up, and cart her out, like some kind of a package. Seeing her head disappear under the zipper, hit me like a rock in the head. Its over; she’s gone; forever. Later that day, we went over to the funeral home to start the whole process going that would eventually result in a funeral ceremony back in Chicago. If we had thought that we had already experienced some weird feelings, we had underestimated how weird this experience would be. Everything we discussed with the funeral director was necessary to talk about, but felt amazingly incongruous, given the fact that my mother had just died hours ago. We had a protracted discussion about the practical and financial implications of embalmment; the position of the Jewish cemetery (where she is to be buried next to my father) on embalmment and the timing of the burial; the laws in Illinois about embalmment; and the intricacies of transporting her body to Spokane, first, and then Chicago, next. The absolute weirdest conversation was about packing her body in a material similar to dry ice, if she were not to be embalmed. At that point, I was beginning to feel like we were trapped in an Edward Albee play about the absurdities of American rituals around death. In a strange way, this venture into black humor was a welcome relief from the oppressiveness of dealing with her death. To say that I went through a range of feelings that day, would be an understatement. I was on a veritable emotional roller coaster. I felt profound grief and sadness; a sense of relief that it was finally over (I had come to feel, these last two years, that we had been on a protracted death watch); and a feeling of regret and remorse over how irritated and angry I would get over her withdrawal, especially this past year, into her very private and non-relational world. I want to remember my mother for the truly extraordinary woman she was. She was a pioneer in her era; a rebel with a very clear cause; and a no-nonsense lady, who took no crap from anyone. She had an early career in the entertainment industry that perhaps a handful of young Jewish girls ever achieved. She was a “career woman” and a housewife way before it was fashionable. And she took no prisoners when she had an opinion that she felt was the right one. She taught me to think on my feet, defend my positions, and to hold my own in any public forum. When people ask me where I learned public speaking, I tell them that I was doing it at the dinner table every night, from five years old, on. She also taught me “class”; to aspire to be the best; never to settle; and to do things the right way, or not at all. She was a beautiful woman, who had an “outfit” for every possible human activity. She weighed the same in her 80’s that she did in her 20’s, and she had a killer figure well into her 70’s. I’m one of the few people I know who has “cheesecake” photos of their mother (from her Hollywood days). She was a fiercely loyal wife, and loved my father more than anything else in the world. She raised her children to be successful, and taught us a value system that has served all of us very well. When my mother went anywhere (especially with my father), everyone noticed her arrival. That’s how I’m going to remember her. Morrie

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