Monthly Archives: July 2011

Failing Admirably

We were visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Palo Alto and wanted to celebrate life by going to their favorite restaurant, the Flea St. Café, in Menlo Park. We had a wonderful meal and wanted to top it off with dessert.

Everything at this establishment is made with in-season local ingredients. We ordered blackberry pie, blueberry panna cotta, and angel food cake with fresh strawberries to share. The menu said that the angel food cake had the herb thyme in it, which seemed absurd, but my wife wanted angel food cake so we ordered it. The waiter had actually tried to steer us away from that selection but we thought it was because it seemed like a boring choice for such a topnotch eatery.

The cake was terrible with the bitter herb killing the normally benign flavor of the fluffy white dessert. But after finishing every last crumb of a wonderful meal, except the angel food cake, it struck me that this restaurant was good enough and confident enough to do something ridiculous like put thyme in their angel food cake. I can gladly forgive them for the miss because they tried for a home run where anybody else would settle for a single. The restaurant excelled because the proprietor would not settle for nice.

I remember a restaurant owner telling me the worst answer from a patron to the question, “how was your meal?” was, “it was fine.” “Fine” to a good manager means the meal was “forgettable” and “I’m looking for someplace better.”

What I will remember from the Flea St. Café is that I had a great meal. I can heartily recommend it partly because they took a chance on the thyme and struck out.

There is a lesson for us even in the land of machinery and perfect parts. If your product is outstanding and you occasionally overreach or goof up, the customer will tolerate it, maybe even laugh about the fact that you spilled the soup. But if you are just okay and screw up on the hamburger, he will start looking for an alternative. Creativity is a virtue even if it fails, when the core product is outstanding.

Question: Please share a story about a failure of yours or someone else’s that for good reasons or bad, is unforgettable to you.

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Compassion of a Navy Seal

President Obama isn’t the only one who got a numbers bump from the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. Books about Navy Seals have been flying off the shelves. One very good one is The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens, a Duke and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar turned Navy Seal turned humanitarian volunteer.

The Heart and the Fist is quintessentially American. Greitens combines the warrior ethos of toughness and courage with the compassion of a humanitarian.

He starts with conversations with his grandfather, a decorated hero of WWII, and his reflections on the Holocaust, and the mantra of “never again.” But the reality is, it does happen again and again and again. During college Greitens volunteered in Rwanda, Bosnia and with Mother Teresa. He saw that the UN had no real power. They could only bring aid when the guys with the guns allow it. The UN can’t protect anyone—just ask those victims of Srebrenica. He saw that it takes strength and courage to move from good words to great action, and to protect those in need of protection.

After graduating from Oxford, Greitens joined the Navy Seals. The book provides a rare first hand account of the intensive Seal training, culminating with “Hell Week.” My nephew Aaron, who retired from the Seals a couple of years ago confirms Greitens’ account. Seals train men to lead others on the most difficult missions and they succeed.

Greitens served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After returning, he used his own combat pay and the disability pay of two friends to start “The Mission Continues,” an organization whose mission is to build an America where every wounded and disabled veteran can serve again as a “citizen leader.” The organization provides fellowships for post 9/11 wounded veterans to work in community-based non-profit organizations. Mentors are provided to assist the vet in developing his or her professional and educational goals.

Greitens maintains that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. To live a worthy life requires that we be both good and strong.

Question: Do you feel safer after Bin Laden’s Death?

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Daddy’s Little Goalie

The U.S. women’s soccer team lost to Japan in the finals of the World Cup but the game to remember was the absolutely thrilling quarterfinal against Brazil, which I would call one of the greatest games (of any kind) I have ever watched.

I have taken great joy from being a fan and cheering for my children and wife in countless games and tournaments. My parents were avid fans of my sports career. I will never forget my Dad setting up a movie camera at one of my basketball games and my mother shouting above everybody else in the crowd “give the ball to Lloyd”. I felt both joy and chagrin.

Robert Strauss has written a dozen pieces for TMW over the last several years. As a freelance writer he was able to maneuver his schedule around his girls’ sports participation schedule. Robert has written a wonderful new book, Daddy’s Little Goalie; A Father, His Daughters and Sports, and wrote this terrific article for The New York Times. I hope you love it like I did.

You go girls.

Question: What’s the greatest game you ever saw? Professional or little league.


Read the New York Times article below.

Savoring the Small Victories With My Two Little Girls

By Robert Strauss

When my younger daughter, Sylvia, was about 10, she was on one of those alleged super-duper basketball teams. She was in a tough tournament game at a dank gym one Sunday, and after the game, I put my arm around her with a twisted grin.

“Congratulations on being the high scorer,” I said as she grimaced.

Unfortunately, Sylvia ended up with 1 point after a girl from the other team mistakenly fouled her as she attempted a buzzer-beating shot before halftime. She made one of two from the foul line — making the loss only 44-1.

Now, if that game were, say, 44-38, I would have hardly remembered it. As the often-perplexed father of two girls, Ella and Sylvia, who took sports as second nature, I have been smitten with everything they have done on the court, the field, the track, the pool and assorted other places. In the age of the controversy over Tiger Mothers, I resolutely stand as the Pussycat Dad of sports parents.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in suburban New Jersey, I wasn’t sure how girls got around to playing sports. Even when they did, it was of a different form. Girls basketball was six on a side, only two of whom could play the full length of the court, presumably because girls had no stamina. They played softball, with 10 players and the squishiest ball they could find, so no one could possibly get hurt. Lacrosse and field hockey had so many penalties, the whistle seemed to blow at every turn to save them from even the tiniest welt. They always had to wear skirts, not practical pants or shorts.

But when my girls turned 5, they were in the vortex of T-ball, biddy basketball and the inevitable soccer. Everyone played everything all the time. Girls sports became a given, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Because they were girls, I guess, I never envisioned them playing in stadiums before 83,000 drunken alumni or being on gum-sugar-encrusted playing cards. Still, they insisted on trying almost everything: baseball, softball, tennis, cross-country, hurdles, diving, swimming, crew, basketball, lacrosse, soccer and probably 16 other sports I can’t remember.

And as time went on, I knew nothing but to cheer them. I arranged my schedule to go to every game I could and resolved to be omnipresent and unobtrusive. I could be a martinet when it came to schoolwork, but on the sideline, I resolved to cheer and to laugh as much as I could at the goofy plays.

I saw the tenseness in the other parents and coaches, then looked at their children and saw the jaws set and the brows furrow. Oh, I have had my moments of silent curses, but in general, my glasses have been the brightest hue of rosy, and the cups have not just been half full, but overflowing like Mauna Loa over Hawaii.

Sylvia was once the goalie of a soccer team that scored one goal for the whole season, but sometimes, I couldn’t wait to go home to tell my wife of the wonders of losing “only 2-0.” Ella went to a diving meet where she came in 26th. Out of 26. It afforded me the opportunity to rev up the Knute Rockne speech about giving it her all, not leaving anything on the board and getting them next time.

Mia Hamm’s father may have all of her Olympic goals, but I have the day when Ella, about 11, drove to the basketball hoop as her mouth guard popped out. She leapt, grabbing the mouth guard in midair with her left hand and making the basket with her right. Venus and Serena Williams’s father has their Grand Slam victories. I have Sylvia’s magnificent 44-1 loss.

My N.C.A.A. career might be the worst ever. I played five minutes of freshman basketball at Division III Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., during a winless season. In the last second of those five minutes, I threw a left-handed, behind-the-back pass to my friend Paul Stiegler under the basket. With that assist, we lost by only 105-53 to St. Olaf. I’ve been giggling about that for more than 40 years.

My girls have had their moments, too. Ella, for instance, was a co-captain of her high school’s state championship tennis team, a guard on the basketball team and was recruited by colleges as a crew coxswain. What I liked best, though, is that she was a co-captain even though she was the 14th-best tennis player and won the coach’s award in basketball as the most inspirational because, at 5 feet, she might have been the smallest varsity player in the state. Yet she chose to attend Davidson College for its academic record and now takes every conceivable spinning and boot-camp class.

All those years and all those games taught her leadership and moxie and perspective. Excellence is fine, to be sure, but laughing at the funny parts — the 105-53s and the 26ths out of 26 — is what kept our relationship sane.

This weekend, I am attending a lacrosse tournament in Maryland with Sylvia. I guess that is the way men like me should spend Father’s Day.



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What’s Really Behind Unemployment

I’m going to try to make a little sense out of the unemployment statistics from my vantage point in the American economy.

The stats show 9.2% unemployment, yet in my economic world most people are in hiring mode. Some people I talk to are looking for specific skills, like knowledge about CNC operation or screw machine set up, but even more are looking for people with a good work ethic and a willingness to learn and work hard. A few years ago it was all about recruiting skills, finding a disaffected person or enticing somebody with a fat package. Today it’s about teaching.

I was in a plant yesterday with a sign on the front lawn that said they were looking for machining trainees. They are getting a steady trickle of interested callers, mostly Hispanics and Eastern Europeans. They want to train them “their way.” The company is extremely busy, but reluctant to add more space in a high-priced neighborhood. They are squeezing in two more new Swiss CNCs in a week and want to beef up a second or even third shift. “We need to man up” the plant manager told me. And they want to do it with young people who they nurture.

I hear similar stories in manufacturing from around the country. People are generally not chasing high-priced talent. They prefer developing through the farm system.

I am seeing an enormous disconnect from the unemployed young and old who want to quickly become the “vice president of something.” Companies generally aren’t hiring managers. They want “producers,” or people they can quickly train into producers.

My theory about unemployment today is that we have millions of unfilled job openings and millions of people who want to be vice presidents, which is a bad fit. We also have a lousy construction industry with a million people who define themselves as being a member of the “building trades.” Another bad fit with no building.

Add to that the people who refuse to work for less than they think they are worth. Unfortunately the market is telling them that, at least today, they are not worth what they think they are worth. So they miss the jobs that have good upside, but do not fulfill their economic or status expectations.

Then there are the men in their 40’s and 50’s who have been out of work for months and years. They are angry and depressed and losing hope of ever working again. Unfortunately there are very few ads for sullen guys who expect 60K a year to assemble cars in Detroit (with a defined benefit package), or become sales managers.

The yahoos who write for the national newspapers still do not seem to get this as they blather on about unemployment. There are lots of jobs waiting to be filled, but they are not the vice president jobs so many think they want and deserve.

Meanwhile, the long-term unemployment benefits make it less onerous to be out of work, as the fruitless search goes on for the jobs that do not exist.

A small example — the technical work on this blog and Web site is being done by our excellent associate, Vincent, in the Philippines. One less computer tech job in Chicago.

When will people wake up and grab the opportunities to learn something new in an industry where there’s a need, like machining?

Question: Do you know people who are out of work but would not consider a factory job? Why?

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Hiring in the Woods

I read an interesting piece about the Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) approach to recruiting. There is a new tech bubble puffing up in Silicon Valley these days, and the competition for talent is fierce. When Facebook identifies a candidate they are hot for, Zuckerberg takes over the close. His approach is “the walk in the forest.”

Near the Facebook campus is a forested area abutting Stanford University. Rather than holding an office interview, the 27-year-old CEO asks the person he is interested in to take a hike with him through the nearby woods. You don’t turn down the boy billionaire’s request for a one-on-one walk. According to several Facebook employees who have done the trek, Zuckerberg listens and tells the recruit about his vision for the company. The walk takes a while as Mark points out the local sites, such as the Apple and Hewlett Packard campuses that are visible. At the end of the walk he says that Facebook will be bigger than any of the tech giants and he would like his fellow trekker to join him to help grow the company.

I love the story, because it shows that Zuckerberg is much more than the lonely geek portrayed in the movie The Social Network.

From my own experience “the walk” can be so much more effective in lubricating a conversation than an inside encounter. My wife Risa and I have often utilized the walk with a ground rule to develop dialogue. The rule is that for the first 15 minutes only one person can talk. The other is obliged to nod, or say, “uh huh,” or “yes,” but give no verbal interchange. After 15 minutes, conversation between the two of us is permitted. We invariably have fulfilling conversations on such walks.

Zuckerberg is a very shrewd young guy. We can learn from his active physical approach to recruiting. When we only color between the lines as we run our businesses or apply for jobs or try to make deals, we end up with predictable often disappointing results. People looking for jobs so often go through the motions of sending out cookie cutter resumes. If I am hiring, the applicant loses me at “To Whom it May Concern.” Why not send a video, or an interview transcript, or a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies?

Zuckerberg plays the game to win. He understands the power of the hike.

Question: What do you find to be the most effective way to find and hire good people?

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