Ladies and Gentlemen, Serving Ladies and Gentleman

 

Back when my kids were small, they loved watching the movie “Goonies,” circa 1985. I’ll never forget the sound of Sloth, the monster-looking character, calling out to the gang of young boys, “Hey, you GUY-UYYYYYYS!” I think of this whenever I hear a leader, trainer or professional speaker call an audience “you guys…”

First of all, I’m not a guy. When I’m in the audience and I hear someone in authority, a leader speaking from the front of the room or from the stage or at the head of a boardroom table, call us “you guys” it makes me think of a gang of little boys (much like the one in “Goonies”) huddled out back in a homemade fort, the one that says “Girls Keep Out!” There’s a familiarity about the expression that seems at odds with the message.

While I know the phrase is meant to represent the collective audience, “you” or “you all” in the plural, there’s something about addressing a group of professionals as “you guys” that seems off. Call me old-fashioned (go ahead, I dare you) but language matters. When we are speaking to an audience, unless they are under the age of 13 I think it’s important to address them as “ladies and gentlemen.”

My former boss Chuck Lauer, taught me that. He was publisher of Modern Healthcare magazine for more than 30 years and he was vigilant about the importance of etiquette in business. He used to refer to the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels and resorts: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” That’s also how he referred to his audiences whenever he gave a speech and I learned to do the same. He was the consummate speaker, a leader and a powerful connector of people. Chuck, affectionately referred to as “Chuckles” by those of us on his sales and marketing team, died April 30 at the age of 86, leaving a legacy of wisdom in his famous Modern Healthcare columns, his books and the many friendships that will live on.

So the next time you’re in front of a group, think about who they are and choose your words carefully. How you address people impacts how they see themselves and how they behave as well as how they perceive and respond to you. Chuck was fond of saying that good manners never go out of style.

Photo: Chuck Lauer addressing the sales teams of all of Crain’s publications based in the Los Angeles office in 2007 during a sales boot camp he and I designed with Teri Louden and delivered in LA, New York, Akron, Detroit and Chicago.

 

On Models, Mentors and Asking for Help

Nearly five years ago, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice. As the first Hispanic justice and only the third female justice, she has an extraordinary story of succeeding because of, and in spite of, her humble beginnings. I recently read her memoir, My Beloved World, published in 2013, and was struck by her unflinching report of who she is, who she was and how she came to be.

Sonia SotomayorOne passage struck me in particular. While growing up in the Bronx and attending fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament Parish School, Ms. Sotomayor began to thrive at school when her teacher, Mrs. Reilly, began putting up gold stars each time a student did something well. This really brought out her competitive nature. “I was a sucker for those gold stars!” Ms. Sotomayor writes. She vowed to bring home report cards that would have at least one more “A” than the last one. But a vow, she said, wasn’t enough. She had to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Learning study skills was not something the nuns taught at Blessed Sacrament and Ms. Sotomayor knew instinctively that the kids who were getting the highest marks knew something she didn’t. “It was then, in Mrs. Reilly’s class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique…” Ms. Sotomayor writes, skills that may seem obvious but “deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel.” Armed with these new skills, she went on to become valedictorian of her high school class and graduated summa cum laude at Princeton, going on to law school at Yale.

But here’s the real nugget of wisdom this story revealed: “…the more critical lesson I learned that day is… don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in any friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”

We learn through modeling others. Watching those who succeed where we yearn to succeed, seeking guidance from those who have been there before us and asking for help are critical to the learning process. Sometimes we remain stuck out of hubris, too proud for ask for directions. We think we have to look like we know what we’re doing! But that stops us from receiving the very instruction we need to get to the next step on our journey. Models, mentors, coaches, the buddy system–all of these relationships are strategies to help us on our road to success. And if it works for someone like Sonia Sotomayor, who says she continues to use this strategy even as she sits on the highest court in our land, it can work for us.

[Masthead: David Dyment, “One Billion Years (Past and Future)” color print, 2010, used with permission from the artist]

Management 101 Revealed at Downton Abbey

When I first heard the buzz about “Downton Abbey,” a popular Masterpiece Theatre series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Then I watched it–and watched it some more. Now I can’t wait until the stroke of midnight following the show on Sunday night because on Monday, it’s available online on PBS (we don’t have cable). For a while I was so smitten with the series that I tried to get my family to call me “M’Lady.” Alas, to no avail.

I’m not the only one who studies the show from another perspective, observing the relationships between the upstairs and downstairs characters for their lessons in leadership. Mark McKenna Little, a financial advisor who blogs regularly at “Mark McKenna Little’s Advisor PACT (TM) Blog” has written an insightful post “The Downton Abbey Service Model for Trusted Advisors.” In it, he confesses his own addiction to the series and profiles the people on the estate as employees within an organization which, in essence, they are. He also highlights a phrase that had caught my own ear after watching the show consistently: the staff, including the maids, the butlers, the footmen and valets, describe themselves as “in service.” That’s their vocation, their calling–to be “in service” to the aristocracy. With some exceptions (the nefarious Thomas comes to mind), the downstairs characters are dedicated to serving the Crawley family with commitment and devotion. Mr. McKenna Little delightfully dubs the domestic service staff “The Deliverables Team” and, indeed, that is their mission: to deliver. Whether it’s an elaborate picnic in the woods or the nightly meal with all its courses, the domestic staff/Deliverables Team are behind the scenes, making it all happen at the ring of a bell.

Mr. McKenna Little and I agree that those of us in the professional services field–financial advising, speaking, coaching, or any other type of service business–would do well to follow this Downton Abbey Service Model. The model as described in his blogpost delineates the keys to its success: an accepted team leader, process, high standards and accountability, integrity and, most importantly, an overriding theme that says “I’ll take care of it, M’Lord.” That last principle, the not-to-worry-I’ve-got-it-handled message, is summed up by Mr. McKenna Little as a single, overriding success principle: “Service is an attitude, not a process.”

Recently I spoke in Phoenix to the Summit Study Group, a collection of talented wealth management advisors who have formed a mastermind group to share best practices and hold each other accountable for their success. My topic? “The Joys of Strategic Planning.”  Many of these accomplished professionals already have some sort of plan in place and for some it was a new model. I outlined the simple model I use, emphasizing that all good plans start with a mission and a goal: To be of serviceFor financial planners, it may be to help their clients build the wealth that will give them financial freedom. For a speaker, it may be to inspire and motivate her audience to action so they can have a life they love. And for a coach, it’s providing the structure and support for clients to accomplish their own big dreams. At the heart of any professional services business is the goal to make a difference. And we can only do this by being “in service.”

I’ll watch “Downton Abbey” with a new eye, thanks to Mr. McKenna Little and his perspective of the Deliverables Team. And instead of feeling a wave of pity for those who appear to be indentured servants, I’ll think about my own service attitude and how that applies to my relationship with my clients. I’ll practice the art of making it all happen, meeting my clients’ expectations with that aura of effortless ease managed by the Deliverables Team.

Now, if I can just get my family to address me as “M’Lady.”

Swimming in Choices

We are swimming in choices. That can be a good thing–in fact, I named my business CHOICES Worldwide in order to emphasize the power of choice in our businesses and careers. The freedom to choose our vocations based on our unique gifts, talents and abilities is an awesome right and responsibility.

But the choices I’m talking about here are the overwhelming ones we experience in today’s marketplace. Think of your last visit to Home Depot: did you get dizzy just walking down the aisle? And if you’re out of your usual milieu, as I am at Home Depot, the multitude of options for things that I a) don’t know what they are and b) wouldn’t know how to use even if I did know what they were is mind-blowing. Even in an environment I understand, like Target, I can get that same sense of overload. Look at the toothpaste shelves–so many choices! Teeth-whitening, tartar-fighting, fluroride, sensitive teeth, mint, regular… sometimes I just grab one and run.

The abundance of choices and our freedom to choose may be overrated, according to Sheena Iyengar, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010). Dr. Iyengar and her colleagues have done research on the cultural implications of choice, why people make the decisions they make and what drives us to choose. Whether we’re choosing among toothpastes or making more sobering choices related to our careers, we overstate the role of choice in our lives.

In an interview from “Knowledge@Wharton,” Dr. Iyengar shares why a multitude of choices don’t always bring us what we want. “It turns out that we don’t always recognize our preferences even though our choices are supposed to be in line with them,” she says, citing research she’s done at the University of Pennsylvania. When asking seniors what they wanted in a job at three different intervals, the students changed their answers along the way. In the end, the correlation between what they said they wanted at the beginning of the experiment and what they got when they graduated in May was “utterly non-significant.” And the people who remembered what they originally said they wanted were less satisfied with the job offers they had accepted. “Maybe there is some truth to [what our grandmothers told us, that] happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but wanting what you got,” Dr. Iyengar says.

The pursuit of the American dream is based on some assumptions—that our choices are limitless, more is better and choices affirm our individuality and freedom. But the work shared by Dr. Iyengar challenges these assumptions. She cites instances where, given too many options among financial products, employee participation in a 401(K) plan dropped 15%. Overwhelmed by options and exhausted by the volume of choices we make in our lives, we become disengaged. And this can have a powerful impact on us, not just as consumers baffled by 24 varieties of toothpaste but also in our role as business leaders.

Past research has shown that employees report greater job satisfaction when given a high degree of choice. A recent article, “Tiptoeing Toward Freedom” in Columbia Business School’s “Ideas at Work” blog, reported that Dr. Iyengar and graduate student Roy Chua conducted experiments to test how giving employees autonomy and decision-making latitude can impact their perceptions of managers as leaders. Those leaders who offered their employees limited (my emphasis) choices—“some options, but not too many”—were seen as more effective. Too many choices, however, gave employees the perception that their leaders were not as competent or conscientious.

In this high-tech, 24/7 world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices we have to make. Whether you’re thinking about what’s next for you in your career or choosing from a menu, save your brainpower for the choices that matter. And when it comes to toothpaste, grab a box and run.

Note: Some parts of this blog were originally written for and published in the First Illinois Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) Chapter newsletter, First Illinois Speaks.  

Everything I Need to Know in Business I Can Learn from Liz Lemon

Thanks to my Netflix addiction, I’ve had the pleasure of watching all seven seasons of “30 Rock.” The show stars Tina Fey as the creator and head writer of a TV show that highlights bad talent and fart jokes, and I admit that “30 Rock” is an acquired taste. But the development of its ensemble cast of characters has me smitten with the writing and, more specifically, with the character of Liz Lemon.

Watching Liz grow into her role as a manager, squeezing scripts out of her insubordinate writers and wrangling her wayward actors, has me thinking: Everything I need to know in business, I can learn from Liz Lemon.

Leadership. There’s an episode where Liz is reliving her college days and revels in the memory of her first two weeks. She was inadvertently assigned a spacious dorm room with handicap accessibility and for those blissful two weeks, her room was Party Central. She became intoxicated with her new-found popularity. But then the dorm room mistake was discovered, and she settled into a smaller room and ultimately into her role as R.A. (resident adviser), reviled by her peers. In the same way, Liz learns she can’t lead the cast & crew of her TV show and always be popular. She has to make tough decisions that may compromise her friendships. The role of a leader is sometimes lonely, and there are boundaries.

Mentoring. Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, is Liz’s boss, an ambitious but lovable executive who takes Liz under his wing. Their relationship evolves and grows into a friendship, and Liz learns to appreciate Jack’s guidance. She also asserts herself, with mixed results. Jack allows her to fail, teaches her the art of negotiation and continues to mentor her along the way–even if his advice is sometimes warped and often Scotch-induced. A mentor provides the space for his protégée to succeed and to fail, asking “What did you learn?”

Authenticity. Liz Lemon is, above all things, authentic. She admits to her weaknesses (food, a lack of fashion sense and a fondness for scatological humor) and doesn’t try to be someone she’s not. When she writes a best-selling book called “Deal Breakers” that has a chance of evolving into her own talk show, Liz has a complete melt-down after an ill-fated make-over. The talk show is scrapped and Liz goes back to doing what she does best–being head writer and creator of TGS. Successful people know who they are and show up that way, consistently over time.

Some of the things I love most about Liz Lemon are the endearing way in which she calls her writers “dummies,” her crooked walk and, above all, her willingness to admit her nerdiness. She isn’t a glamour-puss and she doesn’t wear designer clothes and stiletto heels. Her pedigree isn’t from Harvard: she got most of her training at Second City in Chicago. If a woman like Liz (and her real-life counterpart Tina Fey) can make it in a nearly all-male world wearing glasses and flat shoes, then maybe there’s hope for other aspiring business women. Maybe it’s all about being ourselves.

 

(photo credit: www.nbc.com)