The Empathy Void: Politics, Business, No Difference!

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Presidential election season is filled with interesting leadership lessons, voids and learning opportunities. One word comes to mind when I think about Leadership


According to our good friend Google….



1.  the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Pretty basic.  And arguably such a lacking trait among leadership, politics, and society in general.
Election season brings out a host of topics where our leading candidates, in one form or another seem to be devoid of this thing called EMPATHY.  Pick a topic….
  • Economy

  • Minimum Wage

  • Immigration

  • National Defense

  • Budgets/deficits/planning

Ask yourself:

Does the leader have any REAL, dirt under the nails experience with the topic at hand?  Or are they just trying to figure it out “on the fly?”

Who has more credibility on a given topic, the leader that has lived through it and therefore can articulate a vivid story of experience, or the one that simply pontificates to the audience affected by it?
I wouldn’t consider myself a political junkie by any means, but it is hard not to be tuned into national politics.  At the very least, you can certainly learn how NOT to behave in a leadership situation by observing the daily discourse.
At it’s core, EMPATHY is about “walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.”  Too many leaders have not done this, and they are at a severe disadvantage when leading their troops.

There’s something to be said for the Old School Leader, those that have started at the bottom and worked their way up.  This does not need to be a CEO, it could be a supervisor that manages 10 people in an organization of 150…..if they started at the bottom and worked their way up, I’ll put my money on them.  As long as they have a memory so they don’t forget where they came from!  

A leader with a healthy dose of Empathy is not guaranteed to succeed.  But it sure does tilt the deck in their favor.  How do you know if they have it?  

  • They demonstrate it.  They talk about what matters, the people surrounding them.  
  • They talk with admiration, passion and great detail about what it means to win, how they did it, the critical role of people and their “coaching” role in the process.  
  • You start to view them as someone that can do the job of the people they are being asked to lead.  Because they have done that in the past, and haven’t forgotten where they came from.  

When searching for the Empathy Trait, a close cousin of Empathy should emerge at some point:  


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April Fool’s Day Matters

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Today, I knocked out a post on my company blog on April Fools day:

April Fool's Day

Here’s the gist of it….

People at work flat out don’t laugh enough.  I mean REAL laugh, that takes oxygen, makes the ab muscles hurt.  With other co-workers.  That’s a crying shame.

I’ve often wondered why WORK is a viewed as a 4-letter word in way too many places.  Maybe, because far too many companies….

  • Value results over people, when people actually DRIVE the results.

  • Have cultures that value rules/process/protocol over individuals and diversity of thought.

  • Maybe they don’t value results at all, but value face time, politics and the people that conform to a certain mold?

Regardless of the reasons, April Fool’s Day is a reminder to not take oneself TOO seriously.

When you think of your most trusted, approachable people you’ve dealt with in business, do they take themselves SERIOUSLY, or not so much?  

I would argue the people that play lose, both with themselves and others tend to have an extra bounce in their step.  They become magnets for people to confide in, to trust.  Other functions in an organization seek them out over time.  

And dare I use a political metaphor, but people will “cross party lines” to be around those that don’t take themselves too seriously.  

April Fool’s day is a reminder to take it easy.

But everyday is an opportunity to Laugh.  To laugh hard, and laugh often.  At the very least, life is too short not too.

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The Growth Challenged Player: Warning Signs

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Most leaders like to talk about growth.  Few will do what’s necessary to make it more than a concept.

There are plenty of reasons for why businesses don’t grow:

  • Industry is flat to declining
  • Too many financial constraints (tight margins, leverage, lack of capital for investment)
  • Lack of talent
  • Competition is dominant

The list can be endless.  But at it’s core it is more basic than business constraints.

Growth begins and ends with INDIVIDUALS and their ability to grow themselves.  

This is ESPECIALLY the case if you happen to work in one of those “non-sexy” businesses that are tied to industries that measure growth in single digits vs double or triple digits.

For leaders wired for growth, there may be no MORE frustrating profile than people that are simply unable or unwilling to grow THEMSELVES.  If those people are in a key role, this can not persist for long or something will need to “give.”

Many people are not ready for dynamic growth.  Why?  It isn’t easy.  It creates CHANGE.  Some people flat out struggle with change.

There are clear warning signs for people that will struggle with a growth orientation.  One or two aren’t a problem, but if the person starts checking off multiple warning signs, leaders better be prepared to have a difficult conversation.

The “Growth Challenged” Warning Signs

If they are Growth Challenged…….they very well MAY:

  • LOVE their routine.  Same route to work.  Same activities.  Same check-list.  Same closing time.  Same starting time.  They value ROUTINE and the certainty it creates OVER the uncertainty of change.  Challenging routine is a no no.

  • Invest VERY LITTLE in themselves.  No books, newsletters, You Tube videos, courses, etc have been consumed and assimilated in MONTHS trying to take their game up a few notches.  Because that is a break from routine, or countless other excuses not to grow (no time, too busy, etc).

  • Never make noise.  Never involved in conflict that results from trying to push the envelope, get better, break things, bring people together and build a team.  Sometimes rumbles are good.

  • Always involved  in the same conversations, vs developing new ways to conquer new paths.

  • Stuck to old processes that worked in a stable world but add little value in a dynamic world.

  • Defensive when receiving feedback.  As if their purpose is to protect their own image vs. figuring out how to grow.

  • Never SEEK feedback.  Too risky, or why bother?

  • Don’t ask for help when they hit road-blocks.

  • New challenges always need to be handled by someone else…..

  • Cling to the past and may even question the fundamental premise of growth: “Is this even better?”

There are natural skeptics in the world, or people that like to play devil’s advocate with every new idea.  That doesn’t mean they are anti-growth.  These could be some of the greatest assets in building a growth mindset in companies.  That’s not what the growth challenged player is about…

Leaders need to understand if their players are capable and WILLING to grow.  

If there are multiple warning signs, they need to have a difficult conversation that makes the concern clearly known.  These are not conversations where you sugar coat.  If Growth is important and a key player exhibits anti growth tendencies (and multiple warning signs), they need to clearly understand this.

The leader has a choice if they do not want to confront the warning signs with the Anti-Growth Players:  Don’t confront it.  Continue to be frustrated.  Give yourself a nice little barrier on your marathon.  ANKLE WEIGHTS.

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The Myth of a “Functional” Family or Business

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Fact:  When humans are involved, rarely will a textbook rule the day.  People will often

  • Act irrationally
  • Not do their homework, and shoot from the hip
  • Fail to look in the mirror for the cause of a problem or its solution
  • Not play well in the sandbox
  • Throw a fit, inwardly or outwardly.
  • Work great in isolation, terrible in teams.

In other words, the PEOPLE part of a business (or families) is often the hardest part to get right.  And it’s also the most important.  They will also do the opposite of the above if you create the right culture.  

Easier said than done.

Here’s one thing I remember growing up.  A term came to light, usually around divorce or family issues: “Dysfunctional family.”

Dysfunctional family

It’s a hard label to get your brain around, especially if you might consider your’s dysfunctional, but lets save that for another day.  Here’s something worth pondering:

Do you know ANY business (or family) without some challenges?  Struggles?  Drama?

I do not.  In fact, it seems that DYS-functional is the norm, not the exception.

If you believe that, why don’t we just accept the fact that dysfunction, or people problems…..

  1. Exist.  Whether we like it or not.
  2. Are manageable, but they won’t manage themselves by accident.  Business is a CONTACT sport.
  3. Can actually be a positive catalyst for change, if they are embraced vs. run from.

There’s a reason why Reality TV has found a niche and is not going away:  Human Behavior is fascinating, somewhat unpredicatble, and is downright entertaining.

Some of the worst spent “energy dollars” in business is put towards CURBING dysfunction rather than embracing it.  Wearing it like a badge of honor.

Many may be thinking “sounds like chaos!”  Maybe.

Or maybe, Leaders should think about….

  • The Human spirit, aspirations of the individual, and all the perils it creates, and how best to deal with it.

  • Emotion really isn’t a 4 letter word.

  • Conflict is not a bad thing.

  • Blow-ups happen.  Sometimes they are ugly.  Public.  Ever see the real housewives of NJ?  

  • Sometimes houses get knocked down intentionally and re-built with a new design, open floor plans and new fixtures.  But rarely, will a person knock down their own house and re-build it.  Sometimes, but rarely.  New owners are usually the re-builders.

If you accept the fact that a degree of “dysfunction” driven by natural human behavior exists, than leaders have clear choices to make.

  1. Embrace a Dys-functional reality.  Create a culture that celebrates “natural behavior”, in it’s rawest form vs. punishing it, as long as the values and forward momentum continue…..

  2. Spend significant time, money and energy trying to “mandate” or encourage what acceptable behavior is.  Reward it when you see it.

I’m not one for false choices and this isn’t meant to be an either or.

Time, money, and great talent are in rare supply at most businesses.  Spending any of the three going against the grain of the human spirit is like swimming against the tide.


Want an “animalistic” sports analogy?

I wrote “When Teams have Each Other’s Back” in May ’13.  You can watch the video below as well.  Any die hard Yankee Fan will tell you that the teams of the late ’90’s were very different than the team’s since.  In many ways, their talent was LESS.  But they had each other’s back like no other, and their results have never approached this teams achievements since.  This brawl illustrates it.  The boss (owner George Steinbrenner) had to be smiling seeing his players come to the aid of each other, in a fierce way.  Simply put, they wouldn’t stand for one of their own being put in jeopardy.  That’s what a team is all about.

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A Call to Leaders: Learn From Our Moms on A Mission

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What’s the most powerful motivator for a business?

  • Financial Results?  Incentives that follow?
  • Ownership/Equity shared with key players?
  • Caring/Serving others?
  • Achieving a businesses “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal to credit the great Jim Collins)?
  • Fulfilling the businesses “Mission”?

The fact is I’m not sure.  But one thing I’ve been flat out stunned by one of the most powerful forces on the planet.

A Mom on A Mission

This force is not gender specific, it’s the “Mission” that is the key point.  A higher cause, beyond what your trying to do TODAY.

I first started to believe this in 2013, and I wrote about “Moms on a Mission” and the passion & effort to bring Best Buddies to Memphis, TN by couple of go-getters in Memphis.

It hit me again this month, same community of intellectual disabilities, but this time government is brought into the fold.

Congress passed the ABLE Act (Achieving a better life experience) in early December.  But what hit me is the following.

  • It was a landslide vote:  404 For, 17 Against.  When does Congress EVER unanimously support a bill to that level?  
    • Senate passed 76-16 too.
  • It wasn’t overnight.  8 years of frustration trying to get this bill passed.  Not 8 months.  8 YEARS.

Note:  I was proud to be part of a lobbying trip to DC about 6 years ago where Down Syndrome local affiliates from across the country to meet with their representatives.  Humbling and energizing, all at the same time.  Our democracy flat out works, with all of its problems.

A shout-out to another Mom on a Mission, Jawanda Mast, one of  the strongest advocates I know.  Jawanda personifies what HUSTLE is all about, and her journey is captured beautifully on her blog.


How many businesses would endure 8 years of rejection, sunk costs and countless denials for all of that effort?  Not many.  Businesses always cut their losses beyond some point.

Moms on a Mission…..people with a cause flat out never give up.  They will work until their last waking hour to get something done when OTHERS are at stake, not themselves.

In the case of Best Buddies & The passage of the ABLE act, both causes happen to be communities that aim to provide a better life for those that can use a little help.

Change for any disadvantaged community does  not happen by accident, as there is no free market incentive system built into our society that enables a kid to be included in the classroom, the Friday night pizza party, or a chance at a job or saving for college.  This type of change requires people that are driven by more than the almighty $.

Enter Moms on Mission.

The very few businesses that tap into the spirit of these 2 examples would be flat out unstoppable.  Who wouldn’t invest in those kinds of businesses?    

Getting people to work beyond their SELF-interest may very well be the Leadership challenge of the century.

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Thoughts on Building A Company With Heart

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I was a bit surprised when one of my colleagues said they were “dreading asking me for a half day off” a few weeks ago.

“What’s the big deal, we’ll survive the few hours right?”

Like most initial reactions, when you reflect with a little time that passes, you can relate a bit better.  There’s a lesson in that alone for all of us e-mailers!

A quick story of the past before going into the role of a leader…..

I often reflect on my fantastic 8+ years at Monogram Foods which I certainly consider PIVOTAL in my life, for a couple of reasons.

  • I started at the age of 31.  Enough experience and boundless energy to make a difference, but maybe too young (never thought I’d say that) to put relevance on anything big picture related.
  • My first child Hope was  18 months old, also a turning point in my life.  Becoming a parent is big for ANYONE.  Hope was born with Down Syndrome (DS), we wouldn’t change a thing about her.

The fact that Hope DOES have DS, meant I was opened up to a new world, a world where I needed to understand communities that may need a little extra help.

My wife and I divide and conquer very well.  She focused on direct care of Hope (school system, therapies/medical, etc) and I focused on the outside world (local community, fundraising, businesses, government to a degree).  We of course came together at the big points in both worlds.

What happened with me?

  • I joined the local Memphis Down Syndrome Affiliate as a board member.  Our goal was to improve/empower the lives of people with DS and their families.  Lots of ways to do this, and all can’t be done at once, and all of it requires time and money.

Back to motivation in business…..

  • We needed a place for board meetings.  I went to my boss and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I use my company’s conference room.  I kind of felt like my colleague asking me for a half day off.  I wouldn’t call it dread, but there was certainly “butterfilies.”

My boss’s reaction?  “ABSOLUTELY!  Make sure everyone helps themselves to the soft drinks too.”

While I wasn’t surprised at his support (as solid a person as they come), I WAS elated that the reaction was an “open arms” invitation to the organization.

It sent a message:  “What’s important to you, is important to us.”

That continued.

  • I asked if we could donate hot dogs to annual awareness/fundraising walk.  They sent a crew to cook them.  And we invited the entire company, and they showed up in droves.
  • They donated.  And if you’ve ever asked people for donations, you know how difficult that is.
  • When I went to DC for a couple of days to lobby in support of the community?  They were waiting at the coffee pot wanting the run down of the experience.  Taking precedent over SEC Football reviews is big.
  • The list goes on….

This wasn’t just my boss/President of the company.  It was my team members on the exec team (I considered them like “brothers”).  The team I was honored to lead.  The plants.  High and wide.

In short, MY journey with Hope and the DS community became their journey too.

I wasn’t the only lucky one.  People’s life journies/stories became part of the culture.

Fast Forward to Today, where we work to create something great beyond Monogram….

The lessons and stories I tell as I build a company elicit a common reaction:

  • “Well you WERE a VP you know!” as if to say “rank has its privelages.”

Fair response, if you believe that leadership level determines HEART.  I do not believe that.

Another learning lesson:[Continue Reading…]

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Branding Case Study: The Prize of Emotional Connection

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Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts

image credit:

I’ve always been a Starbucks addict.  The brand has been part of my daily routine for about 15 years and I bet I’ve been the first ring at 5:30am more than 100x’s in over 4 locations in 3 states.  In short, I’d consider myself a loyalist.  The routine stopped in March 2014 when I moved to NJ to acquire LM Foods and there just isn’t one between Pt. A (Gym) and Pt B (company).  The experience has let me learn a few things as my Venti Black Dark Roast went bye bye…..

I’ve become what marketers call an “experimenter.”  Open to new experiences.  A coffee Swinger if you will.  In general, Dunkin Donuts probably gets 75% of my coffee $’s, but that is probably falling to 1/3 fast.  For me, they are not Starbucks for a variety of reasons:

  • They simply haven’t figured out the “Third Place Concept” and the vibe that goes with relaxation.  I think I’ve taken advantage of the Starbucks leather seats <10% of the time.  But the vibe, even if I only feel it for 90 seconds matters.  Life is hectic, and escapism matters.  
  • Dunkin can’t seem to understand that selling 2 day old bagels is not smart.  And they make this mistake often, and when you tweet them about it?  Black hole, no response. Why bother having a Social presence if you fail to engage?  
  • Dunkin is one of the great franchises in America.  But you simply never know what kind of experience you will get when your greeted by your Dunkinista (is that a word?). When I’m one of the first customers showing up when its still dark outside, and am on trip #30, shouldn’t you know who am?  

There’s a funny thing that happens when a Brand does not earn an EMOTIONAL connection with its consumers:  They start to wander.[Continue Reading…]

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The Brutal Reality of The Truth: Unavoidable.

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“You Can’t Handle The Truth!”

One of the great 3 minute segments of cinema history.  Can’t beat Jack!

Delivering the Truth can be brutal, harmful to one’s ego and self esteem.  But it is a leaders obligation to shoot straight with people.  

Jack Welch refers to it as “Candor.”

My previous company had a different spin on Candor:  “Candor Done Right.”  

The “Right” part was the critical piece.  Shoot straight, but don’t be a jerk about it.  It is a skill indeed.

What’s missing from the workplace however is not the “done right” part, it’s the lack of Candor to begin with.

  • Performance issues

  • Attitude problems

  • Missing deadlines

  • Not doing what they say they will do

  • Not having an edge, when an edge is needed.

All require Candor.  Straight Talk.  Telling it like it is.

If you have to chose between shooting straight with someone (and risk hurting their feelings) vs. avoiding a difficult conversation, SHOOT STRAIGHT.  Failing to do so is more cruel to the person than confronting issues head on.  

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Training: Step 1 is to Prime The Pump For Results

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Training, like most words in business conjures up various images:

  • Class Rooms
  • Work-books
  • Certifications
  • Boot Camps
  • Lectures

I think of training in 2 buckets:

1)  Formal

2)  In-formal

The bullet points above are formal.

Formal, structured training certainly has its place in business.  There’s a tendency for senior management to expect immediate results or a “spike” in productivity, like some type of sales promotion increasing sales in the short-term.

In-formal training is where the action is.  It happens off the cuff.  Spontaneous.  Un-predictable.  Free-flowing.  Back and forth.  Sounds a bit like everyday life doesn’t it?

If you want to know how the lion lives, don't go to the zoo, go to the jungle.


The purpose of any training program needs to be about growing people, and then as a result, business growth becomes easier.[Continue Reading…]

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Working Towards a 2am Friend…..In Business

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In February of 2014 I wrote a post on the holy grail of relationships:  The 2am Friend.  Who would you call at 2am if you were in a real bind, stuck on the side of a road 100 miles away from home?  Or some other bind where you cringe picking up the phone and only 1 or 2 people come to mind.

Bill Cosby tells the story in 6 minutes as only he can.

“Friend” is a loaded word these days, and with Facebook it has been marginalized in my opinion, but that’s another story for another day.

Friend generally applies to life OUTSIDE of work.  Sometimes the lines of work and life outside of work merge and they become one.  Many people have very strong philosophies to not socialize with work colleagues, keep lives separate. I personally believe that is very difficult to do, although I do see the logic.

Here’s the thing that’s worth noting with the 2am friend concept:  Why would it NOT apply to your critical WORK relationships, become something worth striving towards? 

Said differently, if work is a critical area of our lives, as it is for everyone, do you have a handful of genuine 2am friends?  The key word is GENUINE.  

Sometimes business gets messy when authority structures make relationships a bit more complicated.

A trusted colleague of mine painted a picture of the future with me a while back.  She said “you and so and so can work to be 2am friends.”  It’s a sentiment that brought a very big smile to my face, as the person is a critical component of our success.  And truth be told, it left me a bit uneasy.


I have not managed the relationship where 2am friend status is possible.  Productive relationship?   Yes!  2am level?  Not even close.

Sometimes it takes a simple conversation and a look in the mirror to step up your game.

Every business has a handful of people where IF a 2am relationship was achieved, results, satisfaction and fun would simply soar through the roof.  I have been fortunate to have more than a handful in my career.  

The reality is that people run through relationships like they are running to the next meeting:  Cordial.  Efficient.  Respectful.

The 2am concept is different.  A 2am friend would move heaven and earth to fight for you, even if you have conflict…..which always exists in business.

Like most leadership principles on Hustle or Bust……the first step towards the 2am Friend in business is a look in the mirror on what YOU control.  Then take appropriate action to change your future, and the future of those around you.

What if all leaders identified who are those (very few people) they need 2am status with?

Then they look in the mirror and ask if they are doing their part to move in that direction?

Great relationships, like most things in life do not happen by accident.  


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