Sunday, February 28, 2010

For Good Or Ill: Singular Focus Is The Key to Dominance

Watching the Olympics reminded me of what it takes, not to be successful, not to be the best, not to be great, but to be dominant in any endeavor.

That dynamic? Singular focus.

Whether it is dominant Olympic athletes like Shawn White and Apollo Ohno, professional athletes like Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky, or the dominators of business and investing like Steven Jobs, Warren Buffett, and George Soros, a common factor among all of these is singular focus.

My experience in dealing with business leaders for more than 30 years leads me to believe that a lot of people have talent; a few are even creative, but only a handful have combined talent and creativity in the crucible with the rarest of ingredients -- singular focus.

This is why most companies try but fail in their relentless attempts to transfer the focus of their CEOs to their employees. Simply, singular focus is not a group activity. It is highly individual and few, if any, employees who work for a paycheck share the focus of their leader. If they did, they would be the leaders, the creators, the dominators.

The fact is, for good or ill, most people have varied interests in their lives and their focus changes based on circumstances, age, economics, family, and personal avocations. This is not bad. It is not good. It is just the way it is.

Indeed, some say the highly successful, those that have this thing called "singular focus," are actually more narrow and limited as human beings, if only because their interest is on their sport, vocation, or avocation to the exclusion of everything else. The "everything else" in their lives is sublimated to their focus. While oversimplified, we see it every day. Does anyone believe, for example, that Steven Jobs ever took his mind away from the creation of new Apple products even when he was fighting one of the deadliest of all diseases -- pancreatic cancer?

Such is the yin and yang of greatness -- the overwhelming desire and ability to focus on one goal over a lifetime, combined with copious amounts of talent and creativity. This is what leads to domination of sports and of markets, but it does not come without a price. By definition, singular focus eliminates other possibilities, and requires one to forego the richness of varied life experiences associated with a panoply of other interests. To borrow from the Olympics again, look at some of the great figure skaters. It is all they have known since they were toddlers. Many of them, like Andre Agassi in tennis, live long enough to resent the cost of the singular focus that made them dominant in their sport.

The practical implications of this observation, if true, are many. One that comes to mind immediately is the dynamic of "leadership." It is often boxed and sold on the assumption that the singular focus of one is transferable to another. While that concept continues to sell, it is not true. It has never been true. Indeed, most leadership gurus are just modern-day snake oil salesmen. What they are selling continues to sell not because it works but because people want it to work so badly they will suspend rational disbelief.

The best "leaders" can accomplish is to communicate their focus in a way that their employees understand and believe is in their own rational self-interest, admittedly different from the interests of their leaders. And that can be effective. But it is, and will always remain, qualitatively different than the fantasy of transferring one's singular focus to another.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Break In The Action . . .

When not working with employers to make their places of work better places to work, to maintain their non-union status, I become the "#1 Puppy Helper" at SAMM (Save A Mexican Mutt.) Indeed, we just finished a round trip from San Miguel de Allende to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with six dogs going to their forever homes. I get a little testy on a 26 hour drive and sometimes wonder why go to the effort.

And then, just when I need it most, comes a story like this from a family who has changed lives and whose lives have been changed. It reminds of the importance of Kelly's work on behalf of SAMM and her tireless efforts on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Read the story of "Valerie" at

Moral of the story?
Take a break from time to time and find something more important to do than make a buck. It helps put life into perspective.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Becker Said Not To Get Recess Appointment

The Huffington Post just reported:

Craig Becker, the president's nominee for the National Labor Relations Board who was filibustered by the Senate this past week, will not get the recess appointment next week that union officials were hoping. Instead, his nomination is either dead or put on hold until the next Senate recess at the end of March.

Obama: Unmitigated Disaster for Organized Labor - So It's Back To Organizing The Old-Fashioned Way

Organized labor is not happy, not at all.

From the Washington Post:

“For American labor, year one of Barack Obama’s presidency has been close to an unmitigated disaster. Labor’s primary priority — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — died when the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate. Labor’s normal priority — a functioning National Labor Relations Board — also seems out of reach, with Republicans on Tuesday blocking the appointment of Obama nominee Craig Becker (that’s why Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown scurried down to Washington last week to take his seat).”

From the Las Vegas Sun:

“But with that battle stalled in Washington, experts say unions feel even greater pressure to preserve the bread-and-butter elements of collective bargaining. “Right now, most labor unions in the United States are in a defensive mode trying to protect past gains,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “All across the country, unions are concerned the door will shut closed on pension plans, that health care benefits will be whittled down. The unions are trying to protect the issues they know resonate with unorganized workers.”"

From the Washington Examiner:

“As Stern made clear during the 2008 campaign, he and other labor leaders expect a handsome return on their partisan investments. [...] Despite heavy lobbying and incessant sympathetic coverage in most corners of the Mainstream Media, though, Card Check stalled months ago. Stern and his buddies now are reduced to hoping Card Check might be slipped unobtrusively into another bill that Congress can pass.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“His supporters at the SEIU saw an opportunity to run around Congress, which has so far failed even to vote on Big Labor’s dream of a “card check” law that would make it much easier to organize. [...]The message from yesterday’s cloture motion is sobering for the White House and its union allies. Support for their antigrowth agenda, from universal health care to easier unionization rules, is collapsing on the Hill almost as quickly as in the country at large. Political overreaching has consequences, too.

From CounterPunch’s piece entitled A Dagger in the Heart of Labor:

Just when organized labor had entered the seventh and final stage of the grief cycle—after having witnessed the death of the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), they’d already passed through shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt and depression—they get dealt another crushing blow, this one in the form of Craig Becker, Obama’s nominee to the NLRB, being denied confirmation by a hostile congress. The Becker rejection could hurt even more than the EFCA (“card check”). Why? Because Becker’s chances were infinitely better than those of the EFCA, which, beneficial as it would have been, remained broken down in the driveway.

So, what is labor to do?

For now, it is back to the drawing board and back to organizing, the old-fashioned way. Petitions for elections filed with the NLRB are up dramatically in the last several months. So, while EFCA may be off the table for the moment, employers are still subject to being unionized -- the old-fashioned way.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are We Character Models or Just Characters?

Received this link from my good friend, John Gallagher. It speaks to what managers, what leaders, should be.

My CEO Scrapes My Car

It is in modelling character that employees learn what kind of a culture they are working within. And the CEO is always the best model for defining a culture.

In a phone call with a friend this morning, he shared a story from his new job. The first thing he said was, “You know how you build expectations around a leader, the executive and the people with whom you work prior to entering a new role? Often, once you are in the role reality doesn’t meet with expectation. This one is completely different. The flavour of the culture is such that I was excited to work for these folks, and now that I am experiencing the reality – it’s even better than I expected.”

Wow, we don’t hear that very often.

He works for a family owned business, but not a small business by any stretch of the imagination. They have over 450 employees and the two folks at the top are the founder and his son. The following story embodies the cultural flavour of their company and why his experience is even better than anticipated.

Snow had fallen during the day and my friend took a glance out the window from his new office. There in the parking lot was the CEO and his son, second in command, walking out of the building carrying brooms and scrapers. The two of them began brushing off and scraping the windows of each and every car in the parking lot. There are 450+ employees! When my friend questioned another employee about it, he was told they do it every time it snows.

What a gift! I must admit the anticipation of having to clean off and scrape a single car after a long hard day at work is not appealing – but to come out and have it done for me would be a beautiful act of kindness I would not soon forget.

My friend finished his story by saying he believes each and every executive would ‘take a bullet’ for the CEO. I would imagine that kind of trust, respect and consideration is strongly felt by each one of the employees. What a leader – taking the role of model and lead so seriously that giving time and action to his employees equals the importance of managing the business itself.

Are they a successful business? Indeed they are, and for good reason – the CEO cares to trust and believe in the people he is privileged to lead and he understands there is a two way street, giving as well as receiving.

People follow a leader based on their actions, not their words.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Becker Goes Down In Flames -- But Will He Be Resurrected By A "Recess Appointment?"

As expected, Obama's left-wing nominee to the Labor Board, Craig Becker, went down in flames.

All Republicans and two Democrats (Nelson (Neb.) and Lincoln (Arkansas) supported the Republican-led filibuster.

But, it's not over yet.

Rumor is the President is less than happy about it and may do an end-around with what is called a "recess appointment."

What may that be?

Article II of the Constitution allows the President to appoint nominees to vacant federal positions when the Senate is in recess. The appointment is valid until the end of the next session of Congress (typically until around the end of the next calendar year). After that, the president would have to resubmit the nomination.

The Senate will begin its Presidents Day recess on February 12th (as in 3 days from now.)

By adding Becker as a recess appointee, the Labor Board would have three members and be able to decide matters that they cannot now decide with just two sitting members of the five person Board.

A lot rides on it . . .

Nelson Supports Republican Filibuster of Becker to NLRB; Game Not Over Yet

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announced Monday evening that he will support a Republican-led filibuster over President Barack Obama's controversial nominee, Craig Becker, to serve on the National Labor Relations Board.

This is another example of a Democrat making an "adjustment" for re-election purposes.

Senate Democrats need 60 votes, one more than they control since Scott Brown of Massachusetts was sworn into office last week, to clear a GOP procedural hurdle to advance Becker to final Senate confirmation. That procedural vote had been scheduled for Monday but was postponed until Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see if it occurs at all in light of Nelson's defection.

Democrats like Blanche Lincoln are probably breathing a sigh of relief since they may not be put into a position of supporting a far-left wing (some would label "radical") labor union proponent to the National Labor Relations Board.

Is the game over? Not hardly.

The White House, however, is not out of bullets yet. The President could wait for the Senate to recess and the President then nominate Becker as a "recess-appointment" which would put him on the Board until next December.

It shall be interesting . . .

You can read more at:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Small Business and The Average Employee Still Wonder Where The Recovery Is

Companies with fewer than 500 employees helped lead the economy out of the last four recessions since 1980. After all, they have created almost all of the jobs this country has gained for the last 30 years.

But not this time. The the contrary, small businesses continue to cut capital spending and dismiss workers, eliminating another 3,000 jobs in January.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, "because few economic reports capture small-business statistics, some economists say investors are being misled about the strength of recovery from the longest, deepest recession since the Great Depression."

And why isn't small business hiring?

Easy. No business. The consumer remains strapped and is staying home.

And why is that?

The answer to this is the most disturbing part . . .

Because the average American worker hasn't had a raise in about 30 years on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Chris Ferrell, in a BusinessWeek article entitled, U.S. Wage Growth: The Downward Spiral," summed up the problem like this:

The income story in America is deeply troubling. Inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers (a category that encompasses 80% of the workforce and leaves out higher-paid managers and supervisors) rose by an anemic 0.1% a year from 1979 to 2007, according to the EPI. A potent combination of economic and social forces has conspired to keep wages down for most workers with the exception of a brief period of white-hot economic growth in 1995-2000 . . . .

The traditional relationship between productivity improvements and higher wages has been severed. Productivity growth is the fundamental building block of better living standards. Wage growth and productivity growth usually move in tandem, but no longer. During the expansion of the 2000s, productivity jumped by 11% while median hourly compensation went nowhere.


Whether and when we pull out of the economic doldrums remains very much a question -- at least to the little guys.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Unemployment: Taking Off The Rose-Colored Glasses

The Wall Street Journal touted the reduction in unemployment from 10% to 9.7% in an article entitled, "Signs Of Hope As Jobless Rate Dips."

Sounds good to me.

But as a perpetual cynic, especially when it comes to anything the government tells me, I looked into the numbers and the truth isn't nearly so easy or pretty, but here it is anyway:

- 20,000 jobs were eliminated last month.

- Revisions to last year's data found far more jobs were lost over the 12 months than previously predicted.

- One reason the unemployment rate improved is the post-Christmas seasonal adjustment; without seasonal adjustments the rate would have risen to 10.6%, not fallen to 9.7%.

- The primary reason the unemployment rate dropped is because it excluded from the "unemployed" those who are so despondent that they have stopped looking for work. Yep, the rate also went down because the total population seeking work dropped more than unemployment itself. The way the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures it, if you are not “actively seeking work” for 4 weeks, you disappear. You simply don't exist.

- 1.1 million discouraged workers were not counted as unemployed because they are not currently looking for work, mostly because they believe no jobs are available for them, and another 1.5 million people are not unemployed, not because they found work but because they did not search for work in the last 4 weeks. They disappear, too.

- There are now 2.5 million people without a job but want one, yet are not counted as unemployed.

Another way to look at the "hopeful" government numbers?

1. Removing the seasonal adjustment pushes the real unemployment rate to 10.6%.
2. Including the discouraged workers sends it to 11.2%.
3. Including the ones who haven’t looked for four weeks sends it to 12%.
4. Throwing in the underemployed sends it to 18%.

The view of a cynic? Or just a realist who never trusts government numbers?

I suggest you not put on your party hats yet . . .

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Any Employer Who Ends Up With A Union Gets It Because They Deserve It

I learned that adage from Sam Lang, a mentor from many years ago, and one of the finest labor lawyers of all time.

Employers paying minimum wage and near minimum wage, who don't provide any health insurance and who scrimp on even the most basic displays of appreciation are going to get organized by a union, sooner or later.

I recall one client of whom I was very fond. I got a call from a manager who told me the HR Director had cut out the employee bulletin board (on which funny employee photos were posted) and that his employees were not happy about it. I called the HR Director and asked him why.

"I've been told to cut my budget. The photos for the board were costing about $20 a month."

I was staggered by his nonchalance and told him, "If you don't put the photos back into your budget I'm calling your boss. One of us won't make it through the day. My guess is that will be you."

He reinstituted this low-cost "benefit" which employees valued and appreciated. It was the only 15 minutes of fame most of them would ever know.

Now, from Ft. Worth, Texas, an article about a Starbucks' organizing effort.

It was exactly one week before Christmas, which is Starbucks' busiest time of year. More importantly, the store manager, Lindsay Karsh, had declared it Partner (Employee) Appreciation Day. In past years, Partner Appreciation Day was when the manager would use company money to purchase pizza for all the workers as a sort of holiday gift right before Christmas. This year, on top of cutting hours, delaying raises, forcing baristas to work with H1N1 (“swine flu”), and disrespecting workers, the store manager decided to save the store money and made the day a potluck. Workers—who are struggling to survive and are making just above minimum wage—were forced to buy their own food in order to participate. The entire store was furious and not a single worker participated in the potluck.

The article concludes: On Dec. 18, 2009, four brave women baristas of the 8th & Rosedale Starbucks in Ft. Worth, Texas, declared their membership with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union (SWU).

Now, I'm not sure if any of that is true, but if it is true then this Starbucks deserves exactly what they're going to get - a union.

Empathy is more than good humanity. It is good business.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Becker Passes Muster With Committee; Now Waiting on Republicans and Possible Filibuster

A Senate committee approved Harold Craig Becker for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, February 4, the 13-10 party-line vote.

The question now: Will the Republicans block his controversial nomination with a filibuster next week?

The Republicans’ ability to halt Becker now that Sen. Scott Brown has been sworn in, changes the political landscape.

Becker is seen by many in the business community as an academic radical -- one who has said he believes employers have no role in whether their employees bring in a union. He has also indicated in the past that the Labor Board could effectively mandate card check without any action by Congress.

In the hearings on his nomination, he backtracked on this but business is not convinced.

The issue is whether the Republicans view Becker as being a big enough issue to use the filibuster to kill it. We should know next week.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Labor's "Secret Weapon" In Trouble

Democrats were ready to seat Craig Becker, a union lawyer working for the AFL-CIO, to the National Labor Relations Board. It was a done deal . . . until Scott Brown showed up and demanded to be seated. With Brown, the Democrats lose their supermajority in the Senate.

But the fight over Becker, a labor activist, who has written that he believes employers have no part to play in whether or not their employees are represented by unions, is not over. He likewise has intimated that card check could be implemented by the Board without the necessity of legislation.

Confronted with his earlier writings, Becker reversed positions saying that card check would have to be accomplished by legislation and professing that he would be "practical" while serving on the NLRB. That would be a first and unlikely considering how hard labor leaders are pushing his nomination.

The question is whether the Republicans are up for filibustering Becker's nomination. After being unable to pass card check legislation, Big Labor is going ballistic about the likely failure of Becker's nomination. According to Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, labor leaders are "fuming" since Becker's nomination to the head of the NLRB was supposed to be considered while Democrats still had 60 votes.

And it would have happened that way but for delays engineered primarily by Sen. John McCain (R-Ari.), who pushed consideration back. Now a full Senate vote on Becker will not take place before Brown is granted a vote.

More to come . . .