Observations from Antigua

We recently returned from our Rotary service project in Antigua, “Improving Education Through Technology” and I’d like to share seven observations, with a business lesson or tip with each.

  1. Observations from Antigua We had a meeting with the Prime Minister, his first question was, “What do you think is going on with Covid?” and I answered, “I think it’s about over. Omicron is much weaker, more vaccinations, and even the NY Times says there’s probably a high percentage of unvaccinated people with natural immunity they don’t know they have.” His response, “I agree but I can’t say that – yet.” Lesson, in government and in business there has to be a “need to know” policy. Not everybody in a business needs to know all going on.
  2. Antigua is a lifestyle country. Time and timeliness aren’t as important as in the hectic US (and other developed countries). This is not always a bad thing. There seems to be an appreciation for life not just how productive one can be. Tip, take the time to honor the cliché, “smell the roses.”
  3. You’d never complain about roads where you live after driving on the narrow, pothole filled roads in Antigua. The roads are like an airline hub system. To cross the island, you have to go north to a hub, south to another one, and then to your destination. A friend commutes from the NW corner to the SE corner, it’s not that far and it takes 45 minutes. She says, “You get used to it.” We can get used to a lot of minor inconveniences in life.
  4. Business is business, service is service, and education is education. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the West Indies or the USA. The basics are important. It’s just that in Antigua the time for the service is a bit longer than at home. But you get used to it.
  5. People are people. They have the same feelings, cares, and desires no matter where they live, their race, religion, etc. Treat others fairly and good things will happen. And on that note, while there I was emailing our cousin in Slovakia, about what’s going in the Ukraine. He’s about 4 hours (drive) from western Ukraine and 14 hours from Kyiv. He also does business (construction) in Russia, this has hurt his business, and his comment was he really feels for his Russian friends who are “normal people” being affected by this.
  6. Be careful who you take on as a partner. Antigua has signed on to the China “Belt and Road” program. More Chinese investment than ever including a massive embassy, with a huge part of it underground (wonder what they do there?). We’ll see what transpires. It could be great, or it could be like a really bad investor in a business, creating more problems than it’s worth long-term.
  7. Finally, a restaurant owner shared she has the same issues with finding good people as we have here. And she added, it’s also tough to get reliable provisions. No Sysco, US Foods, or others with regular deliveries. The day we had lunch there she opened late as she was driving around looking for the produce she needed. I’m sure she’d trade the higher cost of cucumbers (delivered) for the time, gas expense, and hassle of doing it herself. Reliable service and providers are worth it.

You’re Betting on Yourself

While having lunch with a client he said being a business owner means you’re “betting on yourself,” which is so true. It’s the same thing a salesperson will tell you, especially if they’re on pure commission or have a base salary so low it doesn’t mean much.

The above gives the impression it’s all about money. Money is important but it’s not the only thing. Here are five areas I’ve noticed are important to our clients and other owners.

  • Lifestyle – whether it’s being able to play golf a couple days a week or get in the office at 6 am and stay until 6 pm it’s the owner’s choice (usually). Having a management team that allows the owner to not work as much or only work on what they have a passion for is a key item.
  • Employee growth – at least 80% of business buyers I meet say they want to help build a team, help employees get better at their jobs, etc. Being a mentor is important to many.
  • Family – there’s the implied taking care of the family financially and often buyers will tell me they want a business many owners’ lament that their kids aren’t interested in the business.
  • Accomplishment – when you see your company’s product or service solve a customer’s problem it’s rewarding.
  • Creativity – especially for those coming out of a large corporation the ability to be creative with the product, marketing, sales, employee relations, and more is important. Small businesses often live on creativity and flexibility.

Our work is helping people bet on themselves, and that’s pretty rewarding also.

“Of all the arts, the art of living is probably the most important.” (Novelist) Deborah Levy

“As bad a dresser as I am, anything beats being judged by my character.” David Sedaris

Decisively Solving Problems (Without Overreach)

“I hate lawyers” was how a client answered the phone. No hello, hi John, or similar. Just, “I hate lawyers.” And obviously not referring to any of my good lawyer friends (the lawyers he referenced are in the Midwest).

So what brought this on? The lawyers were overstepping their boundaries. Wordsmithing little things back and forth, trying to make it their deal by changing deal terms, and painting a “doom and gloom” picture for every little issue. It got to the point the client would write things like, I know what you’re going to say [kill the deal was a common reply from the attorney] but I’ve researched it and understand the risk.

It brings up the question, what are you doing for your client or customer? Simply, all of us, whether it’s advice, a service, or a product are solving a problem. If we can’t solve the problem, it’s not the right situation (and a fast no is almost as important as a yes-we-can).

We do this by asking questions and know we’re on the right track when we hear responses like:

  • That’s a good question.
  • I never thought of that.
  • Interesting.

And the best response being, “You ask great questions that get me thinking.”

A product solves the problem or it doesn’t. Advisory work is different, you give advice, tell your client what to do, and hope they’ll do it. A coaching client told me she would ask the client which of two strategies they liked best and my response was she’s getting paid to give guidance not simply point out options. Tell the client what’s the best option and why.

Despite the opening to this memo, I really like the attorneys I know, refer to, and work with. Someone at some time has said the same thing about accountants, consultants, coaches, salespeople, engineers, doctors, and just about any other profession. Ask questions, listen, and give good advice.

“A day can really slip by when you’re deliberately avoiding what you’re supposed to do.” (Cartoonist Bill Watterson)

Random Holiday Season Thoughts and Information

Here are some thoughts and information as we head into a weird Christmas and New Year’s season.

Have you noticed the low winter produce prices? I saw a supermarket ad insert and realized while the supply chain has adapted there are still demand changes. With limited restaurant dining, there’s less produce being sold to restaurants, meaning there’s more supply for shoppers. Take-out meals usually doesn’t mean breakfast so that means suppliers sell less fruit to restaurants. I’m also guessing many people don’t order salads for take-out as often as they would if dining in. 

I haven’t worn a watch since mid-March. Really nice.

I know people whose businesses are thriving, others who are getting by, and some who’ve been decimated. One client had her customer base shut down by the closures, all over the country and internationally. Can’t sell product if your customers are closed.

Over the weekend I read two complementary articles on the virus and it’s spread. First, in the New York Times “The Morning” email the journalist gave three tips based on a survey of 700 epidemiologists plus conversations with other experts. The three tips are:

The top behavior to eliminate is: Spending time in a confined space (outside your household) where anyone is unmasked.

The behavior to minimize is: Spending extended time in indoor spaces, even with universal masking. Because masks aren’t perfect.And what’s less risky (the good news)? You don’t need a mask to go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride. Great advice on how to judge all of this: “If I had a birthday candle in my hand and you’re too far away to blow it out, I can’t inhale whatever you exhale.” Ninety percent of the epidemiologists had recently visited a grocery store, pharmacy, or another store.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Holman Jenkins, Jr. gave some similar advice in the Wall Street Journal. He summarized recent virus occurrences by noting all the hubbub about mask wearing has got us away from paying attention to safe distancing. Two of his best statements:

“it doesn’t matter how many of us wear masks if the young, who have the least to fear from Covid and are most likely to spread it unwittingly, aren’t wearing them.” 

“If you need to wear a mask to participate in an activity, consider not participating in that activity. Much of life and business can proceed normally while keeping 6 feet apart from those we love and those we don’t.”

I hope teachers are right behind health care workers when it comes to the virus. Kids need to be in school, they miss the interactions, many are falling behind, and it’s hurting families if a parent has to reduce hours or quit their job.

Online meetings are here to stay, especially for routine type meetings, but won’t replace in-person meetings where relationships need to be forged. I can see organizations like Rotary having a hybrid of in-person and online meetings. Not so sure about it for networking groups that thrive on getting to know each other.

Christmas will be strange (as will other seasonal celebrations). No big dinner with wrapping paper all over the floor. No post-dinner game sessions. No going from one house to another for morning presents.

I’m sure we’ll survive.

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” (Economist) Thomas Schelling

Passion and Emotions Win the Battle

I’ve been really into the Murder Book Podcast by Michael Connelly, author of over 30 mysteries and executive producer of the great series, “Bosch.” The podcast is about a 30-year-old murder that’s finally brought to trial, is filled with interviews with key people, wiretap recordings, and courtroom recordings.

Listening to the closing arguments, I was struck by three things and how those things can benefit all of us:

  • Passion was oozing from both the defense attorney and the prosecutor. There was no doubt about what they wanted, how much they wanted it, and what they would do to convince the jury, even if it meant stepping over the line and getting admonished by the judge. In business it should be obvious to everybody how much we like (love) helping our customers/clients.
  • This wasn’t TV where all the actors are good. This was real life and the defense attorney was a soooooo much better presenter than the prosecutor it was ridiculous. The defense attorney  sounded like a high-quality professional speaker. When listening to the prosecutor you hear a lot of “ah,” “um,” and “like.” It reinforces why we should know what we’re saying so we sound like an expert not someone making it up on the fly.
  • The emotional tug at the jury was based on facts. They both pulled facts from the case, added influence to them, and strove towards a compelling argument. In other words, they were like a good salesperson pointing out why what they have solves the customer’s problem (after asking questions to determine what is the actual problem).

To summarize, passion, presentation skills, and fact-based emotion will help all of us.

“Inviting people to laugh at your while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the fool, but you are the fool in charge.” Carl Reiner

Zooming Around

What have you learned from four months of intense Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Google Meetup, Amazon Chime, and other online meetings? Here are my thoughts.

Positives

  • Unlike the telephone, we get to see other people. And a lot of other people.
  • Also unlike the phone, we can make or view presentations.
  • There have been a lot of learning opportunities (and God knows we all have had the time).
  • They’re safe, unless you spill your coffee on your keyboard.
  • We can actually see nuances like facial expressions.
  • We get to be casual.
  • These meetings will replace some phone calls. I’d much rather have a Zoom call versus a phone call if we have to go over things for an extended time.
  • Most important, we can easily mute what’s going on and still look interested.

Negatives

  • Fatigue as in Zoom fatigue but it applies to all online calls. There can be just too many.
  • They take longer. A 5-minute call is a 20-minute Zoom, which would be 45 minutes plus travel if in person.
  • Connectivity becomes a much bigger issue than cell coverage.
  • There are some home-offices I just don’t want to see.
  • There are personal hygiene habits best not seen.
  • People talk over each other (just like they do in meetings).
  • You catch people multi-tasking and asking others to repeat themselves (pay attention the first time please).

Any other positives or negatives to share? Let me know. Seriously, these meetings are here to stay. They won’t replace the phone, especially calls while we’re in the car, walking the dog, etc. They surely won’t completely replace in-person meetings and get togethers. They’re another method of communication. 

There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of meetings, in-office versus remote work, and similar is divided by type of work. Those in tech and similar are convinced there’s not much need for offices. But you still have to build a relationship to get a client. Creativity doesn’t happen over the phone or online. Just a guess, but when hiring someone you may want to look them in the eye, in person. Even in construction, a relationship means they trust your bid and you don’t build six or seven figure relationships online. 

I paged through my membership directory for Seattle Executives and of the over 100 businesses in the group I only noticed a handful or so of businesses that can survive long-term without in-person contact. A new norm indeed and still a work in progress.

“I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.” (Comedian) Mitch Hedberg

Frustration Abounds

People are stressed. Covid has us wondering, frustrated, concerned, and for some, scared. And it boils over into passive-aggressive, snotty, and even mean behavior. And I’m not referring to those making it political.

How else to explain an email I received last week that said, “…if you were a real business you would have answered your phone.”

Okay, I get it. But just think, what if I was someone who could help this person? Or, someone who could buy something from their company?

I preach relationship, relationship, relationship to my clients. Don’t blow it before you have a chance.

Isolated Information May Equal Trouble

Some recent events have reinforced my belief that singular information can easily lead to the wrong conclusion. We see this in the news. A police officer makes a mistake, and some assume all cops are bad. A protestor (or protest hijacker) throws something, and some assume the whole group is bad.

Singular information in other parts of life can also get us off track.

I was looking at some of a client’s financial reports. Revenue and production efficiency should move together. If efficiency goes up so should revenue, and vice versa. But they didn’t; Efficiency was solid, but revenue went down. I found out the reason for this, it made sense but at the same time didn’t make sense. In other words, I now understand why it happened, but production efficiency shouldn’t be calculated the way it is/was. If all I did was look at one or the other, I’d get an incomplete picture.

The same goes for COVID cases. We are constantly barraged with the numbers of new cases. Just paying attention to the top line number can get you worried (it sure has with Washington’s governor). But if you look at the positive cases in relationship to the number of tests, you’ll see the numbers are up because testing is up. As per the Washington Department of Health’s website last week, the percentage of positive tests is (was then) at about half of what it was in April. Want to see the positive numbers go down, test less (that’s a joke).

Take this into account when you look at any business whether it’s to buy it, work there, or offer advice. It’s like peeling an onion. You peel until you get the right answer, whether it’s the one you want or the opposite. When it comes to buy-sell deals, you’re going to see a lot peeling. If sellers thought there used to be a lot of questions, they’ll now find their “onion” just got a got larger.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Time for Thinking

Recent weeks and months have been traumatic. In business June was the quietest for us in three months. As quiet to the first couple weeks of the virus shutdown. The disgusting murder of George Floyd on top of the virus sure has changed our lives. I’ve put a lot of thought in all that’s going on, done a lot of reading, and listening. About those disenfranchised by society and those whose businesses and lives have been ravaged by a virus and then by looting.

Bottom line: I can put up with our business being slow for a while (repeat, for a while) if it leads to the societal change we need. Because if change truly occurs it will benefit all of us in many different ways (not just economically).

For perspective, we have a son-in-law who’s a police officer. I had three or four high school friends become police officers, two very good friends; guys with whom I played rec softball and touch football. One of those friends was murdered at age 29 when he served a (rather insignificant) warrant, the recipient pulled out a gun, and put a bullet in his head. His partner would have also been murdered but the killer’s gun jammed.

At the same time, some of my best friends are Black. I’ve known people who have been “targeted” based on their race. It happens and I know because I’ve been on the periphery of it. While not nearly the same, a number of years ago we were in Scottsdale over New Year’s, I went out for an early morning walk around the resort grounds, and because it was about 40o I had on a sweatshirt with the hood up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a security guard on a Segway, and he was following me. Once he saw I was a white, middle-aged guy he left me alone. Hmmm, if I wasn’t would he have acted different?

I’m a believer in the 80-20 rule (sometimes more, sometimes less). In my opinion:

  • 80% (or more) of police are good.
  • 80% (or more) of protesters are well meaning.
  • 80% (maybe 98%) of politicians are in it for themselves not you or me.

So we know this stuff happens and it’s not from the good 80%. When I hear the president make comments encouraging violence against peaceful protestors it nauseates me. Just as it does when criminals hijack peaceful protests in order to steal and destroy. A destroyed small business will devastate the owner (see the front page of the June 4 Wall Street Journal about looting in small, minority owned businesses), his or her family, and the employees, who may have a hard time getting another job or getting unemployment given the ineptitude of the Unemployment Department, at least in Washington. 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to all of this other than to do our part and have more acceptance. On one of our Rotary projects in Antigua we were having a discussion and one of my (Seattle) friends said, “People are people. Some are fat, some skinny; some tall, some short; some smart, some not so smart, some black, some white, but people are people.” And that really sums it up.

Education is one of the foundational pieces and we can’t keep having such educational disparity. More education, less dependency on government assistance, and a better life for all as life in general and the economy are not zero-sum games. It takes all of us doing a little bit. Business is business and there are more important things in life.

“Hell is boiling over/And heaving is full/We’re chained to the world/And we all gotta pull.” Tom Waits

What Will People Hoard Next?

We must be in the minority because we eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Now we’re eating more than before the virus crisis and I’m reading that farmers are not able to sell their crops because so many people are buying primarily meat and shelf stable food (cans, dried, frozen). Just look at the (low) price of strawberries over the last couple of weeks.

More proof, Costco posts a list of items they are out of and last week it included milk and eggs (they had some but what they had would be gone by early afternoon the day we were there), and fresh chicken. The produce section was overflowing. 

On April 27 the Wall Street Journal had an article titled, “Farmers Forced to Destroy Their Crops.” This after an article the week before about farmers dumping milk and eggs. It’s not that there’s not enough food, it’s what people are buying and how it’s packaged. If it’s packaged for food service distributors the packaging won’t work in the grocery stores.

On April 28 the WSJ had a headline, “Overcrowded Barns Hamper Pork Industry.” There’s a surplus of hogs as well as cows and chickens given the virus outbreak in meat packing plants. Tyson releases a notice about upcoming poultry shortages, stores can’t get their usual supply, and people hoard what is in the store.

I’m guessing they don’t teach about this in supply chain classes. Of course, they don’t teach about common sense and the lack of it is what’s fueling the fire (hoarding). So, will the produce aisles be hit hard next when there’s limited meat? We’ll have to wait and see.

“The secret to be successful with a child is to not be its parent.” Mell Lazarus