(Sometimes) You Have to be a Jerk to Get Attention: March 12 2013

One of those “Aha!” moments at a business negotiation class: the irrational negotiator, often (not always) gets the better deal!

Imagine two race car drivers, who are heading towards each other, in high speed, where, if neither party veers off-course, both are destined to mutually assured destruction. No rational person would allow such an outcome! However, one of those race-car drivers will turn/veer allowing the other one to continue and win his course.

In this predicament, we even discussed the possibility of having a spare steering wheel during the race, that can be thrown out of the window, signaling to the other race-car driver that you have absolutely no control of the car; hence forcing him to veer off-course!

Look at the nations of North Korea or Iran today; the war-signals they are sending to the United States, is very similar behaving irrationally, akin to throwing the steering wheel out of the car!! History will tell one day, if they are bluffing or just acting desperate.

Sometimes, we are faced with such a conundrum at work – to behave irrational – so that people can’t take you for granted or be “predictable” on a day-to-day basis.
Once, at a negotiating meeting, with a senior-leader at a multi-billion dollar corporation, he threw a 30 page document across a long mahagony table, letting me know that he doesn’t care!! Definitely was a theatrical and dramatic move that got my attention.

In business life, often the dramatic, chaotic, noisy bullies get more attention than do the sober, rational, pleasant people. As leaders, we must always be aware of this situation and take measures so that bullies don’t rule the world. Once, one of my VPs would habitually start off every meeting with a negative statement. After cringing at his tirade a few times, he had to be confronted that this is unacceptable behavior and neither I, nor his peers appreciated this model.

Office Jerks

Sometimes, you just have to hold your hand up and say STOP. This behavior is unacceptable! Most of the time, this boundary-setting works; sometimes it creates a bit more chaos at first, but eventually the babble-rouser leaves or simmers down.
In my recent personal history, I have also experienced a similar outcome with individuals who want to raise hell, creating chaos in my life. They come attacking you like a jailed cat – if you don’t listen to their threats – they will create massive chaos and destruction in your lives and the ones you love.

In every instance, personal or professional, I have found that the last thing you want to do is pay too much attention to noise-makers; also you don’t want to be the completely predictable, “dull & boring” (D&B) bosses or partners. Not sure if it’s just our animal instincts, but people react and respond sometimes – when there is measured unpredictability! You don’t have to be a (complete) jerk – neither do you have to be a (really) nice guy; you have to find a delicate balance of both.

In a recent personal crisis, I took the helm of the situation, calmed everybody down – made difficult decisions and most importantly, shouldered the responsibilities of life alone – without help from anyone. At one point, my nicety was taken as a sign of weakness – and some people wanted me to take more responsibility and/or have just taken me for granted.

I have found, just by a “gentle” push back – majority of these situations can be corrected. At the end, there are fewer jerks you have to take on one-on-one in a confrontation. In that case, come prepared with examples, situations and your worst-day, bad-anxiety behavior. Hopefully, that rarely happens to you.

However much we try to remain leveled, and do the right, rational and fair thing – the world sometimes needs boundary-setting. As we try our best to accommodate every one else’s best interest, it’s also very important that we are treated fairly by others.

When the Toothpaste is Out of the Tube

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Recently, a student at my daughter’s high school, enquired about a particularly sad and strange incidence that was swooning over our family; Daiyaan quickly texted me, how disappointed she was that someone knew – and were asking her about the incidence. Also, that she (Daiyaan) just didn’t want to talk about it!

Accidents happen; sometimes, things that you don’t want to deal with, engulf you. In the larger storyline of life, the incidence itself, may or may not be significant; the question remains, how you deal with it, and what do you do going forward.

In our Twitter infested and FaceBook encumbered lives, everyone seems to know everything. Do you hide from the reality? Or do you confront it,  and move forward.

One of the lessons I have learned in business, once characterized as one of those Buffet Rules:  “When you put something down on paper, assume that the world knows .” In essence, put as little as possible down on paper (or electronic media).

Often, business leaders are concerned about sharing information that may/not be classified “confidential” with employees or customers.

Most things, we think are ‘confidential’ – everyone usually knows or have a good estimation; they may not know the exact details, but they have a good idea of what’s going on.I have always advocated business leaders to communicate clearly, with relevant facts, and be On Point.

Remember, “Less is More” when it comes to communication. Stick to the point and communicate often. Repetition can be useful in certain circumstances. Repeating the truth is a good thing – repeating otherwise only deepens the suspicion towards leadership and dilutes your personal brand.

Often, as leaders, we simply cannot respond to questions; there was a time, during an assignment, when significant HR issues were engulfing us every day.  Speculation, innuendo and rumor were floating all around us.  As leaders, both for legal and ethical reasons, we just cannot respond to questions about individuals or their behaviors. Staying silent is one of the more difficult challenges a leader faces during a crisis. When people ask me questions about sensitive matters, instead of hiding, I simply say that I cannot talk about individuals or confidential business topics. Usually, they stop asking.

In a very similar tone, when it comes to personal topics, I have found it useful to use the same tactic of staying on point and sticking to “facts” as the best way to get a message across. Often, people will call and ask me this/that and I change the topic of conversation, or just tell people that it’s really not appropriate to talk about this particular topic. Once, I had to tell a badgering “well wisher” that it was none of their business!

I have found, in crisis mode, most of your friends will not even bother you by asking what’s going on and will wait for you to share – whenever you are ready. This crisis may actually turn out to be a good test to see who are your true friends.

When Daiyaan wrote me the other day, about how to respond to this person, I asked her to smile back and just say, “you know, how sad and difficult it is”. This way, she has not shared any more information, and in a polite way, refused to engage in a conversation that need not be had.

When the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to put it back in the tube; try to brush to your heart’s content. Just stop squeezing the tube further!

Ending on a High Note: April 2012

Recently at customer service trainings, we discuss that, even the most irate customer maybe converted into your loyal proponents, if one works hard at having a good “final” experience with the people or the brand; It maybe an airline that loses your baggage, but treats you with respect and delivers it promptly upon receipt; it maybe the hotel that messes up your reservation, but upgrades you to a better room and gives you free breakfast! In both examples, one leaves feeling treated with respect and eventually forgives the mistakes.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about, both personally and professionally, how we often have  Difficulty with Endings  – but now I am even more convinced that life is a better experience if we let some things end – and end gracefully – on a high note.

I remember, a few years ago, when I was taking on a new role, my predecessor was having a really tough time letting go; we met at dinner the first time and he kept his arms folded all through, accusing others for the upcoming change.

Recently my teenager told me about one of her best friends, and how she has changed, and cannot be friends with this other girl who she was really close to, two summers away. This other friend, however, is having a very difficult time letting the friendship go.

Sometimes we forget that, other than biological relationships, or personally owned businesses – almost everything else, has a termination possibility. It maybe a role in an organization or a long-term relationship; in either case, the ending itself, need not be difficult. It is only as tragic, as we make it.

In many cases, an ending also means a new beginning – a renaissance of sorts – to start with new possibilities and opportunities.

Just like customers at an organization, many of us will only remember the last experience we have with someone. Sometimes it’s the last hug we give someone – at other times it’s just a strong hand-shake or a smile that says, thank you.

Ending on a high note, in a role in an organization, or in personal life, has many positive outcomes. I remember recently, ending a professional role; after my boss broke the news that my role was being re-organized,  I thanked my him for giving me the opportunity to learn with him for several years and have the privilege of serving with such a distinguished team. I truly had a great time working there, and carry on some amazing memories.

I have maintained tremendous relationships with many of my former bosses and colleagues, because, I have always tried to leave a role on the highest tempo! I know, going forward, that particular moment is something they are likely to remember for a very long time.

Whether in personal or professional roles, finding the right tempo and balance, when an ending happens, is tough; however, if we keep the long-term perspective in view, we realize that our lives, and experiences, are not a still photograph – its more like a multi-color series of videos all coming together masterfully. One must prepare themselves for endings – and more importantly, when that end happens, embrace it with grace and dignity.

Those who carry bitterness within themselves, or blame others for their own misery, carry a heavy burden of anxiety and worry. Life’s too short to carry such a burden. That burden eventually shapes our personality and changes our outlook to bitterness. If you read about Richard Nixon or watch the movie about him, you will see how his bitterness affected our nation’s political psyche, for a long time.

Gibran said eloquently in The Prophet, “If you love something, set it free if it comes back, it’s yours; if not, it was never meant to be.” Whether it’s work, or life, it’s all about letting things go – most things do come to and end; Let the end come to all of us in peace.

Relevant and Contemporary: February 2012

Recently, I remembered my first camera – a gift from my dad – back in the late 1970s, when I was maybe 10-year-old – A Kodak Instamatic – an original, that captured my imagination. Every time I see those fuzzy, non-digital shots, it’s overwhelming with emotions – that smell, the touch or the flavor of a certain time captured romantically through the lenses of this great device.

While the need or relevance of the photographic technology has evolved over time, Kodak, the corporation failed to contemporize itself over time.

Organizations that don’t re-invent their mission – their reason for survival – are bound to head the same way. IBM (and many other corporations) did an amazing job of re-inventing its mission and delivering on stakeholders’ value – reinventing their “buggy whip” to what people really want and need.

If you look at nature, there are many things that don’t need continuous re-invention or refurbishment to remain relevant or contemporary. The smell of fresh rain on grass, the froth on the crest of the wave, clean air, warm sunshine or timeless pleasure of your child’s laughter – derives happiness wherever, whenever.

A parent-child relationship, (typically) needs no re-invention. Somehow, you hurt every time you see your child getting hurt making the saying, “You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child” a reality.

Many other relationships, while relevant, may need re-invention or redefinition.  There are “reasons” and “seasons” for friends; school or college friendships are developed with a reason during a certain season. But as the school term ends, and there is not enough commonality of interest to keep us going, the friendships also fade away.

With advent of new technology, often, we hit the “Like” button to each others’ status’ or family photos on Facebook – but for all practical purposes, that’s the limitation of our “friendship”. I meet friends after decades and find that after a few sentences about where they live, or what they do – we struggle to maintain a dialog. To keep a solid bond of friendship, friends must also remain relevant and contemporary in each other’s lives.

Relationships, without maintenance and sustenance, feel the strains of time. With effort though, those common bonds can be re-energized, refreshed and rejuvenated for a very long time. True friendship, I believe, can have an infinite life-cycle! However, it doesn’t come without some work and effort.

Every time, I get together with one or more of my five high-school buddies, I feel like a child! We spent two years at Notre Dame College (Dhaka, Bangladesh) where we laughed, cried, fell and picked each other up. There’s something deep inside, that connect us in six countries in four continents. We may not exactly be relevant or contemporary at the moment we meet, but we quickly pick up where we left the last time and want to move forward into our new realities.

Like organizations, at the end of the day, our lives and relationships need to be meaningful or contemporary in the environment where we exist; one must recognize the current circumstances and renew the existing ties and bonds that enrich our lives.

After capturing the imagination of billions of people and helping us remind of our fond past, the name Eastman Kodak, may one day disappear from this earth; but with true commitment, we don’t have to disappear from the lives of the people who make a difference in our lives.

As I celebrated my 45th birthday rolled around this year, I received my first wish from a friend couple (Abdul Rahman and Fazilah Alauddin) in Malaysia. These two are special in my life because I met Abdul in college – and they became the first couple friend we had, early in our marriage. We met their extended families, friends and vice-versa. They are the Godparents of Daiyaan and we coincidentally arrived in Kualalampur in very early days of their eldest child’s life. We may not see each or talk to each other every day – but the memory of our times spent together remains fresh.

I want to keep connecting and contemporizing with my loving and caring friends, in London, Kualalampur, Istanbul, Vancouver, Dhaka or Toledo; as one grows older, it becomes clear that at the end of the day – our lives are nothing but a series of collective relationships.

To maintain these relationships, we must be willing to make the sacrifice – of time and energy – to stay in touch, to keep ourselves relevant and contemporary in each others’ lives. Sometimes it’s a holiday card, sometimes it’s a simple phone call, and if the opportunity arises a face-to-face visit. Whatever the circumstance, we must let our friends know how and where we are today. I realize that it’s a two-way street. I commit to do my part to remain relevant and contemporary.

The Most Difficult Answer: December 2011

Most people don’t realize that saying NO is the most difficult answer one has to deliver at any time.

Whether it’s to a child who wants to watch her favorite TV show during your particular sports broadcast, or as an executive of a company, saying “NO” to a particular (capital, acquisition or human resource) request, all NOs require, raising our blood pressure, feeling guilty, being upset and possibly sulking for hours after you have delivered the negative answer.

Why is saying NO so difficult? I thought two-year olds learn to say NO very early in their lives!

I believe it has something to do with our innate desire to be liked, loved, accepted.

I have a friend, who is so petrified to say NO, he avoids any commitment, sidestepping every answer; “Join us for dinner?” – the answer is, “I will try my best”.

In Arabic, there is the classic phrase, “Inshallah” (God Willing). During my decade of dealings in the Middle East, when a customer or a sales rep says that Inshallah the purchase order will arrive soon – you understand the low probability. They just don’t want to “insult” you with a NO – and resort to putting everything in the invisible hands of forces up there! – I am glad that my Western friends haven’t made many Arab friends to pick up this magical NO phrase!

Similarly, In Bangla, there is a clear phrase, “Shobi Allahr (or Bhogobaner) Iccha” (Everything is God’s Will). The phrase is usually accompanied by a circular hand-wringing and looking up at the sky!  I have heard stories of future father-in-laws using this phrase to deny the proposals of potential suitors for their daughter; instead of saying a direct NO, use this as a graceful Exit Strategy!

My sixteen-year old will sometimes ask for something that I just cannot bring her, immediately. I have a tried a few different tactics (without saying NO) with mixed success.

First, I try to rationalize, and negotiate; well, we can by the new Wii, if you are willing to come up with half the funds! Or, you can sleep over at your friend’s house, if you finish the essay that’s due next Wednesday. Inside, I am praying , that she can’t pull off a miracle and there just isn’t enough time or resources to complete my unreasonable request.

Similarly, at work, when someone comes requesting for more human resources for their team, I typically connect it with increased revenues. Show me the money, baby! If you can bring an incremental revenue base, it’s very easy to say YES!

It amazes me most, when executives will bring proposals that (they know) don’t pass muster – but they do so, just to hear that NO (from a higher authority) and then relay it back to their teams that “senior management” refused to invest in their idea! This way, they don’t have to say NO to their teams!! Come on, let’s grow up – my six-year old has better sense than that!

I have noticed that some days are just NO saying days; at the end, refusing to budge from positions, or denying requests for investment capital – my shoulders hurt – I am so tired that I have a hard time keeping my eyes open.

Recently, during a personal calamity, I was bombarded by “well-wishers” to do something that they firmly believed was in my best interest ! I could’ve taken the path of least resistance and succumbed to their urgings; but, it was eating away at my core to have to say NO to so many people! One stressful evening, I had to put an end to a twenty-two text conversation by telling someone to just stop harassing me!

Wouldn’t it be easy, if we could just say YES to all requests and could smile and agree to everything!

Saying YES, is easy and smooth like water. It flows without friction and heals cracked openings – soothing over hurt and pain.

But as an adult, a parent, a leader, or a just as a rational human being – we have to learn to say NO. I have a firm belief, most “normal” human beings don’t like to use the word NO; they have to say it to protect their own interests.

The important skill, I believe, is to learn how to turn the decision back to the requestor – by asking something back in return that is may even be bigger than the request they are making. At that point, the requester understands that there is absolutely no way to accomplish this mammoth task without changing course on their own.  So teach them how to process a “NO” more.

In our lives, the more we say YES, we are better off; let’s try to find ways to say NO less. The only way to make that happen is to teach others to say the NO first – that way the question/request doesnt even appear in-front of you!

The Lining of Silver: April 15, 2011

 

Accidents happen. Failure overcomes us. Tragedy churns our life into shreds of unnoticeable scrap. Still, at the end of the day, there’s always a Silver Lining. It’s called hope. Hope that shows us the light to something different. It may or not be bigger and better than what one possesses. But, the hope, gives you a light – a path to follow on your next journey.

Recently at work, we sold a multi-million dollar project to a multi-billion dollar international customer – the product not having been tested and approved fully. A large team of engineers and planners worked relentlessly to make the technology work. We had plans B, C, D through Z ready to launch, if the current action item lists didn’t work. The risk of failure was not acceptable.

After more than six months of gut wrenching decision-making, finally the project worked. While every day of the past six months, the team felt as if we were in a cesspool of sticky mud – unable to rescue ourselves, eventually things improved – and the project delivered on it’s expectations. All along the journey, there was a team of people, who didn’t believe that this project could be accomplished. Every excuse in the world was in front of us, why things would not work. The true heroes were a handful of people who persisted that the changes would work and we would overcome the obstacles.

It’s during these times, you see the character of your team and how they react to the level of uncertainty.

Similarly, during a recent personal calamity, a group of my friends and family kept advising me to abandon ship and move forward from my predicament. Then there were those, who advised me to hold steady and move forward within my current trajectory.

The only thing that keeps one going, in a difficult circumstance, is that silver lining – that hope, that things will get better – and the world will move forward. Maybe the topography of the world, as we know it, has changed, but still reason to look forward to a tomorrow – a better tomorrow.

This has to be the indomitable human spirit.

If you remember the Gulf Oil Spill about a year ago – or the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, you see examples of human perseverance to look forward and search for a silver lining that life has to move forward.

In our personal life-journeys, hope is all we have.

It would be very difficult to get out of bed every day, if we only pondered the disease, war or accidents that happen around us.

Instead, if we look at the smiles of our five-year olds when they splash around the pool – or beautiful, loving eyes of our fifteen year olds – and see the opportunities that God gives us every day –one must be grateful – one has to reach for that silver lining that makes life worth living.

Adjusting to A New Normal: March 20 2011

Sometimes, things just change. No notice, no reason.

9/11 changed our lives forever; it changed the way we travel, the way we think about business risk, the way we feel when we stand atop a sky scraper and look out at airplanes. It even changed the way we react when we hear of another Muslim/Arabic name when it shows up on the news, related or not.

That’s just the way life is. When things are going “good” – something will change the direction. Since 9/11, frequent travelers like myself, have adjusted to the way we travel – with or without luggage – how we carry liquids in our bags – or even, what we decide to eat or drink as we head out to the airport. Over time I have accepted that, it’s the new normal.

Recently, when the congresswoman Gabriel Gifford was shot, I felt really bad for her and her family. However, there is a part of me that was a relieved that the shooter didn’t have an Arabic name. There’s a part of me that just automatically cringes every time I hear an Arabic named in the media. I believe, this is the New Normal, after 9/11. After ten-years, it’s still tough to get adjusted to this New Normal.

Change is difficult to get used to. Business philosophers write numerous books on change, and how to deal with it, every year. However, at the end of the day, it’s really tough, when you are going through that particular change.

It maybe a job change, a life change – or a rule change that creates all sorts of negative emotions in our hearts and minds. I read in the book Sway (Ori and Rom Braffman, 2010), that the most rational beings (like a perfectionist pilot), can demonstrate the most irrational behavior (like trying to take off a Jumbo jet in the middle of a weather event), because some rule has changed (about the way he is judged on overtime hours). In broad view, it makes no sense. However, these irrational fears or negative emotions, can take over our minds and make us do some unusual things.

During a recent series work of negotiations, on a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract, the other party kept changing the rules on the negotiations every few days. It’s easy to get frustrated, while trying to change the dynamic in the negotiation. However, it’s important, in all aspects of life and work, to keep the long-view in mind. Once you keep the long-term context – it becomes easier to keep focused on what needs to be accomplished.

Having suffered through through illness, death, heartbreak and other personal difficulty, I can attest that it’s more difficult to keep oneself focused on what’s right for the long term, when the change has an impact on your personal life.

Emotions sway us even more widely, when the issue is personal; the external environment influences us more deeply. Friends and family feel obliged to give you advice on what to do.

At the end of the day though, one has to stay focused on the long term – what’s important in our lives. In our life-journey, we have to first accept that we have been dealt with this challenging New Normal.

We have to stop blaming others or the external environment; once that acceptance is there, we have to recognize that only we have the ability to adjust and change the outcome. The world can advise from the sidelines – but at the end of the day, they are just spectators – you are the only one playing the game. If you win, it’s your victory – if you lose, it’s your loss.

Someone sent me a text recently, Life’s like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you will find next; keeping that in mind, we must learn to discern carefully – make our own choices – and not try to engulf everything with speed.

Time heals, and we adjust and learn to live with that New Normal.