Diamonds Abound

As we plow in to the New Year with an uncertain economy, and troubling world events I am reminded of an excerpt from Earl Nightingale’s Lead the Field. I find it inspirational and thought I would pass it along to you. I hope you are finding the New Year prosperous.

In 1843, a man was born who was to have a profound effect upon the lives of millions of people. His name was Russell Herman Conwell. He became a lawyer, then a newspaper editor and, finally, a clergyman. During his church career, an incident occurred that was to change his life and the life of countless others.

One day, a group of young people came to Dr. Conwell at his church and asked him if he would be willing to instruct them in college courses. They all wanted a college education but lacked the money to pay for it. He told them to let him think about it and to come back in a few days.

After they left, an idea began to form in Dr. Conwell’s mind. He asked himself, “Why couldn’t there be a fine college for poor but deserving young people?” Before long, the idea consumed him. Why not, indeed? It was a project worthy of 100 percent dedication—complete commitment.

Almost single-handedly, Dr. Conwell raised several million dollars with which he founded Temple University, today one of the country’s leading schools. He raised the money by giving more than 6,000 lectures all over the country, and in each one of them, he told a story called “Acres of Diamonds.”

The story is the true account of an African farmer who had heard tales about other farmers who had made millions by discovering diamond mines. These tales so excited the farmer that he could hardly wait to sell his farm and go prospecting for diamonds himself. So he sold his farm and spent the rest of his life wandering the African continent searching unsuccessfully for the gleaming gems that brought such high prices on the markets of the world. Finally, the story goes, worn-out and in a fit of despondency, he threw himself into a river and drowned.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or farm, in this case, the man who had bought the farm happened to be crossing the small stream on the property. Suddenly, there was a bright flash of blue and red light from the stream’s bottom. He bent down, picked up the stone—it was a good-sized stone—and, admiring it, later put it on his fireplace mantel, as an interesting curiosity.

Several weeks later, a visitor to his home picked up the stone, looked at it, hefted it in his hand—and nearly fainted. He asked the farmer if he knew what he’d found.When the farmer said no, that he’d thought it was a piece of crystal, the visitor told him he’d found one of the largest diamonds ever discovered. The farmer had trouble believing that. He told the man that his creek was full of such stones—not as large, perhaps, as the one on the mantel, but they were sprinkled generously throughout the creek bottom.

Needless to say, the farm that the first farmer had sold so that he might find a diamond mine turned out to be the most productive diamond mine on the entire African continent. The first farmer had owned, free and clear, acres of diamonds, but he sold them for practically nothing in order to look for them elsewhere.

The moral is clear: If only the first farmer had taken the time to study and prepare himself—to learn what diamonds looked like in their rough state—and, since he had already owned a piece of the African continent, to thoroughly explore the property he had before looking elsewhere, all of his wildest dreams would have come true.

Each of us, at this moment, is standing in the middle of his or her own acres of diamonds. If only we will have the wisdom and patience to intelligently and effectively explore the work in which we are now engaged, to explore ourselves, we’ll usually find the riches we seek.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

A Billionaire in Gardener’s Clothing

When I was in High School I had a small business selling and servicing swimming pool cleaners. In the early 1970s a robotic pool cleaner that operated unattended was a cutting edge technology, and I was the sole distributor in the Greater Cincinnati area for a company out of Florida that invented and manufactured these little gizmos. It was by far the easiest item I ever had to sell. They were such a novelty at the time they sold themselves.

My clients ranged from the upper middle class to the very wealthy. One Saturday afternoon I had an appointment to demonstrate my product to the second wealthiest man in Cincinnati. As I drove up to his estate in my yellow 1965 Ford Falcon I noticed what appeared to be the gardener at the front of the main house. Hunched over in the bushes with his tattered shirt and a Camel cigarette hanging from his mouth, he seemed only mildly interested in this visitor in the yellow car. Because my dad always taught me to treat everyone with dignity and respect, I stopped in front of the man with the dirty face and said, “Good afternoon sir, sorry for the interruption, but I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find Mr. Heekin?” He said, “What do you want him for?” “My name is Mark Loschiavo, and I have an appointment with him about a swimming pool cleaner” I answered. His response startled me when he said, “I’m Herb Heekin, and I’ll take it”. “Nice to meet you Mr. Heekin, but you haven’t even seen it yet”, I stammered. “Young man, you treated me like I owned this place, even when you thought I was a hired hand. I admire that. I’ll buy the damn thing even if it doesn’t clean my pool?”

I went on to sell him a pool cleaner that day, and in the weeks and months that followed I sold—or more accurately he sold—many more of my pool cleaners to his friends, family and associates. Remember to treat everyone you encounter with dignity and respect. You never know when you may be talking to a billionaire in gardener’s clothing.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

The Puzzle

One day this man’s daughter came to him and said, “These puzzles are no longer challenging enough for me. I want you to find for me a puzzle that is really difficult.” So dad purchased a three dimensional puzzle. While that presented a bit more of a challenge, the puzzle was quickly completed, and his daughter said, “Dad, you can do better than that!”

After searching to no avail for a more complex puzzle an idea came to him, and he said, I will find you a puzzle tomorrow with less than 100 pieces that you will not be able to put together.” She said, “Bring it on, dad.”

The next day, the daughter spent the entire time at school in great anticipation. When she got home she ran into the dining room, where she found what looked like a puzzle with relatively few pieces. This was a puzzle she knew she would be able to assemble before evening’s end. Under dad’s watchful eye, she smoothed the puzzle pieces out on the dining room table to begin. Then she said, “Dad, give me the box top so I can get going on this thing.” That’s the catch”, he said. “Your challenge is to put together this puzzle without a picture of what the finished product is supposed to look like.”

After giving him that look only a daughter in high school can master, she set out to assemble the puzzle. After several frustrating attempts over what seemed like an eternity she said, “Dad, how am I supposed to put together a puzzle without having any idea what the finished product is supposed to look like?” After giving her a look that only a dad with a daughter in high school can master he said, “You said you wanted a puzzle that would be tough for you to do.” Her response was, “This is stupid and I don’t want to do it anymore.”

As leaders, how often do we give out similar assignments? We tell those we count on that we need better results. Maybe it is more revenue and profit. We tell them that they have to do better next year than the year before—that they have to be faster, smarter and more competitive than anyone else out there—but we do not articulate a clear plan for how to get there. A good business plan is much like the box top of a puzzle. With it, everyone on the team knows what success looks like when achieved, providing a clear guide along the way.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

Staying in the Moment

During a trip to Italy I was reminded of a difference between Americans and Italians. While walking the streets of Rome I witnessed people engaged with one another in discussion and fellowship both day and night. I saw it in and around the restaurants, the squares, the fountains and on the sidewalks. Time seemed to take on a different meaning.

The Greek language has two different words to describe time. One provides the root for our word chronology, and describes time from the perspective of moving through time. The second refers to time as a moment—a good time was had by all. What struck me as I walked the streets of Rome is that Americans all too often view the things that happen to us on our way to our destinations as distractions or things we must endure along the way. To most Italians these distractions are what life is all about.

Upon further reflection I have come to believe that successful leaders have the ability to capitalize on both elements of time. The first is obvious. Through strong organization skills and the ability to prioritize, effective leaders are able to accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time. While not as obvious, the second is even more important. By being in the moment, and remaining receptive to those we encounter along the way, we can gain a great deal. In addition to developing stronger relationships, being in the moment opens our minds to take advantage of the serendipity that surrounds us. By keeping our eyes open to the possibilities of our everyday encounters we might just find solutions to our toughest problems.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

Connecting the Dots for Innovation: What does beekeeping and architecture have in common?

There was once an architect attempting to design a commercial office building that would provide a comfortable year-round work environment without the need for a traditional HVAC system.  In his quest he met with the best minds the world of architecture had to offer.  He also embarked on a seemingly endless journey through architectural journals and reference materials.   After exhausting all possible industry resources, he decided to look elsewhere.

He remembered a conversation he once had at a social event with a beekeeper, and decided to seek him out.  He learned that there is a species of bees that requires the hive to maintain a constant temperature in order for the queen bee to be productive.  In order for the hive to maintain a constant temperature at the center of the hive–the queen’s residence–the worker bees go through a process of constructing and deconstructing cell walls throughout the hive at different times of the day.  These changes in the cell walls change the flow of air such that the air temperature in the queen’s residence stays constant.  Upon learning this the architect hypothesized, “I can design a commercial building with retractable walls, that open and close at different times, in order to maintain a constant temperature?”

Psychologist argue that creativity often comes at the intersection of two or more different domains of knowledge.  In an interview with Wired Magazine in February of 1996,Steve Jobs had this to say:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Being a successful innovator requires hard work in two areas.  First, you have to become expert in the industry in which your product or service plays.  Secondly, you have to open the aperture of of your mind enough to learn as much as possible about the world in which we live.  It is not a coincidence that inventors and innovators are “naturally” curious people.

© Mark Loschiavo

Starting With Common Objectives May Be Overrated

Most would agree that when trying to develop effective strategies to drive transformative change it is helpful to start with agreement regarding objectives.  After all, if we are each working toward a common objective, how hard can it be to reach agreement?  Look!  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.  It’s a Debt Ceiling!

The current debt crisis in the U.S. provides ample evidence that starting with common objectives may be overrated.  I would like to believe that there is a common objective to which every member of Congress can agree.  Oh, I don’t know.  How about something like, “we all agree we would like to maintain a AAA bond rating?”  The problem is that finding a common objective that becomes the common denominator is often too far removed from strategies to be useful.  Said differently, the more abstract an idea, the farther it is from concrete strategy or policy.

Over the past two days I was involved in a strategy advance (as opposed to a strategy retreat) with a group of my colleagues at Drexel University.  At the beginning of the first day the facilitator asked each of us to reflect on past meetings or strategy sessions that were particularly productive.  She then asked us to recall if there was an essential ingredient that made it successful.  Upon reflection, I settled on one ground rule that I feel is essential–complete transparency of objectives.

While it is not necessary that we start from a common objective, it is essential that we be honest and transparent regarding our objectives.  Said differently, there should be no hidden agendas.  Often, facilitators argue that everyone must check their egos at the door.  One can check one’s coat at the door.  One can check one’s purse at the door.  One can even check one’s smart phone at the door.  But it is very difficult to check one’s ego at the door. Even if we could, it could prove dangerous.  All those very large egos would likely block the exit, creating a fire hazard! Furthermore, our passion, creativity, drive and intellectual power is often fueled by our egos. How transformative would our strategies be without passion, creativity, drive and intellect?

During those two days, I witnessed a diverse group of very bright, passionate, creative people working together in an energetic and collegial fashion to tackle tough issues toward positive, transformative growth.  As a result, we were able to celebrate the victory of a great start on a long journey.  One reason for the success is that we established realistic ground rules up front.  Not the least of which was to ensure complete transparency of objectives.

© Mark Loschiavo

Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys

In a conversation with a colleague earlier today I was reminded of a phrase I have heard repeated over the years—feed the eagles and starve the turkeys.  At first glimpse this phrase may seem harsh and uncaring.  After all, aren’t we called to help those who are less competent?  Aren’t the strong supposed to help the weak?  Quite simply, no!  Not if it makes the strong weaker.  Not if doing so makes it more difficult for the strong to produce.

If the overachievers in an organization become hamstrung by blanket restrictions, budget cuts, or increased taxes, which are often the result of the mediocrity or failure of others in the organization, it stands to reason that total production will drop.

If this argument holds, why do organizations refuse to allow this logic to inform their decision-making during times of crisis?  An obvious answer is that it is much simpler to declare an across-the-board cut.  That way we can offer platitudes like, “everybody is being asked to tighten their belts.”  Sadly, I think the answer is more insidious than that.  I think it is based on the fallacy of CAN and WILL.

The fallacy of CAN and WILL is based in the faulty logic that because overachievers and high performing teams CAN produce more than others with the same resources, they WILL do even more with even less.  What makes this logic so dangerous is that it feeds the turkeys and starves the eagles.  In a backhanded way it rewards mediocrity by not holding it fully accountable.  Moreover, instead of rewarding overachievement it discourages it.  Why pull out all the stops to run a lean operation if it is not going to be recognized?  Why go to all that trouble only to be hamstrung?

Turkeys often store fat in preparation for a cold winter.  Eagles carry little, if any, fat.  If you are heading into a cold winter of crises, it would be wise to keep your eagles well fed!

© Mark Loschiavo

Perpetuating the Myth: The Tall Eighth Grade Entrepreneur

I was recently contacted by a columnist asking me for examples of, and connections to, successful entrepreneurs under the age of 20.  As the executive director for the Laurence A. Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship at Drexel University, I frequently receive similar request, but this one got my dander up.

I embrace the idea of celebrating the entrepreneur.  One of the things I enjoy most in my role at the Center is celebrating the entrepreneur.  As a society, we need to celebrate the entrepreneur.  They are as important to the 21st Century as John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Tom Watson, Sr., and J.P. Morgan were to the 20th Century.  Today’s entrepreneurs will drive the change, growth and prosperity for years to come.

So, being asked for successful entrepreneurs didn’t bother me.  What bothers me is the relentless desire to write about the successful entrepreneur under the age of 20.  Such articles might increase readership, but they do little to encourage meaningful entrepreneurship.  Instead, they are perpetuating a myth, equivalent to positing that all young people should drop out of college so they can start a Dell Computer, or Microsoft.

Instead, we should be celebrating the entrepreneur who endures the typical experience of countless hours/days/years building and growing a successful business.  We need to herald the entrepreneur that exercises a strong internal locus of control, a need to achieve, ambiguity tolerance, discipline, and a singularity of purpose that increases his or her chances of success.  We need to lift up the entrepreneur who constantly exercises her skills of persuasion, connectedness and networking to build and maintain a fan base around her business.  Our heroes need to be those entrepreneurs with the endurance and perseverance to fail often and early, so they can fail forward.  We need to stop perpetuating the myth that it is easy and it is an over-night phenomenon.

Hopefully, there will always be the Michael Dell and Bill Gates of the world.  They also are heroes of the late 20th Century. While they are the exception regarding scale, they are not the exception regarding internal locus of control, need to achieve, discipline, ambiguity tolerance, singularity of purpose, persuasion, connectedness and resilience.

© Mark Loschiavo

If You Want to Dance, Think Compelling

Gaining traction as a new company is much like attending a middle school dance.  Individuals have wildly disparate memories of the middle school experience.  While I would never attempt to understand what is goes on in the minds of hormone saturated teenagers, the scene at a middle school dance can have a striking resemblance to emerging markets.

First, there are the established leaders.  These are often the class officers, top athletes and/or popular kids that everyone recognizes the minute they walk in the door.  Heads turn and other kids observe their every move.  If they choose to dance, they have no problem finding a dance partner.  Peers and parents alike typically admire these students.

Next, there are the “dangerous” kids.  They too are often noticed, and often secretly admired by some of their peers, because of their natural appeal to the “wild side” in each of us.  While we aren’t willing to take the risk, we can experience it vicariously through them.  Some are only willing to observe from a distance, and others are drawn even closer.   Like a mountain ledge without a safety rail, it draws us close.  Have you ever wondered why the “good girls” are often attracted to the “bad boys”?

Then, there are the kids who are remarkable is some other way.  Whether it is the excellent musician, singer or dancer, they get noticed.

Finally, there are the unremarkable kids.  They may be incredibly, smart, caring and talented, but nobody seems to notice them.  They are invisible, not because of who they are or what they are capable of, but because they are not recognized.  They blend into the crowd and go unnoticed.  Even if they accomplish something far more compelling than the darlings, the darlings’ accomplishments will be recognized because everyone is already watching them.

As painful as middle school memories may be, the entrepreneur building his or her startup company must recognize he or she is facing the equivalent of being the new kid attending the school dance.  Unless you are stunningly beautiful you will be invisible.  Being beautiful will require the financial capital to advertise during the Super Bowl, which you do not have.

The only viable alternative is to be compelling.  Creating a solution that is as good as, or slightly better, than an existing solution is a sure path to becoming unremarkable.  To gain traction the entrepreneur can start by ask the following questions:

Are we offering something completely new and different?

Jay Tapper started an interactive candy division of Cap Toys Inc., where he introduces an interactive motorized lollipop called the Spin Pop.  In an industry replete with darlings, Tapper’s product got noticed because it was it was unique.  Rather than focusing on making a lollipop that tasted better than a Tootsie Roll Pop, he focused on a lollipop that was interactive.

Do you have a competency that will allow you to fill a gap in the market?

Rather than rest on his laurels, Tapper decided to leverage the competencies developed with the Spin Pop to attack a gap in a completely different market—oral hygiene.  At the time, there were two kinds of toothbrushes: manual and electric.  While most competitors in this market were either focused on developing a $2.99 manual toothbrush with a more comfortable handle, or developing a $200 electric toothbrush with multiple functions, Jay focused on the gap—the white space in the market.  Since he already had the competency to develop an inexpensive device that spins, why not develop and inexpensive “interactive” toothbrush, at a price that was orders of magnitude cheaper than $200?  Enter the Spin Brush, now known as the Crest Spin Brush, following an acquisition by Proctor and Gamble.

Ask yourself what, if any, core competency you have that will make your business successful?  Is it a delivery mechanism?  Is it the way you acquire content?  Is it the relationship you will have with the gatekeepers?  Is it the interactive nature of the tool or product you are offering?

What is it about the existing art or current solutions people don’t like?

Weight management continues to be the bane of many American’s existence.  For decades Americans have increasingly understood the need to avoid obesity.  Even though there have been countless solutions offered over that same period, obesity continues to rise.  Why don’t the current solutions work adequately?  Although some programs are scams, most weight management programs follow the sound principle of caloric intake minus caloric burn equals weight change.  Yet these current solutions often do not work for people.  Weight Watchers addressed this by focusing on three inhibitors to effective weight management—lack of support systems, accountability and complexity.  They attacked the support and accountability issues by including, as part of their program, weigh-ins and support groups.  They also introduced the point system, which made it easier to monitor caloric intake, reducing complexity.

While Weight Watchers has been successful, obesity continues to be a problem.   Let’s suppose we want to offer a new solution to improve Americans’ success in proper nutrition.  We might start by asking Nutritionists what keeps their clients from following their advice.  Is it because:

  • The information is t00 hard to follow?  Then find a method for communicating it better.
  • Clients fear failure?  Then find a way to eliminate the fear.
  • Clients don’t have the proper support through the process?  Then develop effective support mechanisms.
  • Clients need accountability?  Then develop a way to introduce accountability.
  • Clients find it tedious or boring?  Then find ways to make it fun.

In this era of global competition, building a better mousetrap is not enough.  As a startup, you need to offer a compelling solution.  You need to make your product or service remarkable in some way.  As the new kid in school, it is the only way someone is going to ask you to dance.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

Can Music Promote Social Change?

When my son was in middle school he got involved in a program called Children’s International Summer Villages (http://www.cisv.org/about/history.html).  A woman who believed that if children could learn to relate to kids from other countries it would promote world peace started CISV shortly after WWII.

In my travels, I have found music to be a common denominator—the universal language.  Whether it was singing along to a Beatles tribute band at a table in Roppongi with two Koreans and six Japanese, jamming in a karaoke bar in Tokyo with musicians who spoke no English, or jamming with an outdoor market vendor in Bangkok for 45 minutes, playing a stringed instrument called a Thai Pin, that I picked up for the very first time that day, connections were made.  The Thai vendor and I couldn’t communicate with each other in any other way, but we became brothers that day.  When my business associates finally found me they were relieved to learn that I was NOT abducted–just distracted.

I am privileged to serve on the board of LiveConnections (http://liveconnections.org), an organization dedicated to providing innovative music education programs to build bridges and connect cultures.  It was started by a group of people who are passionate about music, but more passionate about making a difference in the world through music.  Now, that is something to sing about!

If this is something that resonates with you, please go to http://liveconnections.org to make a donation.

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