Everything is War — Bob Marley

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These words, first spoken by Emperor Haile Selasse I, were immortalized by Bob Marley in his popular song “War” of 1976.

Selassie, in his speech, was talking about the need for disarmament and racial equality. Today, however, we talk and listen as if EVERYTHING is war, and we should know better.

Today (July 31, 2005) there are very real wars being raged in the world. The Iraq War, although it is an unofficial and undeclared war (by US law), was launched partly in response to the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. When I think of a real war (which I’ve never been in), I think of the opening landing sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.” I think of psychological distress that lasts for tens of years after the original event, in the form of PSTD, homelessness and alcoholism.

I DON’T think of ….

  • the competitition in the business-place between WalMart and Sears
  • marital arguments that lead to separation and divorce
  • companies like McKinsey and Morgan Stanley trying to attract get the best employees from elite business-schools
  • a football, cricket, baseball, volleyball game, or any kind of sports game
  • Bush vs. Gore, or Seaga vs. Patterson, or Manning vs. Panday, Or Arthur vs. what’s-his-name
  • any kind of struggle against a behaviour or abstract mindset (e.g. drug addiction, premarital sex, values, crime or even terrorism)
  • spiritual conflicts between good and evil
  • words of disagreement between people on opposite sides of an issue
  • weed removal
  • spam
  • hemp
  • Lakota spirituality
  • obesity
  • poverty
  • ________________ (Fill in the blank with anything you feel strongly about)

In the world of excessive hyperbole that we live in, everything has become war, but only because we choose to see them that way.

War has a real, tangible and horrible effect on human life itself.

None of the other wars that we have “declared” have the same effect. We have used the imagery of warfare and the language of armed to conflict to try to raise urgency… it has become a failed method of manipulating the attention of others around us.

To believe the advertisers, pundits, CEO’s and political leaders, the average person is engaged in hundreds of “wars”, just by virtue of living an average life.

Obviously, this is absurd, even when the “war”, such as the “War on Terror,” seems to be justified. The average person is not engaged in a real war.

Even the so-called “War on Terrorism” has turned into a never-ending commitment to fear and suspicion. Think of it… can there ever be an end to a “War on Terrorism?” Terrorism is a method, not a political system, and any President who declares that the War on Terrorism has been one, will wake up the next day to some act of terror taking place in come locale around the world, even if the act is undertaken by his own security forces.

The truly sad effect of calling everything a war, however, is that we lose touch with the reality that war is. By using the word over and over in the way that we have, we have emotionally separated ourselves from the horrors of warfare, and subtly come to believe that it’s not a lot different from all the other things we declare as wars.

This is all an illusion of our making. Life is not war. Only war is war… war in the “Private Ryan’ sense is war.

Perhaps if we treated warfare with the silent gravity that it deserves, we could begin to be responsible for the other messes we have created in the world. Then we could begin to live up to the ideals first spoken by Emperor Salessie I.

*Selassie’s speech can be read in its entirety at http://www.bobmarley.com/life/rastafari/war_speech.html

Customer Service Standards in the Caribbean

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What is there to do about the general level of customer service in the Caribbean? Poor service on a daily basis has the effect of making life so much harder than it needs to be, in the form of late deliveries, don’t-care attitudes, hostile glares and rougher than expected tones of voice.

While we may talk and talk about the historical roots of low service levels, this kind of talk seems to do nothing except leave us resigned to a past that cannot be changed and a future limited by what we have inherited through centuries of servitude.

In other words, we are talking ourselves into thinking that things can never change.

On the other hand, it seems that our better tourist hotels, have found a way to provide service that is superior. For the purposes of this blog, however, I’d like to focus strictly on the service that we Caribbean people provide each other in our respective countries, rather than to outsiders or visitors.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a couple of banks in the region, in my vain attempt to open an account on a single visit. It was a vain attempt, and while the CSRs in the banks I visited were not rude, they made it clear that “they didn’t allow just anyone to open an account.” While they were not considering me to be a part of “anyone,” (probably due to my accent, questions and diction) they used that line to explain why there were so many hoops to jump through to open a new account. Also, at the end of the conversation, the polite CSRs (who felt more like gatekeepers), did not write down or otherwise record my name or contact information, even though I made it clear that I was looking for a new home for both corporate and personal accounts.

As a consultant, I’ve been part of many brainstorming sessions, in which executives wondered to each other: “Why don’t we have a greater share of customer’s deposit accounts?” and “What can we do to open more accounts and attract more funds?” Little do they know that their front-line staff is doing its best to discourage the general population from opening new accounts, under the guise of presenting an elite image. The reality is, that they thinking that they are doing the right thing.

This is pretty funny at some level – executives burning the midnight oil to try to figure out why their strategies to increase deposits aren’t working. The CSRs who I met with would be quite taken aback to be told that they were hard at work, taking actions to further a strategy that was directly opposed to the one that their senior managers were trying to fulfill.

The obvious question that you, the reader, are asking (and I’m guessing that you are probably a professional who has worked in the Caribbean) is why in the world would I try to open an account in that manner? Everyone knows that getting things done in the region is a matter of who you know, and who knows you. Why in the world did I not use my contacts to set up a meeting with the branch manager, who would show me the kind of service that I have become used to routinely receiving in North America?

Well, I do know better, but for the purposes of the project I was working on, I deliberately dressed in street clothes and did not use my contacts so that I could experience some of what the average person experiences. I also did not drop names, pull rank, ask to see the manager or any of the other things that we do in the region to distinguish ourselves as professionals from the “whole a di res’ ah dem.”

The truth is, there are at least three kinds of service in the Caribbean. Tourist Service, Friend Service and “Di Res Ah Dem” Service.

Tourist Service is self-explanatory. Friend Service is the kind that you extend to someone you either know, or want to know or are afraid might know you or even worse, might know someone important that you know. “Di Res Ah Dem” Service is the service given to the majority of people that you don’t know and will never see again, have no power and have no connection to you.

It’s funny to see how this works and to explore the variations on the theme.

Recently a friend of mine lost her passport. The first step was to fill out a police report, which we were assured would take at least 10 working days. After the police report was filed, it would take another 7 days to get the passport replaced. This was turning out to be a real problem, as her flight to return to the U.S. was only 7 days hence.

At first, the policemen and women were polite, but slightly dismissive. The low point came when we returned to the airport to be told by a policewoman in an entirely dismissive tone that “no-one had turned one in” as she gave us a blank look, apparently annoyed that we were interrupting her job standing-at-the-counter-doing-nothing.

Well, a day or so later we got a call from one of the policemen behind the counter (the one who had taken the statement a few days before.) He was actually calling to apologize for his colleague’s dismissive behaviour, and for the fact that he could not talk to us himself. I was amazed.

He went on to ask me if I went to Wolmer’s Boys as a high school student. I answered, “Yes,” and he asked me if I remembered him. He was a year behind me, and we then spent the next fifteen minutes catching up, even though I was driving through the hills of St. Ann at this point with a poor cellular connection. I hadn’t recognized him, to tell the truth (grey hairs and extra pounds have a way of warping one’s memory), but he was also calling to tell us that the report was finished and that we could pick it when we returned to Kingston. All in all, the entire process of getting the police report took less than 48 hours.

Not so amazing after all. I didn’t realize it, but he was giving Friend Service when I had been expecting “De Res Ah Dem” Service.

The same thing happened when I was dealing with another service provider, who I was referred to by a friend. He spent the first thirty minutes or so “qualifying me” which in the Caribbean means finding-out-who-we-know-in-common, an absolutely critical activity to perform before starting to do business of any kind. Once I was qualified by at least 5 points of common acquaintances, then his entire manner changed and only then could we start to really do business.

Having said all that, I’ve spent the last few weeks in US wondering what it would take to create an entirely new class of service for the majority of our Caribbean people.

It strikes me when I see my new wife struggle with Caribbean service levels (we’ve been to Jamaica and Trinidad together) that the only difference between the two of us is that she has higher expectations. As a customer in the Caribbean, I’m just glad that there is someone there in person (not on strike, doing personal errands, late because of the bus, the heat, thieves, rain, oversleeping, talking on their cell phone, etc.) She, however, expects that the service will be at the standard of the average North American retail establishment.

I was in a Staples store in Silver Spring this past weekend and happened to observe a cashier as I was approaching the check-out register. She had a bottle of Windex in one hand, and a rag in the other, and was carefully wiping down and shining her station as if it were her first, brand new car that had just gotten muddy. Where did she learn to do that? She was no older than 22, yet there she was, cleaning up her station when no-one was around to see her do it.

Was it a line in her customer service manual? Was she trained in how to clean her space? How could it come so naturally to her? Was she a born high-achiever? (I doubt it, given what I know Staples pays its entry-level workers.) Was she used to hard-work whereas our Caribbean people are not used to working hard (demonstrably false.)

I don’t know the answer but a couple of things struck me that I’m still thinking about.

One is that the average Caribbean CSR in the average store has never stayed at Sandals, SuperClubs or the Hilton. They have never seen or experienced Tourist Service, let alone the standard of service expected in North America. Instead, they are used to the customer service levels they have received at the roti shop, the patty shop and the burger joint (i.e. extremely poor levels of service.) In other words, they do not have and have never had a positive role model for the kind of service that makes customers want to return to buy the product just because the service is so good. Occasionally, they have experienced Personal Service, but that really doesn’t count (partly due to the inherent, reciprocal nature of that kind of service.)

The second thought is that we don’t even begin to teach customer service in schools to our students as a subject, even though a great many of them (I would argue that this is true of ALL adults) will at some point be working in a job or position in which the customer-supplier model will be critical for them to know and employ.

I can’t recall the last time I used geometry or algebra. Yet, something as basic as customer service, upon which business in ALL the tourist-oriented economies of the Caribbean depends heavily, is not even mentioned as a subject.

I could imagine in-depth training in the theory and practice of excellent customer service, including practical tests, written and oral tests as well as research projects. Students would be required to experience good as well as bad service, and to develop for themselves a way of relating to people in a customer-supplier interaction that works to the benefit of both parties. In our heavily service-driven economy, this could open whole new areas of opportunity for local business, and do wonders for out tourist product.

This alone would do wonders for our regional economies, and remove some of the unnecessary hardship that comes from going about doing our daily business. We actually do care about each other deeply, but it’s about time we showed it on a regular basis.

P.S.

It’s no accident that there have been so many times when I’ve been a customer, and yet I’ve ended up feeling like either a bad student, or a recalcitrant child. In the absence of role models, and in the absence of early training, I have a theory that a CSR goes to their past experience as a student and as a child, and tries to use that experience to deal with “De Res Ah Dem.”

"But This Couldn’t Happen in Jamaica"

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Yesterday the news came that there was a bomb exploded in the middle of Port of Spain that injured 14 people. To date, no-one has claimed responsibility.

Once the shock of the event wore off, I found myself shaking my head in amazement, and thinking that this could never happen in Jamaica.

As a disclaimer, let me start by saying that there are many things I absolutely love about Trinidad, including my wife. If there were no Jamaica, I would gladly live there.

However, there are things that happen in Trinidad that shock my Jamaican sensibilities (and we Jamaicans are a bunch of people that are not easily shocked).

Yet, there is this mental list of things that happen in Trinidad, both good and bad that just could not happen in Jamaica. The funny thing is, I can’t explain why this is so… I just know it. I’m sure a Trini has their list of things in Jamaica that could not happen in Trinidad, and Bajans, Guyanese and others would have their lists also, but here is mine.

Things that Happen(ed) in Trinidad that Could NOT Happen in Jamaica

  • the bomb blast in port of Spain of July 12, 2005
  • the temporary overthrow of the Trinidadian government by the Muslemeen, a religious sect in the early 1990’s
  • the freedom granted to Abu Bakhr (who lead the overthrow) who is allowed all the privileges of an ordinary citizen, and has never been convicted of a crime
  • kidnappings at a high rate (with relatively few deaths)
  • Carnival (all of it)
  • TSTT maintaining its monopoly for as long as it has

The differences between our cultures are important to take note of, as they tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the other countries. Now, to explain these differences… that’s the very hard work.

Holding the Company Hostage

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In my work with Caribbean companies, one of the phenomena that I’ve noticed is that of “The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired.”

The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired?

Yes.

He/she deserves to be fired. Everyone knows it. Other employees may even be talking openly about it. They have developed elaborate routines to prevent themselves from being stuck working with the person. Only new, ignorant employees are assigned to work with them.

Their ineffective ways are legion, and the stuff of hallway conversation. Their failures are well-known, and well-talked about. They may never have stolen money, or attempted to defraud the company, so there is no way to call the police to let them do the dirty work (and they also can’t be idly threatened with that course of action).

In the Caribbean, there is considerable legislation that has been enacted to protect renters, and the laws make it very difficult to evict tenants, even when leases have long expired. Instead, landlords resort to all sorts of other means, some nefarious, but most involving social pressure of one kind or another to remove the unwelcome tenant-turned-squatter.

The employee I’m talking about here is basically a “cubicle/office-squatter”, and getting rid of them is extremely difficult.

One reason is that, once again, firing someone without documented cause in the Caribbean can lead to legal action, as the separation laws are written in favor of the employee. You can’t just get up one day and fire people for something like… Incompetence. In the eyes of the law, it’s just not enough.

(Whether this is a good or bad thing is beside the point of this particular blog.)

What keeps the squatter firmly in place, however, is an inability of executives and mangers to hold him/her to account on a consistent basis. Compound this inability with a deep reluctance to confront and the squatter is doubly protected. Add in a lack of adequate record-keeping by managers and human resource professionals, and you have an employee who will retire from the company with a pension. Only then will fellow employees breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, among those who are breathing a sigh of relief are several others who are in the same boat but don’t know it.

The consequences of this situation in most Caribbean companies are many: an increase in costs for companies, and a decrease in morale by employees.

Our companies are terribly inefficient when compared with the best-in-class, mostly to be found in first world countries. With the exception of our tourist product in some countries, customer care and customer service are abysmal (unless you know someone on the inside). More bodies are needed to do anything and everything — I once witnessed my friend move her small townhouse in Kingston using 9 men, when I know that a similar move in the US would take 2 or 3 at most.

Yet, the Caribbean worker living in North America is among the hardest working and most productive. How does this miraculous transformation occur? Is there some white magic that comes with a green card to “farin”? Or is that magic really based in fear?

Another downside of not firing the corporate squatter is that the excellent employees who are striving to maintain increasingly better standards start to ask themselves “A whey mi a kill miself fah?” (Why am I killing myself?) It appears to them that mediocre efforts are judged in the same way that strong efforts are judged, and the financial rewards, increased authority and better teams that are expected by the high performers do not come because the squatters are taking up valuable resources, space and time.

What does it take to create a new culture? Briefly, managers must be willing to make strong, clear interventions that shake up the status quo, and alter their programs and systems to reward those who take risks.

Also, oftentimes there is a dire need for training managers in the art and science of having effective feedback and coaching conversations. The paternal and autocratic style of management learned during slavery and indentureship is of no use here, but managers have seen precious few alternatives to either alternative that work.

The opportunity for executives and managers to improve how they deal with “The Employee Who Can Not be Fired” are tremendous. At the very least, managers need to take responsibility for the fact that the phrase “Can Not” really means “Will Not,” and that their inaction keeps the situation stuck in place.

Internal Branding

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I’ve had the fortune of working with some very bright people, one of whom happens to be an expert in both HR and marketing. He introduced me to the idea of an internal brand, which is quite different from what is called an external brand.

To illustrate, imagine that you are a marketing executive of a company that manufactures and sells track-shoes, like Puma. This is a good example for me as I’ve fallen in love with the Puma brand, buying my first pair in maybe 30 years. My blue Pumas with the yellow stripe have become my favorite shoes, and to think I only bought them because the store did not have any available in Jamaican colours!

Incidentally, my wife also bought a pair, in green and black felt.

Why the sudden interest? I was travelling in Austria late last year and walked by a window of a shop with all these different color Puma track-shoes. They were beautiful to the eye, with wonderful colors and a great shape, molded to the foot. They looked very different from the heavy-sole, white running shoes I had become accustomed to wearing as a runner — in fact, it was obvious to me that these shoes were not designed for actual training, but instead were made for fashion.

From that moment, I wanted a pair.

As an outsider to the Puma company, it’s clear to me that at some point someone had the bright idea to invent a new brand of wearable track-shoe that would be every different from anything that already existed on the market. But the problem that that person faced was the following; in order to truly create a new external brand, the company needed a company culture, or internal brand, to support it.

I could imagine a moment when the strategists for Puma gathered around the drawing board excited by the idea of this new brand, until someone said “But how the heck are we going to get the designers we want in the company who think like this? How will we get the permission to hire them? How will we get the factories to change what they’ve been doing so that they can make these kinds of shoes? How will customer service be changed to give the customer this kind of feel for our products? How will our salespeople be trained to sell a very different kind of shoe to a very different kind of shop??

“In other words, how can we build an internal brand to support the external brand that we want?”

Obviously, internal brands are critical to the success of any company. Customers quickly realize the truth when reality does not match the advertising. I remember visiting a “theme park” as a boy on the state line between (if memory serves me correctly) North and South Carolina. The billboards along the way were frequent and enticing (if you’ve ever driven in Central Florida and seen the Ron Jon advertisements you’ll know what I mean).

By the time we all got there, both parents and children were salivating at the bounty of fun, excitement and thrills to be enjoyed at “South of the Border.”

When we got there we called it “a dump.”

We were so disappointed at what turned out to be little more than a truck-stop, with a ride or two and some half-dead Mexican food. We drove back bitterly complaining.

Often overlooked, however, is the impact that a lack of internal brand work has on employees.

A former client of our firm, an airline, once launched a program promising that their customer service lines would require a wait of 15 minutes or less. While sometimes it’s not a bad idea to set a stretch goal, it’s often not a good idea to launch initiatives like these without informing those who will be most impact i.e. the customer service agents.

They literally woke up one morning to discover (via advertisements in the press) that their customers were now expecting to wait less than 15 minutes to be served, which the employees knew to be impossible.

The predictable result was a drop in morale, trust and confidence.

And of course, the customers did not receive the promised shorter waiting times.

While marketing professionals are not trained to develop internal brands, neither are HR professionals, although the latter might be best equipped to lead their development.

One of the most interesting sites on the matter of internal brands is the Audacity Group: http://www.audacity.co.nz/what.asp

Francis

Musings from the movie "Hitch"

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I recently saw the movie “Hitch” starring Will Smith, in which he played the role of a “dating consultant” who discreetly taught hapless men the finer points of dating women … but strictly for the purpose of having a long-term relationship (not just to get them into bed).

And I was inspired!

During the first part of the movie he worked with several clients, sharing with them insights and distinctions that, I found, both real and quite innovative. They were very insightful, and put into words some distinctions that I myself learned while dating, and looking for a long-term relationship.

While I won’t give away the ones that I myself have also used, I will mention one that brought a laugh: following the 90-10 rule when kissing a woman. You (the man) go 90% of the way towards her lips, and then allow her to go the last 10% to close out the kiss. Brilliant.

But it wasn’t the skills around kissing that I found inspiring. Instead, it was skills as a consultant. His command of the distinctions that he had developed. His discrete manner and practices. His focus on empowering the client, and teaching the client. His willingness to be straight, and bold. And, at one critical point in the movie, his unwillingness to take on a client who was willing to pay him anything he wanted, for strictly ethical reasons.

I also loved his confidence, and intelligence, and sharp command of his particular area of expertise. Clearly, he had done a lot of thinking about this part of his life, and he was loving what he was doing.

Up until the point where it was clear that he was not taking his own advice, he was operating as a real trusted advisor and uber-consultant!

Illusions in the Workplace 1

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Lately, I’ve been reading the book Communion with God by Neal Donald Walsch.

The author talks about the usefulness of illusions — 10 in all — that are part and parcel of the human experience. The illusions are actually meant for us to re-experience who we really are and who God really is, and life is about working through them and arriving back at where we started, i.e. the Truth. However, once we’ve come back home to the truth, we return with a new experience, which actually adds to what God knows of himself.

This is a powerful, grand concept.

Perhaps that same concept can be expanded to include the workplace, and that there are illusions that we maintain in the working world that are useful, but only to a point.

The First Illusion I’d like to explore is that of competition.

It is an illusion to think that out and out war exists between companies. In fact, there is far more cooperation than there is competition.

We are taught that business is about the survival of the fittest, and that companies are fighting with each other to survive, and that their focus should be on the destruction of their competitors.

Let’s look at some examples of what also seems like competition, but it actually a carefully crafted case of cooperation.

Athletic Competition

In sports such as boxing and track and field, at one levels it’s all about the competition between the competitors. Obviously, one person is out to “beat” the others.).)

Yet, in order to have a competition, until the boxers step into the ring, or the athletes step onto the track they must cooperate in order to allow the competition to proceed. They must show up at the same time and the same place. They must allow each other to train, and to do so with the best resources possible. They must follow the rules, even the seemingly meaningless ones. They better they are at getting people interested in the competition, the more tickets will be sold to the event.

In other words, they must cooperate to assist the other athletes in showing up as prepared as they can be to engage in the competition. Why?

To put it simply, a boxer needs an opponent. He or she cannot show up for the fight and claim victory when their opponent either fails to show or does so in poor condition.

Also, in the case of the athlete, he or she needs top class competition in order to do well, and to break records. Even if the athlete is good enough to break records on his/her own, no-one would show up to see them compete with themselves, and that would be the death of that sport.

Clearly, the destruction of one’s opponents is not in the best interest of an athlete, which is why competition only makes sense against a background of broad cooperation.

The same is true for corporations that compete in business.

Monopolies, or companies that have the least competition, are probably the most inefficient companies. They are despised the most by their customers (witness TSTT in Trinidad and other Cable and Wireless companies across the Caribbean, before the advent of competition in the cellular market). Their employees (anecdotally) appear to be the least motivated (after all, if you don’t like it here, then “tough luck” to you).

The demise of one’s competitors, or absence of the same is simply bad for business and leads to a propensity to fool oneself (no-one at Cable and Wireless believed that a competitor with no history in the Caribbean would gain 60% market-share in 3 years in the way the Digicel has).

It is much wiser to have competitors, and to foster their entry into markets, and to hope that they prosper. When there is broad cooperation, everyone can win, and do so at a much increased level.

In the airline business, it is an article of faith that one should never advertise one’s safety record or compare it against one’s competitors. Why so? The reason is that reminding the flying public that fling carries with it some risks, is a sure recipe to reduce overall flying, which would reduce the profitability of each airline.

Airlines, therefore, must cooperate in what they use in their advertising (even while not appearing to do so).

This is not to say that competition is not a useful illusion. It’s very useful when trying to serve customers better than the shop down the street. It’s useful in coming up with new ideas and product innovations. It’s also quite useful when it comes to treating stockholders and employees well — in some countries, awards are given to companies that are able to create extraordinary work cultures.

But executives need to understand that competition is actually an illusion, which exists to teach us an important lesson — there is much more to be gained from broad cooperation, and competitive impulses are only useful when everyone can remember this bigger truth.

An acquaintance of mine is an “ultra-competitor”. When she plays any board game, she plays to win, and if she loses she is prone to throwing nothing short of 4-year old tantrums (including cursing, stamping feet, throwing game pieces, etc.) The net result of this behavior is that no-one wants to play with her… She doesn’t get that competition is just an illusion, and that the real enjoyment comes from elsewhere.

Adjusting for Caribbean Companies

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I woke up this morning to read the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review. This particular issue caught my attention as it is focusing on “The Human Element.”

The articles were quite interesting, and there were a few that caught my attention as they echoed to some degree my own experience. At the same time, I could see where further work was required to make the basic idea work in a Caribbean context.

For example, one article spoke about the need to build social networks in the workplace, and how important they are to getting work done. While I can see how this is truly a revolutionary idea in the U.S., given its culture, I know that this idea would seem obvious to managers and employees in Caribbean companies. If anything, this is something that workers in the Caribbean who move to the US often complain about.

By comparison, the US workplace seems cold, dry and distant. In other words, the social networks are not valued or even acknowledged to be important.

In the Caribbean, one might argue that they are TOO important, and that not enough emphasis is placed on working hard to produce results (and there is some validity to that.)

These differences are important, and there just has not been enough research or original thinking in what it takes to make the Caribbean workplace function at a high level. My hope is that this blog and other fora can make a positive contribution in this regard.