Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Role Models in Sports

I think most people would agree that athletes, in addition to being entertainers of a sort, also can be held up as role models for young people.

When I was growing up, I had sports heroes, too. And, as I grew older and entered the workforce, I began to develop an appreciation for the people BEHIND the bench – the coaches and managers. This is what I’ll be focusing on in this posting.

In school, and the early days of my career, we learned about legendary coaches like Vince Lombardi and Red Auerbach. Maybe it’s a reflection of my growing up in Canada, but my managerial idols have Canadian ties.

Felipe Alou became manager of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 1992. The Expos were perennial cellar-dwellers, though they had a great farm system that spawned some excellent players. The Expos never garnered the attention or respect of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, so the “stars” on the Expos were relatively obscure compared to players on other major league clubs.

Alou's goal as manager was to develop younger, less well-paid players into outstanding ballplayers, since, throughout the 1990s, the Expos cut costs by trading higher-paid players to other teams. His strategy paid off.

He transformed a weak club into what became the best team in the major leagues in 1994 and was named Manager of the Year, winning more games than any other manager in franchise history. (He also was the first Dominican-born manager in MLB history.)

The Expos had an excellent shot of winning the World Series that year. But the players’ strike came in the way of achieving this.

This was especially remarkable considering that the Expos had the second-lowest payroll in the National League at the time of Alou's recognition as Manager of the Year, with only two players over the age of 30.

He stressed the fundamentals of baseball – conditioning, pitching, base running and assembled a collection of talented youngsters and journeymen veterans into a cohesive unit.

Under his guidance, he had stars such as Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland. These players went on to even greater fame when the Expos traded them away to fund rebuilding efforts. Ultimately, the Expos folded because they were unable to field a winning team and baseball was not the first love of Montrealers, who lived and breathed hockey.
How did he accomplish this?

Marquis Grissom described the Alou era as follows, “Felipe came in, and the first thing he told us was that he would take the blame for all losses. He said if we lost 10 in a row, he might be fired, but none of us would lose our jobs. He stopped all of that military stuff. It never bothered me, the military stuff, but it bothered some guys. It's much nicer now. You make a mistake, you know it's a mistake. No one has to tell you. That's what Felipe knows. That's how he treats us."

To me, it sounded like Felipe Alou nurtured talent by not resorting to locker room histrionics and blaming. Focusing on fundamentals also meant everyone had to participate in the turnaround, not just the stars. And the stars were not spared the drills because of their talent, so everyone was treated equally.

What I found profoundly inspiring was his ability to take players who were considered damaged goods by other teams and discover their potential – even later in their careers. Dennis Martinez had had problems with alcoholism, but Alou and his coaches made Martinez one of the most respected pitchers in the game.

It seemed he had a talent for looking inside people and seeing what others could not see.

Another role model for me has been Claude Julien, coach of the Boston Bruins hockey team.

After the Bobby Orr era, Boston floundered. Often they were in contention for the playoffs, but somehow could not make it far past the first round.

When Claude Julien came to the club in 2007, the Bruins weren’t expected to make the playoffs – just another mediocre team.

I think there was some expectation in Boston that Julien would bring some of the magic of the legendary Montreal Canadiens franchise to the Bruins. In fact, Julien was coaching Montreal when the Canadiens eliminated – upset, even – the first-place Boston club in the first round of the playoffs in 2004, coming back from a 1-3 deficit to win the series.

A key watershed occurred in March, 2007, when the Bruins general manager, Peter Chiarelli, kept his team together at the trading deadline, producing zero trades in the Hub of Hockey. And then he told the players why.

"He said he believed in this team," said Bruins forward David Krejci, "He said we have good chemistry on the ice, and that's why he didn't make any trades."

What a vote of confidence from the management! They basically told the players they had great potential and it was important to keep them together to realize that potential.

The players rewarded the management’s confidence by taking the high-flying Montreal Canadiens to 7 games in the first round of a playoff series Montreal was expected to take 4-0 because the Bruins had not beaten Montreal the entire season. (In fact, Montreal had an 11-game win steak against Boston) At one point, Montreal was up 3-1, but the Bruins came back to tie the series and force the 7th game.

They may have lost the series, but the comeback they mounted probably inspired the team, who have been leading the Eastern Conference of the NHL this season.

The Bruins’ success did not come about from just inspiration. Julien focused the players on the fundamentals. They achieved the second-biggest defensive turnaround in the league in the 2007-2008 season, and mostly with a roster of relative unknowns and no real marquee players.

So, what can we learn from these examples.

· In both cases, we see teams that did not have to rely on highly paid star players to be successful. The team was greater than the sum of its parts.

· The making of a team is founded on discipline (process) and fundamentals that allow the younger players to thrive and contribute and develop as players.

· The managers both had the ability to connect with something in the players’ makeup that allowed them to come closer to achieving their potential.

· In the case of the Bruins, no trades meant they all felt valued as players, a huge boost to self-confidence.

· Success breeds success. As the players learned to play effectively as a team and began to win games, each win boosted team confidence and made the team, overall, more resilient. So, when they might find themselves behind, they also could find something in themselves that allowed them to come back.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

DS al Coda

A couple of weeks ago, my band played a gig at a club we hadn't played before.

Unfortunately, the day of the gig, our keyboard player said he was unable to come (despite saying the night before that he'd be there for sure), so we had to fire him.

We didn't fire him just because of this single incident. He'd missed practices and had showed up drunk for a previous gig.

None of us wanted to fire him. We'd given him several chances. He was a really good player and a nice guy.But all of us were agreed we had to have people in the band we could rely upon.

Sound familiar?

As a result, the night of the gig we had to meet early to set up and re-arrange nearly 3 dozen songs to either drop or create in some other way the keyboard parts. We dropped a couple we simply could not perform without keys and added in a couple of reserves.

We managed to get through the night. Fans were really appreciative - one of the best audiences we'd ever had. I think the enthusiasm of the audience helped stimulate us to do even better than usual and the manager of the club booked us for another gig in 6 weeks.

So what can we all learn from this kind of experience?

Sometimes you have to have the stomach to make drastic changes in personnel when some employees are disruptive to the point it puts the organization's performance at risk. In doing so, you also have to be prepared to find other ways of performing a fired employee's function. It could be via replacement with a new hire or promotion. Or it could simply be a restructuring.

I guess we restructured.

You need to have and be able to draw upon reserves so , in the event of unforeseen circumstances, you can continue to operate.

Although playing in the band is essentially a hobby we all share, we approach running the band as if it were a business. (From what I've heard, this is the model Mick Jagger has with the Stones.) It's amazing what a learning experience it all is.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Music at Work

On weekends, I play in a band, and have been doing so for about three years.

A lot of people might think this is a frivolous way to spend my free time. Given the image of the music business, many might think we're into drugs, sex (as well as rock 'n' roll).

The truth is that my band is made up of guys like me. We're all in our 50's. We all enjoy music. And none of us have any expectations we'll be raking in Grammy awards and seeing gold albums on our walls.

Another truth is that playing in a band is, in many respects, like running a business. Here's how.


Unless you're a very talented musician like Frank Zappa, in a band, it's really important that everyone be playing the same song in the same key, at the same tempo and at the same time. Otherwise you have cacophony (a musical term for chaos).

Each member of the band has his/her part in the piece.

Drums provide the rhythm, tempo and time signature that everyone else depends on to keep together. Bass provides a foundation for musical structure of the piece. The other instruments (and I'm including voice as an instrument) fill in the melodic and rhythmic components of the piece. Usually, the onther instruments will perform solos in turn - each having an opportunity to express their interpretation of the melody of the piece.

Together, it sounds wonderful - better than any part individually. However, if someone doesn't do his/her part properly, the musical term is "train wreck."


Communication on stage - or in a jam session - is critical to the success of the performance. When we watch jazz musicians play, it difficult for most of us to understand what's going on and how/why different players come in at different times.

Uusally, before starting, the players agree on an arrangement and in which order everyone will solo. While we've all heard songs where someone shouts out something like "Play it, Johnny!", most musical cues are a form of non-verbal communication. They could be the nod of a head, a particular sequence of notes that indicates the conclusion of a solo or just looking eye-to-eye at the next soloist. The non-verbal cues make the whole performance look seamless when done properly.

The basic structure of the song - melody and chords - provides a framework for soloing, and some of the cues, but direct communication between musicians is what really makes it all work.

Music also requires good listening skills.

As you're playing, are you playing in the same key as everyone else? Is everyone hitting the same point in a bar at the same time? These listening skills help the musicians adjust how they play so they all are synchronized.


Most people think that a band plays by picking songs and just getting up and playing them.

However, there's an element of positioning in any band. Will the focus be on blues, country, rock, jazz, folk or some other genre? There has to be consensus among the players on what style of music will be played and, once this consensus is reached, the common interest in the genre helps inspire and unite the musicians.

In our band, we have regular meetings to discuss adding songs to our repertoire. We might reject some as being too country or too heavy for what we consider to be our style (and skill). Songs get added when we all feel we like the tune and/or beat and would be fun to perform.

The analogy in business would not only be positioning, but also strategy.


In sales, marketing and politics (among others), the ability to get up in front of an audience and deliver an engaging presentation is a critical way of connecting with the audience.

So, too, with music.

A good performance depends on preparation or, in musical terms, rehearsal. Our band rehearses weekly for about 3 hours and we systematically run through our repertoire of songs we perform as well as work on songs we WANT to perform. It takes us about six weeks of rehearsal to do our entire catalog.

In our rehearsals, we make certain we have the basics of the song down pat, but also work out our solos so, while each performance might be a little different, we've each established the basic approach we want to take to our solos.

By rehearsing like this, when we get up in front of an audience, we all feel comfortable about what we're going to do.

All bands work off a set list. Think of this like a playlist - a sequence of songs to be performed. We put the songs in a particular order so we have something at the beginning that's familiar and gets the audience's attention. Similarly, the closer of each set will be a song strong enough to leave the audience wanting to hear more. We'll vary the tempo of the songs in between so the mood doesn't become monotonous.


When we listen to a studio recording, we are hearing a finely tuned version of the piece, whereby each bar is usually recorded over and over again until a perfect "take". Every time you listen to that recording, you will hear exactly the same rendition - note-for-note.

In a live performance, the basic structure of the piece may be pretty close to the recorded version, but the solos will most likely be different.

The solo represents an opportunity for the performer to express his or her own unique interpretation of the piece. While the performer may have a rough idea of how to structure the solo, each performance is different. That interpretation can be influenced by the performer's mood at the time, cues from the other musicians and by the audience response. In some respects, the solo is the opportunity for a performer to demonstrate true musicianship - more than just an ability to play by rote.

We sometimes have had guest performers join us onstage for a number or two, and the injection of a new group member creates a whole new dynamic for the performers.

If the guest artist is a singer, the other musicians have to follow the singer's lead and style - which can be very different from those of the singer they normally work with. Adapting to a different performer requires using those listening and communication skills I mentioned earlier. This usually is helped by the basic structure of the song (chords and melody).

When a performance like this comes off really well, it is as much a tribute to the musicians' communications skills as to their musicianship, and it usually makes the performance more interesting to the audience. It builds confidence among the team members that they can handle forces that could be potentially disruptive.


For the members of my band, the band is an outlet for our creativity, but also an oportunity to connect and enjoy playing with each other. It's also something we can all see us continuing into retirement.

So, the message I want to leave you with is that an individual's hobbies can help them develop skills that are useful of which can be applied in their jobs. Hobbies make us more interesting as people by adding dimension to our character. Explore these with your staff.


A New Name

I decided the original name for my blog wasn't conveying the message I really wanted to get across.

In keeping with the thought that employees have more value than might be apparent on the surface, I felt "Hidden Talent" was closer to my vision.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008


When we hire students for summer jobs or internships, how many of us really challenge the students with work assignments? How often do we give them “safe” assignments or menial work just because it is easy and risk-free to do so.

My last summer job, before graduating with my engineering degree, was working in a process control laboratory for a large multinational. Technically, my job was to fill in for the regular chemists while they were on vacation. The plant relied on the data from the lab to control its operations, so it was an important role in keeping the plant running efficiently.

I was especially excited because my employer trained me to operate a million dollar mass spectrometer to analyze the ore samples for trace minerals/metals. It was a new technology we hadn’t really learned about in school, but the actual operation was really not that complicated, since the machine did virtually all the work.

However, one evening, when I was on night shift, the mass spec would not operate. The chemist who had been working with it during afternoon shift told me he’d been having problems with it.

The tests needed to be run somehow to keep the plant operating, and the only alternative was to use “wet” analytical chemical tests, for which we had a manual, but on which I’d had no training or experience. I called in to the main lab at headquarters and explained the situation and asked if they could send someone to check my results because I was unfamiliar with the wet tests and wanted to be sure I was providing reliable data to the plant.

About halfway through the shift, a chemist finally came over from the main lab and began to check the results of my testing by duplicating the procedure. Fortunately, his findings corroborated mine, and I felt very relieved and we worked together for the balance of my shift. Afterwards, my supervisor commended me for coping with the challenges of that evening and ensuring the plant had reliable data to operate by.

What I took away from this experience was that, by entrusting me with an important function and leaving me to operate an expensive piece of equipment, my employer was taking a big risk. I think this instilled a sense of responsibility in me that helped drive me to ensure I didn’t let them down. Something did, in fact, go wrong, but they had a backup plan and it was well enough documented that, even without training, I was able to follow it.

Dealing with a challenge such as this one built my self-confidence, and the commendation from my supervisor reinforced this.

Now fast-forward to about 30 years later, and our design department was hiring a summer intern.

Our design department manager wanted to assign the student to “assist” the other designers with some pretty safe tasks. However, during our interviews with the student, we discovered she has learned how to operate the same CAD software we used, so I told the design manager I wanted her to be able to produce workable designs on our CAD system.

As the summer progressed, she started out by doing some basic designs and we gave her opportunities to do more creative projects. Most importantly, on one project for our parent company, we used one of her designs and she got to see the project through to completion. She became very proficient with our software and was pumping out basic designs faster than the permanent staff. We were very pleased with her work.

As the summer came to a close, we took her out for an interview over lunch. During this, she mentioned enthusiastically that she felt she was the luckiest member of her class because she actually got to produce real designs. Most of her classmates were given menial tasks and never got the hands-on experience she got with us. She would have no hesitation about coming back with us for her next work term.

Internships or summer jobs are supposed to help students apply the skills they have learned in school and hopefully learn some new skills as well. These positions are an excellent way for an employer to assess a student as a potential permanent employee – but only if we take some risks and honestly give them the opportunity to apply their skills.

From the example I cited at the outset of this posting, that summer job in the lab helped me develop as a person as well as learn some very new technology. I suppose that experience influenced me, as a manager, to give our student designer a similar opportunity. That risk was rewarded with a very productive, motivated employee who exceeded our expectations.

Isn’t this what we all want?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


When I was in high school, we had three academic streams. There was the truly academic stream for students destined for university. There was a more occupational stream for those students whose goal was simply to get a high school diploma. Then there was the 2-year occupational stream, with a focus on trades.

I trust you can sense a hierarchy of some kind in the descriptions. There certainly was among the students, with the university-bound students looking down on the OC-squad, as they were called, as somehow inferior.

How things change!

When I was in school, as most other kids do, I took shop – and was terrible at it. I’m left-handed. My father didn’t really have a shop at home to practice, and I think I’m not especially mechanically inclined – hard to admit for an engineer!

When I moved into industrial/B2B marketing, I spent increasingly more time in the plant trying to understand how things were done.

I found I came to admire the skills among the personnel on the shop floor.

Pressmen who could make fine adjustments on a $5MM printing press to get just the right color. By eye, they could tell whether an image was too warm (red), too dirty (black) or too cool (blue).

Gluer operators who could transform a die-cut sheet into a complex carton. They had to work out how to make each fold and to do it at as high a speed as possible.

Technicians who could fix a laptop, or build a plasma generator or get your car started – sometimes all of these in the same day.

Carpenters who can make perfect joints, or get a smooth finish on a wood project.

Plumbers who fix leaky toilets, install new pipes and faucets (without leaking).

In the neighbourhood where I live, we have a mix of “professionals” – i.e., lawyers, accountants, etc. – as well as some very well off trades people. The trades people are mostly contractors who are kept busy doing renovations on high-end homes, and are being rewarded handsomely for their skills.

I now see ads promoting the benefits of entering a trade. The school system used to be biased towards developing students for university and failed to produce enough trades people to meet the growing demand in an era in which the long-term skilled workers were retiring or leaving the system.

I play in a blues band, and what I see in this is that we each have our respective instrument to play and, if we all do our part, it sounds wonderful. Notwithstanding the occasional one-man-band busking on the street, each of us has to be proficient in his instrument. No one of us could do it all. We learn a little bit about each of the other instruments – not so much to become experts, but to understand the language unique to each instrument so we can make intelligent suggestions about what might work.

The bottom line is we ALL have our roles to play in making the organization work. It really is hard to say that one role is more important than the others. Despite what accountants might try to do to monetize the value of each job role, the truth is that if one job is not being done well, it can ruin things for the rest.

So let’s respect what each other has to contribute and help them do the best job they are capable of. All of us will benefit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Leadership is part of what management is all about, and managers are usually assumed to be the ones who make the decisions on how the organization will be run.

I guess my feeling is that leadership needs to have a strong element of facilitating - as opposed to merely directing – and with a consultative element as well. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

When I moved from consumer goods to industrial marketing, part of my job involved managing two sales reps – both 25 year veterans of the packaging industry.

When we had our first meeting together, you could feel the tension in the air as these two sales reps felt out their new “boss”.

I started out by admitting I had only a limited knowledge of the packaging industry. If people had thought bubbles like in cartoons, you probably would have seen something like “Yeah! Right!” But when I asked what I could do to help them in their jobs, the tension melted away and they both opened up.

One was our pricing manager, and he needed help getting estimates done as well as having a sounding board for pricing. The other was a non-native English speaker, and, while he was a successful rep, had problems making presentations. Both also asked for help in getting orders processed.

In return for my assistance in the areas we agreed on, one took me around to meet the customers and the other one took me under his wing and tried to teach me everything he knew about packaging. I found ways to fast track estimates and we got new business because we were able to quote within 24 hours of receiving the RFQ. We got on well and worked together well as a team.

Later, when I moved to another company, I managed to get one of these reps to join the new company because he had extensive experience in one of the vertical markets we served, and I was able to get another colleague to join as well in our sales team. While the second rep went on to another competitor, we continued to get together for lunch on a regular basis.

The other example came up at this second company.

One of my guys was somewhat stalled with a prospect. They had some samples of our product, but had never gotten around to running them so we could qualify as a supplier. We met with the customer and got assurances the samples would be tried, but things dragged on.

A major trade show was coming up, and we knew the customer would want to have some samples of their product to exhibit and distribute at the show, so we offered to run a free trial order for them. The customer responded by saying that, although they had five suppliers of our kind of product, none of them had made such an offer and therefore they wanted to go with us – on one condition. They asked us to bill them for the order – not run it free – and to consider it our first order with them.

When we got the order and the customer’s graphics, we got together with the press crew who were going to be running the job. We told them this was a promising new customer and we wanted to make a good impression, and we asked the crew how they wanted to run the job. There were some details in the graphics which could be challenging for the printing process, which were a bit of a concern. The crew suggested the best materials sources from their experience and how the graphics should be set up.

When the customer received the order, we got a phone call regarding the job. Was there something wrong with the product or the delivery, we asked. No, the customer had specified the job be printed flexographically (a very cost-effective printing technology) but we had printed the job via rotogravure (a more expensive, high-definition way of printing.) I assured the customer we had followed his instructions and the job was printed flexographically. The customer told us this was the best flexographic printing he had seen: it was so clean and clear he thought it could only have been done via the more expensive rotogravure technology.

We ended up doing a lot more work for that customer, and we had a very proud press crew. Interestingly, even though we operated in a unionized environment, we never heard any comments or experienced any interference from the union reps. I think everyone focused on doing the best job possible and, if there was any breach of the collective agreement for the way we involved the crew, we never heard about it.

I believe most workers – white or blue collar – want to do an excellent job, and part of the role of management is to help them achieve that goal. This means ensuring the employees have the information or tools they need to accomplish this. More importantly, it involves asking them what the impediments are to excellent performance and helping clear those roadblocks.

Because managers frequently are rotated through a variety of roles, they may not have the time to become technical experts in every one of these roles. Unless they have been poorly trained, experienced workers know their jobs in depth because they’re doing them every day. They’ve had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t, so they actually are a knowledge resource waiting to be tapped.

When we try to provide what we think is “direction”, but it runs contrary to what our employees know to be the right way to do things, we don’t come across as good managers.

When we consult our employees to get their input on processes, we are practicing delegation in a way. Delegating means assigning tasks to those most capable or experienced to complete them, and typically is used in the context of white collar workers. With shop floor employees, respecting their skills and asking for their suggestions will usually be rewarded with ideas based on successful experience, and builds respect for their managers.
Leading by following the direction or suggestions of our “subordinates” is a winning proposition.

Monday, June 30, 2008


One of the best lessons I learned came from the general manager who recruited me from the packaged goods industry into the packaging industry.

The plant we worked in had two unions and a history of poor labor relations. The first week I was there, we had a communications meeting, and the union reps were not only very vocal about their views on management, but also seemed very aggressive.

The general manager’s advice to me was to get a pair of safety shoes, spend at least 25% of my time in the plant and to get to know everyone in the plant by name.

That first week, I tried to put it into practice and walked up to one of the machines, introduced myself to the operator and asked what his machine did. I think we spent about an hour together as he showed me what the machine could do and what capabilities weren’t being used. He took time to answer all my questions.

The company eventually suffered a financial setback, and we had to lay people off. Now, when I walked through the plant, you could sense the employees were scared. Because I was not only on the management team, but also the Marketing Director, I had some insight into the fortunes of the company.

When I encountered the union reps, the tone was very different from what I’d seen in the first weeks. They wanted to know what the future was for their members (and probably themselves), but the tone of communication was much more sober and the questions came not as “the union line” but at a more personal level.

I told them that quite honestly, I didn’t know what the future held. I didn’t promise everything would work out. I think they sensed and appreciated the candor in what I said, even though what I’d said didn’t really put their minds to rest.

At this point, it dawned on me that our role as managers was not just to run the business profitably, but we had a responsibility to the employees for their jobs. Their livelihood, in fact, depended on our ability to keep the business going. We had more control over their employment than they had – even with the unions – and therefore if we let the company go down, we were also letting down a whole team of employees who relied on us.
The lesson from this is that managers must remember that their employees are dependent, in more ways than we generally realize, on their actions. There is a need for mutual trust to make the organization work effectively and the best way to build that is to get out of the office and put a face to every employee in the organization. For the employees, it means there is a face to management and they can see managers as humans. Similarly, for the managers, it is an opportunity to remember a business is more than numbers: there are people whose livelihood depends on their actions.

A Sense of Purpose

I wanted to set up this blog to share some of my experiences and views on working with others more effectively, and to support the cause of the people who make things happen for the organizations they work for - the employees.