Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Learn to Listen. Listen to Learn.

"Talk less," said Mark McCormack, sports marketing pioneer, uber-agent and author of a number of business classics, including What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. "You will automatically learn more, hear more, see more — and make fewer blunders."

It may seem self-evident, but it's worth repeating: the best way to understand people is to listen to what they have to tell you. So I was pleased — though not surprised — when an in-house survey recently revealed that the folks in our firm spend more time listening than talking. On average, they spend 82% of the time actually listening to other people and only 69% of the time talking.

I'm proud that our professionals and administrators spend less time speaking than listening. You can't learn if you don't listen … and in a continuously learning organization like Makovsky + Company, where depth of specialized knowledge is a core value, I expect our people to ask insightful, pointed questions — even if they think they already know the answers — and listen, actively and deeply, to the answers.

The best listener I ever met was chairman of a multi-billion dollar Fortune 200 company and an 18-year Makovsky client. He often called and went right for the jugular, asking the one question that was on his mind and even sparing the usual niceties. How are we going to get out of this situation? What did you do for me today? Tell me how you want to structure our presentation. Our business must become number one, so tell me how you are going to help us get there. And then he would just sit back and listen. He said very little, so little that it could almost be intimidating. At the end of the conversation, he would tell you whether he liked your thinking or not and whether to take it another step. This technique encouraged one to keep delivering more information rather than bear the silence on the other end of the phone.

This "active listening" is an incredibly complex skill. It involves not just accurately hearing what people say, but getting a sense of who they are; how they view their situation; their goals, expectations, hopes and fears; what they want from you … and lots more. Deep listening even involves hearing what people aren't directly saying … what they may be reluctant to say. (By the way, I contend that’s one of the great values of the blogosphere: that today you can legally eavesdrop on — that is, actively listen to — the conversations customers are having about your business, and they are well aware that such information is available).

It's human nature. We want people to listen to us … yet we rarely have the experience of being deeply heard by others. There are so many calls on our attention that, most of the time, we tune each other out in normal conversation. But when we actually listen to others, we can learn a lot. What's more, the people who are speaking perceive our attention as respect and validation.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Can Honor Trump Money?

Is there no honor left in this world? Must money trump everything?

I am referring to the New York Mets’ decision to rename Shea Stadium in 2009. The successor to Shea, the club's home since 1964, is to be named Citi Field. There will no longer be any reference in the new stadium to William Alfred Shea, the gentleman responsible for reviving National League baseball in New York City — i.e., the Mets — after the departure of the Dodgers and Giants to California more than 50 years ago.

Of course, Citigroup deserves top billing. The company is donating $20 million a year to the Mets, plus providing a range of other benefits. But there is heart, history and heritage in the Shea name. Erasing that name is equivalent to razing historic buildings prior to the landmark law. We can only understand our present by preserving our past.

The Mets are to be commended for designating the Jackie Robinson Rotunda a focal point of the new stadium. Jackie Robinson was the former Brooklyn Dodger who broke the color-line as the first black player in baseball. So why not consider naming the new ballpark Shea Citi? Or why not designate the area around the stadium "Shea Plaza"?

Honor is part of what makes passion, and honor touches the heart. When you are a fan, passion and heart is what it is all about. They are both a critical component of good public relations, as well.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

We Need a Little Old-Fashioned Face Time

Internet Age or not, I'm partial to face-to-face meetings. I hate to make any important decisions involving another individual without conferring with them, face-to-face … particularly those whom I work with, could work with, or report to and who report to me. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but generally it is a principle I believe all management should follow. There is no substitute for communicating live about raises, conflicts, major changes, key opportunities, strategic turns, new relationships or in any similar situation where a face-to-face encounter delivers more information than a phone contact.

"How to Read a Face," an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, discusses the fact that human brains are actually "wired to connect." Author Anne Underwood reports that "it's not just that laughter and bad moods are 'contagious.' Empathizing with a friend, whether in grief or elation, can activate the very same circuits in our own brains as in our companion's."

Science writer Daniel Goleman — the author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships — calls this phenomenon "neural WiFi."

In her article, Underwood goes on to say that "researchers are learning how conscious and unconscious processes help us scan a person's face for emotions, calibrate our own responses and manage nonverbal communications."

In their place, emails are effective, and there is no one who enjoys phone contact more than I do. In fact, the phone has been a critical tool in building this company. I really feel "wired" when I'm talking to someone on the phone who is being completely candid. And I am sure there is research that confirms the existence of "telephone vibrations" among people who really connect via this medium. But, ultimately, even the best phone conversations take a back seat to face-to-face meetings.

Clearly, I'm not the only one with that opinion. Late last month, networking giant Cisco unveiled TelePresence, its new technology that "creates unique, in-person experiences between people, places and events in their work and personal lives." Basically, TelePresence uses high-definition video and spatial audio to enable meeting attendees in diverse locations to catch all those subtle non-verbal clues (including body language and facial expressions) that are such an important part of the total communications experience.

It's worth noting that this need to connect is not new to our Wired World. As Herman Melville wrote back in the 19th century, "We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects."

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Monday, November 06, 2006

One Minute or One Detail Can Change History (or any outcome)

In life, one minute or one detail can make the difference between success and failure. As happy as I was that the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series (I grew up in St. Louis), I could not stop thinking about what might have been if Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets (my favorite team now) had swung the bat in that instant when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the 9th … instead of taking a call strike 3 and ending the game, enabling the Cards to beat the Mets and win the National League Pennant. I know the experts said it was an "unhittable pitch," but Endy Chavez made an "uncatchable catch" to stop a homerun: might there not have been a miracle hit? But we will never know because in that final moment Carlos chose not to swing. That final moment changed history.

Consider this relevant conversation between a famous artist, abstract painter Josef Albers, and a brilliant actor, Maximilian Schell, who was also a gifted amateur pianist.

"Today is one of the most glorious days of my life," Albers said. "I did a drawing 27 years ago and there has always been something wrong with it. Today I discovered what the problem was. The upper line was a half-inch too low. Now I have fixed it, and the drawing is perfect."

"People ask, 'Who cares about half an inch?' replied Schell, "but when you think in practical terms -- like with the Olympic Games -- who knows? In downhill skiing, the winner's time can be one-thousandth of a second faster than the person in second place. The winner gets the gold medal and a lot of money, which is very important. So that one-thousandth of a second is not so bad. When I play a Mozart concerto and it sounds like 'ta-ta-ta,' and my teacher says I'm a tenth of a second too late, I play it all again. If you don't care about a tenth of a second, I say you are wrong. It makes the difference between the mediocre pianist and the great pianist."

So -- whether you are at Busch Stadium, on the ski slopes, at Lincoln Center, at the Metropolitan Museum or championing a client cause, the difference between being a winner and an also-ran can be the tiniest of increments. In the end, it's often simply a matter of what Albers described as "doing a bunch of little boring things correctly."

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