Decided to read this again since the new organization I recently joined has had its challenges and is actively working through them. Interesting how I internalized more of the content this second time around since it’s more timely and relevant at this stage in my career. Unlike Patrick Lencioni’s other books which are more fable format, this was more of a traditional business book with practical tips and a roadmap to follow.
It was the summer of 1991. Although I hadn’t officially finished school, I boarded a plane for Tokyo after being accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I had taken a semester of Japanese language during my freshman year but proficiency in Nihon-go wasn’t even a prerequisite.
My time as an Assistant Language Teacher was only contracted for a year. Six years later, I was still working in Japan. I had extended for a couple more years with the Ministry of Education. Then as I was packing my bags to head back to the States, a Japanese student/friend referred me to the CEO of a local language school which led to another 3 years in the private sector.
The entire cross-cultural experience influenced my perspective on everything from communication to customer service to relationships in general.
In terms of communication, I quickly learned the value of paying close attention and listening more than talking. It took incredible concentration just to carry on everyday conversation in a language I could barely speak, much less read and write. Surprisingly, even if I couldn’t find the right words, I was still able to carry on meaningful exchanges. Sometimes it was enough to just listen respectfully and then combine broken Japanese, simple English and a whole lot of gestures to respond. When totally over my head, I would bow and excuse myself as gracefully as possible. Sumimasen! To the Japanese, there were unspoken expectations and varying levels of formality depending on who you were speaking with.
Being a gaijin (translation: foreigner or outsider) I was often excused for making inappropriate or ignorant comments. I knew I could only play that card for a limited time. After the first year, I had no excuse not to understand the local lingo. More importantly, I needed to better understand the cultural expectations and social context surrounding both verbal and nonverbal exchanges. The more I familiarized myself with what made the Japanese culture unique, the more I appreciated the differences. It became easier and easier to understand what my Japanese friends really meant despite what they actually said.
My Takeaway: Words Are Important but The Nonverbal Means So Much More
More than 20 years later, this perspective still influences every interaction regardless of whether I’m with a client, a co-worker or family and friends. Understanding the subtleties of body language, or knowing when it’s better to keep my mouth shut, has had a huge impact on the quality of my relationships and the differences I’ve made in the various roles I’ve played. It has shaped who I am today and the opportunities that have come my way.
For example, when I DJ a party, the music is the language of choice. How I segue from one song to the next is based on how I read the audience and the mood of the moment. I pay careful attention to how smooth the transitions flow and how the party reacts. When I’ve done my homework and made the effort to understand the audience before the event, our “meeting” leaves everybody pumped up. I put the needle on the record and communicate through the song selections and the crowd replies by packing the dance floor. A track record of packed dance floors makes securing the next gig easy.
Whenever I’m responsible for a team, I flex my management style depending on the person or the group. As I’ve mentioned in my post about simply effective leadership, I always take the individual and the situation into consideration. This tends to produce much better results than the one-size-fits-all style I used to have. In turn, being an effective leader has afforded me greater responsibilities with greater rewards.
At the heart of it all, it comes down to understanding the details within the context of the bigger picture. The meaning of any words spoken or actions taken can change drastically depending on how you frame them. The frame can shift the focus. The context can change the meaning.
So this is what I learned so many years ago thousands of miles away:
It doesn’t matter what language you speak (Japanese or English, Music or Business). what you do and how you respond can mean so much more than the words you actually say. There’s a universal language out there that we all understand, and words have little to do with it. Da yo ne!
During a monthly senior management meeting, I was once asked by the President of the company how I became such a good manager. The question caught me off guard (it took me a minute to realize he was being serious) so my answered really sucked. I was flattered but embarrassed at the same time. (As an introvert, answering questions on the spot in front of a large group, without having had time to think, often leads to embarrassment. Anyway…) After the meeting, I gave it more thought. If I had to boil down the major contributors to my unique leadership style, it would be my psychology background and a library of management books combined with painful lessons learned along a colorful career path.
I’ve tested many theories in various roles and in different environments, with mixed results. What worked well in one situation would fail miserably in the next because the variables changed. Very few techniques are universal, only working case by case. My conclusion: stick to overarching principles and don’t get hung up on specific techniques or methods. The right techniques can be called upon as needed depending on the people involved and the situation at hand. The trick is to have enough experience and practice to instinctively know what to use and when.
There are certain things I put into practice regardless of whether or not I’m in a leadership position. They seem to be effective in any case and I like to practice them at work as well as outside of work. These simple practices tend to have very predictable outcomes for me. Even better, they’re a natural extension of who I am. Below are a couple examples.
Many managers I’ve worked with were inconsistent with who and what they acknowledged, so whenever I was in a management position, I decided to be different. Where other managers focused on calling out mistakes, or what needed to be better, I made every effort to spend more time recognizing a job well done and what was working well. What seemed to make even more of a difference is that I started with each person as an individual. I always kept in mind that every person on the team was unique. Everyone had their own style, their own story and different priorities. What was important to one may mean nothing to the other. It didn’t matter what was good for the company unless I could find a way to tie it into the goals of each individual.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This might seem overly simplistic, but one thing I picked up early on was the importance of remembering people’s names. Especially as I’ve gotten older, this gets harder and harder with every new person I meet, but I continue to practice remembering someone’s name after only one meeting. The next time I see that person, I always greet them by name. This seems to make an incredibly strong impression for two reasons:
I care. When many people bump into me after we’ve only met once, I often hear, “Hi…,” “Hey Buddy,” “How’s it going?”…or something along that line. It’s when someone says, “Hey Donn” that something special happens. I feel important, at least important enough for her or him to remember my name. And so this is how I want everyone to feel after I meet them. Because we’re all important and we all like to feel special.
It’s unexpected. When it comes to remembering names, most of us don’t expect others to routinely address us by name unless we already have a good relationship. I try to do it every time and from the very beginning.
One time, at a company party, I had the chance to ask someone from another team why they would always look away and avoid eye contact every time we passed each other in the hallway. I was curious because I would always say, “Hi Laura.” This seemed to make her feel uncomfortable and she would hurry past. (I thought maybe it was the “creepy” factor.) Anyway, she said something like she wasn’t sure how to act because I was a Vice President and had absolutely no reason to know who she was, much less greet her by name. That’s sad but I guess many would consider that normal.
As a manager, it is one of my pet peeves when someone doesn’t follow through. So I try to make sure I lead by example so I’m not one of those people. Now, it’s one thing not to follow through on a big project or a major initiative. I’m mainly talking about the simple everyday things.
For example, if I’m stopped by someone while I’m rushing to a meeting and I tell him I’ll catch up with him later, I make sure that I actually do. Sure, they would probably understand if I didn’t. We all get busy and there is always some other priority calling for our attention. But by keeping my promises, even the ones made in passing, I do for others what I would want others to do for me.
Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
I could go into additional details but for now I’ll stop. There’s a lot more that goes into my management approach that varies depending on the company and the role. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, even with these two practices. It took a lot of effort for me to get good at remembering people’s names. And to this day, I still catch myself not following through all the time. That’s ok though. There’s something about simply making the effort. It sends a message to others that you care, even about the little things. I’ve found these little things can bond teams together and inspire great work. At that point, you don’t need to manage. You can focus on leading.
There are many influential leaders out there and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great mentors. They taught me the essence of timeless leadership principles and I put my own spin on them. What matters is that whatever methods or principles you follow, they’re effective. Then add your personal touch.
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.