The Accidental Marketer

I entered the marketing profession quite by accident. Over 30 years ago I graduated from university with a degree in computer science, having also worked the four years I was earning that degree at the university data center. I finished school with a diploma that provided evidence that I had the academic underpinnings to develop software, and a resume that included highly relevant experience. Despite the relatively poor job market when I graduated, I had three good offers. Surprising myself, I chose the one with the lowest starting salary, at IBM, because I liked the culture and upward mobility there. IBM didn’t see me as a software programmer, but instead put me in a sales and marketing branch office. I never wrote a line of code from that day forward, and I didn’t regret it.

I was immediately drawn into the world of sales and marketing, and I learned everything I could from IBM, one of the best in the business at marketing its solutions. Through a series of job changes, each one pulling me deeper into the marketing profession, I learned from mentors and experience (mistakes) about how marketing works in the real world. My analytical programming background, however, never left me. As fascinated as I was with marketing, I was also troubled by how little was known about how to connect my marketing efforts to business results. I have seen marketing get credit for business results it didn’t necessarily produce, fail to get credit when it did produce results, and get blamed fairly and unfairly for its lack of contribution. In almost every case, judgments about marketing were based on opinion and conjecture, not data. This bothered me.

The inescapable conclusion from my journey in marketing was that the determination of marketing’s success was too arbitrary, too subjective. Even if marketing was performing brilliantly, without data to prove it, the CFO could still cut marketing’s budget. The CEO would call into question marketing’s contribution. The rest of the organization could easily view marketing as a luxury, not a necessity. When reviewing other corporate functions, such as development, HR or sales, they each had a specific set of metrics that created clarity about how well they were getting their jobs done. Not so in marketing. If marketing were to get taken to court and tried for its performance, what evidence could the defense provide in favor of marketing? Very little, it seemed.

What marketing needed was a set of metrics that moved the determination of its success out of the realm of subjective conjecture and into the world of objective fact. As a marketing leader, I know we needed more than the ability to say that we had churned out X number of assets or managed participation in Y number of trade shows and other, similarly vague attempts to connect our work to something the C-suite cared about. These attempts at accountability left questions in everyone’s mind about how well marketing was truly performing. The solution was analytics with a set of metrics that provided meaningful data about marketing’s contribution, so that even for those who might disagree with marketing’s methods, there was no argument about the results.  I shared these views publicly enough times that they came to the attention of a publisher who asked me to write a book on the subject.  This work is now a fait accompli: “Marketing Analytics Roadmap: Methods, Metrics and Tools” published last month.

Marketing Analytics Roadmap: Methods, Metrics, and Tools

This book was born out of my past frustration and experience with how marketing manages its performance and how that performance is judged. I’ve written this book for the marketing organizations that have not yet started their analytics journey, but know that they need to, and are trying to figure out where to begin. What I intend for this book to do is inspire marketers and marketing organizations to get moving, and point them in the direction they should go. The advice contained here will provide them with a roadmap, as the title suggests, with recommendations on methods, metrics and tools to consider on that journey. What this book will not do is provide detailed, turn-by-turn directions from start to finish of the marketing analytics journey. The reason is simple: each organization’s journey must be different. The things that define the speed, vehicle and even detours of that journey vary from company to company.

This book is not for those who have already achieved maturity with their marketing analytics process, unless perhaps they want a nostalgic tour of where they’ve been. But that still leaves a broad audience for the direction this book provides, as a study I completed in partnership with VisionEdge Marketing just as this book went to publication reveals that just one in five marketing organizations have an effective analytics process in place. For everyone else – the 80 percent – this book will provide some encouragement and advice for starting and completing the marketing analytics journey. As the Chinese proverb attributed to Laozi states: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I hope this book helps many marketers take that first step.

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Lone Survivor – the ugliness of war

These men of the special forces have had other options in their lives, other paths, easier paths they could have taken. But they took the hardest path, that narrow causeway that is not for the sunshine patriot. They took the one for the supreme patriot, the one that may require them to lay down their lives for the United States of America. The one that is suitable only for those who want to serve their country so bad, nothing else matters.”  Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10

I’ve seen a lot of war movies, but I’ve never been to war.  I think there are some movies that depict war as a glorious endeavor, and others provides glimpses into the ugliness and horror that it must be.  “Lone Survivor” falls into the latter category.  But I don’t know from first hand experience, since I’ve never served, never had to take up arms.  So when I see a movie I think does justice to a combatant’s view of a conflict, I’m grateful because I think we all need to understand what it’s really like, as best we can from inside the safety of our homes and borders.

I read Marcus Luttrell’s book, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, so when the movie premiered, I was eager to go watch it.  That I knew how the story ended did not diminish my interest in seeing it.  While Hollywood did take it’s usual liberties to embellish the story, the core truths are in the movie, and those truths are worth pondering.

The good guys are usually good, but not always.  The four Navy SEALs portrayed in the story faced a moral dilemma early in Operation Redwing.  Having been inadvertently discovered by Afghan goat herders who came from the village they were keeping under surveillance, what should they do?  The rules of engagement did not permit harming civilians, and these goat herders were unarmed.  However, the SEALs knew that releasing them would at least compromise their operation, and possibly endanger their own lives.  As they debate what to do, they clearly consider the consequences of expediency – killing their prisoners – by recounting the crimes and punishments of fellow soldiers, making it clear that the good guys aren’t always good.  In this story, the leader, after allowing debate, intervenes and makes the decision to follow the rules.  The fateful decision is accepted without further debate and the goat herders are freed.

It’s hard to tell who the bad guys are.  It’s easy to pick out the bad guys when they’re shooting at you with AK-47s and RPGs.  But when they put down their weapons, skin color and attire are terribly unreliable indicators of who is on whose side.  Amy Nicholson, who reviewed the film for LA Weekly, was highly critical of the SEAL’s attitude, which she summarized as “Brown people bad, American people good.”  To make this statement, she must have walked out of the film before the scene where a brown-skinned Afghan villager rescued Luttrell.  In the most tense, pressure-filled environment imaginable, the SEALs and others who are in harm’s way must make quick judgments about whom, among an intermingled population all dressed in civilian attire, is friend and foe.  While tragic, it’s no surprise that they don’t always get it right.

War is complicated.  The proposition of war sounds simple enough: destroy the enemy.  The reality, however, seems much more complicated.  Following the Operation Redwing briefing, one of the SEALs observes that “there are a lot of moving parts” to the plan.  It is a maxim of war that once the first shot is fired, the battle plan goes out the window.  In the case of Operation Redwing, the plan went out the window before the first shot was ever fired.  The Achilles heel in this operation was communications.  Had SEAL team 10 been able to communicate, an evacuation would likely have pulled them out instead of the fate they suffered.

War is ugly.  Having never fought for my country, I can only imagine how terrible and ugly war is.  “Lone Survivor” is important as a film if for no other reason than it helps us understand this ugliness.  “Saving Private Ryan” perhaps is even more graphic in confronting viewers with the ugliness of war.  These difficult but necessary glimpses of reality might cause some to conclude that peace on any terms is far better than the ugliness of war.  But English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill very eloquently expresses why this isn’t so:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

“Lone Survivor” was difficult to watch, in part because I knew how the story would end.  Yet, it is important to watch, because it prompts us to have gratitude for the exertions of better men – and women – than ourselves.

Posted in Leadership, Unity, Values | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Escape From Camp 14 – exiting a cultural cesspool

Imagine a life of backbreaking labor, never enough to eat and performance drive by fear.  This is the existence for prisoners in the North Korean political prisons or camps.  Little information is available about life in North Korea, a nation that is choosing to fund its membership in the nuclear club instead of feed its people.  It is a closed society, and ostensibly a classless one as well – that is the official position.  But there is an elite, ruling class in North Korea, whose figurehead is Kim Jong Eun, raised as a communist prince, educated under an assumed name in Switzerland, and who despite a lack of military experience, was named a four-star general in 2010.  His pedigree allows him to live above the law, because he essentially is the law.

DMZ

At the Demilitarized Zone, looking at the road into North Korea.

At the far, opposite end of the spectrum is Shin-Dong-hyuk, whose story is told by Blaine Harden in “Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.”  Shin was one of, by South Korean estimates, 154,000 prisoners held in labor camps that have existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag.  Most prisoners are sent to these camps, but Shin was born there, in Camp 14.  His world was one where “his mother beat him and he viewed her as a competitor for food.  His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother for just five nights a year, ignored him.  His brother was a stranger.  Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive.  Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on them all.”

Members of civilized society are aghast at these conditions, but Shin didn’t know he should feel moral outrage over his condition – he knew no other existence.  Life inside the camps existed of mandatory 12 to 15 hour workdays until prisoners die, as Harden shares, usually of malnutrition before they reach the age of 50.  The “eating problem”, however, is not limited to labor camps.  Millions of North Korean citizens are affected by it.  So severe has this problem been during the last decade that teenage boys fleeing the North “are on average five inches shorter and weight 25 pounds less than boys growing up in South Korea.”  According to the National Intelligence Council, mental retardation that results from early childhood malnutrition disqualifies about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea.

Seeds of discontent sown in Shin’s soul were nurtured by an encounter with an older prisoner who came from the outside, having once been a citizen of some privilege.  He told Shin stories about life beyond the camp and the borders of North Korea.  While enjoying more freedoms surely motivated Shin to plot an escape, what drove him the most was the dream of having enough to eat, particularly more meat.  Together, Shin and his fellow prisoner planned to escape, and the day came when they were put on a detail to gather firewood in a remote part of camp near the fence.  Shin’s fellow prisoner was electrocuted attempting to get through the fence; Shin used his friend’s body as insulation to make it through the fence himself.  Even though he was still in his own country, he was in an alien world.  Miraculously, he found his way across the Chinese border and eventually to South Korea.  He was the first known person born in a labor camp to have escaped.

There are many reactions to reading Shin’s story, one of which is indignation.  How can a regime or its representatives treat its people so poorly?  We live in a world where hardline communist regimes are clearly a failed experiment.  Just from an economic perspective, the data doesn’t lie.  As Harden shares, the average per capita income in South Korea is 15 times as high as in the North.  Countries with higher per capita incomes than North Korea include Sudan, Congo and Laos.  Even China, once the role model for repressive communist regimes, has lifted a billion of its people out of poverty by embracing free market reforms.  China is now a reluctant ally of North Korea.  The world is collectively yelling, “get a clue!” to North Korea but no one is listening.

North Korea survives because of ignorance and arrogance.  The leaders are arrogant, parading around naked like the emperor wearing new clothes, believing the problem is with the rest of the world, not them.  Ignorance of the truth keeps the masses in line. The proliferation of the Internet has made keeping people in the dark much harder.  Even the presence of a single outsider who knows the truth is a threat to topple a regime.  This form of governance is unsustainable, and history shows us that the ultimate fate is revolution, often violent.  If only the leaders could study enough history to see the path they’re on, logic demands that they would change it.  Arrogance, however, serves as a set of blinders that shields the obvious from those that most need to see it.

There’s a corporate version of this form of governance.  As an example, consider the company Businessweek named as the meanest company in America in a recent article.  Glassdoor.com publishes an annual list of the worst companies to work for.  The descriptions of these companies all point to the same thing: dysfunctional leadership.  An employee for one of these companies compared employment there to an exercise in tiptoeing around the CEO so as not to offend him.  At another company, an employee described a culture of unilateral decision making by the CEO about even trivial operational matters that are better made two or three levels down the org chart.  A poor economy can serve as a virtual electric fence, keeping employees in place out of fear.

Whether a corporation or a country, the view that getting the job done is more important than the people doing the work creates a cultural cesspool.  The leadership strategy is always the same in these regimes, summed up by Kim Jong Il, member of the North Korean dictatorial dynasty:  “We must envelope our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”  That list of enemies includes many of its own people.

Posted in Arrogance, Culture, Ignorance, Leadership | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Cruelest Miles – anatomy of achievement

Diphtheria isn’t given much thought today.  It’s in the category of diseases that have been conquered through modern medicine, much like polio or smallpox.  Even so, Diphtheria has a nasty reputation.  It can masquerade initially as tonsillitis, but the lesions it causes in the airways of its victims give it its nickname:  “the Strangler”.  It is highly contagious, able to live outside the human body for weeks.

It was January 1925, Nome Alaska, and the last supply ship of the season had left port before the sea froze over.  The town physician, Dr. Welch, had recently diagnosed what he thought were cases of tonsillitis, but when a young child died, Welch realized he had something much more serious on his hands: diphtheria.  The order Dr. Welch placed for diphtheria antitoxin in the summer of 1924 did not get filled before the port closed for the winter.  In her book, “The Cruelest Miles,” Laney Salisbury tells this story.

A quarantine was ordered in Nome to limit the spread of the disease.  On January 22nd, Dr. Welch wired that the situation in Nome was serious and requested antitoxin.  A supply of antitoxin was located in Anchorage, but the challenge was getting it the almost 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.  There were three airplanes in the Alaska territory at the time, but flying that distance was a risky proposition even under ideal conditions. Governor Scott Bone concluded that doing it in an open cockpit aircraft during winter was a fool’s errand.  The only viable option was a dogsled relay.

The relay began on January 27th in Nenana, Alaska, which is as far as the train from Anchorage could take the serum. From there, it travelled virtually non-stop along the mail route to Nome, passing from one musher to the next.  Temperatures were at 20-year lows, with winds causing whiteouts and snowdrifts as high as 10 feet, making the entire journey perilous.  Leonard Seppala covered the most dangerous stretch across the open ice of Norton Sound, which lead dog Togo successfully negotiated just hours before gale force winds broke the ice up.  The final handoff was to Gunnar Kaasen, whose team was led by a Siberian Husky named Balto.  The serum entered Nome early the morning of February 2nd, after having covered 674 treacherous miles in just seven days to save the children of Nome.

Nome_serum_run_map

I have to wonder if the motivation for the serum run had been money, not saving the lives of children, could they have accomplished this amazing feat of speed and endurance?  I think the answer easily is “no”.  There was something much bigger at stake than money.  The lifesaving nature of the mission inspired the courage, unity and exceptional performance required to do it.  In whiteout blizzard conditions, with temperatures as cold as -50° F, it would have been too easy for the mushers to decide the money wasn’t worth the suffering.  It takes compelling reasons to inspire extraordinary achievement.

Great leaders understand these motivational dynamics.  Inspiring great performance with money might seem like a great strategy, but it doesn’t work well.  Sure, money can buy good performance, but great performance requires something that ignites resolve.  Daniel Pink discusses these dynamics in his book “Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.  He observes that it’s important to pay employees enough to get money off the table as an issue, but it doesn’t inspire exceptional performance.  What does?  According to Pink, it is the opportunity to work autonomously, to gain mastery over a skill or profession, and to have purpose in work.  Saving lives is about as powerful a purpose as one can find.  This same motivation inspired the herculean effort in 2010 to free 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 68 days.

Leaders who search for ways to inspire their teams to stellar performance realize that it’s not possible to link every task or project to saving lives.  It’s also absurd to consider artificially creating a crisis in order to motivate employees to higher performance.  What is possible, however, is to have a vision for changing lives.  If you could survey the highest performing teams in any setting, they would answer the motivation question the same way: the results of their efforts have a measurable impact and it’s not just about the money.  If you’re a leader and you want your team to excel, examine your vision for work and how well you’re infecting your team with that vision.  If you think it isn’t possible to do this in an ordinary workplace, you’re wrong.  A great example of what I’m talking about is found in this clip from one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life.

BaltoThe dire situation in Nome captivated and tugged at the heartstrings of the entire nation. The mushers and their dogs that made the serum run were instant heroes.  Gunnar Kaasen, who with Balto drove his team into Nome with the serum, understood another important principle of achievement: the accomplishment wasn’t his alone.  When a grateful Nome populace thanked Kaasen, he suggested that Balto and the team deserved the credit.  Just 10 months later, a bronze statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park with this inscription:

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925.  Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence

Posted in Accomplishment, Leadership, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Niching for a fight – and ending on a high note

It’s year-end, a time when many companies are crunching the numbers to report earnings.  For some, it’s been a good year and the business that comes in the last few days of the year are just icing on the cake.  For others, it’s been a difficult year, and the waning days of December are spent striving to close a deal that will take some of the sting out of the business results.  Companies in both positions are looking forward to better times next year.

Let’s look at a case study of a year in the life of a startup organization to understand how it positioned itself for future success with a bold year-end move.  This particular organization was formed when a group of visionaries boldly decided to split off from the parent organization. It had access to a large and promising market territory, but like many startups, lacked the resources to fend off the competition, which was also attracted to the same territory.

The startup began the year filled with hope and promise, but setback after setback occurred. The former parent organization was now a formidable, scorned competitor with no plans to yield the rich and promising market to an upstart.  As a result, the startup was driven out of key market segment after market segment and by year-end, found itself out in the cold, trying to figure out how to survive into the new year.  Literally.

The startup in this case study is the United States in 1776.  Having boldly declared its independence in July, by December 1776 the euphoria was gone.  The British had routed the Americans in several strategic battles, one of which forced General Washington and his forces out of New York.  While the British and their Hessian mercenaries were quartered in warmth and comfort in cities and villages, Washington and his troops had fled to the south of the Delaware River.  David McCullough in “1776” describes how this pivotal year in the history of the United States unfolded, leaving many by December to believe hope was lost.

Morale was poor, and soldiers in the Continental army weren’t reenlisting.  Desertions were thinning the ranks of Washington’s ragtag army, and supplies were woefully inadequate.  The military outlook for the fledgling nation was grim, and it was in these circumstances, or perhaps because of them, that Washington planned a bold stroke: he would attack the Hessian force at Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware

On Christmas day, Washington ferried his force of 2,400 men across the icy Delaware River as rain turned to snow.  He marched his troops in the cold and dark nine miles to Trenton where he attacked on the morning of the December 26th.  Even with the element of surprise, Hessian resistance was fierce but brief, ending with the capture of two-thirds of the 1,500 Hessian troops.  In terms of just numbers, the Battle of Trenton was insignificant, but in terms of implications, it was enormous.

Trenton wasn’t a strategic military objective – at the time of the Revolutionary War, it was just a small village, and the conflict was more of a skirmish than a battle.  What the victory did was provide the nation a morale boost and momentum.  It allowed the nation and the soldiers fighting for it to believe the dream again.  Those who know history understand that difficult years of fighting – including more military setbacks – were ahead, but victory would eventually come.

Washington’s victory at Trenton illustrates a brilliant competitive strategy for a small or startup organization that finds itself competing with an industry giant.  Going toe-to-toe with the market leader almost always results in failure.  A smaller competitor simply doesn’t have the resources to spend and cover the market the way the market leader can.  What it can do, however, is attack a niche by optimizing its entire approach for one specific segment of the market.  A singular focus on a narrow part of the market, one to which it is completely dedicated to owning, allows the startup to gain a valuable toehold in the market.

Success in just a single niche can propel a startup to a position of market leadership. Conquering the first niche is the first domino to fall in a strategy that can lead to penetrating an entire market, niche by niche.  For Washington, in 1776, that first niche was Trenton.  How should a startup determine which niche to pursue?  Here again, history shows the way: choose a niche that is overlooked by the competition, one you can access and serve effectively, and one where you can win.

The Battle of Trenton shows how a small victory is the springboard for a larger one.  The Continental Army would go on in 1777 to taste victory more than once and in battles that were strategically more important. All the corporate giants that are pillars of today’s economy were once startups, but despite their success, their futures are far from secure.  Somewhere in the world is a hungry startup with extremely limited resources but an inexhaustible supply of determination, looking for its Battle of Trenton.

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Silent Night – war takes a holiday

Since Cain slew Abel, humans have proven quite adept at killing one another.  Waging war comes quite easily for our race.  From Carthage to Gettysburg to Flanders, there probably isn’t a corner of the earth that hasn’t seen blood spilled in conflict.  What has changed through the ages is the efficiency with which we’re able to slaughter one another.

World War I was so horrific that it when it ended, the universal hope was that “it was the war to end all wars”.  This war witnessed the widespread use of advanced weaponry  – the airplane, poison gas, machine gun and tank – for which military tactics of the day were not fully prepared.  The result was carnage on an unimaginable scale.  These horrors were already evident in December 1914, just a few months after the war had begun.

Two armies were entrenched opposite one another on the western front in late 1914.  Snipers and machine gunners watched for any soul foolish enough to peer over the trench.  Artillery pounded away incessantly; fruitless charges were mounted and repulsed, leaving a wake of corpses in “No Man’s Land” between the trenches.

The first Christmas of the war was approaching, and each respective home front put plans in place to provide the boys at the front with some Christmas cheer.  The British expeditionary forces were treated to Princess Mary boxes – named after George V’s daughter – tins containing some treats, tobacco and the King’s greeting to the troops.  The Kaiser sent gifts to his troops as well, a pipe and cigars.  In addition, miniature Christmas trees – tannenbaum – were sent to German troops.

In his book “Silent Night – the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce”, Stanley Weintraub documents the remarkable and unlikely peace that spontaneously broke out on sections of the Western Front.  Since the war began in late summer of 1914, it was prosecuted so furiously that already there were hundreds of thousands of casualties.  As Christmas approached, a cease-fire was deemed a complete impossibility by both sides.  In fact, the harsh conflict caused some to question whether even celebrating Christmas was appropriate.  The New Republic suggested, “The stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men.  A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds.”

But for some of the men at the front, Christmas was to provide a welcome if brief respite from the war.  The Germans began lining their trenches near the Belgian town of Ypres with tannenbaum.  They expressed their joy by singing Christmas carols.  The trenches were close enough that none of this escaped the attention of British forces.  They two sides began bantering back and forth, then singing together, and soon, some brave soldier ventured into No Man’s Land under a flag of truce.  Despite the bleak surroundings, a festive mood prevailed in both sets of trenches, and the ceasefire was on.

The impromptu truce continued Christmas day, with men from both sides mingling in No Man’s Land, exchanging rations, cigarettes souvenirs and other gifts.  Burial parties retrieved the dead.  One soldier who was a barber before the war gave haircuts to enemy soldiers.  A football (soccer) game was played.  Death took a holiday, but the brass on both sides, enjoying Christmas safely far from the front, did not approve.  When word of the unofficial truce filtered back behind the lines, the higher-ups were indignant.  Stern orders were issued against fraternization, because “it was imperative to make even temporary peace unappealing and unworkable.”  Of course the spontaneous Christmas truces didn’t last, but the fact that they occurred at all was remarkable.

News of the truce was not immediately reported back home because of unofficial “pressure” placed on the media not to cover the story.  It was the soldiers’ letters back home describing their participation in the unlikely ceasefire that brought the story to the public’s attention.  First-hand accounts taken from letters found their way into newspapers, and eventually photographs.  It became a front-page story.

What made two mortal enemies lay down their arms temporarily and not merely tolerate one another, but seek out the other’s company and behave like friends, not combatants?  It was a powerful, shared value.  At this time in history, Christmas was that shared value.  Christmas and all it represents was a faith and cultural icon to which both sides in the conflict highly esteemed. What happened on the battlefield that Christmas day in 1914 shows us that a way to reconcile two parties in conflict is to identify values they share.  When shared values are present, they are an emotional rallying point for the relationship.  Conversely, a quick way to polarize two parties is by identifying differing or opposing values.

This historical incident also reinforces just how magical Christmas is; the celebration of an event so powerful that it transcends time, culture, politics, race and conflict. The first Christmas, as documented in the Gospel of Luke (2:14), records that angels announced the birth of Jesus by saying “Peace on earth”.

Of course the spontaneous Christmas ceasefires of 1914 didn’t last.  The war quickly resumed and continued through four more bloody years.  Christmas ceasefires occurred again in 1915, but they were fewer in number because of sternly worded orders prohibiting them.  What happened on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914 may have just been an aberration.  But like the Truce in the Forest during World War II, it shows us that Christmas can indeed be a time when “all is calm”.

Posted in Trust, Values | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Emma’s Ring

Note: November is National Adoption Month, so instead of sharing thoughts about someone else’s story, I’ve decided share my own.

Emma is the second of my three daughters, our adopted Korean child sandwiched between two biological sisters.  She came into our family on June 1, 1993 – that day which families with adoptees often refer to as “Gotcha” day.  After our first daughter was born to us, we thought, perhaps a bit arrogantly, that having our next child would be as simple as agreeing on an ideal age difference between children, and then subtracting nine months.  God had other ideas, and for reasons we could not understand at the time, our second child didn’t come in the traditional way.

A job change and a move to a new city temporarily distracted us from the stresses of fertility tests and unsuccessful treatments.  Once settled, we resumed our thinking and praying about what now seemed like the only option for growing our family – adoption.  Looking back on our decision to adopt a child, it seemed like such a practical, logical exercise.  Did we want to have birth family members involved in the life of our adopted child?  Not really, so that desire pointed us toward international adoption.  Which country had children available?  In our case, Korea emerged as the best choice, not because we longed to adopt a child from that country, but simply because circumstances at the time made that choice expedient.

Our first “Gotcha” day at the Tulsa airport, June 1, 1993.

So into our lives Emma came, placed in our arms at 11:30 PM by an adoption agency escort at the airport in Tulsa.  She arrived in our lives at the tender age of 7 months, owning only the outfit she was wearing and a packet of papers – filled with adoption agency paperwork, a Korean passport and a small Korean flag.  Surrounded by friends, we cried tears of joy and whisked Emma off to her new home.  It was a dream come true – we were a family with two children.

As years went by, we faithfully attended the Heritage camps hosted each summer by Dillon International, the adoption agency that helped bring Emma into our family.  These camps are a special time for adoptees, allowing them to connect with other adoptees and the culture from which they came.  At every camp, we heard stories from families who had taken their adopted Korean children “home” so they could experience not just the culture, but gain some closure and define their identity.  The families who took these homeland tours were clearly changed by the experience.  We realized that when Emma was old enough to appreciate the experience, we needed to take her to Korea.

When Emma was five, an unexpected although pleasant surprise occurred.  Lisa, my wife, became pregnant after almost a decade of believing that conceiving another child was not a possibility for us.  The ultrasound revealed that a new baby sister was on the way.  Elise was born on July 27, 1998, and steps were taken immediately to ensure that she would be the last child we would have.  Her arrival did not change our desire to take Emma to visit her homeland, but simply added another family member to the itinerary.  We simply needed to wait until Elise was old enough to appreciate the trip.

We made a decision the summer of 2003, while attending Heritage camp, that the next summer was the time to make our trip.  We saved for months and made our plans to spend two weeks in Korea as part of a homeland tour.  I assumed that this trip would be an exotic vacation – none of us had been to Korea before, and it seemed like an exciting, distant land in our imaginations.  Because of Emma’s age – 10 years at the time of our trip – she would not be permitted to search for or contact her birth mother.  So there was no sense of anxiety or excitement at the prospect of encountering Emma’s birth mother.  It was just going to be two weeks of touring Korea and seeing a few icons of the first seven months of Emma’s life, like the adoption agency in Seoul where she was cared for, and the clinic where she was born.  She certainly hoped to someday meet her birth mother, but we all understood that it would not happen during this trip.

We left in late June 2004, and our visit exceeded all our expectations.  As tourists, the food, people and sights were excellent.  An appreciation, even admiration developed quickly for this wonderful land and its friendly, industrious people.  What made the trip special, however, were the encounters that put a human face on circumstances just like the ones that had brought Emma into our lives 10 years prior.

During the middle of our visit, our tour group was scheduled to visit Esther’s Home, a facility maintained by the Eastern Child Welfare Society that served as a orphanage, school for the mentally disabled and a home for unwed, expectant mothers.  Our arrival at the facility in a remote location outside of Seoul was unremarkable.  It was a dreary day, overcast and threatening to rain.  Our group had been on the tour bus for about an hour when we arrived, so we were eager to get off and do something other than sit on the bus.  The site visit began with a briefing that detailed the work being done and what we were about to see.  Moderately interested, I was eager to “get on with it” so that we could eat lunch and proceed to activities that were more recreational in nature.  Sure, I reasoned to myself, it is fine to see all these facilities, but I was pretty sure that our visit to this place was not going to rank near the top of memories from the trip.

Emma playing with kids during our visit to Esther’s Home

My emotions took a turn when I saw a room full of orphans, most of which we were told had little chance of being adopted.  They were children without legal standing, because no parent – typically the birth mother – had completed the legal process to place these children for adoption.  They would grow up in this environment with each other and the social workers, who seemed very devoted to their care, but without a family.  One little girl in particular stood out – she was a white-skinned, blue-eyed child of about three.  We learned that her parents were Ukrainian immigrants.  The father had abandoned the mother and child, apparently returning to the Ukraine, and the mother, unable to support her daughter, had delivered her to this facility.  It was unknown if her mother or father would ever return, and if they did not, she would live as a child of the system.  I could not criticize the system, because it seemed amply provisioned, clean and well staffed.  The situation was as good as circumstances would allow, but in my heart I realized it was far from ideal for these children.  And I wondered – would this have been Emma’s fate had we or another family not come along?

After battling some emotion for the first time on the trip, we were escorted into a large room for lunch – a welcome break.  During lunch, we met 10 women, each of them pregnant, unwed and residents of Esther’s Home while they waited for their babies to come.  Through an interpreter, we shared stories.  These women ranged in age from 18 to 29.  Of the 10, eight revealed that no friends or family members knew about their condition – being pregnant out of wedlock in Korea carries a huge social stigma.  All but one indicated that they planned to place their child for adoption, and expressed the hope to someday meet the babies they planned to place.  One, however, expressed skepticism about the idea of placing her child for adoption, but acknowledged that she was going to give the option further consideration.

Each of the families on our tour took turns introducing ourselves – where we were from, why we adopted a Korean child, and what we did back at home in America.  As the head of our family, I was elected spokesman, and gave our responses to the group, which were then translated.  When these introductions were over, these young mothers-to-be were given a chance to ask questions.  The lady who was the adoption skeptic motioned for the microphone and started rattling off a question. Her eye contact, body language and my intuition gave me every indication that her question was being lobbed in our direction, and I was right.  Her question was simple but penetrating:  do you love your adopted child as much as your biological children?  It was easy to understand why we got this question, because we were the only family who had both kinds of children with them on the tour.

I consider myself capable of thinking fast on my feet, and delivering fairly polished, off-the-cuff responses.  I recognized that this question required more than a simple “yes” response, even if it was the truth.  This lady was a hard case, I told myself.  She needed to be sold.  I felt obligated to deliver the most persuasive oration I could that would compel her to conclude that placing her child for adoption was the right thing to do.  I was handed the microphone, and I paused for a moment to begin composing a response.  The room was a quiet as a tomb.  I covered the microphone with my hand, and leaned over to my oldest daughter Erica, who was seated next to me.  This, I suggested, would be a good time for her to share how she felt, having both an adopted and biological sister.  She nodded and I began to respond.

I opened my mouth not really knowing where I was going to go with my response.  I began with a very clinical statement:  every child is unique, I said, loved equally but for different reasons.  At that moment, for the first time on our trip, the emotional dam burst.  I am still at a loss to explain why, but I choked up and tears began to flow, triggering a chain reaction of crying throughout the room.  I composed myself as best I could and managed to utter one last thought – each child is a gift, and in our family, one of those gifts just came from a different place.  I was drained, crying and unable to speak coherently.  I passed the microphone off to Erica, who I hoped was holding up much better than I.  She bravely took the microphone and managed to stutter a syllable or two, but she too was overcome with emotion and unable to speak.

The real hero of the moment was Emma.  She calmly asked for the microphone.  My usual fatherly instincts, which in a more guarded moment would have demanded that she pre-screen her comments to me, were gone.  I passed the microphone to her, and she simply and without emotion said:  “I love my mom and dad very much, but I would like to meet my birth mother someday.”  After this remark was translated, our guide wisely announced that it was time to eat lunch.

The 10 ladies filtered throughout the room to join the tour families for lunch.  The one who asked the question sat at our table and shared the meal with us.  Although language was a barrier, we communicated through smiles and laughter, experiencing a mutual sense of satisfaction resulting from people, once strangers, who shared some honest, painful communication about something they had in common.

We will probably never know what decision this woman made about placing her baby.  There is some consolation in believing that our exchange influenced her, and affirmed the other women who had already planned to place their babies.  An incident that occurred as we were leaving confirmed that we had reason to hope that.  As we left, the 10 expectant mothers with uncertain futures lined up by the door to bid us farewell.  There was genuine warmth as we filed past and exchanged hugs with each one of them.   As we gathered outside the door to walk to the bus to leave, Emma ran up to us, excited about something that happened as she was saying goodbye.  One of the ladies, not the one who asked us the question but another, took a ring off of her finger and placed it on Emma’s.  I can’t help but think it was her way of thanking Emma for giving her hope about her baby’s future.

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Katyn – the ultimate triumph of truth

You have two sides, opposed to one another ideologically and in every other way.  Disputes between these two opposing forces are sharp, accusations fly, the blame game begins, the rancor escalates and the spin doctors work overtime to spew propaganda to gain favor with the public.  Truth becomes the casualty as the public seeks to understand how credible either side is in the debate.  Even if you’re aligned with one of the two parties, you still reserve a degree of skepticism for what is said by them. Your cynicism is well deserved because of each party’s record of distorting the truth.  You’re left wondering whom to believe, realizing that discerning the truth is very important yet difficult.

While the description above might seem to fit the current bickering in congress, that’s not what it refers to.  It refers instead to one of the greatest but least known tragedies of the 20th century: the mass execution of members of the Polish officer’s corps and intelligentsia by Stalin during April of 1940.  The tragedy is more properly called the Katyn forest massacre, a reference to the mass execution and grave in the Smolensk region of Russia, and it is superbly documented in Allen Paul’s “Katyn – Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth”.  This work is clearly a labor of love for Paul whose heart for the people of Poland is evident.

Poland was the initial flashpoint in the inferno that would become World War II.  The Nazis invaded from the west on September 1, 1939; the communists from the east a short time later.  Hitler and Stalin, who were at the time allies, had already agreed on a plan to partition Poland.  When the dust cleared, the Nazis and the Communists occupied Poland, and Stalin wasted no time deporting the educated class of Polish society to Russia – these were the professors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, policemen as well as the officer corps from the remnants of Poland’s army.  Stalin’s goal was to “Sovietize” Poland, so this first step was to rid society of the intellectual element most likely to oppose him.

The executions took place in the Katyn forest.  Trains brought loads of Polish prisoners to the site, where they were led into a soundproofed room, forced to kneel and then shot in the back of the head.  The bodies of 21,857 victims were buried in a mass grave.  There, but for a twist of fate, might this horrible secret have remained permanently shrouded.  The revelation of this brutal act began when Hitler decided to betray Stalin and invade Russia, opening up an eastern front in the war.  In April 1943, the Nazis occupied the Katyn forest region, with the headquarters for the Wehrmacht’s 537th Signal Regiment just a short distance from the mass gravesite.  A wolf digging in a mound uncovered some human bones.

The Nazis began to investigate and soon realized what they had uncovered.  Since Hitler had become Stalin’s enemy, the exiled Poles in Russia were allowed to muster their forces to help fight the Nazis.  But where were the officers?  The families and comrades of the executed men only knew that they were missing after having been taken prisoner during the ’39 invasion.  Stalin feigned ignorance, suggesting that they had escaped into Manchuria.  The Nazi’s grisly discovery revealed the shocking truth: bodies still in uniform with identifying personal effects in their pockets.  The Nazis, masters of propaganda, exploited the discovery to the fullest to divide the allies.  Stalin countered with disinformation claiming the Nazis had planted the evidence to cover-up what was their massacre.  Which lying regime was to be believed?

It became increasingly clear to those who studied the evidence that Stalin was responsible for the brutal executions.  Churchill and FDR both came to understand the crime was Stalin’s, but refused to speak out.  Even after the war, these governments did not condemn the act even while the Nuremburg trials were condemning and executing Nazis for similar crimes.  Ironically, On April 13, 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged his nation’s guilt for the massacre after almost a half century of Russia steadfastly claiming its innocence.  Yet after Gorbachev’s acknowledgement, attempts to discredit it began, keeping the decades old wound between the Poles and the Russians open.

The Nazis surely weren’t surprised that the world didn’t believe its version of what happened at Katyn.  Even though the Nazi account in the end was the truest one, a government or organization can’t become the purveyor of truth just by virtue of having the truth.  If it isn’t first a trusted source, it has no hope of being believed when conflicting accounts of the truth are in play.  For this reason, organizations should zealously guard their reputations so that when it matters most, their credibility doesn’t interfere with transmitting the truth.

The story of Katyn also shows us that those institutions we count on to be beacons of truth and justice are capable of failure, as is any human institution.  Churchill and FDR feared that confronting Stalin about the atrocity at Katyn would jeopardize the allied effort to win the war. The risk was that Stalin would negotiate peace with Hitler, leaving the remaining allies to go it alone against a more concentrated army of the Third Reich.  Perhaps in light of the greater atrocity of the holocaust, turning a blind eye toward Katyn was necessary – temporarily – to rid the world of even greater evil.  But even so, why didn’t the confrontation occur at the war’s end?  Where was the attempt to get the truth out?  Why continue the cover-up?

There’s an interesting quality to “truth” in that it has a way of getting out. It may take decades, but like Tolkien’s ring, it wants to be found.  We can aid and abet the revelation of truth through discernment.  It’s wise to inspect the motivations of those who offer different versions, to ask difficult questions and not accept an account of the truth on face value. As Ronald Reagan said, “trust, but verify.”  It might seem like I’m advocating cynicism, but the intent is to encourage intolerance of governments, organizations, politicians and parties who cover-up or rewrite the facts for the sake of expediency.

The tragedy of Katyn has a sad epilogue.  In April 2010, the plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his entourage crashed enroute to Katyn for a memorial commemoration.  All on board were killed.  Former president Aleksander Kwasniewski said afterwards, “It is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine.”

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Snowstruck – a risk management primer

Almost every aspect of our lives has some degree of risk associated with it.  The Statistical Abstract of the United States, a publication of the U.S. Census Bureau, tells us that 59,964 skateboarders were injured in 1999.  That figure includes a lot of strawberries, broken bones and more serious injuries, causing me to conclude it’s unsafe and not worth the risk to skateboard.  Surprisingly, however, that same year saw almost as many people victimized by their toilets, sustaining injuries serious enough to require a visit to an Emergency Room.  Despite the risks, I’m going to continue to use the porcelain fixture.  Apparently, there just isn’t a safe place or activity.  We humans are capable of falling on or from just about anything and hurting ourselves, reminding us that gravity isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law.

Most of us don’t, and shouldn’t, spend our time worrying about every risk we could encounter in the course of living our daily lives.  We’ve simply grown accustomed to them, long ago weighing their risks and the rewards, concluding that the odds are in our favor.  Ironically, our comfort with risk creates a new form of risk, the illusion of safety that results when the negative consequences of risk have been successfully avoided for a period of time.  Becoming anesthetized to risk almost always has a disastrous outcome.

Avalanches provide a useful metaphor for risk and risk management.  Jill Fredston, avalanche expert and author of Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches writes about the science of avalanches, avalanche prediction and risk management.  There is much we can learn about risk, its psychology and management, from studying avalanches.  Until I read this book, I assumed that avalanches were freaks of nature, wild and unpredictable.  They are indeed natural disasters that take an average of 28 lives per year in the United States.  But the conditions for and causes of avalanches are well understood.  So well understood, in fact, that anyone who might venture into avalanche country can choose to learn them and, more importantly, avoid them.  They are a manageable risk.

Fredston shares that the word risk has its origins in the Italian word rischiare, which means, “to dare”, a definition that implies both opportunity and choice.  We each process that opportunity and choice differently, and not always rationally.  “We sit in our living rooms, our doors barred against homicidal strangers, watching news of the latest killer virus across the globe while snacking on enough chips to invite heart disease onto the couch with us.”  Time then enters the picture, altering our ability to gauge risk.  As we experience a lag between taking a risk and experiencing the consequences, we are fooled into believing the risk isn’t there.

Avalanche science is advanced enough to predict when and where avalanches will occur based on wind, temperature, degree of slope and other factors.  It seems the greater challenge is convincing the skier that safely traversed a slope yesterday that today, that same slope is hazardous.  Laurence Gonzales writes in Deep Survival that our experience works against us: “the word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than others.”  We think of experience, Fredston observes, as a classroom, but it can also be a prison.  “Often people learn more from making bad decisions than good ones because the consequences are less ambiguous.”

Some individuals and businesses develop a faulty, even fatal risk paradigm, caused by a high tolerance for risk that leads to the filtering of information about a given risk.  The result is judgments based on optimistic risk assessments.  Sociologist Charles Perrow, in his book Normal Accidents, writes: “making a judgment means we create a ‘mental model’ of an expected universe.  You are actually creating a world that is congruent with your interpretation, even though it may be the wrong world.”

There is irony here, because these warnings about risk should not lead a business or person to a total risk avoidance strategy.  It simply isn’t possible, but of greater importance, life without risk is no life at all.  The business that fails to push the envelope of risk accomplishes nothing meaningful, and in the end is quite forgettable.  The same is true at the individual level.  As Fredston observes, “if everyone on the planet had an equally modest appetite for risk, most of our civilization’s celebrated strides would never have been realized.”

It seems that a wise strategy for managing risk is to focus more on the objective we’re pursuing rather than the risk associated with it.  “Managing risk is a balancing act between a desired outcome and the probability of achieving it,” Fredston states.  “Knowing your goal is key because it becomes the yardstick that helps determine how much you are willing to put at risk.”  Learning from past failures to manage risk is also wise, because, to paraphrase historian Thomas Bailey, every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.

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In the Garden of Beasts – shooting the messenger

1933 was a volatile time in Germany, and this created a problem for newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The United Stated needed to fill its top diplomatic post in Berlin – the ambassadorship – but FDR was having difficulty finding someone who would take the job.  As Erik Larson describes in his book, “In the Garden of Beasts” a diplomatic posting to a European capital should have been a plum.  But recently appointed German chancellor Adolph Hitler was changing Germany in ominous ways.  The result was that no one seemed to want the post.  Some candidates with genuine political star power had turned it down, and this left FDR with a problem.

The man who finally got the job was William Dodd, and on July 5, 1933, Dodd left the United States with his family to serve as the American ambassador to Germany.  At the time of his appointment, Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago who certainly had adequate credentials for the post.  He had been a friend of former president Woodrow Wilson.  He was a democrat active in Chicago politics and had campaigned for FDR.  And, he spoke German.  There was an urgency to fill the post, and Dodd was available but not initially willing.  His name came into circulation, and on June 8, 1933, he received a presidential arm-twisting via the telephone.  Dodd succumbed, and the Senate expediently approved his nomination the day it was sent to the chamber.

A sense of foreboding about Germany had certainly already taken root in the U.S. by 1933, but depending on the community, what fueled it was very different.  The business community was fretting about the loans it had made to Germany.  The nation had suffered crippling inflation in the wake of World War I, helping set the political table for Hitler’s rise to power.  FDR and the State Department made it clear that a priority for Dodd was persuading Germany to make good on its loan commitments.  By 1933, things were clearly looking up economically, but there were other dark clouds forming over the German state.  Hitler’s political makeover of Germany was often violent, and persecution of Jews was already underway.

Dodd and family arrived in this tempest, literally getting a front-row seat to all the political drama.  The ambassador’s residence was within walking distance of the U.S. Embassy, Gestapo headquarters and the Reich Chancellery.  He could not have positioned himself more closely to observe the alarming developments that occurred during his appointment.  He met and socialized with senior Nazi part officials.  The understanding he gained of the true nature of the Nazis, particularly after its bloody purge in 1934 of its political opponents in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives, convinced him that Nazi Germany was on a dangerous political trajectory.  He repeatedly warned his superiors in the State Department about what was going on, but he was largely ignored.  The louder he sounded the alarm bells, the more dismissive his own government became.  Despite the fact that his foreboding conclusions were correct, he expended his political capital and resigned his post when he realized his government wasn’t listening.

There’s a business lesson to learn from Dodd’s experience: employees that are on the frontline often have the best insight into what is going on, what is working and what needs to change.  Everyday, these frontline employees deal with the realities of serving customers through the policies set in the Ivory Tower.  Often, these policies don’t make sense and get in the way of success.  The folks on the frontline see this clearly, but they have the least authority to make changes.  Companies with outstanding service reputations have this in common: they actively listen to the frontline employees and empower them to do something about they things they see are broken.

There’s another lesson here for business leaders that is related to the first: don’t put someone you’re not willing to trust in a position of influence.  In fact, where on the org chart does someone belong that you’re not willing to trust?  In Dodd’s case, he was worthy of trust and his insights about the Nazi regime’s intentions were dead on.  His government should have listened and shared his alarm.  But why would FDR post him to Berlin and then choose not to trust his insight?  Blame it on expediency.  FDR needed to fill the post quickly and Dodd was available.  Not only was this lack of trust ridiculous, it was dangerous.  If you’re not willing to trust a person you place in a key role, then don’t place them there at all.

When Dodd left Berlin in 1937, he did so quietly, not even notifying the press.  Upon his return to the U.S., he told The New York Times that he “doubted if an American envoy who held his ideals of democracy could represent his country successfully among the Germans at the present time.”  He died on February 9, 1940, having lived long enough to see the nightmare of Nazi aggression come into full bloom, but before seeing his country enter the conflict.

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