Tao of the Zentropist

October 30, 2011

Adventures in (Mis) Management

After a longer than intended absence from this blog, I find myself addressing a subject which has long been of personal interest, and which I believe is both fundamental to and essential for any meaningful semblance of government and commercial enterprise to exist, which is that of management and its practice. Now it is important to note that my own view on whether management and leadership are synonymous is clear-cut; I do not believe this to be the case. It is my own contention, albeit one shared by a number of acknowledged management and leadership gurus, that good (and consequently, excellent) leaders will invariably possess sound understanding and command of management skills and principles, yet it is possible to be a good manager (particularly within a bureaucratic and/or rigidly hierarchical structure), yet be a middling and ineffectual leader.

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Perhaps due to this bias, I personally place great stock in the need for those in leadership positions to be aware of how they are perceived as managers, and how they operate in this regard. And because we often tend to learn more from failures and negative examples, I will call attention to what I perceive as shortcomings or outright failings that I’ve observed thus far in my career. The first step towards resolution or addressing of a weakness is to recognize it for what it is, so perhaps this will prove beneficial. And for those wondering in advance, I have seen many of the behaviors recounted in what follows manifest in a single individual, and consequently, that individual (along with others demonstrating less than desirable management traits) were held in low regard by peers and subordinates, contrary to their own perceptions.

Self deception, it deserves stressing, is nearly always present in poor managers.

IS IT BETTER TO BE FEARED OR LOVED?

When one is placed in a position of authority and responsibility, whether by choice or not, the two default modes by which most people will operate is respect and fear. Those who choose the former path of respect will entrust that subordinates and those accountable to them will perform to the best of their ability because they do not wish to disappoint someone whose work, reputation, personality and/or some other attribute resonates with them. Those who follow out of respect seem to “rise to the occasion” or “bring their A-game” in order to match (or exceed) performance expectations in a very positive way.

On the other hand, those who rely on management through the negative emotion of fear, which may consist of overt or implied intimidation (i.e. “I have the power to fire you”), reliance on strict hierarchical chains of command, public dress-downs or humiliation of under-performers, etc. must understand that they are eliciting desired behaviors through forced compliance rather than voluntary compliance. In other words, they employ the “stick” rather than the “carrot” approach. While I certainly have a strong viewpoint on which approach I personally favor and default to, I will not deny that fear can be a powerful motivator and there are managers that achieve results largely based on fear. The greatest danger, in my opinion, is managers who confuse these two opposing motivational factors and do not clearly understand that which they are practicing. If you choose to employ a “management by fear” agenda, know that you are vulnerable the instant your power is perceived as waning or the fear among subordinates dissipates. Conversely, those who rely on respect to manage must understand that should that respect for some reason be shaken, unless it is restored one’s authority may very well diminish.

Another key component to management (which in turn promotes good leadership) is remaining authentic. Authenticity is a quality which can be at once elusive as well as self-evident; many people can instinctively sense when others are putting up a false front or are acting contrary to their actual nature. Thus, the admonition to “Know thyself” is critical to being able to find one’s true self, and to let this guide one’s decisions and behavior. Working both in and around an industry (Entertainment) notorious for attracting people predisposed towards creating illusions, fabrications and false projections in order to get what they want, it is still interesting to note that some of the most dysfunctional and toxic personalities drawn to show business do remain authentic in their own perverse way. These individuals see little value in conforming to what are otherwise more widely considered acceptable standards of behavior and conduct, as often enforced in other industries, and consequently pay no heed in doing so. Whether they are admired or reviled for such attitudes and behavior (which in turn is largely dependent upon their perceived success and whether they can benefit those expressing the opinion), they are authentic to their natures. Of course, dealing with those who display sociopathic or psychopathic behaviors can be difficult for others, particularly when these tendencies are readily concealed.

All other things being equal, good managers will align their own core values and the values of the organization that they serve (which ideally are not too far apart) so that the appearance of, or actual existence of, hypocrisy is minimized. It is important as a manager to communicate what is expected of an employee and how that employee will be measured and judged, failure to do so leads to confusion as well as expectations which having never been vocalized or expressed, will seldom be met.

REPUTATION TRUMPS SPIN AND WHY INTEGRITY MATTERS

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Another issue for managers to be conscious of is that reputation always trumps spin. While it is certainly possible to fool some people for an indefinite period of time, fooling everyone indefinitely is highly unlikely. Managers with poor inter-personal skills or who are clearly out of their depth may convince themselves that their “secret” is safe, and may actively work to tell others of their greatness and alleged accomplishments, but this illusion cannot be maintained in the long term. I have met people who have proudly proclaimed their own greatness and confidently boasted of how well regarded they are by their subordinates (who interestingly enough, they refer to as “minions” which even when said tongue-in-cheek, reveals a lot about the manager’s character), only to find out with minimal probing that they are tone deaf to how others really see them.

While there are times, as a manager, where you may have to take actions that are not particularly liked by subordinates, if undertaken fairly and with good cause, the dislike of the action will generally not carry over to personal dislike of the individual. Those who fail to understand and appreciate this distinction are the one whose reputations, invariably, are nowhere near as “rosy” as they may perceive.

While one would normally hope that the following would not need to be said, both publicly discussed cases and my own anecdotal experiences have identified the moral and legal imperative of maintaining integrity. Furthermore, the cautionary note that must be sounded is that those who preach most vociferously about integrity, yet conduct themselves in a manner contrary to what they preach, are most assuredly devoid of integrity and ought to be duly censored for this. A more recent example that I’ve personally witnessed in recent years is observing an individual publicly stress the importance of integrity and ethical behavior, yet then proceed to misrepresent material facts, allow “errors of omission” to creep into documentation utilized for evaluation of a company’s suitability to perform certain work, and otherwise twist, distort or recast events and behavioral patterns to rationalize actions which were of personal self-interest and benefit, but far removed from objective truth or even the interests of the organization.

Having integrity requires one to possess some framework for evaluating choices in a context of “right” versus “wrong” (in which there are some absolutes) and not engaging in ethical and mental gymnastics to justify one’s favored decision or position when it does not confirm to the criteria established via that framework.

THE CARDINAL SIN OF MICRO-MANAGEMENT

Another pitfall which good managers must avoid is either the desire and/or tendency to micro-manage others. This is perhaps one of the most soul and morale killing activities that can be done, particularly when those subordinates are competent and experienced. It has been said that people less frequently quit companies than they do bosses, and micromanagement of tasks is often high on the list for why employees can no longer tolerate their direct managers. As a manager, if you feel the need to micromanage, this brings into question the competency of the person you are actively overseeing, and if this is indeed the issue, more appropriate remedies may exist. Perhaps the tasks or expectations are not clear, and further investigation and definition will solve the problem. Or, maybe the skills of the person are simply not up to the challenge, in which case the hiring process and decision-making broke down, or the job responsibilities have changed and the person’s skills have not kept pace with that change.

If as a manager, you are hiring people primarily because you do not feel threatened by them, and are loath to hire those who might one day rise to your own title and responsibilities, I would posit that the problem lies with you. The best leaders, and indeed managers, will hire people smarter and who potentially may be more accomplished than themselves precisely because they are not fearful of being replaced or overshadowed. What comes to mind for those who cannot bring themselves to embrace this approach is a timid, lazy and mindless bureaucrat more intent on job security than performing meaningful work.

NORTH VERSUS SOUTH KOREA IN A NUTSHELL

I will conclude with an incident that has stuck in my mind for years, which was a meeting that I attended with a notoriously bombastic and difficult literary manager/film producer and Jeff Berg, the chairman of the talent agency International Creative Management (ICM). During the course of the meeting, Berg posed the question, “What is the difference between North and South Korea?” His one word answer to his own question was, “Management.”

If you think about it, obvious oversimplifications aside, there still remains a lot of truth in that succinct response. Good management can lead to productivity fueled by heightened morale, collective belief in an organization’s mission and vision, and a desire on the part of individual workers to not be the weak link in the chain and to perform accordingly. Poor management kills employee morale and productivity, leads to unfocused decision-making, muddles or obscures any sense of mission/vision (if these existed to begin with), and creates a culture where employees may perform at some bare minimum level, but will not be self-motivated to push boundaries or to take unsolicited steps which might benefit the employer.

Most of us have no question as to which type of organization we’d like to belong or what kind of manager we’d like to either be or report to (or think we are), yet there is still sufficient evidence to suggest that mismanagement, rather than good management, is the order of the day within far too many businesses…

November 16, 2010

The Art of Formlessness

Mastering the Art of Formlessness is as valuable in the business world as it is the practice of martial arts. The ability to assume different forms as circumstances dictate, if only momentarily, can be invaluable in dealing not only with business competitors, but even rivals, supervisors and co-workers.

Depending both on one’s interpretation of “formlessness” and its actual application, this practice may be construed as an expression of deceptiveness, although in reality, it argues for the ability to not be wedded to a single definition by outside parties, and to display such traits as adaptability and resourcefulness in order to provide a range of useful attributes. Fans of Bruce Lee may recall his admonition to, “Be like water,” which was not an analogy original to him. However, his point to remain malleable and fluid, traits that water in its liquid form clearly exhibits, speak to its nature.

CHANGING YOUR STATE OF BEING WITHOUT BETRAYING YOUR NATURE

So how exactly does the pursuit of formlessness translate into everyday life?

Ultimately, it emphasizes the importance of not adhering to a rigid definition or state of being, which is a hallmark of remaining adaptable to changing circumstances. While change has been a constant since time immemorial, the speed of change which confronts many of us on a daily basis only seems to accelerate, and the consequences of not adapting to such change only seem to grow more severe over time, rather than less so. However, given the all too natural resistance to change which seems to be evident in most people, such a process of “re-invention” or even evolution is often only undertaken under the gravest of circumstances, and seldom willingly. In other words, the default setting for most people is to be “reactive” rather than “proactive.”

This I believe is a fundamental mistake, and one that can cause missed opportunities, if not complete paralysis in our modern working world. Water again is an appropriate metaphor in understanding the practical application of this strategy. Regardless of the form (i.e. state) that it assumes in a given moment – liquid, solid or gas – water’s core properties remain the same. However, by its very malleable nature, water adapts to its environment and short of consumption and evaporation, it essentially endures.

ERODE OBSTACLES INDIRECTLY – ONLY APPLY DIRECT FORCE WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES FAVOR

It is readily observable that water, given sufficient time, can erode and otherwise degrade the hardest stone or metals. Yet liquid water, to the touch, can feel quite soft and by definition is supple and pliant, which belies its power to act on other substances.

When dealing with people on a personal level or within a business context, it may be advantageous not to confront them directly or attempt to bend them to your will or influence a favorable decision from your own point of view via a direct approach, but rather to employ more indirect tactics such as flattery or via compromise on less important issues.  Alternatively, you might re-direct their attention to other matters in order to make the person feel more secure, powerful, and ultimately more favorably disposed to agree to the primary result that you are seeking.

Direct confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical, is ultimately predicated on being stronger, or in a position of real or perceived greater advantage than the other party. It’s really that simple. So if direct force is to be applied in order to seek a favorable resolution, you must be confident in the ability of the force that you can muster to overwhelm the opponent’s counter in a specific moment in time.

Otherwise, your use of force is likely to result in failure.

POUR INTO THE WEAKNESS WHILE EVADING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH

It is important to understand that “strength” is a relative term and that attributes which in one context might be considered favorable or classified as assets, can in another context become liabilities and vulnerabilities which can be exploited.

For example, if you are dealing with an individual with a rampant ego, challenging that person’s ego directly may be a non-starter or detrimental to obtaining the results that you are seeking. Such people may be threatened by ideas or work output which challenges their own preconceptions or potentially exposes poor decisions which they have made. The art in dealing with someone of this temperament is to appeal to their ego and vanity and present your ideas or work in such a way as to enable them to assume partial or even full credit for the work or idea, or to otherwise point out benefits that they can realize by supporting your vision. In doing so, you avoid challenging their authority or knowledge directly, and do not cause them to “lose face” with others, which is often of paramount concern for such individuals.

From one point of view, such behavior might seem manipulative, but human interaction is often based on people seeking to obtain a specific result, which may or may not coincide with the direct interests of the other party. When interests align, securing such cooperation is easy, but in situations where they do not, diplomacy and tact, perhaps tempered with some subterfuge, are often the means utilized to obtain what is desired.

NEVER ABANDON YOUR PRINCIPLES, BUT APPLY MISDIRECTION WHEN NECESSARY

As human beings, we make choices in life, and among these are whether we stand for certain principles or not, and whether we believe in situational ethics or not. Truthfully, in my interactions in both business and personal affairs, I’ve noticed that there is a segment of the population which believes solely in expediency and will change their stances on issues to suit their immediate needs. For people of this ilk, “truth” is highly elastic and integrity is a nice concept to pay lip service to, but is absent when the rubber meets the road.

In assuming formlessness, an individual can still remain true to core principles and closely held beliefs. Those who dissemble and spin the truth are fraudulent, not “formless.” Water, even if existing in a solid or gaseous state, returns to its liquid form when environmental conditions change. It does not become something else.

Your principles, and how firmly you hold to them, will in large part determine your destiny. You can temporarily assume a posture of formlessness by not clinging to a narrowly defined model of attributes and behavior without betraying the core of who you are.

This is the Art of Formlessness…

October 20, 2010

On (Office) Politics

“War is a continuation of politics by other means…”

Carl von Clausewitz

A few days ago, while performing research on another unrelated matter, I stumbled across an interesting article written by Don Tennant on IT Business Edge entitled, “10 Reasons to Avoid Office Politics.” While I admire the spirit in which the article was written, and actually agree with Don’s reasoning (which was written in response to information on Salary.com encouraging the practice of office politicking in order to get ahead), as a pragmatist I believe that holding oneself aloof from office politics, as well-intentioned as it may be, can seriously backfire and like it or not, acquiring the skills to outmaneuver those that resort to this practice is part of one’s job (and even life) survival toolkit.

POLITICS IN THE WORKPLACE – IS PARTICIPATION REALLY OPTIONAL?

One reality that must be acknowledged is that by definition, interaction among two or more individuals in any social setting (and make no mistake, the workplace is a social setting, more so for some than others) immediately establishes a power baseline, in which the two individuals, consciously or not, establish a relationship which may be more complex and dynamic than either are aware. At the risk of being misinterpreted, all relationships, whether professional, personal (e.g. based on notions of friendship), romantic or casual acquaintances, have either a formally acknowledged balance of power and/or some expectations of reciprocity. Humans, like most animal species, inherently establish a social order and dominance, and while this admission may be offensive to some, wishing it weren’t so or pretending it doesn’t exist can be highly detrimental to one’s career.

While office politics may take many forms, more often than not the most insidious and subversive expression of this “great game” is the back-biting and hard feelings engendered by playing different people, if not entire departments, off of each other in order to realize some personal agenda or gain.  Sometimes this is done to mark one’s territory or to curry favor with others (typically of higher rank and authority) within the organization, but sometimes it’s done for the perverse pleasure of sowing chaos to underscore one’s “importance” or to position oneself as a “broker” of favors, with the full expectation that payback (with interest) will be expected in the future.

While it’s not necessarily true in all instances, some of the most adept and accomplished office politicos tend to be those who are most inept, incompetent and eager to shirk responsibilities by assigning these tasks to others in order to cover for their shortcomings. Typically, these people have well-developed office survival skills and have learned how to manipulate corporate bureaucracies or enjoy favored status with higher-level management, which is why they manage to flourish even if harder-working and more accomplished employees could outperform them if given the opportunity.  While we typically like to believe that workplace promotions are based on merit, even in environments where hard metrics and incisive performance evaluations are utilized, allowing one’s “soft skills” to atrophy can blemish and otherwise distinguished history of accomplishments.

COUNTERMEASURES WHEN DEALING WITH WOULD-BE MACHIAVELLIS

One of the most challenging situations to deal with in a workplace environment is when a co-worker, especially one with longer tenure or more prestige and power in the organization, is working behind the scenes to discredit you or actively sabotage your efforts.  While perhaps many are familiar with “The Prince” by Machiavelli, which is arguably one of the earliest literary works to address realpolitik, a more recent book which contains a great deal of wisdom (and admittedly, perhaps a healthy dose of cynicism about the human condition) regarding relationships is Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power.” Among the laws that Greene advances are the following:

  • Never Outshine The Master
  • Never Put Too Much Trust In Friends, Learn How To Use Enemies
  • Conceal Your Intentions
  • Always Say Less Than Necessary

And if you’re seeing a certain pattern beginning to emerge, bear in mind these are merely the first four of his laws! With that being said, I do believe there is a context which must govern the application of these “laws,” and in relationships where true openness and honesty are expected and desired (if such a thing is indeed possible), those who abide by these rules are really “stacking the deck” and not living up to such lofty ideals.

While many of us would tend to be inclined to take the moral high ground and condemn Greene’s observations on how to wield power, there is an argument to be made that when dealing with people that act without scruples, or seek to deceive others through outright fabrications or lies of omission (which they may believe to be harmless, but seldom are), it is morally acceptable and even defensible to deflect their energies and stratagems back at them. For example, if dealing with someone in a position of authority that has raging insecurities, the worst thing one can do is threaten their authority or position, even if unintentionally, by outshining them or failing to call attention to the correctness and efficacy of their actions.

THE POWER TO DICTATE ONE’S FUTURE

There is little doubt in my mind that among the keys to satisfaction with one’s career and working life is to continuously build upon one’s skills in both breadth and depth, while hopefully aligning these with one’s interests and fundamental passions, but we must also accept the fact that in challenging economic times, many people must resort to not necessarily, “Following their bliss” but simply working to survive.

In an “employer’s market,” workers that lack sufficient interpersonal skills, which include the ability to be cunning and perhaps quite circumspect when necessary, may find themselves outmaneuvered by those more willing to engage directly in subterfuge or outright deception. While it’s relatively easy to condemn politics in the workplace, escaping it is probably a chimera, and staking one’s future on illusory beliefs is a poor strategy indeed…

September 22, 2009

The Zentropist Casebook: Ten Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

Anyone who has been in business for a meaningful length of time has encountered the “difficult client.” Of course, this moniker can be attached to a variety of individual habits and behavioral attributes, running the gamut from minor quirks and annoying predilections to full-blown pathologies. The reality is, if you want to stay in business, developing the skills and techniques to mitigate or otherwise counteract “difficult” behavior is vitally important and will affect your bottom line.

Following are 10 time-proven techniques and approaches that have passed muster with the Zentropist and provided some measure of succor when confronting less than cooperative yet paying clients:

  1. Set Expectations Early (And Often). This cannot be overstated. Even during the courtship phase, a service provider must be forthright and honest in what the client can expect in terms of resources, deliverables and energy expended in service of the project. And your word must be your bond. Individuals and companies that promise the moon to make the sale and then treat the fulfillment process as an afterthought are courting rancor and bad juju. And quite frankly, they deserve it.
  2. Define Your Deliverables. Attention to detail is extremely important at every stage of the process. It’s essential that you are very clear about what it is you (or your representatives) are selling and what you intend to deliver. I’ve seen numerous companies get themselves into hot water by failing to adequately utilize inclusionary and/or exclusionary language when listing a product they intend to create. For example, The Huffington Post is a blog. So is Tao of the Zentropist. You’ll brook no argument from me that the scale, scope and corresponding expenses of the two are radically different. And budgets aside, if a client expects to receive a deliverable listed as a “blog” with no further description of its functionality, there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for all of the bells and whistles that you failed to account for.
  3. Clear Communication Trumps Head in the Sand. We all know the adage about killing the messenger. Nobody likes to deliver anything but good news. Yet sometimes this is necessary. A large number of projects start to go downhill and coast rapidly towards failure due to the inability of stakeholders to openly communicate, address issues as they arise, and find solutions that are agreeable to all. Don’t make this mistake. Provide updates to your client in writing, at least on a weekly basis, and if need be, on a daily one. Problems generally don’t solve themselves or otherwise go away. Deal with them and move on.
  4. Report Progress and Impediments Equally. Consider this one a corollary to #3 above. While it’s important to acknowledge the success in achieving stated objectives and milestones, if a project is facing delays (regardless of the cause), figure out what can be done to get things back on track. This isn’t about assigning blame (at least not at the outset), but dealing with a factual reality (i.e. “We’re behind schedule”) and finding ways to correct course. Such proactive behavior helps negate the argument down the road that you were aware of things going sideways but failed to act in a timely manner or otherwise alert the client.
  5. Tie Payments to Progress Milestones and/or Hard Dates. Depending on the scope of the project, anticipated duration, risk assessments and other considerations, a service provider is likely to only secure a percentage advance on total fees due. While in some situations, “half up front and half upon delivery” may work from a cash flow and risk perspective to both parties, this is not always the case. If you are concerned about a client possibly unreasonably holding back fees or causing delays in delivery due to indecisiveness or failure to provide feedback in a timely fashion, you may want to consider developing a payment schedule which calls for more frequent payments tied to key milestones in the schedule, with a hard date attached as well. For example, “25 percent of fees are due upon delivery of preliminary draft of narrative or by [insert desired date], whichever comes first.”
  6. Put Yourself in the Client’s Shoes. When negotiating or even debating, it’s a recommended practice to look at the situation from the other party’s perspective, to understand what their concerns and agenda are likely to be and to place yourself in a position to counter these as necessary. Understand that as a service provider, you may be an unknown variable to the buyer, who may be risking substantial capital, time and opportunity in engaging your services. Showing some empathy can go a long way in earning trust and breaking down barriers, especially if the client has been burned before. And remember, if you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, at the end of it you’ve gone a mile and you’re wearing their shoes.
  7. Sometimes Listening Wins Converts. One of the hardest lessons for most of us to learn is the art of active listening. Actually paying attention to what another party is saying without interruption or immediate judgment. Try it sometime. Many people who are perceived as “difficult” may be that way because of insecurities or because they feel unheard. By listening to them, you will gain valuable insight, which may in turn provide leverage in managing them. The majority of people love to talk about themselves. Let them.
  8. The Customer is Always Right – Until They Are Not. It’s a delicate balancing act, when a client becomes demanding or feels entitled to things that were never part of the agreement. Sometimes in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, you bend, as a willow does in a storm. But with that being said, if you allow yourself to be walked on and taken advantage of, invariably that’s exactly what will happen. It’s perfectly fine to give a client enough rope to hang themselves — and once they’ve done so, you can extricate them without gloating and educate them as to the error of their ways.  Your mileage may vary in the application of this axiom, so use it judiciously.
  9. Know Where “The Line” Is – And Have a Plan if Crossed. As service providers, we all have different thresholds for risk and pain. Make sure you understand where yours is for a particular project and have a contingency plan in place to deal with the situation if the Rubicon is crossed.
  10. Know When to Walk Away – And When to Run. While it’s debatable whether Kenny Rogers knows good chicken or not, he nailed this premise in his lyrics to “The Gambler.” Sometimes a client will simply prove to be impossible to deal with (see #9) and there’s simply no reasonable way of completing the project and retaining your sanity or any semblance of profit margin. It’s always a good idea to have a contract that provides language to allow both parties to give notice and walk away from the deal if necessary, and if there comes a time that you need to invoke this clause, that’s why it’s there.

While we all hope to have long, financially lucrative careers that avoid the necessity of interacting with troublesome personalities, it’s best to be prepared for the latter, especially in pursuit of the former. Understanding what makes a client difficult and how to manage them is an art in of itself, and one worth mastering in the course of business.

May 28, 2009

When You Meet a Swordsman…

In Thomas Cleary’s translation of several lesser known (at least in the West) Chinese classics compiled within the book “Thunder in the Sky” he references a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist aphorism which deserves some attention:

“When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.”

This lesson is apropos in both one’s personal and professional dealings. The ability to quickly size people up, either as allies, adversaries, or something not quite either is a skill that under some circumstances can mean the difference between life and death. In business, it could carry serious financial and even legal implications when taking the measure of a prospective business partner, competitor, creditor or debtor, among others.

Those versed in theories of warfare both Eastern and Western have realized that war, when practiced shrewdly, is based on deception, and convincing the opponent of “truths” that are anything but; in concealing one’s strengths (and intentions) until the last possible moment; and to borrow a turn of phrase from Winston Churchill, surrounding one’s weakness(es) “with a bodyguard of illusion” which downplays or otherwise mitigates pragmatic evaluation of reality.

As with many others, the Zentropist feels strongly that parallels can be drawn between conduct in business and prosecution of warfare (which in itself is an extension of politics and statecraft, as Von Clausewitz observed), although rather than seeking the annihilation of one’s opponents / business rivals, it is better to subscribe to victory through superior performance in terms of products and services, marketing, and customer service and support (and for some businesses, pricing is certainly part of this matrix as well).  In “meeting a swordsman,” it is vital that one seeks to uncover the motivations and intentions that underlie the other entity’s behavior, to provide insight into character and likely reactions to circumstances that may present themselves.

This is especially important when evaluating strategic or business partnerships and alliances, since those that seek harmonious and mutually beneficial relations understand that a “win/win” scenario must be the end goal which the parties pursue, yet some individuals and companies simply cannot do anything but pay lip service to this notion. For some, business, as with other aspects of life, is a zero-sum game in which the advancement of one’s aims is automatically at the expense of another’s. Those that subscribe to such theory will tend to be highly deceptive and sometimes amoral agents that only serve themselves and cannot be relied upon to uphold their end of any deal. You must be prepared to deal with such treachery, and one of the best means to do so is to limit your interactions wherever possible to avoid those that would employ the ancient strategy of, “To hold a sword behind the smile.”

A final take-away from this lesson is that the Zentropist does not suggest that deception or obfuscation has no legitimate role in business or personal affairs, nor is it inherently “dishonorable” behavior. To a certain degree in this instance, the ends can justify the means, and it is certainly one thing to mislead a competitor or business rival, for example, and another to betray a business partner, vendor, supplier or affiliate, especially for one’s financial gain. Ultimately, in one form or another, we must all answer for our actions and those that can operate with clean conscience due to the rightness of their actions will always be better served than those that seek to rationalize their self-serving or otherwise malevolent behavior.

And we all would do well to remember that, when confronting a swordsman, our own blade must be fast and true and without hesitation, for the “fluent blade cuts cleanly…”

To learn more about the author, please visit Black Rock Consulting or drop us an email

April 30, 2009

5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships

Business relationships, like personal and romantic ones, are fundamental to our lives, whether we are freelancers or employees (I especially urge the latter group to understand that in this day and age, unless they belong to a union or have an employment contract, they have little more security or assurances than the former category). While all of these relationships share some commonalities, and all require constant nurturing, a key differentiator is “financial consideration,” a.k.a. “money.”

Don’t kid yourself — money does change everything, and failure to acknowledge and respect this fact can lead to disastrous results. Disputes over money can destroy friendships and marriages, so it is certainly understandable that in any form of business relationship, sensitivity towards one’s economic future, earning ability, cash flow or the continued viability of a venture is very high.

There are 5 critical factors that can go a long way in helping to identify, form and cultivate over time business relationships which have real value and substance for the involved parties. This goes beyond mere “networking,” which when awkwardly approached is transparently insincere and self-serving. Ultimately, if you wish to be successful, you need to invest very real time and energy into the process of building these business relationships, and you must honestly care about the outcome.

So here are the Zentropist’s 5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships:

  1. Open Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Synergy
  4. Aligned Ethics & Values
  5. Reciprocity

Let’s briefly comment upon each of these.

Open Communication. I strongly believe that inability or failure to clearly communicate what each party wants out of a business alliance or partnership up front, or during the course of the relationship, is a leading cause for dissatisfaction and dissolution. It is vitally important to set expectations early, and to be frank and forthcoming about what the parties each bring to the table, and how they might positively influence each other. It is understood that businesses exist to earn money, and to be profitable they must earn more than they spend, so there is no shame in couching discussions in potential return on investment (ROI) or “How can we each make money by working together in some capacity?” But with that being said, remember that businesses, much like nation states, don’t have “friends” but rather have “interests,” and where these are in agreement and not mutually exclusive, opportunity exists to work together as allies.

Trust. Trust is essential to any form of relationship and in my opinion, is generally earned over time. Trust can take a long time to build, yet can be destroyed in an instant. Fundamentally, however, I do not believe that you can have a meaningful business relationship with a person or entity that you simply do not trust. At best, you may have some form of “understanding” or “relationship of convenience,” but such constructs are fleeting. You must be open to the notion of allowing another party to earn your trust, but not so giving as to be taken by the charlatans that will abuse this generosity of spirit. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Be willing to trust, but verify.”

Synergy. This is a term that often pops up in discussions of strategic partnerships. Rather than being a trite expression, it actually has very real meaning, predicated on the very definition of the word (the Greek syn-ergos, or “working together”). Situations in which two or more entities mutually cooperate in order to facilitate an advantageous outcome can be described as “synergistic.” Synergy can be derived from offering services which complement each other; from shared methodologies or approaches; from offering solutions which address different aspects of the value chain, etc. At the end of the day, every business should be looking at initiatives and deals in one of two ways: is this something that allows us to make more money, or to save money? As a product or service provider, part of your sales process is to convince the prospective customer that your offering addresses this need. In a business partnership, you not only must analyze this from the prospective of the working relationship with the partner, but if mutually closing a prospect together, how your joint offering will be perceived by the would-be buyer.

Aligned Ethics and Values. It is my contention that a business cannot successfully maintain a relationship with another that does not fundamentally value the same things or view the world from a similar ethical construct. Like oil and water, inconsistencies in theory and especially in practice simply do not mix. During the course of my professional career, I have been involved with entities that, diplomatically speaking, had a far more loose definition of what is ethical and right behavior. Whether that is organizations that value the sale more than the honest fulfillment of the agreement (and devote their energies and resources accordingly), or those that believe in delivering only to the level of the client’s sophistication (“good enough” versus doing your best for each and every client), I’ve witnessed it all. Far too many people and organizations pay lip service to ethics or claim to embrace certain values, and then betray this in their actions. If a prospective or existing business partner does not “walk the talk” in this regard, I believe it is incumbent to disengage. If they are willing to cheat or short change a customer, or to misrepresent themselves or their capabilities and accomplishments, there is little reason to believe they will be (or have been) straight with you. Trust matters.

Reciprocity. Business relationships, like other types, can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. By this I mean that the balance of power and capabilities may be evenly distributed in a bi-lateral arrangement (i.e. “symmetrical”), or may be weighed in favor of one party (i.e. “asymmetrical”). In either case, the willingness to reciprocate is extremely important, although it takes on even more meaning when the more powerful entity treats the junior party with respect and consideration. It is not enough to ask, “What’s in it for me?” but rather, you must ask, “How can I bring value to this relationship and benefit the other party?” Because in doing so, you are essentially building “equity” in the relationship, and if the other party is honorable, trustworthy and committed, you will be directly or indirectly enriching your business either now or in the future. Hence the necessity of ensuring that the other four factors are present; if they are not, it is unlikely that good faith efforts will be reciprocated, and you cannot define the relationship as “meaningful.”

Black Rock Consulting is always willing to explore meaningful relationships with like-minded business owners. Give us a call or send us an email and let’s see where the rubber meets the road. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

March 17, 2009

Why Ethics Matter

Do ethics matter? You’re damn right they do.

Given all of the press coverage of the financial sector over the past year especially, as well as the tendency for media to focus on the negativity and general “bad behavior” of many people that are in the public eye (or seek such attention), one might conclude that American society in particular is suffering from a serious lapse of ethics. Perhaps in our feverish desire to realize the “American Dream,” which in this day and age is not only the accumulation of material wealth but also the development of “celebrity capital” (i.e. the realization of Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” via our pervasive media and the belief that “being famous” somehow validates one’s existence as a human being), many people are willing to take shortcuts and act in a manner which rationalizes that any action that achieves a desired result is warranted, no matter the impact on others.

You can call it selfishness, or “looking out for number one,” but at its heart, such behavior is an outgrowth of a lack of an ethical framework and the moral fiber to live up to the challenges inherent in such a system, even as one may repeatedly fall short. Even so, it is my belief that most people do want to behave in an ethical and just manner, even if they are tempted to stray from the path from time to time. This is one of the fundamental challenges and internal battles that we all must struggle with, and how we prosecute this internal campaign reveals a great deal about who we are.

Black Elk, a Lakota Medicine Man whose wisdom has fortunately been preserved outside of his own people through John G. Heihardt’s translation of their discussions entitled Black Elk Speaks, clearly acknowledged this when he said:

“It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among the shadows men get lost.”

In my efforts to begin to codify the Tao of the Zentropist and cultivate what I perceive as universal truths and commonalities encoded in both Eastern and Western traditions, I have clearly discerned what I believe is a meaningful ethical framework that can be applied to both professional and personal development. I have made no claim to having discovered something new, or a body of “secret” knowledge, but rather, I am seeking to collect, distill and synthesize what I believe to be a body of knowledge and wisdom whose constant application will allow us to grow as individuals as well as collectively, and perhaps in doing so,  improve the human condition.

Whether or not others choose to embrace, or contribute to this nominal notion of Zentropism is really not the point. I can personally lay no claim to any great wisdom or “keys to success” which will unlock the fetters which bind the individual. Truthfully, it is my view that we all innately possess the necessary tools to unlock and unleash our potential, if only we are willing to embark upon the journey of discovery. It is only when we have traveled this road for some time that we discover that ultimately, it is without end (for even death is seen by many as but a transitional phase), and while it will contain moments of sheer joy and exultation, it will also have its share of pain and hardship.

For me, development of the Tao of the Zentropist seems to be part of my own journey and resonates at a deeply personal level as I seek a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.  If my writings eventually help or otherwise positively influence someone else, then this is an additional victory.

There are those who feel that we have reached a crossroads, and that the challenges that humanity is facing on a global scale are but a possible prelude to a “nasty, brutish and short” future if we do not make adjustments to our current course. While such apocalyptic statements tend to be delivered in the context of strong religious viewpoints on the matter, study of various world cultures, including many indigenous ones, seems to hint at cyclic periods of destruction, or as Zentropism would have it, failure to acknowledge and address the entropy which leaches energy and put it to constructive and positive use.

Marcus Aurelius, the wise Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher, observed in his Meditations that, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”

It is a time for us to collectively examine the “things we care about” and to pay heed to the idea that how we obtain certain things in life is even more important than simply obtaining them…

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