A View from Blue Grotto

Thursday, January 29, 2009

118 years

I read with great sadness a January 26 WSJ article – Recession Batters Law Firms, Triggering Layoffs, Closings.

The article leads with the closing of 118 year-old San Francisco firm Heller Ehrman, and further recounts 160 year-old New York firm Thatcher Proffitt & Wood’s closing.

My sadness was not simply because the article signaled again how hard hit every industry is during a financial crisis, but because centuries-old companies are forced to close their doors. The US itself has only 233 years under our belt, so a 100-year-old company says a lot.

And each time I hear of another American institution shuttering its doors, I despair. Each community, each industry has their own landmark institutions – in Minnesota they include 107-year-old 3M, makers of Scotch Tape; the dry goods company General Mills, founded in 1928; and the nearly-50-year-old Target, originally a subsidiary of another, now since gone, MN icon – Dayton’s. Target opened its first store in Roseville, MN in 1962. My family shopped at that very Target store from that first year. Now, I shop at the Super Target on that same footprint in Roseville.

Members of the Blue Grotto team worked on 3M’s centennial celebration, producing a significant publication that documented not just ad campaigns of Scotch Tape, but their 100 year road to success – with the bumps and bruises that come with being a centenarian. Think of your own family, your grandparents…if they lived to be 100…what they could tell you. Not simply nostalgia (in MN, it’s stories about walking to school, up a hill, in -5 degrees, in the middle of a blizzard, before Thinsulate), but having lived through war(s), Depression, recessions, Presidential firsts like JFK – the first Catholic president, and Ronald Regan – the first divorced president, the Cold War, and the coldest year on record. One hundred years of life buys a lot of experience, for people and businesses alike.

Maybe your grandparents were small business owners, or big business owners, and you are responsible for the next generation of success. Maybe you are following in their footsteps as a lawyer, a grocer, an ad exec, a mechanic, a publisher, a CEO. Maybe you are carving your own niche and you are the pioneer for your family. What would you most want to pass down to the next generation of your family, your employees, your community?

With extremely harsh financial conditions, the kind that force 118-year-old law firms to close up shop, it’s hard to justify spending money on your history. But, if for nothing other than posterity, think about how you would/could/should take an accounting of your organization’s past. And how you would like to be remembered.

Email me with examples of ways you are capturing and communicating your organization’s history. I’m pretty sure the folks at Heller Ehrman did not expect that their 118th anniversary party would be their last.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Raising your IQ

“Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” Alan Kay, computer programming pioneer

Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was interviewed in the October 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review on the topic of leading strategic change. In an article titled Institutional Yes, Bezos talks about creating, and sustaining, a culture of “entrepreneurial optimism.”

It was interesting to read about a company I must admit I know little about, other than having made purchases at Amazon.com. Bezos was incredibly candid about the culture of the company and their guiding principles.

One of the questions the authors asked: does strategy rely on a key ingredient – the CEO/founder? Or is it an institutional capacity? Bezos’ reflections indicate he and his team (he demurs on the imprint he naturally has on the company) have built a culture that propagates breakthrough ideas, as well as the capacity to implement them.

For example, Amazon’s senior team meets weekly for four hours to discuss strategies. That’s a significant chunk of time each week to devote to throwing stuff against the wall. But that overall commitment to strategic planning is affirmed throughout the company, and, as Bezos says, “is informed by a cultural point of view.” The company relies on everyone from senior staff to fulfillment center guys and gals to bubble up ideas on everything from customer service improvement to cost savings.

It’s true. Every level of your organization contributes to your success. I quoted Scott Thurm of the Wall Street Journal in an earlier Blue Grotto blog: “Trying to make conversation during a recent elevator ride, I asked a package-delivery courier whether it was more efficient to start at the top of the building and work down, or start at the bottom of the building and work up. "It depends on the time of day," he replied.” So, instilling the value of your employees’ perspective only increases your chances of success. But you have to ask for, and they in turn need to expect to give, their input.

Bezos explains one of the challenges of success is to create repeatable processes, and a culture that reinforces Amazon’s commitment to its customers is paramount to their growth and continued success. Every employee spends time in the fulfillment centers within their first year on the job and every two years they spend two days working in customer service. “Everyone has to be able to work in a call center.”

I’m guessing that some of the more refined perspective comes out of the call centers. And, greatly impacts those strategic planning sessions.

Email me with examples of how your organization is “informed by a cultural view.” And whether or not you leverage your culture to your advantage.

My favorite Bezos quote: “Be afraid of our customers, because those are the folks who have the money. Our competitors are never going to send us money.” Good advice.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.