Bonus Backlash – We’re mad as hell!

It was probably inevitable. The AIG bonuses, followed by Congress’ knee jerk response. The final straw. The tipping point that would convert economically frightened and somewhat paralyzed Americans into a raging group of Howard Beales. Remember him?

Howard Beale was the character in the 1976 movie “Networkâ€?? who encouraged people to “get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

I am struck by the parallels here, both the economic conditions of the time (I was there. The economy at the time was worse than now.) and the helpless outrage of the people. We need to be angry now. There are very good reasons for our current outrage. My concern is that we direct it at the proper targets. Although many want to aim at the AIG execs themselves and castigate them as greedy SOBs, beware the mob mentality that sends death threats to their family members. As Americans, we can and must be better than that.

Instead, let’s channel our anger into positive action. First, understand the causes and players here. Learn the facts. Then, consider actions that are more likely to make a difference. As business people, there are some real dangers looming as well as some real lessons to learn. Here are points I am focused on at the moment and I offer them for your consideration.

• The bonuses were huge and completely inappropriate, but they were contractual and legal.
• Key members of Congress and the administration were fully aware of the bonuses ahead of time. In fact, language they deliberately placed in recent legislation allowed the dollars to flow.
• The move in Congress to tax them at 90% is most likely NOT legal, or constitutional. (And this from our supposed lawmakers! Have they read the Constitution? I have. Haven’t you?) It is also a dangerous precedent that business people need to watch very carefully.
• Not all corporate execs are greedy bad guys. In fact, most are not. As a business owner, I am a business exec, and I assure you that I place ethics and integrity at the top of my corporate principles. Corporations are not evil entities, but people like you and me, making a product or offering a service as a fair exchange for a customer’s dollars.
• Actions have consequences, some of them unintended but still very real. Congress needs to study this principle, especially now that our Treasury Secretary is proposing a public/private partnership to address the toxic asset problem strangling our banks and lenders. Will private companies and their executives (some greedy, most not – don’t forget that!) feel comfortable participating if they fear punitive taxation, especially when it comes after the fact, essentially altering the rules of a game in progress?

I think our government should abandon their punitive mentality and go after these guys with simple, old-fashioned shame. Take the higher, principled road and use the bully pulpit to encourage greater integrity. For example, try returning all those campaign dollars they received from AIG. Perhaps then Congressional actions will be viewed as examples of the best in America, rather than political pandering.

Finally, remember that the profit motive is really a positive thing. It only becomes greed when it goes too far. A healthy profit motive, the hope of reasonable reward for effort, is what encourages Americans to innovate, build, become entrepreneurs, and ultimately drive our capitalist economy. It will not help our economy recover if our government keeps punishing success!

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The Word Cop – Less isn’t more. It’s fewer!

Greetings, gentle readers! The Word Cop was enjoying a peaceful lunch break just now, listening to the news and attempting to ignore the commercials. In spite of my best efforts, one commercial intruded on my reveries and the fighting Word Cop had to come out!

The ad was for Guaranteed Tax Relief. First off, let me state categorically that my comments here are not intended to insult or otherwise disparage this company. I know nothing about them. They may very well have a heck of a fine service. I will leave potential customers on their own to make that judgment.

My only issue here is with their grammar. Their URL, that primary tool of branding and communicating on the internet, is AAARRRRGGGHHH, to quote Charlie Brown. You can pay “less tax” or “fewer taxes”, never “less taxes”. Got it? It’s a simple concept. “Less” goes with a single item and “fewer” goes with a multiple of something. So, for example, to prevent cavities, eat less candy or fewer candies.

Now, I realize that the owners and employees of a company like Guaranteed Tax Relief are financial professionals, not grammarians, so I would like to cut them some slack. However, if you are going to spend money advertising and branding, wouldn’t you like to create an impression of professionalism? Poor grammar won’t help with that.

This company is stuck with a URL that declares to all and sundry on the web, and watching television since it was on their ad, that they have an English problem. Their own knowledge of proper English is lacking, they are too cheap to hire skilled editorial help, or they simply don’t care.

It is my fervent hope that this is just a simple oversight, soon to be corrected. As promised, slack from the Word Cop!

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Managing People – How am I doing?

Managing people is one of the most difficult and ultimately rewarding jobs anyone can have in business. For most of us, it doesn’t come naturally. Part science, part art, and part psychology, it is a learned and practiced skill that has to bend to suit the situation and the individual employee. Management training (it was called “charm school” when I went) helps initially and refresher courses over the years help build on what you know. However, the primary management “teacher” is experience. You learn to face and deal with difficult management situations by working through each challenge and learning as you go.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of communicating regularly with employees. They need to be kept in the loop and informed of a company’s goals so they can be active participants. Nothing is more demeaning to workers than to feel as if they are nameless cogs in a corporate machine that has little or no meaning to them. When fully informed, they are far more likely to buy into your mission and help you achieve it.

In addition to understanding what they are working towards, employees need feedback. They need to know when they are doing well, and also when they are not. That’s the tough job for most of us – how to look an employee in the eye and say that his/her performance is not up to par. I always got over my natural hesitation and dislike of confrontation by reminding myself that not giving an employee this information and allowing a chance to fix a performance issue was to do him/her a very serious disservice.

So, take some time to praise and also to correct. Remember to praise in public, but discipline in private. Don’t overdo the praise, or you will erode its value. Don’t avoid the criticism when it is warranted. There needs to be responsibility and accountability from employees.

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The world still needs a Word Cop

As we move into a New Year, I keep hoping I can lay down the mantel of The Word Cop. Then I see a title such as this one:

“How to Standout in a Shrinking Economy – Publish or Perish!”

Now, you can be a “standout” or you can “stand out”. Verbicide, the act of creating a verb by plugging in any convenient noun, continues unabated. The Word Cop sighs sadly.

To make this one worse, the writer is talking about publishing! Wouldn’t it help the credibility of a so-called writer’s works to be grammatically correct? Call me crazy, but I can’t help but think quality writing is even better when it includes the high quality application of the English language.

I lift that heavy mantel back onto my shoulders and resume my trudge into the New Year…..

Hope yours was a Happy New Year celebration at the very least.

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The Word Cop fights crime…Verbicide!

People tend to be political animals.  I confess to being something of a political and news junkie, especially during an election year.  However, I am reaching the saturation point this time, and I suspect I am not alone.  Too many ads and most of them are awful.  They contain platitudes and falsehoods most of the time.  The news reports, most on the horse race and not on anything of useful substance, are worse.  Enough already!

To add insult to injury, the language is deteriorating.  I tried to look at the brighter side in my last blog entry, which focused on political slogans.  This time, I move to the Dark Side.  I must protest the recurring, deadly crime of verbicide.  That crime is the deliberate slaying of nouns by turning them into very bad verbs.  The worst offenders are the so-called language professionals – broadcasters.

Two recent examples set me groaning, then writhing in pain.  Have you heard all those news reports on early voting?  I heard a TV news reporter discussing citizens going out to “early vote”.  Ouch!  How about having them vote early?  It doesn’t even cost you extra words!

Then there is the non-stop effort to build up the coffers with election cash, otherwise known as fundraising.  No longer do party stalwarts get out there to raise funds.  No!  They get out there to “fundraise”.  Fundraise?  When did that verb make it into Webster’s?  Or the venerable Oxford dictionary?

At least there are some really wonderful commentators out there, literate and blessed with the ability to communicate in clear, educated, even erudite sentences.  I actually heard one of them use the word “obstreperous” in conversation.  Now there’s a word!  The sound of the word, with all of those interesting consonants, actually enhances the meaning of the word itself.  And you don’t hear it every day.

The Word Cop (that’s me!) pleads for mercy!  We have lots of wonderful words – verbs and nouns alike.  Let’s use them, dare I say (Dare! Dare!), correctly.

Posted in Words @ Work | 1 Comment

The Word Cop and Political Slogans

I love the English language, its richness and variety, and its vitality.  Although I generally decry many of the recent abuses and misuses of popular vernacular, it is still fascinating to watch the language grow in such creative ways.  (Granted, some of that creativity yields results that are downright painful to the ears, but you have to take the rough with the smooth.)

I was reading the latest online copy of “Michigan Today”, an alumnae publication from the University of Michigan, of which I am a proud alumna.  (Go Blue!)  There was an article by Professor Emeritus Richard W. Bailey.  His topic was “Campaigns and slogans”.  Certainly an appropriate topic at this particular point in history. 

I don’t know about you, but regardless of political persuasion, many if not most of us are heartily sick of this endless campaign.  So I thought it would be a good time to have some fun with words and join Professor Bailey in looking at some campaign slogans.  In his article, he states, “Political words with semantic heft have the power to endure.”  Unfortunately, he doesn’t see much hope for many of the inventions coming out of the current campaign.  As an example of a good slogan that will live on, he goes back to the Eisenhower campaign of the 1950′s with its slogan I Like Ike.  Eisenhower was already well known by the nickname “Ike”, the slogan embraced him with the word “like”, it happened to rhyme, and fit conveniently on a button.  What’s not to “like”?

Ignoring the current campaign for a moment (Whew! What a relief!), let’s look back a bit.  How about 1948′s “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”  I like that one.  It appeals to the feisty, everyday American psyche and offers a sense of a spirited fight. 

Looking further back, there is 1928′s slogan, “A chicken in every pot.  A car in every garage.”  It speaks of a promise of prosperity offered, if not realized, by Herbert Hoover.

In 1964, it was, “All the way with LBJ.”  Another catchy little rhyme.  Of course, the young people responded with, “Make love, not war.”  In 1992, it was, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Maybe we should be using this Clinton cliche now!

Our language can be fun!  It can also utilize that entertaining fun to offer powerful, persuasive communication.  We will have to see in the years to come if any of the words being used in the 2008 election have the staying power Professor Bailey discusses.

I will indulge myself and close with a non-political, partisan University of Michigan slogan that came out of my years as a student, a time when Bo Schembechler was our coach and Woody Hayes still led the Ohio State Buckeyes (the enemy!!).  I was walking from central campus to the “Big House”, as the stadium is still known, one football Saturday in the early ’70s.  It was the annual Big Game at the Big House – Michigan versus Ohio State.  I walked surrounded by other students, alumnae and football fans, all excited and enjoying the chilly, late fall day.  There were many vendors on hand.  I stopped and purchased the following irreverent button, which I have kept all these years:  “Give Woody a Bo Job”

Go Blue!

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Leadership & Planning – mitigating the potential disaster of Gustav

Hurricane Gustav has moved on, losing its category 3 punch along the way.  It was still a very bad storm.  And it is worth remembering that Katrina was a cat 3 when it hit New Orleans.  But this time it was a far lesser event, certainly not the huge disaster the media was predicting.  (Actually, they were left scrambling for disastrous news to report, resulting in some amusing over-dramatizations.)

What made this one different?  Well, there are certainly differences in the storm itself, but that’s not my expertise or my concern here.  I will leave that to scientists and meteorologists.

From my perspective, the difference here is primarily due to planning, before the disaster, and then following the plan.  So simple!  And yet so unlike the response to Katrina from all concerned.  Most of the blame after Katrina was heaped on the Federal Government, particularly FEMA and President Bush.  However, one should not forget the State and Local authorities, which careful analysis done after the event suggests were far more culpable.

Regardless of the level of blame, President Bush was certainly determined to do a better job in future emergencies.  The efforts at the Federal level certainly showed.  FEMA has new leadership and new plans.  Along with new leadership and new attitudes from old leadership at State and Local levels, as well as excellent coordination and cooperation, the real potential disaster simply didn’t happen.

There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal today on just this topic.  It offers kudos to new FEMA Chief R. David Paulison.  He earns them with his cool head in a crisis, leadership, and excellent planning efforts.  I recommend the article to my readers.  You will find it here: 

There are great lessons to be learned here, for businesses as well as governments.  With good leadership and planning, you may not be able to avoid disasters, but you can mitigate the negative effects!

Posted in Disaster Planning | 1 Comment

Welcome back to the Next Step Solutions blog!

Greetings to all of our faithful readers!  You may have wondered exactly where we have been hiding for the last couple of weeks.  Well, Murphy’s Law is in full force for all of us.  Remember that one?  It goes something like this:

“If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Then there is MacGillicuddy’s Corollary – “at the most inopportune time.”

And another extension – “It will be all your fault and everyone will know about it.”

And, finally, my extension – “Murphy was an optimist.”  Okay, that one’s not really mine, but I am unable to attribute it at this moment.

Murphy has certainly been in charge of our blog, but we have finally triumphed and are back on the “air”, on a great new server, and with the same great content.  A better look and feel will be coming soon. 

In the meantime, let me close with these Words of Wisdom – “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.”  If you prefer, plug your own word into the saying instead of “foul”.  We are a family-friendly business.

We thank you for your patience!  Let’s blog on!

In case you would like to read more about Murhpy’s Law, surf over to  Enjoy!

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Customer Service – Ah, for the good old days!

We’ve had a lot to say recently about the lousy service one gets whenever one is compelled (or just crazy enough) to board a plane and fly somewhere.  The latest symbol of the demise of the “friendly skies” was the announcement by one airline that they would no longer offer peanuts to the passengers.

No peanuts.  How low can you go?

There was a fabulous article in The Seattle Times this past Sunday, entitled, “Once upon a time, the skies really were friendly.”  Did you read it?  Do take a look if you can.  Those of our readers who will admit to a certain maturity (note, I didn’t say old!) will relate to some of the stories.  To you young whippersnappers, it will seem like a fairy tale.

Like all good fairy tales, this one begins:  “Once upon a time, air travel was exciting and fun.”  Hard to believe?  Check out the examples offered by Times readers.

Yes, I am mature, and I do relate.  My very first plane flight was taken as a young child.  My brave mother, single, with two elementary-school-aged children, decided to visit relatives in Illinois.  Thinking of the trip as a potential experience and “teachable moment”, she eschewed the car and decided to use a combination of train and plane travel. 

We embarked on a flight from Detroit to Chicago.  My brother and I were beside ourselves with excitement!  We got to peek in the cockpit and meet the pilot.  The stewardesses (all women in those days and all slender and pretty) were incredibly nice to us.  Mother, less sanguine, was armed with toys to entertain us and Dramamine to ensure health, since I was prone to motion sickness.

We were buckled into a window and middle seat, with Mother on the aisle.  Probably wanted to make sure we couldn’t escape.  Excitement reigned.  We took off and competed for the view from the window.  How amazing to two little kids!  People below looked like ants.  Once fully airborne, we were surrounded by fluffy white clouds, marshmellows to us.  Was God out there?

After a while, things got more interesting, for the adults.  We hit some wind.  Instead of a smooth flight (“Feels like you are sitting in your living room!”), we were suddenly on a roller coaster.  We would go up, hover a moment, then plunge down, leaving our stomachs behind.  My brother and I loved it!  We squealed with delight.  Mother took the Dramamine.

We landed in Chicago on time, 5 mintes earlier than we took off due to the change in time zone.  This was yet another wonder to me and my brother.  We talked about it for weeks.  We were ushered off the plane, with apologies from the flight crew about the roller coaster.  (What was to apologize for?  We’d had a ball!)

By contrast, our train ride from Chicago to Peoria was a drag.  It was slow, noisy, and dirty.  We hated it.  This was the start of a love affair with flying.

In the late 1950′s when I started flying (yes, I am that old), it was still new enough to be special.  We still ran out of the house to look when someone hollered about an airplane overhead.  (This stopped when the flight paths for Detroit Metro were rerouted over our house.)  Parents took their kids to airports just to watch the planes take off and land.  We dressed up for this.  People dressed up to travel, especially when they flew.  There was a glamour and an excitement to air travel in those days.  And the service fit the mood perfectly.

Given the fact that airline travel is now SOP for a large percentage of Americans, it is natural that the romance of it would be gone.  But is it really necessary for the pleasant service to follow suit?  I think air travel can be spartan without being so de-humanizing.  And good service can go a long way toward accomplishing that.

Next time I decide to reminisce, perhaps I’ll tell you about my very first business trip.  What flying stories do you have?  Please share them!

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TV Lessons in Management

I confess.  I watch too much TV.  My excuses?  Well, I guess I could blame it on my generation.  As a baby boomer, I was raised with TV, the first generation in the United States that was.  Probably a bigger reason is that by late evening I am too tired to do anything else and an absorbing story takes me out of the stresses of the day and helps me unwind.

So, this has been a good TV week.  Most shows have their season finales, with great stories and cliff-hanger endings.  One of my favorites is NCIS.  The usual draw for fans in a police drama’s finale is leaking the fact that a series regular will die.  We all tune in to find out who.

The NCIS finale was a great action story, with plenty of suspense, rule breaking, insights into various characters, and an exciting gun battle.  For those of you awaiting a rerun, I will skip the “who died” part and move on to why I am talking about TV on a business blog.

At the tail end of the show, there is a new director of NCIS.  He hands out envelopes to each of the main characters, and tells them their new assignments, all in different places.  In short, he is breaking up the team.  There the episode ends.  The cliff-hanger, right?  We have to wait for fall to find out the outcomes.  Which of our favorite characters is returning?  (In addition to who died, of course.)

I was struck by the management lesson.  If a new manager is stepping into the lead, what should be done with the team reporting to him/her?  My take is, barring unusual circumstances, not what this guy did.  I would spend some time with that team to assess their strengths, both individually and as a group.  An effective team will equal more than the sum of its parts.  It will accomplish greater things because of the synergies resulting from a team familiar with its members and all of their strengths. 

Even more telling, to me, is that an effective team has enough of a track record to establish high levels of trust.  This is particularly important in a dangerous profession, such as law enforcement.  You just don’t break up an effective team without a better reason than I saw here.  It’s a criminal waste.

Why did the new director do this?  I think it was a power play, pure and simple.  And I think it may blow up in the guy’s face.  But I will have to wait until fall to find out.


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