Author Archives: Joshua P. Cohen

Intro to My Influencers: Clayton Christensen

Photo Credit: Betsy Weber on Flickr

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

The late Clayton Christensen taught at Harvard Business School, studied in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and wrote one of the most famous business books of all time, the Innovator’s Dilemma. Beyond these more celebrated accomplishments, though, Professor Christensen’s influenced me through one of his last and less famous books.  

Late in his career, Professor Christensen began sharing some lessons from his life with his Harvard Business School students. He later shared these lessons as a commencement speech for graduating HBS students which evolved into a short book, How Will You Measure Your Life?

What was so fascinating about this book was that I had read “self-help” books and I had read “business” books, but I had never read a “self-help business” book. I was the perfect audience for this book as it took some of the clear, values-based direction you often get in self-help books and applied them in business settings. This addressed one of the key limitations of self-help books for me: they often seem like they don’t necessarily apply to you and your situation.

How Will You Measure Your Life? was different, though. It tackled subjects like leading with your values, investing in the right things, and that 100% compliance was easier to manage than 99%. A clear example that has stuck with me: while I recognized that spending time with your family was a long-term investment compared to finishing up that last email or even an important client presentation, I had never stopped to realize why so many otherwise smart people fell into the trap of prioritizing their careers over their family by working long hours or being distracted by work on the weekend. Professor Christensen highlighted the immediate feedback loops on your progress at work—and rewards to boot—incentivize you to work more. On the other hand, supporting a partner and raising kids have very long feedback loops with big investments of time at the beginning that pay off more slowly (or ever, for some people and some relationships). 

Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but Professor Christensen forced me to confront that choice so that I didn’t unwittingly fall into a common trap of investing in those areas that give you the immediate reinforcement that our ancestral minds crave. And for that, I am grateful.

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Intro to My Influencers: Liz Gilbert

Photo: Wesley Fryer on Flickr

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

When a former work colleague recommended Big Magic by Liz Gilbert, I wondered if that was the same woman from Eat, Pray, Love who travels around the world? All I really knew about Eat, Pray, Love at that point was that it had something to do with finding oneself and that the book had had a moment, even making it on Oprah’s Book Club. 

Regardless, this introduction to this wandering guru was critical to my own development. 

The vulnerability and realness that Liz shares both in Big Magic and how she engages with her fans otherwise is so simple, real, and welcoming. I’m a sucker for vulnerability. Just tell me what you really feel and I’m usually in. And Liz does so in a way that feels different, though I can’t quite put my finger on how. It feels more real, less polished, less edited. And that builds a relationship with the reader that is powerful. 

But more than that, I read Big Magic at a critical time for me, when I talked a big game about writing, but studiously avoided ever actually doing it. Even when I had some motivation, other things like fear were keeping me from taking the next steps necessary to achieve that dream. It’s a hard realization that fear is keeping you from achieving your dreams, but it’s the only way to address the reality of my continued lack of investment in something that I told others (and myself!) was so important. I knew the importance of it, but didn’t prioritize it like I needed to. 

What Big Magic included were some very specific tips to help make the transition towards letting my creativity out. Liz ingeniously recommends having your fear write to you about what you are or should be scared of and then having you respond. Instead of avoiding fear or trying to minimize it, Liz recommends inviting it along for the ride, but not letting fear change the radio station and especially don’t let it get behind the wheel, as I unfortunately had.

I knew in my heart that writing was a powerful and important way to clarify thoughts and communicate ideas and values. And I knew I had important ideas and values and thoughts that I wanted to communicate. And yet I would get sucked into less meaningful things on a daily basis. Not altogether bad things, but just indolent things. Why? Because I was scared. I was scared I would write something and no one would read it. Or I would write something and everyone would read it and see that it sucked. Either way, fear had won because my ass was sitting on the sideline, getting an extra hour of sleep or catching up on the latest NBA game. 

Liz inspired me to break through this fear in just the right way. I’m sure it’s not the right tone for everyone, but it was the right tone for me to hear. Calm and knowledgeable, but forceful that the rightful place of your ideas, feelings, and art is out in the world and not stuck in your head. She also helped me appreciate the subtleties of all the ways we can express creativity. It’s not just writing or painting, but also includes cooking or sharing one’s love for another. 

A final key thing that Liz and I share is a firm belief in the superlativeness that each of us share inside us. There is something deep inside us that each of us that is so unique, so powerful, so restorative, so contributing to the world. Most of us never spend the time to discover that or are scared to accept what we learn. Liz directly challenges this limitation. And the world is a better place for it.

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Intro to my Influencers: Jes Averhart

Photo: jesaverhart.com

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

Jes Averhart is one of those people that everyone knows and everyone raves about. Still, I had never met her until I ran into her at a United Way of the Triangle open house a few years ago that we were both attending. I introduced myself and we scheduled a time to grab coffee a few weeks later.

When she showed up for coffee, she was wearing her workout clothes, having just exercised before our meeting. As a close-to-first impression, that took a lot of confidence as well as a clear understanding of who you are and why you do what you do. It was not what most people would expect at an initial meeting, but perhaps she sensed a kindred spirit with me. 

A few years ago, in arranging my first meeting with a professional contact, I scheduled a similar meeting with someone I had never met before at a hole-in-the-wall taco joint in San Antonio, arriving in my workout clothes after running there to get some exercise. Our family has a commitment to exercise, so exercising might actually be more impressive to me than the traditional signals one sees in a professional meeting.

More recently, on an episode of the Just Podcast that Jes co-hosts with Rob Shields, Jes honored her instincts and asked a follow up question of their guest, her friend and fellow coach David Spickard. Her follow-up question was essentially and vulnerably: I don’t get it. As a fellow podcast host myself, I’ve learned it can be hard to push back on your guests. But Jes leaned into this ambiguity and the audience, Jes, and David all benefited from that decision. 

These interactions gave me a much clearer view into the whirlwind that is Jes Averhart. Authentic to her core, passionate on the issues that matter, and blithely dismissive of the issues that don’t (like what you wear to a meeting). Still, though, Jes doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t claim to. No, she is just a reflection of what can be when you trust yourself, stop trying to meet other people’s definition of yourself, and put in the work to make your dreams a reality. And for an entrepreneur, leader, and author like Jes, that’s about all you can ask. 

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Hopes and Dreams

Photo by Alex Nemo Hanse on Unsplash

One of our family’s coping mechanisms during this pandemic has been our regular ritual of determining each family member’s hope and dream for the weekend. We each choose one thing to add to our often-lengthy chore and to-do list and, then, as a family, we do our best to make that hope and dream come true. These hopes and dreams are simple, but powerful. Things like get donuts, watch a favorite movie, go for a long run, or try a new family board game. 

A couple months ago on Mother’s Day, my wife’s hope and dream was to watch Michelle Obama’s Netflix special Becoming. I had read Michelle’s memoir of the same title last year and loved learning the story behind the half of the Obamas that isn’t as often in the news. Michelle is impressive in her own right and her memoir told the story of how she made her way from the rapidly changing South Side of Chicago to the pinnacle of power and privilege. 

The Netflix special, though, added some additional color to the memoir by sharing vignettes from her book tour. It showed some of the behind-the-scenes interactions with her team, the funny bon mots she shared with her interviewers at public events, and the touching moments with students and young people at private events. 

It was in one of these private events where a young woman asked why she was invited to participate in this small group conversation with the former First Lady, implying that her background and experience were unworthy of such an opportunity. Michelle wasn’t having it. She told the young woman that she deserved to be there and she just needed to accept the story of who she was and build on that. 

This was a powerful moment in its own right, but it crystallized something important for me. We all want to understand our history, tell our stories, and then write the next chapter. That is an innate human need, but it’s hard. Our personal histories have some great things and also things that we want to forget. Our present lives can be hard to accept sometimes because of the busyness of our day-to-day lives, impostors syndrome, or other barriers. And we all want to write that next chapter, but we are scared of failing. 

There is nothing special about these challenges. Everyone faces them. Seeing Michelle wrestle with similar challenges in her life and then seeing the young adults that she engaged with also wrestle with them crystallized this common human condition for me. I’ve been circling it for a while, but never quite getting there. Getting close, but never close enough. I realized that my goal, my mission is to help people understand and accept their stories and then help them write the next chapter for themselves. To reinforce those superpowers that are hard to acknowledge and to be that Michelle Obama in your corner when needed.

Like that girl, this path was before me and I just wouldn’t accept it.  But if you look at some of the people that influenced me, it only makes sense. 

Nilofer Merchant’s work on Onlyness…

Brene Brown’s various works that have focused on vulnerability…

Liz Gilbert’s deep dive into creativity in Big Magic

Sanyin Siang’s exploration of how to launch and acknowledge your superpowers…

And many more.

They are all about finding and accepting your story and then sharing it with the world. You have to listen to your own story and believe it. 

As I’ve gone about the long and winding process to understand my own history, tell my story, and write the next chapter, I’ve learned that my strengths of learning, relating to others, understanding others’s strengths, connecting dots between people and concepts, and turning ideas into action are best applied in helping others take that same journey. 

Is that executive coaching or career coaching? Maybe a little of both, Regardless, I’ve already seen the impact in some of my clients in the ability to know their history, tell their story, and write their next chapter. It is so satisfying to me to see the proverbial lightbulb turn on and these clients make this change.

But there’s more that I’m excited about. Beyond the fact that this is good for individuals and their own utility, it’s also transformative especially for leaders. Why? Because the best leaders are the ones that know themselves the best. Leaders are praised and rewarded for their clear visions of where they want to go, but many have failed in knowing where they came from and taking careful stock of what currently is. 

But those who know not only where they have been but where they are going are better situated to be leaders. Those who have done this foundational work are confident of who they are and where they came from so they are more humble and empathic as leaders. And you can’t get where you want to go or even define where you want to go in the first place without knowing where you came from. 

Similar to my family’s weekly ritual or Michelle Obama’s encouragement of the young woman, helping my clients uncover these recognitions in pursuit of happiness and positive impact is my hope and dream. Let’s go!

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Intro To My Influencers: Sanyin Siang

Photo: LID Publishing

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

Sanyin Siang is the most famous anonymous person I know. She has over a million followers on LinkedIn. She’s got the winningest coach in college basketball history on speed dial. She’s written two books and has met and coached some of the world’s best leaders. Still, it’s a fame that is largely hidden so unless you know Sanyin, you could pass her on the street and never see the tremendous impact she has had on others. 

And yet if you ran into her around town as I have on a number of occasions, she will give you a big hug and spend a few minutes with you before she runs off to her next meeting or to pick up her kids. And those few minutes will be magical, with her searching her mental rolodex for people who could help you with whatever challenge you may be facing, which always happens to slip out when you talk with her. 

Despite it seeming like she’s perfect in every way, Sanyin will readily admit that she doesn’t have all the answers and she faces the same doubts, fears, and worries that we all do. In fact, the part of her most recent book (The Launch Book) that resonated with me the strongest was the final chapter where she acknowledges how hard the process of writing was and how she didn’t know how to complete the book. This upfront vulnerability is missing in many of our leaders today and it is so beneficial to see her model that for us.  

As we’ve all struggled during COVID times, Sanyin’s occasional Facebook posts on her engagement with her family–a garden exploration, a cooking experiment–are also complemented with her at-times overwhelming frustration at remote learning or parenting in general. Stars…they’re just like us. 

This leading with vulnerability and humility are the lessons that I’ve pulled from my decade-plus long relationship with Sanyin. The only way to be a truly great leader is to recognize you don’t have all the answers yourself and be willing to share that reality. Another way of looking at it is that Sanyin is a human first and a coach (or mother or wife or teacher or volunteer or…)  second and not vice versa. By putting the weight in the appropriate place first (her authentic self, her true essence), she ensures that whatever else she does will be successful. And that’s something we all can learn from her.

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Intro to My Influencers: Ari Weinzweig

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

My family introduced me to Zingerman’s Deli a few years ago and I made it a tradition to stop by there and do a pilgrimage each time I made it to Ann Arbor, which admittedly wasn’t that often. Zingerman’s prides itself on high quality of food, unique and local variations of regional and international cuisine, and high standards for customer service. So, when a work trip with a couple colleagues necessitated a visit a few years ago, I made a reservation for the three of us at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. 

Zingerman’s Roadhouse is a sit-down outpost of the Deli. More down-home American classics than traditional deli fare, but perfect for an introduction to the quality of food and service that Zingerman’s was known for. And it didn’t disappoint. 

Our server was attentive and thoughtful, even using her own body to demonstrate what part of the cow the steak I was interested in was from. Our water glasses were refilled with regularity. Our plates cleaned of every last morsel. 

We had a professional development budget to buy the books or attend the conferences that we wanted. Ari Weinzweig, the CEO of Zingerman’s, had written several and I convinced my colleagues that we should each get his books so our server dropped off a stack of 9 thick hardback books on the table as I polished off the remains of the donut ice cream sundae that marked the end of our meal. 

And then, the water guy sidled up to our booth, sat down, opened the first book (Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part I: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business), and started signing them. My colleagues and I all looked incredulously at each other. 

“Are you Ari?” as if that wasn’t already self-evident. 

“Yes, welcome to Zingerman’s! I hope you enjoyed your meal.” 

“We did! But weren’t you just filling our water?” 

“I was. That’s Secret 25: Managing by pouring water.” 

We opened the book to that chapter and indeed, there it was, Secret 25, Managing by pouring water. Turns out that every week, Ari works at the Roadhouse one evening so that he can check in with the team, get an eye on operations, and interact with the customers. So that he doesn’t just sit around making everyone uncomfortable while he observes what’s going on, in the spirit of servant leadership, he identified a job that he could do that would be valuable to the guests and the team, but also could be covered by others should he be out of town. He settled on refilling the water glasses.

I have to admit that this was a pretty good party trick and clearly, we weren’t the first people he had pulled it on. But more than that, I was impressed with his dedication to his craft, to his team, to his customers. 

So began a deep dive into the history of Zingerman’s Deli and it’s growth from a small delicatessen into a community of businesses–all in the Ann Arbor area–that support each other. Beyond the Deli and Roadhouse, they also have a mail order business, coffee shop, coffee roastery, candy manufactory, bakehouse, training company, Korean restaurant, farm, creamery, mail order, event space, and food tours. As I dug into Zingerman’s, I also explored all of the many writings of Ari Weinzweig. There have been so many inspirational parts of his work that have influenced my own personal development as well as my coaching. Here are just a few:

  • “Don’t get furious, get curious” as a reminder to dig into the root causes of what angers you and to dig underneath the immediate emotion.
  • If feeling lousy, find three people to thank. Gratitude changes your perspective pretty quickly.
  • Knowing and accepting what is “enough.” This one deserves an essay all on its own but recognizing what constitutes enough (money, fame, external validation, rest, etc.) will change your life.
  • The art of giving excellent customer service. It’s not enough to simply provide good customer service once, you have to have an underlying philosophy and the processes in place to make it a consistent reality. 
  • The power of visioning. This one also deserves an essay of its own, but I’ve found that creating a compelling vision of a future state that I want has changed my life.

Ari’s influence on me is not limited to the content of his writing. I also appreciate the vulnerability and thoughtfulness that permeates it. He clearly spends a great deal of time thinking and reflecting, also skills that I desire to practice more. The voluminousness of his writing also inspires me. He produces so much great content that I’m amazed he has time for anything else, let alone helping to run a multi-million dollar organization. 

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Upending the Status Quo

MLK Birmingham Jail.jpegPhoto credit: L. Cunningham, US Air Force

As someone whose mission is bringing about positive change in communities around transportation and mobility, I think a lot about the status quo. In mobility, the status quo is the exorbitant funding for roads compared to public transit. It’s the loss of vulnerable lives walking and riding bikes for the convenience of speeding autos. And it’s the systematic prioritization of white neighborhoods at the expense of communities of color. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted our communities in a very short time. The challenges are immense and already well-documented. Though North Carolina has been spared some of the worst of the pandemic so far, we recognize and honor those challenges. They are real and they hurt. 

And yet, we have to acknowledge this pandemic has inspired some positive outcomes. Some of the positive changes are public: 

Traffic went poof.

Water is clear.

Air is cleaner than ever.

Car crashes are down significantly.

And some of the changes are more personal in nature: 

Families are rediscovering game nights

Outdoor exercise is flourishing

Happy hours are being reinvented on Zoom.

When we have this experience to look back on, these positive changes will recalibrate some of those “the way things always have been” conversations. It is already putting into stark relief some of the things that we accepted as inherent to the status quo just may not be.  

For instance, many working parents and disability advocates are finding out that work from home limitations were not technical in nature, but a lack of imagination at best and discrimination at worst. Some cities are finding that sidewalks that aren’t wide enough for proper social distancing require more aggressive measures by taking away roadspace. And Spain is planning a Universal Basic Income to ensure that everyone can pay their bills, even when the pandemic runs its course.

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Still, while some aspects of the status quo are changing, more troubling parts of the status quo–especially around issues of equity–still remain.  

  • Areas of the country, especially communities of color, already dealing with a lack of healthcare investment are now some of the hardest hit by COVID-19. 
  • Frontline, lower-wage workers like transit operators, grocery store clerks, and food preparers and deliverers are struggling under the weight of lost wages, a lack of personal protective equipment, and higher rates of exposure
  • Kids who traditionally relied on their school for internet access and food are now navigating an impressive—but still community-driven—effort to cover these critical resources. 

As we collectively struggle with this pandemic which can infect all of us equally, but will affect us all differently, I’ve found Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” instructive as he dealt with the similarly virulent scourge of racism:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

When we pull one string to close schools, we loosen our social safety net a tad. And when we don’t pay living wages or appropriately honor those nameless workers who we all depend on now, we all pay the price. And when we chronically underinvest in the communities that need it the most, the status quo digs in a little deeper. 

So, even during these challenging times, let’s celebrate those areas where we’re already upending the status quo and let’s commit to ensuring that everyone benefits from the needed changes still to come.

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Welcome to the Rock…

4487140623_75d7681d73_oPhoto credit: Zach Bonnell

A few months ago, my wife and I took our 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to see Come From Away at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Before going, all I knew about the show was that it told the story of the planes that were diverted to Newfoundland when the tragedy of 9/11 shut down the US airspace. As I learned after the amazing performance with cast members playing multiple parts with no intermission, it was that, but also so much more. 

I’ve been thinking about the major theme of community togetherness from Come From Away a lot over the past few days of isolation and social distancing, and not just because the soundtrack seems to be on repeat in our house.  

The diverted passengers almost doubled the size of the small town of Gander and the community responded with donations of food, shelter, and transportation. In that time of fear and confusion, these Canadian citizens responded to their better angels and made their guests as comfortable as possible. Instead of falling prey to any number of negative ways this could go, they instead recognized that they were more similar than they were different. 

The very nature of air travel and the fact that the flights that landed in Gander from all over the world perfectly illustrated the interconnected nature of the world. Planes take off and they have to land somewhere. Everyone on the plane puts their trust in the pilots, air traffic control tower personnel, and ground crew. These fundamental truths were what the islanders–as the Newfoundlanders called themselves–recognized even as they shared little in common with the passengers except the small town they were occupying together and their humanity. 

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Compared to 9/11 which descended on us with an unsettling speed and then burned for days, this COVID-19 pandemic and particularly the US response has been more akin to boiling a frog. All of the economic, political, and infrastructure decisions that have been made at a macro level for generations have been warming the water as many of us blithely swam around the pot. And now we’re starting to notice that water is getting too hot for our comfort and we know it’s going to boil over, throwing hot water and boiled frog everywhere around the kitchen. We just don’t know when.

Still, despite these differences, both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted our interconnectedness as well as the depths of humanity. 

The COVID-19 virus is a physical manifestation of our interconnectedness. The virus can’t travel by itself, so the only way it’s been able to travel from its point of origination halfway across the world to my rather small community in North Carolina is the connections between people.  Connections that we may have taken for granted, especially since social distancing began. 

In our community of Durham, NC, community members are taking steps to minimize the impact on local businesses by identifying ways to support them that still allow for social distancing. Whether that is purchasing coffee from one of our local roasters or creating spreadsheets where community members can identify restaurants offering takeout and delivery to ensuring that our local schoolkids get fed even though school is cancelled, we are coming together in ways that many couldn’t have anticipated. 

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If we can take ourselves back to the first few hours, days, and weeks after 9/11, they were some of the scariest, confusing, times of many of our lives, even if we were geographically far from the impacted areas. And yet that time was also where our country showed tremendous resilience, courage, and community. 

And birthed out of those contrasting feelings came Come From Away. Looking at Come From Away in this context helps me see the performance for what it is: art. Art has always served as a critical tool in helping people to cope with tremendous challenges while also honoring those who are doing the yeoman’s work to help others. 

While we don’t yet know the global health, financial, and psychological impact of COVID-19 will be, I can only hope that we can channel some of the same power that those brave souls who played parts of the larger 9/11 response and contribute art that will help us honor, appreciate, and mourn everyone and everything we lost. 

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As I settled into my seat a few months ago to watch Come From Away, I still didn’t know what the title referred to. Turns out it’s what Newfoundlanders call those who weren’t born there that end up on their remote island. The 7,000 plane people were all “come from aways” who found out that indeed “a candle’s in the window and the kettle’s always on.” 

And in introducing rocky and isolated Newfoundland to the audience in the opening song, “Welcome to the Rock,” the cast sets the tone for that time after 9/11 and still holds true now as we wrestle with COVID-19: “Welcome to the land where we lost our loved ones/And we said, we will still go on!”

Yes, we will.

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How you can learn to love negotiations

When I started at TransLoc in 2008, I was the only business person on a team full of engineers.  It remained that way for four more years as we continued to devote resources to the technical side of the house.   And while I did my best to learn from others in similar positions, with few new ideas coming in, I felt a little like a fish in a pond without a freshwater source.   

When we hired Daniel–and his 15 years of experience in sales–I received a constant stream of fresh ideas into my pond.   The ideas I benefited the most from centered around negotiations. Here are three specific lessons about negotiations that he taught me.

Be positive

Negotiations can often be tense, especially when trying to get a deal done or soothe a frustrated customer.  In all situations, the reason you’re negotiating is that you and the other party want different things, perceive that you want different things, or don’t understand what the other party wants.  This can make both sides ratchet up their defenses.

And that was stressful for me.  Daniel helped me overcome this stress by often stating at the beginning of the call, in the most positive tone possible, “I’m really looking forward to this conversation so that we can find an agreement that makes sense for both of us.”  

This simple line–which both parties want even if they don’t know it yet or are not as explicit about it–diffuses tension on both sides and sets the tone that you want to get a deal done.  

Be vulnerable

This may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s helpful to simply share your position.  We had a conversation with a customer who was late paying their invoices. We didn’t want to turn off their service even though our contract allows us to do.  We had never done it before and didn’t think we ever would because it is a nuclear option.

And yet it seems weird to just tell our client that we weren’t going to shut off their service.  But we did. We didn’t want to play games and take a position far to the extreme and then retreat to our fallback position.  Being vulnerable reduces the games that are often played during negotiations so we can focus on what we could do to remedy the situation.  

Don’t keep score

I used to think that negotiations had to be equal.  If I concede something of a certain value, you had to concede something of similar value.   But, that’s almost impossible to do in practice. So, now I just try and get something in return so that the power dynamic is not off-kilter with one side giving in on every point.  With the customer who was late on their bills, just getting them to pay something and acknowledge that they were late was a win.  A win didn’t have to represent them sending in the whole amount. A win was both sides giving a little–even if they weren’t equal amounts–and feeling positive about the experience.  

These lessons have changed my perspective on negotiations so much that I now look forward to them. What about you?  

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Kicking the Hopium Habit

When my daughter was just shy of two years old, my wife and I were faced with a decision: to take away her pacifier—and endure a week of interrupted sleep as she cried her way to a pacifier-free world—or hope she would swear off her pacifier on her own, thereby preserving our well-earned sleep.

It wasn’t an easy choice for us. In the end, we decided to endure the sleepless nights because we recognized that the alternative simply wasn’t likely. (Not only was it not realistic, but the longer we waited for a different outcome, the more painful the inevitable taking of the pacifier would be.) By taking away her pacifier, my wife and I resisted the siren’s call of “smoking hopium.”

This term–introduced to me by one of my former managers–describes what happens when we allow emotion to trump pragmatism and when our vision for the long-term is blurred by short-term gains. That being said, if you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ll do just about anything for a good night’s sleep.

It’s not just new parents that are faced with the seduction of hopium. As I look around at the circles that I’m most involved in, transportation and startups, I see how hopium has inflicted casualties far and wide.

♦♦

Chris Pangilinan removes his gloves as he rolls his wheelchair into our meeting, his semi-permanent grin embedded on his face. A transportation advocate and researcher for TransitCenter in New York City, Chris is an expert on not only transit, but one of the more prosaic elements of many subway trips: the way you get from the street to the train. While most of us may just take the stairs or escalator, an elevator is a requirement for a wide swath of public transit users, from people like Chris who use wheelchairs to seniors who use canes to new parents with strollers.

The New York City Subway is the hidden workhorse for the city that never sleeps. The city simply wouldn’t function without the movement of 5 million people a day under the city streets. But the subway doesn’t function for many of the city’s residents. Less than 25% of its stations have elevators. Almost a third of elevators and escalators failed a recent inspection and nearly 80% of those have not received their preventative maintenance on time.

And while it’s easy to blame the subway’s age on its inability to serve all its citizens, not accepting reality is a classic sign that you are addicted to hopium. The subway inhibits Chris’s mobility because the New York City MTA and those that fund it simply haven’t prioritized building and maintaining elevators. They’ve spent billions–significantly higher than the rest of the world pays– on just a few short miles of subway. They’ve played politics with funding, sending some upstate and some to labor unions and contractors as kickbacks. They’ve hoped the problem would go away.

Only recently, with the commitment of new NYC Transit President Andy Byford, has the New York City MTA paid more than lip service to the fact that a lack of accessibility impacts millions of people everyday. Still, though, until the plan is funded, which would require the mayor, governor, and legislature to recognize that expectations for accessibility have changed significantly, something as simple as taking the subway is still an impediment for many.

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I was negotiating a job offer with an old friend who had started a company on the side and needed someone to run it for him day to day. They already had a handful of employees and customers.

“What’s the revenue?”
“The revenue will be $750K by the end of the year.”
“Wow, you’ve done an amazing job so quickly.”

I was a newly-minted MBA and running a small entrepreneurial venture was exactly what I had wanted to do when I graduated. And this one, right in the location I wanted with a local businessman I respected, was just what I wanted. I heard a revenue number and saw an office with real employees and pictured myself in the proverbial corner office with an opportunity to put in place all the lessons I learned in school.

To this day, I’m still not sure if it was him, me, or both of us smoking hopium, but let’s just say that the air was hazy.

Regardless, the end result was that when I stepped foot inside the company on day 1, I found the reality to be quite different than the rosy picture that both my friend painted and I had imagined. There was no malice. He was simply thinking positively and I was assuming positively. But neither was based in reality. The company didn’t have a unique value proposition, adequate funding to build a customer base, or any real way to scale the modest success they had locally.

My friend had wanted me to run the company and I ran it, alright. I ran it into the ground in about 6 months. I’ve reflected a lot on that time. Sure, the idea was flawed from the beginning, but I let hopium cloud my judgment. It was a lesson I won’t forget.

♦♦

Like any other bad habit that leads to bigger problems, smoking hopium manifests differently in each of us. It might show by deferring handling an issue with an employee directly and hoping that they will start performing. It could be losing focus too early in your venture or trying to do too much later in your venture.

I met Kenny Fennell over coffee in one of Ann Arbor’s many coffee shops after a couple of people had recommended we chat. Kenny was a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious graduate school and a finalist for the Go Ford Challenge for his startup Caravan.

Kenny shared some of the challenges that he was having building his social entrepreneurship startup, Caravan. He wanted to help community groups with transportation needs match up with other groups with underutilized vehicles, but was struggling with the business model as well as ensuring that he was solving real problems for his users. I gave him some advice and he promised to stay in touch.

Fast forward three months and Kenny called asking for more advice, but this time about a couple job opportunities he was exploring. What happened to Caravan? “We pulled the plug.” The clarity by which Kenny and his team moved on from Caravan startled me, especially considering how most start up entrepreneurs I talk to who are convinced that the next big contract or key employee or business model tweak was the one that would put them over the top.

For Kenny, avoiding the seductive call of hopium was fairly clear. He and his co-founder mindfully created a social contract that outlined each of their responsibilities and helped to create a culture where the expectation was that Kenny and his cofounder were “honest with each other because our social contract valued listening, being curious, and learning over winning discussions.” This strong foundation allowed them to define their personal limits so that they were clear on how much each was willing to sacrifice for their startup, a critical conversation that was missing in my entrepreneurial adventure. Finally, Kenny and his co-founder created strong decision milestones ahead of time so they could make an evidence-based decision that their startup wasn’t going to take flight.

Like any addiction, hopium is not an easy one to kick. But once you do, you’ll find that you are healthier and better equipped to accomplish what you want to accomplish. And, like my daughter, wife, and I, you’ll sleep like a baby.

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