Category Archives: Management

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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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?  


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.


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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Excellent customer service at a hospital? Yes.

Recently, my wife and I spent six nights in the hospital with our newborn son who was admitted for a respiratory infection.  Thankfully, we brought him home, healthy, a few days ago.  We also brought home an overwhelmingly positive view of our experiences with all of those we encountered at the NC Children’s Hospital, part of the UNC Health Care System.

Specifically, we appreciated the excellent customer service.  A focus on customer service?  At a hospital?  We were surprised too.

You would think a hospital wouldn’t need to have good customer service.  After all, most hospitals don’t face significant competition for some of their specialized services.  And the very nature of a hospital means that there are many stressful, rushed situations that are not conducive to the finer points of customer service.

But that’s exactly what we got.  It was as simple as this: every single person that entered our room on the 6th floor of the NC Children’s Hospital, from our nurses to the doctors to the housekeeping staff, was courteous, friendly, and asked us, “Is there anything else I can get for you?”

As a businessperson, I am fascinated by how such a simple question could be so ingrained by all the people at the hospital–especially from those with such disparate roles–so that it was asked without fail every time someone left our room.  If it hadn’t been so genuine, it would have been spooky. Even the day after we got home, a nurse followed up with us to see how our son was doing.

It’s clear to me that the people at UNC Health Care System have internalized their mission of Leading. Teaching. Caring. With another world-class hospital 10 miles down the road at Duke University, perhaps UNC thinks they need to compete on this customer service angle.  There’s probably not that much difference in the facilities that are available at UNC and Duke.  And, as this article from the magazine Healthcare Executive mentions, it’s easy to provide the high-tech items that patients and families desire. It’s harder to provide the high-touch items.

Regardless, it’s clear that UNC’s strategy is working because my wife and I chose UNC for our son’s care precisely because of the positive experiences we had there during the births of our two children.

So what can be learned from this experience?

1) If you’re going to have a mission, you have to commit the resources to back it up. Most of the time, missions are created and quickly forgotten.  But when you can show consistency between your mission and your action, you provide value to your customers.

2)  Even if the UNC Health Care System wasn’t in a competitive environment with Duke University Health System, the way UNC treats its customers is the right thing to do.  It makes families who are already tense and scared feel welcomed and cared for.

3)  The UNC Health Care System is well-run, whether that is due to good management of employees or good selection of employees that fit with their mission.  I’m guessing it’s a little of both.

Has a good customer service experience surprised you before where you’ve least expected it?