6 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Beautiful Mother

Today is the 103rd Anniversary of my beautiful mother’s birthday.  At her 2004 memorial service, I spoke about 6 of the most important lessons she taught me by the way she lived her 85 years.  Recently, I have thought a lot about the Leadership Lessons I learned from her words and actions:

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Sweat the details
  3. Never stop learning
  4. Listen and communicate
  5. Always be optimistic, and
  6. Help others in need.

A few details about these lessons and how my mother modeled them follow:

 1. “Take care of yourself.”

It is critical that leaders take care of themselves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – in order to maximize their ability to lead others.  Self-care enables leaders to both operate at their full potential in terms of their personal productivity and Intellectual, Implementational and Inspirational Leadership Skills and it sets a great role model for those they lead.

We found a file in my mother‘s desk over the weekend labeled, “inspirational quotes.” One of the items in the file was a handwritten page titled Don’t forget to note. In the first quote was “age is not an important unless you are a cheese.”

As amazing as it sounds, my mother spent only 27 of her 30,561 days in the hospital, and 12 of those were to give birth to my sisters and me. At the age of 82, my mother planned a vacation to Canaan Valley State Park. During that trip we also visited Blackwater Falls where she insisted on walking down and back up over 100 stairs to see the beautiful river.

How did she stay so healthy? My mother was wise. Living at a time when the benefits of diet and exercise were not nearly as well known or promoted as they are today, my mother knew. When we were kids, our next-door neighbors often had hamburgers and French fries or heaping plates of pasta for dinner but not us.   Never French fries. Occasionally pasta, but only if accompanied by three vegetables – two green and one starch. And, we had to eat three bites of everything, no matter how “yucky” it was.

I can remember when I was around 10 years old my mother doing leg lifts on her bedroom floor and other exercises to accomplish what we now call “strengthening the core.“ Today, these exercises are performed daily by professional athletes and weekend warriors as well.

My mother had amazing discipline.  She somehow managed to live in the Governor’s Mansion – home of the world’s largest cookie jar always full of the chef’s homemade chocolate chip cookies – and not gain a pound! I am sure I put on more weight during a weekend visit than she did living there for four (actually eight in total) years.

2. “Sweat the details.”

As a lifelong student of business (and leadership) successes and failures, I have come to believe that one of the greatest causes of business failure continues to be leaders who do not understand the details of their enterprise – literally the micro and macroeconomics of their products and services and those of their partners and customers. The collapse of Enron, the subprime mortgage/ credit default swap crisis are prime examples. So too are the tombstones of the “dot bomb” era.

Manners, appearance and knowing the correct way to do “all things” were of great importance to my mother. As children, we were all homeschooled with the details Emily Post’s book of etiquette. I can assure you my sisters and I were as thrilled about this part of our education as most kids would be today. But I can also assure you that a few years later, when attending a formal eight course dinner at Oxford or the Greenbrier or the White House, we were thankful we knew what to do with all that silverware.

When my father became governor at the age of 34 in 1956, my mother was thrust upon the national stage with him. She knew that part of her role as First Lady was to represent the people of West Virginia on that stage and that her appearance and performance were important elements to transforming the brand of our state. A few weeks before she passed on, mother told my sister Sharon that she would make sure to look especially good on the days she wasn’t feeling so well, so that others were less likely to notice.  Great advice I have used frequently over the years.

3. “Never stop learning.”

Related to the point above, leaders have to love being on a vertcal learning curve.  This is critically important in the globally connected, technology and AI driven rapidly evolving economy of the 21st century.  As Jim Fowler – EVP and Chief Technology Officer of Nationwide and former GE CIO says, “Success in the 21st century is dependent on one’s ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn new ways of doing business.”

 My mother believed in lifelong learning, and was a devoted consumer of newspapers, magazines, books and especially her beloved NPR

In 1995, my ex-wife Patty and I gave my mother a computer for Christmas. Before leaving West Virginia, we wrote out detailed instructions on exactly (we thought) how to compose and send an email.  When we returned home to Toronto, we found several “emails” from her that read something like this:

Dear Patty and Craig, thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Need help, the words keep disappearing!

We realized that the words were scrolling off the screen – not something that happens on an IBM Selectric typewriter!  So, at the time, we thought maybe a computer wasn’t the best gift idea we ever had. But just three days before she passed, we were thrilled to receive an email from mom, announcing that after almost a decade of “needing to learn to use email,” she had succeeded!

4. “Talk a lot, listen to and communicate with your family.”

The more leadership experience I gain and the more leaders I learn from, the more I believe that communication – thoughtful, effective two-way communication and listening to your team members, partners, and customers rise to the top of the most important characteristics of successful leaders.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, my father thought it would be a good idea to return to the family home in Huntington, West Virginia. My mother thought differently, wanting it to be a short drive to see her Charleston grandkids. Guess who won?

Shortly after our first child Jordan was born, I asked my mother for advice on being a parent.  Without pause, she said “Communicate. Talk to your kids as much as you can and make sure you listen to them when they talk. And you and Patty talk and listen to each other too.”

My mother was always there for her family, whether that meant walking upstairs stadium or theater stairs to watch a ball game or see a play, or flying to Toronto and Boston for grandparents’ day. Her home was filled with pictures of her kids and her grandkids.  And even at 85, she was still the cruise director of the family, scheduling vacations, cooking Easter dinner, and planning our annual family photoshoot.

5. “Always be an optimist.”

In addition to knowing the details of their enterprise economics, leaders – especially entrepreneurs striving to create something truly new – must have the ability to find a “path to daylight’ no matter how challenging or difficult the hurdles they are confronted with. This is one of the most critical communication skills of inspirational leaders.  One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who wrote “It always seems impossible until someone does it.”

My mother was a social worker, a first lady, and a tireless advocate for helping underserved children – challenging roles during a very challenging time. My mother truly did see a world where the glass was always “half full. “ She almost never complained and had the almost unbelievable strength to make it through even the most difficult times.  When it was time to leave the Governor’s Mansion in 2001, my siblings and I thought it would be a good idea for mom and dad to move to Edgewood Summit, a beautiful independent and assisted living facility. They thought otherwise, and again, they won. One of the reasons my mom gave for not wanting to live there was she didn’t want to look like a “little old lady riding the bus.”  At that time she was 83 years old and maybe 4’10 and 1/2” tall  – on a good day –  but I remember thinking, “If you think you don’t look like a little old lady, we can roll with that!”

6. “Help others in need.”

Since my mother’s passing, the brand enhancing, economic and talent acquisition benefits of being good members of the communities businesses operate in and their commitment to helping those born in underserved zip codes succeed have been well documented. Leaders need to walk the walk and lead by example to realize these benefits.

As the West Virginia newspapers’ wonderful stories about my mother’s passing reminded us, her legacy is not only that of a loving wife, mother, and grandmother but also of a devoted public servant in her own quiet way. From her early career as a social worker to making time to support the Cammack Children Center for Orphans – even as a young mother with three small children and a traveling husband – to her incredible service as the first lady of West Virginia, my mother used all of her resources and assets to help those in need, to help those who were not lucky enough to have parents or access to education or basic healthcare. She was a tireless and effective advocate for children and women’s issues and we can all honor her life’s work by following in her footsteps

Although my mother’s body left this earth in 2004, to all who were blessed to know her and especially those of us who got to call her mom or grandmom, her soul and spirit are very much with us today and will remain forever in the lessons she taught by how she lived:

Take care of yourself

Sweat the details

Never stop learning

Listen and communicate with your family

Always be optimistic, and

Help others in need.

My mother kept this quote from Emerson on her desk:

To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to appreciate beauty; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.   

 My mother clearly succeeded and I am blessed to have learned and remind myself of these lessons from her.

 

5 “NO REGRETS” ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE RIGHT NOW TO HELP UKRAINE.

5 “NO REGRETS” ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE RIGHT NOW TO HELP UKRAINE

Originally Published March 7, 2022 Last Updated March 9, 2022

This is a photo of Yaroslav Mudriy [for critical security concerns, his real name cannot be revealed at this time], with his niece Mariya and sister-in-law Olena taken in the strikingly beautiful 1600+ years old city of Kyiv when I visited them in 2006. Yaroslav and his brother Oleksa Dovbush [same security concerns] moved to Ukraine 31 and 30 years ago, respectively, and both became successful U.S. investors and entrepreneurs.  In addition to Mariya (who is currently a first-year student on scholarship at a prominent university in the U.S), Oleksa  & Olena have a 7-year old boy named Romchyk.

Like others in the Western World, I have watched with horror as the news and updates of Putin’s attack on the people of Ukraine unfold.  The good news is that Yaroslav, Oleska and their families are relatively safe as of this writing. (please see the post script below for Yaroslav’s moving account of his harrowing escape from Kyiv at 4 am on the morning of Saturday, February 26th and his 22.5 hour journey to a safe city in Western Ukraine)

I know many are asking, “What can I do to help?”

My article 4 T-Shirts in the Entrepreneurs Closet described the t-shirt slogans of my start-up Sports Loyalty International (SLI).  Our favorite was “No Regrets,” and its meaning was pretty simple:

 Our small team of entrepreneurs committed to each other to never say the words “would have, should have, could have” the morning after losing a sale.  Having a No Regrets mindset means doing your very best, seizing every opportunity, and “leaving it all on the canvas,” to use a boxing metaphor. 

As I struggled to find actions I could take to help Ukraine, I decided to apply the “NO REGRETS” philosophy to help Yaroslav and his fellow Ukrainians. I know I cannot control the outcome of this terrible crisis, but there are at least a few things I can do to try and help right now.   Here are 5 actions we can all take to support Ukraine:

  1. Contribute to organizations providing humanitarian support for Ukrainians still in the country and over 2 million who are now refugees in neighboring countries. Here are two of many opportunities:

  1. Sign The Petition for an International Tribunal to hold Putin accountable for war crimes. A coalition of civil society organizations, including the Ukrainian World Congress, the largest association uniting Ukrainian diaspora worldwide, the Free Ukraine Resistance Movement, and others, have launched a global petition calling for an international tribunal to Putin for the war crimes that are being and have been committed. The petition aims to collect 10 million signatures from across the world to send a strong message of support to all of the Ukrainians on the ground and add still needed pressure on our governments to start the legal proceedings at the ICC.

  1. Write President Biden, your Congressional Representatives and your Governor  asking the US and all states to stop importing Russian oil, increasing the production of US sources of energy and divesting/ stop doing business with all Russian based companies . For those of you concerned about both the economic and environmental impacts of US actions to boycott Russian oil and increase production of US (and other countries’) oil and gas, please read this excellent Washington Post articleHow to Beat Putin, For Real”  by Fareed Zakaria that refutes both of these arguments.

Write President Biden here.  Write your Members of Congress here.  Write your Governor here.

 

  1. Support the dozens of companies who have stopped doing business with and in Russia and stop patronizing the few companies still doing business there. Write their CEOs demanding they join those not profiting from trade with Russia.

 

5. Pray for Ukraine and that Western leaders are taking actions to stop Putin that we are not aware of. For those of us who pray, please pray for the safety of Ukrainians, for the end of this crisis, and that actions are being taken by our leaders confidentially. Although I am not qualified to have an opinion on this, it has been maddeningly frustrating to watch President Zelensky’s pleas for the US and other Western Nation’s air support, including planes and the declaration of a no-fly zone (which 74% of American’s support).  I take some comfort in the hope that our leaders are indeed engaged in actions to defeat Putin’s attack that we are not aware of.  Remember that on May 1, 2011, while President Obama was telling jokes at the annual Washington Correspondent’s Dinner – the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was already underway. (please note that this is not meant to suggest that the US or any NATO country are planning an assassination of Putin)

One final action – please share this with others and – for the extroverts among us – download this sign, print a few copies, and ask the local businesses you patronize to post it in their establishments.

Please send me ideas you have for supporting Ukraine to craig@underwoodpartners.com.

Slava Ukraini!

 

PS Here is Yaroslav’s account of his escape from Kyiv and his reasons for staying in his beloved adopted country Ukraine (written in the third person):

On Thursday Feb. 24 — as Kyiv was slammed by Putin’s deadly missile strikes, aerial bombardment, and long-rage artillery shelling — Oleksa and Romchyk left Kyiv by car.  Olena, with four cherished rescued cats, implemented another evasive prepared-plan. Yaroslav’s wife Nataliya actually had left Kyiv by car — along with four beloved rescue dogs and three rescue cats (and meticulously prepared survival equipment & supplies) — a few days before the massive invasion to a smaller city to help her terminally-ill 87 year old Father.

Yaroslav — along with his best-buddy rescue cat Ma’rco — made a firm commitment to stay in Kyiv — even in the event of a Russian invasion.  In fact, for two weeks he was solo-building an improvised “bomb shelter” in a guest bedroom (where Craig, Yaroslav’s best friend at Oxford slept during his week-long visit to Ukraine in 2006).  But, soon after the Russian massive invasion began at 5:16 AM Kyiv-time on Feb. 24, 2022, numerous well-armed, hyper-fit, confident, and cheerful soldiers began to assume combat positions in this 1916 architecturally/historically important building.  Yaroslav on several occasions gave them bags of food from his ample stocks.  (Most residents/neighbors left the building by Thursday afternoon…)

At 2:00 AM Kyiv-time on Saturday Feb. 26, the Ukrainian commander told Yaroslav: “Please leave immediately.  When asked “why?”, he answered: “Because we know, that they know, that we are here.”  Yaroslav left on foot at 4:00 AM with Ma’rco in cat-carrier in his left hand, a heavy backpack, and a bag full of irreplaceable original documents in his right hand.  As he made his 1st step onto the sidewalk, a ferocious firefight began (replete with machine guns, RPGs, and mortars) several hundred yards away behind the facade of one of Ukraine’s finest and oldest universities.

After a few kilometers of walking, and battered by abnormal physical activity for many days and no sleep for 70+ hours, Yaroslav had to stop.  Thankfully, Oleksa arranged for a good American Friend whom he met in the early 1990s, to come and pick Yaroslav up at 7:30 AM — just after Martial Law curfew had ended.  Yaroslav was kindly driven some 15 kilometers to the ring-road, where after a mere 8 minutes he hitched a ride that would take him, 19 hours and 600 kilometers later, away from embattled Kyiv!

Oleksa is adamantly determined to remain in Ukraine.  But, should the situation radically deteriorate, he will –for the sake of Romchyk – evacuate to Poland or Slovakia.  No matter what, Yaroslav is NOT going to leave Ukraine (and 2 months of daily calls/e-mails from the U.S. State Department to “evacuate immediately” simply fell on deaf ears…).

6 Lessons I Learned from My Beautiful Mother

Recently, my dear friend, Year Up colleague and work “therapist” Betsy said “I know a lot about your dad.  Tell me about your mom.

My mother Hovah Vonda Hall Underwood left this earth on September 24, 2004.  At her memorial service, I spoke about 6 of the most important lessons she taught me and those who were fortunate enough to have known her by the way she lived her 85 years:

1. “Take care of yourself.”

We found a file in my mother‘s desk over the weekend labeled, “inspirational quotes.” One of the items in the file was a handwritten page titled Don’t forget to note. In the first quote was “age is not an important unless you are a cheese.”

As amazing as it sounds, my mother spent only 27 of her 30,561 days in the hospital, and 12 of those were to give birth to my sisters and me. At the age of 82, my mother planned a vacation to Canaan Valley State Park. During that trip we also visited Blackwater Falls where she insisted on walking down and back up over 100 stairs to see the beautiful river.

How did she stay so healthy? My mother was wise. Living at a time when the benefits of diet and exercise were not nearly as well known or promoted as they are today, my mother knew. When we were kids, our next-door neighbors often had hamburgers and French fries or heaping plates of pasta for dinner but not us. Never French fries. Occasionally pasta, but only if accompanied by three vegetables – two green and one starch. And, we had to eat three bites of everything, no matter how “yucky” it was.

I can remember when I was around 10 years old my mother doing leg lifts on her bedroom floor and other exercises to accomplish what we now call “strengthening the core.“ Today, these exercises are performed daily by professional athletes and weekend warriors as well.

My mother had amazing discipline. She somehow managed to live in the Governor’s Mansion – home of the world’s largest cookie jar always full of Ryad’s chocolate chip cookies – and not gain a pound! I am sure I put on more weight during a weekend visit than she did living there for four (actually eight in total) years.

 

2.  “Sweat the details.

Manners, appearance and cleanliness matter.

As children, we were all home schooled with the details Emily Post’s book of etiquette. I can assure you my sisters and I were as thrilled about this part of our education as most kids would be today. But I can also assure you that a few years later, when attending a formal eight course dinner at Oxford or the Greenbrier or the White House, we were thankful we knew what to do with all that silverware.

When my father became governor at the age of 34 in 1956, my mother was thrust upon the national stage with him. She knew that part of her role as First Lady was to represent the people of West Virginia on that stage and that her appearance and performance were important elements to transforming the brand of our state. A few weeks before she passed on, mother told my sister Sharon that she would make sure to look especially good on the days she wasn’t feeling so well, so that others were less likely to notice.  Great advice I have used frequently over the past year.

 

3. “Never stop learning.”

My mother believed in lifelong learning, and was a devoted consumer of newspapers, magazines, books and especially her beloved NPR

In 1995, my ex-wife Patty and I gave my mother a computer for Christmas. Before leaving West Virginia, we wrote out detailed instructions on exactly (we thought) how to compose and send an email.  When we returned home to Toronto, we found several “emails” from her that read something like this:

Dear Patty and Craig, thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

 Need help, the words keep disappearing!

We realized that the words were scrolling off the screen – not something that happens on an IBM selectric typewriter!  So, at the time, we thought maybe a computer wasn’t the best gift idea we ever had. But just three days before she passed, we were thrilled to receive an email from mom, announcing that after almost a decade of “needing to learn to use email,” she had succeeded!

 

4. “Talk a lot and communicate with your family. “

After Jordan was born I asked mom for her advice on being a parent.  Without pause she said “Communicate. Talk to your kids as much as you can and make sure you listen to them when they talk. And you and Patty talk and listen to each other too.”

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, my father thought it would be a good idea to return to the family home in Huntington. My mother thought differently, wanting it to be a short drive to see  her Charleston grand kids. Guess who won?

Mom was always there for her family, whether that meant walking upstairs stadium or theater stairs to watch a ball game or see a play, or flying to Toronto and Boston for grandparents day. Her home was filled with pictures of her kids and her grand children.  And even at 85, she was still the cruise director of the family, scheduling vacations, cooking Easter dinner, and planning our annual family photo shoot.

 

5. “Always be an optimist.“

My mother truly did see a world where the glass was always “half full. “ She almost never complained and had the almost unbelievable strength to make it through even the most difficult times. When it was time to leave the Governor’s Mansion in 2001, my siblings and I thought it would be a good idea for mom and dad to move to Edgewood Summit, a beautiful independent and assisted living facility. They thought otherwise, and again, they won. One of the reasons my mom gave for not wanting to live there was she didn’t want to look like a “little old lady riding the bus.” At that time she was 83 years old and maybe 5’10 and 1/2” tall on a good day, but I remember thinking, “if you think you don’t look like a little old lady, we can roll with that!”

 

6. “Help others in need.”

Proverbs Chap. 3: vs 27–28 reminds us:

Do not withhold good from those who need help, when it is in your power to help them. Do not say to your neighbor, go and come again tomorrow I will give it – when you have it with you today.”

As the newspapers’ wonderful stories about my mother’s passing reminded us, her legacy is not only that of a loving wife, mother and grandmother, but also of a devoted public servant in her own quiet way. From her early career as a social worker to making time to support the Cammack Children Center for Orphans – even as a young mother with three small children and a traveling husband – to her incredible service as the first lady of West Virginia, my mother used all of her resources and assets to help those in need, to help those who were not lucky enough to have parents or access to education or basic healthcare. She was a tireless and effective advocate for children and women’s issues and we can all honor her life’s work by following in her footsteps

Although my mother’s body left this earth in 2004, to all who were blessed to know her and especially those of us who got to call her mom or grand mom, her soul and spirit are very much with us today and will remain forever in the lessons she taught by how she lived:

  • Take care of yourself
  • Sweat the details
  • Never stop learning
  • Love and communicate with your family
  • Always be optimistic, and
  • Help others in need.

My mother kept this quote from Emerson on her desk:

To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to appreciate beauty; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.   

 My mother clearly succeeded.

 

Gild Hall NYC – Customer Service Disaster Recovery Part 2

A few years ago I wrote “A coffee for a coffee, a car for a car, $10 for porn?” an article about several positive experiences with businesses’ quick action to make up for service failures.

Recently, I had a similar experience with Gild Hall, my favorite NYC hotel.  Located a short walk from Year Up’s awesome NYC offices, I found Gild Hall on hotels.com several years ago. It’s an incredibly cool boutique hotel with an amazing staff and a great small bar and restaurant.  A few weeks ago I booked a room at Gild Hall for several nights to help my daughter move into her new apartment and meet with several colleagues in our New York office.

Because I was in my “panic training” mode for this year’s PMC, I got a late start leaving Boston and arrived in NYC just in time to pick up my friend in Harlem for dinner.  Several hours later I was on my way to Gild Hall and thought I would call to let them know I was arriving soon.  Andrew, the night manager, answered and was incredibly apologetic as he informed me that they did not have a room for me.  The hotel was fully booked, a guest had fallen ill and was taken to the hospital earlier in the day.  Understandably, they couldn’t kick the sick person or their family out of the room.  They tried to reach my earlier, but had an incorrect phone number on the reservation from hotels.com.  Andrew told me that they had booked a room for me at the Beekman, a sister hotel only a few blocks away. Frustrated, I drove to the Beekman to check in.

If you haven’t been there, the Beekman is also an incredibly cool hotel, located inside what was originally called Temple Court, the 134 year old building that was one of Manhattan’s original “sky scrapers.”  It has been impeccably renovated with a soaring courtyard bar and two very good restaurants. I checked in around 1:30 am, and with several bags and CHUbike, accepted the help of the late night bellman to my room. He was incredibly friendly, very professional and engaged me in a conversation about biking.  I learned his name was Odane Small.  Born in Jamaica, Odane had recently moved to the US.

Gild Hall called me the next morning and let me know that my room was ready.  As I packed up, I remembered how impressed I was with Odane and thought he might be interested in Year Up. I have a personal goal to recruit at least one student a month to join Year Up and carry with me a small information card created Kim Wheeler from our awesome marketing team. I tried to find Odane when I checked out, but he had left for the day so I gave my business card and the student info card to another bellman and asked him to give them to him.  Later that evening, Odane called me to follow-up and is now in the process of applying to Year Up NYC.

That alone would have made up for the frustration I encountered the evening before, but the story gets better. When I arrived at Gild Hall, Manager David Finch greeted me with the news that (a) they had comped my room at the Beekman for Saturday night and (b) they had upgraded me to one of their amazing suites for the remainder of my stay.  And when I entered my room I found a note from David along with a huge fruit basket and a very nice bottle of wine.  Both totally unnecessary and greatly appreciated.

Needless to say, I am now more than ever a “raving fan” customer of Gild Hall for life.

As noted in my earlier article about customer service disaster recovery, we look at customer service disasters as a “crisis” in the way that some interpret the Chinese character for crisis as being comprised of the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity.  No business wants to be on the creating end of a customer service disaster, but how they react and recover is what separates those who capitalize on the inherent opportunity of the situation from those who will certainly lose the customer on the receiving end.  Increasingly, poor customer service will also cost you the business of the customer’s friends, relatives and others as user generated reviews continue grow and become a major part of the consumer purchase decision making process. Customer service disasters – as long as they are infrequent, recognized, and acted upon – can be opportunities for increasing customer loyalty. Clearly that was the case with the David Finch and the team at Gild Hall.

P.S. I actually feel at least partially at fault for what happened on that Saturday night.  During the 3+ hour drive from Boston to NY I kept thinking that I should call the hotel to let them know of my late arrival.  My bad for not doing so!  Apologies to Andrew, the night manager, for my less than honorable reaction to the news my room was not available!

 

4 T-Shirts in the Entrepreneur’s Closet

Net: A Year Up student recently asked me if I had any favorite any motivational words or slogans.  I told her about the 4 T-shirts we wore at Sports Loyalty International: Carpe Diem; Never, Ever Quit, No Regrets & Breakthrough.  After speaking with her, I realized they applied to my current role at Year Up as well.

My favorite “unsuccessful” company has to be Sports Loyalty International.  We had a great, fun, talented team; phenomenally supportive investors; an all-star advisory board; and what we believed was a uniquely transformative program and business model.  We also had cool T-shirts.

In addition to making the morning wardrobe choice a very easy one, the words on SLI’s 4 T-shirts became motivating slogans to our 8 person team and closest advisors.  Recently, while visiting Year Up’s Atlanta site with GE CTO and Year Up champion Adam Radisch, I met an amazing young woman named Ariel Terrell.

Ariel asked me if I had any favorite words or slogans that I turned to for inspiration and motivation.  She shared that she was planning to cover the walls of her basement family room with inspirational words for her kids. I asked the young lady how many children she had and was surprised when she responded “five.”  Ariel explained that she had adopted her sister’s three children several years ago when her sibling was unable to care for them and then had two of her own.  I asked her “When do you sleep?” and she responded “rarely!” This is one of literally hundreds of stories I could tell you about the grit and determination of our students.  They are the embodiment of the Year Up brand, the primary reason we have grown from serving 22 students in 2001 to 3,700 this year and my greatest source of inspiration and energy.

So, back to our T-Shirts.  I told Ariel about our slogans: Carpe Diem; Never Ever Quit; No Regrets and Breakthrough, and also shared a few inspirational quotes. On the plane back to Boston, I thought about these slogans and realized they also apply to those of us who lead corporate partner development for Year Up.

Carpe Diem

I probably first heard the phrase Carpe Diem in the movie Dead Poets Society.  I also heard it in my head over and over again when making the decision to accept the offer from Sir Keith Mills in 1991 to start the Loyalty Group in Canada. As entrepreneurs at SLI, we realized that every day was a gift from our investors.  They believed enough in our vision and our team to give us the opportunity to create a new type of loyalty program that had never been successfully developed in the world’s largest market. At the same time we were keenly aware – as are all start-up’s – that we had limited funds and therefore days to close the requisite number of customers to create an economically viable business before running out of capital.  To us, Carpe Diem meant seize the opportunity you have been given to create the future every minute of every day you work.    I have a similar feeling about Year Up.  I remind myself every day that I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to work in service to our amazing students and the opportunities corporate partners like GE give them to cross the Opportunity Divide.

Never Ever Quit

True confessions – we stole this from Winston Churchill’s “never, never, quit.” This was our mantra when three of us started The Loyalty Group in a Toronto hotel room in 1991 and became our business development rallying cry during the 8 years I was fortunate to run the company.  While in Canada, I was often asked to speak to business school students and share our strategy and leadership principals at other companies’ management team meetings and executive retreats.  A common question was “what’s the key to success when starting a business?”  Without hesitation, I always responded “creative perseverance.”

Creative perseverance is something I learned from my father who still holds the record for being both the youngest and the oldest person ever elected governor of a US state.  What most people don’t remember is that he actually lost three elections in between these historic milestones – an experience that would have eliminated the desire to ever run for elective office again in most human beings – but not him.  During his successful 1996 campaign, he didn’t re-use the slogans or policies from earlier attempts, but instead developed a platform around using technology to improve the employment opportunities and quality of life for West Virginians.  He adopted the slogan “A Leader for New Times,” secured the URL governor.com and created one of the first political campaign web sites.

The point of creative perseverance is to “never, ever, quit” but – equally important – it is to remember Einstein’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When I was Loyalty’s CEO It took me six years to land what became one of our largest customers and likely doubled the value of the company.  Every quarter I emailed the target CEO, but I never sent him the same message as the previous quarter.  I never wrote, “Hey it’s me again, asking for yet another meeting to talk about our loyalty program.”  Instead, I sent him examples of new innovations we had created to add value to other corporate partners: a recent case study on the ROI from investing in our program from a similar business; a new internet marketing application we had developed; a new database marketing product; the increased percentage of households in his store’s trading area that had joined our program; and our latest research showing the number of customers who would increase their spending at his stores if he joined our coalition. After literally six years of this water torture, he eventually succumbed and became (and remains) one of our most important customers.  At the dinner when we celebrated the signing of our contract, he said “you eventually became too logical to ignore.”

While I hope it never takes 6 years to convince a new corporate partner to hire Year Up interns and graduates, I recently realized that while I have diligently followed the mantra of “never, ever quit,” I have often failed to remember the importance of “creative perseverance.” Far too often, I emailed or called unresponsive targets with a message asking for an initial or follow-up meeting.  That actually worked in several instances as I secured meetings with leading companies after months of weekly requests, but – realizing my lack of creativity – I now wonder how much more efficient my efforts could have been if I included new case studies, articles, success stories, etc. from other Year Up partners in their industries.  One of the great things about Year Up is we have not only great “sizzle” – student and partner video testimonials, the 60 Minutes episode, etc., but also great “steak” – real quantitative studies and evidence of the value we create with our partners.  And with 3,700 students in 17 locations providing talent to over 200 corporate partners this year, we are constantly creating a steady stream of new “sizzle” and “steak” that can be used to accelerate our business development sales cycle.

No Regrets

“No regrets” is pretty simple.  At SLI, we refused to say the words “would have, should have, could have” the morning after losing a sale.  It means doing your very best, seizing every opportunity and “leaving it all on the canvas,” to use a boxing metaphor.  Although I loved the three years we worked together to try and get SLI off the ground, I had no regrets when we finally ran out of runway and investor patience. We gave it our best shot and used the full capabilities of our extraordinary team and partners.

But to be clear, “no regrets” does not imply that we never made mistakes.  One of our Operating Principals was “We learn from our mistakes, we don’t dwell on them.” I have always believed that I learn more from my mistakes than almost any other activity.  At The Loyalty Group, we hosted an annual “Global Experience Sharing Conference” where the management teams of sister companies from the UK, Netherlands and Spain would get together.  A highlight of these meetings was sharing “The 10 Dumbest Things We Tried Last Year.”  I recently realized I should be sharing the mistakes I have made over the last several months with the team members who work with me across the country.

Breakthrough

By definition, entrepreneurs are trying to create a product or service that has never existed before – otherwise, there would be no entrepreneurial opportunity.  Successfully creating a new product or service requires all of the above, but it also requires “breakthrough moments” when a prospective customer or investor “gets it.”  Although I realize some other experts disagree with me, I am a firm believer in “shooting all of the arrows in your quiver” when making sales presentations.  By that I mean using both steak and sizzle – data, testimonials, videos, etc. – as efficiently as possible when developing and implementing your sales and marketing tools and materials.  The logic for this is simple – you often don’t know which arrow is going to hit the prospect’s “sweet spot.”  Research tells us that using PowerPoint or other visual devices increases a prospect’s retention of your pitch by 30% vs just having a conversation, but it can’t tell you what form or medium will be most effective with an individual target.  There are several styles of learning and – unless you can get reliable inside knowledge about what forms will be most effective with your prospect – it behooves us to efficiently try all at our disposal.

At SLI, we developed what we affectionately called the “Blow Fish Strategy.” Initially there were just four of us competing against my former company The Loyalty Group – by then a billion dollar enterprise with an impressive 20 year track record – so we needed to develop low cost ways of making us look more substantial than we actually were. Our strategies included:

  • Buying low cost (i.e. $200) iPads from my former Bain colleague’s online retailer glyde.com, co-branding with SLI and our partners logos on a customer “skin”, creating a screen saver that looked like the iPad had been custom developed and programmed to only include our overview presentation, focus group videos of their customers saying they would increase sales if they could earn loyalty points and high quality images of their and other leading businesses displaying our point of sale materials.
  • Bringing on Toni Oberholzer and her “one wonder woman” creative firm OVO as a partner. Toni developed incredibly high quality loyalty program cards, membership kits, mobile apps and partner collateral for our business development meetings.  She worked under and delivered against ridiculous turn-around times and charged us a fraction of what one of the “big agencies” would have cost.
  • We figured out how to transform our presentations Toni’s brilliant creative into a hard cover Shutterfly books. We had these books individually produced with the names of the executives we met with and they arrived at their offices within 4 days of our initial meetings. Best of all – they actually cost less than having a presentation printed and bound with a plastic cover at FedEx!
  • Shout out to my Co-Founder Lauren Creedon for leading all of the above.

We found that individual aspects of the blow fish strategy worked well with different individuals.  For some, the creative mock ups “got them;” for others it was our videos of their customers’ voices or our program results from leaders in their industries from the Loyalty Group’s AIR MILES program.  In a few cases, we had “insider information” and knew – for example – to not share our focus group videos with the Vice Chairman of the Red Sox, who was more of a “numbers guy.”  But if not, we would live test each element to see what worked with each target executive and use their feedback to tailor our message.

Recently, several of my Year Up colleagues and I have realized there exists a “7 Step” business development process we need to progress through to reach our goal of becoming a significant strategic source of entry level talent for our corporate partners:

We also realized that progressing from one step to the next often happens after a “breakthrough” moment and that over our 17 year history, we have developed a number of “breakthrough accelerators” that can reduce the sales cycle between each step. Examples include:

  • A Year Up Champion changes roles or companies, e.g. David Kenny became General Manager of IBM Watson; Jeff Robison became COO of WorldPay.
  • An article is published about a Year Up Corporate Partnership, e.g. State Street and American Banker.
  • A new Year Up Corporate Partner video is developed. e.g. Year Up Cyber Security Curriculum developed in partnership with Symantec, eBay and LinkedIn.
  • The establishment of a cross functional internal Corporate Partner Steering Committee focused on maximizing the value proposition of their partnership with Year Up. JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and others have done this.
  • Opportunities for Year Up executives to present at high level cross functional meetings, like GE’s CIO Council.

Those of us who lead our largest relationships our now collaborating with marketing and sales operations support to collect and share these and other best demonstrated practices to help accelerate our mission delivery.

Please let me know your motivating words and slogans – on T-Shirts, board room or basement walls or otherwise – and I’ll share them with Ariel and her five children.

Thanks

CHU

Year Up

Thanks to Vanessa Kirsch and Kelly Fitzsimmons of New Profit, I met Gerald Chertavian and got involved in creating Year Up in early 2001.

Year Up is the innovative workforce develop program founded by Gerald and Kate Chertavian that recruits and trains low income urban young adults for entry level middle skill jobs and places successful program participants in internships with America’s leading companies.

Started in July of 2001 with an inaugural class of 22 in Boston, Year Up now serves over 3,700 students a year in  17 offices across the country.  Over 85% of Year up graduates are working at leading US companies including GE, State Street, Bank of America, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Fidelity, Putnam, American Express and several State and Federal Government Departments.

Please visit the Year Up web site to learn more and get involved.  All Year Up students work with a mentor and mentoring is a great way to get started.

The 6 A’s of Coalition Loyalty Success & The Virtuous Cycle of Profitability

The 6 A’s of Coalition Loyalty Success & the Virtuous Cycle of Profitability

Net: Over a billion dollars have been lost by companies and investors trying to create a profitable coalition loyalty program in the U.S. over the past 30 years. In recent discussions with Sir Keith Mills, who created the original AIR MILES shopping reward program and the first consumer focused coalition loyalty program in the UK, my former company The Loyalty Group in Canada, Nectar in the UK  and successful programs in The Netherlands, Spain and the UAE, we agreed there are six requisite elements of successful programs.  Rewards must be aspirational, attainable, and accessible to target consumers.  They must be sufficiently affordable to investors, program operators and the business partners who pay for the reward to enable a clear and attractive return on their investment.  The program must be designed and executed to collect actionable information on participating member’s behavior to both prove that the program is delivering an attractive ROI and to identify underperforming segments and new opportunities to use the program’s assets to increase the businesses’ profitability. Finally, participants must be aware of the program’s benefits.  They must be clearly and effectively marketed at launch and on an ongoing basis to create awareness and understanding of program value to potential and existing members and the businesses paying for the rewards.   If these “6 A” elements are present in the program’s design and effectively launched and enhanced through rollout and operation, the loyalty business generates an attractive virtuous cycle of profitability driven by the value created for all stakeholders.

The 6 A’s of Coalition Loyalty Success

6 A's Chart

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Too little too late? Will Obama’s lack of collaboration kill health care reform?

Net: Obama’s failure to leverage the collaborative efforts of others, consider and include good ideas from his opponents and provide the requisite and timely leadership contributed greatly to congress’ inability to pass heath care reform.  Will the rhetoric and approaches of the last two weeks be enough to revive it or are they too little too late?

dr-mark-in-haiti2I have often wondered if there is a common event that gets people to start blogging.  I imagine for many it’s a topic or an issue they feel so passionate about that they feel compelled to share their thoughts with others.   For a wonderful example of this, see my friend Dr. Mark Pearlmutter’s blog from his two weeks as a volunteer in Haiti.

One thing I know for sure is what stopped me – jumping into the Citizens for Alan Khazei Senate campaign for the last 55 days of the 90 day special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Since the campaign ended, I have had many posts “drafted” in my head, but have been experiencing some kind of weird writer’s block that kept my fingers from typing.   I began to fear that maybe leading 128 pages of policy work in under two months used up all of my words for the year!

As anyone who knows me knows – health care is my biggest issue and has been since my then six month old daughter was sick for the first time.  Fortunately, we were living in Toronto and had access to a wonderful pediatrician who returned our call at 10:00 in the evening and sent us to a world class children’s hospital a few blocks from our home.  I realized at that moment that there were millions of American’s who couldn’t have done what we did and became a dedicated soldier in the war to bring health care to all American’s and to lower the cost and improve quality for those of us lucky enough to have coverage.

I have written before about my frustration with Obama’s ineffective attempt to sell health care reform to the American people in the post What Obama can learn from Ross Perot, Cecil Underwood and Coalition Marketing.  Listening to some of his remarks about health care reform over the past ten days has me sufficiently agitated to start blogging again.  A few more suggestions for the President:

1. Look for others who have already collaborated and use them.

Last summer, I found an incredibly thorough bi-partisan proposal for health care reform called Crossing Our Lines: Working Together to Reform the U.S. Health System.  This report was written by former Senate Leaders Bob Dole, Howard Baker and Tom Daschle.  George Mitchell also was a major contributor to the project, but was not listed as an author on the final report after shifting all of his efforts to his role as special envoy to the Middle East.  The report was the product of a two-year consensus-building process called the The Leaders’ Project on the State of American Health Care.  Their plan is a comprehensive set of policy recommendations that aims to provide quality, affordable health coverage for all Americans and includes recommendations to improve quality and control costs.

crossing-our-linesHaving stumble upon this report, I was surprised that I had not heard of it from traditional news media or blogs, and disappointed that Obama wasn’t using this as a framework for his heath care reform efforts.  We used this as one of the primary sources for developing Alan Khazei’s health care policy during his race for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat.

Then, last week on either XM Radio’s POTUS or CNN, I heard the President refer to The Leaders report at least twice.  Saying,

“The component parts of this thing are pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year.

“Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom — and certainly you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much … but that’s not a radical bunch. But if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.”

“And so I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist… (more)

Why didn’t he use this as an example and – better yet – use Dole and Baker to help him sell health care reform over the past twelve months?

2. Collaboration means working together and using each other’s good ideas, not just giving them lip service.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele spoke at Harvard’s Institute of Politics last week. During his remarks, he mentioned that Republicans had offered over a dozen ideas and proposals for addressing the country’s dysfunctional medical malpractice system, but none of them were given serious consideration by the administration.    If Obama is serious about lowering the cost of health care, he needs to address medical malpractice, considered by many experts to be the major driver of defensive medicine.  The cost of defensive medicine has been estimated to be between $70 billion and $200 billion a year by PriceWaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute and others.

Again, this idea is not new.  Bill Bradley wrote about the need to form a bi-partisan coalition to pass  health care reform and the opportunity to use medical malpractice reform as an issue that would bring Republicans to the table in his 2007 book, The New American Story. He made this point again in an August 2009 New York Times Op-Ed article, Tax Reform’s Lesson for Health Care Reform.

joint-commission1On the Khazei campaign, we reached out to our network of friends we were introduced to Dr. Alan Woodward, a former President of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a passionate expert on health care cost reduction.  Dr. Woodward turned us onto the successful approaches to medical malpractice reform being successfully implemented by the University of Michigan Health System and recommended on by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations. (I will write more about this in an upcoming post on the collaborate efforts of the Khazei campaign.)

Again, the answers are out there if you truly believe in collaboration and are willing to do the work to find them.

3. Collaboration does not mean abdication of leadership.

Anyone who has engaged in a truly collaborative effort quickly realizes that harnessing the wisdom of crowds takes work.  I recently experienced this when using 99designs.com to run a contest to develop a logo for a new organization among hundreds of graphic designers from around the world.  As John Della Volpe, the Founder of SocialSphere Strategies wrote about in a recent blog post, you need to provide leadership (a clearly written brief) and guidance (continuous feedback to initial and revised designs) to get a quality product when using this or other hugely collaborative processes.

President Obama’s lack of leadership on health care has been a concern to many of us who applauded his courage to take on this most important and possibly most challenging issue.  To me, his almost hand off approach through most of 2009 felt like a “guardrail to guardrail” over-reaction to the mistakes of the Clinton administration’s health care reform efforts.  Whereas the Clinton approach is remembered as one where Hilary Clinton, Ira Magaziner and a few others developed in closed meetings the plan they expected congress to pass, the Obama administration’s approach was almost the polar opposite.  The President’s instructions to congress to “increase coverage without increasing the deficit” and his failure to make a major address about health insurance reform until late summer are two examples of the lack of leadership he provided, with what we now see as disastrous results.

According to Politico Pulse – a great new source of information I recently found on my Kindle – at the closed door session with Democrats last week, Al Frankin and others raised this concern:

Sen. Al Franken ripped into White House senior adviser David Axelrod this week during a tense, closed-door session with Senate Democrats.   Five sources who were in the room tell POLITICO that Franken criticized Axelrod for the administration’s failure to provide clarity or direction on health care and the other big bills it wants Congress to enact.

Obama has scheduled a Health Care Summit meeting with Republicans on February 25th.  Lets hope he provides both real collaboration and leadership and that it won’t be too little too late.

About Craig

Craig Underwood

Passionate promoter of all I believe in. Entrepreneur, CEO, Advisor to Loyalty, Political and Social Entrepreneurs.

Craig Underwood, founder or co-founder of six for-profit and non-profit enterprises, was a pioneer in developing data-based customer loyalty programs and has been an innovator in the social media and nonprofit spaces.  He is an advisor to leading companies, venture capitalists, loyalty, social and political entrepreneurs and a political and social justice activist.  In addition to his role as Managing Partner of Underwood Partners, LLC, Craig is the Chief Evangelist for his nonprofit 1GoodThingToday.org that offers ideas and resources for helping those most affected by the COVID-19 and to bring our country together.

Previously, Craig founded The Loyalty Group in Canada, which became one of the largest multi-company customer loyalty programs in the world with 70% of households active members of the program. Started by Craig and two colleagues in a Toronto hotel room, the company now generates over a billion dollars in annual revenue and employs over 2000.  The Loyalty Group is consistently listed as both One of the Best Companies to Work For and One of the Best Companies for Women.  Craig was also a partner at the global strategy consulting firm Bain & Company and Bain’s nonprofit affiliate, The Bridgespan Group.

In addition to his professional career, Craig is an advocate of giving back to the community. He was a  Founding Board Member and Sr. Director of National Accounts for Year Up, the innovative nationwide workforce development program that recruits, trains and places low income inner city young adults in living wage careers with Fortune 500 companies.  He was also a founding board member of Horizons for Homeless Children, a Boston based nonprofit that provides pre-school to the city’s homeless children and serves as a volunteer Tennis Coach at The Sportsmens Tennis & Enrichment Center’s Volley Against Violence program – an initiative started by 2 Boston Police Officers that serves 4 to 14 year old low income inner city kids.

A self-professed “news and political junkie,” Craig served as Alan Khazei’s Policy Director during his 2009 US Senate race and Vice Chair of his 2020 Congressional campaign and was a founding member of United for Democracy.  Craig also worked to cure rejected mail-in ballots in Wisconsin and GOTV operations in Maine in October and November 2020 and in the US Senate run-off election in January 2021.

A graduate of West Virginia University, Craig served as Student Body President, was named WVU’s 19th Rhode Scholar, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1980.  He also received a master’s degree in politics, economics and philosophy from Oxford University and a master’s of business administration from the University of Chicago in 1984.

Craig was named Marketer of the Year and has been featured in three HBS Case Studies.  He has published numerous articles on loyalty, entrepreneurial success and leadership and blogs at CollaborationEvangelist.com.  Craig’s has to adult children.  He is an active snowboarder, tennis player and cyclist and raises money for Pediatric Brain Cancer by riding in the Pan Mass Challenge every August and for Afghan War Widows in Beyond the Bike, a 260 mile ride from Ground Zero to Needham, Massachusetts.

Craig is a member of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church in Jamaica Plain.

BMW falls in the gap between consumer expectations and business engagement with Web 2.0

Net: The fact that 50% of all consumers are engaging with social media, but less than 40% of businesses are doing so means that some companies are leaving their customers exposed to competitor’s initiatives. BMW is one of many examples.

Last fall, I leased a new BMW X3 to replace my old one whose lease was expiring.The replacement X3 did not have the built-in navigation of its predecessor, so I decided to go online to search for a portable unit.First stop was BMW.com, where I expected to find an owners’ community where I would be able to ask others for advice.

When Underwood Partners conducts a Web 2.0 audit for clients, one of the outputs is a “heat map” that visually shows competitive and complimentary companies’ use of social media technology tools. The map is color coded: green represents a highly visible and useful application; yellow represents an application that is either buried deep in the site, poorly marketed or has a confusing user interface; red indicates that either the company is not using the application or we can’t find it. And given the amount of time we spend online, if we can’t find it, we don’t believe customers will either. [Note this graphic was first developed by Max Palmer when we worked together at Social Sphere.  Max claims it was called a “Palmer Map.” He’s a great analyst, but not so good on the marketing front!]

If we were doing a Web 2.0 audit of www.BMWUSA.com, the column Customer Forums would clearly be coded red.Although “My Account” has lots of information about how to make payments, pay off my lease early, order a new vehicle, etc., I couldn’t find any place to connect with other customers.So, I logged onto Edmunds.com, one of the pioneers of providing user reviews, customer forums, and other Web 2.0 applications in the automotive space.

On the Edmunds’ site, it was easy to find a BMW X3 Forum in their “Car Space” section where I was able to start an online discussion asking for help with aftermarket navigation systems. But as I was doing so, I noticed that Cadillac ads began appearing on the page. By not investing in Web 2.0 applications like customer forums, BMW literally drove me to a place where I was being served up competitors’ ads.

Some businesses delay developing a Web 2.0 strategy because they are afraid of “losing control” and fear their customers will post negative comments about their products on their own web sites. As this example shows, if you don’t provide an opportunity for customers to talk to you and each others about your products, someone else will. At best, you will have lost an opportunity for customer engagement, research and communication. At worst, you will be giving a third party the opportunity to monetize your customer through selling ads to a competitor. Which, at the end of the day, could ultimately cost you the customer’s business.