Friday, November 26, 2010


According to author, public speaker and marketing guru Seth Godin, author of Linchpin, Tribes and The Purple Cow; everybody is a superhero in their own way.

We live in a hyper competitive world. I see it every day. If you don’t stand out you blend in and blending in is death. Godin’s advice to salespeople, marketers and job seekers alike is; define your superpower so that you can become a superhero.

What is a superpower?

In defining your superpower it’s important first to recognize what is not a superpower. Your degree or overall level of education is not a superpower, colleges and universities all over the world graduate thousands of people each year with the same or more education that you have. Likewise your work related experience is not a superpower either, there will always be someone who can boast more or better experience. In short, anything that you can write on a traditional resume is not a superpower.

Your superpower is that one thing only you can bring to the table. It sets you apart from the crowd and makes you indispensible.

Superman is faster than a speeding bullet (and the man of steel), which makes him indispensible when being shot at. I am an empathetic entrepreneur with the ability to sense underlying emotional motivations driving decision making. I myself am not overly emotional which helps me to remain impartial and distant. This gives me the ability to develop plans and programs that compliment or counteract said motivations and makes me indispensible for any company with a high emotional connection to their clientele such as the arts, philanthropic organizations or socially motivated services.

I may not have an Ivy League education or decades of experience as a marketer but I am still a superhero when it comes to working with people who are emotionally invested in what they are doing.

So what’s your superpower?

Monday, November 22, 2010

What’s with all the Wisdom-Haters?

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. [1 Corinthians 3:18]
That scripture was recently quoted to me by a reader who disagreed with some of my conclusions. The implications of his comments were clear; “don’t think of yourself as wise or you shall be made a fool.”

Over the years I’ve witnesses a rising trend of “wisdom-haters” both on-line and through more traditional media. Somewhere in the last several years a good education and wisdom gained from careful study and experience has become something to scorn and question rather than revere. Maybe it started in the 60s, (“Don’t trust anyone over 30”) I don’t know but it has clearly accelerated recently.

Information is no longer locked up in ivory towers, the domain of an elite few. We live in the age of the Internet where information is free and easy. Gaining knowledge on almost any subject is only a mouse click away. But mere knowledge isn’t enough.

Understanding, figuring out what it all means and how to apply it, that’s intelligence. As we gain more knowledge we must also be intelligent with its use, otherwise we just become walking encyclopaedias. We’ve all met people like this, in high-school my best friend Jason coined the term Functionally Stupid to describe them, fountains of information with no social skills or ability at practical application.

But knowledge and intelligence can only take you so far. There is a third stage that often gets overlooked. Now more than ever the world requires people to not only be intelligent but also wise. Intelligence by itself leads to arrogance, an air of superiority brought upon by your vast knowledge but wisdom, the ability to distinguish right for wrong, fact from fiction and truth from lies, is also requires humility.

I’m not claiming any special wisdom for myself here but we learn from the story of Solomon that true wisdom is a gift from God as a reward for a humble heart and not something to be taken lightly.

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” .. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” ...I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. [1 Kings 3:5,9,12]

We’ve seen it time and time again. Wisdom and humility go hand in hand. That’s why it’s so hard to find a wise person who will actually admit it. Wise leaders are the ones that change the course of history while no one’s watching; Ghandi and Dietrich Bonheoffer are two, there have been countless others.

Knowledge is easily gained and Intelligence is just a poor cousin of true wisdom. It’s wisdom that I look for in others and that which I pray for myself every day.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Anatomy of a Turn-Around (a personal story)

The following is a true story to the best of my recollection; names and locations have been slightly altered. I apologize in advance for the overall length of this post, it’s more than double my average, but I felt it important to lay out a lot of detail in the beginning to give my readers as much context as possible.

This story takes place in 2001; I had been working for my current employer for a little over a year when things started to unravel.

Founded in 1996 the partners originally decided that the best way to rapidly spread their vision was to hire representatives in various territories across the country. Lacking the capitol to pay these individuals they instead settled on a franchise model which would attract highly talented and motivate people to the job with the promise of high return on a small initial investment.

The model worked. Within 4 years the organization had gone from two founding partners, one in Ottawa, the other in Vancouver, to a highly integrated network of entrepreneurs in 8 regions from Halifax in the east to Vancouver in the west. By the time I joined the founding partners had both sold their original franchises and moved to Toronto, the industrial and financial hub of Canada, to centralize operations and build a franchise in the country’s largest market.

I joined the company in 1999 as a franchise owner in the region of Southern Ontario, my territory stretched from the Windsor/Detroit boarder across the north shore of Lake Erie to Niagara Falls and around to the town of Oakville on the western edge of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Cracks began to appear in the system as early as 2000. Entrepreneurs are by nature impatient type A personalities. The more the corporate partners in Toronto tried to build an integrated system the more the free thinking franchisees fought for their autonomy. As franchise agreements started to come up for renewal (they were all 3 year contracts), frustrated franchisees started to opt out. First Vancouver, then Winnipeg, Montreal, and Halifax all pulled out within 6 months of one another. Edmonton changed hands and was hanging on by a thread and Ottawa hand never fully cut ties from its original owner who was now running the Toronto office as well.

The final nail in the coffin so to speak occurred in the spring of 2001 when the company’s biggest customer decided to centralize its ordering system. Suddenly one of the main functions of the franchise office was cut off at the knees and the need to quickly re-establish the network was eliminated.

Due in part to my proximity to the head office and my unfailing work ethic mine was the last franchise standing.

Without a strong franchise network however the company had a new problem. What to do with all the smaller customers that still relied on their local rep? We had managed to salvage our biggest account mainly due to lucky timing but were haemorrhaging the smaller accounts and an alarming rate. That’s when I got a phone call, at the end of July that would change the course of my career and eventually save the company.

It was the end of a long day. I had been talking to all of my remaining accounts, reassuring them that since the centralization of our biggest account I would have more time to focus on them. Word had leaked that some of the franchises in other parts of the country were closing so they were understandably nervous.

“Mitchell’s out and he’s trying to take Halifax with him!” It was the voice of Gary Tremblay, founding partner and president in Toronto. “I need you here to help retain our customers.”

Mitchell Anderson had been a rising star in the organization but also the loudest critic of the integrated model head office was promoting. Everyone knew that if he left angry he had the potential to do a lot of damage in the crucial East Coast region he controlled. Gary offered to buy out my franchise if I would move to Toronto and help him consolidate operations while fighting off the new competition. It was a bold move but the company was bleeding and something had to be done.

That’s the day I became a turn-around artist.

There are two ingredients to a successful turn-around; rebuild trust and aggressively seek new business.

My first task when I arrived at Head Office was to rebuild trust with our remaining customers and suppliers. Trust is a funny thing. It implies a long term relationship but is incredibly fickle. As such it’s hard to gain, easy to lose and even harder to regain.

Building and maintaining trust really comes down to 4 steps.

1) Full disclosure.
In a crisis there is absolutely nothing to be gained by playing it close to the vest. Lay all of your cards on the table right from the start, if people sense you’re hiding something they will probe until they find it. Never underestimate the power of the bullshit meter.

2) Listen.
Allowing the customer to speak their mind back to you shows respect. It’s important not to interject too much at this stage, just let them speak.

3) Ask Questions.
Often people will ask, how do you know you’re getting all of the pertinent information from a customer? Sure you are giving full disclosure but how do you know that the customer is giving it back to you? A few well placed questions show the customer that you are engaged and are truly hearing what they have to say, that will in turn encourage them to say more.

4) Make and plan and follow through.
No amount of disclosure, listening, or questioning is going to amount to a hill of beans if you don’t walk away with a workable plan and follow through. Rebuilding trust is hard enough when it’s damaged once, it becomes infinitely harder if it’s damaged a second time and nearly impossible beyond that.

So this was my life for 3 months. Starting in August right through until the end of October, I spent day and night talking to customers, giving them the straight goods, listening to their concerns and following through with plans but in the end it still wasn’t enough. Over all we lost about 15% of our business, Halifax was down nearly 40% and Montreal all but disappeared.

We had stopped the bleeding but it was now time to focus on the second phase, aggressively pursue new business.

When it came to time pursue new business all the same things I demonstrated in regaining trust still applied, full disclosure, listening, asking questions, planning and follow through are just as important to a new customer with the final addition of persistence. I found on average it took 3 phone calls to get past the gate keepers, (receptionists or voice mail boxes), and two or three more conversations to get a meeting but in the end persistence pays off. I can’t tell you the number of times I was told, upon signing a deal that the only thing that kept me in the game was my persistence. The average time from initial contact to purchase order in our business is about 8 weeks. But I have worked some contacts of over 2 years before getting an order, it’s all about persistence.

After the initial 3 months focused on solidifying existing customers the rest of my career has been spent in growing sales and maintaining the business. I permanently relocated my family to the Toronto area and until the current recession our business was on a consistent growth pattern of about 20% per year.

We are now faced with a new crisis, not only are we mired in recession, like the rest of the world, but we are also dealing with the overall decline of our industry. Did I mention we are a manufacturer and distributor of CDs and DVDs?
So this time the turn-around is being made infinitely more difficult to due to the fact that new technology has emerged that has eroded customer desire for our core product line. But as we fight the downturn and develop new products to fill in the gap, I’m finding that the same principles apply.

Now, back to work...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Get up and Go...

More reflections on Grace

I’m an Arminian.

If I could look through my computer screen, across the millions of miles of fibre optic cables and bounce off satellites to see your faces right now I’m sure I would be met with a lot of blank stares at this moment. I don’t blame you. Up until 6 months ago I had never heard of Jacobus Arminius or the school of theology that he founded even though I now realise that I have been raised in it most of my life.

Jacobus Arminius was a 16th century student of Calvinism but somewhere along the line he broke with the traditional line of thinking. The schism among other things was mainly over the Calvinist claim that salvation is predestined by God for a few elected individuals and that as a result salvation, once granted by God’s grace is eternal and can never be revoked.

Today even the most ardent Calvinists have abandoned, or severely tempered their support for the idea of salvation being reserved for an elect few so I’ll save the debunking of that one for another time, instead I want to focus on something I left hanging last week. The question I was asked most, not in so many words of course was, "what do we do with Christians who claim to be saved by grace and continue in their evil ways?"

Put more bluntly the question boils down to this; is it possible to lose your salvation through continued and persistent sin? A Calvinist would say no but an Arminian would say yes. To quote the 5th tenant of Arminianism:

• Believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace through persistent, unrepented-of sin.

Or to put in scriptural terms:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? [Romans 6:1, 2]
Jesus illustrates this concept with the parable of the Prodigal Son. [Luke 15:11-32].

The prodigal son was a man who had it all but fell from grace through unrepented-of sin. When he returned, he was welcomed back with open arms, his salvation was restored, but what if the story had ended while he was sleeping with pigs in a far away land? A Calvinist would say it doesn’t matter, God would still welcome his soul in heaven because he never lost his salvation in the first place, but that’s not want the story says.

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. [Luke 15:17-20a]
The key verse here is clear, “he got up and went to his father.” The son decided on his own to return, only then was he able to receive the grace that awaited him.

When we die to sin, as Paul puts it, we can’t continue living the same way we always have. Grace welcomes us back with open arms no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done but we have to come back on our own.

Luke 15:20 ends with one of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture,

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. [Luke 15:20b]
That’s what grace looks like to a repentant sinner. The father, seeing his son, “still a long way off”, jumps up and runs to him with open arms!

What are you waiting for? Get up and go to your father.

For more on Jacubus Arminius and the Calvinist-Arminian debate check out;

Friday, November 5, 2010

Today is Not Judgement Day

For the past month I’ve been engaged in an in-depth study of grace. In previous posts I have made no secret of the fact that I am a big fan of Social Justice. Some have misconstrued what I mean by that and assumed that it would result in lowest common denominator equal outcomes. (i.e. Communism). That is not what I mean at all, to me social justice amounts to nothing more than equal opportunity and personal accountability. The challenge comes when we apply personal accountability to the idea of grace.

Grace is one of those words that shows up in ancient writing like the Bible and Quran but that has lost a lot of its meaning in contemporary usage. What the early translators meant when they used the word was much deeper and all encompassing than what we consider it to mean today. gives no less than 20 definitions of the word Grace. Many of them have very little or nothing to do with the theological implications that I’m trying to work out here but two stand out.

• a manifestation of favor, esp. by a superior
• the freely given, unmerited favor and love of god.

Last week was Halloween. It’s tradition around my house to watch the classic Peanuts TV special; “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” We can usually find it on one of the major networks in the days leading up to October 31st. The post powerful moment comes toward the end, after Sally has spent the night in the pumpkin patch with Linus, without meeting the Great Pumpkin. Upon realizing that she has missed her chance to collect candy with her friends she turns on Linus and screams; “You Block-head! I’ve been robbed! I’ll sue! I demand restitution!” The image is one of complete contempt for Linus and what he has cost her.

In a world of justice based on personal accountability we are programmed, like Sally to demand restitution. How then are we to react when someone who has wronged us is offered this unmerited favor? More importantly, how are we to do the offering?

A full understanding of grace requires us to recognize how little we deserve it. When we break the law, or some other agreed upon rule we deserve punishment, the people we have wronged deserve restitution. Civilized people demand strict adherence to a code of conduct, whether it be written down as law or not. When someone breaks that code we are and should be held personally accountable. But that is not the way of grace. Grace, like love, “keeps no record of wrongs,” and therefore trumps justice.

The clearest example of this kind of grace that I can think of is in John 8. The Pharisees had found a woman caught in the act of adultery. The law clearly stated that she should be put to death but rather than apply the letter of the law Jesus asked if anyone present was completely innocent.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8:7]

As the full implication of Jesus words sank in every one of her accusers walked away and Jesus turned to the woman and said “Neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin.” [John 8:11]

Many will protest that grace just isn’t practical. Justice and the rule of law are important. Without it the world would fall into a trap of anarchy and oppression. I agree, but grace doesn’t let us off the hook either. Did you catch the subtlety in Jesus words to the woman? He stopped short of forgiveness, she was still accountable, just free to go for now.

As I’ve studied grace for these past few weeks one overarching theme as stood out; there will be a judgement day when we are called to make a defence of your actions in this life. But today is not Judgement Day. There is still time to make things right.

Go now and leave your life of sin.