Good Friends Are Forever

This week I had the opportunity and the joy of reuniting with former long-term colleagues. I was in NY Monday night for a meeting the next day. Two of these former colleagues were  to be in the same meeting. They and four others just left their long time employer and started up a new company.  I had not seen any of them for close to 5 years which is when I had left the same long time employer but I had known some of them for over 20 years. In many ways we grew up together professionally. So I invited as many as could come to drinks and dinner.

Three came. Peter T showed up first. Peter is one of the top in his field. Most top people in this field have egos the size of football stadiums. Not Peter T. He is a great guy. Passionate about providing excellence to his clients. Has that classy-guy-on-the-street personality.  Great to be with. Hard to get his time or attention if you are not a client or working with him on a client. We have known each other for 29 years but until a few weeks ago when we spoke about our mutual client I had not heard from him in almost 5 years.

For me, once you are “family” you stay that way. I have several friends that I no longer get to see with any kind of regularity. But if we share some History and we were close, we remain close as far as I am concerned.

When Peter T arrived, he was friendly. We shook hands. We had about 30 minutes together before others showed. It was good to have his undivided attention. He continually asked what was going on with me as I probed for information regarding his separation from our former firm. (I actually was hoping for detail and dirt but unfortunately Peter T is too classy to go down that road.) It took awhile for us to get to that ” it was like I had just seen you yesterday” feeling but we got there.

We were eventually joined by Rosie and Dan. Rosie and I also go back over 25 years and we had spoken several times since I left the old firm. Rosie is my favorite New Yorker. First, she sounds exactly like a New Yorker is expected to sound. She can be brash and tough but has a heart of gold and is one of the warmest people I know.

Dan is younger.  I met him maybe two years before I left the old firm. He and I had the chance to bond on a couple of internal projects. He is bright and full of that youthful enthusiasm that is but a dim memory for me. The best thing about Dan, OK not the best but I am excited, is that he recently grew a beard. There are very few people with beards in our profession. It may only be Dan and me for all I know.  We deal with heads of corporations and boards of directors. They tend towards the conservative. I grew mine in the late 1980s when business people wore suits and ties every day. I have been waiting for 25 years for someone to follow my lead. Thanks Dan.

Over a beers and cheeseburgers we caught up on current life and shared memories of old times and people we knew. It was great. It was one of those nights that makes one remember why you liked these people so much in the first place.  I believe they felt that way about me as well.

At the end of the night I got a big hug instead of a handshake from Peter T. Hugs all around.

As an added bonus Peter and Dan were part of my meeting with the client the next morning. Seemed just like old times.

Take A Chance

I was at a party last Thursday. A celebration. Celebrating the latest big step in the life of someone who takes chances. She is now the VP Human Resources of a major corporation. Pretty cool.

The people invited to this celebration were the extremely bright and chance taking people she knows. Many of these people she hired at one place or another. They made her look good. In return she made them better. They are off doing  great things. Some running their own business and others with much bigger jobs than before.

I have one foot in this group. I am fairly bright and while maybe not the highest IQ of the bunch, I can hold my own. Risk taking however is not what I do. Not the big ones anyway. At least not often.

I get inspired by my friend, what she has achieved and by this group of people. They are special.

But taking a change is not only about making the Big Bet. It is also about the little ones. The ones where you could call it a night but you take one more little chance. The ones that lead to pleasant surprises. That lead to smiles.

The topper on this night of great conversation with amazing people happened at the end. Many had left the bar where we were celebrating but a small intrepid band was not done for the night. I let my self be cajoled into checking out the band upstairs.

There I discovered the Neverly Bros. Band. Three 40 something guys, rhythm guitar, stand up bass and stand up drummer. They played early rock and roll and British Invasion music. For just the three of them the sound was rich and full. This was fun. I do not get enough fun.

So I took a small chance and won. Thanks Sarah and Agent 94.

Between being inspired by these people and some changes at work, I am seriously considering taking a big chance. New job maybe. Maybe. I know that I should. I should take a chance.

Tyranny Of Trains

More accurately the tyranny of the train schedule. I have not taken the commuter train for over four years now. But tonight one of my former employers was having an alumni reception. I hadn’t been to one for several years. Thinking I was smart I drove from my far north suburban office to the train near my house. I would avoid fighting the traffic going into downtown Chicago. And since the reception was 2 blocks from the train station it was to be easy in, easy out.

Except for one thing. the trains leave infrequently. Starting with the 7:35 pm train they run once an hour. The event started at 5 and I did not expect to see many people I know and even fewer people I care about so I thought I would catch the 6:44 train. After all since I left the office early, I had work to do tonight. Well 6:44 came and I was still there. In fact while I had been checking my watch periodically it was 6:43 when I noticed the time. No worries. I was still having a good time and the next train was in less than an hour.

You would think that maybe I would have learned my lesson about checking the time more frequently. You would be wrong. I glanced at my watch at 7:32. I had been ready to go for at least 20 minutes and now I had three minutes to catch the train. Possible if I hurried. Except that I could not find my coat check slip and the two women working the coat room would not let me just take mine. Finally find the slip, grab the coat and run as fast as I can. Too late by 3 minutes.

My choices were to hang out at the station for 57 minutes or take the L. For those unfamiliar with Chicago the L is the peoples form of transportation while the commuter trains are for the well to do suburbanites. Actually, with the CTA raising fares on the L the price difference is less than $1. It is just slower, makes more stops, is more crowded and less comfortable. But trains run every 15-20 minutes.

I felt the need for movement so I walked the 5 blocks to the L only to find that the train that goes directly to my stop quit running 25 minutes ago. I would now have to start on one train and transfer to two others. Now I remember why I hate to take the L. There were at least 27 stops from the one I got on to the one I got off at. It would quit moving or stay at a station for several minutes for no apparent reason. I pull into my stop 90 minutes later (it would have been a 25 minute car ride) only to see the 8:35 commuter train pull into its station at the same time. I saved 0 minutes.

When I worked downtown and took the train every day I had developed a sixth sense as to when I had to shut down my computer pack up and run to the station. In 8 years I missed my train 3 times. Now I lack all sense what-so-ever.

BTW. The alumni reception. It was worth an hour of my life at most, not the 4.5 hours it ended up taking to interact with people I once had a connection with. Despite my best efforts the conversations never exceeded polite triteness. “Life is good. I now work at ____. Nothing really new. Good to see you. You haven’t aged a bit.” OK that last comment had depth but the rest was shallow. I would rather be by myself with a book or music than spend time interacting at that level. I had no expectations of gut spilling but I always hope for a nugget of something meaningful. Nary a nugget to be found.

Try To Top This

The Setting. A client dinner for about 50 people. Attendees are either members of the Board of Directors, officers of the company or advisers like me. Round tables of eight. Mostly non-business conversation. On my right is a member of the board and across the table is a late 30 something, African American who three months ago became the company’s Treasurer. Two-thirds of the way through the dinner I had conversed with almost everyone at the table but had not heard the treasurer speak a word.

The Beginning. The board member on my right asks Treasurer how his first three months in the job have been. All of the sudden the quietest person at the table becomes quite animated and tell the tale of how the Company’ cash flow has exceeded expectation for the year so far by a quadrillion dollars and all the things that have been done to make this success happen. The two move on to discuss bond rates and the merits of being rated just above or just below investment grade. Despite an MBA earned over 30 years ago, I begin to tune out. Not a topic I become fascinated by. Yet the juices are clearly flowing within my young protagonist.

The Set-Up. Somehow the conversation migrates from the banal to the personal. We find out that our young Treasurer lived in Germany until he was ten at which time he migrated to the US of A. He tells the tale of how his mother, a typical German woman taught the kids to swim the German way—by throwing them in the water, pulling them out just before they drown and then tossing them back in. Since he is here to tell the tale I can only assume that this technique works. (Interesting tale but we have not arrived at the WOW.) It is the casual question of where in the US he emigrated to that turns the night on its head.

The WOW. The story begins. His father’s grandparents were slaves on a plantation in Florida. Over time they became sharecroppers and eventually the family purchased the plantation which they own today. It continues to be a source of family income in that there are abundant minerals on the land. The area is described as a place of great natural beauty. There is a side story that comes a little latter about how his great grandmother, at the time a slave, was a wet nurse (she breast fed) to a man who became governor of Florida in the late 1800s. The Gov sent our hero’s uncles, possibly great uncles, to college where they became engineers. Remember this is happening in the late 1800s.

That is only at best half the WOW. To where did his family emigrate? To a small town in Connecticut where his maternal grandmother had accumulated 250 acres. She had been a servant to the DuPont’s who had a summer place on this mountain—there was also a lake and a river nearby if I got the story straight. As the DuPont family sold off parcels of land, her grandmother bought them. Still in the family today. Our hero goes on to describe a wonderful childhood in a small town/rural are where the very rich and the not-rich-at-all played side by side. He spent much time in homes of the DuPonts as well as that of  William Buckley, a nice man so I have been told.

The evening ended before I could connect all the dots. Was his maternal grandmother also African American? I originally assumed so since she was described as a servant and his father’s people had been slaves. But that would not explain why he described his mother as being typically German or why she had to emigrate as opposed to just come home. And where was his father during this time?

One side of the family goes from slaves to land owners of significant property while the other side a similar story starting out as a servant and owning property once owned by one if the wealthiest families in America. I would had thought that given this background this man could of become the first black President– if someone had not beaten him to it.

I think I will just wait for the movie version of this story to come out. Though it may never get made. Who would believe it?

4B-2C=2G(ood)

After getting up before dawn to begin a day trip to Richmond Va. for a 2 hour sales call, any break on what was already going to be a long Friday was definitely welcome. I got two.

All through the 2 hour meeting I faced a window and received a clear view of  a major rain pour down. While focused on the task at hand, in the back of my mind I am thinking that the plane will be delayed and it will be an even later night than planned. I hate losing Friday nights to business travel even though it is all part of the career I chose.

The first break came when I saw the plane on the ground and the sign telling me it was leaving on time. The best came a few minutes later.

I was in seat 4B, an aisle on the small four seat across regional jet. As the flight began to board, the counter guy was calling names of stand-by passengers that were getting seats. I paid little attention as I already had a ticket. But then I heard my name or so I thought. I wandered up to the counter guy to find out if my hearing failed me– as it often does these days. No, not this time. He wanted to know if I would mind sitting in first class. Mind? Always willing to do the airline a favor I replied. Seat 2C.

I fly often enough to have accumulated a few first class upgrades but not often enough to be able to do so every flight. I tend to save them for flights at least 2 hours long. This  was a pleasant treat at the end of a long day.

Now this was a regional jet so the upgrade meant that I could get drinks when I wanted and a bigger, more comfortable seat but no haute cuisine or foot massage. Yet when it came to the algebra of this flight, as my friend Frank would say, “It’s all good”.

Pleasant Surprise

Monday in NY. Big meeting Tuesday morning. First of 4 big meetings over two days in three cities.

Originally for Monday night dinnerI expected to have a small, fun gathering of two of my favorite client folks and one of my young consultants. We typically laugh alot when we are together.  At the last minute we all were invited to join the entire board of directors for dinner. I thought this would be dull. Wrong.

Depressing…at first.  Several of the directors, who would know, talked about how long and deep the economy would be in recession. But then over normal dinner conversation all sorts of interesting banter ensued. It turned out to be a small jewel of an evening. Glad I was there.

Caution X 2

If a company puts up warning signs do the powers that be think that they are no longer liable if something happens? There is no other explanation for the two side by side signs on the doors leading from my office to the parking lot.

Caution. Watch For Falling Ice.

Caution. Slippery Pavement.

I do not know about you but I am not talented enough to watch for both falling ice and slippery pavement at the same time.

Bad Service: Blame the Computer

How long should it take to check out one item plus the second “free” item that comes with the first? Forget how long the line is. I mean once you hand it to the clerk behind the counter. Two minutes, three at the outside. On this Saturday night over 20 minutes. And if I was not reasonably good doing arithmetic in my head I would have been overcharged by 30%.

Here I am in one of the national office supply stores. You would think that the customer experience would be important to this company. I have no need to shop here since there are plenty of alternatives. Interestingly, the workers in the store felt the same way I did. However, they were no match for the computer system.

I am sure there are many benefits to the current systems. They help companies quickly track what is selling, help control inventory and even take away the necessity for the employee to have the basic math skills need to make change should someone actually use cash. They do everything but get the customer quickly and happily out of the store.

Here was the complexity that threw the system. I went to buy ink for our home printer. I came armed with empty ink cartridges — you get $3 for each one you recycle — and a card worth $10.90 that the company sent me for buying so much stuff there. They must really like me I thought. They even had a deal where you got some paper for free just for purchasing more ink.  They did everything they could to get me into that store.   I just couldn’t get out.

The computer started out doing the right thing. It registered the right price for the ink and showed $0.00 when the paper was scanned. It was the returned ink cartridges and the card that broke the computercamel’s back. Once the clerk tried to apply the discount for the ink, the price of the paper got added back. Then she subtracted the $10.90 and thought she was done. She even gave me a big smile. I pointed out that the amount was wrong. Huh, she pondered. Quick call to the manager. Oh, I can fix this and she subtracted the price of the paper (which was supposed to be free). Unfortunately for all of us the computer spreads the savings from the returned ink cartridge across all items, even the ones you are not supposed to be paying for.  It did not take off the full price of the paper and I was still paying too much. Now this was a problem because once the discount card had been entered there is “no going back”.

Supermanager to save the day. He looks puzzled. He explains to me that the computer did what it normally does…as if that should be the end of the story. I do the simple math for him and explain that they still owe me several dollars. More puzzlement. The customer seems to make sense but the computer did what it does and the discount card was applied so there is no going back… oh no, what to do????

Well it turns out that after several minutes of thinking you can void everything, start over, do it a little differently and actually come to the correct total. If only the machine would take the credit card that it took moments ago for the incorrect transaction.

Only one thing to do now. Pay with cash, give exact change and accept their apologies.

The VISA check card commercial makes it seem as if technology makes everything move smoothly. Yet I yearn for the simple days when a cashier, not a clerk, would not have screwed it up in the first place but if something went wrong would just reach into the register till and make it right.

American Taxi Sucks

taxi.jpg

We have been using the same taxi service for a couple of years. Over time they have moved to more automated reservations. Generally this has worked, until today. Today of all days.

My wife is hoping to catch a plane to leave the country on business. The cab was never going to show. I called when it was 6 minutes late. It took 5 minutes to get a person, I was put on hold, a second person asked “if she could help” meaning the first was not finding our cab. More holding. We were told the cab would be there in “1 minute”.

I got dressed. We were out the door in my car when the cab showed up, 30 minutes late. The driver said that he had just gotten the call. I would have taken my wife to the airport and been two hours late to work. Now I am sitting here hoping she will make her plane. The probability is low. All hell will break loose if that happens. The best case scenario is that she makes the flight but is stressed out for the next hour. Not a very good scenario.

I should have just taken her once they were 10-15 minutes late. If only they would have been truthful when I called. Or better yet, reliable.

A Day Off In The Middle Of The Week

I don’t take a lot of days off. In fact with my son’s high school sports schedule I lost the spring break and end of summer vacations I used to take. I rarely take a day to make a long weekend. Most times I plan one, something comes up and I work a good part of the day anyway.

This week I was not feeling well. symptoms, just dragging more than usual. My wife has had some virus for a month now and I have been determined not to catch it. At the end of the day Tuesday a coworker told me that I looked “worn”. And while I was surprised it showed, that word captured exactly how I felt.

Wednesday morning I woke up at the usual time but felt like hell. In the shower I started thinking about how unscheduled my day was and that I had no client deliverables due. Hmmm thought I. Maybe this would be a good day to “work from home”. Back to bed I went. Slept until the decadent hour of 9 am.

I did do work that day but less than usual. The two hours saved by not commuting were reinvested in serious nap time. Some herbal tea and extra rest and I was almost back to normal by Thursday.

For about two minutes I felt guilty not being in the office on a work day in the middle of the week. Quickly I realized that I would not have been very productive–just present. I would have told any one of the people working for me to go home. There just isn’t anyone to do that for me. I wish there was.

Anyway the 13 hour day I put in on Thursday took care of the last vestiges of guilt.

Wednesdays off. I might make this a semi-regular policy. Maybe it will become trendy like casual Fridays. It needs a catchy phrase. Wanton Wednesdays. Nah.

I’ll work on this later. Maybe next Wednesday.