Midweek Musings – Multi-Tools

It was many (many) years ago that I purchased a Leatherman Wave multi-tool after my buddy had spent months raving about his. So many years and lives later I must say, I feel naked without it on my belt.

I hesitate to even wager a guess at how many times in a given day I find myself reaching for it.

I do just about everything with it. I’ve repaired guitars, worked on computers, and opened more boxes and assembled more toys than I could ever count.

I’ve used it as a hammer, a door stop, a means of steadying a stubborn nail in a cramped space as I feebly try to hammer it into place. I’ve removed splinters and trimmed branches. I’ve sliced, diced, filed, shaved, and sawed just about anything you can do that to and probably things you shouldn’t.

I could probably perform minor to moderate surgery with nothing but my trusty Leatherman and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy.

Which brings me to my musing for today: Are you a multi-tool?

It’s something to strive towards.

Some may frame this concept as the old cliché that says “jack of all trades but master of none” but I don’t particularly care for that description. It suggests that by its very definition a “jack of all trades” is not or cannot be a master in and themselves.

I believe flexibility, fluidity, and adaptability to be among the most valuable character traits we can have in life, professionally or personally.

Just a cursory review of the most successful people in the world will show that very few of them are “just a hammer” or “just a flat-head screwdriver.” Those that may have been typically have clear enough vision to surround themselves with a bevy of multi-tools.

Organizations, both large and small, in every industry have armies of employees with titles like “Manager – Special Projects and Design” or “Project Specialist.” As a matter of fact, mine is “Communications and Projects Specialists.”

These titles beg the question: “So what does someone with such a title actually do?”

Well…pretty much anything.

In my case I prepare a great deal of internal and external communications collateral. It could be security white sheets, new business development proposals, internal training and education guides, data documents for clients or just a sign telling everyone when the next pot luck will be.

I also manage extensive and complex international travel logistics involving flights, planning executive-level meetings, conferences, and events around the world. I help our team by ensuring their travel visas and passports are in order and that everything has been handled to ensure they are able to get to and from anywhere in the world in order to serve our clients.

I do graphic design, new employee on-boarding, negotiate vendor contracts. Ask me in an hour and I’ll have three more, seemingly complexly unrelated tasks to knock out.

One of my most recent projects has been to create a step-by-step, easy-to-understand, all-encompassing guidebook for how our new expense management software solution works because of course the materials provided were anything but.

My company relies on me to fill gaps no matter where they may open. I’m the Leatherman multi-tool on my company’s belt.

This is most certainly the case for independent small business owners, like Ashley Newman of Houston’s Ashley Newman Photography.

A brilliant and creative photographer and storyteller, her passion led her to take a big step into the world of creating her own company to manage full-time.

In the two years or so since she made that decision it is safe to say that she is anything but “just” a photographer.

In addition to standing behind the camera Ashley has had to develop skills in web design and development. She is her own social media marketing and communications manager charged with developing and implementing multi-platform campaigns while defining and targeting market segments and audiences. Small business owners like her must be accountants, financial planners, and logistics specialists.

They have to vet and manage their vendors, handle purchasing, new technology assessment and implementation…oh and in Ashley’s case being a spouse, a parent, a friend, and everything else that life throws at us every day.

Multi-tools are, by design, masters of being able to do anything and everything whenever the moment calls for it to do be done.

Job seekers will immediately distinguish themselves from other applicants by demonstrating their ability to be entrusted with critical but diverse challenges while delivering superlative results.

An existing employee will make themselves essential an invaluable within their organization by showing a willingness to take on any new challenge no matter how foreign or “outside of their job description.”

Small businesses become successful larger businesses when they are led by someone willing to push themselves beyond the core activity that drove them to start the company in the first place.

So again I’ll ask: are you a multi-tool?

We should all be!

That’s it for today!

Be Well and Kind,

Jason

Wednesday Morning Musings – Amazon Prime Wardrobe

Until Sunday, I’d worn the same pair of athletic shoes for fifteen years. It was time. Having a toddler with a relentless, almost maniacal, energy demands I have proper footwear to keep up.

This meant doing one of the things I dread the most: go to a store.

With a sigh of surrender I packed Young Master Oliver up and off we went to our local tan shopping center. I’ll look for shoes, maybe a pair of pants, and of course find a wicked cool toy for the young lad.

2 hours and 5 stores later what did we find? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Oh they had inventory but nothing that fit or looked right. I did find one shirt that was kind of sort of but not entirely ok…and it cost almost as much as my mobile phone bill.

When we returned home weary from the excursion, I glanced at my phone and realized something marvelous.

Amazon rolled out a new benefit for subscribers of their Prime subscription service. Prime Wardrobe allows customers to have up to 8 items sent to them, free of charge, in order to try them on and see how they look, feel, and fit. You can then return what you don’t want in the same packaging it came in with the included prepaid label. You’re only charged for what you keep.

I ordered 6 pair of sneakers. They arrived on Sunday. 30 minutes later and I found my sneakers, right in the comfort of my living room. I packed up the rest in their original resealable box and by Monday they were on their way back to Bezos and the gang. Simultaneously, another Prime Wardrobe box was being sent my way with 8 pair of pants.

I may never visit a store again.

I mention this not to throw even more business to Amazon but to highlight a strategy and philosophy that Amazon has embraced since its birth: make it easy for the customer to do business with you.

If it’s more difficult than it’s worth to purchase something then I’m not going to purchase it. I’ll either do without or I’ll find somewhere else to buy it.

Something as simple as a return can be a make-or-break moment for a retailer.

How simple is the process?

Does the customer service rep show reluctance towards accepting the item?

How many people have to walk to the register and enter codes and approve the transaction?

I returned a pair of defective headphones to my local Wal-Mart less than 48 hours after receiving them. I had the original packaging and receipt and even the protective stickers were still on headphones. It took 45 minutes, not including driving to the store, parking, and driving home.

First I got in the line with a massive sign having above it that read “online purchases and returns HERE.” Then, after about 10 minutes I was told “That’s not a line. That sign doesn’t mean anything. You have to get in this line.”

So I waited in that line….and waited.

Then the rep paged someone in electronics to ask about serial numbers and whether they accept returns on these particular headphones.

The electronics rep didn’t know so they paged someone else. Meanwhile my rep paged another rep. While this was all playing out I googled information on the serial numbers and went to walmart.com to find their return policy. I gave the representative the information she was looking for. She then paged a third person, presumably a manager, who came over to approve the return, issue my refund, and sent me on my way.

It seems every time I try to give my money to another retailer I walk away thinking “I should have just bought this from Amazon.” This trip was no different because by the time I walked back to my car I had placed an order for new headphones from Amazon.

Whether it’s  a matter of just wanting to get it over with and avoid waiting two days or if I’m attempting to “support independent local businesses,” it always seems that I go through more trouble than it was worth. I couldn’t find what I was looking for despite being told it was in stock. The item was defective and the return process was tedious. No one in the store could answer questions about the item they purportedly specialize in selling and supporting.

So what ends up happening? I order it from Amazon anyway. I’ve almost entirely stopped bothering with brick-and-mortar retailers.

News and opinion pieces are published, seemingly on an hourly basis, bemoaning the continuing struggles and failures of our beloved retail stores in the wake of Amazon’s rise. Steeped in nostalgia, these pieces attempt to evoke some measure of Rockwellian tender longing for some bygone era that I’m not convinced ever actually existed.

What will happen to our society in the absence of our most cherished centers of community, the shopping mall?

Every click of the “Place Your Order” button is another dagger into the heart of the retailing traditions that have bound our culture of commerce for centuries.

Or maybe, Amazon just makes it easier to buy stuff.

Now, I don’t expect a small independent shopkeeper to have the selection or buying power of Amazon but what about a store like Wal-Mart?

Amazon has approximately 330 domestic facilities devoted to fulfillment, warehousing, returns, sorting, and delivery with $51 billion in 2018 1st quarter revenue.

Wal-Mart has 42 distribution centers and over 4000 locations, not including Sam’s Club. They reported over $120 billion in revenue for over the same period.

Despite having every resource available and over twice the revenue, Wal-Mart continues to struggle with both their in-store customer service as well as their e-commerce platform.

Wal-Mart has every resource needed to offer a Prime Wardrobe service. Wal-Mart has just a robust product selection as Amazon. Wal-Mart revolutionized logistics and supply chain. Wal-Mart, like Amazon, allows third-party vendors to sell items through its website. They employ over 1 million people in the United States while Amazon’s entire workforce is less than half that figure.

Their acquisitions of Bonobos , was supposed to signal a new era in which they would attract a fashion-savvy and younger customer base away from other retailers. Yet, Bonobos’ servers aren’t exactly failing beneath the traffic of all these new online orders.

Bonobos’ website boasts that if you happen to live near a one of their “Guideshop” you can try your clothes on before buying them. You can even return online purchases at these local storefronts.

Wal-Mart and Bonobos aren’t exactly disrupting the marketplace with these bold strategies.

The Prime Wardrobe program, by contrast, is another example of Amazon being more creative, more forward-thinking, and more willing to take risks on ideas that seem unheard of to traditional retailers.

I mean really? Who thinks it is a good idea to just ship product to a customer without them paying for it first? It’s so absurd that it’s brilliant.

So while traditional retailers continue to rebrand their private label clothing lines or develop new pricing strategies in hopes of attracting customers that have long since fled, they ignore what Amazon teaches them every day: make it easy for your customers to do business with you and they will keep doing business with you.

Too many companies are entrenched in a belief that business should be done on their terms and then struggle with the reality that business is being done elsewhere.

The marketplace is no different than our normal lives. Agility and flexibility are two of the most important attributes to have.

That’s it for today. Have a great rest of the week!

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

Midweek Musings

Perhaps this will become a regular feature here but I’ll definitely be posting this type of format on a regular basis moving forward where I discuss topics that have come up over the last few days or weeks that I think merit discussion. So…here we go.

Graduation Day…

Graduation season is upon us. #SNHU2018 has been trending my twitter feed and it reminded me of last year when I graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with my MBA. My experience as a student was tremendous, my visit to campus for commencement was revelatory, and this last year as a member of the alumni community has been truly enriching. I continue to feel that SNHU should be looked to as a template for centers of education ranging from high school through to colleges, trade schools, and universities.

 

One of the true pleasures of being an alum of a university so focused on outreach and engagement is that I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with current and prospective students as they decide whether or not to attend, what degree they may pursue or what life may look like after graduation. That the university goes to such great lengths to connect students is emblematic of their entire philosophy.

One of my recent conversations with a student led to perhaps the most enduring question concerning employment opportunities and job applications:

What’s more important: Education or experience?

I won’t try to dig too deep into this rabbit hole given today’s format but I’ll give a short answer and an anecdote.

Answer: It depends. (I know, I took the cheap way out. haha)

Here’s the anecdote:

I worked with an incredibly talented leader who had been charged with righting the proverbial ship for a national retailer. The first thing he did when given the rather robust stack of applications for sales positions was look for those that listed non-sales experience or were students.

He was attracted to applicants studying communications or philosophy. He wanted to talk to waiters and waitresses. His philosophy was that it would be easier to teach someone how to sell than it would be to “unteach” them.

Experience can sometimes be a hindrance. It can bring bad habits or preconceptions about strategies and culture that may not apply in a given work environment.

Within one year our location led the entire region in gross sales, gross profits, and number of unique transactions….with a sales team comprised almost entirely of people lacking any sales experience. Not too shabby. 🙂

I’ve found similar opinions regarding education.

Over the years I’ve spoken with many managers and human resource leaders who agree that diplomas do not necessarily equate to subject mastery. They place little-to-no emphasis on whether the applicant’s degree is directly related to the position…or if they even have a degree.

These employers look for skills that transfer from one industry to another or for soft skills developed through a candidate’s background. A history or philosophy graduate may be the perfect fit in a change management consultancy despite a lack of “business” experience, academic or otherwise. Their personality and skills honed during their academic career may provide them with a sense of context and strategic fluidity that are essential with helping organizations implement new strategies and navigate complex communications projects.

This will make a great topic for a longer piece. It’s a fascinating concept and one that is dynamic in nature, has different answers depending on the industry and position, as well as the culture of a given organization.

So what would you say you do here?

It comes up all the time doesn’t it? Maybe it’s time to introduce yourself to a new employee. Maybe you’re at yet another party or at your child’s school function.

What do you say?

Do you know what you do? Can you describe it in a sentence or two?

It seems so simple and for some maybe it is.

What do you do? I’m a doctor. I diagnose and treat pulmonary disease.

What do you do? I’m a communications manager for a Montessori school where I write newsletters and announcements for parents and the community.

For others, myself included, the answer can be a tad more…nuanced shall we say.

I joke to some that I’m my organization’s multi-tool.

I don’t like the “jack of all trades” moniker because it begs the coda, “master of none”. If I’m a master of something it’s at being flexible and agile.

There are many of us who at any given moment could be doing forensic analysis and reconciliations of expense and invoicing data, preparing client data presentations, writing annual reports, taking bids from telecom, office equipment, or real estate vendors, or planning international special events.

These hats, however, are not rotated as a result of a lack of mastery but rather because the individual has the agility and versatility to fill gaps across the organizational structure. They can, in short, put those fires out that pop up all over an organization.

Not every company has the capacity, budget, or need to have a full-time communications or purchasing department. Many companies outsource the bulk of their human resource needs but still require someone in the office to field all those inevitable questions that pop up that don’t necessarily merit submitting an inquiry or calling the hotline.

From a company’s standpoint having a “utility player” can be vital and for an individual seeking employment it is essential to demonstrate your ability to perform multiple tasks, simultaneously, under different timelines, across the organizational structure, collaborating with different stakeholders.

That’s about it for today. Have a productive rest of the week but most of all…

 

Be Well and Kind,
Jason