Death and Birthdays

Yesterday I celebrated a birthday. The beginning of a new year of life; and I am grateful. But ironically, what has moved me most this week has been death. A reminder that life is fragile - not promised. And that sometimes death doesn’t seem fair.

How Can I Be Down: Execute

Once you are asking the right questions, believe, commit and think with your leaders, there is only one thing left to do – Execute! At the end of the day, it’s the results that matter.

Your Idea is Not Crazy

During a recent panel discussion on entrepreneurship I was asked the question, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?” It took me a while, but then I realized that one of the best insights I had was simply that “your idea is not crazy!”

Alone

One of the most profound experiences of my life came when I was a college student and found myself in a bit of trouble. My dad was summonsed from a west coast engagement to Atlanta, where he met me in a prominent attorney’s offices. After a couple of uncomfortable hours, I was told that I could go and the incident went away.

Heights

Henry Longfellow's words from The Ladder of St. Augustine ring clearly in my mind - not beacuse of an impactful English literature class, but because my grandfather recited these words to me more than 10 years ago as we discussed my career ambitions.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Advice to a Drunken Man



Recently, I stopped into a McDonalds at the top of the day to have a Sausage McMuffin with Egg and Cheese, my favorite out-of-home breakfast.  As I was finishing up at the cash register a gentleman came up to me and asked if I would deposit some money on his McDonalds gift card. 

Clearly inebriated, this gentleman, who later told me that his name was Scott, had been having a rough time and chosen to find solace that early morning in a bottle.  Nevertheless, I did as he asked and put some money on his card so that he could get something to eat. 

He was most grateful and began a conversation during which he described many of his life’s challenges and the hopes and dreams that he has, even for attracting the attention of a woman.  At some point, he asked how he could get her to notice him and to know that he cared.  At about that time a woman standing nearby piped in and said, “just keep putting one foot in front of another, Scott.  Day after day, just keep putting one foot in front in front of another.”

I was, candidly, more focused on my sandwich than I was on Scott or what this woman said.  But Scott took note, and he began to tell a story of how he, at one point, drank much more heavily than he does now, and he wandered away. 

Not five minutes later Scott came back to say thank you and to say how much of a blessing it was to get a meal that morning.  He went on further to say that he’d gotten a job.  Just in that abbreviated period of time, someone had offered him a job, which he was excited to take.  And once again, the woman standing nearby, on her way out of the restaurant said, “just keep putting one foot in front of the other, Scott.”

Scott startled me then when he stopped and offered a word of prayer – for his food, for his job and for forgiveness of his shortcomings. 

It was quite amazing that morning to start off the day by giving a small gift to someone who’d fallen on hard times, and to have the privilege of saying a prayer with him.  But as I’ve thought about that experience in the ensuing days, it strikes me how powerful the advice was that he got from the woman standing nearby.  “Just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

All of us, from time to time, have difficult days, weeks, long nights, challenging work environments, tough situations at home, and even circumstances that we’re not exactly sure how to work our way out of.  “Drunk” with our own situations and challenges, it is in those moments that I think that we would do well to take the advice of a woman at McDonalds to a man who was down on his luck, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

One foot in front of the other that day brought Scott in from the curb to a McDonalds, where he got a hot meal and a cup of coffee.  And then one more foot in front of the other led him to a place where he got an unexpected job opportunity.  And then, yet one additional foot in front of the other provided me the opportunity to be blessed by his prayer.

So, placing one foot in front of the other can, indeed, take us a long way.  So, when we are faced with tough times, I’d encourage all of us to keep in mind the image of Scott, the drunken man at McDonalds who received some unexpected advice that resulted some unexpected blessings.  The advice that he received is the advice that we too can receive - just keep putting one foot in front of another.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Turning a Corner ("Bye Jay-Z")


Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed listening to Jay-Z’s most recent album 4:44. The predominant thought that comes to mind – over and over – is that hip-hop has turned a significant corner with this one.

I’m sure that my sentiment is not unique, as the album has topped the Billboard charts for the last two weeks.  But it’s worth making the point anyway.

I think it’s important to consider that this is an album that deals with very adult subject matter - credit and financial investments, fidelity and fatherhood, racism and homophobia, and entrepreneurship.  This is quite a distance from the counter-disco origins of the genre, the east coast – west coast battles that followed and the apolitical pre-Obama era that we’ve only recently left behind.  Instead, Hov reminds listeners about where he’s come from, but also insists that he’s in a better, more mature place now; and he cautions us to learn the lessons that he has.

“I’m trying to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99.”

This corner we’ve now turned matters more than we might at first think. 

Those of us who came of age with hip-hop as central to our culture must admit that our growth has, until now, been stunted.  The tragic deaths of Tupac, Biggie, Left Eye and Aliyah impacted us more than we know.  These poet prophet prognosticators fed us the important musical nutrients that helped us put an understandable beat to the otherwise perplexing world around us.  And, while they were robbed of their lives, we were robbed of the maturity and wisdom that comes from being well nourished by their lyrical insights.

Make no mistake about it, there is still a lot of “lifestyle” music available to entertain us.  Although I’m amazed at the glorification of strip clubs and drug culture in music at times, I will also confess to bobbing my head to some trap music from time to time.  Notwithstanding this, people are streaming 4:44 on Sprint and Tidal in droves, and the consciousness and behavior of these fans will soon adapt in response to the knowledge dropped in this album.

No, Jay and this single album won’t be solely responsible for this change.  I’ve been recently observing that there seems to be something of a “new morality” emerging in urban music; a more prevalent expression of topics relating to maturity and faith. 


For example, Common and John Legend have lent their pens to songs on uplifting films such as Selma and shows such as Underground; Childish Gambino tells us to “Stay Woke!” in his latest single “Redbone”, “Uncle Charlie” Wilson and Avery*Sunshine regularly take us to church during their shows, and Lecrae’s song “Blessings” features Ty Dolla $ign, has done well on Billboard Christian and R&B charts since January and gets frequent airplay on radio. 

Further, I went to a recent Chance the Rapper concert with my teenage son, and was confused at times about whether I was at a hip-hop show or a gospel concert.  The diverse crowd of 60,000 seemed to know the words to “I’m the One,” “No Problems” AND “When the Praises Go Up.” 

By then I was thinking that something was different, but I was sure that we had turned an important corner when the rapper, between marijuana references and mild profanity, asked the audience “How many of y’all want to go to heaven?”  Without much prompting, the screams were the loudest of the night.

I kind of miss Jay-Z rapping about “Run(ning) This Town” with Rihanna and Kanye West.  Maybe a party anthem or two will be on the next album. 

As I said, it’s a “new” morality, so I’m not sure what this public display of responsibility means, or where it all goes from here.  But I welcome it and I’m sure that we will all be better, more at peace and probably wealthier for it. 


On the recent Rap Radar podcast Mr. Carter reminds listeners that self-determination and community responsibility have always been a part of his message.  Maybe we've been the ones missing it.  But with the release of 4:44, we're listening now.  Hip-hop has turned a corner.  Bye Jay-Z.





Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Coffee in the Morning


Recently I was traveling with a colleague and we had an early flight to return home to Nashville, Tennessee.  We arrived at the airport in Los Angeles at some incredibly before sun-up early time of the morning and as soon as we passed through the TSA checkpoint, my partner said, “I need some coffee!”

Fortunately, as we rounded the corner we saw the familiar Starbucks green and white mermaid logo.  It was too early for a smile to come across her face, but her body turned in the direction of the store in the distance and her pace picked up.  But before we could get too much further we encountered the end of a very long line.  It seems that my friend was not the only one in need of a caffeine jolt.

As she approached the line, she asked the woman standing near the tail, “Is this the end of the line?”  Her startled response was, “I don’t even know what this line is for.”  Nevertheless, my friend got in line and I wandered off towards the gate to wait for the flight.

As I walked on, it struck me that the woman we’d spoken too was standing in a very long line and had no idea why, or what the benefit or standing there would be!

This was incredible to me.  But as I considered it further, I wondered how often this might be the case.  How often do we figuratively stand in a line to get something without really knowing what it is, or without even being certain that it’s something we want or need?

Is there something genetically or psychologically inbred in us that makes us attracted to a line?  This long and winding implement of our civility takes us places and often delivers us to something that we want to consume or experience.  Is there an irresistible allure to the concept of waiting in line?

Or, is the value the value of that product or experience we want worth the investment of standing in the line?  Is it that important to us, really?  Could we get what we want at a “lower price” if we arrived at a different time? 

And, do we even know why we are standing in the line in the first place?

Are we pursuing someone else’s dream, or our own?  Are we waiting for someone to leave a job so that we can get a promotion? and do we want it anyway?  Do we really want that coffee? or are we just in the habit of stopping by Starbucks on the way to the office.  Do we keep going in to that corporate gig, knowing that our vision and calling is for an entrepreneurial venture?  Do we say yes to working on a project or joining a board just because we were asked, when we know it’s not a great fit?

Are we standing in a lengthy line without a clue where it’s going or what the benefit is?  The woman we met at the airport certainly was.

Periodically, I tell folks I’m with that I don’t stand in lines.  I’m not even half joking. 

If I only learned one thing in my first semester at Morehouse College, it was that there is marginal value in waiting in a protracted line.  After several hours in the hot Georgia sun, the computers went down and several of the classes that I wanted were already full.  Despite standing in a very long line, I had to go back to the registrar’s office later in the week to complete my registration for classes.  Never again!

From that experience, I learned that I could find other ways to get the classes that I needed to graduate on time – including the class times and professors that I preferred.  Finding another route to go made me more thoughtful and determined and strategic about what I was trying to accomplish.  It made me better.

So why not find your own path, and go your own way?  Design your own destiny.  Dream Big, Then Execute – with intention, and purpose and focus.

Too many of your friends and family just get into the nearest line they see.  That’s not where your dreams are… follow them at your peril.

Your ambitions are on a road less traveled.  The road may be harder, but you can bet the lines are shorter too.

And if you do that, I’ll tell you what; call me.  I’ll join you for coffee in the morning.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kill the Boys!




July 2016
Today I witnessed an attempted murder.

A day following the brutal vehicular slaughter of more than 80 in Nice, France, I found myself in a courtroom listening to an attorney twist facts, elaborate on irrelevant information, speculate on intent and assault character in what defending counsel called “appalling provocational vindictiveness.”

It was an effort to kill one of my boys.

Fortunately, following the expenditure of a lot of time, money and pain, things worked out about as well as they could have. My friend had the resources, tenacity, talent and support to fight back and minimize what could have been a fatal attack.

July 2013
Dr. Aaron Parker preached a sermon entitled “Kill the Boys.” Following the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, black America was in a fog. Anger, defiance, confusion and fear were the words of the hour.

Like so many on this steamy Sunday morning, Dr. Parker approached the sacred desk that day to bring a word of challenge and clarity from the Lord. Coming out of Exodus 1, Dr. Parker reminded the gathered that this was not the first time history had recorded an assault on the boys.

“Then Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, gave this order to the Hebrew midwives… When you help the Hebrew women give birth, watch as they deliver. If the baby is a boy, kill him…” Exodus 1:15

While the murder of black men is nothing new in America - we are reminded of the brutality of the middle passage, and slavery and the Jim Crow eras of course; the assassination of Malcom and Martin; the public beating of Rodney King (which mirrored the experience of many fellow gen’Xers); and then Trayvon’s death brought new light to many similar cases that have occurred in the contemporary period – Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray...

So, in that context, Dr. Parker’s “Kill the Boys” asks an important question: Just how should we respond to the slaughtering of our sons?

As any good Baptist preacher would, he has three recommendations:

1. Save as many as you can.

In Exodus 1 and 2 we read that the king feared the strength of the Israelites. He made them slaves and worked them hard, but the Israelites kept growing in strength and numbers. So then, the king gave an order to “kill the boys” - at least twice. But the womenfolk disobeyed the king and saved as many as they could.

2. Bring some pressure. 

In Exodus 3, 4 and 5, Moses and the elders are sent to see the king and, through the next several chapters, they partner with God to bring some serious pressure. This is not a short exercise and it is not without sacrifice. The slaves are made to work even harder and under even worse conditions. Nevertheless, the pressure was effective. Many of the Egyptians began to see their sin and joined in the movement. They too began to bring pressure on the king.

But that wasn’t enough. We are also instructed to…

3. Proceed in faith.


As a final means of bringing pressure, in Exodus 12, God determined to get the attention of the king by killing some Egyptian boys if necessary.

With that in mind, God told the Israelites to adopt a new tradition. While enduring yet another threat to kill the boys, this was a scary time for them; and Moses’ request seemed a little strange – so this required a leap of faith. God, through Moses, gave some very specific instructions for killing, cooking and eating a lamb, placing blood on the door frame and keeping their families safe. The Israelites did as instructed, their boys were spared and their community was released from bondage.

Something else interesting happened as the Israelites were packing to leave Egypt. Now that cocaine and heroin addiction was killing some Eqyptians, it became a health crisis. Now that sentencing guidelines were hobbling Egyptian families, prison reform was on the legislative agenda. And, the Israelites observed that if they kept the pressure up and proceeded in faith, when mental health issues and gun violence begins impacting Egyptian neighborhoods more frequently, some attention will be paid to those issues too.

Note however that killing the boys wasn’t just about killing the boys – it was about killing the nation. Similarly then, saving boys isn’t just about saving the boys – it also is about saving the nation.

July 2016
As I sit in the courtroom, my own first born son is at a writing camp across the country. Later that afternoon, while in an Uber on the way to the airport, I received a text message from him. Henry IV had written and performed a poem today entitled “Because a Black Man Died Today.”

…You force-fed us your religion, now you kill us in our churches.
You kept us from reading, now brand us uneducated.
You kill our daddies, and call us “fatherless…”

I am dead,
or I will be.

I am becoming desensitized.
Do you slaughter us in the streets
and put the blame on us,
so that we will turn in against each other?
So that we will stop caring?...


It seems that my teenage son is, a few thousand miles away, wrestling with this edict to “kill the boys.”

Today I witnessed an attempted murder. I saw it for myself! An order was given to “kill the boys.”

Fortunately, things worked out about as well as they could have. You see, the womenfolk stepped in. Her Honor disobeyed the king’s command. She is among the number determined to save as many as she can.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Communication Imperative (part II) Eat Meals Together




I really like the TV show “Blue Bloods.”  It stars Tom Selleck, one of the Whalberg brothers and some other folks who have great screen presence.  It’s also fast moving and thoughtful at the same time, and because most of the family members are in law enforcement, they do “business” together.  Because of that, the theme of each show usually deals with some element of a family dynamic. 

In fact, in every episode there is a scene where the family has a meal together.  During these meals, as most meals do, the conversation starts out lightly and without an agenda; but before long the subject turns to something more serious, and most often to a challenge that several family members are encountering personally or professionally.  Maybe not at that meal, but at some point during the show that issue is resolved.

Now, I understand that it’s show business, but there is something to this.
 

Even without a planned agenda, conversation builds relationships.  People get to know one another, have an understanding of one another, or have a feel for what is challenging someone.  If there is a problem, they may even be able to brainstorm a bit when they are not rushed to be someplace else, or be willing to take the time in a quiet moment to help a colleague, or family member, out.  Minimally, you can relax, laugh and put your work aside while enjoying good company.

My theory is that "the family that eats together works better together."  (OK, that's a little corny, but you get my point.)    Eating meals together can be a good way to improve communications.



Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Communication Imperative (part 1)





2016 was a good year – lots of progress and some light at the end of the tunnel with respect to getting construction underway on constructing the National Museum of African American Music.  Maybe, it seems, our team’s hard work is beginning to pay off.

Last year also had its challenges.  For example, I expect that the growth in our team’s workload will continue to outpace the growth in our staff, and since we all work harder than we should, sustainability and self-preservation requires that we find ways to be more efficient and effective with the same hours and energy. 

One way to do that is to communicate better with one another.  This became crystal clear to me towards the end of last year as we worked through some local political and community concerns.  I recall coming out of a meeting with our board chair saying, “we need communications help right now!”  Boy was I right.  The next six weeks turned into what I disaffectionatly termed a “cluster of poor communication.”

People wanted things from one another that they hadn’t communicated.  Others insisted that their point of view be heard, while not bothering to understand someone else’s.  Some jumped in to help without asking where help was needed – and made things worse.  Still others assumed that some meant us harm without so much as a conversation to clarify interest or intent.  These are all classic communications “shortcuts” that can cause mistakes, waste time and cost money.  In this case, I know that it caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense and multiples of that in poorly used man-hours.
So, I am focusing at least the early part of this year on being a better communicator, and I encourage you to join me.  The NMAAM team is getting some professional help with this, but I will also use DBTE to send out a note from time to time to encourage you to think about how well you are communicating and maybe a suggestion or two about getting better. 

 Following are the first two.  Let me know what you think.

  1. Multi-tasking is a lie!  We all do it to some degree, but we must admit that it is rarely as effective as we hope it will be.  The truth is, if you hope to get things done correctly the first time, and if you want to be certain that you listened well or spoke clearly then multi-tasking won’t work.At work, as busy as we all are, we often believe that multi-tasking is the only way to get it all done.  There’s too much to do, and not enough hours in the day!  However, if something is important enough to schedule a meeting to discuss, isn’t it worth giving the topic your full attention?  Multi-tasking is a lie.
  2. Slow down to go faster.This oxymoron often proves to be true, particularly as it relates to communicating.  There’s a lot going on, the schedule is full, there are several people involved and you’ve got multiple deadlines coming at you quickly.  Slow down.Continuing to move quickly risks poor communication.  Your colleagues don’t know what you need or what you expect… you aren’t clear on the assignment… you zig and your teammate zags… Slow down.

    Make a few minutes to have a clear conversation.
      Check for understanding and agreement.  Take a few notes, date them and add a topic or category so they are easy to find later.  Being clear on delivery, timing and the role that you are expected to play may seem to come at a cost, but that price is much less than the cost of getting it wrong, missing the mark, having to do the work again or delaying completion.  Sometimes slowing down is the most effective way to go faster.
series to be continued...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Better Not More




Sometimes as I start the week, I take a look at my calendar and am amazed. The number of meetings and phone calls that are scheduled just makes me shake my head, and takes no account for the work that has to get done in between.

So, off to the races I go… Trying to make it happen and look good doing it.

On occasion, I remind my assistant to block time for me to have nothing to do, or even to go home a little early. (That’s right, I schedule time to be unscheduled.)  It is during these times that I am reminded that better can be more impactful than more.

In other words, when I have time to think, speak informally with colleagues or to focus on making progress or completing just a single project it seems to advance my work further than when I am multi-tasking furiously.

That’s often counter to the demands that are placed on us at work. Emails are flying, the phone is ringing, someone’s at your door, and your next meeting is waiting. It may seem that after 5:30 and weekends are the only time you can get any work done.

If you find that to be the case, then you can help make my point. Better, not more.

In fact, I think that better is more, and that better can be faster too.

Consider the project that you are working on, the letter that you need to write, or the strategy that you need to craft. Taking the time to block out distractions and focus on getting to the next milestone can take a weight off your shoulders, free up space on your mental “C drive” and move you forward. It may even be that the ball advances further with less resistance; the product you’ve developed is cleaner, better thought-out, and more complete – better – because you gave it the focused effort it deserved.

Remember that conversation you had with a teammate (or a spouse) yesterday? You were multi-tasking and only half-listening – because you were trying to get more done. How did that work out for you?

Maybe it worked out just fine, but I’ve often found that when it matters most, it doesn’t go so hot.

I didn’t hear all of the relevant information. My instructions weren’t clear. My colleagues proceed without full understanding or agreement. Something goes wrong… And then I want to blame someone else, when I should be pointing the finger at myself.

At work this can cost money and it almost always costs time. Even more at home.

Your dad used to tell you to do one thing at a time. So why don’t we remember that better is often more – and faster too.