I’m the fortunate one

I admit, I had preconceived expectations about China and its people. Looking back, I’m not sure why. I had assumptions that we would see poverty and vast lands filled with workers. I battled the childhood reminder that there were people starving here, and that–for some reason–the food on my plate would somehow fix a problem on the opposite side of the world. At first glance, It isn’t like that at all.

“Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more! y’all”

“Fortunate Son”
-Creedence Clearwater Revival

Don’t get me wrong, there is very likely poverty in China. I’m not denying that there are people starving in nearly every corner the world. I’m just saying that in the places that we have seen, China resembles the working class cities of the United States. Yes, it is much larger. The city of Guangzhou, as we learned yesterday, boasts nearly 15 million people. That is a massive number of people. Keep in mind, that of the top 25 cities in the world 8 of them are in China. The largest in the United States, New York, comes in at number 27.

Those statistics aren’t meant to elicit fear, by any means. I get the sense that the people of China have much the same wants and needs as the people of the United States. They seek stability, a good job where they can grow and excel, the ability to fairly support a family, the freedom to do what brings them fulfillment. They do great things. They build great buildings, love beauty, and most of all treat their aged with respect.

I watched this morning at breakfast as one of the many hostesses helped an elderly woman to her seat at the table across from me. Even as she held her hand, and gently led her to her table, the warm feelings that came over me were nearly too much. My eyes welled a bit, as they often do when I see someone so graciously cared for. After a bit, the hostess returned to help her fill her plate and take her food back to her table. I’m sure this happens in the United States.  My grandmother and I used to go to Bishop’s cafeteria in Clive, Iowa back in the day and I used to eat dinner with her. I never knew how much that would mean to me today. How precious those moments were. I used to really dislike that place. She must have known that one day I would look back and miss it.

There is this barrier that exists in our culture, often it is between the young and the old. Sometimes, it isn’t an age thing at all. It is perspective. For many, you cross over this barrier when you can finally put yourself in another person’s shoes. You become more gracious and understand the day-to-day struggle of those around you.

On our tour yesterday we caught a glimpse of the basketball courts on the campus of Jabil, an electronics manufacturer in Guangzhou.  Our tour group passed a group of employees walking from their campus dorm. Their eyes widened. I saw a few of them glance upward as we passed, and made eye contact just briefly with one young person who nodded as if to say ‘hello’.  I was walking with another six-foot plus program participant.  They must have thought that we were giants. It just further reinforced that I am, indeed, a giant.

Our guide spoke of the basketball courts and how they were used by employees either before or after their shift, sometimes during the day. I offered to put a team together. She giggled a bit. I would hope that my advantage would play out as I would anticipate, but I am not so sure. Every one of the employees we observed looked as if they were on a mission. It was clear from the start that they were accountable to serve their customer and do their best work possible.

Politically, the world is filled with tension. There is talk of buttons, and war, and the size of the war cache. There is talk of the rich making war and poor having to fight it.  That is not leadership.

Leadership is the shared accomplishment of building together. This trip has increased my hope that young people will stand together in the realization that we aren’t so different. Just look at Google Translate. The barrier of language is nearly broken.  We are even more connected than ever, and poised to share in the success of achievement throughout the world. It can’t be done with threats because even as you threaten one, the others are wondering if they can trust your partnership.

The First Visit

Today, we began the first of our company visits in the morning. Our group visited AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.  We listened as the President of AmCham shared her insights about the current business climate in Hong Kong.  It was an engaging discussion, to say the least.

You can sit in a classroom and learn about what is going on in the world but there is hardly a substitute for hearing about it and experiencing it first hand. A discussion against the backdrop of the city of Hong Kong brings to life what we’re just concepts the day before.

This is a problem today. Lots of people share their unverified experience online and inside the comfort of their own homes. There is no credential to back up their claims about immigration and government trade policy. They share information about foreign policy without ever stepping foot on foreign soil. There is no curiosity.  There is little wonder about the world outside of our own borders. Step across the border and you might find a vibrant city where some of the same problems exist as in Des Moines. The cost of living, office space prices, dealing with congestion and a changing and growing infrastructure are all current problems in nearly every city.

I appreciate Hong Kong. As far as culture shock, there was none for me. It is relatively easy to move through a daily routine here. I had no problem communicating relatively simple needs at a place we stopped quickly for lunch.  Some of this may have been because we are in a group, essentially living in a hotel.  Oh, and I am puzzled by one thing. I have not seen a housekeeper in this hotel yet. Magically, our rooms are neat and tidy when we return. It is a mystery.

I will try and cover the magical housekeeper fairies later. If I could employ one of them, I would bring the magical housekeeper fairy home and put it to service.

We Built this City

Hong Kong is becoming a friend.  It is a complex city, but from the start it has been very familiar.  Like a good friend, as you spend time and get to know the city , you become open to its offering.  If you travel here, you may even fall in love with its story.  It is inviting and familiar, but noticeably different.

Our first day was incredible.  It made me appreciate traveling with  friends.  We emerged from customs to the open arms of our greeter and the city of Hong Kong.

The magic moment was emerging from the airport and seeing the vehicles parked in the lot where we awaited our transportation.  The vehicles are more electric.  It seemed a little sci-fi.  Parts of the city feel futuristic.  It is like looking through a portal and catching a glimpse of what might be awaiting us in, say, 20 years.  I spotted a couple of Teslas.  A familiar site.  But them a van with a softened box shape that reminded me of a Star Trek shuttlecraft.

Someone always playing corporation games
Who cares they’re always changing corporation names
We just want to dance here someone stole the stage
They call us irresponsible write us off the page

“We Built this City”
-Bernie Taupin, Martin Page, Dennis Lambert, Peter Wolf; Starship

The site, on which the airport was constructed, was once water.  The island, on which it was constructed is artificial.  It was built by flattening a couple of mountains and reclaiming over a kilometer of seabed.  It is massive.  Stand at the site in the early 90’s and you would be under nearly 20 meters of water.  Today, it is runway, terminal, customs, and likely a Starbucks or two.

Drive another kilometer, the earth is broken open and buildings are springing up from the ground.  It is as if construction is happening from the ground floor and the buildings are pushing toward the sky like a push-pop.  There is construction everywhere.  It is a glorious unfinished city with people stacked on top of one another.  It clearly stands as a testament to what people are capable of achieving together.  Marvelous.

There is a deeper side of the city, too.  Even catching a quick glimpse down a city ally, I saw a restaurant worker sitting after a long shift.  A raggad and soiled uniform was his banner.  His eyes looked exhausted.  A cigarette dangled from his mouth and his arms rested on his legs as if he had given his last.  He watched me move by.  I tried to imagine what he was thinking.  I could not so I moved on.

Being a tall man in a city of statistically shorter people is sometimes very noticeable, and sometimes painfully obvious.   It just depends on the setting.  Walking down a hotel hallway, I might have a fleeting thought of avoiding a protruding exit sign.  Walking through a market with tourists, it is nearly unnoticeable.  Well, with at least one exception.  It was notable for at least one shopkeeper who pointed at me.  “You tall.”

“Yes”, I said.  It was a moment of validation.

There are moments where I think that perhaps I’ve actually grown a few inches.  I walked through a building and nearly scraped my head on the ceiling.  I ducked to get off of a boat or go through a doorway.  Squeezing between partitions on the way to a urinal, or reaching down low to wash my hands and search for a towel.  It takes energy to be a big man, but it requires even more energy to be tall.  I wonder how many calories I have burned simply trying to avoid a head injury?

A shower?

I’m certain that I am clean from my shoulders down.

 

 

Learning to Fly

Learning to Fly
Learning to Fly

I’ve long been of the opinion that flying long distances is the pinnacle of excitement and restlessness. First, flying to a new destination is the anticipation of a place that you have never been wrapped in hours of wait. It is like licking a tootsie pop slowly moving toward the tootsie roll goodness in the center. Then, the strange passing of time. How meals come when they are not expected. Just as you drift off into sleep someone taps you on the shoulder and you are brought back to consciousness by someone’s imminent need to pee.

I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Well the good ol’ days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn

“Learning to Fly”
-Tom Petty, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Even as I sit here in 17J, there is a map with a long trailing green line showing where we have been. The seemingly endless rotation of an up-to-date status flying across LCD screens conveniently placed throughout the cabin. Multiple pots begging to be watched, slowly moving toward a boil. Towards tea. Towards soup. Flying to Hong Kong. Were it not for the nearly imperceptible progress, I would think that this is my Groundhog Day. Were there a piano on the plane, now would be the time to search the passenger manifest for my piano teacher. 

The time ticks down from the teens of hours and now to 6. It makes me consider, if not for a moment, how big the earth really is. Yet we still fidget and fight over it. I don’t know that I will ever understand that. There is this whole big earth spread out under our feet, and there is something within a few, if not all of us: a desire that seeks to carve out a portion of it for ourselves.

Where did this start? Has it always been? That is, in part where perspective begins. This great commonality of imminent domain. The spread of people everywhere. Their culture and how we relate and interact with one another. This trip is an experiment in that. Both at a micro level with our MBA teammates and my friends, but also at a macro level immersed in the culture itself.

For the next 25 days or so, I am somewhat of a nomad. Moving place to place and logging just a few of the things that I see. Maybe I will capture some of it on video. I nearly let the word ‘film’ slip in there. Capture it on film… sigh. When you travel long distances in a plane you do lose track of time. In this case, whole days are skipped and sometimes I will make the inevitable word snafu.

The easy part leading up to this adventure has been the planning. Booking travel today is simple compared to 20 years ago. Today, a hotel is a few keystrokes away. 20 years ago, it was a magazine, a guidebook, or an agent directing you to your destination. What i am not sure that I am prepared for is the sharing of the experience. Writing about a trip as it happens is laughable in a world where everything is shared in 10 second clips and short Facebook and Twitter posts. This part is somewhat of an experiment. It is taking what will inevitably be shared in short bursts and capturing the feeling behind it. Only a few will take this dive with me and drop out of the short status burst and fall into an explanation.

It is part of the problem today, I think. How do you accurately explain the depth of a feeling in a short Facebook post. It will inevitably be experienced with incomplete information. How do you capture an experience so that it is experienced in depth? More than SnapChat, or Facebook. Twitter. Can you capture it in such a way as another person can taste what you taste? Feel what you feel without simple connotation. Identify with what is being felt? Is it possible to be a full proxy for another person?

It is not possible. But a longer explanation is needed sometimes. Sometimes you need a tour guide instead of the audio tour with headphones. Let’s try that for a bit, shall we?

Global Learning Opportunity

I’m about to embark on a global journey.

Allow me start with a call to action.  If you are enrolled in an MBA program, or any program that offers a global learning component, go for it! I’m told that the opportunity to study in another country and immerse yourself in another culture is unparalleled.  I’ve spoken with several prior participants who unanimously suggest is that it is a must have in order to round out your educational experience.

I didn’t have the means to study abroad when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree. The reasons were numerous, and I won’t attend to them in this post, but suffice to say that it wasn’t a possibility for me at the time.  Now, I’m pleased to announce that, after completion of my MBA program this last month, I’m just one month away from a Global Learning Opportunity in Hong Kong.

A Word About Millennials

First, let me explain that I am a Gen Xer in a Gen Y world. I’ve sat side-by-side with and marveled at the tenacity and determination of millennials.  Often, they get an undeserved reputation from my vantage point. They are some of the most talented and determined people I have ever met.  The truth is that they are unafraid of asking. They are unafraid of doing. As a result, they acquire experience more quickly than any generation since.  As I sat in my classes, I became inspired.

I dodged suggestions to do a GLO during the first half of my program, instead substituting Global Business Strategy to satisfy the global business component of the program.  That substitution created a problem for me.

What Changed for Me

I discovered that, for me, sitting in a classroom and talking about a hypothetical strategy is much different than immersing myself in an experience and seeing first hand what business in another country looks like.  I decided that I wanted to see first hand how others lived.  I spoke to other students who seized the opportunity and remarked at how much their perspective on the world had changed as a result:  Simply from a short class abroad.

The GLO trip in the University of Iowa MBA Program is just that.  It is a weeklong international travel class. Online information about the experience suggests that “You’ll gain a deeper understanding of how companies adapt to local business conditions and experience international business firsthand through economic, political, and cultural immersion.”

Data compiled from the State Department seems to suggest that the percentage of Americans who have a valid passport, according to the most recent statistics as tabulated by the State Department, is still well under 50%.

There is no substitute for first hand experience.  Over half of us can’t even go to Canada, let alone China.  We are perfectly comfortable listening to foreign policy decisions being made by our elected representatives on the news, but over half of us can’t even travel overseas.

Even if you aren’t associated with a higher education program, it isn’t too late to plan a trip overseas.  There are a number of group expeditions available from private companies that would provide a wonderful travel experience.

 

Back in the City

Iowa City

I was back at my alma mater in Iowa City yesterday. 20 years ago I was completing my studies at the University of Iowa. It seems like just yesterday that I stepped foot on campus as an unprepared undergraduate. When you spend a considerable amount of time in a place and don’t go back very often, memories of how the place was back then seem stickier. It is easy to remember it just as it was. There is both familiarity and newness at the same time. Memories flood back of things that happened at Daum, Burge Hall, or Pappajohn. Some of those memories are good. Other memories are nearly forgotten. Whole buildings are in place now that were not there when I last took a course on campus. Old buildings have been destroyed.  Old making way for new.

Somewhere out on that horizon
Faraway from the neon sky
I know there must be somethin’ better
And I can’t stay another night

In the City
-Joe Walsh, The Warriors

We were there for the Global Learning trip to Hong Kong next month. This is also the reason for the blog reboot. I want to record this experience on which I am about to embark. More importantly, more than just taking pictures, I want to record and share what I thought about on this trip. These are the things that you can’t take pictures of. Not yet, at least.

Mind Reading

Did you know that, by using mind-reading algorithms scientists can reconstruct what you are seeing using brain-scan data? By using a functional magnetic resonance image of the brain, it turns out that it is possible to statistically represent what the brain is seeing. Think of it like a fax machine, only your brain is the fax, your eyes are the scanner and all you have to do is scan the image and allow your brain to process it. Using a brain scan a scientist can recreate that image. Of course, the image is just a representation of what is seen.

I am forced to use words on this journey. Perhaps someday someone will develop a way to interface with our brains directly. Could thoughts to text be a thing in the next 20 years? Perhaps.

The Classroom

I was surrounded by brilliance today. It was energizing. It is difficult to not be intimidated by some of the most amazing MBA students in the country. My peers in the PMBA program, working professionals, are some of the finest and most motivated employees in the city of Des Moines. Just incredible people.

The plan for the session was to cover some of the things that businesses must consider when employing a global strategy for expanding their business. I’ve already taken Global Business Strategy, but exposure to some of the ideas was refreshing and challenging at the same time. Topics like Ethnocentrism, Expatriate, Exit Strategy came flooding back to me. It is such a challenge to give each of these the attention they deserve.

The Core

What struck me about today were two core concepts. The first was the role distance plays in business. I’m sure that I have considered that at some point in my business degree pursuit. But this is such a foreign concept in financial or IT software sales and service because there is often no product to ship. Ones and Zeros fly as little datagrams across the internet, now.

The other was this concept of how there is different priority on different components of a Global Business Strategy depending on where your expansion is taking place. There is a fingerprint for each motion. What is good for one expansion may not be optimal for another. I hadn’t thought about something so obvious.

 

 

 

Things I’m Thankful for Today

I am thankful that life matters—that we have the freedom, in this country, to acknowledge our own lives in any way we choose.

I am thankful that real freedom comes from elevating others, and–as my 8 year old son said just last week– putting yourself in another’s shoes.

I am thankful that we don’t have to agree with one another to defend one another’s right to believe in what could be.

for the right to stand up, or sit down, or kneel

for the warriors who sacrifice on soil and on the sideline

that it is the responsibility of all to create a place where we are compelled to stand for one another.

to sometimes sit and yield our own needs to the disenfranchised

to kneel and ask ourselves, “What can I do to change the world?”

that building up is better than tearing down.

I am thankful for the continued freedom to invent, and reinvent. Myself.

for the brisk morning air, the sun that comes up each morning like a promise

the spring rain that brings life

for the faith that, with all the bad that comes in the world, the hope that good will prevail

for children laughing, and playing

for dancing

for joy

that I weep uncontrollably for those we have lost to death

but can, with joy, pass the good that I have learned to my children

that I feel sadness from not being heard

and joy at hearing others

that I am compelled when I hear the cries of others

and joy at their satisfaction

that I am afraid of what is to come

but I embrace my fear with anticipation

because it is better

with You

Customer Service Lesson

Cleanup in Aisle 3I have had a job since I was in 6th grade, but when I turned 15 I got my first hourly position with the grocery store up the street. It was a right of passage. I got the job by being persistent. When I accompanied my grandmother on her weekly grocery run I simply asked the store manager if I could work there. I stood at the customer service counter and asked who I needed to talk to about a job.

Soon, the manager would pop out of the back room, and after a couple of questions, the inevitable response.  “Naw, kid, you are only 15. You have to be 16 to work here part time.” I finally got the job by wearing him down, I think. It was after a couple of months, and several eye rolls,  that I remember him saying, “You must really want to work here. You will have to sign some forms and you can’t work past 8:00 p.m. until you are sixteen.  Fill out this application. You start the day after school is out for the summer.”

I’d like you to know at four in the morning
Things are coming mine
All I’ve seen, all I’ve done
And those I hope to find

Blue Collar
C.F. Turner, Bachman–Turner Overdrive

Until this time I delivered papers twice a week for the local newspaper. I used to love the six to twelve bucks a week I would get for delivering the weekly paper and the shopper. It was enough that I could usually buy something at the gas station or at the local Ben Franklin. Now, I was going to move up to the big leagues. Minimum wage. In four hours, I could make as much as it took me a whole week to make at my previous job.

That was my first life lesson regarding pay and an early economics lesson. It was a fixed pay rate at the newspaper. You were paid on the number of papers you delivered.  The only way to make more money was to deliver more papers. I quickly learned that one could only deliver so many papers on foot, and you could only handle so many newspapers on a bike. My wage had been capped, so I knew it was time to try something else. The grocery store seemed as good a choice as any. There was no shortage of work to be done.  If you worked harder than your peers, there was some degree of stability.  Once you left the store, you were ‘off’.  Well, aside from the occasional mandatory break room meeting,

I learned many work and life lessons in the break room of the grocery store, but one lesson about customer service stuck with me.  If someone asks you for the location of a product, it is your job to take them to it. That means: Stop what you are doing, let the customer know that you can help them find the item, and take them to it. It was your job to take up the search on behalf of the customer. The search ended when the customer was satisfied that you had done everything you possibly could to assist them– If that meant searching for it yourself, all the better.

Some of my coworkers at the store failed at this task. They would tell the customer that the item was in aisle 3, then glance back down at what they were doing. The customer would continue their search, only occasionally locating what they were searching for.  The odds of making that sale were slim.  Our boss understood that if that customer can’t find it, they can’t buy it.

He also understood that, for the part-timers, customer service was just as important as knowing the products in the store.  It was our job to know where things were. Fortunately, I had a good memory. If I didn’t know where something was, I was going to spend time stocking shelves until I did. I loved the gratitude people showed when you quickly found something that they had spent ten minutes looking for.

My boss considered the customer first because he knew that caring for the customer would help his business.  He would say. “We aren’t in the grocery business. We are in the people business. People just happen to eat.”  He cared enough for his employees to convey that message and did everything he could to help his team emulate it.

I revisit this lesson often. There are successes and failures. Every situation is different. If I could sit with him now, I would share the relevance of that philosophy today.

Sewing Day Camp

It was the summer before 4th grade that I went to a day camp in which I was forced to learn how to cross-stitch.  From what I could remember, I didn’t really want to cross-stitch.  Actually, I though that knitting or crochet would be much more practical.  Also, I couldn’t think of a single time in my life I would ever need the skill of cross-stitching.  Cross-stitch is a thankless endeavor.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen beautiful heirloom quality creations with cross-stitch.  I just wasn’t planning on making something colorful to hang on the wall, or some fancy pillow for one of my siblings.  My younger brother was much too smelly for that, and as luck would have it contracted head lice at the beginning of that school year, anyway.  I am pretty sure that my mom burned all of his bedding and shaved off most of his hair as a result.

But there we were, my campmates and I forced to take up needle and thread and all follow the same pattern each day for the 5 days of our day camp.  There were groans each afternoon.  Needle pokes.  Unintended knots.  Bleeding.  Muttering.

All that pressure got you down
Has your head spinning all around
Feel the rhythm, check the rhyme
Come on along and have a real good time

Le Freak
Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, Chic

Each day, I carefully followed the pattern in which we were to spell out the words “Empowered to Love”.  By the end of Wednesday, I was on the ‘w’ thinking that I would never be able to finish by the end of the camp.  I had done the math.  5 letters in 3 days.  So I asked to stay a few minutes extra to finish a couple more letters.  It was the first time I remember setting goals and rationing my work as to finish before a certain time.

I remember my grandmother being there that Wednesday waiting for me and talking to the teacher.  I can’t remember what she said exactly, probably something to the effect of “He is quite a stitcher.”  My grandmother just smiled at me.

When we got in the car I asked her if I could ask her a question.   “What does ’empowered’ mean?”, I asked.  She told me that it means that you are “able to”.  That you are “filled with power” and she gave me this analogy.  The car we were riding in.  The tank of this car is filled with gas and the gasoline gives the car the power to move us from place to place.

On Thursday, a few more.  On Friday, I completed the whole word ‘Love’, much to the needling and prodding of my other campmates.  Pun intended.   They were saying stuff like “You are a girl.”  or “Sandy Seamstress” or some other needless adolescent chiding.  Little punks.

Anyway.  On Friday, I looked around and none of my other campmates had finished.  There were probably 25 of them.  I was the only one.  The teacher trimmed the edges of my creation and stuck it in a little frame and I got to take my framed creation home intact.  The other kids got to take home pieces and a pattern and the urging to finish what they started.

It was years later when we cleaned out my grandmother’s apartment after she passed away and I found this little framed cross-stitch.  I started thinking about one of the final days that we sat in that apartment together and I sewed a button back on her nightshirt.

I believe that we are all empowered to do great things.  Many never realize this.  They sit in the shadows and fail to embrace what they could become.  For some, empowerment is a little flower waiting to blossom.  For others, it is a raging fire that cannot be extinguished.

Only you can decide where you are along that road and if you are going to let old habits die.  But I will tell you this.  I see you come in and work hard every day.  There is fire in the elite.  You are the elite.