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Defend the Brand

Seth Godin’s blog post today “Defender of the brand” was a salient reminder of what we’re aiming to do. In the piece, he reminds his readers that a Marketing Officer’s first duty is to ensure the brand experience is one of quality. All the ads in the world are meaningless if the execution of the business is poor.

In my experience, the best advertising, amenity upgrade, or value-add is an operations system that works well. Many people take their systems for granted but spend five minutes talking to the person answering the phone and you’ll see that isn’t the case. Tap on any area of the business and you’ll find ad hoc patches pasted on by an insufficiently supported front-line staff.

I’ve met too many people that think focusing on the surface details will be enough to make a difference. Sure, superior finishes, polished marketing, remarkable design will all have a positive impact. However, without an enjoyable, engaged staff that feels supported and heard, it won’t mean much.

The student housing business is full of bright shiny underperforming assets and always has been. It’s not all metal, glass, and stone. It’s also hearts and minds.

Want to get the best performance out of any business? Here’s the recipe:

  1. Listen and support the people doing the work. Make their lives as easy as possible; solve their problems with them. Their problems are your problems.
  2. Let those people help your customers have an easy/fun experience.
  3. Rinse, repeat.

Do this ruthlessly. Over and over again. Defend the brand by ensuring what the brand stands for is a quality experience.

Hurt People, Hurt People: Oscar’s Edition

Last night, at the 2022 Oscars, Will Smith overreacted to an admittedly lame and toothless joke from presenter, Chris Rock, and nothing has made sense since.

I was watching this happen with my youngest son who loves Will Smith. LOVES. We’ve seen the MIB trilogy multiple times, iRobot, hell, even Wild Wild West. He thinks he’s the coolest. I’ve been a fan since Parent’s Just Don’t Understand and I still think he’s an exceptional human being.

And then he lost his shit in front of the world over a dated joke and assaulted someone. At first, we thought it was a scripted bit when the audio cut but then we read his lips as he urged Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his mouth. It was clear this wasn’t a bit. What the hell?

Why?

I think Will Smith was cooking for a while before we got to that moment. I don’t think it was this joke that did it and I don’t think it was Rock he really wanted to slap.

Earlier in the evening, there was a joke about Will & Jada’s open relationship (see below) and I think that got him stewing.

It’s a throw-away line and they appear to take it well but if you saw the Red Table Talk where Jada destroys Will, in the most public way possible, you know it’s a raw nerve.

Tell me this isn’t the most hurt human being you’ve ever seen.

From watching this video this much is clear: Will Smith loves Jada far more than Jada loves Will. Will knows it and has had a choice to make; stay and experience that loss repeatedly or leave and lose the love of his life for good.

I think Will Smith is a guy who doesn’t like losing. I think he can’t accept the fact that he lost her, possibly through no explicit fault of his own. Unwilling to accept that and move on he’s living in a halfway existence where he can fool himself into thinking things are ok until he remembers that he’s pretty far from ok.

And this brings me to the title of the piece. I think it’s evident from his acceptance speech moments later that Will Smith is in a lot of pain. We can’t know the full nature or extent of that pain but I think it’s safe to say at least some of it is tied to his relationship with his wife. This is a guy who is going through a lot and I don’t think it had anything to do with Rock, the joke, or even winning the Oscar.

Hurt people, hurt people. We saw Will have a human moment and do something hurtful to someone that meant him no harm. If we’re honest with ourselves we’ve been there, too. Maybe not slapping someone, but certainly doing something hurtful to people who didn’t deserve it because we couldn’t cope with the pain we were experiencing.

How it ended.

Everyone in the audience desperately wanted to forgive Smith. As social animals, we’re eager to reestablish the status quo. However, to do that we need an apology. We need the person to acknowledge their transgression and perhaps offer an ounce of explanation for why they did what they did. Will didn’t do that.

Instead, he attempted to offer an explanation about “protecting” people and how somehow this action was tied to the role for which he was nominated as though it was perhaps some “method” exercise. He could tell halfway through that the audience wasn’t having it. He manages to remember where he is and what’s happening and apologizes to the Academy, though not Rock. It was something of an apology and repaired some of the damage but it wasn’t what we were hoping for.

I told my son that Will screwed up and that a quick apology is the best course of action. Admit what you did was wrong. Seek to repair the relationship quickly. Take time afterward to examine how you got there. With that advice in mind, I’ll offer what I would have said if I had walked up and slapped a grown man in front of the world.

“I’d like to apologize to everyone and especially to Chris Rock for my actions a few minutes ago. To anyone who knows me, that wasn’t me at all. I don’t know entirely why I did it and I’m ashamed and embarrassed. I’m going through a lot right now and I don’t know what else to say except that I’m sorry. Thanks to everyone that helped me win this award… yada yada yada.”

Some have pointed out that Rock’s joke was a cheap shot at a woman who has Alopecia, and thus, should have been out of bounds. I don’t know that that information was widespread public knowledge but if it was known, it was a bridge too far. Further, it was a bad joke in general and Chris admits as much. I also heard Rock made a joke at the 2016 Oscars which may have already established a bit of animosity between the couple and Rock. Fair enough, though both feel like reaching to help justify Will’s actions here. We can still love and respect Will Smith while acknowledging that he screwed up, twice. I hope he patches things up with Rock and gets to a better place soon.

Finally, the academy says violence is never tolerated and their code of conduct shouldn’t have allowed Smith to stay in the building. There’s a push by some to see Smith stripped of his Oscar. That would be a terrible tragedy though it may be the right thing to do. I think if Smith had offered a heartfelt apology at the start of his speech instead of searching for a narrative that would justify his actions the likelihood of losing his Oscar would be minuscule. However, given how things ended I don’t know what happens next.

What do you think? Should Smith be stripped of his Oscar or Academy membership for assaulting Chris Rock?

How to Speak

If you’re a reader of this page you know I like to cite videos for things I’ve recently learned and today’s post is no different. I recently listened to a course by the late Professor Patrick Winston of MIT and I was impressed by one piece in particular.

Quality of Speaking
[Q= (K, P, T)]

Patrick Winston

Q = Quality
K = Knowledge – The sum of the Speaker’s knowledge
P = Practice – How much practice does the speaker have in delivering this knowledge?
T = Talent – the X-factor, their innate charisma, presence, etc…

These are listed in order of importance or influence on the result. Knowledge is maybe 50% of the equation. Practice is worth another 35% and Talent brings up the rear at about 15%. What’s that mean exactly?

It means a speaker who knows very little, with little practice, but who has maxed out on Talent is only going to do half as well as a speaker who knows thrice as much and has less talent. However, we’ve all prayed for death when subjected to a dull speaker who knows everything about a tired subject so I imagine there’s a minimum threshold for talent required to clear a qualifying bar for reasonable quality.

Later in the video, Winston relates a conversation with some smart associates where they revealed what they were looking for when hiring a candidate. Their conclusion was:
1. Vision
2. That they’ve done something

It makes enough sense. You want someone that has a philosophy that propels them forward, these are usually referred to as self-starters. Further, it would be best if their vision has been so propulsive as to cause them to complete something in their career. What have they made or remade, before meeting you? Are there better indicators of future success than these?

The rest of the video is fine too, especially if you give regular Powerpoint presentations to groups of people. A few nuggets of wisdom:
Don’t put your hands in your pockets.
Don’t thank people for coming, it’s like they did you a favor.
Don’t read off the slides – I hope we all know that one.
Make sure your final slide is something useful/interesting and not something trite like “The end.” Your speech will likely go on for a bit while the last slide is up so make sure you make the most of what you have posted there.

A quick word on how to Know Yourself

Ethan Hawke breaks down something pretty cool in this short Ted Talk and in the interest of time I’ll pull out the quote that stunned me.

“We’re here to help each other, but first we have to survive, and then we have to thrive.

To thrive, to express ourselves, we have to know ourselves. What do you love?

If you get close to what you love who you are is revealed to yourself and it expands.”

And there it is.

I don’t see enough people embracing what they love. Maybe they don’t know what they love because they’re afraid to get close to it because it may not be cool.

Maybe they avoided it earlier in life because it didn’t fit into who they thought they were or the mold they were trying to fill.

The happiest people we’ve ever met, whether wildly successful or not, knew exactly what they loved and let that love reveal themselves to themselves. It’s far easier to say no and to say yes when you know who you are and you’re sure of it.

What do you love? How did it reveal yourself to you?

What would this look like if it were easy?

I came across this 5 minute video and I’ll spoil it for you – it’s the title of this piece. That’s the question Tim Ferriss asks this guy. It’s a variation on “Begin with the end in mind” – the second of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The guy is working through a tough process and it’s stressful; who hasn’t been there? Tim Ferriss asks him what it would look like if it were easy. He gets snapped out of his Lucy on the chocolate line mindset and thinks about what should change to make this bearable. He solves his problem and then invents a product to solve another problem he wasn’t immediately aware he had.

We’ve all been Lucy in that situation. It’s what makes it her most enduring bit. We know the feeling.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I like the sentiment and I’d offer another version: An hour of design is worth weeks of labor. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?

As we’re creating new systems it’s worth talking to the stakeholders and getting an idea of what this would look like if it were easy. Let’s give that a shot with work orders that aren’t binary (open/closed) but that require multiple steps, like water intrusion.


What would it look like if it were easy?
It wouldn’t be 12 steps, all of which are unpleasant. Maybe 4 steps?
It would be intuitive.
It would elicit delight in its use.
It would make our jobs easier.
It would be (pick only two (faster/cheaper/higher quality) – let’s go with faster/quality for this one.
It would set up the next phase of the job as each one closed.
It’s got to be handled outside of the normal work order system then since that system can’t handle it.
It’s got to be transparent/easily shared – a Google Sheet?
It should inform the affected parties along the way – it has prewritten notices/emails ready to send informing the resident about what’s happening next.
It should dovetail with accounting for charging back costs if it wasn’t an accident.
It should contain documentation/photos from the start so everyone understands what happened, when, and why.

Answering the question gives us a lot of good ideas on where to go next and changes we should make.

What difficult process are you facing and what would it look like if it were easier?

Slow elevators and what Jimmy knew

Years ago, my brother was studying engineering at FAU and he brought home one of his engineering textbooks for the break. I started flipping through it idly and was surprised to find there were stories interspersed in all of the diagrams and equations. 

Beyond tales of engineering disasters, there was a story about a high-rise condo building with a flummoxed manager. The building had opened months earlier and residents were already complaining about the speed of the elevators. Elevator technicians and engineers were summoned to speed up the elevators (they couldn’t) while they flirted with the idea of using one bank of elevators as an express to the top half of the floors. No amount of tweaks could calm the vitriol from disappointed condo-owners.

You can’t tell by looking, but these were painfully slow in the 90’s.

They gave considerable discussion to grafting on another set of elevators outside of the building. The cost would have been staggering and caused massive disruption to the luxury building for a year. Despondent, the GM plopped down on a settee opposite the elevators and put his head in his hands. The same head the board would happily remove from his shoulders if he didn’t fix this issue.

An older service tech named Jimmy was attending to a lightbulb in the lobby. Seeing his GM dour, he asked what was wrong. The GM explained the problem to him and how it was useless; they didn’t have the money or the magic to make the elevators faster. While he had discussed the issue with the Service Manager, he hadn’t bothered seeking the input of anyone lower on the org chart.

Jimmy chuckled and said, “Oh, that’s the big problem?” The GM nodded and said, “I know, hopeless, right?”

“Nah, just put up some mirrors.”

“What are you talking about?” replied the GM.

“The elevators ain’t too slow the people are just bored. Put up some mirrors outside the elevators; people love looking at themselves. You’ll see.”

Desperate, the GM approved the installation of mirrors outside of the elevators. Within days, the residents were dropping by his office to thank him for finally cranking the speed. Whatever he’d done, it had been a massive improvement; the lifts had never been faster.

The lesson has been around a long time with various points of takeaway

The moral is that the supposed problem wasn’t the actual problem. Part of engineering is not only working out a solution but also in first identifying the real problem. Here, it wasn’t a lack of speed it was the perceived lack of speed. 

Jimmy – having been around the block a few times – had key-insight by way of his proximity and connection to people. He could see things clearly from where he was.

Look, I know you don’t have a gaggle of sages running around your organization, but you undoubtedly have more collected wisdom than you think. Involvement breeds commitment. Dust off a problem that’s been bothering you and let the rookies take a crack at it. Ask your accountants how they’d handle your key-rotation plan. Get your techs debating about the best way to make contact for collecting rent. 

I guarantee they’ll pull a thread you didn’t see; at the very least, you’ll get their appreciation for being asked. 

We’re not competing with you.

I love competitive endeavors. Ask anyone in my family about Monopoly or Trivia with Rob and hands will instinctively ball themselves into fists. But when it comes to Student Housing, I’m not competing with you. What I am doing is focusing on perfecting “us.” I’m playing a game that doesn’t end with this season or this decade.

In general, I gain nothing from a deep-dive into the market survey. I’ve spent some time over 20 years watching “the competition” in student housing and the biggest takeaway I’ve had is that watching them is a giant waste of time. Not unlike middle school, everyone is watching the “cool kids” and doing their best to imitate without it looking like they’re imitating.

Copy your competitors’ marketing and you’re not a better version of you, you’re a worse version of them.

Me – just now.

You know the old story: “I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip-flops…”

To Sinek’s point; if your competition can get people checked-in on move-in day in 15 minutes and it takes you 2 hours, that’s weakness revealed. If your competition routinely clocks a 45% renewal ratio and you’re clawing your way to the low 30’s, that’s weakness revealed.


You can’t copy them to a better renewal percentage or a faster check-in time, but you can use that knowledge to redouble your commitment to navel-gazing and figuring out if your check-in time needs to be so long. Spoilers: it doesn’t.


The weekly rundown of what “The Exchange” is doing does next to nothing for me in terms of improving my situation on the ground. It doesn’t lead to better internal systems, promoting daring and driven team members, or committing to reducing error rates in billing and work orders. What it does is tell me that I need to give away two months’ rent to sign leases, now.


And that’s the problem; all we’re interested in is “now.” That’s why we copy our competition. It’s why we’re incentivized to match their policy for policy, process for process, promotion for promotion until there’s nearly no difference between us. Gross.


A trend is always a trap. All success depends on performance and execution. If you’ve got significant flaws in your process, product, promotions, or your people, you’re going to have a bad time. No amount of star-gazing will improve it.


When things are slow, think about the future. Planning is invaluable but plans are worthless. Get excited about ruthlessly interrogating your operation for the gap between the car seats; the place things routinely fall and get stuck. Build bridges over those gaps that would make Joseph Strauss blush with envy. Revise. Revise. Revise.


We’re not competing with you. We’re hyper-focused on shaving one-tenth of a second off our mile-time. If you’re running in the same race that’s great, but we don’t care about studying your technique. We’ve got our race to run and the fact that you’re running as well is almost an afterthought.

Are You Worried?

For Christmas, about ten years ago, my sainted wife bought me a plane ticket to head to Dallas to spend some time with my best friend who I hadn’t seen in person in a couple of years. The ticket was for mid-April. I was furious.

Not that I had to wait so long to see him but that I had to agonize over the flight for four months. I worried a lot about flying at the time, or more accurately, the sudden cessation of flying otherwise known as crashing. I’d flown a dozen or more times without incident but I still couldn’t get my lizard-brain to understand how this massive metal bird was able to get off the ground and stay there. Surely I was destined to be one of those people with their name on a memorial somewhere due to a bad O-ring.

For months I found myself experiencing what were likely fun-sized panic attacks. I’d be irritable and have minor blow ups over nothing. Just me and the background music of my own 500mph plummet into the earth playing in my mind. A video loop of my oldest son looking like JFK Jr. saluting my empty coffin – you know, because I’d been turned into a Rob-Gazpacho by the crash? Why couldn’t I stop with this awful coming attractions loop on repeat?

Spoilers; I didn’t die on that flight or any of the thirty or so I’ve been on since then. I knew statistically that I had a better chance of getting stalked by Britney Spears, and yet. Why the hell was I so worried? Why are we all worried about so much that has such little chance of actually occurring?

Once, when I was 18 I bought a lottery ticket and worried for a few days about which of my friends I’d bring to buy matching Porsches. Seriously. I was certain I’d win like $100 Million and I reasoned I’d only buy matching 911s for five of my friends but what would I say to friend number six? I swear I’m not actually this dumb IRL.

Psychology Today has a few suggestions for why we worry and how we can stop. Feel free to read at your leisure. For me, I think it had something to do with my concern for my fledging family and what would happen to them if I was gone. I didn’t like imagining them all alone without a mountain of money to break their fall and the cash was only amounting to a respectable pitchers mound at the time.

I think it was this trip a decade back where I realized I was doing myself (and those around me) a disservice by not letting my rational brain take the wheel. It was always going to be fine. I’d spent so much time and energy uncomfortable over something as routine as falling asleep. From then on I’d only get more comfortable on flights with my nerves only appearing in the 30 seconds around takeoff as the engines fired up.


Why in the hell was I letting worry drive the ship when it couldn’t stop getting the directions wrong? If my brain was like the movie “Inside Out” why would the other parts of my brain possibly let Worry take the helm when it was so often wrong? Enough of that. Rationality bitch-slapped Worry and save for a handful of moments, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Plenty of what we worry about will never happen. The trip home will be safe. This shopping cart doesn’t have Aids. Canada isn’t going to invade and put those Nickelback on the money. It’s all stuff we need to hear from time to time.

What was the last thing you worried about that you realized in retrospect had no chance of happening?

Why do you do what you do?

When I work on a new spreadsheet build I’ll throw on a TED Talk or speech in the background. This week I reheard a classic by Simon Sinek – a primer for his book of the same name: “Start with Why.”

This may be the twelfth time I’ve heard it and I enjoy it as much as I did the first time nearly a decade ago. If you’ve been reading me for several years you’ll notice I’ve mentioned Sinek before in this blog; he’s a charismatic story teller and I like telling stories. I also tend to believe what he believes.

I think leaders eat last. I think a leader should take care of their team before anything else, especially the customer. I think trust is the most powerful force and we should be free with it to create more of it.

Not everyone believes those things and that’s ok. We only need to find the people that do believe what we believe and we can do amazing things. And I don’t mean “amazing” as in world-altering; I don’t need to pry up a mountain or convert all of Mongolia to veganism. I mean doing something remarkable that positively impacts people.

When you’re aiming for that – better, faster, stronger – in whatever you’re doing, and you hit it?! And it makes the lives of those you work with better? That’s it for me; that’s as good as it gets.

Right now we’re making our first hiring decisions and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m also spending a decent amount of mental RAM thinking about our mission.

What is our “Why” and how do we articulate that to effectively attract people that share that why?

Can I even create that before we’re a “we?” How many people do we need to have before we can decide on it?

How is our Why separate from my Why? What is my Why?

I’ve done this enough times to know that if you’re asking a lot of questions you’re doing well. The answers to those questions will form the bricks that pave the way to the future you’re trying to create. We’re going to need a vast number so the questions are going to need to keep coming quickly now.

What is my Why?

I like systems, elegant ones designed to last and to grow. I like beginning with the end in mind. I like having a great time with the people I work with. I notice those times come most frequently when we’re not battling monsters. I notice monsters are scarce when things work as or better than expected. To get there we have to solve or prevent problems. I like solving and preventing problems.

That doesn’t feel like a “Why” though, does it? It’s certainly not clean enough but it’ll have to do for a start.