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About You: The Tab That’s Not on Our Websites

September 20th, 2009

There’s a Vietnamese restaurant near one of my client’s office and we frequently meet there for lunch. We go there so often that we have a regular table and a regular order and Tuan, the owner, greets us by name.

The restaurant opened about a year ago and I came to see it as a midday haven from multitasking.  It’s located in a renovated warehouse, with blond hardwood floors and exposed brick walls. The dining space is separated by artfully knotted gauze curtains and Vietnamese silk-on-oil paintings. No adrenaline rush here. We and the handful of other regular diners found ourselves speaking almost in whispers, not wanting to disrupt the peaceful environment. 

For the first 6 months or so my client and I would leave Tuan’s place with the same reflections: how much we liked the restaurant and Tuan, how worried we were that if his business didn’t pick up we might be looking for a new lunch spot, what a shame that would be. 

A few weeks ago we were back at Tuan’s and during a lull in our shop talk I became aware that the restaurant’s vibe seemed different.  The décor and food were unchanged but the dining areas were buzzing.

Nearly every booth and table was occupied.  The clientele was a mix of hip young professionals, students and seasoned business types engaged in audible, animated conversation.

I noticed that Tuan had made two changes in his operation. He installed a buffet noodle bar which was constantly ringed with diners. Gone was the Vietnamese background music, replaced with Anglo soft rock.  Those relatively minor changes had clearly made a big difference in his results.

I was happy for Tuan that business was good although part of me missed the way things used to be. When he stopped at our table to thank us for coming in, I congratulated Tuan. He didn’t seem like the rock music type and so I asked him if he missed his Vietnamese music. Palms up, he shrugged and smiled that gracious smile. “Same one, same other,” he said.  “People like, so I change.”

Spoken like a true entrepreneur. Determined to thrive, not just survive , Tuan took his cues from his customers, made a few minor tweaks and achieved the results he wanted.  The original restaurant culture he had created was familiar and comfortable for him, but when it didn’t work for his customers, he adapted.

I left Tuan’s place that day with more than just a pleasant lunch. Tuan reminded me that being humble and open are business values. Despite that website tab we all use, our companies are not About Us.  And there’s a big difference between being consistent and being rigid. Our companies can become so focused on “the way we do things” that we sometimes overlook the fact that processes and strategy aren’t etched in stone. They work best when both they and we are adaptable and flexible, focused on our relationships with our customers.

There’s a lot to be learned from observing Tuan.  And while you’re there, try number 23.

Rotary Thought Spot Compassionate Action: The Real Difference

September 17th, 2009

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.”

“Once you’re real, you can’t become un-real again. It lasts for always,” said Rocking Horse

–   Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

When I was seven I desperately wanted a pet monkey. 

I would scour the classifieds of my brothers’ Boy’s Life scouting magazines for the advertisements selling spider monkeys and leave them on my mother’s writing desk.  I begged my indulgent bachelor uncle non-stop.  My mother made it clear that she would never speak to my uncle again if he brought a primate into her home.  I settled for a stuffed toy chimp that year.

My brother Mike shared my love of animals but he was smarter than I was.  He didn’t just ask for a pet.  He asked for something my parents couldn’t refuse: permission to explore a vocation. 

He asked my parents to allow him to join a 4-H club, and then for a rabbit he could show as part of his club projects.  We lived on the coastal North Shore of Boston, and joining 4-H was more than a than a bit odd since there was no farmland in our seaside city.  It was like living in Arizona and wanting to join the deep sea fishing club.  But it worked.  I made a mental Note to Self:  next time talk up the zookeeper or veterinarian aspirations, then ask for the pet. 

My brother got his rabbit, a beautiful Siamese Satin who promptly gave birth to a brood, much to our delight and my mother’s dismay.  Before they were old enough to be weaned and given away, the babies needed regular attention and helping my brother take care of them became a daily ritual.

One morning about a week after the births, my brother and I went to tend to the rabbits and noticed that one of the litter had gotten caught against the wiring at the far end of the cage, away from the warmth of its mother.  It was cold and weak and barely alive.  In its efforts to move it had rubbed its hind legs raw against the wires of the cage. 

My brother had already learned to be sanguine about survival of the fittest and was resigned  to letting the rabbit die.  I cried and pleaded with him to let me save the rabbit and after realizing I would not give up, he let me have it.  With my father’s help I created a nest from a shoebox lined with an old flannel shirt.  We cleaned the wounds on the rabbit’s legs and placed the makeshift nest on a heating pad to warm the feeble little newborn.  I fed it faithfully with an eyedropper.  A few days later the rabbit was well enough to rejoin its mother and siblings.

As soon as the litter was six weeks old, my mother made sure that all of the young ones had new homes. One of my brother’s friends adopted my injured little rabbit and gave me regular reports on its progress.  Although it would never be a show rabbit due to the crop circle-like fur patterns on its scarred  legs, its wounds had completely healed and it was living a normal pet rabbit life.

My brother’s interest in 4-H faded a few years later but he still brings up that rabbit when we talk.  His childhood friend who adopted the rabbit also still talks about his rescued pet. 

When I’m reminded about that rabbit, I remember how sorry I felt for it and how painful it was to watch it suffer.  But mostly I remember how sure I was that I had to rise above feeling sorry and do something to help.

Saving that rabbit was my first vivid lesson in real, active compassion.  I didn’t realize at the time what an important lesson it was: that passion and compassion are admirable emotions. But alone they aren’t enough to make a real difference. 

I didn’t grow up to be a doctor or first responder or veterinarian.  Like many of us in many of our clubs, I’m just an ordinary business person.  As ordinary people we can sometimes be overcome by our emotional responses to the needs in our communities and our world. 

But it’s our ability to turn our passion and compassion into doing that makes an extraordinary difference and makes us real Rotarians.  When we are moved beyond feeling into action, there’s no telling how many lives we can save. 

Ways to Take Real, Compassionate Action

Participate in Your Next Club Assembly:   Ask your club members what they feel passionate about, and what they feel compassion for in your community.  Even if your club treasury is limited, making a difference in our communities sometimes only requires helping hands and hearts.  What real difference can your club make, in addition to the good work the club is already doing?  A club assembly is an ideal time to address this question.  Don’t have a club assembly scheduled?  Ask your club Board to schedule one and start the compassionate dialogue that leads to action.

Appoint a Needs Team:  Assemble a small group in your club that identifies needs in your community and in the world, and proposes possible actions to meet them.  Having this group talk to first responders – fire, police, social and health services professionals in your community  – is a great way to start.  The needs team can be your community service chair, international service chair or other Board members responsible for service opportunities – or they can be additional minds, hearts and hands to these Board positions.

Act Beyond Your Community:  Now more than ever, the Rotary spirit of doing good in the world is increasingly important. Polio eradication is our number one priority.  Has your club told the Rotary story of polio eradication in your community?  Polio eradication fundraising in your club and community can be as easy as passing the hat at a local community event sometime during the year.  Simple compassionate actions like these do more than raise funds outside your club. They also provides others in our communities with the opportunity to do good in the world.