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Truth Department

June 30th, 2010

One of my friends in college was a philosophy major.

During our senior year Jamie was accepted into a Master’s program at an Ivy League school to study yes, more philosophy. People – students, friends of his parents and career counselors – frequently asked him what he planned to do with his degrees when he “got out.”

Ever the humorist, Jamie would reply that he planned to work in the Truth Department of a major corporation. He always got a laugh.

Jamie’s response, like the jokes about liberal arts majors who become coffee baristas or learn to ask “Do you want fries with that?” was his way of acknowledging that studying great thinkers like Kant and Hegel probably wasn’t a career track to corporate success.

Lately, though, Jamie’s quip has come to my mind more than once.  All companies can face crises, from a gap in customer service that affects a few buyers or a major misstep with global consequences. When companies find themselves in crisis and attempt to keep control with a traditional “one voice” approach, the public reaction is often to question their credibility and integrity.  Regardless of our preferences, social media has transformed our branding and messages from one-way, one-voice control  to an open-ended, multi-voice process of listening, commenting and opinion sharing.   

Jamie never imagined the rise of social media when he responded to the question of what he planned to do when he got out. But there’s a kernel of truth in his reply.  Social media does require us all – from large corporations to small companies and individuals – to interact with credibility and integrity when we “get out” into multi-voice social communities to listen, blog, post, comment or tweet. That’s the “Truth Department” we all carry around inside us.

Rotary Thought Spot: Crossing Essex

June 17th, 2010

If you want to be creative in your company, your career, your life, all it takes is one easy step… the extra one.  When you encounter a familiar plan, you just ask one question: What ELSE could we do?
                                  – Dale Dauten

“There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”
                                  – Roger Staubach

Where would you shop if you needed just one grocery item right now?

When I was growing up in New England everyone walked to the “corner store” for that item – the local family-run affair that sold a little of everything.

 One block west of the waterfront in my hometown, Essex Street marked the end of a predominantly Eastern European neighborhood and the beginning of the historic district. And on the northeast corner of Essex and Washington Street stood Armand’s variety store.

French-Canadian Armand was small in stature, staccato in his movements and neat in appearance. His dark hair was meticulously combed back and kept in place with Brylcreem, the precursor of hair gel. A pencil-thin moustache seemed etched on his upper lip. 

 He always wore a dove gray cotton jacket over a white shirt and thin black tie at the store – even on muggy August days. Maybe it was the jacket, but to the neighborhood children Armand seemed like a cross between a general and a bench chemist.

Armand’s variety store was as exacting in its appearance as Armand himself. Pulling open the heavy glass front door, shoppers entered a tidy little universe ready for inspection. Rows of canned goods with all the labels facing front. Paper towels and napkins in orderly, ceiling-high stacks behind the counter. Cold cuts in football-like casings displayed in a deli case, including a mysterious meat labeled Olive Loaf.

Armand sometimes used a secret weapon to access his arsenal of merchandise. When a customer requested something that was stacked on an overhead shelf, Armand would raise a polished wooden pole with adjustable brass clamps and neatly, precisely, grip the item.

 Sometimes he would release the item overhead and catch it as it dropped, presenting it to the customer with an exaggerated flourish. Every kid in the neighborhood wanted the chance to use that pole, just once.

One afternoon the mother of my friend Joyce sent us to Armand’s to buy three eggs. Armand’s wife Lorraine, who kept a wary eye on all children shopping solo, took the eggs from a carton and placed them in a paper bag for Joyce. “Now watch out,” she warned, “don’t drop these!”

Sure enough, just after crossing Essex Street, Joyce dropped the bag. With dread she picked it up and we both watched the yolks leak through the soggy bottom of the bag, slowly, inexorably yielding to the law of gravity. Joyce burst into tears and, helpless to help, I tried to sop up the yellow mess pooling on the sidewalk.

 I looked up to see that all traffic had stopped. One hand raised to thank the drivers, there was Armand, crossing Essex Street in his starched gray jacket, holding a carton in his other hand. He unfolded his pocket handkerchief, held it gently in front of Joyce’s nose and ordered her to blow.  

 He put the egg carton in her two hands. With index finger punctuation, he said, “Hold tight, eh?  Your mother needs these eggs.” Then he turned with rapid steps and went back across Essex Street, back to the store.

It wasn’t until that day that I began to see why my grandmother, and every other babcia in the neighborhood, would walk the extra blocks to shop at Armand’s.  

 It wasn’t because his was the cheapest store in the neighborhood.  They kept going back because of how he made them feel.

He greeted them when they came in with a continental bow, a hello in their native language, a smile, a compliment, a joke. He laughed with them. He kept cultural essentials like chruscik pastry and farmers cheese in stock. Neighborhood mothers, fathers, grandmothers went to Armand’s because they felt welcome, and they left with a human connection – an experience in their hearts, not just groceries in a bag.

Armand’s stood out among the corner stores in the same the way that our Rotary clubs can stand out among service clubs. We can create an experience in our clubs that is so compelling and powerful that people will go out of their way to share that experience with us. 

 Sometimes that means accommodating new or younger members’ preferences or adjusting the way we do things. Other times, it’s a question of intentionally including new members in our collective experience of Rotary. And still other times, it’s recognizing when their experience with us hasn’t been positive, and going the extra mile to change that.

Our challenge isn’t necessarily based on economics or geography. We don’t need to be the least expensive option in town, or the closest, or the trendiest. Like Armand, we can welcome guests and members to our club, and keep them coming back, because of how we make them feel.

Sincerely,

 PDG Elizabeth